“Distinguishing the signal from the noise requires both scientific knowledge and self-knowledge: the serenity to accept the things we cannot predict, the courage to predict the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t

Demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the Oromo protest gesture during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia [Reuters]

The Tigray conflict in Ethiopia is back in the spotlight as international pressure, particularly from the US and the UN, led the government headed by Nobel laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare a unilateral ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid access to the Tigray region. Started in November 2020, the conflict has claimed thousands of lives, displaced at least two million people, and turned Ethiopia into the worst famine hotspot of the decade with over 350,000 people affected so far. 

However, this week also marked the fifth anniversary of an intense wave of demonstrations that significantly changed the political landscape of Ethiopia. “The Oromo protests”, as they came to be called, marked the beginning of the end for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) control of the federal power. By July 2016, other ethnic groups, particularly the Amhara, had joined the Oromo demonstrators in voicing their discontentment against a Tigray-led government.  After controlling the country for over 27 years, the TPLF was ultimately ousted from the government in April 2018. Its officials were forced to relocate to their home, namely the Tigray region, from where they now fight against the central government. Yet, five years after the peak of the Oromo protests, there is still little consensus on how the protests escalated.  

The 2016 protests in Ethiopia seem to challenge the conventional wisdom regarding escalatory processes. On one hand, grievances alone fail to provide a reasonable explanation. After all, repression against the Oromo people in the country was a long-standing issue. Unlike the protests that erupted in the fall of 2015 in response to the Addis Ababa Master Plan, a highly controversial proposal that would expand Addis Ababa into Oromian territory, there was no obvious trigger for the mid-2016 escalation of these demonstrations.  Civil society leadership cannot  explain why the demonstrations intensified either. The whole movement was very diffuse, and no organisation or political figure managed to play a guiding role in inspiring people to take to the streets.

Perhaps the timing of the large-scale protests in mid-2016 can be better explained by one trigger and two accelerators: the brutality and oppression by the police as the trigger, and food security concerns coupled with increased rate of internet penetration as the accelerators. The police brutality and oppression during the Oromo protests in April 2016 paved the way for an improbable convergence between Oromos and Amharas. With the addition of food security concerns and the increasing rate of internet penetration, these factors created a perfect storm that culminated in the large-scale protests that began in April. The protests had an upward trajectory in July as other groups started to join the protests, and they peaked in August when hundreds of thousands of people marched in more than 200 towns and cities.

Regarding the main trigger, an unlikely alliance between the Amhara and the Oromo was formed due to the lack of political savvy by the Ethiopian government and the empathy fostered by government brutality. Historically, the Ethiopian central government, led by a group of Tigray elite within the EPRDF, has used the distrust between the Amhara and Oromo people to engage in a divide and conquer strategy. Given that these two ethnic groups together constitute nearly 60 percent of the Ethiopian population (see chart below), preventing an alliance between the two was paramount to maintain political stability. However, ever since the demise of Meles Zenawi, a strongman with a knack for detecting and defusing political dissent, the Ethiopian government was left without its most crucial strategist that could play the two sides against each other. The only thing left to consolidate the unlikely alliance between the Amhara and Oromo was common ground, and that is exactly where empathy comes into play.

Ethnic composition of the Ethiopian population according to the 2012 census. Source: Enciclopaedia Britannica

Amhara and Oromo groups have adopted opposing political agendas for decades. On one hand, the Oromo aspire to obtain greater autonomy for their region. On the other hand, the Amhara traditionally uphold national unity,  making it almost impossible for these two opposition groups to form a political platform alternative to the EPRDF. However, the government later shot itself in the foot, as police brutality and oppression against the Oromo Protests gave rise to an empathic sentiment among the Amhara. The more oppression against the Oromo, the more the Amhara participated in the protests. Even in April 2016, when the number of protests was at its lowest in the last six months, politically related deaths were peaking, as seen in the graphic below.

Number of Conflict and Protest Events by Type and Month in Ethiopia, from November 2015 to October 2016. Source: ACLED, 2016

Indeed, Ethiopia was never the bastion or standard of democracy, but the scale and the visibility of oppression was at a 25-year high. In addition to numerous extrajudicial killings, security forces arrested thousands of students, social media activists, opposition party leaders and their supporters. Instead of putting out the fire, the Ethiopian government was inadvertently fanning the flames.

Internet Penetration in Ethiopia. Source: World Bank

However, the high visibility of government atrocities would not be possible if not for the first accelerator, namely the internet penetration. In merely two years, the number of internet users in Ethiopia had more than doubled from 7.7 percent in 2014 to 15.36 percent in 2016, mostly due to the availability of cheaper smartphones (See figure 3 on the right). Social media in particular played a prominent role in making human rights violations visible in Oromia. For instance, users uploaded videos that circulated on various platforms, showing security officers whipping young people with sticks as they were forced to perform handstands against a wall. The government eventually passed a cybercrimes law in June 2016 to limit the influence of the internet and social media in fostering discontentment. Nevertheless, the damage was already done, and the censorship imposed by the government only created more discontentment among the people.

Last but not least, the significant lack of food security was also an important accelerator contributing significantly to the timing of the protests. Until March, the country was experiencing an El Niño-induced drought which was the worst in fifty years. In February 2016, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 10.2 million people, which is over 10 percent of Ethiopians, were suffering from food insecurity, and that the number would increase if the torrential Belg rains started falling and potentially caused flooding. And so they did by April, and floods drove humanitarian needs to a near-unprecedented level.

In conclusion, apart from the ever-present structural conditions for political upheaval, the process of escalation and the timing of the spring-summer 2016 protests in Ethiopia can be explained by the increase in police oppression and the number of casualties in clashes against the Oromo protesters, leading to growing solidarity among other groups, especially the Amhara. The whole process was further catalysed by the growing online presence of Ethiopians and a once in a half-century environmental disaster, culminating in a perfect storm.

Edited by Ayşenur Alişiroğlu

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