The Ethiopian government has declared a state of emergency in the country as it intensifies a crackdown on widespread anti-government protests born of frustration that’s been fomenting for decades. In the past two weeks alone, authorities have arrested thousands of protesters, overwhelmingly young people by some accounts.
In the unprecedented anti-government protests sweeping the country, this week alone has seen more than 2,600 people detained in the Oromia and Amhara regions, with 450 arrested in the capital Addis Ababa. Those detained include business owners who closed their shops and teachers who “abandoned their schools.” In June, Human Rights Watch reported that “tens of thousands” of protesters had been arrested since the unrest that began 11 months ago.
However, the number arrested is already likely much higher than the figure quoted by the government, according to Fisseha Tekle, the chief researcher for Amnesty International in Ethiopia. He told VICE News that arrests are ongoing and that the focus is on younger people.
“They must have some list, the security forces, because they are not arresting everyone, but they really target the youths, because it is the youths who have been protesting for the last year,” Tekle said. “They don’t arrest older people; students are the main target.”
The protests began last November, triggered by plans made by the government to extend the capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia. That plan has since been shelved, but the protests have continued, with decades-old frustration and anger at the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition coming to the surface.
“This coalition has been in power for 25 years now and a lot of people want to see something different,” Clementine de Montjoye, the head of advocacy at Defend Defenders, a group that protects human rights workers in Ethiopia, told VICE News.
Because the Ethiopian government limits the operations of human rights activists in the country, many are wary about speaking on the record. One source within a human rights group operating in Ethiopia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told VICE News that protesters had told them “we don’t have anything to lose anymore, we don’t care if we get killed.”
An Amnesty International report published this week says that in total 800 protesters have been killed by security forces in Ethiopia since these protests began last November.
The government declared a state of emergency on Oct. 9, giving them sweeping powers to crush any dissenting voices. They have also cut internet connectivity in most of the country — including the capital — for the last three weeks.
This has made it difficult to get accurate details of what is happening, especially outside of Addis. And even if a connection can be made, people are still afraid to talk. “People are suspicious because of online surveillance and also mobile phone surveillance, so people might not be [comfortable] talking over the phone about what is happening,” Tekle said.
VICE News contacted several activists on the ground in Ethiopia to talk about the current situation, but due to a combination of fear and lack of connectivity, we were unable to talk to them.
The declaration of a six-month state of emergency followed a high-profile incident at the beginning of the month when a stampede during Irreecha, an Oromo holiday festival, resulted in 55 people killed. As well as increasing the powers of the security forces in Ethiopia to arbitrarily arrest and detain people, the state of emergency aims to silence criticism of the regime. It is now illegal to contact those termed “outsiders” on social media like Twitter and Facebook. “The military command will take action on those watching and posting on these social media outlets,” Siraj Fegessa, Ethiopia’s minister for defense, said.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has made two calls for access to conduct an international, independent, and impartial investigation into the alleged violations, both of which have been rejected by the Ethiopian government. The regime has also sought to limit the impact of human rights organizations in the country with the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which states that if you receive more than 10 percent of your funding from foreign sources, you can’t work on human rights issues in Ethiopia.
Tekle says that Amnesty is refraining from contacting the human rights workers left in the country to avoid revealing their location.
In a report to be launched late Thursday, Defend Defenders has documented at least 27 cases of journalists who have been charged with terrorism since the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation was enacted in 2009. “They have intimidated, arrested, chased away most of the independent media. So if people want to express their frustrations, the only way they have to do it is [by taking] to the streets,” de Montjoye said.
So why isn’t the West doing more to sanction the Ethiopian government?
One reason is Ethiopia’s strategic importance in Africa, helping stem the tide of migrants entering Europe and stopping the spread of Islamic extremism.
According to the European Union’s foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini, citing a report published this week, Ethiopia is among five key African countries that have achieved “better results” in the past four months as part of the EU’s efforts to better manage migration.
Ethiopia is also viewed as a strategic bulwark against the further spread of violent Islamic extremism in the horn of Africa, and it’s been the main military player in fighting the terrorist group al Shabaab in Somalia for years.
Ethiopia is a close ally of the U.S. and given that the political climate in neighbouring countries like Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Egypt is fairly shaky, keeping Ethiopia relatively stable is seen as key to preventing chaos in the region.