More than 75 people are dead as the result of violent crackdowns on protests in Ethiopia. It is a rare instance of protest in the country where the government deploys the law and force to shut down opposition. Human Rights Watch decried the violence, arguing that the government is now allowing its citizens to peacefully demonstrate.
“The Ethiopian government’s response to the Oromia protests has resulted in scores dead and a rapidly rising risk of greater bloodshed,” HRW’s Leslie Lefkow said. “The government’s labeling of largely peaceful protesters as ‘terrorists’ and deploying military forces is a very dangerous escalation of this volatile situation.”
Students in a town just 50 miles outside of the capital city of Addis Ababa started the protests in mid-November. They voiced opposition to the ever-encroaching expansion of the city into towns where Oromos live, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. The protests soon spread across the region to what one analyst called “unprecedented” levels.
Concerns were so high that the government deployed its Anti Terrorism Task Force to deal with the protests. Terrorism is a well-worn title applied to opponents by Ethiopia’s ruling elites. Journalists and bloggers who publish stories critical of the government are regularly jailed for violating one of the anti-terror laws. Recent reports indicate that news anchor Fikadu Mirkana was arrested for broadcasting news reports about the protests.
More than 500 people have been arrested in the past month for participating in protests, according to the opposition group the Oromo Federalist Congress. Videos and images began to surface in recent weeks showing the violence carried out by Ethiopia’s military. The government’s PR spin is to play down the protests by claiming only five people have died and that the concerns are unwarranted.
The Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development Plan, know as the ‘master plan,’ seeks a way to expand the capital city. Much smaller protests took place in April 2014 when the master plan was brought forward for discussion. Dozens of people died and a formal plan was not adopted. But the government is continuing with its large-scale infrastructure development projects and city expansion, according to claims from farmers who have been evicted from their land.
While the immediate concern is about perceived land grabs, the Oromo have long-standing disagreements with the government. They are largely marginalized within the government, accounting for only 12 percent of posts despite making up roughly one-third of the population, their native language is banned. And the economic gains made by the country in recent years are not reaching everyone, adding the burden of poverty to a life of restricted rights.
“Unless authorities heed calls for redress of historical grievances and allow genuine federalism and pluralist democracy to flourish – calls the Ethiopian authorities are disinclined to heed – the doors are left wide open to more unrests,” Mohammed Ademo and Hassen Hussein wrote in Africa is a Country. “This is likely to reverse Ethiopia’s prospects, already threatened by a worst drought in decades, and further destabilize an already volatile Horn of Africa region.”
The U.S. Department of State issued a statement of concern late last week. It called on the Ethiopian government to use restraint and “refrain from violence” in response to the protests. But a new Agenge France-Presse report shows that call is not being heeded. Protests are continuing and so are the killings.
“The government may think this strategy of silencing bad news is succeeding,” said Felix Horne of Human Rights Watch. “But while the fear of threats and harassment means it is often months before victims and witnesses come forward to reveal what happened in their communities, they eventually do, and the truth will emerge.”