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Stable Instability: renewed turmoil in Ethiopia (part 2)

Qilinto prison burning, Addis Ababa 3 September 2016.  Opposition voices state that not the fire but the prison guards killed more than 60 inmates, most of them political prisoners fleeing and trying to reach safety. © Ethiogrio

(This is the second part of an earlier published article)

By Jan Abbink        Next to the demands for more economic rights and protection, the wider background factors of the spreading protests were: mounting dissatisfaction with authoritarian party politics, the interfering presence of party cadres in local life, the lack of accountability of the government, unresolved land allocation issues, lack of proper compensation for those removed from the land, the dismantling of civil society organizations in the last decade, the lack of political and civic freedoms, and the lack of a well-working justice system (as people say, one cannot really bring complaints against the government and get one’s right in the courts).

There is also a longer-term social dynamic involved: large groups of youth are unemployed, and there is still a large urban underclass that is often excluded from high school or vocational education and from jobs. New cultural-political youth movements – in both the classical political sphere as well as in the cultural domain – are seen with suspicion by the government and under close scrutiny. Also, emerging local ethnic elites in the various regional states have been cautiously putting forward new demands – and, paradoxically, their emergence and assertiveness is an achievement of the ‘ethnic politics’ of empowerment that the Ethiopian ruling party and government instituted since 1991 and which has led to many smaller ethnic groups getting ‘special districts’. The ethno-regional rivalry is now also seen in the serious tensions within the ruling party, where the four branches, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) are not always in agreement with the dominant Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). 

In this current wave of protests, all kinds of motives suddenly merged and seemed to escalate; and the mood among the protesters seems militant. In the present case, numbers are important: the turmoil in Oromiya and Amhara has gained momentum which the resisting smaller ethnic groups in the South – facing similar land and injustice problems and also having suffered many casualties – could never reach.

The instability continues, and repression has become more and more violent in the past weeks. Many protesters, however, feel that a point of no return has been reached and seem prepared to give their lives. Protests were also heard in the western Benishangul-Gumuz regional state, and a report of the violent suppression of a demonstration in Konso (in the South) was also aired (with dozens dead). Furthermore, there are unconfirmed but disturbing reports of government forces resorting to additional harsh measures such as deporting masses of detained youths to remote areas in the hot western lowlands of Ethiopia and put to forced labour. No charges were brought, no court cases started, and the future fate of these prisoners is very uncertain. In the third week of September there was another large-scale strike of urban shopkeepers in the Gondar region which army troops tried to end by forcing owners to open their shops, but not very successful. All this show deep resentment and government fear, and it might have serious consequences for Ethiopia’s socio-political order. In the margins of these revolts, there are also reports about radical Muslim groups of the ‘Wahhabist’-Salafist kind that manifest themselves in east-central Ethiopia, and some are even rumoured to have taken up arms to combat the local authorities, aiming to install local Islamist rule. This will give an additional dimension to the civil unrest, pitting Muslims against Christians, although in the protest movements in Oromiya and Amhara so far, the religious dimension was absent.

Regardless of whether the objections brought by the protesting masses are all justified, they will not go away but persist. So the developmental agenda of the Ethiopian government, which has been party successful and has led to some remarkable GDP-growth figures, new infrastructure, more overall wealth, reduction of the national poverty rate, good grades from the Work Bank and the IMF and praise songs by donor countries, was not enough to ‘satisfy’ the populace because political freedoms and equity were lacking. It shows again that ‘development’ is a package consisting of more than only ‘economic growth’; it is a narrative and a wider menu of overall social, cultural and political policies, connected to durable economic transformation, with an ethos of opportunity and promise that is more ‘inclusive’, future-oriented, and gives options to people.

This point is still not understood by the donor community providing the ‘development aid’ to African countries; at the most they hope for democracy, civic freedoms, etc. to follow, but do to not really insist on it. Admittedly, they have also limited options to impact government policies. But the price of ‘going with the grain’ and with the powers that be is not always working out. As we see today, the entire model of development is showing cracks. These were already visible years ago. Donors and government are now seen as one and the same by many people in Ethiopia. Victims of the violence and the bereaved having lost relatives and friends killed in the streets, farmers whose land has been taken, or pastoralists who lost their pasture and cattle for the ‘greater good’ of national progress made it clear they want a better deal, and especially social and political justice to go with it. At present, we thus see the downside of purely economically-oriented commercial development strategies. People ask a reasonable measure of inclusion, representation and government accountability. While Ethiopia’s protests started on the basis of local, parochial issues – ‘no more land theft from Oromo peasants’, ‘no more annexation of Amhara territory to Tigray’ (see above) – nowadays the more universalist ideals of political freedom, social justice and respect of rights are found on the slogan boards and placards of the demonstrators.

One would hope for both government and the donor community to pay attention, The death toll and the turmoil is unprecedented. If no policies of redress are developed no one should be surprised by future rounds of protest and mayhem in this tormented country, which has so much potential and socio-cultural richness and dynamics. A new social and political contract is needed between rulers and ruled. No one can predict the future, but a ‘Burkina Faso-scenario’ (the 2014 mass uprising that ousted the regime of dictatorial President B. Compaoré) seems unlikely. And there are few signs that the current ruling party and government will take a rational course or have the political imagination to meet the demands of the people. But it has to happen sooner or later. The constitutional basis for this is even present and the grievances are well known. Optimists might expect that the opening of Ethiopia’s new parliamentary year in October could bring some new relevant policy measure by the government. But observers expect that the current approach of ‘restoring public order’ with force and repression as well as a policy of ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics to split the emerging protest fronts. And then the cycle will one day start anew.

A shorter version of this blog text appears at the IPI Global Observatory website

Jan Abbink is Endowed professor of African ethnic studies with emphasis on processes of identity formation and ethnicization at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU Amsterdam. 

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