Ethiopia’s Standing Rock

October 5, 2016

The U.S.-backed government is pursuing economic policies that benefit international investors and local elites, at the expense of the majority, writes Ryan de Laureal.

THE STRUGGLES of Ethiopians protesting repression and government-sponsored development programs have gone virtually unreported over the past year--and so has the murder of hundreds by the state for participating in the resistance.

The struggles are centered among the Oromo people--the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but who have nevertheless suffered marginalization and oppression.

Last weekend, at least 100 people were killed when security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a crowd at a cultural festival in Oromia, causing a stampede in which the victims were crushed or drowned in deep ditches that they were pushed into.

The upsurge began last November when a largely student-led movement in Oromia took to the streets to oppose the displacement of the region's farmers and communities because of large development projects--in particular, the so-called "master plan" for the expansion of the capital city of Addis Ababa into the surrounding rural areas.

One year on, the movement has successfully pressured the government to back away from its "master plan" proposal, but the state's brutal crackdown hasn't let up.

Aromo demonstrators take to the streets in Ethiopia
Aromo demonstrators take to the streets in Ethiopia

At the end of July, in the face of a government-imposed information blackout, Oromo leaders issued a call for peaceful protests to take place in August, with a list of demands that included self-determination for Oromia, Ethiopia's largest region, an end to government repression against ethnic Oromos and freedom for all political prisoners.

The demonstrations were met with deadly violence. Security forces began indiscriminately firing live bullets into the crowds, according to an Amnesty International report. At least 97 people were killed, Amnesty reported in early August, including 30 people who were murdered in a single day in the northern city of Bahir Dar. Hundreds more were injured or arrested and imprisoned, where likely face torture.

According to the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, Ethiopian soldiers and police have killed about 600 Oromo during anti-government protests over the past year. Many more have been injured or arrested.

Because of a state-imposed media blackout that has included government shutdowns of social media sites and the imprisonment of local and international journalists, information about the protests and the victims of security forces has been spotty at best.

Much of what we do know, aside from what has filtered through the media blackout, was documented in a June Human Rights Watch report based on information from interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses and victims of the repression.

The report also describes the historical backdrop to a movement that has developed in opposition to a wide range of issues: discrimination and state repression, dispossession of lands, environmental degradation, contamination of water supplies and labor grievances. All of these are rooted in Ethiopia's supposedly "miraculous" economic growth, which has been held up as a model of development success and praised glowingly by the usual cheerleaders for neoliberalism.

WITH AN estimated population of nearly 100 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. It has been one of the fastest growing economies on the continent as measured by growth in the gross domestic product. The boom was driven by large foreign and state-backed development projects in industry and infrastructure.

Ethiopia is also an important diplomatic hub in the Horn of Africa at the northeastern corner of the continent. The capital of Addis Ababa serves as headquarters for the African Union.

The country's economic expansion is primarily designed to make the country an appealing destination for international investors Major projects include enormous "industrial parks" similar to those in other countries aiming to become manufacturing powers.

With an influx of capital from China and elsewhere, Ethiopia has already become a major export and manufacturing center for industries such as agriculture and textiles, with commodities produced for well-known Western brands like H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.

But this growth has been coupled with the massive repression of internal dissent, particularly for the Oromo and other ethnic groups whose livelihoods are seen as an obstacle to development.

Like other countries in Africa, land dispossession is a central issue. And for all the wealth being generated for international capital, inequality, poverty, hunger, and disease continue to take a toll of a majority of the population.

In terms of human development, rather than economic development, Ethiopia continues to be one of the worst countries in the world--it is ranked 173rd out of 186 in according to the latest human development report of the United Nations.

Despite the economic "miracle," famine remains a threat for millions of people. This is particularly grotesque for a country that exports billions of dollars worth of agricultural commodities every year, including coffee, vegetables, dried legumes, meat and other animal products. The government proposes to export even more in the future. Meanwhile, the country's population remains reliant on hundreds of millions of dollars a year in foreign aid.

The "master plan" for the expansion of Addis Ababa was largely intended to deal with the large growth in the city's population as people flock to urban centers seeking employment and opportunity. The plan proposed a 20-fold expansion of the city's total area by incorporating the surrounding agricultural lands and communities.

After months of protest and opposition, the government made a surprise announcement in January that it was canceling the project. However, protests continued, with the focus shifting to issues such as government repression. The unrest also began to spread beyond Oromia to involve different ethnic groups in other parts of the country.

IN AN attempt to legitimize its crackdown, the Ethiopian regime--a U.S. ally that has been in power since the mid-1990s, ruling without a single opposition lawmaker in parliament since the last election--has branded all protesters as "terrorists." The government enforces draconian laws like the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation 652/2009, which allows security forces "to use unrestrained force against suspected terrorists, including pre-trial detention of up to four months."

Unsurprisingly, this autocratic regime is considered by the U.S. government to be an important partner in the global "war on terror"--for which it has been rewarded with lots of military aid. Ethiopia participated in the CIA's so-called "extraordinary rendition" program to outsource the torture of "war on terror" detainees to other countries.

In 2006, the Ethiopian government, with U.S. support, invaded and occupied Somalia to stamp out Islamist forces declared to be an enemy by Washington. Since 2011, the country has been a launch site for the drone aircraft beloved by the Obama administration striking targets in Somalia and elsewhere.

Because of the information blackout, it falls largely on supporters in the West to publicize and stand in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed peoples like the Oromo against the displacement and government repression that is a product of global capitalism's drive to develop the African continent.

Like the closer-to-home struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the protests of the Oromo show what's really at stake when we hear the word "development." These are battles with working people and Indigenous communities on the one side and the forces of international capital on the other, and it's important for anyone concerned about justice to know which side they're on.

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