Some 90 people were killed last weekend in Ethiopia’s Oromia farmland territories when grassroots protests erupted against a government plan to change municipal boundaries in order to integrate parts of the region into the capital’s municipality.
At least, that is the number that is being floating around by news media.
The truth is no one really seems to know what the real death toll for the Aug. 8 and 9 clashes between security forces and protesters is, since government officials have gone out of their way to block information and suppress media coverage of the incidence through the censoring of social media posts and jammed internet access.
More importantly, no one really seems to care.
At least not the West, which is happy to turn a blind eye to the violence imposed by the repressive regime of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in exchange for his support in fighting Al-Shabaab (the Islamic State’s lapdog terrorist organization in Somalia) and promises of stable economic development.
Each year, the United States and Europe joyfully fork over tens of millions of dollars to Hailemariam in development assistance packages, ignoring the authoritarian leader’s dismal human rights record and steadfast resistance to democratic reform.
The details of the latest slaughter are vague.
Opposition parties and human rights groups insist that Ethiopian security forces opened fire on unarmed antigovernment protesters during a peaceful protest rally.
But the government tells a different story, claiming that some of the dissidents were carrying lethal weapons, including explosives.
The exact truth will probably never be known.
But what is important to understand that the Oromia massacre was not an isolated incident.
The Hailemariam administration (which represents a coddled Protestant Wolayta minority) has been waging war against the majority Oromo and Ahmara communities since taking office in 2012.
At the root of the Oromia protests is a growing economic inequality between booming Addis Ababa and the impoverished and heavily populated Oromia and Amhara regions.
In order to accommodate industrial growth and increased foreign investment, Hailemariam decided to expropriate the Oromia territories, forcing the Oromo people (the largest ethnic group in the country) to give up their farms and move further away from the capital.
In late November, protests began to spring up in the Oromia region, and the government responded with a brutal show of force. (Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 400 people were killed during demonstrations over the next several months.)
Last month, the nearby Amhara region (whose people apparently saw the writings on the wall for their own fate in that of neighboring Oromo) began to launch their own protests in solidarity with the Oromia region.
Frustrated by the protests, Hailemariam and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party resorted to the old bag of tricks that have been the bread-and-butter of Ethiopian politics for decades: ruthless crackdowns and massacres.
But to a large extent, Hailemariam’s autocratic tactics have backfired, since Ethiopian unrest against his government is now spreading.
For now, the protests are contained and word of the Oromia massacre is muffled.
But there is a seething sentiment of discontent among the politically under-represented Ethiopian majority, and if Hailemariam does not find a less brutal way to address this restlessness, he may lose his Western implicit cronies and not be able to hold on to power.
So far, the West has enabled Hailemariam to rule through overwhelming force and oppression, but political alliances, based on strategic conveniences rather than real mutual respect and friendship, can change in a heartbeat.
If that happens, Hailemariam’s days as prime minister might be numbered.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].