Violent protests have shaken Ethiopia in the last month. More than 50 people have died, most of them shot dead by security forces. In contrast to an earlier wave of demonstrations that claimed the lives of more than 400 protestors and security agents early this year, this time the protests weren’t limited to the Oromo federal state, but instead originated in the Amhara region.
The spread of the protests — and the accompanying violence — points to increasing dissatisfaction with the government among large segments of the population. Together, the Oromo and Amhara people, whose presence largely correlates with the eponymous federal states, account for more than 60 percent of Ethiopia’s population.
Ethiopia is a key ally of the United States in the Horn of Africa region. It’s landlocked but occupies a strategically important position bordering Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, all of which have hosted or supported terrorist groups hostile to U.S. interests. Parts of the massive U.S. targeted killing and intelligence program rely on drones based in Ethiopia and neighboring Djibouti.
The protests’ exact origins are murky, but the demonstrations seem to have originated in what security forces claim to be an anti-terror operation in the city of Gondar, north of the capital Addis Ababa. Officials rounded up several men accused of murder, robbery and hostage-taking, sparking protests by supporters who claimed the men were targeted for their involvement in an Amhara identity movement and their association with a contentious land-rights issues involving Ethiopia’s third ethnic group, the Tigray.
Contrast this with the protests of the Oromo people, which erupted in November 2015 around the issue of the expansion of Addis Ababa, for which a government master plan required the resettlement of thousands of Oromo farmers.
So while some observers have described the recent protests as an historic alliance between the the country’s two largest ethnic groups, which in the past have often been at odds, in reality it’s not so much a shared vision, but shared grievances, that have led representatives of both groups to protest against the government.
These grievances are well-founded. While Ethiopia in theory has a federalist constitution that guarantees wide-ranging autonomy for the ethnic-based federal states and equal participation in national politics, in practice political, economic and military power is concentrated in the hands of a Trigray-dominated elite.
These power structures can be traced back to Ethiopia’s civil war that lasted from 1974 to 1991 and which was eventually won by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which later transformed itself into the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
The EPRDF, like many resistance movements that have ascended to power, has displayed authoritarian tendencies. But these tendencies worsened in the later years of resistance leader and later prime minister Meles Zenawi, as well as under his successor Hailemariam Desalegn.
Zenawi, influenced by the example of China, organized Ethiopia around the principle of a developmental state, prioritizing economic growth above all else.
These efforts have had a certain measure of success. Ethiopia’s GDP per capita more than doubled between 1991 and 2015, rising from $270 to $619. And while some commentators have attributed the protests to rising inequality, by most measures Ethiopia is not suffering from high inequality — at least not in the typical sense of the word.
Instead, an U.N. report has warned of an increasing gap between rural and urban growth, something that is reflected in the Oromo protests. But these rising discrepancies shouldn’t hide the fact that most Ethiopians, Oromo and Amhara included, are economically better off today than they were 20 years ago — and that this is a feather in the cap of the government.
The protests are therefore unlikely to reflect frustration with the country’s economic development, but rather the lack of political space, for young people in particular, to influence this development. And in contrast to the current narrative of inter-ethnic solidarity between Oromo and Amhara youth, it should be read as a continuation and evolution of Ethiopia’s long-standing problems with ethnic competition, this time pitting Oromo and Amhara against Tigray.
The ethnic dimension shouldn’t come as a surprise, least of all to the ruling elite. Tigray dominance of the armed forces has long been accepted as a given in Ethiopia, as has the political dominance of the Tigray elite. And while not every member of Ethiopia’s military-political complex is of Tigray origin — Prime Minister Desalegn for example hails from the minority Wolayta ethnic group — the narrative is by now accepted as fact by most Ethiopians.
Proponents of the developmental state defend the required authoritarianism with promises of rapid economic growth. In their minds, pluralistic democracies and effective poverty reduction are incompatible.
Unfortunately, Ethiopia is currently on track to become exhibit A for the counter theory. Any gains made by rapid economic growth are nullified if insufficient political participation leads to widespread social conflict and violence.
The Ethiopian government has so far shown a complete unwillingness to address the concerns of the protesters. While the Addis Ababa master plan, the original source of the Oromo protests, was cancelled, a general dialogue about the relationship between the state and its citizens and Ethiopia’s political trajectory in recent years has never been proposed.
Instead, the government has chosen to treat the protests as an existential threat to the state, using anti-terrorism legislation and rhetoric to justify the extreme brutality of its actions against the protesters.
Ironically, this reliance on overwhelming force and in the eyes of most observers unjustified delegitimization of the protests only proves the protestors’ point. And even if the government should decide to enter negotiations at some point, this is easier said than done. Thanks to the repression of all organized political opposition over the last few years, there are essentially no individuals or organizations that would be able to speak credibly on behalf of the protesters.
For the United States and other Western governments this situation is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. Ethiopia has been not only a close ally in the war on terror, in some way rendering the United States guilty in the misappropriation of the term to largely peaceful protesters, the government is also a major recipient of development aid, which it has used to legitimize its increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
In a world where foreign policy was value-based, the United States and other Western democracies would use their economic, diplomatic and military influence to pressure the Ethiopian elite to reduce the violence and address the grievances voiced by the opposition.
But the reality is fundamentally different. Both the United States and European countries are focused primarily on “stability” in their foreign relations, defined as the perpetuation of the status quo wherever possible. This is especially true for countries like Ethiopia, which are perceived as beacons of stability in otherwise chaotic and threatening regions.
For Ethiopia’s protest movements, this means that there is little hope for outside pressure on the Ethiopian government. Given the coherence of Ethiopia’s elite and its control over the very capable and well-equipped security forces, forcing the government to address their grievances will be an uphill battle, to say the least.
The West, meanwhile, will waste another opportunity to mitigate the very real long term risk of a destabilization of a major regional power, because it prioritizes short-term stability.
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