Revolt in an African Stasi State
For years Ethiopia has crushed anyone who opposes its development plan. Now an ethnic uprising threatens to crash the country's high-flying economy.
Ethiopia is hailed as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. For the last decade, the East African nation has averaged around 10 percent annual GDP growth, far outpacing most of its neighbors on the continent. It recently launched a new light-rail system in the capital of Addis Ababa, the first of its kind in Africa, and the government is aggressively pushing several Chinese-funded hydroelectric and infrastructure projects to reduce agricultural dependence and accelerate manufacturing growth. Many experts — including those at the African Development Bank — expect the country’s upward trajectory to continue in 2016.
But despite the outward veneer of progress, all is not well in Africa’s second-most populous nation. Weeks of student protests have roiled the Oromia region, which is home to the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group and among its most marginalized. More than 80 people have been killed in a violent crackdown by security forces, according to opposition parties. Coupled with a devastating drought that will leave an estimated 20.3 million people in need of urgent assistance by January of next year, the mounting public discontent in Oromia offers the latest warning signal that the same top-down social and economic model that has powered Ethiopia’s rise could ultimately bring it crashing down.
Unlike most of its economic peers on the continent, Ethiopia follows a stringent growth model known as the “developmental state.” This model borrows heavily from the so-called Asian Tigers, whose state intervention in macroeconomic planning led to impressive economic growth in East Asia in the 1970s. Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the chief architect of the “developmental state” and the driving force behind its initial implementation, defended the decision to ditch the neoliberal paradigm in 2007: “[D]eveloping countries face formidable market failures and institutional inadequacies which create vicious circles and poverty traps, which can adequately be addressed only by an activist state,” he wrote.
But under Meles, the “activist state” became a euphemism for state repression — albeit under the guise of development. The ongoing protests in Oromia reflect growing public dissatisfaction with this experiment, as well as outrage over the routine and callous brutality demonstrated by the country’s security forces.
Until recently, many international observers — no doubt influenced by effective Ethiopian propaganda — assumed that the country’s development strategy was working just fine. As a result, donor countries eager for an aid success story — most notably, the United States — have largely ignored mounting concerns about the narrowing of democratic space and the unequal distribution of growth benefits. But such illusions have been shattered over the past month as the public protests in Oromia have burgeoned, creating the most significant challenge to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since it came to power in 1991.
Oromia is the largest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnolinguistic-based states, and it is no stranger to state-driven violence. The Oromo, who represent around 40 percent of the country’s 100 million people, have long suffered the brunt of the central government’s repression. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the kingmaker in the loose EPRDF coalition, dominates the central government. TPLF leaders and their coterie control key government institutions, the military, and much of the economy, a fact deeply resented by the Oromo and other oppressed groups throughout the country.
In theory, Ethiopia is a federation based on decentralized ethno-national representation. But the EPRDF’s top-down approach to development — and its refusal to fully implement the ethno-federalist system laid out in its constitution — has contributed to the growing estrangement of a number of minority groups from the capital. The Oromo experience is a case in point: Time and again, Addis Ababa has responded to the group’s calls for greater autonomy with disinterest and, at times, brute force.
Oromo protests have become something of a ritual over the past decade, as have the government’s heavy-handed responses to them. In April and May of last year, for instance, security forces fired live ammunition at protesters in order to suppress a popular uprising against government encroachment on Oromo lands. Activists estimate that there are at least 20,000 Oromo political prisoners in Ethiopia today, meaning that roughly one out of every 1,400 Oromo nationals is currently in jail. According to Amnesty International, at least 5,000 Oromos were arrested solely based on their actual or suspected opposition to the government between 2011 and 2014.
Unsurprisingly, EPRDF leaders in Addis Ababa have blamed the latest unrest in Oromia on what they deem anti-development forces. (Communications Minister Getachew Reda went as far as to refer to protesters as “demonic” and “terrorists.”) This refrain has been employed often to violate constitutionally protected civil liberties and justify the use of disproportionate force against perceived domestic opponents. On Dec. 17, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn signaled his intention to continue the crackdown on demonstrators, threatening to use “merciless action” to disperse future crowds.
The current round of Oromo protests began on Nov. 12, when local students in Ginchi, a rural area 50 miles west of the capital, took to the streets to oppose a draft “master plan,” introduced by the central government, which aims to expand its administrative control over Oromia. Since then, the demands of the protesters have expanded to include calls for self-rule, more equitable development, and respect for the country’s ethnic-based federalist system, which in theory preserves the autonomy of regions like Oromia.
In essence, the protests have evolved into a full-scale revolt against Ethiopia’s highly centralized one-party state, which has closed off political space to the opposition, to religious groups, and to civil society. Not even individual households can escape the prying eyes of state authorities. In Oromia and a number of other regions, the government enforces a special hierarchical system of party informants, known as gott and garee, to monitor the everyday activities of Ethiopian citizens. This deeply ingrained spy network consists of one government informant for every five citizens.
Draconian national security laws have also become a cornerstone of the EPRDF’s efforts to keep citizens in check. For example, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation includes overly vague language on the government’s powers of arrest, search, and seizure; allows courts to consider evidence obtained under torture; and enables authorities to detain citizens without charge for up to four months. Another key feature of this law defines terrorism as simply intending to “influence the government.”
Despite this track record of oppression, Ethiopia remains a veritable darling of the West. Nowhere is this more evident than in Washington, D.C., where Ethiopian autocrats have long been lauded, praised, eulogized, and rewarded with billions of dollars in foreign and development aid — of which less than 1 percent is currently allocated for human rights and democracy-related programming.
The capstone to Washington’s love fest with the EPRDF regime came in July, when President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Ethiopia. While there, Obama twice referred to the one-party government as “democratically elected,” a darkly comedic remark that came barely two months after the EPRDF claimed all 547 parliamentary seats in a national election.
The United States does occasionally raise human rights concerns and acknowledge the shrinking democratic space in Ethiopia. In a Dec. 18 statement responding to the latest crackdown in Oromia, for instance, the State Department called for “dialogue” while expressing “condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives.” But given Washington’s preoccupation with Islamic terrorism in the Horn of Africa, and its view that Ethiopia is a stable bulwark against extremism, it has routinely stopped short of condemnation. Leaders in Washington have also declined to apply any meaningful pressure on the regime to reform, conveniently forgetting that it has half a billion dollars in annual aid to use as potential leverage.
It is clear that the majority of Oromo people, like most other oppressed groups in Ethiopia, are fed up with the EPRDF’s growing repression and its highly intrusive model of governance. Young people, especially, lack avenues to air their grievances, not to mention the basic democratic rights with which to demand a genuine platform to be heard. Instead of addressing their valid interests and concerns, Ethiopian authorities continue to respond with violence after their attempts to indoctrinate the youth fall short.
This cycle of violence will continue to tear at the fabric of Ethiopian society until the EPRDF regime allows genuine federalism to take root, thereby opening up the political environment and involving all of the country’s shareholders in the development process. The ongoing heavy-handed response to widespread discontent has already engendered a heightened ethnic self-awareness among Ethiopians and has contributed to a resurgent Oromo nationalism that is just now beginning to flex its collective muscle. Addressing the widening democratic deficit, as well as the country’s long-simmering ethnic grievances, remains the only sure way to safeguard Ethiopia’s stability and to sustain its recent economic trajectory.
ZACHARIAS ABUBEKER/AFP/Getty Images