Biftu Bole Lutheran Church holds a prayer and candle ceremony for protesters who died in the town of Bishoftu. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)
ETHIOPIA’S RULERS have redoubled a repressive policy that is failing. Instead of looking for ways to alleviate the pent-up frustrations of the ethnic Oromo and Amhara populations that spilled out in demonstrations over the past 11 months, Ethiopia’s authorities on Sunday announced a six-month state of emergency, allowing the deployment of troops andbans on demonstrations. Already, rights have been severely restricted; the state of emergency will bottle up the pressures even more, increasing the likelihood they will explode anew.
The latest confrontation was tragic and emblematic of the government’s wrongheaded use of force. On Oct. 2, in Bishoftu, a town 25 miles southeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, an enormous crowd gathered to celebrate Irreecha, an important festival that marks the end of the rainy season and onset of the harvest. Since last November, protests have been rising among Ethiopia’s approximately 40 million ethnic Oromos, fueled by anger over plans for reallocating their land, political disenfranchisement and detention of opposition activists. Anti-government chants began at the festival, and security forces responded with tear gas. In previous protests, tear gas has foreshadowed live ammunition. When the tear gas in Bishoftu was followed by the sound of gunshots, panic ensued. Many people were killed when they fell into deep trenches and drowned or were trampled.
In August, at least 90 protesters were shot and killed by Ethiopian security forces in the regions of Oromia and Amhara. All told, according to Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 500 people during protests during the past year.
In announcing the state of emergency, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn blamed “anti-peace forces” and “foreign enemies” whom he claimed are trying to destabilize Ethiopia. But attempts to point to foes abroad masks the truth that unrest is being fueled by a deep sense of anger at home. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the target of the rage, would do better to confront the root causes than to answer with bullets and tear gas. The violence threatens to shake foreign investment that has been a pillar of Ethiopia’s development agenda. In recent days, businesses owned by foreigners have been attacked; Africa Juice, a Dutch-owned firm, was set alight last week by a crowd of hundreds in Oromia.
Ethiopia’s human rights abuses and political repression must be addressed frontally by the United States and Europe, no longer shunted to the back burner because of cooperation fighting terrorism. With the state of emergency, Ethiopia’s leaders are borrowing a brutal and counterproductive tactic from dictators the world over who have tried to put a cork in genuine popular dissent. It won’t work.