Oduu Haaraya

Protests a serious scare to Ethiopia PM and secretive ruling coalition


Bishoftu residents cross their wrists above their heads as a symbol for the Oromo anti-government protest movement during the Oromo holiday in Bishoftu on October 2, 2016. Oromos are the largest ethnic group and have a long-standing grievance about never having controlled political leadership. PHOTO | AFP

For past five years, Ethiopia has been hit by protests, not only by formal opposition groups but also Muslims unhappy at the imposition of government-approved leaders, displaced farmers, Amharas opposed at inclusion in Tigre region and by groups in the vast Oromia region.

In the most recent unrest in Oromia, at least 55 people died when security forces intervened during the annual Ireecha fete — a seasonal festival.

Oromo protests have continued long after plans to expand capital Addis Ababa’s boundaries were abandoned early in the year.

In particular, Amhara and Oromo opposition has coalesced, both adopting the latest symbol — arms raised and wrists crossed as if handcuffed.

The picture of Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa making this gesture while crossing the finish line at Rio 2016 went viral, and photos from Ireecha celebrations in Bishoftu show the crowd standing with arms crossed above their heads before police intervention triggered the deadly panic.

The ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has achievements to show for its 25 years in power in terms of economic development and improved health and education.

What it has not done is manage the transition from being a centralised, secretive revolutionary movement to running a more open government.

In theory, Ethiopia has embraced democracy but hurdles are put in the way of potential rival parties that currently, there are no opposition MPs.

EPRDF has in theory devolved a good deal of power, but regional leaders are changed by the government time and again.

The constitution allows freedom of speech and association but draconian anti-terrorism laws have been used against those who have tried to criticise the government.

It is now clear that these attempts to hold on to control in a changing world have misfired.

Just as attempts to dictate who should lead Muslims led to earlier protests, reports from Bishoftu Town, where 55 died say anger spilled over on Sunday because of attempts to control which leaders would speak.

The overreaction of security forces then turned a protest that might have gone unnoticed into a catastrophe, inflaming anger in Ethiopia and abroad.

And the cycle continues. Every time protests are badly handled they create more grievances, and generate more anger.

The US is among governments that have expressed concern at the situation.

Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield, met Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn during the UN General Assembly last month.

She urged him to be open to dialogue, accept greater press freedom, release political prisoners and allow civil society to operate.

“We have encouraged him to look at how the government is addressing this,” she said after the meeting. “It could get worse if it is not addressed soon.”

Oromos are the largest ethnic group and have a long-standing grievance about never having controlled political leadership.

Amhara domination, under former military government and emperors, was replaced by Tigrean leadership following the overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

Meles Zenawi, who played a key role in the overthrow of Mengistu took power as president and later as PM.

When he died in 2012, the Oromo hoped it would be their turn to rule, but his chosen replacement, Hailemariam, came from the small Welayta ethnic group in the south.

Not only are the Oromo numerous, their region is large and more productive than the densely populated highlands.

It produces a lot of Ethiopia’s food, and most of its coffee — the biggest export earner.

The sprawling region encircles Addis Ababa, controlling transport routes.

For a government so worried about loss of control, big Oromo protests are a serious threat indeed.

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