From November 2015, Ethiopia has experienced an unprecedented wave of popular mobilisation. The government responded to the protests with a heavy hand, resulting in thousands of casualties and tens of thousands of people arrested, and charged with terrorism offenses. A state of emergency has been extended into July 2017. Further, militant activity has risen in tandem with popular unrest, stemming from both the distraction that civil unrest posed for the Ethiopian military, and also shared grievances. Available data collected from international and local media since November 2015 points to more than 1,200 people reported killed during protests. Approximately 660 fatalities are due to state violence against peaceful protesters, 250 fatalities from state engagement against rioters, and more than 380 people killed by security forces following the declaration of the state of emergency in October 2016.1
The protests in the Oromia region from November 2015 are generally seen as part of a movement that began in April - May 2014, when students across several locations in the region protested a plan to expand the capital, Addis Ababa (hereafter, the Addis Ababa Master Plan). The 2014 protests, led by university students, were comparatively small and situated in the Western part of Oromia (see Figure 1).2 The demonstrations were repressed by the security services (Amnesty, 10 October 2014).
Protests resumed in November 2015; they were mainly led by students from secondary schools and universities. The demonstrations quickly gained momentum and the students were soon joined by farmers, workers and other citizens (EHRP, March 2016). An average of 26 protests occurred per week between November 2015 - February 2016. The sharp drop to seven protests per week between March - April 2016 was due to the onset of the sowing season, rather than the Ethiopian government’s suspension of the Master Plan. Large-scale demonstrations resumed in May 2016 and continued over the summer, while fresh protests also occurred in the Amhara region from the end of July 2016 (see Figure 2).3 The continuation of the protests beyond the suspension of the Master Plan revealed enduring grievances against the Ethiopian regime among different ethnic groups.
Government violence at the Irecha religious festival in Oromia in early October 2016 sparked outrage among the opposition and catalysed a rapid escalation of the protest movement. Oromo activists called this escalation the “week of rage”. The government ultimately declared an unprecedented state of emergency on 8 October 2016, imposing tight restrictions that have since successfully curbed the protests. The number of reported riots and protests dropped from 56 in October 2016 to 7, 4 and 2 in November 2016, December 2016 and January 2017 respectively. The significant reduction in riots and protests accompanied an increase in political and ethnic militia activity, and in battles involving security forces and foreign-based rebel groups, especially in Oromia, Amhara and Tigray (see Figure 34; ACLED, February 2017). Though the link between the protesters and the various armed groups remains unclear, these trends point to an escalation from peaceful unrest to an armed struggle taken up by local armed militias and rebel movements united in their aim to remove the government. The government prolonged the state of emergency until the end of July 2017, aiming to control the remaining pockets of instability in the country.