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Deadly Protests in Ethiopia as Students Defend Farmers from Urban 'Master Plan'

High school students have allegedly been killed as they protest in solidarity with farmers whose land is threatened by urban expansion plans for sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest growing economy.
Photo by Siegfried Modola/Reuters

Eleventh and twelfth grade students are among the protesters allegedly killed during clashes with police in Ethiopia this week, as student-led protests against the government's master plan to expand Addis Ababa, the East African nation's capital, have turned deadly and spread to more than 50 towns.

Activists say security forces killed at least seven people during rallies in the last week, while an opposition leader told Bloomberg that 10 people were killed. Meanwhile, according to Al Jazeera as of December 8, authorities had reported only three deaths. Over the last two days, authorities have now confirmed a total of five deaths, while activists have put the total as high as 25.


Oromo Federalist Congress general secretary Bekele Nega told Bloomberg there had been approximately 150 people injured and more than 500 detained. Police were also injured during clashes, according to the media outlet. Meanwhile, posts on social media have indicated that clashes with security forces continued on Thursday.

With minimal news coverage of the demonstrations, the number and cause of deaths is varied and difficult to verify. Press freedom is all but nonexistent in the East African country that has proved crucial to the West's opposition to al Shabaab, the home-grown Somali militant group allied with al Qaeda. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the ruling coalition since 1991, run the country with a heavy hand. This past May's election has been widely criticized as a sham by human rights groups; Desalegn "won" with a reported 100 percent of the vote.

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Nevertheless, Ethiopia is not only the fastest growing economy in the sub-Saharan economy, but the International Monetary Fund has rated it one of the five fastest growing economies in the world. As part of that growth, the government has proposed expanding Addis Ababa with its Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Development Plan, which includes highways, roads, parking lots, market areas, and an airport.


The Oromo is the country's largest ethnic group, and it is their children who have found themselves in the crosshairs of modernization and are fueling the protests — elementary and high school students fearful of losing their land, their livelihood as farmers, and their culture to the state.

The protests began in the town of Ginci, about 55 miles from Addis Ababa. A forest on the edge of town was being cleared for a government development project, and elementary and high school students spontaneously pushed back against the move that they believe could further displace their people. The students formed a sudden and unexpected protest, which activists say have consisted of peaceful demonstrations, often in silence, with participants crossing their hands above their heads.

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In the last two weeks, protests have spread to more than 50 towns as part of a larger and years-long movement against the Ethiopian government's controversial development plan. It's not the first protest against the so-called Master Plan; there was a similar uprising in April and May of 2014 after the development plan was approved. A crackdown by security forces left dozens dead and hundreds arrested.

By all accounts, according to Jawar Mohammed, the founder of Oromo Media Network, the recent movement is much bigger than its predecessor. The Minnesota-based Ethiopian said reports indicate farmers and other citizens have even begun to join in on the demonstrations over the last few days.


"This is the biggest protest by far that I have seen in the last 25 years," Mohammed said.

In addition to being more widespread than previous demonstrations, this year's protests have reportedly been better organized, according to American-based Ethiopian journalist Mohammed Ademo. While improved access to social media has played a role, Ademo said the size can also be attributed to a growing dissatisfaction among the public with what he called the "government's top-down, non-participatory approach to development."

"Gone are the days when the central government can displace Oromo farmers and forcibly implement any policy," he said. "Continued crackdown on the protesters only ensures Oromos' growing estrangement from the state."

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The estrangement has a strong economic component. The expansion of Addis Ababa, the headquarters of both the African Union and the international airline carrier Ethiopia Airways, is a symptom of both the wider urbanization in sub-Saharan African cities and the booming success of national economy.

Addis Ababa has seen growing foreign and economic investment in recent years, while at the same time becoming a regional business hub, Bill Moseley, a geography professor at Macalester College, in St. Paul, Minnesota, said.

"Ethiopia's seen as this kind of up-and-coming country with a lot of investment that's posturing to make Addis more of a global city, so I'm sure that's feeding into this sort of push to expansion," Moseley explained. "It's these small farmers that lose out, but it's rationalized in sort of these broader development goals."


Generally, said Moseley, when governments pave the way for urban growth they often use this development as a way to justify land grabs. According to Moseley, this situation is not exclusive to Addis Ababa and Ethiopia, but one seen in other cities across sub-Saharan Africa and around the world.

For the Oromo, specifically, activists claim they have not benefited from the country's growth and prosperity. The regional ethnic group, which counts Oromia as its homeland, makes up more than 80 percent of the state's 27 million people. Nationally it represents upward of 35 percent.

Literacy rates are bleak and the group is underrepresented in government. According to Mohammed, nearly a dozen Oromo clans have been swallowed up in the city's horizontal expansion as they are forced off their lands. In Ethiopia, the government owns all of the land, but the constitution does provide some protections for the public. Oromo activists say these rights have been ignored in the rush to expand.

"The capital city is in the middle of Oromia, but you don't see any Oromo identity in it," he said. "Every time [Addis Ababa] expands it just destroys them. They're saying the development has to incorporate us…. You can't just leave us stranded."

The planned development has also hit home for the Oromo, who have a very close connection with their land, according to Human Rights Watch Horn of Africa researcher Felix Horne.


"They're concerned if a large portion of land outside of Addis Ababa comes under control of the city administration that farmers will be displaced from the land," he explained. "[That] they won't receive compensation from their livelihoods. And they won't have the ability to feed their families."

The government has a history of cracking down on the Oromo people, who represent a majority of the population and a perceived threat to power to the minority-led coalition. Horne said that anytime Oromos expresses dissent or simply asks a question about land development policies, they can be subject to arbitrary detention and mistreatment.

Beyond discrimination and crackdown on the Oromo, freedom of press and other expression is heavily curtailed in the country as a whole. Horne said coverage of the recent protests has been almost non-existent.

"Ethiopia is often applauded internationally for its economic growth and development initiatives, but that's only one part of the story," he said. "Anyone who expresses any form of dissent in Ethiopia is in trouble."

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