Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia: Strong government, despite protests

A state of emergency declared in Ethiopia highlights serious power sharing issues in the country, but doesn’t indicate regime change ahead, writes Haitham Nouri

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia declared a state of emergency for six months Saturday after nearly one year of violent demonstrations that the regime suppressed entailing the two largest ethnic groups in the country (the Oromo and Amhara) protesting against the domination of power by the minority Tigray.

“A state of emergency has been declared after discussions in the cabinet about the loss of life and property [around the country],” stated Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. “Our top priority is the safety of citizens. We also want to halt the damage being done to infrastructure projects, health centres, administration and judicial buildings.”

This is the first time in more than two decades that the federal government in Ethiopia has announced a state of emergency in a country that has seen one of the fastest rates of economic growth in Africa and the world.

“The duration of the state of emergency could be shorter depending on improved security conditions, especially in Oromo and Amhara provinces,” according to the Website Addis Fortune.

The most recent clashes occurred during the Irreecha Festival in the city of Bishoftu, 40 kilometres south of the capital Addis Ababa.

According to the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) Website, intensive talks took place between the council of tribal leaders of the Oromo and the central government, which revealed tensions between the two sides.

During the festival on 2 October, no members of the Oromo leadership council Abba Gadaa appeared on stage, and instead government officials and their Oromo allies were centre stage. There was also heavy presence of security forces as well as helicopters flying at low altitudes.

Suddenly a man (which HRW could not identify) appeared on the stage to lead the crowd in anti-government chants, and quickly many more rushed the stage. The government responded with live ammunition, killing about 55 according to Western media quoting the government in Addis Ababa, while the opposition insists 678 people were killed.

“We know that international human rights groups are not always fair towards governments in the developing world,” noted Abdel-Moneim Sayed, a professor of political science.

Sayed continued: “Despite our quarrel with Ethiopia, Cairo and Addis Ababa are allies in the war against terrorism. We also cannot ignore the economic growth that has continued for more than a decade, reaching more than eight per cent annually.”

According to the World Bank, Ethiopia achieved a growth rate of more than 10 per cent in the decade between 2003/2004 and 2014, predicting the country with a population of 100 million will reach a middle income average by 2025. This is after decades of being one of the poorest nations in the world.

More than one quarter of this large multi-ethnic country rose from poverty although there are millions still suffering from famine and malnutrition.

The infrastructure sector, in which Addis Ababa has invested billions of dollars, mostly borrowed from China, is the key leader of development in the country and other African countries.

China is funding a railway project between Addis Ababa and the Port of Djibouti (Ethiopia’s only access to the sea), and also a number of dams on rivers that are not on the Nile basin, as well as the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.

Medhat Askar, an engineer with Arab Contractors who is former director of the Africa division, said the company has major projects in expanding the capital, especially ring roads and several government buildings. “We are not the only ones there,” Askar noted. “There are factories funded by Egyptian and Arab investments, Korean, Japanese and European. Ethiopia is a fertile country.”

Ethiopia’s stunning economic progress and investments have been affected by protests that began in November 2015 in Oromo regions, who account for one third of the population according to the US CIA. Protests spread to Amhara regions (27 per cent of the population) in the summer of 2016.

According to a long report by Reuters, economic structures in Africa’s fastest growing economy have been negatively impacted. Reuters reports that 11 institutions active in various sectors, including textiles, plastics and flower farming, have been hurt, and 60 cars were burnt in the capital.

Reuters quoted the FANA Website, which is close to the government, that these projects (German, Turkish and other investments) provided 40,000 jobs.

Reuters talked to the Oromo who claim that despite their region being at the heart of manufacturing efforts sponsored by the government, they only receive a small number of jobs. “The government fears the local residents (Oromo),” according to one young man Reuters contacted. He did not explain the reason for this fear.

Mohamed Ademo, a journalist living in Washington and founder of OPride.com focussing on Oromo affairs, asserted that the Oromo have very few job opportunities because the government scares investors about hiring a majority Oromo labour force because this would enable them to organise strikes.

Demonstrations began in November 2015 by the Oromo to protest plans to expand the capital by annexing several Oromo villages and towns. They claimed the plan aims to expel them from their land, which they have cultivated for centuries, and block their cultural, social and economic growth.

Although the government withdrew the plan, the Oromo continued protests against Tigray domination of power after 1990. In July and August this year, when protests began in the Amhara region (northwest) Oromo activists (south and southwest) announced their solidarity with the Amhara despite historic animosity between the two ethnicities.

The Amhara were the ruling elite of the country for centuries, imposing their language as the official tongue and marginalising all other Ethiopian ethnic groups, including the majority Oromo.

The two ethnic groups make up 61 per cent of Ethiopians, while the Tigray (north) are only six per cent of the population. But it is unlikely they will forge an alliance against the Tigray.

The government used force against protests, leaving more than 400 dead according to HRW and Amnesty International.

Regardless of such reports, the Ethiopian government remains strong. It is clearly supported by the US, as seen by US President Barack Obama’s visit to Addis Ababa and his address to parliament that has no opposition MPs. Addis Ababa receives millions of dollars in US aid as one of Washington’s key allies in Africa. Ethiopia also has strong Asian support, especially from China, its main partner in development.

Meanwhile, Addis Ababa has clear regional support because of its strong fight against terrorism, including by the Somali group Shebab Al-Mujahideen. It also has the support of the continent. African leaders at their last summit in Rwanda supported the nomination of Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom as director of the World Health Organisation, and Egypt’s Moushira Khattab’s bid to lead UNESCO.

All this makes the government in Addis Ababa unlikely to fall. But it is prone to pressure by other ethnicities for more power sharing.

Nonetheless, the question remains: Can economic growth continue if a new deal is made to share power? Especially after many attempts at democracy on the continent have failed, while dictatorship is on the rise amid people’s growing desire for strong leaders to confront the disintegration of the state and stamp out terrorism and corruption.

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