It has now been just over three months since Abdirahman Mahdi warned al-Jazeera that “Ethiopia is now boiling.” A founding member of the Ethiopian Somali rebel group known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front, Mahdi described an Ethiopian government in disarray as its citizens – divided among 80 different ethnic groups – rose up against the country’s Tigrayan minority rulers in what he saw as a new Arab Spring.
Ethiopia’s longstanding political tensions have been boiling over since late last year, as escalating violence has claimed nearly 100 lives in the latest round of protests. Even so, it’s been difficult for Western observers and Ethiopians alike to understand the extent of the upheaval. Despite the frequent portrayal of Ethiopia as a reliable (and critically, stable) partner in one of the most turbulent regions in Africa, Ethiopians live in one of the continent’s most repressive states and contend with draconian laws that curtail a free press and limit digital access. Now, United Nations officials are demanding entry for international observers to assess the mounting evidence of human rights violations, including the government’s use of lethal force against its citizens. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of protesters have been detained.
Separate protests in Ethiopia’s Oromia and Amhara regions come after months of simmering frustrations among the two ethnic groups, who together account for more than 60 percent of a population of 100 million. The proximal causes of their grievances – including a failed attempt to annex land the Oromo claim as their own to the Addis Ababa capital region – have triggered an outpouring of anger which had been pent up since 1991, when the current regime came to power. Fueling that anger are underlying ethnic tensions and the dominant power of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) at the heart of the regime.
Ethnic divisions at the root of the crisis
The Tigray elites, representing just six percent of the population, hail from a small northern territory that shares its border with Eritrea. Their role in the overthrow of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former ethnic Amhara dictator whose political career spanned decades of internal violence, positioned them atop Ethiopia’s ruling class. That has left the Oromo, the largest ethnic group, oppressed and discriminated against for decades by successive governments. Their longstanding lack of civic and economic opportunity has fueled the current upheaval, an unprecedented challenge to TPLF leadership.
The spark came in April 2014, when the Ethiopian government announced its Addis Ababa Integrated Master Plan. The urban plan required the annexation of Oromo territory and the forced removal of Oromo farmers from precious arable land. The first protests came soon afterward, as did the first reported deaths at the hands of the Ethiopian military. Because the Ethiopian government tends to punish dissent under laws that interpret activism as a threat to peace and even as terrorism, officials blamed the bloodshed on protesting students and citizens.
The current anti-government protests have spread across the Oromia region since November 2015, stoked by outrage over the previous killings and detained protesters who are still missing. Even though the plans for Addis Ababa’s expansion were shelved in January, the crackdown on the Oromo continued. As their protests persisted, the show of defiance motivated the Amhara (who have their own longstanding disputes with the Tigray) as well as ethnic Somalis in their own long and bloody civil conflicts.
Implications for the U.S. and the Horn of Africa
Despite a track record of human rights abuses that include lengthy sentences for journalists, police-state surveillance strategies, torture, and extrajudicial killings, the United States and other Western partners consider Ethiopia a valuable partner in the war on terror. Geopolitical realities, and the strategic interests of the U.S. in particular, make financial and diplomatic investment in Ethiopia an ugly expedient. For its part, Ethiopia’s merciless repression – even if partially masked by intense censorship – fits neatly into the counterterrorism narrative it presents to the global community. The security rationale serves as an excuse for the repression of ethnic minorities like the Somalis, while the United States continues to provide material support to a regime that violates democratic principles on nearly every measure. In the midst of the current upheaval, this has gone so far as shutting off state-controlled Internet access to those few citizens who have it.
The U.S. has been circumspect in its concern over the escalating violence in Ethiopia, a cautious approach informed by the breakdown of state structures in neighboring South Sudan and Somalia. American officials have taken a similar approach in dealing with neighboring Djibouti, where strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh’s controversial re-election to a fourth term this year followed a violent crackdown on opposition groups. Security forces loyal to Guelleh killed 19 people in an attack on a religious gathering and a meeting of political opponents last December, and opposition parties boycotted the presidential contest after the Djiboutian leader broke the terms of a previous settlement. The American response to the tainted elections reflected the security relationship between the two countries, including the American lease on Camp Lemonnier and Djibouti’s role as a staging ground in the regional war on terrorism.
That political developments in Ethiopia and Djibouti so closely align should come as little surprise, given their close relationship; Guelleh has even floated the idea of a political union in the past. In addition to the United States, China also has a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo in both countries. Beijing recently began building its first overseas base in Djibouti, and a spate of Chinese infrastructure investments in both Ethiopia and Djibouti are aimed at integrating the two and facilitating Chinese access to the landlocked Ethiopian market. Unfortunately for dissidents and rights activists on the ground, the world’s two most powerful states have little incentive to upset a fragile applecart in either of these repressive states.