AT LEAST 75 people have been killed in Ethiopia after police and military forces fired on demonstrators, pressure group Human Rights Watch said Friday, significantly more than the five deaths the government acknowledges.
Authorities, who say an undisclosed number of security force members have also been killed, early this week said the protestors have a “direct connection with forces that have taken missions from foreign terrorist groups” and that the country’s anti-terror officers will respond.
The New York-headquartered group said it had received numerous reports from witnesses that Ethiopian security forces beat and arrested protesters, often directly from their homes at night.
It said others described several locations as “very tense” with heavy military presence and “many, many arrests” and that mobile phone coverage has been cut in some of the affected areas, stoking fears of a crackdown.
The human rights group traces the protests back to Ginchi, a small town 80 kilometres southwest of the capital Addis Ababa when students protested the planned clearance of a forest to accommodate an investment project.
The unrest then spread throughout the Oromia region, which is home to the Oromo, one of the continent’s largest communities and who account for a third of Ethiopia’s population, before evolving into larger demonstrations against the planned expansion of the capital’s boundary.
With nearly 27 million people, Oromia is the most populous of the country’s federal states and has its own language, Oromo, distinct from Ethiopia’s official Amharic language.
The Ethiopian government plans to expand Addis Ababa following projections by planners that its population and that of five Oromo satellite towns will more than double to 8.1 million by 2040 and require developing an area 20 times the current boundaries of the capital.
The capital already sits on land that was an Oromo village and its expansion would eat further into Oromia region, which surrounds the city, the protesters say.
Residents say the government’s development plan means the Oromo losing autonomy, language and culture as investors move into their neighbourhoods, repeating a process that’s occurred in Addis Ababa.
But independent analysts also say it touches on the perceived marginalisation of the Oromo. Power is held by the multi-ethnic Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which together with allied parties won every seat in federal and regional legislatures in May.
The conflict is also being seen as a clash between Ethiopia’s government-driven growth model that has yielded the continent’s fastest expansion, and its system of federalism, which guarantees the rights of more than 80 ethnicities. And more broadly, the difficulty that many countries in Africa - from Rwanda, Uganda, Mozambigue, and Angola - have of transitioning from a period of stability and high economic growth overseen by a dominant party or leader who came to power at the head of a popular rebellion, to a shared prosperity in an open democracy.
“The Ethiopian government’s response to the Oromia protests has resulted in scores dead and a rapidly rising risk of greater bloodshed,” Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.
“The government’s labelling of largely peaceful protesters as ‘terrorists’ and deploying military forces is a very dangerous escalation of this volatile situation.”
Communications Minister Getachew Reda has said the plan is about rational development, not ethnic politics, and the government will ensure Addis Ababa develops harmoniously with surrounding Oromo towns to everyone’s benefit.
He had earlier said that the peaceful demonstrations have changed into protesters “terrorising the civilians”.
Prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn has also said that the government “will take merciless legitimate action against any force bent on destabilising the area”, the group noted, calling independent investigations.
Amnesty International early this week also said the anti-terror rhetoric by the government, including that protesters are trying to start a revolution, could escalate into a brutal crackdown on protesters