State of Emergency Declared in Ethiopia

A state of emergency has been declared in Ethiopia for the first time in 25 years following ongoing anti-government protests by the country’s two largest ethnic groups, which have at times turned violent.

Oromo Protest 2014. Photo. Flickr,

Oromo Protest 2014 (Image by BY-ND 2.0)

Speaking on state run television on Sunday the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn said the state of emergency is effective immediately and will be in effect for a period of six months because “the situation posed a threat against the people of the country.”

The announcement is an escalation of a crackdown against protesters that has been taking place since November 2015. In an official statement Attorney General, Getachew Ambaye said it will allow authorities to stop and search suspicious individuals, detain suspects without a court order, and carry out house searches. It also prohibits the “preparation, distribution and exhibition of material that could incite chaos.”

The unrest has mainly been centred on the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara, who are demanding social and political reforms, and the release of jailed activists and journalists.

Some protests against illegal land seizures have caused serious damage to factories and equipment, threatening the country’s economy which has become one of the fastest growing in Africa thanks to a state-run industrial drive.

The Ethiopian authorities have responded to protests with force and been criticized domestically and internationally for using excessive force. Human rights and opposition groups say that over 600 people have been killed since the start of the crackdown, but the government claims this figure is not accurate.

Condemnation and blame

Following the announcement of a state of emergency, human rights experts at the United Nations urged the government to end what they called a “calculated campaign to eliminate opposition movements and silence dissenting voices.”

Human Rights Watch also condemned the violence and said the government must end the unrest by holding talks with the protesters and ensure that future protests are not met with excessive force. The group also called the response from the nation’s international partners in the west inadequate.

“For too long Ethiopia’s major international partners have not adequately raised serious concerns about the complete closure of political space in Ethiopia that has led to an inability to express dissent. At this point they need to take urgent action to ensure that the situation does not further spiral out of control.

“They should push for an independent international investigation. They should push for those arbitrarily detained to be released. And they should reiterate in the strongest way that lawful, peaceful protests should be allowed to occur without the threat of bullets and mass arrests. They have leverage, and they should use it more effectively.”

Ethiopia’s government blames much of the unrest on foreign governments. The country’s information minister, Getachew Reda told journalists in the capital city, Addis Ababa that elements within the Egyptian political establishment are involved in the arming and financing of opposition groups but are “not necessarily directly linked with the Egyptian government”. He also accused Eritrea of being a contributor.

Violence at Irreecha

One of the most severe confrontations between security forces and protesters took place on October 2, in the Oromia region when police attempted to disperse a large crowd of anti-government protesters at a major religious festival. Witnesses said police fired tear gas into the crowd, sparking panic and triggering a stampede that left more than 50 dead and many more injured.

The government claims the final death toll at the Irreecha celebration was 54 but opposition parties have claimed it was in the hundreds. The Vice-President of the Oromo Federalist Congress party told Voice of America that the number was as high as 678.

It is extremely difficult for any organisation to gain an accurate number due to the tight restrictions the government has imposed on NGOs and journalists, restrictions that are sure to get worse with the newly declared state of emergency.

(Writing by Steve Shaw; Editing by Dejan Scepanovic & Robyn Hunter)