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Crackdown Turns Deadly In Ethiopia As Government Turns Against Protesters

People mourn the death of Dinka Chala who was shot dead by the Ethiopian forces the day earlier, in the Yubdo Village, about 100 km from Addis Ababa in the Oromia region, on Dec. 17, 2015.
Zacharias Abubeker
AFP/Getty Images
People mourn the death of Dinka Chala who was shot dead by the Ethiopian forces the day earlier, in the Yubdo Village, about 100 km from Addis Ababa in the Oromia region, on Dec. 17, 2015.

Human Rights Watch says as many as 75 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces in confrontations. The government acknowledges only five deaths.

What's at stake is the use of land in the Oromia region, home to the country's largest ethnic group. They are disturbed by expansion plans for Addis Ababa, the capital. But in the last few days the protests have grown in size, and in grievance — and the government's crackdown has become more violent.

We asked our East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner some questions:

What's happening in Ethiopia?

The big picture here is that the world's population is growing and there's a big push for food and farmland. Something like 60 percent of available arable land is in Africa. And in Ethiopia, the government has been leasing large parcels of land to foreign investors from China and India and the Middle East. The government is legally allowed to do this. It owns all the land in Ethiopia. But critics call it 'land grabbing'. They say that people are being violently displaced from their ancestral lands. There's a big ethnic component as well in terms of who is affected.

The spark of the protests was provided last month when a forest was being cleared for development. The protests coalesced in opposition to the government's so-called "master plan" to expand development of Addis Ababa into surrounding farmland. The government claims that this 'master plan' is actually on hold. But since then, the protests have spread to other towns in the Oromia region, and they're not just about the 'master plan' but about a range of issues particular to this group.

What makes these protests different?

From footage posted on social media, these protests seem to be much larger and more diverse than previous protests. The protests have not been without violence — police stations have been torched and some foreign-owned farms have been looted.

But the biggest difference so far is the government's response. Instead of leaving the regional police to handle these protests, they've sent in the feared Anti Terrorism Task Force. The military has also allegedly fired live rounds into groups of protesters, increasing the death toll. The government disputes this.

The asymmetrical nature of the response has been criticized by the United States — the State Department released a statement early Saturday urging the government of Ethiopia to permit peaceful protests.

Why has the government not permitted peaceful protests?

Ethiopia, especially in the last decade, has allowed very little freedom of expression or assembly. Criticism of the government can get one jailed for terrorism. Ethiopian journalists are serving time for this now. In parliamentary elections this May, the ruling party and its allied parties won 100 percent of seats in parliament. There isn't any space in Ethiopia right now for political debate.

The Ethiopian government is treating these protests as an existential threat to the country. Ethiopia's Anti Terrorism Task Force issued a communique on Dec. 15 that painted the protests as the work of a small number of hardline separatists: a "very limited number of students from the Oromo ethnic group... creating a direct connection with forces that have taken missions from foreign terrorist groups." The following day, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that the government "will take merciless legitimate action against any force bent on destabilizing the area."

It doesn't seem that the protesters will have an opportunity to sit down with the government to discuss their demands.

Meanwhile, some of the Ethiopian government's fiercest critics - especially in the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States — are describing these protests as a long-awaited uprising by the Oromo people against the government. But they sharply disagree with the government's characterization of this as an ethnic conflict. Rather, they describe it as a political revolt by a large and marginalized ethnic group, and say that the protesters have taken care not to target people of other ethnicities.

Ethiopia is also facing a food shortage more serious than at any time in the last 30 years. Why is that, and is that a factor in these protests?

The reasons for the food shortage have to do with a drought exacerbated by El Niño as well as climate change. The government estimates that more than 10 million people could be affected, and many of them live in the Oromia region. That could certainly exacerbate tensions. There's also historical precedent: the last big Ethiopian famine - in 1984 - was credited with bringing down a government — the marxist military Derg regime. The fall of that regime cleared the way for the current government to come to power.

There's another factor here that's even more sensitive in Ethiopia right now. Many food security experts will argue that one reason Ethiopia is so prone to famine is that the population is so rural. The way to avoid these situations in the future will be to shift more of the population into urban centers rather than having so many people dispersed across land that is of such poor quality and so vulnerable to climate issues. That is what supporters of Ethiopia's "master plan" say that it will do.

But since the government owns all the land, and the 'master plan' is so controversial, the Ethiopian government is not willing to talk publicly about Ethiopia's urbanized future.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation , a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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