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Ethiopia On The Brink? Politics And Protest In Horn Of Africa – Analysis


Ethiopia is 12 months in to a political crisis which has seen at least 1,000 people killed. But unless the government introduces significant reforms, it will get worse.

By Andrea Carboni*

An unprecedented wave of protests has shaken Ethiopia since November 2015. These protests have revealed the fragility of the social contract regulating Ethiopia’s political life since 1991, when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition (EPRDF) overthrew the Derg and assumed power. This tacit agreement between the ruling coalition and the Ethiopian people offered state-sponsored development in exchange for limited political liberalisation. After twenty-five years of EPRDF rule, frustrated with widespread corruption, a political system increasingly perceived as unjust and the unequal gains of economic development, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have now descended into the streets, triggering a violent reaction from the state.

As we enter the twelfth month of the uprising, violence shows no sign of decreasing in Ethiopia. In its efforts to put down unrest, the government has allowed the security forces to use lethal violence against the protesters. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, more than one thousand people are estimated to have died as a result of violent state repression since last November. Thousands of people, including prominent opposition leaders and journalists, have been arrested and are currently detained in prison.

International concern

International institutions and non-governmental organisations have expressed major concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The UN Human Rights Council called for “international, independent, thorough, impartial and transparent investigations” over the repression in Ethiopia, a request that was swiftly rejected by the government. Ethiopia’s Information Minister instead blamed “foreign elements” linked with the Egyptian and the Eritrean political establishments for instigating the rebellion and arming the opposition.

Rather than stifling dissent, state repression has contributed to escalating protests. Violent riots have increased after the events in Bishoftu on October 2, when a stampede caused by police firing on a protesting crowd killed at least 55 people. In the following days, demonstrators have vandalised factories and flower farms – including many under foreign ownership – accused of profiting from the government’s contested development agenda. An American researcher also died when her vehicle came under attack near Addis Ababa. Although protesters have largely remained peaceful and resorted to non-violent tactics, these episodes of violence raise concerns over escalating trends in the protest movement.

This map shows the number of reported fatalities in Ethiopia, November 2015 – October 2016. Image credit: Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset.
This map shows the number of reported fatalities in Ethiopia, November 2015 – October 2016. Image credit: Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset.

Unrest and repression

The geography of unrest is also telling of the evolving protest cycle in Ethiopia. The protests originated last November in the Oromia region, where the local population mobilised to oppose a government-backed developmental plan which would displace many farmers. The Oromo people, who constitute Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group, accuse the EPRDF of discriminating against their community, and its local ally, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), as being a puppet in the hands of the Tigray-dominated ruling coalition.

Until mid-July, the unrest had largely remained confined to Oromia’s towns and villages. Local tensions around the northern city of Gondar inaugurated a new round of protests in the Amhara region, where regionalist demands joined the widespread discontent with state repression. In the following weeks, protests spread further into the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’, the native region of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, as local communities began to stage anti-government protests. Episodes of communal violence and attacks against churches have been reported in Oromia as well as in other ethnically mixed areas of the country.

Despite increasing dissent, the government seems unwilling to mitigate its repressive measures. Internet access was allegedly shut down in an attempt to hamper the protest movement, which uses online media and social networks to disseminate anti-government information. On October 9, the government introduced a six-month state of emergency, the first time since the ruling EPRDF came to power in 1991. At least 1,600 people are reported to have been detained since the state of emergency was declared, while the Addis Standard, a newspaper critical of the government, was forced to stop publications due to the new restrictions on the press.

Polarised politics: government and opposition

These decisions notwithstanding, it is unclear how the EPRDF can manage to restore the government’s authority and preserve investor confidence by adopting measures that continue to feed resistance. After pressure from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Hailemariam pledged to reform Ethiopia’s electoral system, which currently allows the EPRDF to control 500 of the 547 seats in Parliament. These limited political concessions are unlikely to satisfy the protesters’ demand for immediate and substantial change, since the proposed reform would only produce effects after the 2020 general elections.

According to the opposition, this is the evidence that the Tigray minority, which dominates the upper echelons of the government and the security apparatus, is unwilling to make any significant concessions in the short term. By labelling the opposition’s demands as racist and even denying their domestic nature, the government is leaving little room for negotiation and compromise and risks contributing to the escalation of the protests.

For over a decade, Ethiopia has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Foreign investments – most notably from China – have funded large-scale infrastructure projects, including the recently inaugurated railway to the port of Djibouti.

The on-going unrest is likely to have a negative impact on Ethiopia’s economy, reducing the country’s considerable appeal among foreign investors and tourists. The demonstrations have revealed the growing discontent of the Ethiopian people, and especially of its disenfranchised youth, over the EPRDF’s authoritarian and unequal rule. The EPRDF therefore needs to implement far-reaching reforms and embrace dialogue with the opposition to prevent the current unrest from deteriorating.

*Andrea Carboni is a Research Analyst at ACLED and PhD student at Sussex University.

This article was originally published by Insight on Conflict and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

8 thoughts on “Ethiopia On The Brink? Politics And Protest In Horn Of Africa – Analysis

  • February 6, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    The stability of Ethiopia benifits all. Western countries should work hard to avoid a kind of catastrophic seen in middle east and Libya. After all if they fail to do so , they will have their own share of trouble in the form of migration criss.It will also be far more worse than seen in Somalia as it is a home for over 100 millions.

  • February 6, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    Political polarization is order of the day. Much more than journalistic research is needed for solutions. Sharpen your research … You’ll be taken seriously:

  • February 6, 2017 at 6:56 pm


  • February 6, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    The era of Abyssinian apartheid minority settelers empire is over
    Whether western backers Likes or not..
    Oppressed nations in fake Abyssinia will be free soon inshaALLAAH
    Thanks to the tiny people of Somalia for showing the way by refusing to give up army struggle against western/Abyssinia hegemony in Muslim east Africa

  • February 6, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    The problem with Ethiopia is that there is no democracy. People are subjected to all kinds of abuses. If anyone is opposing the views of the ruling party, which has been leading Ethiopia for the last 25 years, chances are locked in horrible jail, torture, or being taken from the face of the earth.
    The people of Ethiopia have had it. They want freedom, they can’t wait any longer. I think it’s time for the Western countries to stop aiding the brutal regime of Ethiopia, and stand with the people of Ethiopia. Don’t let your tax payers money to be used as a tool to let the people of Ethiopia stay in shackles.

  • February 6, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    Good analysis. Thanks. There is no government in the Empire”Ethiopia”, it is only Tigris people’s liberation front (TPLF) which is freeing Tigris citizens to gallop in and loot or vandalize, rob or sell the resources of poor people. They are playing drama, they steeple… PDOs for almost all ethnics and lie as if they are multiparty (Organized based on people’s interests). All …PDOs are puppets, and have no any power or mandets than what the EPDRF (TPLF) mafia bosses Command. How long they wanted to continue we don’t know. The western countries are only looking for “Quite” and “calm” horn of Africa, either they know that TPLF are 100 % good and winners as they have been claiming and admitted and witnessed the fact to the world media.

  • February 8, 2017 at 5:41 am

    Obama and Susan rice are accountable for the destruction of my country. They praised the illegal government as democratically elected government. Imagine, a party that won election 100 percent was praised by Obama and Susan rice as an exemplary for democracy.During funeral service of the late dictator and bloody prime minister,Susan Rice praised him as if she lost her boy friend.Thanks God , Mr. Trump took the office and chased out all so called democrat whose primary job is lobbying on behalf of cruel leaders in Africa.

  • November 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    also some pretty protected and well paid peoples are dividing us for the sec of petty survival even among the higher political and economic groups. framed ,arrested and always fearful for their families and friends.


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