Why Ethiopia Just Declared a State of Emergency

Anti-government protests have roiled the fast-growing country

Oromo Protestors
People protest the Ethiopian government's alleged killing of Oromo students and seizure of Oromo lands in Addis Ababa in 2014. Gadaa Flickr-Creative Commons

Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing countries in Africa—a nation which is quickly industrializing and barreling ahead on both poverty reduction and economic growth. But all is not well in the east African country. As The Guardian and agencies report, Ethiopia just declared a six-month state of emergency in the aftermath of widespread anti-government protests.

The move was declared by Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, in a televised address. The government claims that the emergency was declared because of property damage, damage to local infrastructure and institutions and danger to Ethiopian citizens, writes The Guardian.

It’s the first state of emergency declared in Ethiopia for at least 25 years, says Ofeibea Quist-Arcton for NPR—the result of a government “clearly rattled” by protests. Last year, the government declared a plan to expand Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital, into nearby farms, evicting the Oromo landowners. The Oromo people live in a politically autonomous region called Oromia and are the nation’s largest ethnic group. They have long been subject to political oppression and discrimination, and human rights organizations claim that some 20,000 Oromo people are currently political prisoners. The government’s expansion plan lit a fuse in the region, sparking marches and violent clashes in the region.

Though the plan was eventually abandoned, unrest has continued. Things came to a head on October 2, when a thanksgiving festival called Irreecha turned into a bloody massacre. The BBC reports that in Oromo, the religious festival attracted 2 million people who used it as a chance to protest the government.

They shouted anti-government slogans and crossed their hands over their heads in a gesture intended to protest government repression—a gesture that Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa made in August as he crossed the finish line to win a silver medal in the marathon during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

During the festival, police responded with tear gas and, eventually, bullets, and a stampede broke out. In the aftermath, the Ethiopian government claimed that 55 were killed. But human rights groups and opposition leaders are crying foul, saying that death count is exponentially higher, claiming the lives of 678 people. Following the massacre, Ethiopia declared a three-day period of national mourning.

The protests come in the midst of a full-blown economic revolution in Ethiopia that has made the country one of Africa’s most prosperous. Despite a drought this year, writes The Daily Nation’s Victor Juma, Ethiopia continues to invest in huge infrastructure projects like a light rail in Addis Ababa and a dam invested to bring a billion dollars a year in electricity sales into the country. But the focus on industrialization has stoked tensions between the government and Ethiopians, who have begun to attack foreign-owned companies.

As Reuters’ Aaron Maasho reports, the Ethiopian government blames foreigners in places like Egypt and Eritrea for the unrest. Since October 2, other protests have broken out near factories owned by foreign companies, and last week, an American researcher was killed when people in the area threw rocks at her.

Details of the state of emergency have not yet been broadcast, so it’s unclear what the next six months will hold for Ethiopia. As Elias Meseret reports for the Associated Press, in response to the protests, the government has blocked the internet throughout Ethiopia for more than a week now to stop people from organizing on social media.

Will the crackdown slow protests, too, or simply stoke tensions against the country’s increasingly authoritarian government? It likely won’t take six months to find out.

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