At least 75 people have been killed in weeks of student-led protests across Ethiopia’s Oromia region and federal authorities have imposed curfews in several towns and deployed troops in what looks like a state of emergency. In a statement on Friday, the U.S. State Department urged Ethiopian authorities to “permit peaceful protest and commit to a constructive dialogue to address legitimate grievances.”
The protests started on Nov. 12 in Ginci town, about 50 miles out of Addis Ababa, by elementary and high school students demanding a halt to a controversial Master Plan, which seeks to incorporate vast swathes of small Oromo towns and rural farming villages into Ethiopia’s sprawling capital, which doubles as the seat of the federal and Oromia state governments.
Fueled by longstanding grievances at being marginalized, repressed and displaced in the name of development, the incident in Ginci quickly grew into a state-wide popular uprising unprecedented in the country’s history, the 1974 revolution excepted. Since imposition of martial law, the unrest has intensified and several rural districts have slid out of central control.
Although Ethiopia has registered modest economic growth over the last decade, there is growing resentment about access to the opportunities promised by the country’s improving fortunes.
Whereas the bloated public service sector is the leading employer after agriculture, even the lowest paying jobs require party membership or ruling party connections. The massive rural-to-urban migration, fueled by lack of rural job creation and matched by high urban youth unemployment, has not helped matters in a country where 71 percent of the population is under the age of 30.
With significant donor support, the government built over 30 public universities during the last decade and a half, but these could accommodate only 6 percent of Ethiopia’s college-age youth. To make matters worse, education quality has plummeted greatly heightened by an ill-conceived focus on expansion. This means that most cannot compete in an increasingly globalized economy or attain viable employment after graduation.
With the adoption in 1995 of the country’s language-based federation, age-old Oromo grievances, of being forced to learn in Amharic, for long the only official language and currently the only official working language of the federal government, has been stemmed. While the Oromo youth are now educated in their native tongue, this has limited their participation inside the federal bureaucracy to merely 12 percent.
That is one of the ways in which Addis Ababa’s expansion through the proposed Master Plan becomes significant. Like the federal government, the capital’s official working language is Amharic. While Oromo youth fear being excluded from job opportunities there, they are also frightened that their parents and compatriots will be displaced from their ancestral lands to make room for the expansion without proper compensation and due process of law.
The complication does not end there. Article 49 of Ethiopia’s constitution stipulates that Oromia will have special interests, particularly in relation to social services, natural resources and joint administrative matters, to the capital by the virtue of the capital being located inside its territory. However, the federal government has passed no enabling law to accommodate this special interest to date. In fact, the federal government in 2003 forced the Oromia state government to relocate its state capital from Addis Ababa to Adama, 75 miles to the east. The move triggered student protests and deaths and was reversed only after the debacle of the 2005 national elections.
The last time the Master Plan was tabled for discussion in 2014, it triggered weeks of protests in which dozens of students were killed and many wounded and hundreds more remain imprisoned.
Moreover, the regime in Addis Ababa follows a developmental state model, which focuses on public-funded mega hydroelectric and infrastructural projects, concentrated around the capital and adjacent districts displacing a large number of Oromo farmers and forcing them to become day laborers or resort to beggary.
Oromo grievance, however, is not confined to the economic realm. Neither is it limited to the status of Addis Ababa, which the Oromo call Finfinne, nor to youth concerns. It is indeed true that the majority of the protesters are youth enraged at the government for ignoring their voices and equating their dissent with treason. However, in town after town where protests erupted over the last month, the youth were joined by urban as well as rural folk.
Ethiopia is a federation on paper, but in reality, the country is still, as it has always been, highly centralized, a fact resented by the Oromo, who for ages have sought greater autonomy.
In short, Ethiopia’s much-celebrated economic uptick came at the cost of human rights and loss of civil liberties— costs and benefits inequitably distributed. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which assumed power in 1991, is manhandled by the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose members and associates dominate the commanding heights of the economy as well as national institutions such as the military and the security services. With last May’s 100 percent electoral victory, EPRDF is slated to govern at least until 2020 without a single opposition member in parliament.
Protests are rare in Ethiopia; people are not even allowed to organize peaceful demonstrations—although freedom of assembly is a constitutionally guaranteed right. The state maintains media monopoly. Opposition and civil society face severe restrictions. This has been the story of Ethiopia for over two decades. But not anymore: Although all dissent, especially by the Oromo, is highly criminalized, a relatively more educated cadre of youth emboldened by improved access to mobile and social media is fighting to hold the government accountable and respect their human rights.
Frustrated at always being ignored and marginalized, a huge mass of angry youth seems to be saying enough. They want a voice in key decisions affecting their future and a place in the society. Few buy into incessant propaganda about development. Demands for an end to corruption and cronyism that deny equal access to basic public services is gaining traction not just in Oromia but in Amhara region as well where tensions have been building for months.
Given these complexities, the government’s ill-tempered insistence on dealing with the protests solely with the security forces will ensure continued unrest and dissatisfaction.
Unless authorities heed calls for redress of historical grievances and allow genuine federalism and pluralist democracy to flourish — calls the Ethiopian authorities are disinclined to heed — the doors are left wide open to more unrests. This is likely to reverse Ethiopia’s prospects, already threatened by a worst drought in decades, and further destabilize an already volatile Horn of Africa region.