Ethiopia’s Unrest Sparked by Unequal Development Record

Ethiopia is experiencing a new round of turmoil. The mass demonstrations that started in November 2015 have continued long into this year and led to severe state repression. More than 600 people have been killed by security forces, thousands injured, and tens of thousands arrested as of this month. The story is somewhat familiar, however, as many rounds of political and ethnic-based clashes have occurred in the country since 1991, when the current regime took power at the end of a civil war.

This time around, the mass protests of students, youth, the poor, and others started peacefully. There was no agenda of armed insurrection “fed by diaspora Ethiopians and foreigners,” as the government likes to assert. But early in September they turned into a full-blown revolt, notably in the northern Amhara region—populated largely by Amharic-speaking people—which has felt marginalized for years.

As government repression hardened, locals attacked administrative offices, police stations, and army units (some members of which defected to their cause). Although information is very sketchy, it is reported that in some districts authorities have been chased out and local committees have taken over. The current phase of protests has predictably drawn the attention of the foreign press and Western donor countries due to threats to investments—including in the country’s valuable cut flower industry—and the many people killed in the streets.

Ethiopia is in a rapid process of major socioeconomic transformation, with growth rates ofsome 10% annually during the past decade. It is popular with foreign investors due to its cheap and abundant labor force, a relatively effective—though highly authoritarian—state and bureaucracy, and the availability of land, all of which remains state property and is handed out in leases. The Ethiopian regime has smartly catered to global capitalism’s search for new areas of profit, but it has kept its hands on the reins of the economy. Ethiopia’s stability compared to neighboring Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and even Kenya, has also been highly valued. That stability is, however, only relative and temporary, owing to unresolved issues of political freedom and social justice. These underlie the current wave of revolt.

Ethnic and Geographic Causes

The protests since November last year—preceded by many smaller-scale clashes in previous years in various regions—originated in the Oromiya region and led to the first round of repression. According to Human Rights Watch, some 400 people were killed by police and army forces firing into crowds of demonstrators, with many thousands arrested. Under the ethnic-based federal system, Oromiya and Amhara are the two biggest regional states, which are the largest sub-national administrative regions and defined along ethno-linguistic lines. Protests in the two regions pose a great danger to the federal government, which, according to most observers, is dominated by the northern Tigray minority from the state of the same name. This risk is especially high in the event of the protests becoming coordinated across regions.

Significant historical tensions between the Amhara and Oromo peoples mean the prospect of such action is moot, yet the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front has undoubtedly created a sense of persistent dissatisfaction among these two large populations. The explosion of pent-up anger appears fueled by issues of humiliation and discrimination caused by Ethiopia’s regionally skewed and ethnic-based politics. It is notable, however, that the protests are not a result of an “ethnic agenda”; they are primarily directed against the lack of political and civic freedoms, inequities in the land use system, and social injustice.

The disputes over land—which is closely tied to heritage and identity—have been central to the demonstrations, even though private ownership has been outlawed since 1975. Territorial identities are still quite strong and sometimes reinforced by ethnicity. In November, the government proclaimed the territorial extension of the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which increased the capital city’s boundaries tenfold at the cost of the surrounding Oromiya region. This measure, combined with the ongoing appropriation of local farmland for the benefit of foreign and domestic investment projects—among them Dutch-owned flower farms—led to Oromo students protesting at Addis Ababa University. Later, this expanded to protests in rural areas, during which several flower farms were burned down. These were sites of resentment for locals, who were never consulted or even asked to cooperate on their establishment. Attacking the farms—despite the fact that some locals, especially women, worked there—was designed to target the federal government for excluding locals from economic activity.

The torch of protest was taken up by the northern-based Amhara in July this year, with land again being the immediate issue at hand. The Oromiya example emboldened a population that had suffered its own inequities in distribution. This included a 2012 controversy over the government claiming large chunks of land from the Orthodox Christian monastery of Waldubba for sugar cane production. The protests this year were sparked by the arrest of a committee of elders that wanted the government to redraw the state boundary and return land to Amhara from the Tigray Region, where it had been allocated under a 1996 administrative reorganization.

In the ensuing confrontations, security force members were also killed. On the weekend of August 6-7, renewed protests erupted in several locations and about a hundred demonstrators were shot and killed. No efforts to mediate were undertaken and the clashes continued. Later in August, the large Esmeralda flower farm near Bahir Dar was burned to the ground and the Dutch owners withdrew from Ethiopia. Other unrest followed, including several prisons being set on fire. Mass strikes followed early this month, with most shops and businesses in urban areas of Oromiya and Amhara closing.

The wider background factors of the protests are mounting dissatisfaction with authoritarian politics, interference of party cadres in local life, a lack of government accountability and proper compensation for those removed from land, the dismantling of civil society organizations over the last decade, a lack of political and civic freedoms, and a dysfunctional justice system. The revolts have notably completely bypassed the existing opposition parties—none of which are represented in Parliament—and the few remaining civil society organizations in the country.

Social Settings

There is also a longer-term social dynamic involved in the crisis: Ethiopia has large groups of unemployed youth and there is still a significant urban underclass that is often excluded from high school or vocational education and jobs. New cultural and political youth organizations like the opposition Blue Party, Muslim youth groups tied to the Awoliya School, Orthodox Christian associations, and the Zone 9 group of bloggers have been treated with suspicion and surveillance by the government and several closed down.

Meanwhile, emerging local ethnic elites are putting forward new demands for more local autonomy and power over economic decision-making. Paradoxically, their emergence and assertiveness has been made possible by the government’s empowerment of ethnic groups since 1991. The turmoil in Oromiya and Amhara has produced a momentum of protest that hasn’t been possible among smaller ethnic groups in the south of Ethiopia, which face similar land and injustice problems and have also seen casualties.

The ongoing instability might have serious consequences for Ethiopia’s socio-political order. On the margins of the revolt are radical Muslim groups of the Wahhabist-Salafist doctrine and some are even rumored to have taken up arms to combat local authorities and install Islamist rule. This would add a dimension to the civil unrest absent until now, by pitting Muslims against Christians.

Delaying the Inevitable

The Ethiopian government has pursued a partly successful development agenda in recent years. This is reflected in remarkable growth figures, prominent new infrastructure, strong rates of poverty reduction, good grades from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and praise from donor countries. Yet this has not been enough to satisfy the populace. It again proves that development consists not only of economic factors but an overall social, cultural, and political context of inclusiveness and opportunity. This point remains poorly understood by donors to African countries, who hope for democracy, civic freedoms, and other outcomes to eventually follow their development aid but do not really insist on it and provide limited options to impose it. While the Ethiopian protests started on a local basis, they have now taken on more universal ideals of political freedom, social justice, and respect for rights.

A new social and political contract is needed between the Ethiopian state and society. Many feel that the expiry date of the current regime is long past and moving toward a broader transitional government might be the answer. No one can predict the country’s future, but a scenario similar to Burkina Faso in 2014—when a sustained mass uprising ousted the regime of long-reigning dictator Blaise Compaoré— seems unlikely. There is little chance that the current regime will pursue a rational course or have the political imagination to meet the demands of the people, even if it seems an inevitable outcome at some point, and one for which the constitutional framework is already in place. For now, most observers except the restoration of public order to entail a show of government force aimed at dividing the protest movement. The result here would merely be resetting the cycle of social unrest.

Jon Abbink is a Senior Researcher at the African Studies Centre, Leiden.

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