ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa neared the finish line in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday and crossed his hands above his head, it wasn’t to celebrate the Olympic medal he was about to win. It was to protest his government’s violent crackdown on ethnic Oromos, who have died by the hundreds at the hands of Ethiopian security forces in recent months.“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe,” Lilesa said later at a news conference. “My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.”
Lilesa’s statement, which was applauded widely in activist circles online, was true: Ethiopian security services have, for months, been running roughshod over protesters. But the analysis was also incomplete. The Ethiopian government, an important U.S. ally, is far more fragile than the ongoing crackdowns suggest. Indeed, the crackdowns themselves are exposing ethnic fault lines in the ruling coalition that could ultimately bring it down.
Since November 2015, Africa’s second-most populous nation has been buffeted by an unprecedented wave of protests. They began as a rebuke of the government’s plan to integrate the development of the capital, Addis Ababa, with parts of the surrounding Oromia region. But they have since spread to the neighboring Amhara region, highlighting a range of grievances, including ethnic marginalization and dictatorial rule.
The government has responded with deadly force, killing as many as 500 demonstrators in the past 10 months, according to rights groups. But even before Lilesa’s brave show of solidarity at the finish line the demonstrations appeared to be gathering steam. They also seem to be taking on a worrying ethnic tinge.
Both trends were on display on Aug. 7, when the normally placid, palm-lined city of Bahir Dar in northern Ethiopia became the scene of unspeakable horror. A peaceful anti-government demonstration there turned violent after a security guard at a government building opened fire on the crowds, provoking an angry backlash from protesters, according to witnesses. Security forces then gunned down dozens of demonstrators, killing at least 30.
“I’m just speechless to express it. It’s horrible. The Agazi soldiers, they are just wild beasts. They killed our brothers, our sisters, without any mercy,” said Tsedale Akale, a 28-year-old demonstrator, referring to members of an elite military commando unit that the government has regularly deployed to quash protests and restore order in recent months.
A spokesman for the regional government in Bahir Dar, Nigusu Tilahun, said the response was justified. “When there is looting, when things go out of order, when people throw stones and try to take over the gun from the military and the police, then the police has to protect,” he said.
The Agazi unit, which activists hold responsible for the killings in Bahir Dar, is seen by many Ethiopians as a tool of the Tigrayan ethnic group (though it is in factmultiethnic). Tigrayans make up about 6 percent of the population, but they have played a prominent role in government, and especially the security services, since the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led a rebel alliance that overthrew the communist-backed military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. (Oromos account for 34 percent of the population and Amharas account for 27 percent, but neither ethnic group is seen to rival the Tigrayans’ influence in government.)
For decades, members of the opposition and international donors have been urging the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four regional parties founded by the TPLF, to make the system more democratic and ethnically inclusive. Instead, it has politicized state institutions, jailed opponents, shot protesters, forced critical journalists into exile, and passed repressive legislation that has muted civil society.
The result has been overwhelming electoral dominance for the EPRDF — in last year’s parliamentary elections, the coalition and its allies won every single seat — enabling it to use the state’s muscle to strong-arm a traditionally agrarian society into becoming an industrialized nation. Its record has been impressive from a purely development perspective: It has built much-needed infrastructure and dramatically improved public services.
Presiding over the coalition and government is Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who assumed power when Meles Zenawi, the influential Tigrayan rebel-leader-turned-strongman, passed away in 2012. Hailemariam, who hails from a southern ethnic group, is seen as an able technocrat and a neutral political figure capable of balancing the nation’s fragile ethnic politics.
Yet the EPRDF has also sowed the seeds of the current unrest by suffocating the opposition and doing little to address perceived ethnic marginalization. In Oromia and Amhara, the two regions at the heart of current protests, anti-Tigrayan sentiment has festered for decades among those who believe the group controls the repressive government. Now it has burst into the open amid growing ethnic nationalism.
One of the chief demands of the protesters in Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region, is the return of an area of Amhara that was incorporated into Tigray in the 1995 constitution that divided the country into ethnically defined administrative units. The TPLF claims that residents of the Wolkait district, as the area is known, are almost all Tigrayan; some ethnic Amhara protesters say the ruling coalition manipulated the census that preceded the 1995 constitution. (Amhara groups dominated Ethiopia for centuries before 1991.)
Before the Aug. 7 violence, the Amhara region saw a large peaceful demonstration in Gondar city on July 31 — a contrast with the increasingly violent unrest in Oromia. But earlier this month, angry crowds of demonstrators attacked Tigrayan-owned businesses and, in some cases, told ethnic Tigrayans to leave the region after checking their identity cards, according to two witnesses. There were also unconfirmed reports of targeted killings of Tigrayans and a mass evacuation of Tigrayans from the city.
TPLF supporters have accused Amhara officials who are EPRDF members of supporting the protests, raising the prospect of a major schism within the ruling coalition. (The Amhara are currently represented within the EPRDF by the Amhara National Democratic Movement, but an escalation of violence could cause the coalition to come unglued.) The dispute over the Wolkait district is especially dangerous for the government, according Harry Verhoeven, who teaches African politics at the Qatar branch of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, because it reinforces the view that Tigrayans have rigged the federal system. “When you have perception that northern part of Amhara is essentially annexed by Tigray it is quite explosive,” he said.
A similar dynamic is in play in the central Oromia region, which surrounds Addis Ababa, where as many as 86 demonstrators were killed by security forces the day before the Bahir Dar protests. At the root of the Oromos’ grievances is the desire for greater autonomy after centuries of exploitation by northern rulers and feudal landowners. The region is represented within the ruling EPRDF by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, a party that activists accuse of being little more than a corrupt clique of Oromo politicians who are subservient to the TPLF. They point to the thousands of Oromo farmers who have been evicted from their land in recent years to make room for developers with links to ruling elites.
The stability of the EPRDF — and of the nation — will turn on the coalition’s response to a protest movement that shows little sign of abating. Of increasing concern for the EPRDF is the fact that protesters in Amhara have displayed newfound solidarity with their Oromo compatriots, while the two major exiled political parties drawn from those communities have formed an alliance.
The EPRDF has spent decades amassing the unrestrained power to implement its statist development strategy. Even if they are of a mind to compromise, Hailemariam and other EPRDF leaders may find it difficult to pacify the demonstrators while opening up political space for the opposition. The surging anti-Tigrayan sentiment among protesters, coupled with the fact that many seek regime change, suggests that EPRDF leaders fearing for their survival will double down on their heavy-handed approach rather than risk opening the floodgates. To the extent that they attempt to defuse the situation, they are likely to focus on job creation, improving public services, and rooting out corruption.
“Political liberalization comes with some risk for those that benefit from the current political monopoly, but it is necessary for Ethiopia’s stability going forward,” said Michael Woldemariam, an assistant professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. “But I can’t say that I am seeing compelling evidence of the government moving in that direction.”