Ethiopia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, having registered double digit economic growth for the last thirteen years. But this growth has also spiked expectations and created a demanding society.
From the outside looking in, recent media reports have painted Ethiopia as a country on fire, owing to unprecedented protests in Oromia and Amhara regional states; these have resulted in causalities and arrests by state agencies. Several theories have been fronted to explain their origin but what is the government’s version of the story?
In an exclusive interview with Khen Trevor Amooti, Ethiopia’s Plenipotentiary Ambassador to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo, Degife Bula Wakijera, weighed in on the current situation in his country.
First things first, what is happening in Ethiopia?
In the past few months, demonstrations have taken place in different parts of Oromia and Amhara regional states. They have different causes, but the original cause of the problem in the Amhara regional state was, it has since been established, connected to disagreement over regional boundaries.
In Oromia, the original dispute resulted from the Addis Ababa-Oromia master plan. In both cases, the demonstrations that followed appeared to have had little to do with these ostensible reasons.
These sound like genuine reasons for peaceful demonstration, in a constitutional democracy such as Ethiopia, yet we have heard about violent confrontations between protesters and state agencies; is demonstration illegal in Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is a constitutional democracy and the Federal Constitution guarantees all the peoples of Ethiopia unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession, as well as all human and democratic rights.
It is also true that the constitution guarantees the right to hold peaceful demonstrations whereas any proposed demonstration should observe the required procedures. These include acknowledgement of responsibility by the organisers and agreement with local administrations over the proposed time and place.
Legally, any demonstration must remain peaceful, refrain from violence, the use of force or arms, and avoid disrupting day-to-day public activities or civic engagement. In the absence of these, any demonstration would be unrecognised and thus be considered illegal.
And should any demonstration result in violence, the Government is required, under Article 12 of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, to discharge its responsibility to restore law and order.
You said the protests have taken place in two regions, could you please help us understand the situation in each, starting with the cause of the standoff in Amhara constituency?
The unfortunate situation arose after unprecedented clashes occurred as police attempted to make an arrest on a suspect in a place called Gondar; there was an exchange of fire as the suspect tried to escape arrest and that led to the loss of life of security forces and civilians.
A very considerable number of people demonstrated in the same place on the other day, an event which neither the regional government nor the city administration authorised. There were further demonstrations where the suspects were due to appear in court; clashes occurred and there was an exchange of fire when a group tried to free the suspects.
Following this, some people began to burn houses and destroy properties; and several properties and buses destroyed. Then, the security forces were forced to intervene and they finally managed to control the situation though there were again some casualties.
Following the protests in Gondar, a series of demonstrations and clashes occurred in some other neighboring cities, particularly the regional capital of Bahr Dar.
How about in Oromia, what sparked off the violence?
For Oromia, earlier unrest was related to concerns over the Addis Ababa-Oromia special zones’ joint master plan. In response to the complaints, the Oromia regional government abandoned the master plan.
Protestors in Oromo regional state. / Courtesy
However, the unrest continued, making it clear that the violence that followed had nothing to do with the master plan, and was the exercise of a completely different political agenda. A series of demonstrations were held in some other parts of the Oromia regional states. These resulted in considerable violence and there were some casualties and substantial destruction of property.
We have also heard reports claiming external influence in the protests in order to push Ethiopia into violence, would you attach any credence to that?
There are a number of understandable public concerns over a lack of good governance and the slow government response to these concerns; for instance, unemployment and the inability to fill the gap between expectation and capability.
However, misunderstanding could be easily linked to the apparent failure to create sufficient public awareness and consensus with regard to federal constitutional arrangements to address the various challenges.
To be fair, the growing demand for improved facilities and provision of services springing from the gap between development and the prompt rising expectations, have resulted from the government’s success in creating a strong and demanding society, which is a positive thing.
But what we have noted, with serious concern is that these genuine concerns have, however, been hijacked by anti-peace elements and external forces that do not wish Ethiopia well and would love to see the country descend in instability.
We know for a fact that, there were attempts by external forces that made it clear they wanted to use the protests as an opportunity to redraw the geopolitical landscape in Ethiopia as well as encourage their long-term policy to destabilise the entire sub-region.
In view of these rather unfortunate developments, what is your government doing to resolve the dispute and restore calm in the country?
Given the fact that there was destruction of properties and losses of life and was difficult to control by the ordinary laws of the country, the government declared state of emergency, which has shown phenomenon progress and eventually restored peace in two weeks’ time.
Following this, the government immediately begun dialogue both at regional and federal level, has been conducting a series of consultations with the public, holding discussions with youth, community elders, religious figures, teachers, civil servants, urban residents and members of rural communities all over the country and in affected areas in particular, and other elements of civil society.
The government highly values the legitimate and genuine demands of the people. Appreciating the public concerns, the government is also making major efforts to improve and reorganise government bodies and structures, and other operations, to make them more effective and responsive, and ensure transparency and accountability to the general public.
Is this the reason why the government recently announced a new cabinet? Tell us more about it?
Yes, this has happened following the decision of the ruling party to reform within itself. Therefore, the announcement of new cabinet is part of the reform of the party. But let us also note that it is the system that can run a country not the replacement of individuals by individuals. Of course, individuals play their own role.
It is the maturity of the democratic institutions such as House of Peoples Representatives, House of Federation, Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, Ethiopian Institution of Ombudsman, Security institution and others.
The check and balances between and among the organs of the government need to be meticulously strengthened. As a result the government is doing its best to address these very important ingredients of peace, stability and development. Therefore, the new structure and new cabinet formation are demand driven.
It is clear that the government is elected by universal suffrage. Therefore, it is required to hear the voices of the public; the sovereign. Accordingly, it decided to address the public concerns over good governance, unemployment, and penetration of the constitution and constitutionalism through bringing in scholars, academicians, highly regarded personalities in to the new cabinet to foster socio-economic changes irrespective of loyalty to the party in power.
Going forward, instability in Ethiopia definitely impacts on surrounding countries of the region, what reassurance can you give to the people of Eastern Africa, that the situation in your country is under control?
You are correct. Ethiopia is the second populous country on the continent with about a hundred million people out of which 50 per cent is under the age of 30. Ethiopia is beacon of hope not only for neighboring countries but also the entire continent.
Ethiopia is one of the countries of the region playing a significant role in peace and stability and, as I mentioned earlier, Ethiopia is among the fastest growing economies. Therefore, any misfortunes occurring in Ethiopia would considerably negatively affect the countries of the East African region.
The system in Ethiopia is clear and it is guaranteed by the constitution. If the people do not want the incumbent government and if they want to change the government, they can achieve it through democratic elections which are held every five years. There is no need of violence and use of force.
The recent demonstrations in the country are demand driven and are a result of government’s deliberate policies aimed at creating a demanding society; in fact, it is among the success stories. It is also an opportunity of the State to do more to satisfy the demands of society and absence of violence would help any country to further deal with the existing gaps.
The increasing youth unemployment is the biggest threat to the continent stability. All countries need to focus on creating job opportunities for the youth in particular.
Opening borders to allow free movement of people, goods and services is a good way to start as it would pave the way to economic interdependence and economic integration to foster economic growth and economic development.
I assure you that Ethiopians will never ever allow external forces to intervene in the internal matters of the country; external forces’ attempts to destabilise the country are always subject to failure.
Once again, I assure you that the government is taking another step further with its entire people to address their concerns. It is accelerating the construction of the already started multibillion industrial park projects which will create significant job opportunities for the youth.
Now the situation in the country is calm and peace is fully restored. Finally, I want to underline that Ethiopia has much more to learn from Rwanda in many ways and the excellent multifaceted relations between Ethiopia and Rwanda will help facilitate that aspiration.
BEHIND ETHIOPIAN PROTESTS
The Oromos, who make up around a third of the population, have long complained that they have been excluded from the country’s political process and the economic development which has seen the capital, Addis Ababa, transformed in recent years.
The protests were initially over a plan to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into the Oromia region. That plan was dropped, but the demonstrations exposed some underlying issues and protests continued with the latest round taking place on Saturday in many places in Oromia and the capital, Addis Ababa.
At the root of the recent demonstrations in Amhara is a request by representatives from the Welkait Amhara Identity Committee that their land, which is currently administered by the Tigray regional state, be moved into the neighbouring Amhara region.
The Welkait committee says community members identify themselves as ethnic Amharas and say they no longer want to be ruled by Tigrayans. Amharas used to form the country’s elite and the language, Amharic, remains the most widely spoken in the country.