Behind Ethiopia’s Protests

Written By Stanford Ethiopian and Eritrean Student Association (SEESA)

The protests in Ethiopia began in November 2015 following the announcement of the tenth Addis Ababa master plan. The plan intended to expand the borders of the capital city, Addis Ababa, to incorporate surrounding Oromia regional towns. It promised integrated urban development, as well as infrastructural and social provisions for the people of Addis Ababa and Oromia regions.

The expansion of Addis Ababa, however, was unacceptable to the Oromo people, who make up over a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million population, making them the largest ethnic group in the horn of Africa. According to D/r Gidada, former President of Ethiopia who defected to an opposition group, the Oromos were not opposed to the extension of infrastructure to the surrounding towns, but rather to the eviction of Oromo farmers without proper compensation, and the compromise of Oromo identity. Oromo activists condemned the plan for its covert motive of further dispossessing, displacing, and exploiting the Oromo people, who have been oppressed under successive regimes.

The Oromo poured out in hundreds and thousands into the streets of over 400 towns and villages opposing the Addis Ababa Master Plan. The opposition was met with a brutal crackdown. On May 2nd alone, the government confirmed nine students were gunned down in a protest at Ambo University, although witnesses say the death toll is as high as 47. Mass arrests and killings continued in the dormitories and campuses of Ambo, Adama, Jimma, and Haramaya Universities and several Oromia districts.

By January 2016, the Human Rights Watch reported, over 400 people have been killed, thousands injured, tens of thousands arrested and hundreds disappeared. In over 500 protests that occurred following the master plan, the report lamented that:

“Security forces shot into crowds, summarily killing people during mass roundups, and torturing detained protesters. Because primary and secondary school students in Oromia were among the early protesters, many of those arrested or killed were children under the age of 18.”

The government initially rejected these accusations, labeling the protests as anti-peace ploys orchestrated by “power-hungry” terrorists groups. But, in mid-January, it finally yielded to the pressure and officially repealed the Master Plan. However, Oromia’s fury showed no sign of halting, and was soon followed by the Amhara protests.

On an early July night in the city of Gondar, northern Ethiopia, where the protests have not yet reached, gunshots were heard from the direction of one of the community’s prominent leader’s residence. Colonel Demeke Zewdu, president of a committee that demands the restoration of the town of Welkait to the Amhara region, opened fire against state police officers who came to arrest him. The colonel’s arrest resulted in an outrage across the Amhara region, bringing the second most populous ethnic group under the wave of protests.

Amhara activists accuse government leaders, who are from a minority Tigrean ethnic group, of attempting to expand and enrich their homeland at the expense of the Amhara and others. Welkait was established as a Tigray province, despite the people’s demand to be identified as ethnic Amharas and thus re-join the Amhara region. The government responded by arresting  Colonel Zewdu and several other community leaders on terrorism charges.

In a press conference in late August, addressing the wave of protests across multiple regions, the prime minister named corruption, inequality, and lack of good governance as sources of dissatisfaction behind the unrest. He admitted that his government needs deep and immediate reform, hoping to calm the protests with an admission of wrongdoing. However, the major culprits fomenting the conflicts, according to the premier, were terrorist groups in the diaspora, and state enemies like Eritrea, and more recently, Egypt. A mere promise of better governance and accusation of outside forces could at best delegitimize the grievances of the people and sideline demands for recognition, inclusion, freedom, and justice for the slain.

Conditions further deteriorated at the Irreechaa festivities. ‘Irrechaa’, dubbed as the Oromos’ thanksgiving day, attracts millions of Oromos and other Ethiopians to the town of Bishoftu to celebrate Oromo culture and identity. At this year’s ceremony, as soon as the newly appointed chairman of the State of Oromia grabbed the mic, the crowd began to roar in protest. “Down, down Woyane!” echoed through the millions who gathered with their arms crossed in a X sign above their heads. When slogans demanding the change of government  intensified, security forces fired warning shots and tear gas leading to a deadly stampede. People died falling into Bishoftu river and ditches. The casualties were estimated to be around 50 by the government, and over 500 by oppositions.  

In the aftermath of Irrecha, enraged protesters burned down dozens of foreign-owned factories and flower farms, and destroyed scores of vehicles. Foreign-owned businesses have often been the targets of protesters as protesters seek to discourage foreign companies from working with the Ethiopian government. Besides the effect of depriving the government of revenue, these acts express locals’ frustration over unjust land grabs. A week after Irrecha, the government declared a six-months state-of-emergency for the first time in its twenty five years in power.

In Ethiopia today, you cannot use social media to contact outside forces, or communicate footages and messages that are likely to ‘incite  disturbances’. You cannot watch ‘terrorist’ labelled TV channels like ESAT and OMN, which are operated by the Ethiopian diaspora and critical of the Ethiopian government You can not peacefully protest or organize; you can’t make political gestures such as crossing your arms above your head; you cannot visit a factory, farm or government institution between 6pm and 6am the next day. If you’re a diplomat, you can’t travel more than 25 miles from the capital. Following the decree, this past Monday, a thousand people were arrested near Addis Ababa and more than 1600 were arrested  on Wednesday in the Amhara and Oromia regions following mass demonstrations.


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