By Graham Peebles
After being frightened into silence for over two decades, the people of Ethiopia are finding their voice and calling for fundamental political change.
Thousands have been taking to the streets in recent weeks and months to peacefully protest against the ruling party. Expressing their collective anger at the injustices and widespread human rights violations taking place throughout the country and calling for democratic elections.
The People are Rising Up
The people have awakened, and overcoming fear and historic differences are beginning to unite. The two main ethnic groups are rallying under a common cause: freedom, justice, and the observation of their constitutionally acknowledged human rights. And the two major opposition parties, the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) and Patriotic Ginbot 7 for Unity and Democracy (PG7) have formed an alliance in the fight to overthrow the incumbent regime, and are seeking to bring other opposition groups together.
The protests are dominated by people under 25 – 30 years of age; young people, connected to the world via social media who are no longer prepared to live in fear, as Seyoum Teshome, a university lecturer in central Ethiopia told the New York Times, “The whole youth is protesting. A generation is protesting.”
At the moment demonstrations are largely confined to Oromia and Ahmara, but as confidence grows there is every possibility that other regions could become involved, swelling numbers of protestors, overwhelming security forces.
When there is unity, and consistent, peaceful collective action, governments are eventually forced to listen (as has been demonstrated elsewhere in the world), and the attention of the international community is garnered. Ethiopia receives between a third and half of its federal budget in various aid packages from international donors; irresponsible donor countries which see Ethiopia as an ally in the so-called ‘war on terror’, a stable country in a region of instability – the illusion of stability maintained by keeping the populace suppressed.
To their utter shame the countries share primary donors – America, Britain and the European Union – have repeatedly ignored the cries of the people, and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses perpetrated by the ruling party, which in many cases constitute state terrorism. It is neglect bordering on complicity.
This is a historic moment that could result in the overthrow of the government – a day longed for by the majority of Ethiopians – and usher in what activists and opposition groups have been campaigning for; democratic fair elections, and open political debate. None of which, despite the false pronouncements of Barack Obama and the like, have taken place under the EPRDF. Indeed Ethiopia has never known democracy.
It is essential that protestors remain largely peaceful, in spite of the government’s brutal response – and it has been brutal – and this does not turn into an ethnic conflict, with Tigrayan military forces loyal to the government pitched against groups from Oromo, Amhara, Ogaden and elsewhere. To take up arms on any significant scale would not only risk large numbers of casualties and national chaos, but would also allow the regime to propagate false claims of terrorism, attribute the uprising to destabilising influences and ignore the demands of protestors and opposition parties.
The government owns the sole telecommunications company as well as virtually all media outlets in the country, and seeks in every way possible to condition reporting by international media. They regularly close down the Internet in an attempt to make it difficult for protestors to communicate, and will no doubt attempt to manipulate the narrative surrounding the protests. But given the coverage flooding social media – much of which shows so-called ‘security personnel’ indiscriminately beating protestors – as well as first hand accounts, they will not be able to suppress or contaminate the truth.
Government’s Brutal Reaction
Ethiopia is made up of dozens of tribes and a variety of ethnic groups. The people of Oromo and Amhara (at 35% and 27% respectively of the population) make up the majority, and rightly feel they have been ignored and marginalised by the Tigray (6% of the population) TPLF dominated government – who also run the military. And it is in Oromia and the city of Gondar in Amhara that the protests have concentrated in recent weeks and months. Protests that the government has responded to with predictable violence.
It is impossible to state the exact numbers of protestors killed by government forces over the last week or two; Al Jazeera reports that “between 48 to 50 protesters were killed in Oromia,” but the satellite broadcaster, ESAT News, says that “several sources revealed that in the last few days alone [up to 10th August] at least 130 people have been murdered in the Oromo region…while 70 others have been massacred in Amhara.” No doubt the actual figure is a great deal higher than either of these.
Residents of the city of Bahir-Dar told The Guardian that, “soldiers fired live rounds at protesters. Hospitals have been filled by dead and wounded victims.” Thousands have been arrested, and ESAT reports, security forces have been demanding ransom payments from the families of young people who were detained after protesting in the capital Addis Ababa.
Despite the fact that freedom of assembly is clearly spelt out in the Ethiopian constitution (Article 30), the Prime Minister, Haile Mariam Dessalegn, announced a blanket ban on demonstrations, which, he said, “threaten national unity”. He called on the police – who need no encouragement to behave like thugs – to use all means at their disposal to stop protests occurring. The Communications Minister Getachew Reda chipped in, and called the protests illegal. All of which is irrelevant and of course misses the point completely.
Shocked and appalled at the ruling regime’s violent reaction to the protests, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged “the government to allow access for international observers into the affected regions to be able to establish what exactly transpired.” The spokesperson described information coming out of Amhara and Ormoia as “extremely alarming”, saying there had been “no genuine attempt at ensuring accountability” since reports of abuses by security forces began emerging back in December. The government’s arrogant, not to say cowardly reply was to reject the request; Getachew Reda, without a whiff of irony, told Al Jazeera that “the UN was entitled to its opinion but the government of Ethiopia was responsible for the safety of its own people.” Perhaps if Ethiopia’s main benefactors began to do their donor duty and apply pressure to the regime, they would be more conciliatory.
Refusing to engage with opposition groups and believing totally in the power of force and fear to control populations, dictatorships like the EPRDF instinctively respond to calls for freedom and justice by intensifying the very suppressive measures that are driving the popular uprising: The days of such totalitarian regime’s is fast coming to an end, it is a disintegrating body moving towards certain extinction.
Unstoppable Momentum for Change
For years the Ethiopian government and the country’s major donors have been propagating the lie that democracy and social development were flowering inside the country. As the people march that myth is now beginning to totally unravel.
The plain truth is that the EPRDF government, in power since 1991, is a vicious, undemocratic regime that has systematically suppressed the population for the last twenty-five years. There is no freedom of expression, the judiciary is a puppet of the state, political opposition leaders as well as journalists and anyone who openly expresses dissent are imprisoned (often tortured), their families persecuted. Humanitarian aid, employment and higher education opportunities are distributed on a partisan basis; and what economic growth there has been (dramatically downgraded by the IMF recently) has largely flowed into the coffers of government officials and supporters.
A social protest movement has been building with growing intensity since the 2010 general election (which like the ones before it, and since, was stolen by the EPRDF), and now the momentum appears to be unstoppable.
No matter how many courageous protesters the police and military shoot – and they will no doubt continue killing – arrest and intimidate, this time there is a real chance that the people will not be put down; they will no longer be denied their rights. They sense, as large numbers of people do everywhere, that an energy of change is sweeping through the world, that they are in tune with the times, and that this is the moment to unite and act.
Beginning in Oromia in March 2014 and intensified last November, large demonstrations were staged in opposition to government plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa onto agricultural land in Oromia. They began in Ginchi, a small town southwest of the capital, and spread to over 400 locations throughout the 17 zones of Oromia. At the same time demonstrators were marching in Gondar demanding, amongst other things, academic rights.
The ERDF reacted by deploying armed police and military that used “excessive and lethal force against largely peaceful protests.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that over 400 innocent people were killed; ESAT, however, puts the number even higher, saying that “at least 600 protesters were killed in the last nine months” in the Oromia region.
The protests in Oromia and Amhara have been ignited by specific issues – territory, land use, the stolen 2015 elections and the EPRD’s paranoid undemocratic hold on power – however these are not the underlying causes, but triggers, a series of final straws laid on top of two decades of violent suppression and injustice. Such violations are not just confined to these major regions, but are experienced more or less throughout the country; in Gambella, and the Ogaden region for example, where all manner of State-sponsored atrocities have been taking place.
The EPRDF government has attempted to rule Ethiopia through intimidation and fear. Such violent, crude methods will only succeed for so long: eventually the people will unite and revolt, as they are now doing, and all strength to their cause, which is wholly just.