Ethiopia Declares State Of Emergency Amid Continuing Protests – NPR

Ethiopia’s government has declared a state of emergency following months of anti-government protests by the Oromo people, who say they are marginalized.



MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it’s time for Words You’ll Hear. That’s where we try to understand a story in the news by focusing on one of the key words. And this week, our word is Oromo. That’s an ethnic group in Ethiopia, and they are at the center of ongoing demonstrations against the Ethiopian government, which has now declared a six-month state of emergency to take effect immediately. This after dozens of people were killed in anti-government protests and a stampede last weekend triggered by clashes with security forces at an Oromo festival. NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is going to tell us more now. She’s in Harare. Ofeibea, thanks so much for speaking with us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

MARTIN: Now, this is the first state of emergency declared in Ethiopia for some 25 years. How significant is this?

QUIST-ARCTON: Hugely significant because, Michel, it means that the Ethiopian government is rattled. We have had months and months of protests by the group you mentioned, the Oromo, the majority population in Ethiopia, and the Amhara people. And together they make up certainly the majority percentage of Ethiopians. They say that despite this, they are led by a minority Tigrayan elite, that they have very little political or economic representation, land rights and that the government is trying to push into their area to expand the capital Addis Ababa because the economy is doing so well. And that is why they have been protesting for so long.

MARTIN: The country has been getting a lot of positive press for encouraging outside investment, and the economy is growing. But are the protests related to that push for development?

QUIST-ARCTON: Absolutely, because the Oromo people and the Amhara people say that the economic boom in Ethiopia is at their expense, that the government is giving land to foreign investors from countries as far as the Netherlands to China. But they say there’s no trickle down, and they’re not going to put up with this. And that is why we are seeing these demonstrations. And that is why we see the government deciding to declare this state of emergency. It is feeling nervous that this has perhaps gone too far and perhaps it cannot control it.

MARTIN: Indeed, those who watched the Olympics might remember that the Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa when he won the silver medal, crossed the finish line with his fists above his head. And he explained later that this was a gesture of protest. He is also Oromo, but he specifically was protesting, he said, that the government’s kind of abuse of civil rights and civil liberties. What is he talking about there? What are other protesters saying has been occurring?

QUIST-ARCTON: Exactly that, and this symbol, as you say, of lifting the hands above the head and then crossing the wrists has become a very familiar gesture that we are seeing by the Oromo protesters in this restive Oromia area and beyond because it’s, of course, not just Ethiopians in Ethiopia who say that their government is authoritarian, that it allows no freedom of speech, that it allows no freedom of association, that it imprisons its opponents. It does not allow bloggers or journalists to operate freely. Many Ethiopians in the diaspora say the very same thing. And the United States government has said that excess force has been used in trying to damp down these protests and that the government is going to have to do something about it. But Ethiopia is also a key partner in the area to the United States to try and bring a semblance of stability, law and order to the Horn of Africa. But it’s also seen as being repressive by very many people.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, Ofeibea, what do we know – or do we know any details about how the state of emergency will be enforced?

QUIST-ARCTON: All we heard from the Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, is that this move has been taken because he says it’s necessary to protect both citizens and lives and property because, of course, property has been damaged. And these foreign-owned companies have been attacked. It is effective immediately.

MARTIN: That’s NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She’s on the line with us from Harare, Zimbabwe. Ofeibea, thank you so much for speaking with us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thanks, Michel.

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In a scene from Sunday, Oct. 2, festival-goers chant slogans against the government during a march in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. A week of violence prompted the country to declare a state of emergency.

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In a scene from Sunday, Oct. 2, festival-goers chant slogans against the government during a march in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. A week of violence prompted the country to declare a state of emergency.

AP

A week after a deadly stampede brought anti-government protests and violence to a fever pitch, Ethiopia declared a six-month state of emergency Sunday. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn says the declaration is necessary for the government to protect both property and citizens’ lives.

The stampede struck at a religious festival that also had qualities of a demonstration that was held last Sunday, Oct. 2, in the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa. That’s where many in a massive crowd that had gathered to celebrate the annual Irreecha thanksgiving festival chanted slogans and crossed their fists over their heads, an increasingly familiar gesture that protests oppression and calls for more rights for the people of Oromia.

Video recordings from that day show that the crowd had been pressing toward an open-air stage when security forces opened fire and deployed tear gas, triggering a panic. Many people initially ran to a nearby treeline for cover, only to become trapped in a deep and steep-sided trench. Others were hemmed in by a nearby lake.

“The government says 55 people were killed — some fell into nearby gullies and drowned,” NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports. “The opposition says many, many more people lost their lives.”

In months of protests in the region, human rights groups say, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands arrested.

Reporting on today’s emergency declaration, Ofeibea tells our Newscast unit:

“Ethiopia’s first state of emergency in a quarter century is effective immediately, in the midst of what the government calls a worsening security situation in Oromia.

“The Oromo and Amhara people – who make up the majority of Ethiopia’s population – argue they’re marginalized. They’re demanding more political representation, economic power and land rights.

“The emergency declaration follows demonstrations against the authorities that have led to deaths and property damage across the Horn of Africa nation – especially in restive Oromia. The U.S. has expressed concern about excessive use of force against demonstrators in months of deadly protests in Ethiopia.”

The Ethiopian government is “clearly rattled by months of protests by members of the majority Oromo and Amhara communities,” Ofeibea says.

Today’s declaration, she adds, comes amid a clear threat to foreign-owned investments in Ethiopia, as cement, cut flower, textile and fruit juice facilities are among businesses that have come under attack.

International rights groups are calling for independent investigations into the events that culminated in last Sunday’s stampede.

“We call on the protesters to exercise restraint and to renounce the use of violence,” said Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Security forces must conduct themselves in line with international human rights laws and standards.”

Calling on the government to “urgently change course to prevent more bloodshed,” Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “The world should be carefully watching what is happening in Ethiopia.”

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