Several dozen people have been killed in clashes in Ethiopia between police and anti-government demonstrators. Faced by a new wave of government repression, two key rival ethnic groups are burying old animosities.
It was a watershed moment when dissatisfied citizens occupied the main Meskel Square in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on Saturday. This was the first time that the protests, which began earlier in the year, had spread to the capital. Only a few hundred demonstrators were able to break through the police cordon and enter the square but it was a symbolic act nonetheless.
Opposition to the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn has now taken on a new dimension. Protestors are clamoring for the right to participate meaningfully in the political life of Ethiopia, for the fair distribution of land and resources and the right to free speech.
The protests in Addis Ababa were just the tip of the iceberg. For every demonstrator who defied the authorities in Meskel Square, there were dozens of others taking to the streets in the states of Amhara and Oromia. Activists said there were protests in some 200 towns and cities.
In Bahir Dar, capital of the state of Amhara, there were violent clashes between protestors and security forces. News agencies initially said seven people were killed, witnesses put the death toll at more than 30.
Police in Bahir Dar tried to keep protestors from the outlying districts from joining the demonstration in the capital, one witness, who asked to remain anonymous, told DW. "The chaos got worse when a seven year old child was shot dead," he said. "Up until now there is a dangerous situation, the public and the Agazi - Ethiopia's special forces - are head to head. Shots can be heard and two people are wounded," he added.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Addis Ababa on August 6, 2016 to call for greater political freedoms
The authorities' version of events, as reported by the pro-government media outlet Fana Broadcasting Corporation, speaks of "illegal activities conducted under the cloak of demonstrations." Hotels, banks and private property had been vandalized and a grenade was tossed at the security forces. "After the attack on the security forces, measures were taken to restore order," the media outlet said.
Bulk of population against tiny elite
Over the last few months, it was mainly people from the biggest ethnic group, the Oromo, who participated in the demonstrations. Every third Ethiopian is an Oromo, though this is not reflected in the country's institutions. The government and the military are dominated by the small Tigray ethnic group. The ex-rebel group Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is the strongest political party in both houses of parliament.
The TPLF wanted to push through a controversial administrative reform and expand the capital Addis Ababa into outlying Oromia farmland. Oromia farmers saw their livelihoods threatened and protested. The dispute escalated at the end of 2015 when further restructuring measures were made public. In the meantime, the government has partly shelved the plans but public anger hasn't died down. Last week demonstrations by aggrieved citizens were declared illegal by Dessalegn who ordered the security forces to take whatever measures were necessary to quash them.
Awol Kassim, political scientist and expert in constitutional law at the London School of Economics, questions the legality of the government's conduct. "Constitutionally speaking, protestors are only required to notify the government that they are protesting," he said. That obligation was evidently fulfilled. The task of the government would then have been to guarantee security rather than attacking the demonstrators.
Kassim said he is not surprised that the Ethiopian government engages in repression because it is a minority administration that doesn't represent the entire Ethiopian people.
"In order for that kind of system to secure and preserve itself, it has to draw on various strategies of control and suppression," he said.
Kassim also shares the view that protests against the government have acquired a new dimension. The protestors are showing more resolve. It is a sign of significant change in Ethiopia when people defy a ban on demonstrations and take to the streets in their thousands.
The different strains of the protest movement are now displaying solidarity. Previously, the Oromo and the Amhara viewed each other with mutual hostility. The Oromo believe themselves to have been victims of discrimination when land and language rights were allocated. Even though Oromo is the mostly widely spoken language in Ethiopia, it still does not have any official status. The official and national language is Amharic.
But in the face of mounting government repression, old animosities appear to be receding. Demonstrators in Bahir Dar, capital of Amhara, were seen holding up a picture of an imprisoned Oromo leader. The "divide and rule" strategy of the Ethiopian government no longer seems to be functioning. For some time, the Tigray administration has been seeking to play the two sides off against each other in order to maintain its hold on power but that won't work now, Kassim said. "People who essentially didn't want to speak to one another, people who hated each other so vehemently are now beginning to express solidarity with one another."