Thousands were arrested, and Oromo community and government leaders were charged under the country’s harsh counterterrorism laws. Many have since gone on hunger strike to protest the conditions they are facing in prison. Despite this crackdown, the government bowed to pressure created by the protests, canceling the project in January.Inspired by this mobilization, the country’s second most populous ethnic group, the Amhara, also began protesting against the government on land-related issues in July. The Oromo and the Amhara have a contentious history, but both feel they are politically and economically marginalized, despite making up more than 61% of the country’s population. And over the last few weeks, activists from both groups have expressed solidarity with each other’s protests, in the hopes that together, they can apply pressure on the government to reform.
In response, the Ethiopian government on Friday banned any types of demonstrations and blocked social media. People came out to protest anyway, and at least 97 people from both groups were believed killed by Ethiopian security forces, Amnesty International reported.
“I think we are reaching a tipping point,” says Mohammed Ademo, a Washington DC-based freelance journalist and founder of OPride.com, a website about Ethiopia, and the Oromia region in particular. “In my entire life, as a one-time protestor and organizer myself, I have never seen demonstrations taking place across the country in one day.”
Ethiopia’s government is dominated by the ethnic Tigray, who make up six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 99 million people. The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been in power for 25 years, and the country’s parliament has no single opposition member.
Ethiopia was the fastest growing economy in the world in 2015, with 8.7% in GDP growth, according to the International Monetary Fund. But, in order to drive this rapid growth, the country has prioritized economic progress over building democratic institutions.
This was particularly evident under the leadership of the former prime minister, Meles Zenawi. During his 17-year rule, Zenawi reduced the number of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty, accelerated manufacturing and oversaw the planning of large-scale industrial projects like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. At the same time, the government clamped down on press freedom, and curtailed civil and political rights, according to US-based advocacy group Freedom House.
Current prime minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn on Friday called the demonstrations a threat to national security. Using the hash tag #OromoProtests, opposition members and supporters abroad took to Twitter and Facebook to showcase the size of the protests and decry the government’s response. Some inside the country managed to circumvent the social media ban using proxy servers, says Ademo, before the government completely shut down internet access. Graphic photos and videos were shared, some appearing to show police beating demonstrators.
Ethio Sunshine @Ethio_Sunshine
#OromoProtests |More pics #TPLF didn’t want you to see. You may censor the internet but you can’t censor our voice!!
NuNu Wako™© @NuNuWako
It’s disheartening when you cannot comfort your parents because you can’t reach your family members #OromoProtests #Ethiopia
Hassen Hussein @AbbaKayo
She says freedom I need He says I built you a road She says I still need freedom He screams I don’t give a damn:here, bullets#OromoProtests
Yosef (Booree) Hamba @HambaJht
More than 200 cities are participated on Grand #OromoProtests on Aug. 6, 2016. 49 cities have been confirmed from SM
This show of unity between the Oromo and Amhara is unprecedented since the EPRDF came into power in 1991. It’s likely the government’s response will only unify the groups further, Ademo believes. “The government’s insistence on dealing with the protests only through more crackdown and repression is only likely to exacerbate tensions and draw in other marginalized groups,” Ademo says. “Either way you look at it, these are extraordinary times for Ethiopia and the youth are saying ‘Nu Gaye, Baqa’—enough is enough.”
Ethiopia is a key US ally in the Horn of Africa, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year. During a visit there last year, president Barack Obama was criticized for praising the country’s leadership and calling it “democratically elected,” even as human rights and opposition groups have described the country as effectively an authoritarian regime.