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International


22 October 2016

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Ethiopia: A year of growing revolt

Desperate regime responds with massive repression

Per-Åke Westerlund, Rattvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden)

More than 500 have been killed by Ethiopian state forces and thousands jailed. But this massive repression has not, however, stopped the growing mass revolt in Ethiopia. In early October, the regime declared a state of emergency and closed down the internet.

These protests and revolts are the strongest for a long time in Ethiopia, maybe ever. In mid-October, main roads to Addis Ababa, the capital, were blocked, companies owned by multinationals or local capitalists close to the regime, as well as ruling party offices and state buildings were attacked and burned down. The protests have involved hundreds of thousands.

As recently as in the beginning of this year, Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia's prime minister, claimed his country was "an island of stability in the troubled Horn of Africa region". He probably felt extra safe given the government's strong support from US imperialism as well as from China. By then, however, the recent wave of revolt had already started.

Growth and landgrabbing

The protests cover a number of inter-linked issues. In 2015, Ethiopia's economy grew faster than in any other country, with 8.7 percent. In eight years since year 2000, growth has been more than 10 percent, and the average 9.1 per cent.

This growth has benefitted a thin layer close to the regime as well as multinational companies. Thousands of poor self-sustaining peasants have been forced off their land when it has been leased to global agricultural companies and to foreign regimes. The total size of the area seized by this landgrabbing is as big as Belgium in Europe or Plateau state in Nigeria. Low wages and an inviting "business climate" offered by the dictatorial regime have attracted industries, mainly shoes and textile, to move there, even from China.

The economic growth has gone hand in hand with increased repression. Already after the 2005 elections hundreds protesting against fraud were killed by regime troops. In the last "elections" in May 2015 the ruling party got all of the 547 seats in parliament and in all regional parliaments.

The government party, EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) was formed by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that took power in 1989. A small clique of Tigray leaders and their families control the state apparatus and the economy. 97 percent of all army officers are said to come from the same village. Corruption is endemic, with contracts for construction etc. given to a narrow circle and most state services demanding extra payment. With the Tigray forming only six percent of the population this gives an ethnic dimension to any protest in a country with over 80 ethnic groups.

In addition to widespread poverty and starvation, the country has been shaken strongly by famine this year. 18 million people are in need of food assistance to survive, compared to eight million in a "normal" year. The population of around 100 million, second biggest in Africa, is dominated by rural population living on what their small piece of land can produce.

In the cities, despite the economic growth, thousands of university graduates are without jobs. Students and young unemployed are often at the forefront of protest. When the latest semester began in early October mass protests took place at universities in Awasa, Kimma, Dire Daula and others.

Protests against "Master Plan"

The last 12 months of uprising started with an attempt more land grabbing by the regime. They launched as "master plan" to expand the capital Addis Ababa southward, into the Oromo state. The constitution has divided the country into nine states, based on the main largest ethnic groups. Oromo and Amhara are the largest, both with over 30 percent of the population.

The "master plan" was met by mass demonstrations, involving the entire population, particularly young people and farmers. More than 400 were killed by state forces, but government also retreated by formally cancelling the plan in January. This, however, did not stop the protests. Instead they continued, against state repression, demanding the regime to step down. And they spread to other parts of the country,

In a part of Amhara, Gondar, that had been forced to belong to Tigray state, protests started in July with demands for a return to Amhara. On August 5 the government decalred that protests now were illegal. The internet was closed down. That did not stop new mass demonstrations that weekend in both Amhara and Oromo. Mohammed Ademo, an Ethiopian journalist in exile commented: "In my entire life, as a one-time protestor and organizer myself, I have never seen demonstrations taking place across the country in one day." There were also banners expressing solidarity with each other in both regions. But while the Amhara protesters were armed and could defend themselves, 98 people were killed by state forces, mainly in Oromia.

The most recent massacre took place at a religious ceremony with hundreds of thousands or even millions that turned into a demonstration against the regime, with chants for justice and freedom. They were attacked by teargas and batons and chased into a deep ditch where they were trampled to death. The regime says around 50 were killed while the Oromo Federal Congress says 678 died.

State of emergency

The protests have developed, now dominated by anti-government demands, for the end of corruption, land reform, the end of repression and freedom for those arrested and free elections.

The declaration of state of emergency, as well as a total blocking of the internet, is a sign of the nervousness of the regime. The state of emergency gives the police power to search any house they want. Prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn said the protests are a threat to national security, adding there has been "enormous damage to property". However, the government has used similar methods before declaring state of emergency.

Ethiopia is a key military ally to Western imperialism. Addis Ababa is the capital of the African Union, has troops in Somalia and receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from the US. When Obama visited the country in 2015, he praised the "democratically elected" government.

If the Western powers fears the regime is losing control, they might advocate another strategy. The country was recently visited by Germany's Angela Merkel. In media she was portrayed as sympathetic to the protesters. What she actually did was to express the concern of German businesses in the country. And what she advocated was mediation – but not saying between whom.

This is a regime that frequently uses "anti-terrorist" laws to imprison any opposition and a lot of journalists. Prison conditions are terrible and many political prisoners are on hunger strike. In the last weeks, the regime has also started to accuse the military regime of Egypt, with which it has a dispute over the Nile river, to be behind the protests. And if some Western support is lost, at least in words, the regime hopes for continued support from authoritarian Gulf states and from China.

The regime's strong repression has failed so far, and any steps towards "reforms" will be too little, too late. The crossed arms of the Ethiopian athlete Feyisa Lilesa at the Olympics has become a symbol for continued uprising.

There are at the same time dangers. The protests have no democratic leadership or clear programme. The regime will try to portray the protests as mainly ethnic tensions and try to steer up such tensions. This will get an echo with western powers and in media. To stand for common struggle and solidarity over state borders is crucial for the movement.

But it is not only about overthrowing the regime and winning democratic rights, even if that, of course, must at the forefront of a revolutionary programme. Demands must be raised for land reform and freedom of organising parties, trade unions and other organisations. Lessons must be drawn from Egypt and Tunisia, the importance of trade unions in the struggle. And the key lesson that any movement that overthrows a dictatorship must also dismantle the military and the national capitalists. This requires struggle of the working class, organised democratically, with the support of the youth, the urban poor and the poor farmers. It's a struggle against imperialism and capitalism, for a future where the country's huge resources can be used for the people.