Ethiopia is one of East Africa’s fastest growing economies. Though its per capita income is much lower than the regional average, the economy doubled the regional economic growth average with an annual growth rate of 10.8%. The percentage of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty has decreased from 55.3% in 2000 to 33.5% in 2011. This economic success has been coupled with increasing outside investment. China, encouraged by Ethiopia’s relative safety, lack of corruption, inexpensive production, and efficient bureaucracy, has invested billions of dollars into the country’s development. These investments have aided infrastructure construction, development in telecommunications and led to the creation of the African Union’s headquarters in the capital city, Addis Ababa, and a railway connecting the capital to Djibouti. All these investments are a testament of Ethiopia’s ambition to become a low-middle income country over the next decade. Yet the stability that once attracted investors has been increasingly tenuous since protests began last November.
As part of Ethiopia’s growing wealth, the government had planned to expand the city limits of Addis Ababa into Oromia, the largest state in the country. Protests of this plan have been reoccurring since 2014. The protests initially focused on the government’s selling of land to foreign investors, but spread to complaints about corruption, land ownership, poverty, and political repression. These protests turned deadly in November 2015, when the government violently dispersed a crowd of protestors, resulting in 75 deaths. Since then, the government has violently cracked down on protests in Oromia. So far, 500 people have died in protests, and thousands have been detained. At the beginning of this month, a religious festival was broken up by federal security forces, causing a mass stampede that killed at least 52 people. The country has also been plagued with roaming gangs attacking both police and foreign companies, some of which have already pulled their business.
The protests seen in the last eleven months have been the largest protests the country has seen since the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came into power in 1991. Though they were sparked by outrage against development plans, the Oromo people, who reside in Oromia, have long complained that they have been excluded from political participation (The Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), despite being the largest political party in Ethiopia, holds no seats in parliament) and economic development. The Oromo make up 34.4% of Ethiopia’s population. The second largest group, the Amhara, who make up 27% of the population, have also become involved in protests. Both these groups are angered that the government is ruled solely by the Tigrayans, who only comprise 6.1% of the population. Tigrayans have ruled the government since a guerrilla force from the Tigray region in north Ethiopia overthrew Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military regime in 1991.
In response to the protests, on October 8 the government declared a state of emergency, the first to be declared in Ethiopia’s post-communist history. The state of emergency, which is scheduled to last six months, has placed limits and bans on multiple functions and rights. Social media contact with “outside forces” designated as terrorist organizations, which includes some anti-peace groups, has been banned. Two television channels, which the government says are run by terrorist organizations, have also been banned. The rights to protest and making political gestures are disallowed. A mandatory curfew restricting visiting access to factories, farms, or governmental institutions between 6pm and 6am has been established, with the hopes of protecting foreign businesses. Finally, diplomats are restricted to traveling within 25 miles of Addid Ababa, without permission. Under these emergency laws, state authorities can detain individuals without an arrest warrant.
Certainly the most disconcerting restrictions placed are on the rights to protest and freedom of expression. The government has been accused of doing this in the past, all with the excuse that the country needs to be protected against terrorism. Ethiopia’s constitution guarantees this right to protest. Article 30(1) gives, “everyone the right to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peaceably and unarmed, and to petition”. In 2009, however, the government passed the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which vaguely defines terrorist acts or terrorists as, “whosoever or a group intending to advance a political, religious or ideological cause by coercing the government, intimidating the public or section of the public or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional or economic, or social institutions of the country”. While Ethiopia certainly has legitimate concerns about terrorism in the region, with Al Shabaab operating in neighboring Somalia, this vague definition of terrorism has been cited to justify the imprisonment of journalists and citizens alike in Oromia and Amhara. Since the state of emergency was declared, over 1,600 people have been detained, mostly in Oromia and some in Amhara, a state to the northwest of Addis Ababa. So far, it is not clear where these prisoners are being held.
It is highly unlikely that the protests and the outcries from human rights and media groups alike will cause any political change in Ethiopia’s government. The entire legislation is entirely controlled by the ruling coalition and allied parties, with no opposition. The president promised on October 10 to institute a new election system to make opposition party election easier, but this is unlikely to alleviate protestors’ grievances. The EPRDF was able to navigate the surge of backlash after accusations of voting fraud in the 2005 elections. Seemingly, two factors could cause a change in protest policy.
Ethnic turmoil could increase if the government does not address the concerns of the people. So far, the protests have been mostly peaceful, but a dissatisfied ethnic majority pitched against a ruling ethnic minority with a history of oppression that has total control over security forces is not an encouraging recipe for peaceful resolution. The government did recognize the demands of the Oromo by foregoing the development plans to extend Addis Ababa into Oromia, so there are hopes that it could turn from its authoritarian path and respect the people’s constitutional rights when the state of emergency ends. As of now, though, experts have said that Ethiopia is nowhere close to this kind of conflict that would result in a threat to the government. The most influential factor in change will come from outside investors. Ethiopia’s economic boom, as mentioned earlier, is largely due to investments from China, as well as the United States and Europe. Protestors who have turned violent see foreign companies as an extension of the government, and have in turn attacked those companies. Africa Juice, a Dutch owned company, is considering pulling its business from Ethiopia. Israel Chemicals Ltd. John
what promised to be one of Ethiopia’s most significant mining operations. China has remained confident in Ethiopian investment in the past, but this could change in the future if the situation does not improve. The Ethiopian government has assured investors that the turmoil is temporary and urged them not to lose confidence in their investments, but it will have to come to terms with its policies if the unrest persists. Added pressure from the United States and the European Union could push Ethiopia in the rights direction and away from authoritarianism. Economically inclusive policies that benefit other ethnic groups, allowing protests without the threat of violent putdowns, and a more visible effort to increase voting legitimacy would not only appease protestors, but reassure foreign investors that Ethiopia is once again a safe country to invest in. Ethiopia could continue its remarkable economic growth, bring more of its citizens out of poverty, and become a low-middle income country within the next decade.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.