Ethiopia’s Protests – What’s going on?

We’re going to take a brief break from our (ir)regularly scheduled programming on this summer’s research to talk about some serious issues happening in Ethiopia right now that I would be remiss to ignore.

What prompted this post is musician Madingo Afework canceling his concerts due to the current situation in Ethiopia:

Current events have been flying under the radar, and many are unaware there’s a problem in Ethiopia at all. However, you might have seen this picture on some international news sources recently:


Feyisa Lilesa at the Rio Olympics

Feyisa Lilesa, an Ethiopian runner competing in the Olympics, crossed his arms over his head as he crossed the finish line, a symbol of solidarity with Oromo protesters. In recent months, Ethiopia has seen a dramatic surge of protests, which have been met with violent crackdowns by government forces. Human rights organizations estimate that hundreds have been killed, even though the demonstrators have largely been peaceful. The reality is that this number is probably much higher, since many deaths have gone unreported. Citizens have been detained, imprisoned, beaten, and tortured. I have heard personal accounts from Ethiopians that indicate that some of those who have been detained were not even involved in the protests and that some targets of abuse are young, still in high school. The government has denied any sort of systematic crackdown, saying that security forces are acting on their own. However, it is difficult to ascertain if this is true since the government is not allowing any external investigation.

So what’s going on? So many things. I will try to summarize: two issues prompted the most recent rounds of protests. In November 2015, the Oromo people began demonstrations against the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which would expand the city of Addis Ababa into the surrounding Oromia region and displace Oromo residents and farmers from their land. Although the plan was later scrapped, the reaction is symptomatic of the Oromo feeling oppressed and marginalized by various government regimes over the past century. More recently, this summer, some from the Amhara ethnic group began their own protests. A portion of Amhara-occupied land is currently being administrated under the Tigray regional government, but the Amhara in this area prefer to be administered under the Amhara regional government. Let’s not forget, also, that people from the Tigray ethnic group dominate the government positions at the federal level, which has caused quite a bit of disillusionment amongst other ethnic groups. Most Ethiopians are quick to point out that Tigrayans only comprise about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, while the Oromo comprise about 34% and the Amhara comprise about 27%, according to the national census.

As you may have noticed, many of these issues are predicated on ethnicity: the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigray, et cetera. I know what you’re thinking: “But, Sarah! Ethnicity is a social construct! You said so yourself!” (and, indeed, I did: link). It is certainly true that multiple factors are at play here, such as discontinuous development and unbalanced center-periphery relations. However, ethnicity is nonetheless a way in which we have decided to categorize ourselves, and Ethiopia has taken it even a step further by using ethnicity as a means of governance. Ethiopia is divided into ethnically-based regions, which means that one’s ethnicity is not just feeling of solidarity with real or imagined kinsfolk but also has political implications.

As you can guess, Ethiopians both in the country and in the diaspora are none too pleased about the situation and are upset that this is getting virtually no attention in the international media outlets. Let’s stand in solidarity with them and pressure our leaders to stop any further rights abuses and allow Ethiopian citizens to voice their opinions openly, without fear of retribution from government forces.

In conclusion, since this is a music blog, it seems appropriate that we now listen to Madingo Afework and Birhanu Tezera’s song “ሰላም የሀገር ሰው” (“Selam Yehager Sew,” meaning, “Peace, my countryperson”): a call to unity and pride in mother Ethiopia, a sentiment which we’re all hoping can overcome such violence and ethnic division:

English Translation

Peace, fellow countryperson,
Around one table, fellow countryperson, together we break food
Truthfully [from the bottom of my heart]
The house will be beautiful when we live [together] truthfully and lovingly
You who are in America, my countryman,
You who are in Canada, my countrywoman
You who are in Europe, my countryman
You who are in Israel, my countryman,
You who are in Jeddah, my countrywoman,
You who are in Dubai, my countryman,
You who are in Paris, my countrywoman,
You who are in Melbourne, my countryman,
You who are in London, my countrywoman,
You who are in Nairobi, my countrywoman,
You who are in Yemen, my countrywoman,
You who are in Khartoum, my countryman,
You who are in [Johannesberg], my countryman
You who are in Djibouti, my countrywoman
Let us all meet at our mother’s house [Ethiopia]
Together, we celebrate the year

The lion roared! Let’s tell the glory of mother Ethiopia
Make the three colors [the Ethiopian flag] the goal
Let the world hear our unity
By our victorious mahiber [type of club/association]
In bad or good times, those who will not be divided
Will eat and drink together
For the mother country, he said “Ho!” and came
We are gathered here for a purpose [to work/improve the country]
Being Ethiopian has made us one
From the far horizon, we, those who are here,
Like yesterday, today, we are one

Who will say this person is Amhara?
Who will say this person is Oromo?
Who will say this person is Gurage?
Who will say this person is from Tigray?
Who will say this person is from the South?
Even though language separates us, our blood is one.
Our blood is one, our blood is one.
By my mother, I’m abesha, by my father, I’m abesha,

Ethiopia is one until the end
By my mother, I am one, by my father, I am one
From Ethiopia, my country, nothing will separate me

***Translated in collaboration with the very wonderful Mariyam Yohannes and Zelalem Desta!

Original Amharic

ሰላም የሀገር ሰው የሀገር ሰው እንዲያው የሀገር ሰው
ሰላም የሀገር ሰው፣ የሀገር ሰው፣ እንዲያው የሀገር ሰው
በአንድ ማዕድ ገበታ፣ የሀገር ሰው፣ አብሮ የሚቆርሰው
እንደው ከምር ከምር እንደው ከምር
እንደው ከምር ከምር እንደው ከምር
ቤት ያምርብናል ከምር ተዋደን ስንኖርአሜሪካም ያለህ አንተ የሀገሬ ሰው
ካናዳም ያለሽው አንቺ የሀገሬ ሰው
አውሮፓም ያለሀው አንተ የሀገሬ ሰው
እሥራኤል ያለሀው አንተ የሀገሬ ሰው
ጅዳም ላይ ያለሽው አንቺ የሀገሬ ሰው
ዱባይ ላይ ያለሀው አንተ የሀገሬ ሰው
ፓሪስ ላይ ያለሽው አንቺ የሀገሬ ሰው
መልቦርን ያለሀው አንተ የሀገሬ ሰው
ለንደን ላይ ያለሽው አንቺ የሀገሬ ሰው
ናይሮቢ ያለሽው አንቺ የሀገሬ ሰው
የመን ያለሽው አንቺ የሀገሬ ሰው
ካርቱም ላይ ያለሀው አንተ የሀገሬ ሰው
ጆበርግ የለሀው አንተ የሀገሬ ሰው
ጅቡቲ ያለሽው አንቺ የሀገሬ ሰውእስኪ እናታችን ቤት እንሰባሰብ
አመት አዉዳመቱን አብረን እናክብረው

አንበሳው አገሳ
እናት ኢትዮጵያ ክብሩአን እናውሳው
ሦስቱን ቀለማት አርገን አላማ
አንድንታችን ለአለም ይሰማ
በእድር ማህበር ባውዳመቱም ላይ
በክፉ ደጉ የማይለያ
አብሮ ሚበላ አብሮ ሚጠጣ

ለእናት ሀገሩ ሆ ብሎ መጡ
ለስራ አመቱ ተሰባስበናል
ኢትዮጵያውነት አንድ አድርጎናል
ከአድማስም ማዶ እዚህም ያለነ
እንደ ትናንቱ ዛሬም አንድ ነን

ይሄ ሰው አማራ ኸረ ሚለው ማን ነው
ይሄ ሰው ኦሮኦ ኸረ ሚለው ማን ነው
ይሄ ሰው ጉራጌ ኸረ ሚለው ማን ነው
ይሄ ሰው ከትግራይ ኸረ ሚለው ማን ነው
ይሄ ሰው ከደቡብ ኸረ ሚለው ማን ነው

ቢለያይም ቋንቋው ደማችን አንድ ሰው
ደማችን አንድ ነው ደማችን አንድ ነው
በእናቴም አበሻ በአባቴም አበሻ
በእናቴም አበሻ በአባቴም አበሻ

አንድ ናት ኢትዮጵያ እስከመጨረሻ
በእናቴም አንድ ነኝ በአባቴም አንድ ነኝ
በእናቴም አንድ ነኝ በአባቴም አንድ ነኝ
ከኢትዮጵያ ሀገሬ የለም የሚለየኝ

* Fun fact: my friends tell me this song was originally performed at the turn of the Ethiopian millennium, which would have been in 2007 in our Gregorian calendar. Ethiopia runs on a different calendar, 7-8 years behind ours, and their new year (called inqutatash/እንቁጣጣሽ) falls around September 11/12 on the Gregorian calendar.

Sources/Further Reading:

Human Rights Watch Report “Ethiopia: Protest Crackdown Killed Hundreds”

BBC: What is behind Ethiopia’s wave of protests?

Al Jazeera: Ethiopia says UN observers not needed as protests rage

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