The East African country is facing its biggest protest movement in decades. Its uncompromising approach to development is to blame.
ADAMA, Ethiopia — For those who would speak frankly about politics in this landlocked East African country, the first challenge is to find a safe space.
But on a recent evening in Adama, a city in the heart of a region reeling from the largest protest movement Ethiopia has faced in decades, most people seemed at ease. University students poured out of the city’s main campus, spilling into claustrophobic bars and pool halls. Others crowded around a cluster of aging taxis, jostling for a quick ride home.
Though it is one of the largest cities in Oromia — where members of Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group have taken to the streets in recent months in unprecedented numbers to protest their political and economic marginalization — Adama has remained mostly quiet. Hidden beneath the casual veneer of daily life, however, lurks a deep-seated suspicion of the government, which has built a massive surveillance apparatus and cracked down violently on its opponents.
Citizens feel they have to watch what they say, and where they say it. At the hangouts where crowds have gathered, a political statement might be overheard. Out on the sidewalks, government spies could be on patrol. Inside the university campus, security officials are on the lookout for suspicious behavior.
In a way, the recent unrest is rooted in Ethiopia’s rapid economic rise. The federal government claims to have notched double-digit GDP growth rates over the past decade, but its rigid, top-down approach to developing industry, and attracting foreign investment, has resulted in mass displacement and disrupted millions of lives. This, in turn, has heightened ethnic tensions that today threaten Ethiopia’s reputation for stability.
All across Oromia, government security forces have been struggling to control the spate of violent protests that erupted in November, partly in response to the government’s so-called master plan to coordinate development in Addis Ababa with nearby towns in Oromia, a sprawling central region that surrounds the capital on all sides.
Like much of the country, the vast majority of Oromia is rural, home to small-scale farmers who feel left behind by the dazzling growth of Addis.
When this latest round of protests began last year, demonstrators seized on the master plan as symbolic of broader encroachments on Oromo autonomy. They also accused the government of taking land from Oromo farmers for little or no compensation, suppressing the Oromo language in schools, and unfairly redistributing the region’s natural resources.
In Adama, a 23-year-old engineering student, whose full name has been withheld for his safety, was initially reluctant to speak with this reporter for fear of reprisal. He relaxed only after he and some close friends sat down in a deserted cafe near campus, where a quiet woman brewing coffee over hot coals was the only person listening in.
“There are so many problems facing the Oromo people,” he said. “But those who speak about it are getting arrested. Educated people, farmers, teachers, doctors — the government accuses them all of being part of the protests.”
His caution was warranted. Less than two weeks later, a confrontation erupted at the university, reportedly in response to a small demonstration by students — though the details, as always, are hazy. One witness who asked not be named said he heard gunshots as security forces descended on the campus. Amid the confusion, at least two fires were sparked — one in the school’s backup generator.
“On campus, students already feared the armed forces,” said the witness, who is a student at the university. “Now, no one feels like they have any right to speak at all.”
Government security forces have been accused of exacerbating the crisis in Oromia by violently suppressing the protests. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch said it had “documented security forces firing into crowds of protesters with little or no warning, the arrests of students as young as 8, and the torture of protesters in detention.” The rights group said military and police forces have killed “several hundred peaceful protesters” since November.
Members of the Ethiopian diaspora have been equally vocal, taking to social media to call attention to alleged atrocities. Jawar Mohammed, who is based in Minnesota, is perhaps the most prominent online activist, manning a number of social media feeds featuring bloody photos of dead demonstrators and grainy videos of police brutality that have become hubs for Oromo diaspora members around the world. His Facebook page has amassed nearly a half million followers.
“We have freelancers embedded in pretty much every district across the country,” said Mohammed, who was born in Ethiopia but works abroad as the executive director of the Oromia Media Network, a news broadcaster whose satellite feed here has been repeatedly jammed by the Ethiopian government. “They infiltrate the system from top to bottom,” he said in a Skype interview.
How much of an impact social media activism has had on the actual protest movement is a matter of debate. In a country with limited Internet penetration, and where the sole government-owned telecommunications provider has the power to shut down signals and block opposition websites, online activists like Mohammed are necessarily limited in what they can do. According to the engineering student in Adama, people on the ground are driving the protests, and social media matters “only a little bit.”
Where online activists have succeeded is in channeling video and photographic evidence of abuses to the outside word. But even this evidence is difficult to verify; several journalists, including this correspondent, have been detained by officials for attempting to report in some of the worst-affected areas.
There are also questions about the direction social media activists have steered the debate surrounding the protests. Comments by Mohammed’s passionate social media followers sometimes advocate violence against members of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a political party from the northern region of Tigray that dominates the government’s security and intelligence agencies. And because he and other online activists are far from the front lines, some argue that their social media posts are ultimately a distraction. The student who witnessed the altercation at the university in Adama, for instance, said he agrees with Mohammed’s political analysis, but is concerned that the Facebook page has become a magnet for a dizzying array of viewpoints — about religion, regional politics, and ethnic strife — that make the movement more controversial than it needs to be.
Still, Mohammed has a clear strategy in mind. When it comes to human life, he advocates nonviolence. But he encourages demonstrators to block trade routes, destroy the property of companies that are seen as operating against Oromo interests, and avoid bringing crops to market in order to raise food prices.
Might such tactics be unethical during the worst drought Ethiopia has witnessed in decades, which has left 10.2 million people in need of emergency food aid? “Morally, yes,” Mohammed said. “Strategically, no.”
Officials have no time for these “activists on the other side of the Atlantic,” said government spokesman Getachew Reda. He claimed that agitators, some of whom have backing from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s archrival, have infiltrated the ranks of the protesters and are responsible for the current violence. The government security forces, by contrast, have generally handled the situation professionally, he said.
“We may have some bad apples,” Reda said. “Otherwise, the security apparatus that we have in this country is very much oriented towards serving the interests of the public.”
Amid this war of words, normal citizens are caught in the middle. In the quiet café in Adama, the engineering student spelled out a set of remarkably prosaic demands: He would like to see more Oromo professors at the university, for instance, and a fairer allocation of resources for the region. But, he said, he stays quiet for fear of Ethiopia’s pervasive security and intelligence apparatus.
“People don’t feel free,” he said. “We are all psychologically impacted.”
After two months of violent demonstrations, the government announced that it was scrapping the master plan. It wasn’t enough. Some protesters said they didn’t believe it had really been canceled. Others were motivated by grievances that run much deeper than any development scheme, citing marginalization stretching all the way back to the late 1800s, when the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II swept in from the north to expand Ethiopia’s borders and establish the capital city in Oromo lands.
On paper, today’s federal system is meant to ensure some measure of autonomy for all of the country’s ethnic groups, including the Oromos. The ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is made up of four regional parties, including the TPLF and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). But the government lost some credibility in May, when the EPRDF and allied parties won every parliamentary seat in a national election. Though the OPDO holds more parliamentary seats than any other party, protesters say the party either cannot or will not challenge the dominance of the TPLF — and Oromos remain marginalized as a result.
Officials say they are trying to promote meaningful dialogue. “It is the government’s responsibility to make sure that people’s legitimate grievances are addressed properly,” Reda said. To that end, OPDO officials have convened meetings with concerned citizens across Oromia, and hundreds of low-level officials have been dismissed for corruption.
But the government has continued to lean on its powerful security apparatus, which has both enabled Ethiopia’s impressive, state-led economic development and imperiled it by bringing ethnic tensions to the fore. The ongoing protests in Oromia point to cracks in the facade, where citizens feel left out as the government pursues its uncompromising vision of modernization.
By continuing to crack down on demonstrators instead of listening to their demands, Ethiopia risks compromising the reputation for political stability that fueled its unprecedented decade of growth and foreign investment. In that way, the government may soon erode the very foundation of its own economic ambitions.