During mostly-peaceful demonstrations in Ethiopia this past weekend, state security forces opened fire on the assembled crowds, killing 97 people and wounding hundreds of others. The United States responded by saying it was “deeply concerned” about the violence, but did not condemn it.
“Ethiopia is a key strategic ally for the War on Terror, which insulates it from any US condemnation,” wrote international relations analyst Yohannes Woldemariam in a Huffington Post column back in December, after the government had also used live fire on civilians at anti-government rallies.
At the time, the US did not punish its ally, and the Ethiopian government appears to have taken that to mean it can continue to kill its own people with impunity.
Because Ethiopia is a Christian-ruled nation the volatile Horn of Africa, because it’s seen as a bulwark against Al Shabab, Al Qaeda and other radical groups, it’s a key proxy for the US and other Western powers in their fight against Islamist extremists.
Therefore, evidently, it can get away with murder.
Large protests in Africa's second-most-populous nation occurred from August 5-7, when members of two ethnic groups demonstrated against economic and political marginalization. Though Ethiopia is made up of 14 ethnic groups, the nation is ruled with an iron fist by one tribe, the Tigray, whose political party controls 100% of the parliament. Nevertheless, Ethiopia calls itself a democracy and Western governments wilfully perpetuate this myth.
Late last year, when the Ethiopian government moved forward with a plan to expand the capital city, Addis Ababa, onto land owned by the ethnic Oromo, the Oromo took to the streets to voice their objections to the scheme. The central government eventually caved to protesters’ demands, scrapping the expansion plan, but not before police had killed an estimated 400 people in a violent crackdown that made international headlines.
The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, making up about one-third of the country’s population of 99 million people. They have their own language, and about half of them are Muslims. By contrast, the ruling Tigray tribe make up only 6% of Ethiopia’s population and are over 95% Christian.
The government’s cancellation of the Addis Ababa expansion plan did not pacify the Oromo. They have kept on protesting, in part because hundreds, potentially thousands, of their leaders and kinsmen were still in prison for taking part in the demonstrations, where many of them no doubt experienced torture by government agents.
The Ethiopian government claims the Oromo protesters have links to terrorists, receive support from abroad, and want to stage a coup d’etat. In response to the protests last weekend, the government declared public demonstrations illegal, and said police could use any means necessary to prevent them from taking place, which was surely interpreted as permission to shoot at the gathered crowds.
The regime also shut down the Internet as a way of hindering activists’ ability to organize.
The Oromo are not without fault. Their militias have attacked and killed policemen; some of their protesters have used violence during recent demonstrations. But there’s no hard evidence to prove they’re linked to “terrorists,” and the governments’ labeling them as such is almost definitely a red herring.
Adding to the size of the demonstrations shaking Ethiopia were thousands of members of the ethnic Amhara tribe, who began protesting last month after one of their leaders, Colonel Demeka Zewdu, had been arrested for “terrorism” offenses.
The Amhara demonstrators say that a district known as Wolqait, that once belonged to them, was illegally annexed by the Tigray after the Tigray ousted Ethiopia’s communist government in 1991. The Amhara and the Tigray have been fighting over the district ever since, and Colonel Demeka Zewdu was a member of a committee working to win the district back for the Amhara.
The Ethiopian government has dealt with Amhara protests in the same way it dealt with the Oromo: by shooting them. On Sunday, in the capital city of the Amhara region, state security forces opened fire on Amhara protesters, killing 30 people. “Hospitals have been filled by dead and wounded victims,” one witness told Reuters.
The Amhara and the Oromo appear to have sympathy from other groups of Ethiopians. When asked why people were protesting, an ethnic Somali in eastern Ethiopia told Al Bawaba, "The problem is with the government. They are saying, 'No freedom, no rights.'"
Ethiopia’s reckless use of live fire on unarmed protesters is barbaric, and it’s a stain on the Obama administration, which implicitly allows this behavior in exchange for Ethiopia’s military cooperation with the US.
But even more than a moral failure, the lack of condemnation is a strategic mistake, because a continuing crackdown on the Oromo and Amhara will only make matters worse for Ethiopia, thereby further destabilizing an already-fragile region.
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