The government has declared the state of emergency after the death of at least 52 people during a Oromo protest, during a clash with the police. The tension is still very high in the country.
For the first time in 25 years, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared a six months state of emergency on the last 9 October. The decision which comes after several months of unrest in the Oromia region, is “crucial in halting the danger posed by the spoilers and anti-peace groups on the safety of the people as well as peace and stability of the country”, said the Prime Minister who claimed that the state of emergency would not breach human rights protected by the Ethiopian constitution. The country is not placed under curfew however, although the laws allow the introduction of such measure during the emergency rule, said the Federal Attorney, Getachew Ambaye.
The decision has been triggered by the death of dozens of people (52 according to the government and 100 according to the opposition) on the 3 October during the celebration of the Irreecha Festival at the end of the rainy season, in Oromia.
The deaths occurred during a protest march against the marginalization of the Oromos who are the main ethnic group of the country with approximately 35% of the population. Tens of thousands people were displaying the symbol of the protest, crossing their wrists over their heads. The clashes reportedly occurred when the crowd targeted Oromo officials. Protesters were throwing stones and bottles. The police retorted by using teargases and rubber bullets, causing a panic that made many demonstrators falling on top of each other into a ditch. After that, violence went on after Oromo activist called “five days or rage” to protest against the deaths and the use of disproportionate violence.
The government justification for the state of emergency is that it wants to give priority to the security of citizens and also to put an end to damage caused to the country’s infrastructures. In Oromia, touristic complexes such as the Bishangari Lodge on Lake Langano, at the South of Addis Ababa were destroyed and at least 11 factories including the Dutch dairy farm Africa Juice, in the Awash Valley and two textile plants, were set on fire. Schools, health institutions and administration buildings were also attacked.
These incidents occurred within the wider context of protests which began in late 2015 whose immediate cause was the Addis Ababa Master-Plan which caused the displacement of farmers in the Oromia region, explains Nagessa Oddo, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress. Increasingly, the protests have been as well against the confiscation of power by the Tigraians minority which accounts for 6%, and beyond against corruption and the poor services rendered by the state. The Oromo are also upset about government plans to build factories on land they consider their own. The Irreecha Festival tragedy is only the last episode of a revolt and repression cycle that is lasting for one year whose toll is estimated at least 500 people by Human Rights Watch.
One of the reasons why the movement kept expanding, despite the clamp down, is that social media have been very active to mobilize young people, explains Awol Allo, lecturer at Keele University (United Kingdom). “Anybody with a labtop or a mobile can easily send pictures abroad and they are been rebroadcasted from there. So the Ethiopian government cannot hide the massacres, points out Nagessa Oddo.
The high toll has prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Hussein to call for probe into killings. At first, the Addis Ababa government’s reaction was to dismiss the UN plea. The government spokesman and Minister of Communication, Getachew Reda said it was not necessary to send UN observers since the UN already had a “massive” presence in the country. But the government acknowledged eventually that there was a problem and announced that it would launch an investigation into the killing of protesters by security forces.
The government’s concern is that the protests are now joined by the country’s second ethnic group in size, the Amharas who represent 27% of the population of the country and half of Addis inhabitants. Beside, other troubled situations are being reported in the Benishangul-Gumaz Region, at the border with South Sudan. Eight members of the security forces were killed at the end of September in the Sherkolle district, during clashes with the local inhabitants who were unhappy about the allocation of gold concessions to prospectors from Tigray. There are fears that the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM) could resume the armed struggle which it officially abandoned in 2013. In front of the protests, the government has been reacting in two ways. It has not only taken a hardline against the protesters themselves but it also carrying out a campaign against their alleged supporters. “We are trying to address a coordinated, concentrated and orchestrated attack the Ethiopian state”, says Getachew Reda who is accusing the governments of Egypt and Eritrea to finance, arm and train the activists Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Egypt is particularly suspected by Addis authorities to destabilize Ethiopia because it is wary that the completion of the Renaissance dam might reduce the volume of water it gets from the Blue Nile. Getachew Reda also accuses the “extremist diaspora in United States and in Europe”
At the same time, the Primer Minister is also trying to address the situation in a political way. After the Irreecha Festival massacre, he recognized that the government is not fully representing the Ethiopian people and he expressed his intention to reform the country’s electoral system which he recognizes has excluded many opposition groups.
In a statement made on the 12 October, the US State Department Spokesperson John Kirby welcomed President Mulatu Teshome’s October 10 address to the Parliament committing to address land rights, electoral reform and recognition of the special interest of the Oromia region in the city of Addis Ababa. Yet, the Oromo opponent in exile, Negass oddo considers that such olive branch represents “too little” and comes “too late”.
The declaration of the state of emergency caused trouble in Washington, according to Kirby « by the potential impact of the decision to authorize detention without a warrant and to further limit freedom of expression, including by blocking internet access, prohibiting public gathering, and imposing curfews”. “This declaration, if implemented in these ways, would further enshrine the type of response that has failed to ameliorate the recent political crisis”, pursued the State Department Spokesperson who also called for the government of Ethiopia to release detainees who have been peacefully exercising constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of expression and association rights.
Meanwhile in Brussels, the Human Rights sub-Committee and the Development Committee of the European Parliament expressed concerns regarding “the worsening Human Rights situation in Ethiopia” during a debate on the last 12 October. EU MPs blamed the EU policy vis-à-vis Ethiopia arguing it is “failing a long way behind its own standards regarding human rights”, while EU diplomats said that the priority was to “maintain the dialogue with Ethiopia”. The EU’s priority highlighted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Addis between the last 9 and the 11 October is indeed to intensify the bilateral partnership in order to increase migration control.