Ethiopia’s big democratic gamble with nationhood and economics

Ian Dunne

Democracy at a Cost: Ethiopia’s Desire to Develop its Economy with an Iron Fist is Coming at a Cost to the Very Fabric of its Nationhood.

What on earth is happening in Ethiopia people are asking. Never one to come up in our newsfeeds very often, this country owes its lack of presence on the international stage to its underdevelopment and authoritarian nature. This combination makes it near on impossible for people to know what happens in general in this unknown nation state on the Horn of Africa.

I saw an online discussion hosted by Al Jazeera the other day discussing the dangerous situation in Ethiopia arising lately between the Oromo/Amhara ethnic groups and the Ethiopian government, or to be more frank, the Tigrayan ethnic minority who rule the roost in Ethiopian politics. It caught my immediate interest and agreement, as I lived in a rural part of the Oromia region in 2015 for four months and saw the reality on the ground there for the Oromo.

AJ touched on marginalisation as the core reason why both Oromo and Amhara anger has peaked recently, resulting in violent clashes with state security. From my experiences living amongst the Oromo, AJ’s article had its hand directly on the pulse of this fragmenting nation.To put it into perspective the Tigrayan ethnic group – which make up about six per cent of Ethiopia’s population – dominate the makeup of the ruling EPRDF party who control 100% of parliament, and thus all public life. The Oromo on the other hand constitute about one third of Ethiopia’s population of ninety-four million, but have suffered at length for representation in Ethiopian politics, being systematically repressed by various regimes such as the Abyssinian Empire under Haile Selassie, the Marxist Derg of the 70’s and 80’s, and now today’s EPRDF coalition.

As a student of international relations, my conversations with the locals were usually steered by my curiosity of current affairs in Ethiopia. My interest was especially pushed by my awareness of the authoritative nature of Ethiopian politics. I found people were hesitant to talk, and only those who knew me for quite some time and who I had developed a good rapport with would open up about their true inner feelings.

My friend’s opinions were notably honest and heartfelt. They were well aware of the inadequacies each other faced. One conversation stuck with me in particular along my innocent quest for answers. I was travelling along a rural road by jeep one day with the company driver whom I conversed with daily, but this time we had work colleagues on board. I was asking my usual candid questions, this time on the government and how as the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo hadn’t won a single seat in that year’s general election. He was unusually quiet, and surprisingly fearful. I was surprised, but thought better of it and kept my words to myself.

Once we were alone in the jeep, he turned to me and said ‘Ian, you need to be careful when you talk about the political situation in Ethiopia, especially in Oromia. The government still has spies, it is dangerous to talk in public with people you do not know’. I was struck by his words, and embarrassed by my own naivety.

Since the riots began, over 1,500 people have been arrested since the government declared a state of emergency, many in the Arsi province of Oromia where I lived. Four weeks ago I contacted friends of mine who live there, and have heard nothing since. I suspect the government has cut off the internet there. It is the only connection to the outside world people have in a poverty stricken country, and something that gives people like my friends cause to demand better when they see the lives of others.

The government’s accusations that foreign actors from Eritrea and Egypt are the real drivers behind the protests is nonsense. These protests are by local Oromo and Amhara people and are about historical marginalisation, lack of representation, and under-development in these regions. Walking past parliament one day, I noticed people were combatively warned away from coming anywhere near the walls or gates of the seat of government. Guards with machine guns sat in towers spaced about twenty metres between one another running around the whole compound. I got a strong feeling that violence would be used on anyone that did come too close, irrespective of their good intentions.This bizarre situation gave me a thoughtful insight into the government’s exaggerated sense of paranoia.

During the general elections in 2015, I went and sat in a polling station to observe the voting process. People had their thumbprint recorded, signed their name on the register, and proceeded to drop their voting card into a large duffel-style bag. I had been told by many people these bags were full before voting began with the necessary votes. Whether this was true or not I never found out, regardless of how I tried to edge inconspicuously (or so I believed) closer to the bag itself. The results of the election proved my attempts regardless. That people in the area were getting threatening knocks on their doors by government party members to go and vote and in a certain way also told me everything.

On the 11th of October Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that there had been no acts of police violence and that the government would investigate any reports of such incidences. This is despite the fact that multiple independent organisations have reported the murder of hundreds of protesters by security forces.

Driving past the nearby local village one morning on my way to work, I saw two policemen viciously beat a number of men. I again turned to my driver and asked why this was happening. His response was no answer but a hopeless stare ahead, all the way down the winding road.

Perhaps my question this time was even more naive.