Political tensions have worsened in Ethiopia’s Oromia region following the death of over 50 people in a stampede instigated by clashes with security forces on 2 October 2016. The incident occurred during the Irreechaa festival, the annual traditional Oromo thanksgiving celebration, in the town of Bishoftu, located 60km south of the capital, Addis Ababa.
During the festivities, anti-government protesters began demonstrating, chanting slogans and preventing any speakers belonging to the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of four regional political parties that make up the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), from being heard. Several protesters were also waving the flag of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a militant group advocating for an independent Oromia.
In response, security forces shot tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd instigating a fatal stampede – official government statements put the death toll at 52 while opposition groups claim it is significantly higher.
This is the latest in a series of fatal clashes between protesters and police in recent months. There have been frequent demonstrations in Ethiopia’s two most populous regions, Oromia and Amhara, since the end of 2015. The two regions are the homes of Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara, both of which claim to have been politically and economically marginalised by the country’s ruling elite.
The long-standing ethnic and political tensions erupted into violence in December 2015 when government announced plans to expand Addis Ababa by expropriating large amounts of Oromo farmland. Although the expansion plan has since been scrapped, the demonstrations have continued as a means of expressing multiple grievances by the Oromo and Amhara peoples.
Ethiopian security forces have responded by attempting to squash the demonstrations using excessive violence. In a single weekend, 6-7 August 2016, over 100 people were killed when police used live ammunition to disperse protesters at several different demonstrations. The most deadly incident that weekend happened in Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region, where at least 30 people died.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes that almost 500 people have died since the protests began in December 2015 and called for the international community to take decisive action against the Ethiopian government. In response, the government has attempted to clamp down on media coverage of the protests but major incidents such as the 2 October stampede are difficult to cover up. In addition, there have been some high-profile international protests against the security clampdown. On 3 October 2016, the Ethiopian community in Sydney Australia, held a public vigil and called upon the Australian government to take action, and during the 2016 Rio Olympics, Ethiopian runner, Feyisa Lilesa, crossed his arms in protest as he crossed the marathon finish line.
However, due to Ethiopia’s importance in combatting terrorism and instability in East and Central Africa, it is unlikely that the international community will take any action. Further, because the African Union (AU) headquarters is located in Addis Ababa, the AU has historically been reluctant to criticise the Ethiopian government.
Thus far there has been little reaction by businesses and foreign investors to the protests; this is likely partially due to the tight media control in Ethiopia as well as the country’s history of violently suppressing protests. However, it is possible that protesters will start targeting foreign businesses in an effort to receive increased international attention. In addition, due to the demonstrations heightening tensions, particularly over land issues, the demonstrations could become an obstacle to the planned Ethiopia-Djibouti oil pipeline which will need to pass through Oromia.
Accordingly, the security crackdown will likely continue and there is a strong possibility that there will be further loss of life. This is particularly true as protesters in both Oromo and Amhara appear set on continuing to demonstrate against the national government and their economic marginalisation. Due to the size of the Oromo and Amhara populations, worsening protests will increase the threat of political destabilisation in Ethiopia.
Protests are most likely in the major cities of Oromia and Amhara, particularly Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar. However, smaller demonstrations are possible in other towns and cities with an associated threat of violence in all instances.