What's Happening In Ethiopia?


Protests in Minneapolis, Minnesota

Following the murder of activists and national icon, Hachalu Hundessa on June 29th, protests and ensuing violence have erupted across Ethiopia. As is the case with most protests, Hundessa’s death was hardly the extent of protestors' displeasure, it was merely a catalyst for a decades-long disagreement. In 2014, members of Ethiopia’s Oromo population, the country’s largest ethnic group, protested government plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into parts of the Oromo homeland. Student protests erupted following the release of a proposal to expand Addis Ababa’s municipal boundary to include over 15 communities in Oromia, coupled with concerns over displacement of Oromo farmers and residents. Under this new plan, the land would no longer be managed by the Oromia Regional State, rather ceding control to the Addis Ababa City Administration. The regime responded with violence, killing and arresting thousands. Hundessa rose to prominence as the voice of these protests. While the plans were eventually discarded, Hundessa’s murder (his killer and their motive remain unknown) has once again brought disagreements bellied with ethnic connotation to the forefront of the political stage. In the transition from an authoritarian state to a democratic one, the ongoing events command the trajectory of this fragile transition.

Protests have spread internationally throughout the Oromo diaspora, with demonstrations across the U.S. in Minneapolis, D.C., Atlanta, and Seattle. While demands usually center around greater political freedoms there are those that are calling for the removal of current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Analyzing the protests through a lens of ethnic conflict makes it difficult to explain why an Oromo movement is calling for the removal of a Nobel Peace Prize recipient of the same ethnic group. The transformation of Ethiopia in 1994 to an ethnic federation was pointedly intended to protect minority rights and mitigate ethnically driven disagreement. The constitutional framework and federal system were built to curtail suppressive central government structures and regulate ethnic grievances.

In 2018, Abiy was appointed to his current position following former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgn’s resignation in the face of protests demanding greater political freedoms. Given the circumstances of his ascension to power, Abiy pledged greater political reforms including freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and uncensored space for political opposition. He has since released arrested journalists and political prisoners, allowed for the return of exiled members of opposition parties and limited the role of the military in government. This transition has not been without flaws, with abuses by security forces, maintenance of restrictive laws, and common violations of due process. The transition from authoritarianism to democracy is a tumultuous process, the success of which is difficult to measure, yet the current regime’s response to popular unrest can be used to gauge the progress or lack thereof in this regard.

The regime responded by restricting freedom of assembly through the use of deadly force to disrupt demonstrations and, perhaps most alarmingly, imposing an internet blackout and a state of emergency. Previous measures taken by the regime portrayed a shift away from authoritarian methods, yet these actions are a continuation of previous regimes’ responses to political opposition. While violations may be viewed through an ethnic framework, it provides an unsatisfactory explanation to current state action. There are certainly ethnic connotations, but analyses of these human rights violations should make allowances for a non-ethnic approach, viewing them instead as complementary to one another.

As Ethiopia continues its democratic transition, outside parties should shift away from a critique of ethnic federalism, to instead an exploration of the most effective ways to most peacefully support a democratic transition.

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