ethiopia-state-of-emergencyThe state of emergency declared by the Ethiopian government has received widespread coverage.

Hardly surprising when over 500 people have been killed and more than 1,600 arrested. The troubles erupted in late 2015.

There are now a long list of forbidden activities – from watching opposition TV stations to organising a demonstration or even crossing your arms above your head to indicate resistance.

Even diplomats may not travel more than 40 kilometres outside the capital, Addis Ababa.

From protest to resistance

The immediate cause of much of the unrest was the government’s plan to expand Addis Ababa under a ‘Master Plan.’

This would have seized vast tracts of land from the Oromo people who live in the region that surrounds the city.

The plan was ditched, but the protests spread and took on a wider aspect. There has been simmering unrest ever since the ruling party – the EPRDF – lost power to the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy in the 2005 elections for Addis Ababa.

But instead of relinquishing power the ruling party reacted by refusing to relinquish the city and resorted to violence. Around 200 people were killed and thousands arrested in a show of brute force.

Out of this repression a new movement – Ginbot 7 – was born. Led by the former mayoral candidate for opposition, Dr Berhanu Nega, it took up arms and is now based in neighbouring Eritrea.

The root of the problem

Even this does not explain why today’s protest movement is so serious.

To understand this, one has to go back to 1991, when the rebel movement that had been fighting the Ethiopian government since the 1970’s swept into Addis Ababa. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) became the ruling power in the land.

Led by a brilliant but dictatorial leader, Meles Zenawi, the TPLF had a programme of ‘Ethnic Federalism‘.

This argued that Ethiopia was a nation made up of different ethnic groups, which should no longer be ruled from the centre (a practice which had led to domination by the second largest ethnic group – the Amhara).

Instead the government created nine ethnic-based regional states. Each had its own political party, which came together in the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), led by its chairman, none other than Meles Zenawi.

In theory the parties that made up the EPRDF were autonomous: in reality they were controlled from the centre by the TPLF, and ultimately by Meles himself.

Tigrayan control

It was – on the face of it – a brilliant innovation. In reality it left Ethiopia in the hands of the Tigrayan elite, who were members of the TPLF.

But the Tigrayans only make up around 6% of Ethiopia’s population.

By comparison the Oromo make up around 34% and the Amhara around 27%.

Ethiopia’s 87 million people were never going to accept the rule of 5 million Tigrayans indefinitely.

Combined with this were many other complaints – including accusations that members of the TPLF were corrupt, favouring their friends and family, as well as their region.

It was inevitable that this pot was one day going to boil over.

Foreign powers

For Ethiopia’s neighbours and the international community this has proved a real problem. The Ethiopian government has (predictably) accused Eritrea, with whom they have an ongoing border dispute, of being behind the current unrest.

Egypt, with whom Ethiopia has a long-standing dispute over the waters of the Nile, has also come in for criticism.

The problem for the rest of the world is that they need the Ethiopian government.

Addis Ababa is home to the African Union, so other African states are hesitant to criticise.

The United States needs Ethiopia to help fight Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia and in the rest of the Horn of Africa.

The crackdown and state of emergency is brutal, but the voices of international protest are muted.

Despite this, the current unrest is the most serious test for the current government that they have faced since they took power in 1991.