By Sophie Harris
The situation in Ethiopia has been declared by some bloggers (see for instance Prof Chris Blattman) as the most under-reported conflict in the world right now. This is rather true. Though some media outlets reported on the recent political turmoil in Ethiopia, such as some German press in the context of the recent visit of Chancellor Merkel to Addis Ababa, generally very little has been reported on the unrest.
Already in November 2015, the first protests against the Ethiopian Government unfolded in the Oromia region when the government wanted to expand the margins of the city of Addis. As this implied the resettlement of the local Oromo population -the largest ethnic group in the country- this was seen as a further expression of political and economic marginalisation.
The situation calmed down a little over spring 2016 and erupted again in the summer when the Amhara people in the North started anti-government protests. The military was deployed and further unrest unfolded again in the Oromia region – and for the first time an alliance between the Oromo and the Amhara was built. Since November 2015, at least 500 people have been killed by security forces and tens of thousands have been arrested, according to Human Rights Watch. What started as a protest against the expansion of Addis turned into an expression of general dissatisfaction with the government’s authoritarianism and lack of political and economic participation for more than two and a half decades.
On 9th October, the Ethiopian Government declared the state of emergency for the first time in 25 years. This was after more than fifty people died at a religious festival of the Oromo people close to Addis. A week after, further details on the state of emergency were made public. Now, the government can arrest and detain for six months (the duration of the emergency state) any person breaching emergency laws and conduct searches without a court warrant. There are now severe restrictions to the freedom of assembly and protest, and any communication with foreign governments or foreign NGOs “that is likely to harm sovereignty, security, and constitutional order” (translation provided by Horn Affairs) as well as any communication with “anti-peace groups” is prohibited. Moreover, the Government can monitor and restrict “messages transmitted” through different sorts of media outlets. This is reflected in cutting off the internet via the mobile network for two months – a major internet access route in Ethiopia – as well as the similar disconnections for social media.
Shortly after declaring the state of emergency (on 15th October), the Ethiopian Government also announced reforms, including changes to the electoral system from ‘first past the post’ to a proportional system. A change of cabinet has already taken place and tackling corruption has been declared a priority.
So why are these developments in Ethiopia the most under-reported conflict of the world, to stay with the initial phrase?
To reiterate: Ethiopia is experiencing political unrest over an extended period of time and the state of emergency has been declared for the first time in 25 years. This should be reason enough to report on the situation, but there is more: Ethiopia has the second largest population in Africa with nearly 100million inhabitants, only topped by Nigeria. Secondly, Ethiopia’s GDP grew rapidly over the last few years at a rate of 9.6% in 2015. Thirdly, Ethiopia is considered as a bulwark against Jihadist Islamist movements in the Horn of Africa. Despite recently retreating some forces, Ethiopia has sent it troops to fight al-Shabab – the official al-Qaeda branch in Somalia.
These economic and security features of Ethiopia are at the same time a factor, if not the main reason why the West reports so little on the current political situation. Though the low coverage of Ethiopia is also related to the fact that other issues happen in the world and dominate Western media, the situation in Syria and Trump’s election to name a few. It is likely that Ethiopia’s importance to the West heavily contributed to the lack of coverage. Looking at the ever increasing Official Development Assistance (ODA) levels to Ethiopia by Western states, most notably the US and the UK, it seems as if the West buys into two arguments of the Ethiopian Government: political participation and democratic rights are less important than Ethiopia’s economic development and regional stability in the fight against terrorism. This is also reflected in the US and UK’s national focus on the ‘war on terror’ and their own balancing of national security in relation to human rights. A similar dynamic exists with regard to the World Banks and other donor priorities of poverty reduction over issues of political governance when they decide on Ethiopia’s ODA levels.
Though it has to be mentioned that the US, amongst others, expressed that they were ‘deeply concerned’ over the situation in Ethiopia, actions speak louder than words. It needs to be seen whether or not Western ODA levels continue to grow. And in the same manner, we should report on whether or not the Ethiopian Government will really deliver on its reform promises.