SATURDAY, AUGUST 13, 2016
Is Ethiopia about to crack?
For the past decade, it has been one Africa’s most stable nations, a solid Western ally with a fast-growing economy. But in recent months, antigovernment protests have convulsed the country, spreading into more and more areas. In the past week alone, thousands of people stormed into the streets, demanding fundamental political change.
The government response, according to human rights groups, was ruthless. Witnesses said that police officers shot and killed scores of unarmed demonstrators. Videos circulating from protests thought to be from late last year or earlier this year show security officers whipping young people with sticks as they were forced to perform handstands against a wall. The top U.N. human rights official is now calling for a thorough investigation.
“It was always difficult holding this country together, and moving forward, it will be even harder,” said Rashid Abdi, the Horn of Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a research group.
Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa, after Nigeria, and its stability is cherished by the West. U.S. military and intelligence services work closely with the Ethiopians to combat terrorist threats across the region, especially in Somalia, and few if any countries in Africa receive as much Western aid.
Ethiopia’s economy has been expanding at an impressive clip. Its infrastructure has improved drastically — there is even a new commuter train in the capital, Addis Ababa. And its streets are typically quiet, safe and clean. Although Ethiopia has hardly been a paragon of democracy — human rights groups have constantly cited the government’s repressiveness — opposition within the country had been limited, with dissidents effectively silenced. Many have been exiled, jailed, killed or driven to the far reaches of the desert.
But that may be changing.
“If you suffocate people, and they don’t have any other options but to protest, it breaks out,” said Seyoum Teshome, a university lecturer in central Ethiopia. “The whole youth is protesting. A generation is protesting.”
The complaints are many, covering everything from land use to the governing coalition’s stranglehold on power. After a widely criticized election last year, the governing party and its allies got the last seat the opposition had held and now control 100 percent of the Parliament. At the same time, tensions are rising along the border with Eritrea; a battle along that jagged, disputed line claimed hundreds of lives in June.
Analysts fear that separatist groups that had been more or less vanquished in recent years, like the Oromo Liberation Front or the Ogaden National Liberation Front, may try to exploit the turbulence and rearm.
Several factors explain why bitter feelings, after years of simmering beneath the surface, are exploding now.
The first is seemingly innocuous: smartphones.
Only in the past couple of years have large numbers of Ethiopians been able to communicate using social media as cheaper smartphones became common and internet service improved. Even when the government shuts down access to Facebook and Twitter, as it frequently does, especially during protests, many people are still able to communicate via internet proxies that mask where they are. Several young Ethiopians said this was how they gathered for protests.
Second, there is more solidarity between Oromos and Amharas, Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups. Oromos and Amharas are not natural allies. For eons, Amharas from Ethiopia’s predominantly Christian highlands flourished in politics and business, exploiting the Oromos, many of whom are Muslim and live in lowland areas.
But that is changing as well.
“We are on the way to coordinate under one umbrella,” said Mulatu Gemechu, an Oromo leader.
The biggest protests have been in Amhara and Oromo areas. Many Amharas and Oromos feel Ethiopia is unfairly dominated by members of the Tigrayan ethnic group, which makes up about 6 percent of the population and dominates the military, intelligence services, commerce and politics.
The third reason behind the unrest is the loss of Meles Zenawi.
Meles, a former rebel leader, was Ethiopia’s prime minister for 17 years, until his death from an undisclosed illness in 2012. He was considered a tactical genius, a man who could see around corners. Analysts say he was especially adept at detecting early signals of discontent and using emissaries to massage and defang opponents.
“The current regime lacks that ground savvy,” said Abdi, the conflict analyst.
Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, was plucked from relative obscurity to fill Meles’ shoes. Unlike Meles, who came from the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, Hailemariam is a southerner. Analysts say he does not have the trust of the Tigrayan-controlled security services.
The result, many fear, is more bloodshed.
The last time Ethiopia experienced such turmoil was in 2005, after thousands protested over what analysts have said appeared to be an election the government bungled and then stole. In the ensuing crackdown, many protesters were killed, though fewer than in recent months, and that period of unrest passed relatively quickly.
Development experts have praised Ethiopia’s leaders for visionary infrastructure planning, such as the new commuter train, and measurable strides in fighting poverty. But clearly that has not stopped the internal resentment of Ethiopia’s government from intensifying. And it is taking a dangerous ethnic shape.
Last month, protesters in Gondar, an Amhara town, attacked businesses owned by Tigrayans, and anti-Tigrayan hatred is becoming more common on social media.
Analysts say the protests are putting the United States and other Western allies in an awkward position. The U.S. government has used Ethiopia as a base for drone flights over neighboring Somalia, although it recently said it closed that base.
While the West clearly wants to support democracy, it also does not want its ally in an already volatile region to crumble.
“That,” Abdi said, “is a very tight rope to walk.”