Nearly a year of protests against land reform issues and heavy-handed government policies is starting to take its toll on Ethiopia, who earlier this month announced a six-month state of emergency. Often hailed as a rising star and economic stronghold of Africa, the growing discontent highlights the limits of authoritarian development as well as the hypocrisy of the West when it comes to human rights abuses.
The protests started last November following the announcement of the government’s new plan to expand the capital of Addis Ababa into the surrounding countryside that is mainly inhabited by the Oromo ethnic group. Despite being the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo have long complained that they are economically marginalized in favor of the Tigray, who make up less than 10 percent of the population but dominate the government. Because of this, the plan to expand the capital was viewed as a naked land grab by the government, designed to marginalize the Oromo even further.
Even though the government eventually relented and cancelled the capital expansion plans in January, the protests revealed the growing discontent between the people and the government’s development policies. Ethiopia has recorded impressive economic growth since ostensibly moving to a multiparty democratic system in 1991, averaging an annual 10.2 percent GDP growth between 2006 and 2015. But that growth is distributed unevenly among the population. As Dr. Awol Allo pointed out last year, economic growth has consistently pushed Oromo farmers of their land without adequate compensation or any real plan to include them as part of the new economy.
The issue is not new – Addis Ababa itself was originally an Oromo village – but more than two decades with no sign of reform are finally pushing Ethiopians to protest. And the Oromo are not alone. Protests have also erupted among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group over the administration of some of their ancestral land. Combined, the two groups make up more than 60 percent of Ethiopia’s nearly 100 million population and the protests make for a serious problem for the government.
However the government’s response to the protests has only fanned the flames further as several violent crackdowns have left at least 500 dead. After the state of emergency was declared, at least 1,600 people were detained in connection with the protests.
The state of emergency also cracks down on an already limited independent press as watching or listening to “outside forces” including Voice of America, German Radio and a handful of Diaspora stations is now illegal, as is using social media to post updates on the status of things inside the country. Any speech or use of symbols connected with the protests – such as the crossed arms gesture made famous at the Rio Olympics by Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa – are now grounds for a three to five year prison sentence as well. And rather than acknowledge the underlying issues upsetting protesters, the government has taken to blaming outside actors such as Eritrea and Egypt for stoking the unrest.
Despite the growing problems and government repression, the West appears content to largely turn a blind eye. In particular, Ethiopia is one of the countries the EU is targeting to clamp down on irregular migration and refugee flows. As the state of emergency and its draconian rules came into effect, German Chancellor Angela Merkel headed to Ethiopia with stemming migration as a top priority and aims to broker more deals similar to the controversial EU-Turkey migration deal that blocks refugees from entering the EU along the popular Eastern Mediterranean route.
Because of the imbalance of economic opportunity within the country and repressive human rights abuses, Ethiopia itself is a major source of migrants. However not all choose to head towards Europe as many head to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in search of better work while others head to South Africa. But the focus of the West on keeping Ethiopian migrants out even in the face of growing political persecution means that the West is sacrificing what political leverage it could have as its priorities are made clear.
Ethiopia has long been a “donor darling” and a popular partner in the global war on terror, but the investments made in these areas has required both the West to look away from some of the country’s less appealing realities. As the protests drag on and calls for regime change increase, it is becoming clear that such an approach is no longer a feasible option as the risk of chaos in the Horn of Africa becomes a real possibility.