A Lion Wakes: Understanding Ethiopia’s Protests

The government’s slogan “Ethiopia Rising”, has become true for very different reasons than they may have hoped over the last year.

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Photo Credit: Gadaa.com

Earlier this month more than 50 protesters died in a confrontation with security forces at a religious festival in the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia. Many faced the police with their arms crossed above their heads, symbolic of cuffed hands, a form of silent protest that has been seen in the country since at least November of last year.

The Oromo protesters, from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, were met with teargas, causing a panic. Many of those who died fell into a large, 20 foot ditch fleeing the gas, where they were crushed by those who stumbled in behind them.

As a 52 year old man living in Oromo territory told Human Rights Watch in June about the government’s recent actions against protesters throughout the region, “I’ve lived here for my whole life, and I’ve never seen such a brutal crackdown. There are regular arrests and killings of our people, but every family here has has at least one child arrested… All the young people are arrested and our farmers are being harassed or arrested.”

The government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a strong ally of the western “War on Terrorism” in Africa, has blamed rebels, terrorists and the influence of foreigners for the unrest. This is something they have done since demonstrations first began against an expansion of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa last year. This ‘Master Plan’ called for many small farmers and even whole villages to be displaced from their homes, mostly in Oromo territory close to the capital.

Although the country’s government eventually shelved the plans for the expansion, the genie had been let out of the bottle and the protesters increased their demands to include an end to violence against them and the regional autonomy and self-determination guaranteed by the country’s federalist constitution.

Similar protests, if for somewhat different reasons, have also been reported among the Amhara people, the country’s second largest ethnic group, most of whom live in the state that shares their name. Although there have been reports of individual protesters linking the struggles of the two peoples, from this distance it’s hard to tell whether the they will be able to create a united front against the central government and judiciary dominated by Tigray people (around 7% of the population) and their allies, who make up the core of the EPRDF leadership.

To combat the ongoing protests, the country’s government has declared a 6 month state of emergency. Besides the expected curfews and restrictions on public assembly, the government, which controls the country’s only mobile phone and internet service provider, has also banned social media sites like Facebook that have been essential to building the protesters’ momentum and getting information out in a country that is ranked 142 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

A Success Story?

Usually when we read press accounts of African countries they’re framed through one of two lenses. There are stories of tragedy, mostly centered on war and famine, and then there are the success stories based on the only metric that seems to matter anymore: economic growth.

In this framing, Ethiopia is definitely in the latter category, despite the fact that some regions still suffer from famine and lack sufficient water resources. According to the IMF, the GDP of the country of more than 90 million grew by 8.7% last year and was predicted to grow by slightly more than 8% in 2016.

What’s missing from these numbers is the fact that Western countries provide a life-line to the country’s government through aid. For example, according to Global Affairs Canada, that country sent $108 million in aid between 2014 and 2015. Similar commitments have been made by other western powers, including the United States.

The country also receives massive amounts of food aid, which the government controls. As reported by Graham Peebles who has been living in the country, this gives the government immense power over those in need of it and some have claimed they were denied food for being seen as insufficiently supportive of the government.

Due to the country’s bizarre agricultural system, hunger is never very far away, even for those living in fertile rural regions. Rather than owning their land, farmers are assigned plots based on family size. Then, every few years the land is reassigned and further divided, “so each farmer gets less” with each division.

While numerous regions of the country face hunger and the government uses food aid as a lever of social control, the EPDRF has also sold much of the country’s best arable land to foreign corporations and local elites who produce food and other agricultural goods like coffee and roses for export.

The economic growth seen in the country, while it has alleviated poverty in some areas, is very unevenly distributed. According to the World Bank more than a third of the country’s citizens live in poverty. In fact, “the poorest in Ethiopia have become even poorer in the sense that, the high food prices that improve income for many farmers, also makes buying food more challenging for the poorest especially those in the rural areas.”

The EPDRF government, which won all 547 of the seats in the parliament and almost 100% of the vote in the 2015 elections, seems to have come up with the perfect system for perpetuating its rule. Their model, called “revolutionary democracy”, effectively creates a one party state somewhat similar to China’s.

China, for its part, has invested heavily in the country, as it has been doing throughout Africa. Projects that are the result of Chinese investment include the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, set to be the largest in the world, as well as a metro system in the capital (the first in Africa) and electric rail system connecting the landlocked country to the sea by way of nearby Djibouti. Some Chinese firms are even outsourcing jobs to the country, where wages are less than 10% of those on the Chinese mainland.

While one might expect that it would come in for criticism for monopolizing power, Ethiopia’s position as a key ally of western countries in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa saves it from criticism in the west.

Under the late President Meles Zenawi and with the encouragement of the Bush Administration, Ethiopia intervened in its fractured neighbor Somalia to stop the Islamic Court movement from consolidating power in 2006. Their short-lived and partial victory resulted in a more radical, Al Qaida aligned movement, Al Shabaab or ‘the youth’, emerging in the vacuum.

In recent years, while the west has taken more of a military interest on the continent, especially in the Horn of Africa, it seems that the primary investors in the country are rising powers led by China, followed by India and even Saudi Arabia, among others. It seems to me that the involvement of countries that don’t even pay lip service to human rights is the inevitable end of the neoliberal model that prizes capital over people, just as a Saudi led war in nearby Yemen is the inevitable result of the twin evils of humanitarian interventionism and neoconservatism.

This business over human development ethos has real social consequences. As Abel Abate, a think tank worker in the capital told the Financial Times, “The ultimate aim of the government is to create a depoliticized society. You don’t hear many people actually engaging in political issues: it’s much safer to engage in business.”

In a sense, we may be seeing a replay of the scramble for Africa that European powers engaged in during the late 19th century but with a contemporary twist. Where in those days men with guns arrived to take territory by force, today business people in expensive suits show up with contracts to do the same thing. It is left to local governments to enforce the rights of these investors and Ethiopia, the only country in Africa to successfully resist colonization the last time around, seems to value the rights of these investors over their own citizens.

The government’s slogan “Ethiopia Rising”, has become true for very different reasons than they may have hoped over the last year. Many citizens are demanding that the government live up to the words of their constitution and honor the rights of all citizens to self-determination regardless of tribe, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Although I’m not, as a general rule, in favor of sanctions, the international donor community that holds the purse strings should work to ensure that the country meets all of its obligations to its people under national and international law.

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