In late March, lawmakers in Ethiopia voted unanimously to extend the country’s state of emergency for four more months. The emergency was first imposed last October as violence escalated following more than a year of anti-government protests. The protests have largely occurred in the Oromia and Amhara regions, the homelands of the country’s two biggest ethnic groups who complain of being marginalized by the central government. In an email interview, William Davison, an Addis Ababa-based freelance journalist and WPR contributor, gives an update on the crisis and the government’s response.
WPR: How has the crisis in Ethiopia evolved since last October, and did the decision to extend the state of emergency come as a surprise?
William Davison: Since the state of emergency was declared by Ethiopia’s government on Oct. 9, there haven’t been any significant protests. The biggest direct challenge for the authorities appears to have been clashes with armed groups in the north of Amhara region, although the extent of the fighting there is unclear.
Despite the relative calm, it isn’t a surprise that the state of emergency has been extended. Last month the government suspended some of the more draconian measures, such as authorizing police to detain and search people without court proceedings. The government also revoked a dawn-to-dusk curfew near installations including infrastructure facilities and factories.
Extending the emergency means that it will be straightforward for the authorities to reintroduce such measures if protests reoccur, which is a possibility. Activists say there has been little substantive response to their demands. Moreover, the nature of the crackdown—in which 25,000 people were detained—has only exacerbated popular discontent. If they had removed the emergency decree entirely, it’s unclear how the government would have responded in the event of renewed demonstrations.
There is also a perception that the state of emergency handed greater power to an already influential security apparatus. This apparatus includes one of Africa’s most powerful militaries, which may be reluctant to relinquish its new authority.
WPR: To what extent is the state of the emergency being used to restrict opposition activity generally, rather than focusing on the regions where protests have been concentrated?
Davison: The decree imposing the state of emergency places formal restrictions on opposition activity. It reads, “Political parties shall not provide press statement that is likely to harm the sovereignty, security and constitutional order to local or foreign media.” The fuzzy wording means that activists have become more cautious in publicizing their activities or holding meetings. Though arrests and harassment of senior opposition figures happened prior to the state of emergency, last October’s decree also made it simpler for the authorities to go after figures like Merera Gudina, the veteran leader of the Oromo People’s Congress who was taken into custody in December upon returning from a trip to Europe. During that trip, Gudina had criticized the government’s response to protests in an address to the European Parliament. The government has accused him of being in touch with “terrorist” groups. Members and leaders from other political parties have also been detained since the state of emergency was declared.
Most of the decree applied nationally, so it did not focus on the protest areas. However, most of the people taken to training camps for being involved in protests in a mass detention process were from the restive Oromia region and, to a lesser extent, Amhara state.
WPR: What is the likelihood, at this stage, that protesters will have their demands met, and how might their tactics evolve in response to the government crackdown?
Davison: There’s no chance that one of the key demands of the protesters—a change of government—will be met. Instead, the authorities have promised political reforms and to improve public administration, including reducing corruption. While officials have been removed at all levels and a new federal Cabinet announced, the impact of this process has yet to be seen.
In Oromia region, a new leadership has been assertive and has a plan to broaden the benefits of investments by forming companies that give ownership stakes to members of the public. Despite promises from federal officials, there have been no tangible steps taken toward promised electoral reform, which may eventually mean the introduction of an element of proportional representation in time for parliamentary elections in 2020.
A dialogue with the domestic opposition has gotten off to a shaky start, with the main opposition grouping pulling out of the talks because of disagreements over the format for the discussions. The ruthless response to the protests has strengthened opinion in some quarters that peaceful struggle is futile. But it’s not yet clear how widespread those views are and whether the growth of such sentiments will lead to more effective organized resistance that could pose a fresh challenge to Ethiopia’s security apparatus and to the government’s stability.