A State of Emergency has Brought Calm to Ethiopia. But Don’t be Fooled

“If the people lose faith in the reforms, they are not going to stop asking for change; they will just be more likely to listen to people who seek more extreme goals by more extreme means.” – Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for human rights.

The government has promised a new electoral system with proportional representation so that opposition politicians have a chance to get elected. The problem is they haven’t done any of it yet, and even with unqualified commitment and speed, these things are going to take quite some time to achieve.

By Paul Schemm | Washington Post,

Earlier this month, hundreds of high school students in the small Ethio­pian town of Meti gathered for a demonstration. They were supposed to be celebrating the country’s Nations and Nationalities day, which commemorates the much-vaunted equality of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups. Instead, they defied a two-month-old state of emergency to voice their anger over stalled political reforms and endemic corruption.

The protest was quickly dispersed and arrests were made, locals said, and calm returned to the village. But the incident is a sign of the simmering resentment that threatens to shatter Ethiopia’s enforced quiet.

The United States, one of Ethiopia’s biggest backers, is urging the government to address the widespread dissatisfaction and open up the country’s politics before it is too late.

“We feel it has reached an inflection point where some hard decisions are going to have to be made,” said Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, in an interview during a recent visit to the capital, Addis Ababa. “Otherwise, a lot of the achievements could be jeopardized, and we know from the country’s history what a true crisis could look like.”

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Ethiopia to Africa’s stability. It has the continent’s second-largest population — nearly 100 million people — one of its fastest growing economies and a powerful military that helps stabilize a string of troubled countries around it.

The United States — and many other countries — have invested extensively in aid programs to help the Ethiopian government wrest the country out of poverty and bring it to middle-income status. If it succeeds — and becomes a democracy as well — it could be a model for developing nations everywhere.

Ethiopia has witnessed double-digit growth in the past decade. But this rapid economic expansion has resulted in strains, especially when new factories and commercial farms are being built on land taken from farmers. The central Oromo region, which has historically felt marginalized — despite having the largest segment of the population and some of the richest farmland — has been particularly hard hit.

Protests erupted there in November 2015 over the land grabs, corruption in the local government and lack of services such as running water, electricity and roads. The demonstrations later spread to the northern Amhara region, which has grievances of its own with a government that residents maintain is dominated by the Tigrayan minority group.

It has been the worst unrest in Ethi­o­pia since Tigrayan-led rebels overthrew the Marxist government in 1991. Amnesty International estimates at least 800 people have died in the suppression of protests over the past year.

People have also increasingly singled out Tigrayans for their woes, blaming them for getting the best jobs or dominating the economy. There have been cases of attacks on Tigrayans in the north of the country, and there are fears the unrest could take on a more ethnic dimension.

After dozens were killed during a botched attempt to disperse a crowd at an Oromo religious festival in October, mobs attacked factories and commercial farms across the country and the government declared a state of emergency. Violence has since dropped off, and the government has said it is addressing grievances and has already made significant progress, especially in the Oromo region.

“The reform in Oromia has been far ahead when compared to other regions,” insisted government spokesman Negeri Lencho in a recent news conference. “Ethiopia is in a state of reform — the reform began at the cabinet level . . . and is now continuing at other government levels to the lowest levels.”

But a dozen people interviewed by The Washington Post in the Oromo region said there have been no changes.

“The previous officials are still in office,” complained a spry, old man walking with a cane from a weekend market in the town of Ejere. Like everyone else interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.

He paused under an acacia tree overlooking his village to complain how nothing had improved. There had been no effort to address calls for paved roads or installing electricity, he said.

“The people are resentful of the local officials and don’t want to discuss things with them,” he said. The local administrator also had not shown much interest in talking to the people, he said, though he admitted a potential reason why: Villagers burned down his house last year.

A middle-aged woman dressed in a floral print dress and white shawl butted in. “We need the government to respond to the demands of the people,” she said, her voice rising. “What we need is for the killings and imprisonments to stop.”

Villagers described a climate of fear, with late-night raids targeting young people who had been accused of protesting. Few doubted that demonstrations will resume once the state of emergency is lifted.

The government has promised a new electoral system with proportional representation so that opposition politicians have a chance to get elected. Currently, the opposition has no seats in the parliament or on local councils.

“What the government says is simply astonishing, what they are saying is totally different from what we see on the ground,” a young Oromo said in a village not far from the capital.

“On one hand, they talk about a dialogue with the opposition. But on with the other hand, they are arresting the head of the main opposition party,” he added, referring to the Dec. 1 arrest of the country’s most prominent Oromo opposition leader, Merera Gudina.

Most of his party’s top and mid-level leaders have also been imprisoned over the past year despite the government’s talk of the need for dialogue with all political parties.

“The effect of the state of emergency counteracts the aspirations they have articulated,” Malinowski noted. He acknowledged that while the Ethiopian government is suggesting reforms, little has materialized. “The problem is they haven’t done any of it yet, and even with unqualified commitment and speed, these things are going to take quite some time to achieve.”

As the countryside seethes, time is not on the government’s side. The United States has urged a number of confidence-building measures such as releasing opposition figures.

The government may be starting to respond. Following Malinowski’s visit in mid-December, it released 9,800 of the nearly 25,000 people detained during the state of emergency.

But years of overwhelming election victories by the ruling party and its allies have left people deeply cynical about the possibility of change.

“During the past elections, those that came to power were not the ones chosen by the people,” said a 32-year-old farmer standing by the side of the highway near the town of Ambo. “We don’t know where the ballots of the people go.”

With opposition groups in the Ethiopian diaspora often preaching violence, Malinowski said the people must be shown that peaceful change within the political system is still possible.

“If they lose faith in that, they are not going to stop asking for change; they will just be more likely to listen to people who seek more extreme goals by more extreme means,” he warned.

17 thoughts on “A State of Emergency has Brought Calm to Ethiopia. But Don’t be Fooled

    1. Tasteless!!!
      If you think you are making fun of Sentiko, well you are but you are also making fun of all East Africans that in the eyes of white people, we are all niggers.

    2. Not that I mind if you want to be the little one but did you happen to hear what the stupid lady is saying? “I didn’t know Ethiopians have restaurants, I thought they eat turds etc”. Now let me explain, if she feels that way about us, she would feel the same about your ignorant behind but I’m glad that made laugh, joker.

  1. “The government has promised a new electoral system with proportional representation so that opposition politicians have a chance to get elected. The problem is they haven’t done any of it yet, and even with unqualified commitment and speed, these things are going to take quite some time to achieve” said Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for human rights, so Secretary why keep flogging the dead horse then?

  2. This Little Jews guys have not any respect at all.The Ethiopian people need demoracy and the change came out by people.America is a jews state.

    1. What about the eritrean people?? They don’t need democracy ohh I understand there are no people in Eritrea, they have all fleed Africa’s north Korea, Eritrea have huge political and economical problems it is a dying nation but you are more worried about Ethiopia, thinking if Ethiopia fall apart your problem will be solved, you and your likes are no eritrean nor African but truly brain dead sheeps who have no idea about your world..

  3. Another scheme to save their pet ‘Woyane-Tigray’.. and the funny thing is, this scheme is going to take quite some time to achieve. LOL!!???????? poor Ethiopians, what a shame!!

  4. Using force may work for now in Ethiopia but in the long term it wouldn’t work, as Somalia gets peaceful and slowly takes it’s country from the Al Qaeda terrorists then surely American won’t be needing the TPLF to police the Horn and this is where the trouble starts for the TPLF, amhara and oromo rebellions will be too much for the TPLF to handle, I’m guessing the TPLF will threaten and intimidate the young Somali democracy leaders in Mogadishu to help them against the Amharas and Oromos rebellions or else they will recognise Somaliland, but I’m sure Somalia will ignore this and in fact help the Oromos, because Oromos ruling Ethiopia will be good not only for Somalia but the entire people of the horn, the Amharas and Tigrai leaders of Ethiopia have been causing nothing but problems for the Somali, Oromo, Afar, Aderi and the Eritrea people in fact Ethiopia under Oromos will also see peace amongst the Ethiopia and Eritrea people.

  5. Poverty,ethnic division,100 million ppl(can’t be controlled easily),border conflict(internal and external),problem with Egypt,al Shabab,no religion equality(we have seen it the Muslim demonstration),encircling of Arab countries,no attention from US.this is the end of minority tigray regime.the first target will be for sure Tigray ppl.So its time to control our borders before Eritrea is filled with refugees.it’s size and economy is not in a condition to accept millions of ppl.

    1. We should only accept 3,000 political refugees who will train at the Shabia School of Self-Reliance/Health/Education and once we feel they are fully reformed and baptized they should set free to rule Tigrai and answer directly to Asmara if they want access to world markets.

      But to remain in Oromo/Amhara land will be a butchers dream to seek revenge on the TPLF family line.

    1. State of emergency in Ethiopia- facing opposition from all of the country. corruption, poor administration, religious oppression, human rights violation, Mass imprisonment, one ethnic group rule. Emergency means in Ethiopia – disaster, crisis and tragedy.
      State of relieve in Eritrea- Unity and Peace all over the country, stable as heaven, Free medical and education, equality of ethnic groups, no corruption, religious harmony, diversified leadership and most of all “One Nation under One People”.
      Peace In The Horn Of Africa!
      May Allah/God bless Eritrea!

  6. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski
    Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

    Interview with VOA Amharic

    December 23, 2016

    VOA: Secretary Malinowski, I want to thank you for giving VOA this opportunity.

    So as your travel schedule indicates, you were to meet with high-ranking government officials and policy leaders as well as civic organization leaders. How did these discussions strike you?

    A/S Malinowski: This is my fourth visit to Ethiopia in the last year and a half, and every time I come I feel as if the discussions are richer and more candid, more comprehensive in going over the extraordinarily difficult challenges that Ethiopia faces right now.

    When I was here last year for the first time, the government officials with whom I met already were acknowledging that following a long period in which their primary focus was economic development, the country would need to turn its focus to democratization. I argued to them then that the country was undergoing a process that could be likened to a boiling pot. And that when you have a boiling pot the thing to do is take the lid off, because either way it’s going to be boiling, and if you keep the lid on it’s going to explode.

    Now since then we all know what has happened. There have been now successive rounds of protest. There has been violence and insecurity. There have been attacks on police and on private property. There has also been excessive use of force against protesters. And I think the sense of urgency in meeting that political challenge is plainly greater today than it has been at any point in the country’s recent history, and this visit was a very good opportunity to speak with the government and with important voices outside of the government about what the next steps might be.

    VOA: So have you reached any conclusion as to what the situation of human rights is like in the country now?

    A/S Malinowski: It’s a very difficult situation. The country is under a state of emergency, and a state of emergency by definition means that certain rights are suspended. Due process is suspended. And however much the government may feel that the state of emergency has brought calm temporarily to the country, it also brings with it certain risks.

    It risks adding a new layer of grievances to those grievances that initially led people in Oromia and Amhara to come out onto the streets. At first they were concerned about land seizures and lack of jobs and representation, all of which the government has acknowledge to be real and legitimate. But now they’re also upset about the arrests and the violence. And the longer this continues, the more those grievances are likely to build.

    At the same time, it risks giving greater power to the security apparatus in a way that could delay the introduction of the reforms that the Prime Minister and the government have, to their great credit, said are necessary.

    So our sense is that the longer this unnatural state continues, the harder it will be for the government to achieve some of the goals that it has acknowledged must be met for the crisis to be resolved.

    VOA: Many followers of U.S.-Ethiopian relations suggest that your travel to Ethiopia at this juncture in time points to the fact that the U.S. government is clearly concerned over the democratic and human rights situation in the country. What is your evaluation of this observation?

    A/S Malinowski: Ethiopia is very important to us. Ethiopia is not only a large and influential country in this region, but on the positive side of things potentially an incredibly positive model for the world if it succeeds in becoming both a middle-income country and a fully open and vibrant democracy. It’s very very important to the United States to support Ethiopia’s success in terms of meeting both of those goals.

    At the same time, we do, we are very deeply concerned that the current crisis may inhibit Ethiopia’s ability to reach those goals and because we know, we know Ethiopian history. We know what a true crisis in this country would look like and how much harm it could potentially do, not just to the people of this country, but to the region.

    In short, we think this is an inflexion point. It’s a moment at which very important and hard decisions need to be made. We are very heartened by statements that the Prime Minister and others in the government have made about the need for electoral reform, the need to address grievances over land and joblessness and local governance. It is our great hope that the government will follow these words with actions that truly will address the grievances that led to the crisis. And given that this process is likely to take time, it’s also our hope that the government will take steps in the short run to build the confidence of the people of the country that change is on its way.

    So as your listeners know, we have urged the release of political leaders and journalists who have been detained, including under the state of emergency. And we certainly hope that the government will find some mechanism, one that is appropriate to Ethiopia’s political context, to begin a dialogue about these needed reforms that includes credible leaders outside of the ruling party framework.

    VOA: [In your joint statement yesterday], I think you said that you had a frank exchange of views on these issues of human rights and democracy and good governance, and commitment from Ethiopian government side to pursue reforms. Were there reforms made?

    A/S Malinowski: The government, as we know because it has spoken publicly about this, has said that it intends to pursue reforms in a number of areas. I think one of the most significant commitments that the government has made is to pursue reform to the electoral system. They’ve talked about potentially introducing a proportional representation or a mixed proportional system. These things obviously have not happened yet and it is up to the government of Ethiopia to translate commitments into actions. This cannot come from the United States or from the outside, it can only come from a process of dialogue and decision here in Ethiopia.

    Because we are friends, and because we have a very close relationship with the government, we do offer advice from time to time, and in addition to welcoming the commitments that the government has made, we have also encouraged the government to consider taking some of the steps that I just mentioned in the short term to try to build public confidence that the deeper changes are in fact likely to come. And that would, again, involve releasing key prisoners, moving away from the state of emergency as quickly as possible, easing its application in the meantime, creating some mechanism for dialogue, and opening space for independent media inside Ethiopia.

    The last of these I think is particularly important in light of concern that the Ethiopian government has consistently and I think legitimately expressed about hate speech that is in many cases coming from outside the country, from at least some elements of the diaspora, at least some of the broadcasting stations that come in from the outside. And our advice to the government is that if you are concerned about inaccurate news coming from these sources, if you’re concerned about hate speech that may be coming on social media, the best antidote is, as we say in American English, to flood the zone with vibrant, independent, credible, domestic media so that the people of the country are not forced to resort to Facebook on their phones and the rumors that sometimes spread, in America as much as Ethiopia, if you’re relying mostly on social media for your news.

    VOA: Opposition leaders in Ethiopia have expressed their dissatisfaction and in fact anger with the U.S. government’s response to what they consider gross human rights violations, totalitarianism, the posture of authoritarian government over the years, and especially after the 2005 elections. So they in fact accuse the U.S. government of succumbing to Ethiopian government pressure in order to, you know, safeguard U.S. interests in the region. What’s your take on this?

    A/S Malinowski: In this difficult situation I can’t blame anyone for being frustrated. The government is sometimes frustrated with us because we do speak out, and the opposition is sometimes frustrated with us because they would like us to speak out even more. And that’s perfectly fine. Unlike some people, we can take criticism.

    But I think it should be plain, particularly over the last year in which this crisis has been building, that the United States has taken very seriously its commitment to promoting respect for universal human rights in Ethiopia. And in fact we see that work as being very closely related to all of our other interests in Ethiopia.

    We do have a very close strategic partnership with Ethiopia on security, on development, on regional peace. And all of these goals are much more likely to be achieved if Ethiopia is a stable, developing and democratizing country. And I’m confident that the leadership of the government of Ethiopia would agree one hundred percent with the statement that I just made because it is consistent with the goals that they themselves have outlined.

    So through our public statements, through very intensive private diplomacy, and through all the tools of our engagement here we have tried our best to both assist the government and to encourage the government to meet its commitments in the democratization and respect for human rights.

    VOA: What is your assessment of the democracy and human rights situation especially in the last two years in Ethiopia? Many people suggest that the situation is deteriorating by the day, which of course the government has not agreed with this argument. So what do you think of this?

    A/S Malinowski: It’s hard to say that the situation is improving in the middle of a state of emergency because by definition, as I mentioned before, a state of emergency involves suspending rights that are otherwise guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution.

    The important question is how is the country going to come out of this crisis and the state of emergency? The government has said that this is a temporary state of affairs. It has acknowledged this is not natural. It has acknowledged that this is not the optimal state for Ethiopia to be in. So the question is when will the country emerge from the crisis and how will it emerge from the crisis? Sometimes a crisis can focus everybody’s minds on the need to compromise, to achieve, to make difficult decisions that perhaps always were understood to be necessary, but which were also seen as hard.

    Sometimes if you smoke too much you know you have to quit smoking. But it takes a crisis to get you to actually do it. And our hope is that the lessons of the last year will encourage everybody, both the government and the opposition and the youth who have been out there expressing these grievances, to recognize that only through dialogue and political compromise and a gradual opening of the system can this country achieve the future that it wants. That is not going to happen by maintaining the status quo forever. Nor will it happen through violence or through efforts to overturn the system by force. There is a middle ground that can help the country achieve what can be an extraordinarily positive future, and our hope is that the crisis will lead people to take that path.

    VOA: Thank you.

    A/S Malinowski: Thank you.

    December 17, 2016

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