They were tortured for their political beliefs. They saw friends shot dead by security forces. They were forced to cut their hair and give up cultural traditions. This year, they say, they caused a revolution.
Young men from Ethiopia’s Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, proudly declare “we won” describing their role in the rise of 42-year-old reformer Abiy Ahmed, also an Oromo, to prime minister.
Across Oromiya region, many young men claiming victory now want Abiy to deliver – and fast. The “Qeerroo”, an Oromo term meaning “bachelor” adopted by politically active young men, demand answers.
Will there be justice for friends who died during strikes and protests over the past three years? Will their rights as Oromos be respected? When will Abiy’s pledges of change help impoverished communities?
Whether Abiy can answer those demands without favouring his home region over the rest of the country will dictate whether the young men remain an asset to him or a dangerous liability. Before he came to power, Oromo youths demonstrated they could shut down parts of the country with protests and strikes and pressure on the ruling EPRDF culminated in the resignation of Abiy’s predecessor in February.
Even as they celebrate Abiy, Oromo youth are still frustrated with life under the EPRDF, a one-time Marxist-Leninist movement which controlled nearly every aspect of Ethiopians’ lives since seizing power 27 years ago.
Frustration sometimes turned into violence. In September, Oromo youths were reported by Amnesty International to have carried out deadly mob attacks on other ethnic groups near Addis Ababa. Police said 28 died.
Elsewhere in Oromiya, young men are starting to challenge the state. They want local officials sacked and booed them out of rallies.
“I appreciate Abiy for the reform he brought and blame him for not removing corrupt and evil killers and bringing them to court,” said unemployed accountant Dambal Dejene (26) at a rally in Woliso.
Abiy became prime minister in April after the EPRDF decided reforms were essential for its survival.
His appointment was a small step toward breaking the hold of the Tigrayan elite who controlled the state since taking power in 1991 and founded the EPRDF as a coalition with other ethnic political parties.
WHAT DO WE WANT?
Asked what they want from government, more than a dozen young Oromo men told Reuters: “Freedom.” “No more torture.” “Justice.” “Economic opportunity. Jobs.” “End to corruption and unfair land deals.” “Respect for our culture. Dignity.” “Democracy.” “Free and fair elections.”
Abiy announced reforms months ago but these have stalled in part due to a spike in ethnic violence.
More than a million people fled their homes since Abiy took office. In the most serious violence, Oromo communities clashed with other groups.
Acknowledging a breakdown of the rule of law, the EPRDF said last month: “Anarchy is witnessed in the country.” In a speech to parliament, Abiy said: “Lawlessness is the norm these days. It is something testing government.” He reshuffled his cabinet and formed a “Ministry of Peace”.
Some young Oromos seem emboldened to settle old ethnic scores, said Felix Horne, Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Since Abiy came to power, things have changed,” he said. “The ethno-nationalist narrative is more dominant than it used to be a lot of young Oromos are not willing to take ‘second place’,” Horne said.
“The youth have shown they can be influential. How they choose to be influential is an important question,” said a senior western diplomat in Addis Ababa. “Their support, or non-support, for the reform agenda will directly impact how quickly and how well the reform agenda succeeds.”
Abiy’s chief of staff, Fitsum Arega, did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Abiy’s political party said changes were needed at the grassroots.
“Anyone who was slapping you, shouting at you, seeing that face may dissatisfy people. We feel it,” said Taye Dendea, public affairs head for the Oromo Democratic Party.
He requested patience from the youth while the ruling coalition implements change.
Like many young Oromos, Magarsa Kanaa, a 28-year-old teacher, is still upset at crimes committed by security forces against his friends.
He named one shot dead at a protest last year and said he and other young men “are starting a committee to seek justice for him and other guys”.
Proud to be wearing his hair in an Afro, he spoke bitterly of how government had not allowed Oromos to practice their culture. Men his age, he explained, like to wear their hair in the shape of the “Odaa”, the Oromo word for the sycamore tree significant as the site of rituals and meetings to resolve disputes.
Instead, he said: “We were forced to cut our hair.”
Activist Jawar Mohammed promotes an “Oromo first” ideology.
The 32-year-old with 1.4 million Facebook followers returned to Ethiopia in August from the United States. He told Reuters he used social media to co-ordinate Oromo youth in strikes and protests, he also “built a solid ground network” in every town in the region. Jawar is the movement’s hero.
“Jawar Mohammed is my pride,” said Dambal, the accountant. “He took the Oromo struggle to the next level. We were lacking someone to lead the youth … he made us line up all together all over Oromiya and win.”
Interviewed in Addis Ababa surrounded by bodyguards provided by government, Jawar justified Oromo nationalism: “When the state particularly represses an ethnic identity, you are forced to defend it.”
His “Qeerroo” are disciplined he said and will stick to non-violent resistance.
At a rally in Kemise, Jawar told thousands of young men chanting “Qeerroo’s Father is here!”: “Obey Abiy. Don’t be emotional in order to help the reforms.” But on social media, his language is often less restrained.
Speaking to Reuters, he argued Ethiopia is experiencing a “promising and terrifying” moment where the “power of the people” is rising and the state’s legitimacy has collapsed.
“People power” – particularly from the Oromo – is strength for Abiy, but rebuilding and controlling the state is an urgent problem, Jawar said.
“If Abiy doesn’t move quickly to take full control of state power, so he can use it to answer some demands of youth these people will turn against him.
“They think this is their government. So it’s just a ticking time bomb. We’ve got to move fast,” he said, referencing elections due in 2020. He said Abiy “has good intentions, but he has no plan, no deadline.”
Older Oromo politicians agree.
“The youth moved the struggle we have been undertaking for the last 50 years a step forward,” said Merera Gudina (62) leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress. “The PM makes a lot of promises. If he cannot walk his talk, then he’ll face the youth, definitely.”