Ethiopia’s Deadly Protests Indicate Increasing Ethnic and Political Division

The Ethiopian government has declared a state of emergency after deadly protests sprung up across the nation. At least 500 people (rough figure due to conflicting reports) have been killed in anti-government protests which began over a land rights dispute in the southern Oromia region, later spreading to the Amhara region.

Al-Jazeera reports that the six-month state of emergency was imposed on Sunday, October 8, after protests became violent at a religious event earlier that week. With two million attendees, the annual Irrecha festival in Bishoftu became deadly after police fired tear gas into the crowd and bullets into the air to disperse protesters.  This resulted in a stampede of panicked festival-goers, where 55 people were killed. Reuters reports that some protesters donned the colours and flag of banned political party Oromo Liberation Front, and shouted provocative, anti-government slogans.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said on Sunday,

“The state of emergency will not breach basic human rights enshrined under the Ethiopian constitution and won’t also affect diplomatic rights listed under the Vienna Convention.”

Despite this, the declaration has resulted in the country’s internet being cut and may involve widespread curfews, military intervention and greater autonomy for police.

The government believes that neighbouring nations such as Egypt and Eritrea are arming and providing civilians with the means to cause violence. “There are countries which are directly involved in arming, financing and training these elements,” government spokesperson Getachew Reda, stated. Ethiopian officials have been careful not to place blame on other governments, but rather rebel groups. Throughout the week, demonstrators burned businesses with suspected ties to the government and one American national was killed.

To understand the context of the protests, it is important to realize the polyethnic background of the Ethiopian people and circumstances surrounding the government’s power. The country is home to 99.5 million people, most of whom belong to the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups which constitute 34% and 27% of the total population, respectively. There are at least 80 minority groups; the two largest being the Somali and the Tigray ethnicities. Both are made up of 5-6 million people each.

The government, however, is dominated by members of the Tigray minority. Not surprisingly, the government has been accused of favouring ethnic groups over others and the imbalance of ethnic representation in the government seems to be the underlying cause of recent protests.

The government-approved Addis Ababa Master Plan sees the extension of the capital city’s boundaries, and development which encroaches on Oromo farming lands (and ultimately their traditions and way of life). This triggered the original protests, however there has been a simmering tension over the previous two decades as the Amhara and Oromo people have felt excluded from government decisions, including that of the development of the capital city.

Despite seeing high (yet authoritarian-inspired) economic growth and relatively positive national unity over the last couple of decades, it appears that the African nation is becoming divided again.

The Washington Post reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated her support for protesters across Ethiopia on her visit last week. She urged the government to consider opening dialogue with protesting groups.

There has not been an opposing party in Ethiopia in over a decade, however international persuasion has resulted in the possibility that Ethiopia amend laws to accommodate the views of opposing groups for a greater voice in government.

Ethiopia has refused international and UN intervention, stating that “it alone was responsible for the security of its citizens.”