Since November 2015, Ethiopia has been experiencing a wave of anti-government protests unleashed by fears by the Oromo people that the government was planning to seize their land. Hundreds of people have been killed.
In early August, anti-government demonstrations rocked the Oromia and Amhara regional states of Ethiopia. Thousands of demonstrators went on to the streets calling on the government to stop killing protesters, release those arrested, implement political reform, and respect justice and the rule of law. However, the response from government security forces, which used live ammunition against protesters, led to the death of about 100 unarmed people.
Although the government security apparatus reported that the demonstrations had been contained, “the current political situation has become volatile. Things are fast changing and developments have become increasingly unpredictable,” according to analyst Tsegaye R. Ararssa. Activists are said to be busy devising alternative methods of protest that range from weakening government institutions through staying at home and not operating businesses to organizing a Diaspora-based “grand solidarity rally.”
Change of tactics
In the town of Gondar in the state of Amhara, where the first demonstration took place, residents resorted to a new mode of protest – staying at home. A resident of the town, talking on condition of anonymity, told Deutsche Welle that from last Sunday to Tuesday the streets were deserted. Workers stayed at home and stores remained closed.
Asked why the public had opted for this type of protest, the man said “it is clear that society has demanded an answer from the government, but the response was one of bullets in return, so the public decided to launch a stay-at-home strike.”
For Tsegaye, this peaceful method of protest demonstrates “a complete rejection of the regime by the people. It also blunts the regime’s false claims that the protests were violent. The stay-at-home protest is an indication of the increasing maturity of civil disobedience in Ethiopia.”
Residents in both the Oromia and Amhara regions say that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get an internet connection and access to social media tools has been blocked. “The only way to get through is by using proxy servers,” one resident of Gondar told DW.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Ethiopia’s Communications Affairs Minister Getachew Reda claimed that that social media had been used “to churn out false information after false information, mostly seditious remarks, trying to agitate people against security forces and also against fellow brothers and sisters.” The administration therefore decided to gag “the kind of vitriol running over social media,” he said.
However, political pundits argue that the state move to censor the internet places a strain on political discourse and the sharing of information. Despite the fact that the country has less than three percent of internet access, there are growing numbers of news and opposition websites which the regime is notorious for blocking.
Aid from the West
The Ethiopian government receives some 3.5 billion dollars (3 billion euros) annually from international donors and has remained a key strategic partner of the West, particularly the US and the EU, in the ‘war against terror.’ However, analysts argue this financial support has been toughening the regime’s resolve to silence dissenting voices. The western approach of tiptoeing around human right violations in the country and its continued support for the regime has been stirring up anger among sections of the public.
Tsegaye says that US and EU “support of the regime – which they know is clearly undemocratic – is the very cause of the state terrorism we observe in the region.”
A recent editorial in The Washington Post argues that the Obama administration, beyond releasing their “deeply concerned” statements, should put pressure on the regime to allow for “credible investigation into the killings.” Following the demonstrations in the two regions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, urged the Ethiopian government to “give access to international observers in the affected areas to establish what really happened.”
In an interview with DW, Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the commissioner, said restrictions on internet access, the blocking of social media and lack of civil society organizations in the country have made it difficult to verify reports of deaths and casualties.
Mohammed Said, public relations officer with Ethiopia’s Communications Affairs Office, told DW that the government had its own system of checks and balances and the country’s own Human Rights Commission was doing its job in investigating and publicizing the human rights situation in the country.
For analyst Tsegaye, this shows that the regime “is still in denial of the injustice its policies have resulted in.” The Ethiopian government now has the opportunity to change its approach – otherwise, Ravina said, “if the situation is left to fester, there will be more outbursts, more unrest, more protests and perhaps more violence.”