Ethiopia Grapples With The Aftermath Of A Deadly Weekend

Aug 10, 2016
Originally published on August 10, 2016 1:01 pm

The videos trickled out slowly on social media — slowly, because those posting them had to use special software to get around what seemed to be a government-imposed internet block.

This video showed thousands of people in the streets of the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar. The size of the crowd was significant in a country where civil protests are usually banned.

Even more significant? The location o f this anti-government protest.

For the last nine months, protests have erupted further south, in Oromiya, home to Ethiopia's largest but historically marginalized ethnic group, the Oromo. But now the protests have spread north to a second region, the Amhara.

The different protesters have different grievances, but they share a growing frustration with the rule of a third, minority ethnic group — the Tigrayans. They say the Tigrayan elite has a cartel-like grip on the government, military and the fast-growing economy.

The response by the Ethiopian military to the protesters was swift and brutal. Amnesty International says that nearly 100 people were killed over the weekend when soldiers fired directly on demonstrators.

The U.N. human rights chief has "urge[d] the government to allow access for international observers" to investigate what happened.

Even after those weekend confrontations, witness reports were still filtering back to Addis Ababa, the capital. "We're hearing who's been wounded, who's in hospital, who's been killed, not to mention those who've disappeared without a trace," said Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of Addis Standard, one of the few Ethiopian magazines that risks open critiques of the government.

She described an Orwellian spectacle on state-run television, with "ferocious PR work" to discredit the protests. "People are being paraded in the TV, being made to denounce the protests. People denouncing even the use of Facebook."

For years, Ethiopia's government has warned against a social media-fueled uprising like the one that happened just north, in Egypt, in 2011.

If you watch Ethiopia's state TV broadcasts, what you'll be told is that the country's protests are fueled by ethnic separatists — or even ethnic terrorists.

Tsedale disputes this explanation, saying the protesters' beef is with the government, not with any particular ethnic group. "I don't see that people are deliberately orchestrating ethnic violence in the country," she says. "Of course, the government is eager to identify it as such."

In Ethiopia, politics is ethnicity, and ethnicity is geography. The country is formally divided into autonomous ethnic states, each with its own ethnic government. It's a controversial system called "ethnic federalism" that was instituted by the current regime. Political parties are organized along ethnic lines. Thus any critique of the central government will automatically take on ethnic dimensions.

The protesters impugn the Tigrayan elite — the government officials and army generals — who, they say, have a choke-hold on the country. The government accuses the protesters of fomenting ethnic war on all Tigrayans, rich and poor. And in the fragile ethnic balance that is Ethiopia, the battle to claim the narrative is just as important as the battle in the streets.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to listen to sounds now that the Ethiopian government does not want you to hear. The sounds seem to be evidence of a government crackdown on peaceful protests. Amnesty International says nearly 100 people were killed this past weekend when soldiers fired live bullets in different areas of the country. After nearly a year of anti-government protests in Ethiopia, this weekend was one of the deadliest yet. NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner says there has been a furious attempt on both sides to explain this violence.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The videos trickled out slowly on social media - slowly because those posting them had to use special software to get around a government internet block. This video showed thousands of people in the streets of the northern Ethiopian town of Gondar. And there were two significant things about this video. One was the sheer size of the crowd. This is a country where civil protests are usually banned. But the second was the location. For the last nine months, anti-government protests have erupted further south among one historically marginalized ethnic group called the Oromo. Now, the protests have spread to a second group, the Amhara.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Amharic).

WARNER: These two groups have different local issues, but what they share is an antipathy to the rule of a third minority ethnic group called the Tigray. They say the Tigray elite have a cartel-like grip on the government, its military and the fast-growing economy. Other videos were more painful to watch. They purported to show the government response to these demonstrations - police beating unarmed protesters while women gasped.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Witnesses say Ethiopian soldiers even fired directly on the protesters, killing almost a hundred people. And even days after those weekend confrontations, witness reports were filtering back to the capital - reports of casualties, reports a door-to-door raids by police. Tsedale Lemma is editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard. It's one of the few Ethiopian magazines that risks open critiques of the government. She talked to me over a scratchy cell phone from Addis Ababa.

TSEDALE LEMMA: We're hearing who's been wounded, who's in hospital, who's been killed, not to mention those who have disappeared without a trace.

WARNER: Meanwhile, she described an Orwellian spectacle on state-run television - what she called ferocious PR to discredit the protests.

LEMMA: Very ferocious PR work. People are being paraded in the TV, being made to denounce the protests and people denouncing even the use of Facebook.

WARNER: Denouncing the use of Facebook as a dangerous tool in the hands of hate mongers. And if you watch those state-run TV broadcasts, what you'll be told is that these protests are fueled by ethnic separatists, even ethnic terrorists. The activists dispute this. They say their beef is with the government, not with any one ethnic group.

LEMMA: I don't see that people are deliberately orchestrating ethnic violence in the country, but of course the government is eager to identify it as such.

WARNER: Because in Ethiopia, politics is ethnicity, and ethnicity is geography. The country is formally divided into autonomous ethnic states, each with its own ethnic government. Political parties are organized along ethnic lines. And so any critique of the central government will automatically take on ethnic dimensions. The protesters impugned the elite Tigrayans, the government officials and army generals who they say have a chokehold on the country. The government says they're fomenting ethnic war against the whole Tigrayan people, rich and poor. In the fragile ethnic balance that is Ethiopia today, the battle to claim that narrative could be just as important as the battle in the streets. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.