2016 Ethiopian protests

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2016 Ethiopian protests
Date5 August 2016[1] – October 2016
Amhara Region, Gondar, Addis Ababa,[1] Bahir Dar,[1] Oromia Region,[1] north-western and southern regions [2] Ambo, Dembi Dolo, and Nekemt[3]
Caused by
  • Most extreme drought in 50 years followed by extreme flooding, both displacing parts of the population[4]
  • While economic growth and industrialization takes place, the government disregards the rights and needs of the rural population, these are left behind[5]
  • Human rights abuses[1] (detention of opposition demonstrators)[1] Oromia Region[3]
  • Previous annexation of Wolqayt Tsegede in to the Tigray region.[3]
  • Unfair distribution of wealth[6]
  • Political marginalization[1]
  • Land seizures by the Ethiopian government
  • Hundreds of killings and thousands of arrests in recent months by police[1]
  • At least 90 shot and killed by police (as of 8 August)[7]– 500 (claimed by Human Rights Watch)[8]
  • Thousands of protesters attacked and/or arrested by police
  • Suspected jailbreak attempt at Kaliti Prison resulting in at least 23 deaths
  • Human stampede resulting from police confrontation results in the deaths of 52–300 people
  • Six-month state of emergency declared on 9 October 2016[8]
Parties to the civil conflict
Ethiopia General public protesters
Lead figures
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn
Death(s)500+ (as of October 2016)

Protests erupted in Ethiopia on 5 August 2016[1] following calls by opposition groups.[3] Protesters demanded social and political reforms including an end to human rights abuses (including government killings of civilians, mass arrests, government land seizures, and political marginalization of opposition groups). The government responded by restricting access to the Internet[10][11] and attacking as well as arresting protesters.[11][12]

In the three days leading up to 8 August, Reuters reported that at least 90 protesters[7] had been shot and killed by Ethiopian security forces, marking the most violent crackdown against protesters in sub-Saharan Africa since at least 75 people were killed during protests in Ethiopia's Oromia Region in November and December 2015.[13][14]

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 500 people are estimated to have been killed as of October 2016.[15][16]

Background and causes[edit]

Ethnic issues[edit]

In 1991, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) captured the capital Addis Ababa and ended the Ethiopian Civil War. The EPRDF was led by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front and was dominated by those belonging to the Tigray ethnic group, which is a minoroty group comprising only about six percent of the country's population. However, members of this ethnic group have traditionally dominated senior positions in the country's military and political system, while those belonging to the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups, who comprise a majority of the population, have felt rather marginalized over the past few decades.[11][17] Ethnic divisions are not as sharp in Ethiopia as might be imagined from bald statistics; intermarriage is extremely commonplace, and the actual disparity and disaffection between groups is not great. Furthermore, following the death of Meles Zenawi in 2012, the influence of the Tigray ethnic group became lower than in previous decades. Subsequent to his death neither of the two main political positions – President (head of state) and Prime Minister (head of government) – was occupied by a Tigrayan. Then President Mulatu Teshome belonged to the Oromo ethnic group and then prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn to the Wolayta ethnic group. Nevertheless, the perceived domination of the Tigray people is there in the back of the minds of some people and is a factor in the disturbances.

The 2016 Oromo youth demonstrations started because Addis Ababa's new city masterplan proposed including farm lands from the surrounding Oromia region to cope with the city's rapid expansion. Amhara ethnic youth also followed the Oromos because of old bitterness towards the governing EPRDF (a party founded by the TPLF) who have abolished the century-old Amhara dominance in Ethiopian governance [18] [19] [20] [21].

Drought and floods[edit]

In 2014, both rainy seasons in Ethiopia saw irregular rainfall. In 2015, due to an extremely strong El Niño event, both rainy seasons in Ethiopia almost did not happen at all. That resulted in an acute drought in particular in the Highlands of Ethiopia, crops and pastures dried up and herds were dying. It was considered to be the worst drought in 50 years.[22] The drought did hit particularly hard in Amhara Region and Oromia Region.[23] After 18 months of severe drought with almost nothing left over to eat for drought-affected people, very strong torrential rains that started in April 2016 did worsen the situation until October 2016. The flooding displaced people for months in exactly the same regions, that were most affected by the long drought.[24] Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic state. As UNICEF experience in Ethiopia is telling from the past, such droughts and floodings often result in humanitarian shocks and tensions between ethnic groups.[4]

Rural discontent[edit]

The country has been experiencing rapid economic growth since the 2000s and is one of the world's fastest-growing economies and is Africa’s second most populous country.[25] But while economic development and growth and industrialization are supported a lot by the authoritarian government, often the needs of the rural population remain unconsidered, the freedom and civil rights of farmers and pastoralists in particular are often neglected. They are left behind.[5]

Wolqayt Region[edit]

There has been civil unrest in the Wolqayt Region since the 1941 Woyane rebellion, which was an uprising of Tigrayans against the Ethiopian government. With the failure of the rebellion, Wolqayt as an area populated by both Amhara and Tigray people went to the (now historic) province of Begemder. The capital of Begemder was Gondar. That move gave rise to tensions between Amhara people and Tigrayans over decades.

According to the 1994 Ethiopian census, out of 90,186 residents 87,099 self-identified as Tigrayans (96.6%) and 2,734 self-identified as Amharas (3.0%).[26] According to the 2007 Ethiopian census, out of 356,598 residents of Western Tigray Zone (of which Wolqayt is a woreda), 329,080 self-identified as Tigrayans (92.3%) and 23,093 self-identified as Amhara. Following the take-over of Ethiopia by the EPRDF in 1991, the old Wolqayt was split into two parts and the northern part (the new Wolqayt with a Tigrayan majority) was moved to the newly established ethnic region of Tigray.

Amhara people protested against the split and against the move ever since.


Prior episodes of mass killings by the Ethiopian government include the 2005 Ethiopian police massacres when hundreds of protesters were killed by police and the November and December 2015 protests in the Oromia Region that resulted in the killings of over 100 people by government forces. The 2015 protests were later followed by a police crackdown and the arrests of hundreds of opposition members.[27]

Oromia Region[edit]

According to diplomatic, NGO, and opposition sources, hundreds of thousands of people marched in more than 200 towns and cities in the vast Oromia State,[28][29] in protest at "the government's draconian and ever-escalating repression."[30] This resulted in at least 148 people being killed on 5 and 6 August.[31]

On 2 October 2016, more protests occurred where an estimated two million people were attending the annual Irreechaa festival in Bishoftu in the Oromia region.[15] The festival is attended by Oromos from all walks of life to celebrate life and nature. An anti-government protest disrupted the event, with some claiming they involved peacefully chanting slogans against the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization,[15][32] while others claim stones and bottles were thrown.[32][33] People died in a stampede as a result of police using tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges,[15][32][33] falling into a deep ditch and being crushed,[33] or drowning in a lake.[16] While the Oromia regional government confirmed the deaths of 52 people, rights groups, the opposition leader, and local reports claim various numbers up to nearly 300 people dead.[15][16][30][32][33][34]

Addis Ababa[edit]

On 6 August hundreds of protesters marched on Meskel Square and shouted "we want our freedom" and "free our political prisoners".[31] Dozens of protesters were arrested by Addis Ababa's police.[35]

Amhara Region[edit]

In July 2016 the Anti-terrorism task force detained members of the Wolqayt Amhara Identity Committee (WAIC), a legally registered organisation. Soon after, protests erupted in many areas of the Amhara Region, the historic ethnic center of the Ethiopian state and home to the spectacular monolithic rock-cut churches of Lalibela and medieval castles of Gondar that attract tourists from all over.[36] One of the biggest demonstrations took place was on 1 August 2016 in Gondar city. Hundreds of thousands of people held a peaceful demonstration over the arrest of the WAIC members, government repression and protest Federal government encroachment in regional affairs. Protesters carried placards expressing solidarity with the Oromo people.[37] As they marched, they were heard to be chanting in Amharic “በኦሮምያ የሚፈሰዉ ደም ደማችን ነዉ” [38] which translates to “the pouring of blood in Oromia is our blood” [39][40] and “the killings of our brothers in Oromia needs to stop”. They also drew attention to the dispute over the administration of Wolqayt Tsegede. A region that is currently part of the Tigray state despite its citizens identifying as ethnic Amhara.[41][42][43][44]

Further demonstrations soon followed in the Amhara region. Many protests spiraled into violence as security forces fired live bullets on protesters. On 5 August 2016, 50 student protesters were killed while protesting in the populous city of Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara Region and a major tourist destination. Evidence collected by Ethiopian Human Rights Project has so far shown that major protests took place in 6 of the 11 zones in the Amhara Region. The zones included North Gondar, South Gondar, Bahir Dar Special, Agew Awi, East Gojam and West Gojam zones. Anti-government street demonstrations and “stay at home” protests took place in small wereda towns and in some cases in rural kebeles across the six zones. The protests that were ignited in the historic town of Gondar, quickly spread to Debarq, Debtetabor, Metema, Ambagiorgis, Wereta, Simada, Gayint, Bahr Dar, Finote Selam, Burre, Enjibara, Dangila, Chagni, Tilili, Birsheleqo, Quarit, Dembecha, Amanuel, Debre Markos and other towns.

After the growing discontent in Amhara Region and Oromia Region the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning on 1 September 2016. The Amhara Region included in the warning includes the city of Gondar, a popular site for many Israeli tourists and an area where many Ethiopian Jews originated. The warning was announced a day after the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn's announcement on the state owned media ETV (Ethiopia) and gave direct order for the Ethiopia Army forces to use any force necessary to bring order to the region.[45][46] The protesters continued and several flower farms were burned down in Amhara Region and clashes between security forces and local protesters continued.[47][48]

The Ethiopian Government declared a state of emergency on October 8, 2016. On 16 October 2016 the Government announced, restrictions and prohibitions on Internet usage, postings on Facebook, crossing the wrists above the head, diplomatic travel, fire arms and the viewing of media that the government deems to be “terrorist media”.[49] There were also curfews in both regions from 18:00 to 06:00 to prevent further violence.[50][50][51] The government crackdown was tough. Maina Kiai, a U.N. rights rapporteur, said "The scale of this violence and the shocking number of deaths make it clear that this is a calculated campaign to eliminate opposition movements and silence dissenting voices,”.[52] The Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 400 people were killed in protests over the next several months.[53]

Kaliti Prison[edit]

A suspected attempted jailbreak from Kaliti Prison near Addis Ababa resulted in a fire. Two prisoners were claimed to have been killed trying to escape, while 21 other inmates were said to have perished from "stampede and suffocation". At least 23 people were killed in total.[54]



The Ethiopian government denied violence was being committed by the country's security forces, naming regional rivals Eritrea and Egypt as fomenting the ongoing unrest.[8][55]


The United States Embassy in Addis Ababa released a statement of concern.[56]

Legislation was authored by US Congressman Chris Smith, to protect civilians in Ethiopia as well as promote democracy and good governance. The legislation also “calls on the Secretary of State to improve the oversight and accountability of U.S. assistance in Ethiopia”. Rep. Smith was joined by U.S. Representative Mike Coffman as well as victims of torture at the hands of the Ethiopian Government Seenaa Jimjimo, Tewondrose Tirfe and Guya Abaguya Deki, during a press conference to announce this legislation.[57]

In May 2017, Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said he would open an investigation into the human rights abuses perpetrated during the protests.[58]

See also[edit]


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  57. ^ Chris Smith. 2017. Chris Smith . [ONLINE] Available at: http://chrissmith.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=400152. [Accessed 17 February 2017].
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