The protests began in the central Oromia region on 12 November 2015, in opposition to the Addis Ababa Masterplan, a government plan to extend the capital Addis Ababa’s administrative control into parts of the Oromia.
“A year after these deadly protests began, tensions in Ethiopia remain high and the human rights situation dire, with mass arrests internet shutdowns and sporadic clashes between the security forces and local communities, especially in the north of the country,” said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“It’s high time the Ethiopian authorities stopped paying lip service to reform and instead took concrete steps to embrace it, including by releasing the myriad political prisoners it is holding merely for expressing their opinions. They should also repeal the repressive laws that imprisoned them in the first place, including the draconian Anti-Terrorism Proclamation that has also contributed to the unrest.”
Even after the Addis Ababa Masterplan was scrapped in January 2016, protests continued with demonstrators demanding an end to human rights violations, ethnic marginalization and the continued detention of Oromo leaders.
The protests later expanded into the Amhara region with demands for an end to arbitrary arrests and ethnic marginalization. They were triggered by attempts by the security forces to arrest Colonel Demeka Zewdu, one of the leaders of the Wolqait Identity and Self-Determination Committee, on alleged terrorism offences. Wolqait, an administrative district in the Tigray region, has been campaigning for reintegration into the Amhara region, to which it belonged until 1991.
Just as in Oromia, security forces responded with excessive and lethal force in their efforts to quell the protests. Amnesty International estimates that at least 800 people have been killed since the protests began, most of them in the two regions.
One of the worst single incidents took place on 2 October 2016 when at least 55 people were trampled to death in a stampede during the Oromo religious festival of Irrecha, held in the town of Bishoftu, about 45 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa. Oromo activists blamed the stampede on the security forces who they said fired live rounds and tear gas into the crowd causing a panic. The authorities deny any wrongdoing.
No protests have been observed since a state of emergency was declared on 9 October, but this has come at the steep price of increased human rights violations, including mass arbitrary arrests and media restrictions, including internet blockages.
“The Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed response to largely peaceful protests started a vicious cycle of protests and totally avoidable bloodshed. If it does not address the protesters’ grievances, we are concerned that it is only a matter of time before another round of unrest erupts,” said Michelle Kagari.
“The restrictive measures imposed as part of the state of emergency only sweeps the underlying issues under the carpet. To fully address the situation, the government must genuinely commit to human rights, including by amending legislation like the anti-terrorism proclamation to bring it fully in line with Ethiopia’s human rights obligations; and ensure its people can enjoy their right to express their opinions including those which criticise government policy and action; and their right to peaceful assembly.”
Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 includes an overly broad and vague definition of terrorist acts and a definition of “encouragement of terrorism” that makes the publication of statements “likely to be understood as encouraging terrorist acts” punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.
The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has repeatedly promised to undertake fundamental reform in governance, but has shown no overt sign of genuine commitment to reform. It continues to use excessive force against largely peaceful protesters, labelling them as anti-peace forces, instead of acknowledging and addressing their legitimate grievances.