The struggles of Ethiopians protesting repression and government-sponsored development programs have gone virtually unreported over the past year — and so has the murder of hundreds of people by the state for taking part in the resistance.
The struggles are centred among the Oromo people — the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but who have suffered marginalisation and oppression.
Bloomberg reported on October 3 that at least 100 people were killed when security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd at a cultural festival in Oromia, causing a stampede.
The upsurge began last November when a largely student-led movement in Oromia took to the streets to oppose the displacement of the region’s farmers and communities because of large development projects. In particular, the movement opposed the so-called “master plan” for expanding the capital city of Addis Ababa into the surrounding rural areas.
One year on, the movement has successfully pressured the government to back away from its “master plan” proposal. However, the state’s brutal crackdown has not let up.
In the face of a government-imposed information blackout, Oromo leaders called for peaceful protests for August. They issued a list of demands including self-determination for Oromia, an end to government repression and freedom for all political prisoners.
The demonstrations were met with deadly violence. Security forces began indiscriminately firing live bullets into the crowds, according to an Amnesty International report. At least 97 people were killed, Amnesty said, including 30 people murdered in a single day in the northern city of Bahir Dar. Hundreds more were injured or arrested and imprisoned, where they likely face torture.
The Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia said soldiers and police have killed about 600 Oromo during anti-government protests over the past year. Many more have been injured or arrested.
Because of a state-imposed media blackout that has included government shutdowns of social media sites and the jailing of journalists, information about the protests and the victims of security forces has been spotty at best.
Much of what we do know, aside from what has filtered through the media blackout, was documented in a June Human Rights Watch report. It was based on information from interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses and victims of the repression.
The report described the issues that have sparked the movement: discrimination and state repression, dispossession of lands, environmental degradation, contamination of water supplies and labour grievances. All of these are rooted in Ethiopia’s supposedly “miraculous” economic growth, which has been held up as a model of development success.
With an estimated population of nearly 100 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. It has been one of the fastest growing economies on the continent as measured by growth in the gross domestic product. The boom was driven by large foreign and state-backed development projects in industry and infrastructure.
Ethiopia is also an important diplomatic hub in the Horn of Africa at the north-eastern corner of the continent. Addis Ababa serves as the headquarters for the African Union.
The country’s economic expansion is primarily designed to make the country an appealing destination for international investors Major projects include enormous “industrial parks” similar to those in other countries aiming to become manufacturing powers.
With an influx of capital from China and elsewhere, Ethiopia has already become a major export and manufacturing centre for industries such as agriculture and textiles. Commodities are produced for well-known Western brands like H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
But this growth has been coupled with the repression of internal dissent, particularly of the Oromo and other ethnic groups whose livelihoods are seen as an obstacle to development.
Like other countries in Africa, land dispossession is a central issue. And for all the wealth being generated for international capital, inequality, poverty, hunger and disease continue to take a toll on a majority of the population.
In terms of human development, Ethiopia remains one of the worst countries in the world. It is ranked 173rd out of 186, according to the latest human development report of the United Nations.
Despite the economic “miracle”, famine remains a threat for millions of people. This is particularly grotesque for a country that exports billions of dollars worth of agricultural commodities every year, including coffee, vegetables, dried legumes, meat and other animal products.
The government proposes to export even more in the future. Meanwhile, the country’s population remains reliant on hundreds of millions of dollars a year in foreign aid.
The “master plan” for the expansion of Addis Ababa was largely intended to deal with the large growth in the city’s population as people flock to urban centres seeking jobs. The plan proposed a 20-fold expansion of the city’s total area by incorporating the surrounding agricultural lands and communities.
After months of protest and opposition, the government made a surprise announcement in January that it was cancelling the project. However, protests continued, with the focus shifting to issues such as government repression.
The unrest also began to spread beyond Oromia to involve different ethnic groups in other parts of the country.
In an attempt to legitimise its crackdown, the Ethiopian regime — a US ally that has been in power since the mid-1990s — has branded all protesters as “terrorists”. The government enforces draconian “anti-terror” laws that allow security forces “to use unrestrained force against suspected terrorists, including pre-trial detention of up to four months”.
War on terror
Unsurprisingly, this autocratic regime is considered by the US government to be an important partner in the global “war on terror” — for which it has been rewarded with lots of military aid. Ethiopia participated in the CIA’s so-called “extraordinary rendition” program to outsource the torture of “war on terror” detainees to other countries.
In 2006, the Ethiopian government, with US support, invaded and occupied Somalia to stamp out Islamist forces declared to be an enemy by Washington. Since 2011, the country has been a launch site for the drone aircraft beloved by the Obama administration striking targets in Somalia and elsewhere.
Because of the information blackout, it falls largely on supporters in the West to publicise and stand in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed peoples like the Oromo against displacement and government repression. Such struggles arise as a product of global capitalism’s drive to develop the African continent.
The protests of the Oromo show what’s really at stake when we hear the word “development”. It is one more battle with working people and indigenous communities on one side and the forces of international capital on the other. It is important for anyone concerned about justice to know which side they are on.
[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]