Ethiopia Growth Clashes With Politics as Oromo Protests Rise

  • More than 50 people killed while demonstrating, activists say
  • Unrest shows conflict of authoritarian plans, ethnic rights

Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth needs a burgeoning capital and less dependence on traditional farming. That’s pitting the government against members of its largest ethnic group, more than 50 of whom have allegedly been killed in protests in the past month.

Demonstrations by Oromo residents against a blueprint for the expansion of Addis Ababa have rocked at least 30 towns and prompted more than 500 arrests since Nov. 19, says the Oromo Federalist Congress, an opposition group. The unrest -- rare in the Horn of Africa nation -- highlights the conflict between Ethiopia’s authoritarian development model and its system of federalism, which guarantees the rights of more than 80 ethnicities.

Oromo protesters leave Wolenkomi
Oromo protesters leave Wolenkomi
Photographer: William Davison/Bloomberg

It’s also the biggest challenge the ruling coalition has faced since it came to power after unseating a military regime 25 years ago, according to Milkessa Midega, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Federal Studies at Addis Ababa University.

“The party looks to have neither developed the society -- we are begging food aid now -- nor democratized the state-society relationships in Ethiopia,” he said. “The Oromo protest movement burns out of the general socio-economic and political marginalization and exclusionary features of the current regime.”

Economic Growth

Ethiopia will have sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing economy this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The government says a rate of 10 percent is achievable even as drought in the eastern half of the country leaves about 10 million people needing food aid next year. The state-planned economy may open up more to foreign investors following its sale of $1 billion of Eurobonds last year.

Such growth is already visible in parts of the capital, where shopping malls and luxury hotels are sprouting up. The government has a 25-year plan that seeks to build housing, industry, parks and retail zones and complementary infrastructure. Despite Ethiopia’s decentralized system, power is concentrated in the multi-ethnic Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which, along with allied parties, won every seat in federal and regional legislatures in May.

‘Rational Development’

Communications Minister Getachew Reda said the plan is about rational development, not ethnic politics, and will ensure Addis Ababa develops harmoniously with surrounding Oromo towns so everyone benefits. He said five people have died in the protests.

“If there is still a need for further discussion with communities that is the path the government will definitely take,” Getachew said. “It will do everything to explain why the master-plan is not an attempt to expand the territory of Addis Ababa.”

Planners estimate the population of Addis Ababa and five Oromo satellite towns will more than double to 8.1 million by 2040 and require developing an area 20 times the current boundaries of the capital. Addis Ababa was an Oromo village before it was conquered by Emperor Menelik II in 1886, who then imposed the Amharic language, Milkessa said in an e-mailed response to questions. Ever since, the city has expanded to displace Oromo farmers, he said.

“The Oromo feel that they are completely denied their various rights in the city,” he said. “It is on top of this age-old linguistic and cultural discrimination and political and economic marginalization of the Oromo in the city that the master-plan appeared.”

Fighting Expansion

The Oromo people, one of the continent’s largest ethnic groups, comprise about a third of Ethiopia’s 99.5 million population, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Bekele Gerba, deputy leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, is among those fighting the expansion.

“What does development mean when it’s evicting hundreds of farmers that do not have any skills, that do not have any means of subsistence other than their land?” he said by phone. “They are evicted and they are made homeless and there is no effort to develop and to take into consideration all their cultural, their social and the environmental well-being of the indigenous people that used to live there.”

Four people died when security forces opened fire on a demonstration in Wolenkomi in west Oromia on Tuesday, according to witnesses. A group burned down the local administration office and the police station on Dec. 11, and there is no government presence in the town, which is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the capital. By mid-Wednesday, protesters had blocked the road with trucks and the military patrolled, shooting every few seconds.

The most significant human-rights abuses in Ethiopia include restrictions on freedom of association, including through arrests, politically motivated trials, and harassment and intimidation, according to the U.S. State Department.

MAP: Ethiopia
MAP: Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s largest city and commercial hub, is surrounded by Oromia region and is also the regional capital. The constitution declares the “special interest” of Oromia in the capital should be respected, although this hasn’t been defined by law.

Falmata Sena, 34, an Oromo resident of the town of Burayu, which comes under the master-plan, says the government’s development plan means the Oromo losing autonomy, language and culture as investors move into their neighborhoods, repeating a process that’s occurred in Addis Ababa.

“The upper layer is development, but the hidden agenda is how to assimilate Oromos,” he said.

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