Gudina dreams every night of the student she saw with blood pouring out of their mouth after being struck by a bullet fired by Ethiopian security forces during a protest in December. At a related protest in a different town, 17-year-old Gameda saw security forces enter a school compound and shoot three students point blank, and then carry the bodies away.
Tear gas and bullets from security forces have become a regular part of the state’s crackdown in Ethiopia’s Oromia state, as students keep up a protest movement against the government’s plan for expansion and development of the capital, Addis Ababa. Many say the plan will push the Oromo people off their lands.
According to a report from Human Rights Watch this week, Ethiopia has continued to violently suppress the demonstrations that sparked in November, killing protesters and arresting thousands more without charges. Several people the advocacy organization spoke with said they were subjected to torture and sexual assault while detained.
“Continuing to treat the protests as a military operation that needs to be crushed through force shows the complete disregard the government has for peaceful protest and freedom of expression,” said Felix Horne, Human Rights Watch’s researcher for the Horn of Africa.
“Things have become considerably more violent in the last few days,” he said. “Given the limitations on independent reporting on the ground, it’s hard to know precisely what has been happening.” The organization, which is the source of the eyewitness accounts, has changed the names of people it mentions and even avoids specifying their gender, to protect them for the crackdown by the government Tensions are longstanding between the Oromo and the government, lead with a heavy hand by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The demonstrations started in mid-November in Oromia, the nation’s largest state and home to 27 million people, including 3.3 million living in Addis Ababa. The Oromo, who are the country’s largest ethnic group, are opposed to the government’s Addis Ababa and Surrounding Oromia Special Zone Development Plan. Activists claim the development agenda will swallow up Oromo land and displace farmers as the capital grows outward.
That expansion reflects Ethiopia’s status as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The International Monetary Fund ranks it among the top five expanding economies globally, with a gross domestic product that expanded 10.3 percent from 2013 to 2014. The capital development plan is in line with the economic and urban growth, with plans for building highways, roads, parking lots, market areas, and an airport.
On November 12, elementary and high school students formed the first demonstration in the town of Ginci, about 55 miles from Addis Ababa. As a part of the controversial development project, work had just begun on clearing a forest at the edge of town. Activists said the students engaged in peaceful demonstrations, and videos at the time showed them often standing in silence.
Over the next few weeks, protests began to spread to towns throughout the state as part of a larger and years-long Oromo movement. The Oromo account for more than 80 percent of the Oromia state population. Nationally, they represent more than 35 percent.
Many Oromos say they have not benefitted from the country’s development. Literacy rates and government representation are bleak for the Oromo.
This is not the first protest against the so-called Master Plan; there was a similar uprising in April and May of 2014 after the development plan was approved. A crackdown by security forces left dozens dead and hundreds arrested.
As the current movement unfolded, the recent demonstrations quickly surpassed the scale of those from 2014. By January activists estimated upwards of 140 people had been killed and, according to Human Rights Watch, killings and violence have been reported daily. That figure has since risen to more than 200 people.
With Desalegn and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front controlling the parliament and the judiciary, while having eroded independent civil society and media, Horne said that the protest crackdowns were limiting one of the few outlets for criticism left.
“If Oromia’s citizens have concerns how are they to peacefully express it?” he said. “As we’ve seen the last three months, if you take to the streets you run the risk of being shot by security forces who view protest movements as something to be crushed through brutal force.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB