Protests Strike Ethiopia

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By: Pierre Boisselet, Jeune Afrique / Source: / The Dawn News / August 22, 2016

In spite of the impressive economic and social progress made, there are increasingly more protests in Ethiopia. But, far from of wanting to share power, the regime seems to prefer a heavy-handed response, at least, so far.

In the rainy season, from July to August, the downpours of water turn the valleys green, as well as the Oromia and Amhara plains, the two basic agricultural pillars of the country. But also, this year, black clouds of uncertainty have covered this country, with more than 100 thousand inhabitants.  

Since mid July, Ethiopia has witnessed a wave of protests and violence, unseen in the past 10 years. According to Amnesty International, at least 97 people died during clashes between the police force and the protesters, even in big cities such as Bahir Dar or Gondar and Oromia. Internet access has been shut down all over the country to hold protests back.

A regime that can’t achieve consensus

Beyond Addis-Abeba, the diplomatic capital of the continent where the skyscrapers and the great infrastructures grow at the rhythm of the five-year programmes, extreme frustration is a common feeling among a sector of the youth and peasants. The amazing economic growth (over a 10% in average during the past decade), the constant progress of social figures and the development programs that stunned international partners, were not enough to convince the Ethiopian population of the legitimacy of the regime. Even more so when the increase of the GDP slowed down in the past year (4,5%, according to the IMF), partially due to an extraordinary drought. Simultaneously, the population keeps growing steadily, by almost 3% per year. More than 2 million youngsters enter the labour market every year. The country’s challenges are enormous.


The regime of Addis-Ababa had already received a serious warning by the end of 2015 due to a protest in Oromia where, according to Human Rights Watch, police repression killed over 400 people. For its part, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an official institution, spoke of 173 victims, including 14 members of the police force.


Several communities are implied

Some military men in charge of re-establishing order were ambushed and killed. These current protests are armed, which is a new phenomenon. Another novelty is that it is affecting  three highly populated regions simultaneously: Oromia (35% of the total population), Amhara (27%) and, to a lesser extent, Addis-Ababa, the capital city, with approximately 3,2 million inhabitants.

Now, the Ethiopian society lies on a foundation made up of several peoples, who, despite living together, have kept strong separate identities for centuries, and in some cases, even ancestral rivalries. But the current opposition is founded on a communitarian base. The first mobilizations were against the plan to “bring order” to Addis-Abeba. This plan was financed by the French Agency for Development.

Even though this project didn’t intend to broaden the administrative limits of the capital (the government was fully aware that this was a sensitive topic), it included neighboring towns in the global reflection, with the creation of new roads, public transportation and industrial zones. This planification aimed at turning the capital into one of the most important metropolis of the continent. But the capital is located in the middle of the Oromo territory and its development threatens to divide the land in two.

Protesters, many of them peasants, fear the loss of their land and at the same time denounce the corruption of local elites in this process. Despite the fact that the government has suspended the plan (an unusual setback for this administration) people’s rage has not diminished.  

In the Amhara region, anger is also related to a territorial and community dispute: the fact that the Wolqayt district belongs to the Tigray Region. Protesters consider that they should have that area back. They also don’t make any distinction between the central power and the Tigray. Furthermore, during the different conflicts, some of their own properties were attacked. This minority is playing a superior role due to its demographic weight (6% of the population). This occurs within the State, in the economic sphere and, even more, in the Army.

An unfavorable Regime for the opposition

The Front for the Liberation of the Peoples of Tigré (TPLF) was the spearhead in the rebellion that took power in 1991. Even though officially only on the components of the coalition is still in power (The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front). It still the main force in the coalition. And in the eyes of the Amharas majorities and the Oromos this power has never been rightful.

The system ignores their aspirations. Opposition parties are not tolerated and they can’t even access elections: in 2015 The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front won all positions in the Parliament. But the authoritarianism of the regime is showing certain limits. After the elections in 2005, when the opposition had won in the main cities, they re took initiative by taking advantage of repression and the good economic and social results. This time, protests are lasting longer and longer.

Another obstacle: Absense of a leader

Since the death of Meles Zenawi (former Primer Minister), in 2012, the country has not had a new leader. But the power respects the development projects, even though they don’t always contribute with responses to the unstable situation that in fact has evolved.

The new Prime Minister, Haile Mariam Desalegn, less charismatic, has not achieve much respect, as Meles did. Therefore, the orientation of the party is defined by a group of leaders and the system could end up in a situation of complete paralysis. However, there is no other alternative to the current regime. Most of the leaders of the 2005 campaign had been in exile since then. And the historical disputes between the Amharas and the Oromos are also important, and are an important issue in the stability of the region, which warns the Western powers: no even the American State Department, the British Foreign Office nor the French Quai d’Orsay dare to condemn repression.

Under this circumstances, within the regime there is a internal debate between conservatives, promoters of “heavy hand” and reformers, who seek for a progressive opening, a process that would probably bring a revolution in the Ethiopian history, in which authoritarianism has always been the rule.

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