The country, ruled since 1991 by the authoritarian Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has long been a darling of democratic donors, who portray it as a haven of economic progress and stability in an insecure region. They effectively argue that the regime’s vigorous suppression of political dissent and media freedom is excusable given its proven ability to carry out ambitious development projects and deliver impressive rates of macroeconomic growth year after year.
However, protests that began in late 2015—in response to a controversial development project that would have expanded the capital into neighboring regions—grew throughout 2016. The security forces used deadly force, and demonstrators raised accumulated grievances including ethnic discrimination and long-standing exclusion from the political process.
As many as 1,000 people may have been killed, and more than 11,000 were detained under a state of emergency declared in October. The protests were supported by many members of Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups, and there was a genuine risk at year’s end that the unrest could begin to unravel the EPRDF’s accomplishments in the economic and security spheres.
The year 2016 was characterized by the erosion of democratic institutions, and left few positive trends to highlight.
Of the 11 countries that received trend arrows calling special attention to developments of major significance, Ethiopia received a downward trend arrow due to security forces’ disproportionate and often violent response to primarily peaceful antigovernment protests.
Ethiopia experienced its worst political upheaval in many years, when protests by the Oromo people over ethnic and land rights broadened into a general eruption of popular discontent after decades of ethnicity-based political marginalization by the authoritarian ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Security forces used disproportionate and lethal force against protesters in the Oromia and Amhara regions, killing hundreds of people over the course of the year.
Tens of thousands were detained, the internet and social media were periodically blocked, and a state of emergency imposed in October further expanded the government’s already vast powers to crack down on the rights to expression, assembly, and movement.
It is to be recalled the regime in Ethiopia was the first in sub-Saharan Africa to actively engage in political censorship of the Internet. Since May 2006, the then top five most popular Ethiopian web sites (including CyberEthiopia) and several blogs have been blocked across the nation with the apparent objective is to prevent the dissemination of information that is critical of the regime.
Following the political protests which have swept the nation since November 2015, the regime has routinely shutdown the Internet and restricted access to Social Media (including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber) and indicated its keenness to control Social Media in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly.