Ethiopia: A year of growing revolt

Desperate regime responds with massive repression. 
More than 500 people have been killed by Ethiopian state forces and thousands jailed. But this massive repression has not, however, stopped the growing mass revolt in Ethiopia. In early October the regime declared a state of emergency and closed down the internet.

More than 500 people have been killed by Ethiopian state forces and thousands jailed. But this massive repression has not, however, stopped the growing mass revolt in Ethiopia. In early October the regime declared a state of emergency and closed down the internet.

The protests and revolts are the strongest for a long time in Ethiopia, maybe ever. In mid-October, main roads to the capital were blocked. Buildings used by companies owned by multinationals or local capitalists seen as close to the regime, as well as ruling party offices and state buildings, were attacked and burned down. The protests have involved hundreds of thousands.

As recently as in the beginning of this year, Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister, claimed his country was “an island of stability in the troubled Horn of Africa region”. He probably felt safe due to the strong support his regime receives from US imperialism, as well as from China. By then, however, the recent wave of revolt had already started.

Growth and land grabbing

The protests cover a number of inter-linked issues. In 2015, Ethiopia’s economy grew faster than in any other country, at 8.7%. From 2000-2008, growth was at more than 10%, and the average was 9.1%.

This growth benefitted a thin layer of the population close to the regime, as well as multinational companies. Thousands of poor self-sustaining peasants were forced off their land when it was leased to global agricultural companies and to foreign regimes. The total size of the area seized by this land-grabbing is as big as Belgium. Low wages, and an inviting “business climate” offered by the dictatorial regime, attracted industries (mainly shoes and textile) to move to Ethiopia, even from China.

Economic growth has gone, hand in hand, with increased repression. After the 2005 elections hundreds protesting against fraud were killed by regime armed forces. In the last “elections, in May 2015, the ruling party won all 547 seats in parliament and in all regional parliaments.

The government party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was formed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that took power in 1989. A small clique of Tigray leaders and their families control the state apparatus and the economy. Ninety seven percent of all army officers are said to come from the same village. Corruption is endemic, with contracts for construction, for example, given to a narrow circle, with most state services demanding extra payment. With Tigray forming only 6% of the population this gives an ethnic dimension to any protest.

In addition to widespread poverty and starvation, the country has been shaken strongly by famine this year. Eighteen million people are in need of food assistance to survive, compared to eight million in a “normal” year. Ethiopia’s population of 100 million, the second biggest in Africa, is dominated by a rural population living off what their small piece of land can produce.

In the cities, despite the economic growth, thousands of university graduates are without jobs. Students and young unemployed are often at the forefront of protest. When the semester began in early October, mass protests took place at universities in Awasa, Kimma, Dire Daula and others.

Protests against “Master Plan”

The last twelve months of uprising started with an attempt more land grabbing by the regime. They launched a “master plan” to expand the capital Addis Ababa southward, into the Oromo state. The constitution has divided the country into nine states, based on the main largest ethnic groups. Oromo and Amhara are the largest, both with over 30 percent of the population.

The master plan was met by mass demonstrations, involving the entire population, particularly young people and farmers. More than 400 were killed by state forces. But the government was forced to retreat, by formally cancelling the plan in January. This, however, did not stop the protests. Instead they continued; against state repression and demanding the regime steps down. And they spread to other parts of the country,

In a part of Amhara, Gondar, which was forcibly incorporated into Tigray, protests started in July, with demands for a return to Amhara. In early August, the regime stated that protests were “illegal”. The internet was shut down. That did not stop new mass demonstrations taking place that weekend, in both Amhara and Oromo. Mohammed Ademo, an Ethiopian journalist living in exile, commented: “In my entire life, as a one-time protestor and organizer myself, I have never seen demonstrations taking place across the country in one day.” There were also banners expressing solidarity with each other in both regions.

Although the Amhara protesters were armed to defend themselves, 98 people were killed by state forces, mainly in Oromia. The most recent massacre took place at a religious ceremony involving hundreds of thousands or even millions that turned into a demonstration against the regime, with chants for justice and freedom. They were attacked by teargas and batons and chased into a deep ditch where many were trampled to death. The regime claimed that around 50 people died, while the Oromo Federal Congress says 678 died.

State of emergency

The protests have developed – now dominated by anti-government demands – and are now calling for an end to corruption, land reform, the end of repression, freedom for those arrested and free elections.

The declaration of a state of emergency, as well as the total blocking of the internet, is a sign of the fears of the regime. The state of emergency gives the police the power to search any house. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the protests are a threat to national security, adding there has been “enormous damage to property”. However the regime’s action resulted in damage to people’s homes.

Ethiopia is a key military ally of Western imperialism. Addis Ababa is the capital of the African Union, which has troops in Somalia and receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from the US. When US President Obama visited the country in 2015, he praised the “democratically elected” government.

However, if the Western powers fear the regime is losing control, they might advocate another strategy. The country was recently visited by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the media she was portrayed as sympathetic to the protesters. What she actually did was to express the concern of German businesses that operate in Ethiopia. And what she advocated was “mediation”, without saying between whom.

The Ethiopian regime frequently uses “anti-terrorist” laws to imprison any opposition and many journalists. Prison conditions are terrible and many political prisoners are on hunger strike. The regime has started to accuse the military regime of Egypt, with which it has a dispute over the Nile River, of being behind the protests. And if some Western support is lost, at least in words, the regime hopes for continued support from authoritarian Gulf States and from China.

The regime’s heavy repression has, so far, failed. Any steps towards “reforms” will be too little, too late. The crossed arms of the Ethiopian athlete Feyisa Lilesa during his appearance at the recent Olympic Games, is a symbol for the uprising.

There are, at the same time, problems with the protest movement. The protests have no democratic leadership or clear programme. The regime will try to portray the protests as mainly representative of ethnic tensions and try to stir up such tensions. This will get an echo with Western powers and in the media. To stand for common struggle and solidarity is crucial for the movement.

But it is not just a question of overthrowing the regime and for democratic rights, even if that, of course, must at the forefront of a revolutionary programme. Demands must be raised for land reform and freedom to organize political parties, trade unions and other organisations. Lessons must be drawn from Egypt and Tunisia and the importance of trade unions in the struggle. And the key lesson that any movement that overthrows a dictatorship must also be to dismantle the military and the domestic capitalists. This requires struggle of the working class, organised democratically, with the support of the youth, the urban poor and the poor farmers. It is a struggle against imperialism and capitalism and for a future where the country’s huge resources can be used for the people.


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