Ethiopian tensions surge amidst a vacuum in leadership

ETHPrimeMinisterADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – When Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned from his position last month, tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of the capital singing, dancing, honking car horns and waving flags to celebrate the end of his autocratic era.

They said the page had turned on bad times in Ethiopia.

"We are free,” said Salem Gebre, 30, a street hawker who has led protests in the capital, recalling his jubilation at the time. “He has killed and oppressed many of us. We don't want him anymore and we are glad he’s gone.”

More than 1,000 people have died in protests in Ethiopia in the past three years, according to Human Rights Watch and other groups. Disputes over land that arose from urban development around Addis Ababa sparked the first demonstrations. Later, protesters added discontent over political restrictions and other human rights abuses to their grievances.

The government began releasing hundreds of political detainees to ease tensions early last month, but those moves failed to quiet the protests, prompting the prime minister to quit.

“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many,” Desalegn said in a televised address to the nation on Feb. “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”

Desalegn is temporarily staying on as prime minister as a caretaker capacity until lawmakers in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front name a new leader. That’s expected soon.

Still, the opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, wants more drastic change.

“The ruling party has lost the respect of the people and we cannot allow them to lead this country,” said Mulatu Gemechu, deputy secretary of Oromo Federalist Congress. “Ethiopians now need a government that respects their rights, not one that keeps beating and killing them.”

But analysts said deeper ethnic tensions must also be address. Ethnic Tigrayans, who are only 6 percent of the country’s 105 million population, dominate the ruling party and government. People of the Amhara and Oromo communities, which are among Ethiopia's largest ethnic groups, have long called for more participation in government and greater autonomy.

“I think the government needs to address the fundamental problem of inequitable distribution of resources nationwide,” said Nazlin Umar Rajput, a Nairobi-based political analyst and human rights advocate for minority groups across East Africa. “When a minority tribe gets all public jobs, government tenders and public land then you have to expect resistance from majority tribes.”

If the next prime minister is not from Oromia or Amhara, Rajput warned, the country could explode into full-scale civil war.

“The political crisis in this country will be harder to resolve if the next prime minister is from the Tigrayan ethnic group,” she said. “There is no way they (Oromia and Amhara citizens) will accept it.”

Protests continue. The streets of the capital and in towns in the surrounding Oromia region are deserted. Shops and businesses are shut down.

Other developments are adding to the chaos. Ethiopian soldiers enforcing the country’s state of emergency killed at least nine civilians in what the Ethiopian military said was a botched security operation targeting militants on March 11.

According to state television, troops in the town of Moyale, in Oromia state close to the Kenyan border, acted on a “mistaken intelligence report” in an “anti-terrorist operation.”

As a result, more than 10,000 Ethiopians have crossed into Kenya seeking refuge, according to Kenyan Red Cross Society.

“The population of refugees from Ethiopia continues to increase,” Kenya Red Cross Society said in a statement this week. “They are mostly women and children."

Meanwhile, those celebrating the resignation were a bit disheartened when the day after Desalegn made his announcement, the government declared a state of emergency. In what appeared to be an attempt by hardliners to reassert control, protests and the publication of material deemed as inciting violence were banned.

"The decree allows law enforcement bodies to detain without court warrant any individual who orchestrated, led and organized as well as took part or is suspected of taking part in criminal acts against the constitution and constitutional order,” said Ethiopia’s Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa. “The individual will face justice after necessary investigation."

Still, the resignation showed some locals that people power can have an effect. And some say they will continue fighting for their freedoms.

“We are demanding for our rights,” said Gebre. “We will continue to demonstrate until the government listens to us and our demands are met. We are not going to be intimidated.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 
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