Human Rights Watch says as many as 75 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces in confrontations. The government acknowledges only five deaths.
What's at stake is the use of land in the Oromia region, home to the country's largest ethnic group. They are disturbed by expansion plans for Addis Ababa, the capital. But in the last few days the protests have grown in size, and in grievance — and the government's crackdown has become more violent.
We asked our East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner some questions:
What's happening in Ethiopia?
The big picture here is that the world's population is growing and there's a big push for food and farmland. Something like 60 percent of available arable land is in Africa. And in Ethiopia, the government has been leasing large parcels of land to foreign investors from China and India and the Middle East. The government is legally allowed to do this. It owns all the land in Ethiopia. But critics call it 'land grabbing'. They say that people are being violently displaced from their ancestral lands. There's a big ethnic component as well in terms of who is affected.
The spark of the protests was provided last month when a forest was being cleared for development. The protests coalesced in opposition to the government's so-called "master plan" to expand development of Addis Ababa into surrounding farmland. The government claims that this 'master plan' is actually on hold. But since then, the protests have spread to other towns in the Oromia region, and they're not just about the 'master plan' but about a range of issues particular to this group.
What makes these protests different?
From footage posted on social media, these protests seem to be much larger and more diverse than previous protests. The protests have not been without violence — police stations have been torched and some foreign-owned farms have been looted.
But the biggest difference so far is the government's response. Instead of leaving the regional police to handle these protests, they've sent in the feared Anti Terrorism Task Force. The military has also allegedly fired live rounds into groups of protesters, increasing the death toll. The government disputes this.
The asymmetrical nature of the response has been criticized by the United States — the State Department released a statement early Saturday urging the government of Ethiopia to permit peaceful protests.
Why has the government not permitted peaceful protests?
Ethiopia, especially in the last decade, has allowed very little freedom of expression or assembly. Criticism of the government can get one jailed for terrorism. Ethiopian journalists are serving time for this now. In parliamentary elections this May, the ruling party and its allied parties won 100 percent of seats in parliament. There isn't any space in Ethiopia right now for political debate.
The Ethiopian government is treating these protests as an existential threat to the country. Ethiopia's Anti Terrorism Task Force issued a communique on Dec. 15 that painted the protests as the work of a small number of hardline separatists: a "very limited number of students from the Oromo ethnic group... creating a direct connection with forces that have taken missions from foreign terrorist groups." The following day, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that the government "will take merciless legitimate action against any force bent on destabilizing the area."
It doesn't seem that the protesters will have an opportunity to sit down with the government to discuss their demands.
Meanwhile, some of the Ethiopian government's fiercest critics - especially in the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States — are describing these protests as a long-awaited uprising by the Oromo people against the government. But they sharply disagree with the government's characterization of this as an ethnic conflict. Rather, they describe it as a political revolt by a large and marginalized ethnic group, and say that the protesters have taken care not to target people of other ethnicities.
Ethiopia is also facing a food shortage more serious than at any time in the last 30 years. Why is that, and is that a factor in these protests?
The reasons for the food shortage have to do with a drought exacerbated by El Niño as well as climate change. The government estimates that more than 10 million people could be affected, and many of them live in the Oromia region. That could certainly exacerbate tensions. There's also historical precedent: the last big Ethiopian famine - in 1984 - was credited with bringing down a government — the marxist military Derg regime. The fall of that regime cleared the way for the current government to come to power.
There's another factor here that's even more sensitive in Ethiopia right now. Many food security experts will argue that one reason Ethiopia is so prone to famine is that the population is so rural. The way to avoid these situations in the future will be to shift more of the population into urban centers rather than having so many people dispersed across land that is of such poor quality and so vulnerable to climate issues. That is what supporters of Ethiopia's "master plan" say that it will do.
But since the government owns all the land, and the 'master plan' is so controversial, the Ethiopian government is not willing to talk publicly about Ethiopia's urbanized future.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we hear about how government land development plans in Ethiopia are being met by protests - protests which are being called some of the most violent to hit the country since the governing party came to power in 1991. The Ethiopian government and human rights observers disagree about just how many deaths have occurred. Human Rights Watch says as many as 75 people have been killed in confrontations, whereas the government acknowledges only five. What's at stake is land in the Oromia region, home to the country's largest ethnic group. They are disturbed by expansion plans for Addis Ababa, the capital. All this happens as Ethiopia is facing its biggest potential food insecurity crisis in 30 years. NPR's Gregory Warner is here on the line with us to tell us about it. Gregory, what's happening?
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, Michel, just to start with the big picture here - so the world's population is growing. There's a big push for food and farmland, and something like 60 percent of available arable land is in Africa. So in Ethiopia, the government has been leasing these large parcels of land to foreign investors from China and India and the Middle East. Now, the government can do this. It owns all the land in Ethiopia. But critics call it land grabbing. They say that people are being displaced from their ancestral lands. There's a big ethnic component as well in terms of who's affected. And so these latest protests began last month over a forest that was being cleared for private development. Since then, they've spread to many towns in the region called Oromia, which is home to the Oromo ethnic group, and become more than just about land-grabbing but about a lot of issues particular to this group.
MARTIN: All over the region there are protests around land use. What are some of the factors that make this different?
WARNER: Well, a few things. It's not just students, first of all. It's also farmers and civilians. Doctors and nurses are apparently taking part. And there's also been some violence in the protests. Police stations have been torched and some foreign-owned farms have been looted. But the really big difference is the government's military response. So instead of leaving the regional police to handle this, they've sent in the anti-terrorism task force, and the military has reportedly fired live rounds into groups of protesters, increasing the death toll, though the government does dispute that.
MARTIN: Human Rights Watch, in fact, is warning of the rapidly-rising risk of greater bloodshed. Is there a concern that this could escalate into, what, an armed uprising, some sort of a civil war?
WARNER: I mean, you know, Ethiopia has an extremely robust military and intelligence operation that's very well-financed and very sophisticated. Something like an Arab Spring, an armed revolt is exactly what the government is afraid of. It often talks about the danger of this. It's imprisoned journalists even for discussing this. The whole response to these protests have been in the rhetoric and in the actions as if battling an ethnic separatist revolution. And so the more the government alienates this ethnic group - which is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia - it's 35 percent - the more unpredictable the outcome.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Ethiopia is also facing a food shortage. Apparently this is more serious than at any time in the last 30 years. Why is that, and is that factor in this, in your view?
WARNER: Sure. The government's warning that 10 million people could be affected. And this has to do with climate change and El Nino. But many millions of those people that could be affected are in the Oromia region, and that could certainly exacerbate tensions. Let's keep in mind that the last big famine in 1984 was credited with bringing down a government.
MARTIN: That's NPR's East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner joining us from Kenya. Gregory, thank you.
WARNER: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.