Protests Mark a Change in Ethiopia’s Political Landscape


Is Ethiopia about to crack? The New York Times asks:

For the last decade, it has been one of Africa’s most stable nations, a solid Western ally with a fast-growing economy. But in recent months, antigovernment protests have convulsed the country, spreading into more and more areas. In the last week alone, thousands of people stormed into the streets, demanding fundamental political change.

The government’s response, according to human rights groups, was ruthless. Witnesses said that police officers shot and killed scores of unarmed demonstrators. Videos circulating from protests thought to be from late last year or earlier this year show security officers whipping young people with sticks as they are forced to perform handstands against a wall. The top United Nations human rights official is now calling for a thorough investigation.

“It was always difficult holding this country together, and moving forward, it will be even harder,” said Rashid Abdi, the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a research organization.

“If you suffocate people and they don’t have any other options but to protest, it breaks out,” said Seyoum Teshome, a university lecturer in central Ethiopia. “The whole youth is protesting. A generation is protesting.”

The regime’s authoritarian tendency escalated ahead of the most recent elections, notes one observer.

“Sooner or later, the regime will be overthrown and replaced with a genuine egalitarian democratic system,” says Asafa Jalata, Professor of Sociology and Global and Africana Studies, University of Tennessee. “This is because of the size of the Oromo population, abundant economic resource, oppression and repression by the Tigrayan-led government, the blossoming of Oromo political consciousness and willingness to pay the necessary sacrifices.”

Several factors explain why bitter feelings, after years of simmering beneath the surface, are exploding now, The Times adds:

  • The first is seemingly innocuous: smartphones. Only in the last couple of years have large numbers of Ethiopians been able to communicate using social media as cheaper smartphones became common and internet service improves. Even when the government shuts down access to Facebook and Twitter, as it frequently does, especially during protests, many people are still able to communicate via internet proxies that mask where they are. Several young Ethiopians said this was how they gathered for protests.
  • Second, there is more solidarity between Oromos and Amharas, Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups. Oromos and Amharas are not natural allies. For eons, Amharas from Ethiopia’s predominantly Christian highlands flourished in politics and business, exploiting the Oromos, many of whom are Muslim and live in lowland areas. But that is changing as well…..The biggest protests have been in Amhara and Oromo areas. Many Amharas and Oromos feel Ethiopia is unfairly dominated by members of the Tigrayan ethnic group, which makes up about 6 percent of the population and dominates the military, the intelligence services, commerce and politics.
  • The third reason behind the unrest is the loss of Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles, a former rebel leader, was Ethiopia’s prime minister for 17 years, until his death from an undisclosed illness in 2012. He was considered a tactical genius, a man who could see around corners. Analysts say he was especially adept at detecting early signals of discontent and using emissaries to massage and defang opponents.

“The current regime lacks that ground savvy,” said Mr. Abdi, the conflict analyst. RTWT

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