Near a sacred volcanic lake for the Oromo people in the Ethiopian town of Bishoftu, a boisterous crowd seized an unusual opportunity to chant anti-government slogans during their annual Irreecha cultural celebration.
Disregarding the Oromo officials and traditional leaders at the 2 October ceremony, the youthful protesters crossed their arms in a symbol of defiance and edged forward towards police armed with batons. In a defining moment for the Oromo resistance, one man got on stage, grabbed the microphone and sent the thousands in the audience into fever pitch as he led a chant.
“Down, down, Woyane! Down, down, TPLF!” he yelled, referring to the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front party, which opponents say has controlled the strategically vital Horn of Africa nation for 25 years.
Minutes later, as demonstrators threatened to take over the stage, Oromia police triggered a deadly stampede by firing tear gas. The crackle of gunfire followed from armed officers and an armoured vehicle sped into action, exacerbating the panic. People fell into a deep ditch and were crushed. Others drowned in the lake, contributing to an official death toll of 52, while rights groups estimate that more than 100 died.
Social media activists characterised the bungled dispersal as a “massacre”, falsely accusing soldiers of shooting people from a helicopter, and called for “five days of rage”. A week later, the government announced a state of emergency after protesters rampaged across Oromia, burning government buildings, and torching farms and factories.
The events may mark a turning point in the 11-month uprising by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s most populous ethnic group, who cite frustrations over political and economic marginalisation. The movement, along with a series of violent demonstrations occurring since late July in the historically powerful Amhara region, had already threatened the authority of the government, a favoured partner of the UK and other donors that provide close to $4bn (£3.2bn) in aid a year.
The state of emergency is likely to mean the increased use of federal security forces, including the military, to quell unrest at the expense of regional states’ autonomy, as well as occasional curfews and suspensions of due process. The US Department of State said the move could “further enshrine” the repression that has contributed to the crisis.
The government has killed about 500 Oromo demonstrators so far during the crisis, while detaining tens of thousands more in an effort to discourage civil resistance. The message from those efforts and the latest round of unrest, however, is that it will be hard to subdue protesters, who see the government as discredited and embattled. That means the possibility of escalating violence in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
“If the government persists with the current stand, Ethiopia may be in for long-term instability,” said Hassen Hussein, a US-based regional analyst who has written sympathetically about the Oromo struggle.
The Bishoftu violence was preceded by a two-month lull, as new Oromo ruling party leaders emerged and pledged reforms. Before that, on 6 August, activists called for a day of “grand Oromo protests”, which resulted in about 70 deaths and included a rare demonstration in Addis Ababa, the capital. Federal police dispersed that rally, scattering attendees with batons and boots.
Among those subsequently detained was an educated young man calling himself Gudina Jalata. He’d previously stayed away from protests out of fear, but felt compelled to participate by witnessing continuing injustice across the sprawling region that encircles the capital. “First you have to be respected for your dignity – that is why I got involved. There is a lot of discrimination against the Oromo,” he said.
Before the government came to power in 1991 by removing a socialist junta, Ethiopia was a unitary state. A 1995 federal constitution ensured self-rule for minorities and promoted local languages in schools and government. However, Oromo allege the state is controlled by Tigrayans, who comprise 6% of the country’s almost 100 million-strong population, and say farmers are being unfairly evicted by investors tied to ruling elites.
The divergent narratives feed a furious debate. Far from being oppressors, TPLF elites say their community made huge sacrifices during a 16-year struggle that liberated the Oromo and other groups from Amhara domination. They add that ethnic federalism now protects those hard-won rights, and power is shared equitably within government, while the statist development model pushed by Meles Zenawi, the former TPLF chairman and prime minister who died in 2012, helped Ethiopia advance.
For Gudina and the other detainees, such claims seem fanciful. After time in a cramped cell, his group was driven to a federal police facility in the Awash area; some were held for a week and then released, others were held for up to two weeks. There were no showers or toilets and they were given only small amounts of bread and water. The camp had three components: gruelling barefoot exercises on gravel under a scorching sun, political lessons and bouts of investigation.
The workouts included being forced to hop forwards with hands behind their head. Even the injured had to participate; if there was any slacking off, they were beaten. “It was really inhuman,” Gudina said.
Tigrayan officers, the interviewed detainees claimed, gave lessons on federalism and ruling coalition doctrines. While they felt contempt for their instructors, the prisoners were compliant, although one bucked the trend and was severely beaten. “The constitution they are teaching us is not broken by us – they themselves break the law. For example, it’s our right to protest,” one explained.
Mass detention is not a new tactic for a government that has largely failed to move Ethiopia on from an authoritarian past. There have been similar initiatives during these Oromo protests, Human Rights Watch said in June, while thousands have also been detained in Amhara. After the disputed elections in 2005, when Ethiopia faced its last major political crisis, the US state department said up to 18,000 youths were kept at a military camp for longer than a month.
While the regime undertakes another mass roundup of suspects, the efforts to indoctrinate Oromo youth are increasingly futile, Hassen believes. “If anything, it makes people even more defiant,” he said. “It’s exposing how empty the regime is, making it more vulnerable.”
Ethiopia’s crisis developed after only one opposition lawmaker won a federal parliamentary seat in 2010 and last year’s election produced no opposition representative. The multi-ethnic ruling coalition emphasises its success in building infrastructure, improving social services, and helping millions out of extreme poverty, while acknowledging the democratic deficit.
Donor support for the government, which is also a security ally in Somalia and South Sudan, is unwavering. That relationship gives officials leeway to reject western criticism of abuses as a neocolonial attempt to impose liberal norms. Ethiopia’s leaders believe democratic pluralism is the product of development, not a means to achieve it.
When parliament reconvened, the largely ceremonial president, Mulatu Teshome, an Oromo, promised to create jobs and introduce some proportional representation at elections. And using familiar refrains, the government blamed Egypt and Eritrea for stoking the violence by backing a weakened, fragmented Oromo rebel group.
But the primary threat to Ethiopia is that a portion of its population is now committed to liberating regime change, rather than campaigning for reforms – including the young Oromo the police tried to re-educate. “Until we get our freedom, our self-determination as Oromo, I will continue struggling. I will continue to death,” said one.