Turning up the volume on Ethiopia?

The Ethiopian government's suppression of political dissidents has attracted little censure. Could that be about to change?

On 6 and 7 August, Ethiopian security forces were reported to have shot dead about 90 demonstrators in both the Oromia region, which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, and in the Amhara region to the north-west.

In July, the demonstrations had spread to Amhara from Oromia, to which they had largely been confined. 

They began there as a protest against the government’s integrated master plan to develop the infrastructure of Addis Ababa, and adjacent cities in Oromia.

The government backed off that plan, but the demonstrations then became a wider protest, expressing grievances against the government and its response to the protests.

The Amhara demonstrations were apparently sparked by an attempt by authorities to arrest some individuals thought to have links with the Eritrean government and other dissident elements it supports. But this quickly transformed into another protest by people agitating for the return of Amhara land transferred to the northern Tigray province in 1991.

Human rights advocates and observers estimate that at least 500 people have been killed since November 2015, mostly by live ammunition fired by security forces, and that tens of thousands have been detained – and sometimes tortured. The government contests this figure, and argues that the protests were not peaceful; policemen were also killed and government and private property was attacked.

Human rights advocates estimate at least 500 people have been killed since November 2015 in Ethiopia

Since elections last year, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition holds all the seats in federal and regional parliaments, making legislative criticism unlikely. The independence of the courts when it comes to politically sensitive cases has been questioned: critical journalists are arrested and NGOs are restricted.

Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission has a specific mandate to investigate alleged abuses by security forces. But its independence and credibility were questioned when it reported to Parliament in June that the lethal force used by security forces in Oromia was proportionate to the risk they faced from the protesters. However, the Commission admitted that government used excessive force in the Amhara region.

Meanwhile Africa and the international community at large have also been almost entirely silent. Donor countries and others have said little in public about the crackdown, apparently because of Ethiopia’s importance as a partner in the fight against terrorism (mainly Somalia’s al-Shabaab), in peacekeeping and in regional security issues. Ethiopia has over 8 300 personnel serving in eight United Nations (UN) or UN/African Union (AU) hybrid peacekeeping missions, plus another 4 395 in AMISOM, the AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

It has been playing a vital role in the robust fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia – both within and without AMISOM. Given al-Shabaab’s designation as a terrorist organisation, it has thus also been seen by its main Western allies, particularly the United States and United Kingdom, as a critical partner in the war against terror.

The government argues that the protests were not peaceful; policemen were also killed

The Ethiopian government is also widely respected as a responsible custodian of its country’s development (and of development aid); increasingly focusing investment on major infrastructural projects such as dams, railways and highways to boost the economy.

All of these factors have cast a kind of spell of silence over governments that are otherwise usually critical of this sort of behaviour. But there are now some signs of growing disenchantment among the country’s allies and the wider international community.

On 10 August, the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, told Reuters that his office had seen no genuine attempt at investigation and accountability by Ethiopia itself – and so asked Ethiopia to allow an international investigation of the killings, especially the reported use of live ammunition by security forces. Addis Ababa, however, insists it can and will conduct its own probe.

And then on 21 August, even Ethiopia’s strongest international ally, the United States (US), issued an unusually strong critique. While acknowledging that Ethiopia does face ‘real external threats’, Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, wrote on the online news site allAfrica that ‘it is from within that Ethiopia faces the greatest challenges to its stability and unity. When thousands of people, in dozens of locations, in multiple regions come out on the streets to ask for a bigger say in the decisions that affect their lives, this cannot be dismissed as the handiwork of external enemies.’

Is the old ground shifting under the feet of the Ethiopian government?

Excessive force, detaining thousands of protesters, arresting opposition leaders, restricting civil society and shutting down the Internet were ‘self-defeating tactics’ that would not silence opposition, but rather make them more uncompromising and increase instability, he wrote.

He told Ethiopia that its ‘next great national task is to master the challenge of political openness, just as it has been mastering the challenge of economic development’ and promised the support of the US ‘and all of Ethiopia’s friends’ if it tackled this challenge.

Does this mean the old ground is shifting under the feet of the Ethiopian government? Does it face the imminent prospect of real pressure – even from the US?

Richard Downie, Deputy Director of the Africa programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, hopes so. ‘But I’m not holding my breath,’ he adds. ‘The US government does not speak with one voice on Ethiopia,’ he told ISS Today.

While Tom Malinowski’s bureau was keen to exert more pressure on Ethiopia’s government, ‘other US agencies have a vested interest in keeping quiet’.

These include USAID, ‘which wishes to protect its very sizable investments on development in Ethiopia,’ and the Department of Defense, ‘which values its security partnership with Ethiopia and appreciates the helpful role that Addis has played in advancing regional security in places like Somalia and the two Sudans. 

Even Ethiopia’s strongest international ally, the US, issued a critique

‘These internal differences of opinion mean it’s unlikely that the United States will get tough on Ethiopia unless the situation there sharply deteriorates.’ Downie acknowledges that the US faces a diplomatic dilemma in Ethiopia.

‘If it speaks out too loudly and too forcefully on political rights, it risks being shown the door by a self-confident government that has other partners to choose from.’

Downie notes that China may have more leverage, but that Beijing is not likely to rock the boat. Yet he suggests that too could change. ‘China is interested above all in stability and will act if its sees its interests impacted by chronic unrest, as we saw in Sudan and South Sudan.’

And he suggests another lever that could be used is the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which Ethiopia played a leading role in framing. These goals include SDG 16, which demands inclusive, peaceful societies and access to justice. 

All of this suggests we should expect no magic wand. The silence from Africa and the rest of the world seems unlikely to break, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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