Ethiopia: State of emergency unlikely to quell protests in Oromia and Amhara

14 Oct 2016

Ethiopia: State of emergency unlikely to quell pro...
  •   Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on 9 October following months of violent anti-government protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions that have resulted in hundreds of deaths and attacks on foreign-owned businesses. 
  •   The unrest represents the greatest threat to Ethiopian stability since the EPRDF came to power 25 years ago amid a growing alignment of opposition movements in the Oromo and Amhara communities.
  •   The government has shown little sign of willingness to compromise with the protesters, meaning there is a strong likelihood of further violence, resulting in loss of life and destruction of private property, particularly in Oromia and Amhara and on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. 

The six-month state of emergency comes after sporadic protests and rioting since November 2015 that have escalated further since July 2016. The protests have been routinely met with violence by state security forces, resulting in more than 500 deaths in Oromia, according to human rights groups, with similar numbers reported in Amhara. Although the authorities have downplayed the casualties and sought to limit reporting from the affected areas, there have been a growing number of reports of mass arrests and the routine use of live fire against protesters. In one incident, 52 people were killed and many more injured when security forces opened fire on protesters at a religious festival in Bishoftu, Oromia on 2 October. The violence triggered multiple subsequent demonstrations, including one in which an American researcher was killed on 4 October when crowds began throwing rocks at passing cars on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. The protests have also resulted in multiple attacks on foreign-owned businesses, including several foreign-owned flower farms and textile factories, due to their perceived association with the government. Local media reports 11 companies, involved in textiles, plastics, flowers and other industries, had been damaged or destroyed, with more than 60 vehicles set alight. The tourist industry has also been affected with the Bishangari Lodge on Lake Langano reporting cancellations of 90 percent in the past two to three months. In early October the resort was set alight by protesters and looted.

The unrest represents a broad range of grievances that have escalated over the past year in response to the perceived authoritarianism of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). These include the displacement of farmers from land set aside for commercial agricultural projects, discontent among the Amhara and Oromo communities over the dominance of the Tigray ethnic group within the EPRDF, and claims by Muslim communities of marginalisation and repression.

There are, nevertheless,growing signs of unity among the protesters’ disparate communities in their demand for the overthrow of the EPRDF. Formally, the EPRDF is a coalition of the four regional parties that have ruled since the overthrow of the Derg military regime in 1991. These represent the three main ethnic groups of the Amhara, Oromo and Tigray, as well as a collection of groups from the multi-ethnic Southern Nations', Nationalities' and Peoples' Region. In reality, however, the Tigray community, of which Ethiopia’s late and revered former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was a member, dominates the EPRDF and its members populate the boards of many state-owned firms.

In the past, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which represents the Tigray region within the EPRDF, has been successful at maintaining its position by exploiting traditional rivalries between the Amhara and Oromo that date back centuries. The latest unrest, however, has shown signs of greater unity between the groups, with Oromo and Amhara proclaiming solidarity for one another at demonstrations and their respective diaspora groups organising collectively to protest at Ethiopian embassies overseas. This broadening front of anti-Tigray and anti-government sentiment will make it far more difficult for the government to quell the protests and could result in a prolonged period of instability.

The state of emergency is unlikely to mitigate the risk of unrest. The declaration allows the government to ban protests or large gatherings, shut down media organisations, detain civilians, and prohibits the carrying of weapons. Similar initiatives in the past however have failed to suppress protests, for example after the 2005 elections, when several large scale demonstrations took place in Addis Ababa that year. Moreover, the likely deployment of federal government forces, which are dominated by Tigray commanders, to Oromia and Amhara, will fuel anti-Tigray sentiment in those areas, increasing the risk of a backlash and further loss of life. Large agricultural and industrial projects will remain a key target of protesters due to the perception that they are associated with the government or that the land they use has been obtained through expropriation of local communities. Despite the death of the American researcher on 4 October and the attacks on foreign-owned businesses, the protesters have not been overtly xenophobic or expressed particular resentment towards foreign nationals, though such incidents do underscore the collateral risk of the unrest.

The potential for a mediated solution to the crisis remains unlikely in the near term. The EPRDF has a poor record for engaging marginalised groups in dialogue, and has instead resorted to deploying federal forces to the affected area and dismissing local officials. The government’s decision on 10 October to blame militant groups based in Egypt and Eritrea for fomenting the unrest underscores its unwillingness to compromise and is likely intended to distract domestic attention away from the criticism levelled at the government by the protesters. In the absence of any mediated settlement, there will remain a severe risk of unrest across Oromia and Amhara, particularly in Gondar, which has seen some of the worst violence, as well as the popular tourist destination of Bahir Dar, and on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Any indication that the protesters are taking up arms against the government would represent a further deterioration in the security situation in those areas and would likely provoke a further government crackdown. 

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