Ethiopia is 12 months into a political crisis which has seen at least 1,000 people killed. But unless the government introduces significant reforms, it will get worse, says Andrea Carboni.
An unprecedented wave of protests has shaken Ethiopia since November last year. These protests have revealed the fragility of the social contract regulating Ethiopia’s political life since 1991, when the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition (EPRDF) overthrew the Derg and assumed power. This tacit agreement between the ruling coalition and the Ethiopian people offered state-sponsored development in exchange for limited political liberalisation. After twenty-five years of EPRDF rule, frustrated with widespread corruption, a political system increasingly perceived as unjust and the unequal gains of economic development, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have now descended into the streets, triggering a violent reaction from the state.
As we enter the twelfth month of the uprising, violence shows no sign of decreasing in Ethiopia. In its efforts to put down unrest, the government has allowed the security forces to use lethal violence against the protesters. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, more than one thousand people are estimated to have died as a result of violent state repression since last November. Thousands of people, including prominent opposition leaders and journalists, have been arrested and are currently detained in prison.
International institutions and non-governmental organisations have expressed major concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The UN Human Rights Council called for “international, independent, thorough, impartial and transparent investigations” over the repression in Ethiopia, a request that was swiftly rejected by the government. Ethiopia’s Information Minister instead blamed “foreign elements” linked with the Egyptian and the Eritrean political establishments for instigating the rebellion and arming the opposition.
Rather than stifling dissent, state repression has contributed to escalating protests. Violent riots have increased after the events in Bishoftu on October 2, when a stampede caused by police firing on a protesting crowd killed at least 55 people. In the following days, demonstrators have vandalised factories and flower farms – including many under foreign ownership – accused of profiting from the government’s contested development agenda. An American researcher also died when her vehicle came under attack near Addis Ababa. Although protesters have largely remained peaceful and resorted to non-violent tactics, these episodes of violence raise concerns over escalating trends in the protest movement.
Unrest and repression
The geography of unrest is also telling of the evolving protest cycle in Ethiopia. The protests originated last November in the Oromia region, where the local population mobilised to oppose a government-backed developmental plan which would displace many farmers. The Oromo people, who constitute Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group,accuse the EPRDF of discriminating against their community, and its local ally, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), as being a puppet in the hands of the Tigray-dominated ruling coalition.
Until mid-July, the unrest had largely remained confined to Oromia’s towns and villages. Local tensions around the northern city of Gondar inaugurated a new round of protestsin the Amhara region, where regionalist demands joined the widespread discontent with state repression. In the following weeks, protests spread further into the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples', the native region of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, as local communities began to stage anti-government protests. Episodes of communal violence and attacks against churches have been reported in Oromia as well as in other ethnically mixed areas of the country.
Despite increasing dissent, the government seems unwilling to mitigate its repressive measures. Internet access was allegedly shut down in an attempt to hamper the protest movement, which uses online media and social networks to disseminate anti-government information. On October 9, the government introduced a six-month state of emergency, the first time since the ruling EPRDF came to power in 1991. At least 1,600 people are reported to have been detained since the state of emergency was declared, while the Addis Standard, a newspaper critical of the government, was forced to stop publications due to the new restrictions on the press.
Polarised politics: government and opposition
These decisions notwithstanding, it is unclear how the EPRDF can manage to restore the government’s authority and preserve investor confidence by adopting measures that continue to feed resistance. After pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Hailemariam pledged to reform Ethiopia’s electoral system, which currently allows the EPRDF to control 500 of the 547 seats in Parliament. These limited political concessions are unlikely to satisfy the protesters’ demand for immediate and substantial change, since the proposed reform would only produce effects after the 2020 general elections.
According to the opposition, this is the evidence that the Tigray minority, which dominates the upper echelons of the government and the security apparatus, is unwilling to make any significant concessions in the short term. By labelling the opposition’s demands as racist and even denying their domestic nature, the government is leaving little room for negotiation and compromise and risks contributing to the escalation of the protests.
For over a decade, Ethiopia has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Foreign investments – most notably from China – have funded large-scale infrastructure projects, including the recently inaugurated railway to the port of Djibouti.
The on-going unrest is likely to have a negative impact on Ethiopia’s economy, reducing the country’s considerable appeal among foreign investors and tourists. The demonstrations have revealed the growing discontent of the Ethiopian people, and especially of its disenfranchised youth, over the EPRDF’s authoritarian and unequal rule. The EPRDF therefore needs to implement far-reaching reforms and embrace dialogue with the opposition to prevent the current unrest from deteriorating.