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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