By Joern Fischer
An eventful week in Ethiopia lies behind me. Months ago, protests started in Ethiopia, initially relating to the expansion of the capital, Addis Ababa, into surrounding land. Protesters argued that farmers had been insufficiently compensated. The latest level of escalation was reached yesterday, when the government declared a state of emergency for the next six months.
Ethiopia has long been seen as one of the most stable countries in Africa. Outsiders have often commented that it might not be quite as democratic as it could be, but at least it was stable, and experienced impressive economic improvements.
The latest unrest stems, at least in part, from a sentiment in the population that “development” did not seem to be benefiting everyone equally. Especially in Oromia, more and more people started to protest, initially against further plans to expand Addis, but more recently also for the release of political prisoners, and against government responses to the demonstrations that they perceived as unjustly forceful. Over the last few months, numerous people were killed during demonstrations.
Then, last Sunday was a cultural holiday, and tragic events took place in Debre Zeit, a town a little way out of Addis Ababa. Official sources speak of a stampede killing 50 or more people; unofficial reports speak of many more dead, report the use of tear gas from a helicopter, and speak of shots fired into the crowd.
Following last weekend, protests intensified. In some places, road blocks were erected. Anger was unleashed against the government, cars were burnt, and rocks thrown at vehicles. An American postdoc died when the minibus she was on was attacked by protestors.
With these developments, we were unable to travel by car between our study area and Addis, and had to fly to get over the road blocks. One day after getting to Addis, news reached me that a state of emergency had been declared; and only hours after that, that a number of soldiers had shown up right in our study site. Two of our researchers and two Ethiopian colleagues are still there, in the midst of this. They’ll leave within a few days, and until then, have been assured their safety by local authorities (who had previously received our research findings with genuine interest).
This blog is about sustainability, and I’m not here to put forward a political argument – for those interested in the politics, it’s easy enough to research these issues on the internet and formulate an opinion.
All I want to say here is very simply that it makes me sad. Just days ago, we distributed initial research findings to local politicians and government experts – who, by and large, were very interested in what we had found. But now the country seems to be at a very real risk of slipping into a spiral of conflict. Conflict kills people, research, and many other good initiatives taken by both civilians and government representatives to improve human well-being while also protecting the environment. I hope for all the people of Ethiopia – regardless of political disposition – that the current situation will be resolved with as little pain to the people as possible.