Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamist militants in East Africa, faces the prospect of further unrest after a crackdown on anti-government demonstrations held by its two largest communities over the weekend that Amnesty International said left 97 people dead.
Security forces opened fire on protesters in the country’s Amhara region, with the worst bloodshed in the northern city of Bahir Dar where at least 30 people were killed in a day, the London-based rights group said Monday. Deaths were reported in at least nine towns in the Oromia region, where demonstrations by Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group began in November, according to Amnesty. Communications Minister Getachew Reda acknowledged there’d been fatalities, without being specific, and said the protests were illegal.
The unrest signals an increasing challenge to the government in Ethiopia, which the U.S. considers a bulwark in the Horn of Africa, a region troubled by failing states, and has used as a base for military drones. With Africa’s fastest-growing economy, Ethiopia is part of an internationally funded African force battling al-Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia and also has peacekeeping troops in South Sudan and Sudan.
“This is a precarious time for the ruling party,” Michael Woldemariam, an assistant professor of political science at Boston University, said, citing the size and spread of the protests and the violence that has accompanied them.
Under the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, security forces have killed more than 400 people and arrested tens of thousands in Oromia since protests began in November over the eviction of farmers for infrastructure and investment, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in June. Oromo complaints include the killings and arrests of demonstrators and federal control of the region’s security.
The government is unlikely to change its strategy, according to Harry Verhoeven, who teaches African politics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. “Many inside the cabinet and security services fear reforms would encourage even more radical protests aiming to overthrow the regime,” he said by phone from Doha.
The U.S. Embassy in the country on Monday expressed concern over the crackdown, urging the government to respect the rights of citizens to gather peacefully.
Mulatu Gemechu, the deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, said that the government’s actions may worsen the violence. His organization said 86 Oromo protesters were killed by security forces on Aug. 6.
“If the government goes on like this and uses excessive force, to defend themselves people will probably take another action,” he said by phone from the capital, Addis Ababa. No deaths were reported in that city, although videos show police beating protesters with batons in the main square, Amnesty said.
Under the EPRDF, a former rebel movement that took power in 1991 after overthrowing a military regime, Ethiopia is a federal state designed to give autonomy to ethnic groups. The Oromo and Amhara communities together make up more than half of Ethiopia’s 100 million population, Africa’s second-largest after Nigeria. Activists from both groups claim that ethnic Tigrayans, who comprise 6 percent, dominate an authoritarian government.
Government officials say that four regional parties jointly run a ruling coalition, which controls all 547 parliamentary seats along with allied groups, while cabinet positions are apportioned on population size.
Tigrayans and their businesses were attacked on Friday and Saturday in Gondar city and people from that group were told to leave Amhara, said Berhe Hagos, a resident.
“They think if you’re from that ethnic group you benefit from the government,” he said. “People are being humiliated based on race.”
Protests spurred by claims from activists that Tigray state annexed Amhara territory over two decades ago are a threat to the federal system, according to Verhoeven.
“It’s quite explosive as the perception risks being that of a Tigrayan elite abusing its power,” he said. “Claiming the bankruptcy of ethnic federalism is potentially a banner under which many Ethiopians can unite.”