By Robyn Dixon
For years, Ethiopia’s government has repressed dissent, jailed opposition leaders and at times shut down social media, producing the kind of political stability that has helped reassure foreign investors.
But the climate that nurtured one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies is suddenly under threat, as months of violent antigovernment protests have turned in recent days into attacks on Dutch, Turkish, Saudi and Nigerian businesses.
“A state of emergency has been declared because the situation posed a threat against the people of the country,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared over the weekend.
More than two dozen foreign-owned businesses, including Dutch horticulture firms, a Turkish textile company and a mine owned by Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote, were damaged in the latest protests, which previously had targeted mainly government facilities and infrastructure.
Authorities have been accused by international human rights groups of a heavy-handed response to the protests that began in November, and Sunday’s announcement of a state of emergency suggested the conflicts were likely to continue.
Security forces have killed at least 500 people and detained tens of thousands of others since protests erupted late last year, according to Human Rights Watch, as the government confronts its worst public unrest in its 25 years in power.
Felix Horne, researcher on Ethiopia for the human rights group, warned that a state of emergency risks more clampdowns on protesters by security forces. He argues the West’s “quiet diplomacy” has failed to pressure the government to curb abuses.
Despite a dire human rights record going back 25 years, the Ethiopian government has come in for only muted criticism from Western leaders in the past, possibly because the government has been able to guarantee a measure of economic stability.
President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia during his final African tour last year prompted criticisms from activists and human rights groups.
The European Union this week described the latest clashes as “worrying” and called on all sides to refrain from violence. But the criticism has been low-key.
“Foreign diplomats and development organizations working in Ethiopia understand that you limit public criticism in exchange for access,” Horne wrote Tuesday in the EU Observer.
The country of 99 million people gets hefty U.S. and EU aid, and is seen by Western officials as a stalwart in resisting terrorism in the region, particularly in neighboring Somalia, where Ethiopia has been a strong force fighting the Al Qaeda linked militant group, the Shabab.
Ethiopia is one of America’s closest partners in East Africa, but there are hints of a firmer approach from Western diplomats, amid fear the protests could destabilize the country and, in turn, the volatile Horn of Africa.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visiting Ethiopia on Tuesday, called on the government to allow protests and opposition voices and to ensure the police response to demonstrations was proportionate.
At a joint news conference with the German leader, Desalegn said the government would pursue a multiparty democracy but added that “Ethiopia is also against any violent extremist armed struggling groups.”
The government has blamed foreign enemies and dissidents for fueling the unrest.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned in August that Ethiopia’s biggest threat came from within.
“Security forces have continued to use excessive force to prevent Ethiopians from congregating peacefully, killing and injuring many people and arresting thousands,” he said in a stronger-than-usual reproof of the Addis Ababa government.
Ethiopia pulled its troops out of the Somali town of El Ali, according to reports from Somalia on Tuesday, leaving the militant Shabab group poised to retake the town — a development that underscored Ethiopia’s pivotal role until now in securing its neighbor. Some analysts suggest the move may have been designed to send a pointed message to the West.
The citizen protests began in the sprawling region of Oromia in central and southern Ethiopia late last year, when residents expressed anger over a government plan to seize land for city development. The plan was later ditched. New protests over land in the Amhara and Oromia regions erupted this year, and they have broadened to include more general grievances against the government.
Members of the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, which together make up 60% of Ethiopia’s population, accuse the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front government of suppressing their political and economic rights. They oppose foreign farming and manufacturing projects, which they see as encroaching on their land.
There’s also long-simmering resentment that the Tigray ethnic group, about 6% of Ethiopians, wields significant power in the government.
At least 55 people were killed during a stampede in Bishoftu at an Oromo religious festival on Oct. 2, fleeing when troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Horne said hundreds of people may have died.
Sharon Gray, a researcher at UC Davis, was killed last week when protesters hurled rocks at her car on the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
Hailemariam said the state of emergency was necessary to “put an end to the damage that is being carried out against infrastructure projects, health centers, administration and justice buildings.”
An opposition leader, Gebru Asrat, told Addis Standard newspaper that the protests will continue as long as citizens are not guaranteed basic human rights, freedom and democracy.
“If there is no democratization in Ethiopia, the problems will keep on escalating,” Asrat said. “And they will put the country in a very dangerous situation.”