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Death Toll Rises to 140 in Ethiopia Protests Against Urban Expansion

Student-led protests erupted in November defending the rights of the country's largest ethnic group. As the unrest continues, human rights activists say security forces are carrying out a violent crackdown.

by Kayla Ruble
Jan 8 2016, 9:32pm

Photo by Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

In the two months since peaceful, student-led demonstrations against the government's expansion plan for the city of Addis Ababa began spreading through Ethiopia, activists are reporting that security forces have killed more than 140 demonstrators to date. 

Saying that the clashes could be the East African country's "biggest crisis" in the last decade, Human Rights Watch has released a report highlighting the number of protesters killed, noting that many more have been injured. The protests pit the country's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, against the government's Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Development Plan. Activists claim the development agenda will swallow up Oromo land and displace farmers as the capital expands outward.

"It seems like the crackdown is becoming much wider," Human Rights Watch Horn of Africa researcher Felix Horne said, explaining that unlike in the past the demonstrations have continued despite the violence from security forces. "It's not going to calm the protests, it's just going to flame the protests even more."

The demonstrations sparked spontaneously at the end of November in Oromia, the nation's largest state and home to 27 million people (including the 3.3 million living in Addis Ababa). Ethiopia is not only the fastest growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa, but the International Monetary Fund has rated it one of the five fastest growing economies in the world. The development plan falls in line with that growth and includes plans for building highways, roads, parking lots, market areas, and an airport.

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

Protests then spread to dozens of towns throughout the state as part of a larger and years-long movement against the Ethiopian government's controversial development plan. This is 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. As the current movement unfolded, most said the recent demonstrations are much bigger than those in 2014.

By early December, activists had begun speaking out about the security forces' violence against the protesters — reporting approximately 10 dead, 150 injured, and 500 arrested. According to Horne, there are now 140 dead and many more injured.

Horne expressed concern over the arrest of various leaders from the Oromia's biggest political party, the Oromo Federalist Congress. The most high-profile detainment has been that of Deputy Chairman Bekele Gerba, who was arrested on December 23 and is believed to have been taken to Maekalawi prison, in Addis Ababa. 

"That sends a very worrying signal, he was a moderate voice," Horne said, explaining that Gerba saw the electoral process as a key element in the opposition's efforts. "It seems that they just want to crack down on any influential Oromos."

When the demonstrations erupted in November, protesters were largely young students in elementary, middle, and high school. They were then joined by local farmers, and by people from various sectors of Oromo society, according to Horne. Meanwhile, concerns have grown to include wider grievances of the Oromo people, including overall restrictions of expression for the ethnic group.

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.

Activists claim the Oromo people have not benefited from the country's growth and prosperity. The ethnic group makes up more than 80 percent of the state's 27 million people. Nationally it represents more than 35 percent.

Literacy rates are bleak and the group is underrepresented in government. Jawar Mohammed, an Ethiopian based in Minnesota who runs the Oromo Media network, told VICE News in December that the land of a dozen Oromo clans has been swallowed up in recent years by Addis Abeba's expansion. 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.

Beyond discrimination and crackdown on the Oromo, freedom of the press and other expression is heavily curtailed in the country as a whole. Local reporting on the protests has been hard to come by and international journalists have had difficulties accessing the demonstration sites.

"The protests will continue in some way, shape or form. [There's] no indication things are quieting down," Horne said. "What we hope is that the government realizes that this path of excessive force to crush the protest movement isn't working and they sit down to have a dialogue with the Oromo community."ollow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB

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