Ethiopians protesting state of emergency shut down capital, Oromia region

Zacharias Abubeker, AFP | Deserted streets in Addis Ababa, on March 5, 2018 as businesses closed during a strike against the state of emergency.

Shops and businesses closed in Ethiopia's capital and its largest region on Monday to protest a state of emergency declared after the prime minister's resignation last month.


Streets were deserted with shops and businesses shut down in parts of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and in towns in the surrounding Oromia region, a hotbed of anti-government dissent since 2015.

"The strike is a response to our fear" of the state of emergency, a resident of the Oromia town Burayu who requested anonymity told AFP.

Standing together with like-minded neighbours, the resident said: "If they see us in a group like this, the police will come and shoot us."

Roads leading out of Addis Ababa were lined with parked trucks and buses whose drivers feared being assaulted by protesters if they defied the strike.

"We won't drive down there because trucks can't pass, and we could be stoned," one truck driver said.

Striking and closing roads are prohibited under the state of emergency, which was decreed on February 16 after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn's surprise announcement that he would step down after nearly six years in office.

Dissidents have raised concerns over the decree's legality after the speaker of parliament changed the official results of a vote to formalise the six-month state of emergency last week.

Ethiopia was previously under emergency rule from October 2016 until August 2017 after months of anti-government protests in Oromia and the neighbouring Amhara region that left hundreds dead and resulted in tens of thousands of arrests.

Strike call on Facebook

The strike was promoted on Facebook by Jawar Mohammed, the influential executive director of the banned US-based Oromia Media Network, who demanded the lifting of the "illegitimate and unnecessary" emergency decree.

The coordinating body of the state of emergency, known as the Command Post, "urged society to carry out their normal day-to-day activities by ignoring information being circulated via social media," state-affiliated Fana Broadcast Corporate reported.

Despite the emergency decree, violence has continued in Oromia, with one person killed and seven injured in a clash between protesters and security forces in the town of Nekemte last Tuesday, Addisu Arega, a spokesman for the region wrote on Facebook.

Ethnic tensions between Tigrayan and Oromo

The four parties that make up the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition are expected to meet this week to pick a successor for Hailemariam, who will stay in office until that choice is made.

Hailemariam is the first ruler in modern Ethiopian history to step down; previous leaders have died in office or been overthrown. He said he wanted to clear the way for reforms.

The international community is closely watching the developments in Africa's second most-populous nation which has a booming economy and is a staunch Western ally in the fight against Islamist militancy.

The coalition is made up of four region-based parties but is dominated by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front. The Tigrayans are a much smaller ethnic group than the Oromo who are from Ethiopia's most populous Oromiya region and have long complained of being sidelined from political power.

Their criticism of a government development plan for the capital Addis Ababa in 2015 sparked wider anti-government protests that spilled over into attacks on foreign-owned businesses in 2016. This plunged the country into an crisis and sporadic protests have continued.

"Our people should take a leadership role because this is a moral question. Our people want this. We want this," Lemma Megersa, the Oromiya region's president, said in a speech last month.

Accusations of Tigrayan dominance

Overseas-based activists have complained for years that Tigrayans secured business contracts without competition and dominated the security sector, said Daniel Berhane, an Addis Ababa-based political analyst.

Tigrayan government officials reject the claims.

This resentment contributed to the anger behind the protests, Daniel said.

"There are legitimate public discontents that fuelled the protests. But these protests were ... at times accompanied by ethnic attacks, which ranges from physical attacks to arson to eviction," said Daniel.

The government needs to quell the discontent to avoid further protests that could fan ethnic tensions, said Abdul Mohammed, a political analyst and former government advisor, told Reuters.

"Today, our political discussions are conducted almost entirely in the language of ethnic identity: which group benefits, and which doesn't," he noted.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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