When I met 15-year-old “Meti” (not her real name), she felt her dream of becoming a nurse was over. In February, Meti and her classmates joined a protest in East Hararghe, in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, against the government’s displacement of farmers around Addis Ababa, security force abuses, and the repression of opposition voices. When security forces started shooting, she and her classmates ran; she turned to see her brother shot dead. Later that night, security forces arrested her father and two of her brothers. Then school officials informed her they were suspending her from school for her participation in the protest.
Now she is trying to leave Ethiopia for South Africa. “I have no future,” she told me. “The government will not hear our voices. They will keep killing and arresting until we stop our protest.”
This week marks one year since protests in Ethiopia began and, sadly, Meti’s words have come true.
Security forces have killed hundreds, detained tens of thousands, and shattered the lives of countless families over the last year. Protester anger boiled over following October’s Irreecha cultural festival, when security forces’ mishandling of the massive crowd caused a stampede, resulting in many deaths. In response, angry mobs destroyed private and government property, particularly in the Oromia region. On October 9, the government announced a country-wide state of emergency, signaling an increase in the militarized response to protesters’ demands for reform. So far, the announced measures appear to codify many of the security forces’ abuses thus far, including arbitrary detention.
The government’s blocking of mobile internet, restrictions on social media, and bans on communication with foreign groups mean little information has gotten out since October 9. Government limitations on free expression and access to information undermine the potential for the inclusive political dialogue needed to understand protesters’ grievances, let alone address them.
Ethiopia’s government has shown little willingness to engage in meaningful reforms over the last year, choosing brutal force over discussion. It’s clear this approach hasn’t worked – as the brutality of security forces increased, so too has the intensity of protests and the calls for reform. Moderate voices have been jailed, and outlets for peaceful expression of grievances shuttered.
The government says it is responding to the needs of the people, and has removed key regional government officials from their posts, shuffled cabinet positions, and stated a commitment to proportional representation. But these changes fall dramatically short of the protesters’ demands for reform. Meti and all Ethiopians have a right to criticize government policies without fear of reprisals, but justice and accountability for people like Meti’s family aren’t even talking points on the agenda yet.
The Ethiopian government and its international allies should refocus attention on the need for justice, accountability, and meaningful reform – or next year’s anniversary will be even less hopeful.