Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians protested Saturday against an economic environment from which they feel excluded, marching in more than 200 towns and villages across Oromia, home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Ethiopian residents and opposition voices say more than 100 protesters died during peaceful demonstrations in police crackdowns over the weekend. The Ethiopian government has not confirmed the deaths.
Western governments keep funding the Ethiopian government and refuse to acknowledge the depth of the country’s crisis, which reached unprecedented levels on Saturday, CNN reported.
Saturday was an “absolutely extraordinary display of defiance by the Oromo people and it is by far the most significant political developments in the country since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the strongman who ruled the country for over two decades,”said Awol K. Allo at the London-based Centre for the Study of Human Rights.
A development plan to expand the territorial limits of Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromo villages and towns triggered the initial protests in April of 2014. Fearing eviction of Oromo farmers from their ancestral lands, Oromos have been staging protest rallies across the country ever since. They claim systematic marginalization and persecution of ethnic Oromos, according to CNN.
The Oromo represent more than a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people. Historically, Oromos have been pushed to the margin of the country’s political and social life, their identity stigmatized, and their language banned. They’ve become invisible in mainstream perspectives.
The government has used overwhelming force to crush dissent, according to Human Rights Watch, which puts the total number of dead protesters at over 400 with tens of thousands arrested, Washington Post reported.
The U.S. sees the Ethiopian government as a critical partner in the global war on terror. In 2016, President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia despite opposition by human rights groups, endorsing the government as democratically elected.
Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the Ethiopian government exiles, prosecutes and convicts opposition leaders, community leaders, journalists, bloggers, and activists, crushing any kind of criticism or dissent, Allo said.
“What we are seeing is very localised protests merging into a much larger political threat against the government,” said Rashid Abdi, Horn of Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, in a Financial Times report. “I think the government is fearful that these protests may actually engulf the whole country. That is why you are seeing this heavy-handed crackdown.”
As Ethiopia transitions from agrarian society to one of Africa’s top economic performers, it increasingly attracts foreign investors. It has repeatedly posted double-digit growth over the past decade, fueled by rapid urbanization and government industrialization.
Ethiopia is essentially a single-party state, with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) winning the 2015 election and now controlling all the seats in parliament. The party has governed since 1991.
Protests against the government have been rare since the EPRDF came to power.
“There are no opposition voices in parliament or in local administration, there is barely an independent press. I think taking to the streets in such large numbers is the people finding a voice,” said Yoseph Badwaza, program officer for Ethiopia at the Washington-based Freedom House. “It is signalling that this model of governance is showing some cracks.”
Ethiopian Communications Minister Getachew Reda told the Financial Times on Saturday that no protesters had been killed. Instead he accused “armed protesters” of “trying to arm-twist the security forces into shooting.”
The government restricted access to the Internet and social media in the Oromia region, making it hard to verify details of the protests.
“The dynamic has shifted and people are now calling for the downfall of the government,” said Jawar Mohammed, who runs the Oromia Media Network in the U.S. “This is by far the biggest demonstration that Ethiopia has seen in terms of size and coordination across Oromia.”
The weekend’s bloodshed should prompt the West to reconsider its aid to the regime, according to a Washington Post editorial. Ethiopia has been called a model of economic development and claims its “developmental democratic” style is working. But the repeated use of force to silence dissent threatens development.
The U.S. relies on Ethiopia to help fight al-Shabab in Somalia and sends tens of millions of dollars in development assistance to Ethiopia, “tiptoeing around Ethiopia’s human rights abuses and resistance to democratic reforms,” Washington Post reported. “On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa remarked that it was ‘deeply concerned’ and expressed its ‘deep condolences to those who suffered as a result’ (of the protests) but stopped short of explicitly urging the Ethiopian government to refrain from using excessive force against its citizens. The Obama administration should encourage a credible investigation into the killings and publicly make clear that Ethiopia’s continued crackdowns are unacceptable.”
Europe is about to provide Ethiopia with even more aid, according to the Washington Post. The European Union, with its commitment to human rights, is offering Ethiopia “cash for cooperation” — aid and trade incentives in exchange for helping to keep refugees and migrants from reaching Europe.
If Ethiopia continues its pattern of killing citizens who dissent, the E.U. should make clear to the regime that it risks being dropped from the migrant agreements.
In response to criticism of the regime’s human rights record, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said “building democratic culture” takes time. “But we are on the right track. It’s improving.”
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