Unrest in Ethiopia

By David Gernon


Ethiopia has long been a darling of foreign investors among sub-Saharan African economies. Its capital, Addis Ababa, is an economic hub and the headquarters of the African Union. Partly thanks to foreign investments, as well as boatloads of cash in the form of loans from the Chinese government, the largely agrarian country was Africa’s fast growing economy in 2015.

Unfortunately, under the surface, all is not well for the land-locked country in the Horn of Africa. In early October, the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, announced a six-month national state of emergency, granting the government sweeping powers of arrest and the right to enforce a ban on free assembly and expression to help quell the anti-government protests that have been forming since last November. The government crackdown on protests has resulted in the deaths of more than 500 people, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The protests began in the Oromia region, home to many of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, when a plan to expand the economically flourishing capital was announced. Oromia completely surrounds Addis Ababa and stood to lose fertile farmland in the proposed expansion. However, earlier this year, after a key member of the EPRDF coalition withdrew support, the government opted to cancel the plans, a nearly unprecedented move for the country. Although the expansion plan was ultimately abandoned, the protests seemed to bring into the open long-simmering tensions of the Oromo, a long marginalized group. Though they are the largest ethnic group in the country, the ruling elite is mostly made up of Tigray, the fourth largest ethnic group who make up about six percent of the total population.

Since then, more protests have broken out in the Amhara region. Amhara, in the north, is the homeland of Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, eponymously named for the region. The Amhara used to form the country’s elite (in 1975, when the monarchy was abolished, the final Emperor of Ethiopia was Amhara), but as mentioned above, the national government is mostly composed of Tigrayans.  The protests there have centered around a request from the Welkait Amhara Identity Committee that their land, currently in the Tigray region state, be moved into neighboring Amhara. The committee says its members identify themselves as ethnic Amharas and no longer wish to be ruled by Tigrayans. Though the protests are not explicitly connected, protestors in both regions have displayed banners echoing solidarity with each other.

The government has incentives to make peace with the two largest ethnic groups in the country. There are other, urgent matters that require attention. Though there is not a single opposition party in parliament (the EPRDF and its allies control all 547 seats), the Ethiopian government has to strike a delicate balance. The country has been a hotbed of foreign investment and the government wants to provide stability not to spook it off. However, recent actions of the government suggest an unease among officials; after a particularly large protest in early August, the government temporarily shut down the country’s only internet service provider. The government must also worry about border security; a war was fought 15 years ago over the disputed border with Eritrea that lies to the north; chaos reigns in Somalia to the east; in the west, tumultuous and young South Sudan. Political stability in the country is fragile. There are up to 10 armed rebellions taking place in the country at present.

Experts say the continued crackdown on the Oromo may cause some to join rebel groups, some of which are based in Oromia, and take up arms against the central government. Although protests continue, the quashing of the proposed expansion of Addis Ababa was surely an olive branch from the government, extended to the country’s largest ethnic group. Peaceful relations with the Oromo would remove one major headache for the EPRDF and its partners.

Yet tensions remain high. Aside from the marginalization of the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the recent economic growth in the country has been spread unequally. Practically all of the wealth is concentrated in the rapidly growing capital, on pace to exceed 8 million people by 2020. As the capital expands, farmers on the peripheral of the city have lost their livelihoods. Elsewhere in the city, new high-rise buildings contrast starkly with extreme poverty next door. The rural farmers feel left out; moreover, the most fertile farmland has been sold mostly to foreign investors by the government, fueling the grievances of the country’s rural population.

The EPRDF has long been accused of heavy-handedness in maintaining power, since the former rebel movement seized power in 1991. After four years of rule by a transitional government, the current government took over in August, 1995. The EPRDF has held power since defeating the communist Derg government in 1991, through the transitional government and winning every election. The EPRDF has maintained a close grip on power throughout. Protests after the general election in 2005 resulted in the deaths of at least 193 protestors at the hands of Ethiopian police. Though the Carter Foundation approved the pre-election conditions in 2005, European Union election observers expressed fears of election rigging after the vote was held. In 2010, it appeared as though opposition parties were poised to take control until the EPRDF halted vote counting for several days; once counting resumed, it claimed the election.

The government has introduced some measures of reform in an attempt to soothe protestors: on October 10, the president agreed to enact some form of proportional representation going forward in elections, to ensure greater sharing of power. These agreements perhaps point to fears the government has over long-range prospects of staying in control. Ensuring the voices of the two largest ethnic groups are heard and represented would go a long way towards finding equilibrium and maintaining Ethiopia’s status as a stable and growing hub for economic investment and an increasingly educated populace.

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