The Ethiopian government has hit back after the international outcry over the rising death toll from protests in the country, blaming “outside forces” for fomenting the trouble.
More than 500 people have now been killed since November 2015, according to Human Rights Watch and other activist bodies, and several thousand detained – largely following protests by the Oromia and Amhara people.
It has also raised questions in the EU, where Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of development aid, and also a beneficiary of the bloc’s new Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, aimed at mitigating migration flows from Africa.
Now Addis Ababa has hit back, admitting “bystanders” had died during the protests, and that the government had blocked internet access, but claiming “a group of people living inside and outside of the country” were behind the protests.
That seems to be a reference to the Ethiopian diaspora, concentrated in the US, who have often complained they are the subject of bugging by the government in Addis.
State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Taye Atske-Selassie admitted that “the government has accepted most of the issues of concerns that broke out in different parts of the country as consequences of bad governance, unemployment and the likes.”
And – in a rare mea culpa from the authoritarian government in Addis Ababa – the minister admitted, “The government’s response to the public concern was also very sluggish.”
The escalating death toll this week saw some 13 NGOs write an open letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, complaining of the government’s brutal suppression of what – they say – were largely peaceful protests.
The letter – signed by Amnesty International, the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Human Rights Project, FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), Reporters Without Borders and others – state that at three separate protests in August alone, 100, 30 and 70 demonstrators were killed.
Yesterday (12 September), another Ethiopian Olympic athlete, this time the paralympic runner Tamiru Demisse, made the ‘arms crossed over the head’ gesture symbolising the Oromo people – echoing that of compatriot Feyisa Lilesa, who is now in the US, believed to be seeking political asylum.
Last week, the European Commission was pressed on whether funds from its new flagship Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, aimed at mitigating the roots causes of irregular migration, could be reviewed or even suspended in the wake of the situation.
A Commission spokesman stressed that monies from the ETF were channelled only through NGOs and aid bodies, not directly to the government in Addis Ababa.
Taye said he had explained the government’s version of events to various foreign ambassadors in the Ethiopian capital.
However, he added that “the facts on the ground have ignited discontent and they are taken over by the subjective views and agendas of a group of people living inside and outside of the country”.
He later returned to the theme, saying “In a country like Ethiopia, where its rapid economic growth has impressed the world, the recent clashes have a negative implication to the achievements made [sic].
“In this regard, the government has to be more active and responsive to respond to the public’s demand.
But he warned, “It should not let outsider forces interfere in the internal matters of the country. In other words, the facts on the ground which resulted in public discontent should not be taken over by subjective agendas of outside forces.”
Taye confirmed he had briefed ambassadors in Ethiopia. However he rejected a call for outside, independent, investigation into the deaths.
He also described the shutting down of parts of the domestic internet within Ethiopia as a “hard choice” but “an immediate solution to protect youth from communicating with those extremist groups.”
The government in Addis Ababa – in power since it overthrew the Marxist Derg regime in 1991 – is largely comprised of the Tigray tribal grouping.
People of the Oromia and Amhara regions complain their voices are unheard by the centralised government. Protests against the forced expansion of the capital into the Oromia region forced the project to be largely dropped.
Felix Horn, Africa expert at Human Rights Watch, has previously written that expat Ethiopian groups in both Europe and the US were targeted by the government.
He said, “Ethiopians living in the UK, the US, Norway, and Switzerland are among those known to have been targeted with Addis Ababa’s spyware.
“The European Commission should lead efforts to regulate the export of such [EU-developed] technology to governments with poor human rights records.”