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How long will Ethiopia’s state of emergency suppress dissent?

Protesters during an Aug. 6 demonstration in Addis Ababa. (Reuters/Tiksa Negeri)

By Aaron Brooks | East African Monitor

On February 2, Ethiopia’s communications minister told the Financial Times that the country’s state of emergency had succeeded in suppressing nationwide anti-government protests.

Negeri Lencho says authorities have detained more than 20,000 people for “training” since a wave of protests first started in 2015. This wave now appears to have crashed and Lencho’s claims about the success of his government’s state of emergency don’t come across as exaggeration.

However, the state of emergency hasn’t done anything to resolve the concerns of the country’s largest ethnic group and a growing number of people who are concerned about land, rights and the suppressive political environment in Ethiopia.

A shift in protests

The root of this long-standing issue goes back to anger among Oromo people over government plans to encroach on their land, in a bid to expand the capital. However, Addis Ababa opted to scrap the plans after a series of protests and it seemed demonstrators had gotten their way in Ethiopia’s supposedly-oppressive regime.

Despite this, the protests continued – not because of concerns over territory this time, but in response to the government’s handling of demonstrations. Police brutality, arbitrary arrests and dead protestors exposed the government’s view of people speaking out against the state.

It’s a view that Negeri Lencho echoes in his conversation with FT, where he insists the capital will not “give opportunity to any party to block the fast-growing economy and the attempt or efforts of the Ethiopian government to change the lives of the people”.

More than 500 people were killed and tens of thousands detained during government crackdowns across the country. Many of those detained by police and security forces remain imprisoned and the people’s dissent is now one about human rights and the nation’s supposed democracy.

It’s the kind of dissent you can’t calm with crackdowns and states of emergency; the kind of dissent that isn’t going to simply disappear with time.

Protests expected to resume

Speaking to the Guardian, one Oromo man said he fully expects protests to resume once the state of emergency is over.

“The protests will come again because the government is not responding to the demands of the people in the right way,” he told the British publication and he’s not the only one who believes this.

“The solution is the government has to come with true democracy. The people are waiting until the state of emergency is over and then people are ready to begin to protest,” one Oromo farmer also told the Guardian.

However, the government is giving no hints on how long the state of emergency, which was imposed for six months, will actually last. So, for now, things are at an impasse, but at least it’s a relatively peaceful one. The harsh truth for Ethiopia’s unhappy citizens is their protests probably won’t bring this deadlock to an end but simply return to a more violent version of it.

Ethiopia’s one party state

Ethiopia is one of the world’s most consistent developers right now, constantly in a state strengthening its economy and religiously keeping the same party in power. This is a single party state in every sense of the phrase and there’s little sign of that changing any time soon.

The problem is Ethiopia doesn’t look like a particularly happy single party state right now. Despite its economic success, the people complain of ethnic inequality, economic exploitation and repression. The past 18 months have only fuelled this anger and now the government faces a voice of dissent it can’t ignore.

So, in true fashion, it has responded in the only way it knows how – with absolute repression, which adds yet more fuel to the fire.

Ethiopia’s government feels it can’t give any concession to public dissent. If it does, there seems to be this notion that Ethiopians will view the government as weak and try to exploit it further. Meanwhile, the opposition’s only real strength is the increasing volume of its voice – and this isn’t enough to inspire political change.

In terms of brute strength, the government is going to win every time. Which suggests a return to protests after the state of emergency comes to an end will only repeat the kind of crackdowns we’ve seen over the last year and a half. The challenge for Ethiopia’s protestors isn’t so much waiting for the country’s state of emergency to come to an end, but rather what they can do to make any kind of progress once it does.
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