Ethiopia’s Authoritarian Regime Cracks Down, Kills Dozens of Protesters
The government heavily restricts dissent in what's effectively a one-party state
Ethiopian security forces killed more than 80 people during a month of protests against an ambitious urban development plan, according to representatives of the Oromo ethnic group which led the protests. Both the demonstrations and government violence reflect the increasingly authoritarian relationship between the Ethiopian state, a key U.S. military ally, and its population.
Beginning in mid-November, Oromo youths and farmers began protesting government plans to extend the urban development of the capital, Addis Ababa, into the surrounding Oromia federal region. International media only had intermittent access to the area, but many observers agree that the government is facing the most significant civil resistance movement since it took power in 1991.
In interviews, protesters refer both to an increasing political and economic marginalization, as well as the fear of displacement due to rapid urban development as motivations for the demonstrations. Human Rights Watch claims the government has killed at least 75 people.
The grievances have a historic connotation. Ethiopia can look back on a history of literally thousands of years as an independent state, and has the distinction of being the only African nation to never have been colonized (though this point is debatable). Oromia, however, is a comparatively recent addition. Emperor Menelik began the conquest of the region in the 1880s with the help of local allies in a campaign that saw the Ethiopian army commit massive atrocities.
Despite representing the largest ethnic group and 35 percent of the population of Ethiopia, the Oromo people have never been adequately represented in either the ruling political elite or the military, with the current regime being heavily dominated by ethnic Tigrinya.
Above — Oromo men in Ethiopia. Rod Waddington / Flickr photo. At top — Ethiopian pro-democracy protest in Chicago. Kim Scarborough / Flickr photo
But the protests also reflect more recent complaints. Ethiopia’s government, led by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, has pursued the model of a developmental state — for which it has cited China as a model — since it succeeded in ousting a communist regime in the 1990s.
The EPRDF has severely curtailed civil and political liberties, accelerating the restrictions after a botched general election in 2005, which the partly allegedly rigged to keep its parliamentary majority.
In the 2015 general elections the EPRDF and an allied party won all of the parliament’s 524 seats, effectively nullifying opposition influence on the political process. The EPRDF and its allies control the regional administrations, the federal security services, the armed forces and significant parts of the economy.
This has let to an incredible centralization of power, which is in stark contrast to Ethiopia’s official constitution as a highly federalized country.
In return, the EPRDF has prescribed the country a top-down developmental agenda that has seen some successes. Gross National Income per capita has risen from $657 in 2004 to $1,638 in 2014, and the country has also steadily improved its ranking in the composite Human Development Index, having started from the position of one of the world’s least developed countries. To kickstart industrial development, the Ethiopian government has begun several high-profile hydro power projects heavily financed by government revenue.
Internationally, Ethiopia has positioned itself firmly as an American ally in the region, hosting U.S. military forces and contractors conducting drone missions over Somalia. Ethiopia has also intervened militarily in neighboring Somalia to counter Islamist groups.
This combination of international alignment and domestic economic development has shielded the Ethiopian regime from harsh criticism regarding its internal policies. But there has been backlash nonetheless, and the current protests are only the latest incarnation.
The Ethiopian military is fighting several low-intensity insurgencies, including the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, some of which are supported by or based in Eritrea. In all cases, key grievances include the ruling elite’s political and economic marginalization of ethnic groups.
So far, the Ethiopian government has counted on its economic policies to undermine support for these rebel movements, which mostly stem from sparsely populated and geographically remote areas. But the protests over the Addis Ababa urban development plans indicate that Ethiopia’s aggressive and top-down model of economic development might in itself produce conflicts.
In an article for the blog Africa Is a Country, Mohammed Ademo and Hassen Hussein pointed out that job opportunities for the country’s youth – 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30 – remain marginal. The public sector remains one of Ethiopia’s main source of qualified employment, but it is only accessible to candidates with connections to the political establishment.
At the same time, the government actively delegitimizes protests as “terrorism,” even when demonstrations remain largely peaceful. Ethiopia’s state intelligence services have claimed that some protesters have a “direct link with a group that has been collaborating with other proven terrorist parties.”
Amnesty International has condemned this approach, arguing in a statement that “the suggestion that these Oromo — protesting against a real threat to their livelihoods — are aligned to terrorists will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression for rights activists.”