The protests began in early April in response to The Integrated Development Master Plan, the municipal government’s strategy for the next 25 years of urban growth. Over the following week, the movement spread to eight universities and attracted as many as 25,000 protesters.
The Master Plan is contentious for a number of reasons. Addis Ababa is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. The new Master Plan facilitates the extension of its boundaries into the Oromo Region, annexing towns that border the capital city. In Ethiopia, regional and administrative divisions are based on ethnic affiliation.; The protesters view this expansion of the Amharic city as a threat to Oromo culture and a precursor to a large-scale eviction of farmers. Some commentators have also noted that through the expansion of Addis Ababa, Oromia Region could itself become Balkanized.
In a country with a history of violent displacements under the auspices of development, the protesters have many grim precedents to justify their concerns. The history of government repression, mass disappearances and killings illustrates that those people willing to risk their lives by protesting understand what is at stake.
The reaction to the student protests was swift and severe; Local and international media reported on the killing of unarmed students by government forces and images of the dead, detained, and tortured began to surface through social media platforms.
A government communiqué credits security forces with restoring peace and writes off any legitimate basis for the protests: “the forces behind the chaos were forces that have past violent history and which controlled through media inside and outside the country to manipulate the question of students for their evil purposes.”
In this statement, written in Amharic and linked by Al Jazeera, the government acknowledges that 11 people died and notes that at least 70 people were injured as a result of a bomb blast at one of the universities. However, witnesses reported that many more students had been killed, with one person telling BBC that in the early days of the protest, security forces had already killed 47 people, the majority in one brutal crackdown following a protest in late April.
Dissent can be a capital offense in Ethiopia. When protesters questioned the results of the 2005 election, security forces massacred 193 people and injured 763. The judge who filed the independent report fled to Europe after refusing to change the information and receiving death threats.
“Ethiopia is not known to investigate politically motivated killings and torture of its critics carried out by the federal security forces. As such, there has been no official investigation into the killings, torture and unlawful detention of hundreds of Oromo students who were caught in the latest security dragnet,” said Mohammed Ademo, a journalist at Al Jazeera America and founder and editor of Oromo publication, OPride (Interviewed over email July 22, 2014). He said that with the limited access of independent NGOs, there may never be an inquiry into these incidents and that without any deviation from the practice of the past two decades, the federal security forces will continue to enjoy total impunity.
The Ethiopian constitution guarantees freedom of information and peaceful public assembly, but the reality is that anti-terrorism laws subsume any human rights protections and criminalize dissent. Any criticism of the state may be interpreted as an attempt to destabilize the country and a blog or the petty vandalism of government property can lead to terrorism charges which are punishable by death. Without a clear definition of what terrorism is, any dissent could be seen as a direct assault on the state and without restraints on security forces countering this undefined menace, the consequences have been all too predictable.
On May 6, 2014, during the second week of protests, the government of Ethiopia came before the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for the Universal Period Review (UPR) of their human rights record. The UPR is a peer-review process where member states can make corrective recommendations to the country under review. 119 governments made statements, many urging Ethiopia to address security forces abuses, the forced resettlement of farmers and pastoralists, restrictions on civil society and disappearances and torture in detention facilities. While it is at the discretion of the government to accept or reject recommendations, civil society groups can lobby for their implementation. The international community can also influence the Ethiopian government through its development aid. Annual revenues in Ethiopia topped $6.7 billion in 2013, but almost half of that came in the form of donor dollars. In 2012, the total official development assistance (ODA) received was 3,261,320,000.
In light of human rights abuses and the apparent politicization of aid, countries that provide development aid are being compelled to assess their own role in supporting Ethiopia. Often these abuses relate to displacement and government brutality. On July 14, the UK High Court ruled that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) was not compliant with its own human rights policy and that the case necessitated a full judicial review. The case originated with a farmer from Western Ethiopia now living as a refugee, who alleges that DFID didn’t properly investigate human rights abuses related to the government’s resettlement program. This version of villagization started in 2010. In 2012, Human Rights Watch released evidence of forced displacements without compensation, arbitrary detentions and mistreatment. International condemnation of Ethiopia, however, is tempered by international commendations. As the seat of the African Union, Addis Ababa is a diplomatic capital, enjoying significant economic growth. Ethiopia’s GDP ranks 24th in the world with 7% real growth, down slightly from 11.4 % in 2011 and 8.5% in 2012. But per capita GDP still remains pitifully low at $1,300 USD in 2013, placing the people of Ethiopia at the other end of the spectrum with a rank of 211. While the divisions of an authoritarian country may be cause for concern among donor countries, Ethiopian’s alliance with the West on security issues may further complicate the willingness of donor governments to criticize Ethiopia’s human rights record .
Canada is Ethiopia’s third largest bilateral country donor, supplying $207.64 million in 2011-2012 with aims to increase food security, agricultural growth and sustainable economic growth. In regard to development and humanitarian aid, the Canadian government notes, “Interventions also recognize the importance of advancing democracy and human rights to ensure that Ethiopia’s development progress is inclusive and sustainable.”
Ethiopia is also a Canadian Country of Focus, meaning that it made the cut when the development agency narrowed aid spending by selecting countries they decided would most benefit from foreign aid. Considering Ethiopia’s human rights record, some commentators have alleged that Canadian foreign aid to Ethiopia violates the principles of the Official Development Assistance Accountability Act by providing aid that is not “consistent with international human rights standards”. Some would argue that this is consistent with the history of Canadian aid to Ethiopia.
It has been 30 years since the famine that, televised by CBC news cameras, came to epitomize the myth of a continent, besieged by bad luck and in need of philanthropy and pop stars. Now most accounts place the blame not on a drought but on the military and social control policies of the ruling junta. During the reign of the Derg, food aid was channeled to the military to buy food and guns, while the domestic solution, a forced resettlement process, divided donor countries and prominent non-governmental organizations. Canada stood on the wrong side of history, providing support for a program in which as many as 100,000 people were killed in transit or due to disease and starvation in the resettlement camps.
The villagization scheme can be considered a new iteration of that resettlement program, as again researchers have documented that indigenous peoples were being forcibly expelled from their land, severing access to food and health care while subjecting people to security force abuses. The villigization scheme is being undertaken in the interest of leasing the land to foreign investors for large-scale farms. In 2012, Human Rights Watch encouraged Canada and other donor countries to use their influence to encourage Ethiopia to comply with international human rights law.
While the Canadian International Development Agency, now the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), did demand an inquiry and corrective measures, the Ethiopian Government continues to operate with impunity and maintain donor darling status. Human Rights Watch notes that development schemes, partially funded through foreign assistance, may displace indigenous communities whose consultation is not sought and who receive no compensation.
"The Ethiopian government is routinely using access to aid as a weapon to control people and crush dissent,” Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, was quoted in a 2010 Globe and Mail article as saying: "If you don't play the ruling party's game, you get shut out. Yet foreign donors are rewarding this behaviour with ever-larger sums of development aid."
The New Master Plan for Addis Ababa outlines a development scheme that would yet again push people off their land with the help of donor dollars. As Ethiopia’s students languish in prisons, as the allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings mount, and as restrictions on information continue to support government impunity, Canadians need to look closely at what counts as development and whether bricks or bullets are being used to achieve it.