Ethiopia has been a stable Western ally in an area often seeded with unrest. But while it has shown economic advances in recent years, the nation has not progressed in terms of human rights issues, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech. In the face of continued oppression of cultural groups, including the Oromo people—the most populous and least powerful ethnic group in Ethiopia—many of the nation’s young people, including Olympic runner Feyisa Lilesa, have protested the government.
They have been met with violence, and the unrest is causing the Ethiopian government to declare a state of emergency. For a research paper topic on current events or international relations, here is some of what you need to know about Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s economy and lack of democracy
Ethiopia is the second most populous nation in Africa, and it has been one of the most stable nations in its region. United States military and intelligence departments work closely with Ethiopians to monitor and fight terrorist threats in the area. Because of Western interest and Western aid, Ethiopia’s economy is expanding.
But the economic benefits aren’t helping the entire nation. Members of the Oromo and Amharas ethnic groups maintain that the Tigrayan elite, who make up only a small portion of the population, consolidate their power and silence dissidents. “If you suffocate people and they don’t have any other option but to protest, it breaks out,” university lecturer Seyoum Teshome told Jeffrey Gettleman of the International New York Times in “Protests Destabilize Ethiopia, a Steady U.S. Ally; Governing Party’s Power and Issues Over Land Use Are Creating Rare Unrest,” posted August 13, 2016. “The whole youth is protesting,” Teshome continued. “A generation is protesting.”
What has heightened the protests now? Gettleman posited three main points:
- More Ethiopians use smartphones, making it harder for the Ethiopian government to completely cut off their connections to social media, especially Facebook and Twitter (though it tries). Smartphone users access Internet proxies to mask their location and circumvent the government’s social media blockages in order to organize protests.
- The Oromos and Amharas, despite having previously been at odds (the Amharas are Christians from a highland region, while the Oromos are typically Muslims from the lowland regions), have come together against the Tigrayan leadership.
- When former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died, the Ethiopian government lost their most savvy leader. Meles smoothed over conflicts before they could start and exercised diplomatic and military expertise. Current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn not only lacks those skills, he doesn’t have the support from his government that Meles had.
Many outside of Ethiopia or the Ethiopian diaspora remained unaware of the brewing conflict until it was brought to international attention by Olympic runner Feyisa Lilesa, who raised his arms, crossed above his head after he finished the Olympic marathon, winning the silver medal. The symbol was one of solidarity with his fellow Oromo, and is seen at protests throughout the nation. In interviews Lilesa explained that at peaceful protests, the government has responded with undue force. “In the last nine months, more than 1,000 people died. And others charged with treason,” Lilesa was quoted as saying in Ibrahim Hirsi’s August 25, 2016, Minnesota Post article “Why an Olympic runner’s simple gesture meant so much in Minnesota.” Lilesa continued, “It’s a very dangerous situation among Oromo people in Ethiopia.” So dangerous, in fact, that Lilesa remained in Brazil after the Olympics, fearing the repercussions of his statements if he returned home.
Oromo state of emergency
Violence has built over the past several months, and on October 2, 2016, a protest at a religious festival turned into a stampede. Security forces gassed and opened fire on protesters, sending them into a deadly stampede with at least 55 dead. Further violence built in response as protesters clashed with police in one fifth of the Oromo-populated districts of the nation, leading Prime Minister Desalegn to declare a six month state of emergency on October 9. According to Ethiosports reporter Rahel Samuel in “State of Emergency grants Prime Minister Desalegn sweeping powers,” posted October 10, 2016, the decree allows the government:
- To close down mass media
- To stop groups from assembling
- To enforce curfew
- To block roads, public places and evacuate areas as deemed necessary
- “To use proportionate, force necessary for the implementation of the state of emergency decree.”
For a nation already criticized by civil rights organizations for its limitations on free speech, this move brings further criticism. Worse, rather than end the violence, this type of suppression—declared to protect citizens—may create the opposite response. An analysis of the decree or a look at the history of the nation’s relations with the West could be interesting research paper topics for your international studies course.
For more on Ethiopian history, visit Questia.
What do you think the consequences of unrest in Ethiopia could mean for that nation and its allies? Speculate in the comments.