By Paul Schemm
METI, Ethiopia — Earlier this month, hundreds of high school students in the small Ethiopian town of Meti gathered for a demonstration.
They were supposed to be celebrating the country’s Nations and Nationalities day, which commemorates the much-vaunted equality of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups. Instead, they defied a two-month-old state of emergency to voice their anger over stalled political reforms and endemic corruption.
People from the Oromo group block a road in Ethiopia after protesters were shot dead by security forces in Wolenkomi, about 35 miles west of Addis Ababa in December 2015. (AFP/Getty Images)
The protest was quickly dispersed and arrests were made, locals said, and calm returned to the village. But the incident is a sign of the simmering resentment that threatens to shatter Ethiopia’s enforced quiet.
The United States, one of Ethiopia’s biggest backers, is urging the government to address the widespread dissatisfaction and open up the country’s politics before it is too late.
“We feel it has reached an inflection point where some hard decisions are going to have to be made,” said Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, in an interview during a recent visit to the capital, Addis Ababa. “Otherwise, a lot of the achievements could be jeopardized, and we know from the country’s history what a true crisis could look like.”
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Ethiopia to Africa’s stability. It has the continent’s second-largest population — nearly 100 million people — one of its fastest growing economies and a powerful military that helps stabilize a string of troubled countries around it.
The United States — and many other countries — have invested extensively in aid programs to help the Ethiopian government wrest the country out of poverty and bring it to middle-income status. If it succeeds — and becomes a democracy as well — it could be a model for developing nations everywhere.
Ethiopia has witnessed double-digit growth in the past decade. But this rapid economic expansion has resulted in strains, especially when new factories and commercial farms are being built on land taken from farmers. The central Oromo region, which has historically felt marginalized — despite having the largest segment of the population and some of the richest farmland — has been particularly hard hit.
Protests erupted there in November 2015 over the land grabs, corruption in the local government and lack of services such as running water, electricity and roads. The demonstrations later spread to the northern Amhara region, which has grievances of its own with a government that residents maintain is dominated by the Tigrayan minority group.
It has been the worst unrest in Ethiopia since Tigrayan-led rebels overthrew the Marxist government in 1991. Amnesty International estimates at least 800 people have died in the suppression of protests over the past year.
People have also increasingly singled out Tigrayans for their woes, accusing them of getting the best jobs and dominating the economy. There have been cases of attacks on Tigrayans in the north of the country, and there are fears the unrest could take on a more ethnic dimension.
After dozens were killed during a botched attempt to disperse a crowd at an Oromo religious festival in October, mobs attacked factories and commercial farms across the country and the government declared a state of emergency. Violence has since dropped off, and the government has said it is addressing grievances and has already made significant progress, especially in the Oromo region.
“The reform in Oromia has been far ahead when compared to other regions,” insisted government spokesman Negeri Lencho in a recent news conference. “Ethiopia is in a state of reform — the reform began at the cabinet level . . . and is now continuing at other government levels to the lowest levels.”
But a dozen people interviewed by The Washington Post in the Oromo region said there have been no changes.
“The previous officials are still in office,” complained an old man walking with a cane from a weekend market in the town of Ejere. Like everyone else interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.
He paused under an acacia tree overlooking his village to complain how nothing had improved. There had been no effort to address calls for paved roads and the installation of electricity, he said.
“The people are resentful of the local officials and don’t want to discuss things with them,” he said. The local administrator also had not shown much interest in talking to the people, he said, although he admitted a potential reason: Villagers burned down his house last year.
A middle-aged woman dressed in a floral print dress and white shawl interrupted. “We need the government to respond to the demands of the people,” she said, her voice rising. “What we need is for the killings and imprisonments to stop.”
Villagers described a climate of fear, with late-night raids targeting young people who had been accused of protesting. Few doubted that demonstrations will resume once the state of emergency is lifted. The government has promised a new electoral system with proportional representation so that opposition politicians have a chance to be elected. Currently, the opposition has no seats in the parliament or on local councils.
“What the government says is simply astonishing, what they are saying is totally different from what we see on the ground,” a young Oromo said in a village not far from the capital.
“On one hand, they talk about a dialogue with the opposition. But on the other hand, they are arresting the head of the main opposition party,” he added, referring to the Dec. 1 arrest of the country’s most prominent Oromo opposition leader, Merera Gudina.
Most of his party’s top and midlevel leaders have also been imprisoned over the past year despite the government’s talk of the need for dialogue with all political parties.
“The effect of the state of emergency counteracts the aspirations they have articulated,” Malinowski noted. He acknowledged that while the Ethiopian government is suggesting reforms, little has materialized. “The problem is they haven’t done any of it yet, and even with unqualified commitment and speed, these things are going to take quite some time to achieve.”
As the countryside seethes, time is not on the government’s side. The United States has urged a number of confidence-building measures such as releasing opposition figures.
The government may be starting to respond. Following Malinowski’s visit in mid-December, it released 9,800 of the nearly 25,000 people detained during the state of emergency.
But years of overwhelming election victories by the ruling party and its allies have left people deeply cynical about the possibility of change.
“During the past elections, those that came to power were not the ones chosen by the people,” said a 32-year-old farmer standing by the side of the highway near the town of Ambo. “We don’t know where the ballots of the people go.”
With opposition groups in the Ethiopian diaspora often preaching violence, Malinowski said the people must be shown that peaceful change within the political system is still possible.
“If they lose faith in that, they are not going to stop asking for change; they will just be more likely to listen to people who seek more extreme goals by more extreme means,” he warned.