Photo: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
(c) New Delhi Times - Ethiopia
In Ethiopia’s state of emergency, there has been a massive crackdown and there have massive protests too which have been curbed although at the cost of increasing militancy in the Amhara region. In April 2017, the government-sponsored Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that at least 669 people had been killed during the political unrest in the country since late 2015, including 63 security personnel. In another report, Amnesty International stated that there had been at least 800 civil-unrest-related deaths in Ethiopia by the end of 2016.
Before the declaration of the six-month state of emergency on 9 October 2016 – later extended by another four months on 30 March 2017 – frequent violent anti-government protests took place in Ethiopia’s Oromia and Amhara regions, which involved arson attacks against foreign-owned investments, including commercial farms, factories, and tourist assets.
In March 2017, before the state of emergency was prolonged, a senior EU source, speaking on condition of anonymity said “I think it highly likely that the government will extend the state of emergency for many months yet. They have a constitutional mandate to do so, and they have seen a good result from it.” The renewal in March lifted some of the restrictions, such as putting an official end to arbitrary detention, searches without warrants, curfews, and certain limitations on media activity. These changes show that the government perceives an improving security environment and as such has relaxed some of the hardships and restrictions.
However, sporadic cases of small-scale violence are likely to continue at a higher rate, and an analysis of the causes behind these protests suggests a risk of insecurity and instability in the longer run. Since the early 1990s, after the end of civil war in 1991 which was characterised by gross violation of human rights, ,mass resettlements and large scale famine, Ethiopia has been in a relatively stable and peaceful state. Yet the country remains deeply polarised and ethnically, poor – with a World Bank-estimated GDP per capita of USD619 (against a global average of USD10, 164 in 2016) – and vulnerable to famine and having risk of economic shock and instability. A strong central state and a subordinate system of ethnic federalism glues the country together.
The reigning Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is an alliance of regional parties, dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This party represents the northern Tigray region, inhabited by the Tigrayan ethnic group that comprises nearly 6% of the country’s total population. Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, comprise around 34% and 27% of the population respectively, and have their own federal regions and EPRDF constituent parties, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).
The TPLF gained the most in the Ethiopian civil war, and its longstanding leader Meles Zenawi consequently laid down much of the vision for Ethiopia’s subsequent economic, social, and political trajectory, before his death in 2012. Under Meles, and even after his death, the EPRDF has been authoritarian. It has embarked upon the goals of agricultural and industrial growth through a heavy investment strategy in infrastructure, and through health and education reforms, a state-dominated economy, unyielding bureaucratic control, and intolerance of any dissenting view. Those having a different view from the official position or those who dare the criticise the ruling position are routinely harassed and jailed.
The series of protests that led to the declaration of the state of emergency in October 2016 began in December 2015 in the Oromia region, primarily in opposition to the Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan. Although this plan aimed to develop the areas surrounding the capital, it involved an expansion of the city at the cost of the surrounding Oromia region. The expansion implied that the farmers working this land would now become landless.
The protesters, comprising mainly of students and youths complained that this plan encroached upon on the sovereignty of Oromia, and for many individuals well connected with the OPDO regional government, there was an increasing risk of speculative land investments (of dubious legality) that they had made in this area. Multiple sources, inside Ethiopia and abroad have revealed that since 2016 that some of these individuals worked behind the scenes to fuel anger against the Master Plan, raising the spectre of an Amhara-speaking capital infringing on the rights of farmers and the Oromo people.
The holding up of the plan in January 2016 was a success for the protesters. However, the demonstrations still continued citing the issue of Oromo’s economic and political exclusion. Originally local in nature and bereft of wider co-ordination, the Oromo protests over time became large in scale and spread to wider areas. The protestors also succeeded in co-ordinating with activists in the diaspora, particularly in the United States.
In July 2016, violent protests and small-arms fighting broke out the between security forces and locals in the Amhara region. The cause of this unrest was the theme of ‘stolen land’ and agitation by local officials. The arrest of on 14 July arrest of retired Colonel Demeke Zewdu, leader of the Gondar-based Welkait Amhara Identity Committee, -which claims that the western portion of the neighbouring Tigray region (colloquially referred to collectively as ‘Welkait’) was unjustly detached from Gondar after the 1991 revolution, and seeks its incorporation into the Amhara region. – sparked the latest round of unrest.
Col Demeke resisted his arrest and was joined by armed locals in fighting security forces. Subsequent Amhara demonstrators termed the Welkait issue as a ‘Tigrayan land-grab’ at the expense of the Amhara, similar to that of Oromo protests These demonstrations were also distinguished by their popular slogans such as “Respect Amhara-ness” and “Being Amhara is not a crime”.
Although such ethnocentric language has an elongated history among the Oromo, it characterized a new trend for the Amhara opposition, who formerly were more likely to use the language of a pan-ethnic united ‘Ethiopia’, although often with implied assumptions that this was equal with Amhara cultural hegemony. Many Amhara protests saw ethnic Tigrayans and their property being attacked by mobs. Local ANDM politicians stoked protests as leverage against the central government. In contrast to the Oromo protests, the Amhara protests were marked by lack of leadership and clearly defined goals.
In October, emergency was declared after the increasing instances attacks on infrastructure and foreign-owned commercial projects. The attacks in fact were in all probability triggered by the deaths of at least 52 people – most of them in a stampede – that took place at the Oromo Irreecha religious celebration in Bishoftu. Oromo activists squarely held the security forces responsible for the deaths.
The state of emergency started with mass arrests, involving more than 11,000 people in the first month alone, followed by ‘political re-education’ in special camps for protesters and criminal proceedings for instigators. Speaking in January 2017, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn stated that the number of those arrested “does not exceed 22,000”, but included “high-level officials”. Thousands of those arrested have since been released. There was curtailment of social media activity, restrictions on internet connectivity and increasing curbs on public assembly and demonstration.
The state of emergency was successful in limiting overt displays of public discontentment with violent protests against commercial projects reducing significantly from its onset. Notably, the major Ethiopian Orthodox festivals of Tikat (Epiphany) and Easter, in January and April respectively, passed without significant demonstrations, despite having a history of unrest on these occasions.
Running alongside, the government has pursued various reforms such as to provide economic development and opportunities, particularly in the form of youth unemployment, which it sees as the core cause of the unrest. The Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources has set itself the target of creating 4.7 million jobs for rural youth and women in the 2016/17 budget year, although fiscal limitations make it a tough target to achieve. In a similar vein, the Oromia regional government demanded in March 2017 that the Nigerian firm Dangote Cement outsource to local youths some operations around its cement plant, which was wrecked by protesters in October 2016.
Despite a reduction in the number of protests under the state of emergency, there has been a gradual increase in small-arms violence directed primarily against government and civilian targets – particularly ones associated with ethnic Tigrayans – in the Amhara region, especially in the North Gondar, South Gondar, and West Gojam zones.
Hand-thrown explosive attacks have been frequent in the city of Gondar, and to a lesser extent in the regional capital Bahir Dar. There have been 16 incidents involving hand-thrown explosives in the Amhara region during the first six months of 2017 (with 11 taking place in Gondar), These devices have been described as ‘grenades’, for example in an April 2017 travel warning by the US Department of State. It can be assumed that these attacks use relatively crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In rural areas, there has been an upsurge in small-arms attacks against security forces, and ambushes against civilian trucks on the road that runs west from Gondar to the Sudanese border.
The militant group Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7), principally led by exiled government opponents, has subsequently claimed responsibility for a number of these attacks, but they are more likely the work of anti-government armed locals and opportunistic bandits rather than being centrally co-ordinated. Overall, this signifies the presence, particularly in the North and South Gondar zones, of a radicalised fringe of the Amhara opposition which, lacks legal means of seeking political change and, in keeping with the locally strong vendetta culture, resorts to violent means.
The state of emergency is set to be reviewed in July, and a further renewal is a distinct possibility. An Ethiopian academic and lawyer from the Amhara region has noted that the current projected end of the emergency would overlap with the start of the new academic year, and that “the government may be concerned about the prospect of student-led protests, as students gather together again for the first time in months after a tense year”.
An immediate return to protests at the level of September-October 2016 is a distinct possibilty after the state of emergency is lifted. Increased security around the projects with major foreign investments is likely to continue. The central government has pursued a policy of courting the Amhara regional government, while also removing local officials indicted of corruption. ANDM-affiliated businesses have received preferential access when state-owned ventures have been privatised, and in November an ethnic Amhara was appointed as chair of the Development Bank of Ethiopia.
At the same time, the government has engaged in a political ouster of local Amhara-region lower-to-mid-level officials and bureaucrats, with Ethiopian media reporting 2,500 dismissals by November 2016. Anecdotal evidence suggests that waves of mass dismissals continue nationwide, with the EU source estimating the total to have been “in the tens of thousands”. The Ethiopian academic and lawyer cited above reflects upon the importance of the purges of ANDM officials in removing political actors who had nurtured the previous round of protests in order to take advantage of the simmering dissatisfaction.
A Europe-based academic knowledgeable about Ethiopian governance indicates that the OPDO pursuit of ‘corrupt’ officials was more likely to have been a targeting of the ‘old guard’ – who are less considerate to Oromo nationalism – by the more pro-nationalist and younger wing of the party.
In the Oromia region, there have not been similar concessions, although the government appears to have implicitly ignored – by not interfering with – OPDO attempts to increase local and regional stakes in businesses in Oromia. Most distinguished are the demands made of Dangote, and a new downstream oil company and refinery, announced in June 2017, which would distribute to petrol stations owned and operated by local youths, in competition with existing fuel distributors backed by foreign investors.
However, the fact that the key protest grievances continue to remain unaddressed, restrictions on legal avenues for protest and dissent persist, and anger continues to simmer over demonstrator deaths at the hands of security forces signifies that that there will be no simple return to the pre-2015 status quo. In the next 12 months there is a high chance of protest triggers, most notably the Irreecha festival in October and local elections in May 2018.
Any large Oromo and Amhara gatherings are likely to feature displays strong anti-government sentiments, and therefore will be violently dispersed by police, with resulting protester fatalities likely to act as catalyst for a new surge in protests. In this manner, within a year of the lifting of the state of emergency, protests are likely to recommence their sporadic cycle of rushes of activity and periods relative peace, sparked by local triggers but driven by wider grievances. Joint private-state ventures – particularly in agriculture, mining, and light manufacturing – will be most at risk of arson and vandalism by violent demonstrators, although continuing high security is likely to help protect such sites.
Despite a number of statements of solidarity at demonstrations, the actual level of co-ordination between Oromo and Amhara demonstrators will be low due to mutual distrust – in part due to a lack of transparency Amhara protest leadership – and conflicting claims over the city of Addis Ababa, which both groups see as theirs. More serious violence, in the form of hand-thrown IED attacks in cities as well as small-arms attacks in more rural areas, will also continue in the Amhara region, but will probably fall short of threatening government control.
Within the next five years, even renewed unrest in the Amhara and Oromia regions is unlikely to undermine the EPRDF government. There have been no major signs of any breakdown in loyalty within the serving military, which will probably function as a stabilising force and avert a forceful change of regime.
However, there are emerging dissensions within the TPLF itself, including among the still-influential retired generals. This is taking the form of an ‘Addis’ faction – allied to Desallegn – at the centre, and a ‘Mekele’ faction based in Tigray, with the latter more strongly opposed to any political reforms or concessions that would weaken TPLF control.
The government is likely to fail regarding the delivery on promises of economic development and job creation. Even in the government-favoured Tigray region, the annulment of the proposed Mekele-Shire railway in late April was met by an irate response from locals who stood to benefit, and others who saw the annulment as unfair to Tigray.
In the longer term, the TPLF’s own emphasis on ethnic federalism is more likely to pose the maximum threat to its own rule. Historically, the Oromo and Amhara have been divided internally, with most members of these groups having strong affiliations with their regional, religious, or clan identities than with their ethnicity. However, the post-1991 system of ethnic federalism has reinforced the significance of these ethnic identities.
One possible path for a wider Amhara-driven protest movement is through the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, whose laity and lower-ranking clergy are overwhelmingly Amhara, but whose bishops are around 80% Tigrayan. Notably, there was localised fighting in April between armed Amharas and Tigrayans over access to a monastery in the Welkait area of Tigray.
Coupled with existing ethnocentric Oromo opposition, the widespread adoption of an Amhara-ness ideology would lurk over the feasibility of Tigrayan-dominated government. Already, the notion nationally held among non-Tigrayans that they have a stake and a share in the central government has been debilitated by the shift from the vision and personal charisma of Meles’ rule to the present-day administration, which more closely resembles mono-ethnic political dominance with little vision or direction besides trying to follow Meles’ path.
Continued civil unrest and the embracing of violent insurgencies by the Oromo and Amhara peoples, making up more than 60% of Ethiopia’s population between them, would make the long-term continuation of EPRDF rule in its current form unsustainable. In such a situation of state instability or government collapse, there would be deep consequences in the region and further afield, with refugees probably overflowing into neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Sudan, and also to Europe through the well-travelled routes currently taken by refugees from the Horn of Africa.