‘They are trying to start an ethnic war’: Ethiopia’s brutal response to protests
The factories in Sebeta, Burayu and Meki are symbols of everything that the Ethiopian dream has been reaching towards: the establishment of fast-growing manufacturing businesses and proof that the state-backed drive towards growth is working and that all the sacrifices have been worth it. Protesters torched them after the tragic death of several dozen people on 2 October in a stampede in Bishoftu town in the restive Oromia Region. After the spasm of violence, burned-out vehicles lined roads stretching from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to nearby Oromia towns.
The intensity of the attacks was so severe that security forces were unable to save most of the factories. Police resorted to telling owners and managers to deal with the situation as they were overstretched and the roads were blocked by protesters. Speaking off the record, many Ethiopians said they have never seen violence like this since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government came to power in 1991.
So what is happening to the Ethiopian dream? It was built on the bedrock of ethnic federalism after the Derg – a bloodthirsty military regime — was chased out of Addis Ababa in 1991. Over the past decade, Ethiopia has been held up as an example of a ‘developmental authoritarian’ state, one that builds roads and schools but limits political expression and competition.
Ethno-linguistic groups are recognised under the constitution and form the basis for the country’s regions. In addition to the federal structure, the government is highly centralised and strongly entwined with the ruling party. The EPRDF itself is a coalition of parties that identify themselves with the country’s major ethnic groups.
Now the constituent parts of Ethiopia appear to be pulling in different directions. Partly this is because of the everyday heavy-handed repression dealt out by the state. Scuffles between local security officers and students in Ginchi town in Oromia kicked off this year of political violence. According to Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo People’s Congress, an opposition political party, fights began in November 2015 after students protested a plan by local officials to give an open space that was used by the youth to play football to investors.
The current unrest is also due to the fact that a sizeable proportion of Ethiopians do not believe they are part of that dream. The November 2015 protest quickly turned into a region-wide movement fighting against the government’s new city plan for Addis Ababa, which protesters believed would incorporate adjacent Oromo lands into the city and displace thousands of farmers.
In particular, there is a common complaint among the larger Amharic and Oromo populations that the Tigray ethnic group has a disproportionate amount of power and resources – and that it defends this power with its members’ control of the security services. “The government’s repressive nature is the main cause for the latest protests,” Merera tells The Africa Report. “For me, this is an expression of the youth’s frustration with the government.”
Almost a year later, and after hundreds of people were killed across Oromia Region, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on 9 October of this year — the first time since the EPRDF came to power in 1991 that there has been such an emergency. It is due to remain in place for at least six months and makes it illegal to post on Facebook or watch certain TV channels operated by diaspora groups.
The government has the habit of imposing its will rather than responding to popular demands. In Amhara Region, which is in the north and north-west of Ethiopia, peaceful protests that very quickly turned violent began in August of this year over an area called Wolqayt, which borders Tigray Region. The clashes were triggered by a call from some Amhara leaders to reclaim control of Wolqayt, which had been transferred to Tigray Region two decades ago.
The protesters set up what is now called the Wolqayt Committee, which aims to oversee the return of the area to Amhara Region. However, members of the committee were arrested and thrown in jail when they went to Addis Ababa to submit official letters to the federal government, local reports suggest. And when the government sent special forces troops to the area to arrest others, residents of the city confronted them. That led to the death of more than a dozen elite troops, according to government reports.
Flower farms torched
Both local and foreign businesses have been the focus of these unprecedented upheavals. Since 2 October 2015, dozens of factories and businesses have been set alight in Oromia Region and on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Anti-government demonstrators in Amhara Region torched several flower farms. Esmeralda Farms, a Dutch company, says it lost all its investments in the region when rioters stormed its premises and set them on fire in early September.
Many local businesses, from small shops to big hotels, have also closed down in the Amhara and Oromia regions as part of a stay-at-home campaign, or out of fear of reprisals if they do not participate. There are also reports of boycotts on beer and other consumer products manufactured by companies that are believed to have ties with the government. After the killing of dozens in a stampede in Oromia on 2 October, vehicles owned by Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote were set alight. An angry group also ransacked a Dutch-owned juice factory in Oromia Region.
Jemal Bedri, a resident of Bahir Dar in Amhara Region, says the government’s tactic of using force instead of responding to the public’s grievances is the main cause for the escalation of tension in the Amhara and Oromia regions. “They should know by now that using force to quell opposing views is an old fashioned method,” Jemal says. He adds that protesters in his area of Amhara Region did not have complex organisational systems, and this has helped the government to repress them. “There is no central command. That has made it easy for the security forces to clamp down on the protests here,” he explains.
The Oromo people are the largest group in the country, by some accounts accounting for up to 40 million of Ethiopia’s more than 94 million people. However, Oromo leaders have complained for generations about marginalisation and oppression under various regimes, which were mainly led by people from the Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic groups. Most of the top leaders in the military and civilian administrations are members of the Tigrayan elite, while the ceremonial post of Ethiopian president belongs to Mulatu Teshome, an ethnic Oromo. Tigrayans make up about 6% of the population and are spread across the country.
The Tigrayans owe their position to the leading role the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front played in removing the Derg. Former prime minister Meles Zenawi is believed to have been anxious to avoid accusations of overbearing Tigrayan influence by bringing in a southerner to replace him as premier.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was previously president of Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region – itself a product of historic Amharic colonisation. While Hailemariam is organising reshuffles and sackings in response to the unrest in the Amhara and Oromia regions, he is attempting to avoid the suspicion amongst opposition groups that he is under pressure from the Tigrayan elite.
After the Oromo protests began in November 2015, the nature of the unrest changed quickly from a student-led demonstration against a city plan to a mass rally calling for a change in government. The government has struggled to develop an effective narrative about the protests and to respond to them. On 10 October, government spokesman Getachew Reda blamed forces in Egypt and Eritrea for fomenting the unrest.
In the meantime, the regime’s response has been brutal. Rights groups and opposition parties say they have documented the killing of hundreds and the detention of thousands of people since November.
“Previously, there was a tendency among the security forces to arrest people en masse and then put them in jail,” Mulatu Gemechu of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) party tells The Africa Report. “Now they have shifted to carrying out extra-judicial killings in broad daylight. The government is also trying to start an ethnic war among the population and secure a political gain. I don’t know what they are thinking, but what we are witnessing here is a dangerous development.”
What Oromia wants
According to Mulatu, the only solution to the current unrest in the Oromia and Amhara regions is the setting up of an interim or transitional government. That is not something the EPRDF is likely to embrace. He stresses that the government’s recent move to replace some high-level officials from Oromia Region was not what the people are demanding: “What we need is the withdrawal of the security forces from villages and towns across Oromia. We also want to have the power to administer ourselves. That’s what we are calling for. We don’t have a personal grudge against the Prime Minster or other high-ranking officials.”
The government is pledging to carry out reforms and has started on some already. It sacked city officials across Oromia and Addis Ababa. However, a big surprise came when the administration got rid of the president and deputy president of Oromia on 21 September and replaced them with people considered to be technocrats. These sorts of changes are expected to continue in other regions as well, especially in areas that experienced protests.
In addition, government spokesman Getachew told reporters on 10 October that there will be a cabinet reshuffle in the coming two to three weeks. Prime Minister Hailemariam dismissed housing and urban development minister Mekuria Haile in early September and removed many officials in Addis Ababa’s road construction sector from their positions.
Making space for opposition
More importantly, on the same day, President Mulatu Teshome also declared that Ethiopia will adopt a new electoral law that will help opposition parties get seats in the federal parliament, a move that was unthinkable a year ago. Premier Hailemariam also made public statements in October about how the country’s electoral laws are marginalising large swathes of the population.
If the government follows through, there could be a new resurgence for the long-weakened opposition. There was a hotly contested general election in 2005 after the government opened up some political space. Opposition parties managed to secure 32% of the vote, but the ruling party got 59% and formed a government. Opposition groups boycotted the legislature, and subsequent violence led to the deaths of some 200 people.
Most of the opposition parties have disintegrated since then and some of them have joined the armed resistance against the government, like the former opposition figure Berhanu Nega. Berhanu is a co-founder of Ginbot 7, a group that the government accused of plotting a coup in 2009. Amidst continued repression of opposition activity, the EPRDF and its allies took all of the 547 seats in the house of representatives in 2015’s national elections.
It increasingly looks like the next moves for opposition groups will be based on what the government chooses to do next. Most parties are not allowed to hold rallies, and many of them report that killings and intimidation make politics a high-risk proposition for the opposition. The Blue Party regularly says that it is being forced to restrict its activities across the country, and it has yet to make political ammunition out of the recent protests.
There are strong networks of oppositionists online, thanks in part to the government’s strong-arm tactics against political opponents on the ground. The OFC’s Mulatu argues that the dysfunctional political system has created serious problems: “It is now out of their [the government’s] and our hands. They effectively disabled our activities, and they now [fall] prey to online activists.” He says that most of the ongoing protests are led by online activists based outside of the country.
There are already signs that the anti-government protests are degenerating into ethnic violence in some areas. Hundreds of Tigrayans have reportedly been forced out of Amhara Region, and there are cases where some ethnic Gurages, Wolayitas and Tigrayans were forced out after their properties were burned in the Southern regional state.
Biniam Asgedom, an ethnic Tigrayan marketing manager, explains how fears about the current violence have hit home: “My mother lives in Adama town in Oromia, and she owns a house there. But she is considering selling it and leaving the town before the situation gets out of hand for her. She is scared that ethnic violence might erupt one day. She told me she is scared.”
At the inaugural The Africa Report Debate in Accra last November, Ethiopia’s foreign minister Tedros Adhanom championed the development side of the ‘democracy versus development’ debate, but sought to bridge the divide by stressing that both are essential. He said: “We believe that both democracy and development are desirable goals.” Such a commitment is now being put to its sternest test. The EPRDF government faces stark choices in its next moves towards widening democratic participation and responding to the demands of the thousands of people out in the streets calling for change.