Ethiopia anger 'a fire under ashes' amid state of emergency

2017-06-08 13:33


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Ambo - At their campus in the farmland west of Ethiopia's capital, the students of Ambo University attend lectures, play football and worry about which of their classmates is spying on them.

It wasn't long ago that Ambo and other towns in Ethiopia's Oromia region were wracked by anti-government protests so fierce parliament declared a state of emergency last October.

The decree stopped the unrest - and while fear of arrest or death at the hands of security forces has kept protesters off the streets - their anger is as raw as ever.

"We are just living day-to-day life in a situation of being afraid of everything," a 23-year-old Ambo University student who took part in the demonstrations told AFP while sitting in an empty field above the town, the only place he felt safe from government informants.

Sporadic demonstrations have continued to erupt despite the state of emergency and, were it to expire as scheduled in July, several Oromia residents believe the unrest would resume.

"It's a fire under ashes," a judge in a district near Ambo said of the protests.

As with many people interviewed for this story, the judge and the student spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.

A history of discontent 

The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has dominated Ethiopia since 1991 with promises to bring development to one of the continent's poorest nations.

While poverty and infant mortality rates have plunged under its rule, the EPRDF is accused by rights groups of running an iron-fisted government that rigs elections and trumps up charges against opposition politicians in a bid to maintain power.

"The military, the economy, education, all institutions are controlled by the government," said Getachew Metaferia, a political science professor at Morgan State University in the United States.

A government proposal to expand the Addis Ababa city limits into Oromia provided the spark that ignited years of simmering rage among the Oromo, the country's largest ethnic group.

Denouncing the plan as a land grab, the Oromo began protesting in November 2015, barricading roads and burning down government buildings and factories.

A crackdown on the unrest that spread to the neighbouring Amhara region left more than 940 people dead, according to two reports released by the government's human rights commission.

Tight surveillance 

As the body count rose, parliament declared a state of emergency which banned meetings and gave police the power to hold suspected protesters indefinitely.

That meant that even in villages in Oromia, police would arrest people just for walking together, the judge said.

Across the country, arrests topped 11 000 with many shipped off to "re-education" camps in far-flung towns.

At Ambo University, dozens of students dropped out, while informants infiltrated the student body and reported any dissenting voices to security forces on campus.

Those who are arrested are often forced to summon any like-minded friends who also end up detained, according to the 23-year-old student.

Outside the university, plainclothes policemen scan the roofs of homes for equipment capable of picking up transmissions from the US-based Oromia Media Network, a banned TV station whose programming is often explicitly anti-government, according to the university student.

Anyone caught watching the station is jailed and fined 50,000 birr ($2,169, 1,936 euros), the student said.

Sometimes, they are also beaten.

'Protests will continue' 

However the protesters are undeterred and have turned to Facebook to communicate and share news with each other, circumventing a social media ban imposed during the height of the unrest.

They stormed the streets of Ambo in March after the state of emergency was extended by four months, resulting in 33 arrests, and again in May.

In the Amhara region, grenades have been thrown at hotels and at a concert. A political analyst at a western embassy in Addis Ababa believes these attacks are likely related to the protests that occurred in that region last year.

Ethiopia's government believes reforms including a cabinet reshuffle and dialogue with journalists and opposition politicians have calmed the countryside.

"Everyone can speak with everyone they want, as long as it doesn't affect other people," deputy communications minister Zadig Abraha said, denying the deployment of spies.

"We want our people to be free, to be innovative, to move our economy ahead."

While agreeing that the government has made genuine attempts to change, the analyst said the number and diversity of the protesters' demands have stymied administrators.

To the protesters of Oromia, the government's overtures mean little.

"What we can see on the ground now is what little freedom we had has gone away," said a second Ambo University student. "I believe the protests will continue."

Read more on:    ethiopia  |  east africa

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