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Nov 4, 2016 | Commentary


With the Ethiopian government declaring a 6-month state of emergency, the violent protests that have been occurring in recent months can no longer be denied. But even as an increasing spotlight turns towards the country, very little information is reported. Reports that do make international media are incidents near Addis Ababa – for instance the killing of 52 and injury of many more at a religious festival in Bishoftu in Oromia, 40km from Addis Ababa on 2 October.

This is a function of the restrictions put in place by the Ethiopian government. The new state of emergency has restricted social and broadcast media and limited movements further than 40km from Addis Ababa. But even before this, the government owned Ethio Telecom had frequently disrupted mobile phone signals and access to social media sites had been blocked. Human rights organisations have been highlighting the threat to freedom of expression for years, in particular since the introduction of anti-terror legislation in 2009, which gave vague parameters for restrictions.

The consequence of this lack of information is a heightened focus on the protests in Oromia, and a conflation of the protests in Amhara. In both regions the protests are calls for democracy and better representation, so there are many parallels. The protests in Oromia were initially a response to plans to expand Addis Ababa into Oromo territory. Although these plans have since been scrapped, the Oromo continue to call for greater autonomy. This article reviews the current spate of protests within the social and political context of Ethiopia, highlighting the need for reform of the current system in order to avoid further violence and deepening instability. Particularly given migration flows through Ethiopia from Eritrea, and continued tensions between the two countries, the international community needs to be more forceful in its calls for inclusive dialogue.

Governance, democracy and protests in Ethiopia

The governance structure of Ethiopia is based on a form of ‘ethnic federalism’, where each state has a level of autonomy. In reality, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Perhaps driven by fears of inter-ethnic conflict, the government has maintained a tight grip on power. Sustained economic growth and relative stability in an uncertain region has ensured Ethiopia’s position as an ally of the West, and brushed away questions about its authoritarian governance. But the cracks are becoming too large to ignore.

Particularly in Oromia, where protests have continued even after the Addis Ababa masterplan was overturned, it is evident that deeper discontent with their representation has been simmering for some time. Although often presented as solidarity with the Oromo people, Amhara also has its own grievances, which are receiving less airtime than those of the Oromo.

On 7 August, vague reports emerged of ‘several’ people killed in protests in Bahir Dar. Amnesty International estimates that at least 30 were killed, and local witnesses argue that the figure is much higher. Other protests that turned violent at the same time, such as in Gondar, were not reported at all.

The Amhara people are also calling for democracy, representation and autonomy. As one of the most fertile regions, control over a number of territories has been passed to Tigray in recent years. The home of the TPLF, Tigray is more prone to drought and desertification. The disproportional support provided to the Tigray region over Amhara has created serious tensions, with the border between the two regions becoming impassable.

Following the protests on 7 August, residents of Amhara engaged in a peaceful protest, closing down all businesses, schools and transport. In Bahir Dar, this began on 21 August, with Gondar and surrounding towns closing down from 24-28 August. As in many countries, these protests are led by the middle classes – the business owners. These protests cause significant economic damage, a statement likely to be heard by a government that prides itself on economic growth. But five days of road and business closures is also damaging on farmers and communities that rely on day to day trade. On 27 August, the usually bustling Saturday market in Gondar, where farmers from around the region sell their produce, was closed, and the streets were bare.

The anger generated by the strained relationship came to a head on Monday 29 August, when a tanker transporting cooking oil from Amhara to Tigray was hijacked en route in Debark. Although the military fired into the air to deter residents, much of the oil was siphoned before the tanker itself was set on fire. This incident sparked further violence as a number of houses and offices in the town were set alight, including that of the head of the administrative zone, with the military retaliating by killing a number of young men thought to be involved. This incident, and likely many similar ones are not reported, either in national or international press. Clearly the incidents that are being reported are therefore merely the tip of a very large iceberg.

Unity, (in)Stability and State of Emergency

Imposing a state of emergency is not the answer to create unity in Ethiopia. The Derg dismissed opposition as ‘counterrevolutionaries’ and engaged in brutal tactics to silence them. The anti-terror legislation introduced by the EPRDF tread the same path, allowing the government to label any oppositional activity as terrorist, and providing avenues to silence them. Closing down media outlets and preventing access to sites of protest is another step in this direction. Although messy, and perhaps disruptive to Ethiopia’s economic progress, what is needed is genuine democratic dialogue.

Although the international community is calling for ‘inclusive dialogue in response to the grievances of the population’, the instability in Somalia and South Sudan in particular, means the West is reluctant to push too hard against what has been an important ally. But unless genuine reform takes place, the West may find instability increases in the Horn of Africa.


Sasha Jesperson is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery at St Mary’s University Twickenham and a Centre for Security Governance (CSG) Senior Fellow. Before coming to St Mary’s, Sasha was leading research on organised crime at the Royal United Services Institute, working closely with government departments to ensure that research is useful for strengthening policymaking on organised crime. Her research background is on organised crime and particularly the role of development is preventing and responding to criminal activity, and the intersection of crime and conflict.

Sasha completed her PhD at the London School of Economics. Her research examined international initiatives to address organised crime through peace building missions under the framework of the security-development nexus, comparing examples from Sierra Leone and Bosnia. Sasha also completed an MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and worked for Amnesty International for three years, primarily focusing on human rights in conflict and post-conflict contexts.