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Stable instability: renewed turmoil in Ethiopia (part 1)

qilinto-burning1By Jan Abbink    Ethiopia in 2016 is seeing a new round of major turmoil: massive protests and demonstrations have led to severe state repression, with more than 600 people killed by security forces, thousands injured, and tens of thousands arrested (as of September 2016). The story gets somewhat repetitive, as many rounds of political and ‘ethnic’ clashes have occurred in the country since 1991 when the current regime took power.

This time, the protests of masses of unarmed students, youths, peasants and others started peaceful – i.e. there was no agenda of armed insurrection ‘fed by diaspora Ethiopians and foreigners’, as the Ethiopian government likes to assert. But early this month, the protests turned into a full-blown revolt, notably in the northern Amhara Region, populated largely by Amharic-speaking people that have felt regionally and politically marginalized for many years. As the government repression hardened, local people took a next step and in the past weeks organized attacks on administrative offices, police stations and army troops (some of whom also defected). Although information is very sketchy and tenuous, it is reported that in some districts in the Amhara Region the government authorities were chased out and local committees took over. The current phase of protests predictably drew the attention of the foreign press and (Western) donor countries because of the threat to their investments, e.g., in the flower industries – and because of the many people killed in the streets.

Ethiopia is a country in a rapid process of socio-economic transformation – economic growth, infrastructure building, social change, new class formation, etc. The country is popular among foreign investors, because of a cheap and abundant labour force, a relatively effective (though highly authoritarian) state and bureaucracy, and the availability of land (all state property and handed out in leases). The Ethiopian regime thus made smart use of global capitalism’s search for new profit venues but kept the reins of the process in its ow hands. Also cherished was the ‘stability’ of Ethiopia – compared to neighbouring Somalia, Sudan or South Sudan, and even Kenya. That stability, analysts always noted, was however relative and temporary because of unresolved issues of political freedom and social justice.

The continued protests since November 2015 (preceded by all kinds of smaller-scale clashes over the past years in various other regions as well) originated in the Oromiya region on 12 November 2015, and led to the first wave of repression, with, according to a Human Rights Watch report, some 400 people killed by police and army forces (firing into the crowds of demonstrators) and many thousands arrested. For the Ethiopian government, which according to most observers is dominated by the northern Tigray minority, this combination of protest waves in the two largest Regional States in Ethiopia – Oromiya and Amhara – is a great danger, especially when the protests of these two regions would be coordinated. This prospect, however, is moot, because historically there are serious differences and tensions between them. It is, nevertheless, the ‘achievement’ of the current ruling party Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF, in power since 1991) to have forced both these large populations into persistent dissatisfaction with the current political arrangement in Ethiopia and now into mass protests. Ethiopia is an ethnic-based federal state, with ethno-linguistically defined administrative regions – from ‘Regional states’, like Oromiya and Amhara, to ethnic ‘districts’ and ‘special zones’ for smaller ethnic groups. The looming alliance of the two peoples – Amhara and Oromo –  is the worst-case scenario for the ruling party, and the authorities are now engaged in full force to prevent it. It was striking to see the explosion of pent-up anger in both the Oromiya and Amhara regions, which appeared to be fueled by issues of humiliation and discrimination in the ‘ethnicized’ politics of the country.

The immediate reason or ‘trigger’ of such spreading revolts is often difficult to identify, but disputes about land were at the center. Land in Ethiopia is closely tied to heritage and identity, even if since 1975 no one can own  land (because all is state property). Territorial identities are still quite strong, sometimes reinforced by ethnicity. In November in Oromiya the government proclaimed the territorial extension of the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which would increase the city boundaries tenfold at the cost of the surrounding Oromiya region. This measure, combined with the ongoing land appropriation of local farmers for the benefit of foreign and domestic investment projects, among them Dutch flower farms, bred resentment and led to a demonstration by Oromo students at Addis Ababa University. Later this expanded to protests among the local people in the rural areas, in the course of which several farms were burned down. Obviously, the farms were resented because they were seen as a non-negotiated imposition on local farmers – people were never asked or even approached for their cooperation. To attack the farms – despite that some locals, especially women, obtained salaried jobs there – was in fact a vehement effort to hit the Ethiopian federal government, seen as always excluding local small-holder farmers and as not reinvesting profits or lease fees into the local farming economy. In December and January 2016 these protests were suppressed with force. Some solidarity demonstrations were held elsewhere in the country.

In July 2016 the torch of protest was taken up by the Amhara in the north. Also here the immediate issue was land. Issues of alienation of productive lands had already been seen in the region in the past years,[1] but this time the Oromiya example emboldened people. The trigger was the arrest of a local committee of elders from the Walqayt-Tsegede region that wanted to plead with the government to redraw the regional state boundary and give back land: the return of the region to Amhara Region (Walqayt had been allocated to Tigray Region in 1996 under an administrative reorganization). In the ensuing confrontations, security force members were also killed. In the weekend of 6-7 August, renewed protests erupted in several places and about a hundred demonstrators were shot and killed. No efforts to mediate were undertaken since, and clashes continued. Later in August, the large 10 mln euro Esmeralda flower farm near Bahir Dar was burnt to the ground, and the Dutch owners withdrew from Ethiopia. Other conflagrations followed, e.g., with some prisons also set on fire – but it is unknown who started these fires.

(to be continued)

[1] In 2012 there had been serious controversy over the Ethiopian government claiming large chunks of land belonging to or adjacent to the old Orthodox Christian monastery of Waldubba in the Gondar region to be developed for a state corporation to produce sugar cane. This deeply angered the overwhelmingly Orthodox Amhara, seeing it as an attack on their identity.

(Picture is courtesy of Ethiogrio)

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. 


  1. The ethnicity alibi used by TPLF has lived, there is a national uprising against the rule of a minority government, and whatever you say, the Ethiopians from all ethnic background, will prove you wrong. Sorry.

  2. & #Breaking news Ethnic groups in Ethiopia are genetically compatible you know, they can have babies together!

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