A report released by Human Rights Watch has stated that ongoing clashes between Ethiopian security forces and various protest movements have killed 669 people since August 2016. Ethiopian civil society has long been characterized by an uneasy peace between its various ethnic groups, but recent months have seen old resentment flare up.
After attempting to expand the powers of the central government in the Oromia, Amhara, and SNNP regions (traditionally inhabited by marginalized ethnic groups), Ethiopia’s long-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) responded to increase with the declaration of martial law in these regions.
In light of the grim revelations detailed by Human Rights Watch, and the Federal Government’s recent renewal of martial law for the period of March-July 2017, increased scrutiny is being applied to the actions of Ethiopia’s government. In spite of this increasing scrutiny, the Ethiopian government has continually refused to allow outside access to these regions, with Prime Minister Hailemarjam Desalegn rejecting UN and EU requests for an independent investigation, and demanding that the international community respect Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Members of the government were quick to deny reports of mass abuses by security forces, with Ethiopian Human Rights Commission Head, Addisu Gebregziabher, stating that “The violence happened because the protesters were using guns and so security forces had no other option”, and referring to protesters as “anti-peace forces,”
Efforts to gather evidence corroborating these claims have been made even more difficult by the extensive powers granted to the government in states of martial law, which have allowed it to enforce curfews, ban the use of social media, and to deny journalists access to embattled regions. This crackdown has created suspicion in the international community, where it is perceived as unlikely that a government with nothing to hide would take such firm steps to avoid scrutiny. When asked to comment on Human Rights Watch’s critical report on state violence, Ethiopian Communications Minister Getachew Reda smugly remarked that it was a “stroke of magic” that Human Rights Watch was able to report on the situation in Ethiopia “from half way across the world.” While a lack of ability to access the areas under martial law does make the procuring of accurate information more challenging, this critique seems peculiar, given that the ability of Human Rights Watch and other organizations to gather data has been limited by the Ethiopian government itself.
Aside from the nearly 700 killings reported, the government has also acknowledged that thousands of protesters have been jailed. While the punishment of these individuals may immediately weaken resistance to the Government in areas like the Oromia Region, it is unlikely that this crackdown will improve the perception of Ethiopians discontent with a central government they perceive as distant, corrupt and unjust. For Ethiopia’s Government and the freedom of its embattled regions, the future remains uncertain.