A state of emergency has brought calm to Ethiopia. But don’t be fooled.

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People from the Oromo group block a road in Ethiopia after protesters were shot dead by security forces in Wolenkomi, about 35 miles west of Addis Ababa in December 2015. (AFP/Getty Images)
People from the Oromo group block a road in Ethiopia after protesters were shot dead by security forces in Wolenkomi, about 35 miles west of Addis Ababa in December 2015. (AFP/Getty Images)

By Paul Schemm December 24 at 5:48 PM
METI, Ethiopia — Earlier this month, hundreds of high school students in the small Ethio­pian town of Meti gathered for a demonstration.

They were supposed to be celebrating the country’s Nations and Nationalities day, which commemorates the much-vaunted equality of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups. Instead, they defied a two-month-old state of emergency to voice their anger over stalled political reforms and endemic corruption.

The protest was quickly dispersed and arrests were made, locals said, and calm returned to the village. But the incident is a sign of the simmering resentment that threatens to shatter Ethiopia’s enforced quiet.

The United States, one of Ethiopia’s biggest backers, is urging the government to address the widespread dissatisfaction and open up the country’s politics before it is too late.

“We feel it has reached an inflection point where some hard decisions are going to have to be made,” said Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, in an interview during a recent visit to the capital, Addis Ababa. “Otherwise, a lot of the achievements could be jeopardized, and we know from the country’s history what a true crisis could look like.”

[A year after Obama’s visit, Ethi­o­pia is in turmoil]

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Ethiopia to Africa’s stability. It has the continent’s second-largest population — nearly 100 million people — one of its fastest growing economies and a powerful military that helps stabilize a string of troubled countries around it.

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The United States — and many other countries — have invested extensively in aid programs to help the Ethiopian government wrest the country out of poverty and bring it to middle-income status. If it succeeds — and becomes a democracy as well — it could be a model for developing nations everywhere.

Ethiopia has witnessed double-digit growth in the past decade. But this rapid economic expansion has resulted in strains, especially when new factories and commercial farms are being built on land taken from farmers. The central Oromo region, which has historically felt marginalized — despite having the largest segment of the population and some of the richest farmland — has been particularly hard hit.

Protests erupted there in November 2015 over the land grabs, corruption in the local government and lack of services such as running water, electricity and roads. The demonstrations later spread to the northern Amhara region, which has grievances of its own with a government that residents maintain is dominated by the Tigrayan minority group.

It has been the worst unrest in Ethi­o­pia since Tigrayan-led rebels overthrew the Marxist government in 1991. Amnesty International estimates at least 800 people have died in the suppression of protests over the past year.

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People have also increasingly singled out Tigrayans for their woes, accusing them of getting the best jobs and dominating the economy. There have been cases of attacks on Tigrayans in the north of the country, and there are fears the unrest could take on a more ethnic dimension.

After dozens were killed during a botched attempt to disperse a crowd at an Oromo religious festival in October, mobs attacked factories and commercial farms across the country and the government declared a state of emergency. Violence has since dropped off, and the government has said it is addressing grievances and has already made significant progress, especially in the Oromo region.

“The reform in Oromia has been far ahead when compared to other regions,” insisted government spokesman Negeri Lencho in a recent news conference. “Ethiopia is in a state of reform — the reform began at the cabinet level . . . and is now continuing at other government levels to the lowest levels.”

But a dozen people interviewed by The Washington Post in the Oromo region said there have been no changes.

“The previous officials are still in office,” complained an old man walking with a cane from a weekend market in the town of Ejere. Like everyone else interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for his safety.

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He paused under an acacia tree overlooking his village to complain how nothing had improved. There had been no effort to address calls for paved roads and the installation of electricity, he said.

The government may be starting to respond. Following Malinowski’s visit in mid-December, it released 9,800 of the nearly 25,000 people detained during the state of emergency.

But years of overwhelming election victories by the ruling party and its allies have left people deeply cynical about the possibility of change.

“During the past elections, those that came to power were not the ones chosen by the people,” said a 32-year-old farmer standing by the side of the highway near the town of Ambo. “We don’t know where the ballots of the people go.”

With opposition groups in the Ethiopian diaspora often preaching violence, Malinowski said the people must be shown that peaceful change within the political system is still possible.

“If they lose faith in that, they are not going to stop asking for change; they will just be more likely to listen to people who seek more extreme goals by more extreme means,” he warned.

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