“The government executed my son in the streets while his back was turned,” said Abduro Abdurahman. “He was the oldest of my five children, my pride and joy. And I don’t even know why they took him from me.”
Awal Abduro, Abdurahman’s 17-year-old son, was killed by police officers during a peaceful demonstration on October 11 in Bale Robe, an Ethiopian town southeast of Addis Ababa, the country’s capital city. Footage of the incident filmed by bystanders went viral on Ethiopian social media, and shows at least four armed uniformed officers marching on a dozen unarmed young men who had unfurled a banner calling for the release of political prisoners. Awal died at the scene after being shot in the head.
Almost 1,000 miles away, in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the breakout of a civil war made headlines last week as troops deployed by the national government converged to ostensibly wipe out forces loyal to the regional government.
It extends beyond Tigray and Bale Robe—throughout Ethiopia, recent massacres of ethnic Amhara people, and the government’s ambivalence, coupled with the global pandemic, food insecurity, crackdowns on dissent, and a locust invasion, have brought the country to a tipping point as citizens have grown weary of the discord that has marked Ethiopia’s last two years.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After uprisings spread across Ethiopia in 2015, Abiy was entrusted to usher in an era of peace and democracy when he was appointed in 2018. The prime minister promised reforms, and the country experienced the rise of “Abiy-mania,” born of his widespread popularity and the belief that Abiy was the visionary needed to bring healing to a country which has known tyranny for the entirety of its modern history.
Abiy announced that he would revamp the country, and it seemed like he would: His government freed tens of thousands of political prisoners and allowed exiled critics to return, and the prime minister pledged to overhaul the security apparatus renowned for its brutality towards government foes. Keeping the peace was supposed to be Ethiopia’s top priority, and Abiy actually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts.
“Our constitution doesn’t allow it, but we have been torturing, causing bodily damages and even putting inmates in dark prison cells,” Abiy told parliament at the time, as he assured change.
Individuals at the helm of the intelligence services and federal army were dismissed, and others were arrested and put on trial for human rights abuses. The government’s face-lift was promising, a sign that Abiy was sincere about accountability.
“The initiatives weren’t sufficient, but overall they could have played a role to end the cycle of impunity that characterizes Ethiopian politics,” said Dr. Adem K. Abebe, a governance expert and commentator on the African Union.
“A lot of people had hope.”
But by early 2020, reports emerged of federal army troops taking part in extrajudicial killings and torture. They came after Abiy launched a counterinsurgency operation to rout out armed separatist rebels, the Oromo Liberation Army, which operates in western Ethiopia. Atrocities committed by government forces against civilians suspected of sympathizing with militants would later be documented by Amnesty International, and members of the current military leadership are now implicated in abuses akin to those of their ousted predecessors.
“A lot of people had hope, especially when political prisoners were released,” said Reeyot Alemu, an Ethiopian journalist who spent five years in prison for her reporting and won the 2013 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. “But the government started re-arresting those it freed. Above all, the government’s refusal or inability to prevent gruesome massacres of civilians singled out for their identity is the major reason Ethiopians have lost faith in this government.”
These massacres emerged as an increasingly frequent phenomenon in Ethiopia long before Ethiopian troops marched on Tigray last week. The Amhara, the country’s second-largest ethnic group, whose members make up about a fifth of Ethiopia’s 110 million people, reside across the country and often bear the brunt of such attacks. As many as 140 people were killed in the country’s eastern Benishangul-Gumuz region in September when an armed militia went on a rampage that largely targeted the area’s ethnic Amhara residents. In October, 31 people were killed during similar violence in Southern Ethiopia. In late October, at least 27 ethnic Somali civilians were massacred by yet-to-be identified militants from the neighboring Afar region. On Sunday, another 54 ethnic Amhara civilians were gunned down after militants herded helpless victims to a school compound in the west of the country.
Massacres emerged as an increasingly frequent phenomenon in Ethiopia long before Ethiopian troops marched on Tigray last week.
State forces aren’t suspected of direct participation in these mass killings, and while perpetrators are rarely identified, the government typically blames Oromo Liberation Army militants. Regardless, the army’s inability to prevent these killings and the breakdown in order has left citizens dismayed.
“Ethiopians are losing hope in their government,” said Befekadu Hailu, the executive director of Ethiopian rights watchdog, Card Ethiopia. “It is leading to increasing calls for civilians to set up self defense mechanisms and is fostering division.”
At a press conference held after September’s massacre of 140 people, Major General Mohammed Tessemma, the Ethiopian army’s personal relations officer, said that order had been restored, and that “bandits” and disgruntled former security officers were behind the attack.
But a resident of the area who survived the onslaught, told VICE News that it took the army days to intervene. “The attackers had knives and guns, they killed everyone they saw and took money and belongings from their bodies afterwards,” said Aklilu, an ethnic Amhara resident who fled the area and asked to be referred to by his first name due to safety concerns. “Nobody stopped them.”
“They don’t value our lives.”
“The army has a base nearby. But there were kidnappings and shootings for at least three days before they arrived.” Aklilu added. “They don’t value our lives.”
Aklilu was referring to a military command post that was set up in May near the scene of the massacre after the region was identified as particularly vulnerable to ethnic flare ups and violence. The fact that military intervention reportedly arrived days late, despite a nearby military post in the area, raised questions and led to accusations of army sympathy for the assailants. Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen called on residents in areas of the Benishangul Gumuz region to arm themselves last week, in what doubled as a stinging indictment of the country’s security institutions.
This was also not the first time where the government’s slow response was called into question. In July, a contingent of 150 police officers stationed in the town of Dera in Oromia idly stood blocks away from machete-wielding youths who laid siege to the town on June 29 after the murder of Oromo rights activist and popular musician Hachalu Hundessa.
Hachalu was known for highlighting the plight of the Oromo in his songs as the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, have endured systematic marginalization by successive Ethiopian governments. Hachalu’s death was immediately followed by mob attacks across the Oromia region that largely targeted Christians and ethnic Amhara civilians. The violence and a subsequent security crackdown led to the deaths of hundreds across Oromia, while police in towns like Dera were deterred from intervening by their commanders.
There remains no government explanation for it even as these incidents become widespread. In August, advocacy group Genocide Watch issued a statement that said “persecution of minorities is increasing” in Ethiopia, and warned that the country was not doing enough to stop the violence. The Oromia Support Group, an Australia-based Oromo rights group, released a report in September that documented 1,134 extrajudicial killings by state forces since October 2018.
“Events in the last few months highlight the Ethiopian government’s lack of transparency into high profile incidents,” Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch told VICE News. “The government needs to ensure accountability for abuses by its own forces, but also guarantee that security forces are responding in an appropriate manner when minority communities are targeted.”
Two years after mass protests brought the previous Ethiopian administration to its knees, the bullet has once again become the state’s method of choice for countering protests. Violence in the country is now echoing that of the previous administration, when the government killed more than 600 protesters.
Recently, Ethiopian security forces have used lethal fire to target unarmed demonstrators and participants in a brewing protest movement led by the Oromo, who are demanding the liberation of their political leaders and thousands of detained protesters. Public marches are often a perilous endeavor: In August, at least a dozen unarmed protesters were gunned down in towns across the country’s Oromia region, when youth-organized mass demonstrations condemned the poor treatment of political prisoners.
Two weeks ago, exasperated Ethiopians took to social media to lament the mounting deaths and the dire human rights situation. Activists estimated that needless violence had cost some 300 lives across Ethiopia over the past three months, and the Twitter hashtag #300Lives3Months took shape. It trended in Ethiopia, as social media users condemned unruly militias and government forces alike for their roles in the bloodletting.
“Ethiopians are losing hope in their government.”
Government officials took to Twitter last week to issue messages of solidarity, but were met with mostly angry responses. Instead, Prime Minister Abiy was critiqued and social media users lambasted the government’s inability to prevent such wanton bloodshed. The country’s first female president, Sahlework Zewde, “hid” responses to her own tweet that called for her resignation.
The federal government has also denied allegations of complicity by its forces. For accusations of misconduct, government officials tend to point out that the promised clean up of the armed forces takes time and is hampered by embedded elements of the previous administration. When probed about the issue of state violence in Ethiopia, the prime minister’s press secretary Billene Seyoum told VICE News that planned reforms “won’t materialize overnight.”
“Various activities are being undertaken by the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Peace in reforming the security apparatus they are responsible for,” Seyoum added. “The latter, for example, has launched the first ever police doctrine which adopts codes of conduct that were never in place before.”
But there’s little indication thus far that any such initiatives have prevented the police or security forces from operating with outright impunity. On October 23, pictures of four deceased activists with mutilated bodies were uploaded to facebook. The youths were reportedly killed by police in the city of Nekemte, almost 200 miles west of Addis Ababa. A police representative later said that the activists were members of a criminal organization responsible for killings and kidnappings, but residents of Nekemte disagreed, and said that those targeted were merely youths renowned for their political awareness. No one has been arrested for those murders, and there also haven’t been any consequences for the officers involved in the killing of Awal that occurred a week prior.
“I’ve seen the video, but it’s for the attorney general to look into and decide,” the Oromia regional government’s communications head Getachew Balcha told VICE News about Awal’s death. “I can’t speak on the office’s behalf.”
Renowned Oromo rights advocate Fatuma Bedaso believes that arrests are unlikely because killings of protesters like Awal, she says, are premeditated. Instead, she said, the killings are part of a culture of violence used to intimidate dissenters. “I forced myself to watch the video [of Awal’s killing], which triggered me in a way I can’t explain,” Fatuma told VICE News. “What’s happening is by design. It’s psychological warfare on the entire country, but especially in unrest-affected areas.”
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s ruling government appears oblivious, or indifferent, to their crisis of confidence. Officials continue to use state media to disseminate reports on world record tree planting campaigns and infrastructure projects in Addis Ababa, in an attempt to prop up the image of an industrious, proactive leadership striving to guide Ethiopia towards middle income status. Prime Minister Abiy has reiterated the government’s desire to complete construction of what it considers to be the lynchpin of its transformation, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam known as GERD, a massive hydroelectric power dam currently being constructed on the Nile River.
The dam remains a source of national pride and continues to serve as a rallying point for Ethiopians who, for generations, have learned to live with chronic power shortages. Despite the country’s excitement, the GERD has Ethiopia at odds with the Egyptian government, which fears that the dam would cut in on its own Nile River water supply and the United States, after President Donald Trump recently appeared to endorse Egyptian military action against Ethiopia. In August, Ethiopians took to the streets of Addis Ababa in celebration after the first stage of the dam reservoir’s filling was completed.
“Abiy is completely detached from reality.”
But the reception for last month’s inauguration of another infrastructure project, the Entoto Park, wasn’t as warm. Some members of parliament questioned the necessity of the park, a landmark tourist attraction on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, and the festivities altogether.
“Abiy is completely detached from reality,” Rashid Abdi, a Horn of Africa political analyst, told VICE News. “To fiddle with an amusement park when the country is aflame, is insensitive. His primary responsibility is peace, security and stability of Ethiopia. He can delegate beautification to the relevant department.”
Aside from the fact that the inauguration took place as communities were still reeling from the sheer number of deaths that occurred in Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz, it also came amidst Ethiopia’s worst locust invasion in a quarter century and a global pandemic. Since the locusts appeared in early 2020, voracious swarms of the insect have laid waste to almost half a million acres of land, and have pushed communities to the brink of starvation. Ethiopia is also struggling to control the spread of the coronavirus and a considerable drop in testing has, according to numbers from the Ministry of Health bulletins, seen Ethiopia go from testing an average of around 15,700 people a day in August, to just under 7,000 a day in October. Confirmed coronavirus cases in Ethiopia are nearing 100,000, and the country’s attorney general recently threatened jail time for those ignoring the Ethiopian Ministry of Health guidelines.
Still, the prime minister rebuffed the criticism at a recent parliament session. “We are doing our best to deal with the locust and security issues,” he said. “But a government can multitask. The completion of the Entoto Park should be celebrated. It will create hundreds of jobs and generate tourism revenue.”
Members of the National Movement of the Amhara political party, one of Ethiopia’s major opposition parties, were dismayed by Abiy’s response. The organization’s mandate is centered around safeguarding the interests of the Amhara people, and members are often the first to decry killings of Amhara civilians. “When we talk about the recent mass killings, we are talking about crimes too graphic to describe. Ethnic cleansing has become normalized,” Tahir Mohammed, the party’s spokesperson, told VICE News. “Government officials seem to be eager to attend inauguration ceremonies but are unable to dedicate even a few minutes to issue a message of condolences when civilians are butchered mercilessly. We find this appalling.”
The party called for mass protests last week in response to reports of massacres, but after police officers converged on the party’s Addis Ababa office in a standoff that lasted hours, they canceled the demonstration. “The protest was to be part of our continued efforts to urge the government to take a proactive approach to the killings of civilians. We planned to take extra precautions to ensure demonstrations ended peacefully and without incident,” said Mohammed. “Just as we planned to address the media, police blocked the entry and journalists were prevented from entering our office.”
Stifling the National Movement of the Amhara is evidence of yet another problem Ethiopia faces: the government has seemingly backtracked on its promises of free and open political participation. Scores of opposition politicians, including veteran Abiy critics Lidetu Ayalew and Bekele Gerba, have been held behind bars for months, accused of drumming up strife. Jawar Mohammed, Abiy’s biggest challenger who is also Oromo, is currently in jail. For many Ethiopians, the democratic elections that the government had once promised appear to be a pipe dream.
“Ethiopia is not in a position to hold free and fair elections,” Abdi said. “The climate is too toxic, the nation too polarized.”
“Despite the visible human rights progress during the early days of the reform, such as media freedom and freedom of association, recently we are witnessing a relapse of repressive practices,” Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International’s lead Ethiopia researcher, told VICE News. “The space for criticizing the government has also been increasingly diminishing. Ethiopian authorities need to correct the worrying trends that are derailing the human rights reform.”
While Ethiopia has been on the brink for much of 2020, government officials barely acknowledged ongoing havoc throughout the country until the prime minister’s announcement of war in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s political gridlock with Tigray’s regional government threatened to tear the country apart long before the breakout of war: The federal government in Addis Ababa never saw eye to eye with Tigray’s leaders, but a few months ago, the region defied the government’s orders to postpone elections due to the coronavirus. Tigray held regional elections in September, and Abiy’s government declared the polls illegitimate. While Tigray’s population makes up a small percentage of Ethiopia, the region has traditionally enjoyed an outsized influence on Ethiopian affairs. But after the election, the prime minister ordered the federal government to sever all ties with the region and slash its budget.
Then on Tuesday, Abiy announced that he had commanded the Ethiopian army into Tigray after Tigrayan regional forces reportedly attacked a military base in the region. The regional government had “crossed the red line,” the prime minister said. Internet and phone lines in Tigray were shut down and the region was put under a six month state of emergency. Heavy fighting has been reported since the announcement.
“War is uncertain and volatile; it will not be limited to the current battle zones,” Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor at the European University Institute and political analyst, told VICE News. “Other areas in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea will be directly affected with indirect implications for the Middle East.”
Both United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged both sides to cease fighting, as did foreign embassies, but Tigray announced that Ethiopian jets had carried out airstrikes in and around Mekele, the region’s capital, on Thursday evening. At a press conference on Friday, Abiy admitted that he ordered airstrikes on Tigrayan positions. “The enemy is armed with long range rockets which it can use to target innocent civilians in towns. Our airstrikes have targeted their weapons depots. There will be more to come,” he said. Hundreds of deaths have already been reported.
“I’m sick of the violence.”
There are also fears that Eritrea may be dragged into the dispute, further destabilizing the region. “The Tigray conflict could result in a spill over into other regions and suck in Eritrea,” said Abdi. “The most urgent imperative is to stop the fighting in Tigray, engage with the regional government and for all parties to commit to a peaceful settlement.” The wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees sheltered at camps in Tigray could be jeopardized as well. “War may reinforce four-way interplay between the country’s COVID19 outbreak, locust infestation, food insecurity issues and displacement of civilians to create a complex humanitarian crisis,” added Mehari.
The hashtags #SayNoToWar and #SayNoToWarEthiopia trended last week as social media users expressed their disappointment with the developments in Tigray. “I’m sick of the violence,” Rediet Desalegn, an unemployed civil engineer in Addis Ababa, told VICE News. “It’s a security risk to travel outside the capital, but most jobs I look into require me to do so. I haven’t felt safe in my country for years and I’m hoping to move to Europe in the coming year.”
But prospects for change are looking slimmer than ever. “Rejecting dialogue and endorsing war cannot be a solution to Ethiopia’s problems,” said Mehari. “It shows a failure to appreciate the balance of power and grasp the realities on the ground.”