ETHIOPIA: Rising nationalist sentiment presents elevated security risks in three-month outlook

ETHIOPIA: Rising nationalist sentiment presents elevated security risks in three-month outlook

Widespread protests during the first week of July underscored the country’s volatile security environment. Hardline nationalist Oromo sentiment fuelled violent protests and inter-communal mob killings. An ostensibly hardened government stance amid an increasingly unstable political environment suggests the risk of further unrest and disorder remains high over the next three to six months.

Following the suspected targeted murder of musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, who had become an Oromo nationalist symbol, during the evening of 30 June that demonstrations erupted in Addis Ababa and spread across Oromia Regional State. These protests escalated into violent confrontations between protesters and police, and grew into targeted mob killings and arson attacks against private residences and business facilities linked to non-Oromo ethnic groups, such as the Amhara and Ghuraghe, in towns and villages across Oromia. There were also reports of subsequent attacks against non-Muslim Oromos, as the violence continued for at least another 72 hours. Business centres, hotels, schools, flower farms, and shops were among the hundreds of facilities that were damaged in the unrest.

Figure 1 - Map of reported incidents 1-4 July 2020 an industrial parks (Source: OSINT, InvestEthiopia)

This scale and severity of violence had not been seen since widespread anti-government protests took place in Oromia and other parts of the country between 2016 and 2018. Those were initially triggered by expansion plans for Addis Ababa but eventually grew into an Oromo nationalist cause as the encroachment of the capital on Oromo land is a highly emotive issue. The official death toll after the most recent bout of violence stood at 239 and thousands more were injured. Regional police authorities in Oromia said 4,988 people were arrested following the protests. This includes protesters, security force personnel, Oromo nationalist activists, and journalists.

Rather than being spontaneous and organic in its spread, multiple accounts suggest the violence were well co-ordinated and driven by ethnic rivalry. According to dozens of witnesses, mobs of young men (who were allegedly not from the targeted towns) moved from house to house, and business to business, seemingly knowing perfectly well who occupied or owned it. These ‘mobs’ specifically targeted premises owned or linked to Amhara or Ghuraghe, but also non-Muslim Oromos. Such details would be difficult to obtain outside woredas (local councils). Witnesses have also said that security forces in some towns did not intervene in the unrest, suggesting some were either colluding or overwhelmed.

The federal government has also subscribed to the notion that the violence was ethnically fuelled and organised, alluding to ‘external forces’. Jingoistic language against ‘foreigners’ were also legion on social media, with some users accusing foreign journalists of being ‘spies’. Although such statements have not been confirmed, and carry little reliability, they are likely to inflame underlying tensions and elevate the security threat to expatriate personnel during times of political instability. Indeed, foreign-owned businesses and expatriates perceived by some as having links with the federal government were repeatedly attacked during the 2016-18 unrest; one US national was killed when her car was stoned by a mob outside Addis.

High risk of further violent unrest

Although the situation has normalised, the risk of further violent unrest remains high in the one- to three-month outlook. General elections planned for August have been postponed until February 2021 due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Although a large majority of political organisations appear to have accepted this decision by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has said elections will go ahead in Tigray regardless. Although no specific date has been set, the polls could take place between September and early October. Such moves are likely to raise animosity between rival ethnic communities. In parallel, federal authorities have accused recently arrested TPLF members of planning to incite violence. While it is hard to confirm the veracity of such claims, these events suggest a potentially irrecoverable split Tigrayan and federal authorities.

Federal authorities have also accused a splinter faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) party of being behind Hundeessaa’s assassination. Such allegations and possible government interdiction efforts against the OLF could trigger a cycle of retaliatory ethnic violence against and by the organisation and its supporters.

Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy now faces a tough balancing act over the coming months. Although initially promoting a narrative of peace, recent statements could indicate an intention to take a tougher approach.

Security managers need to carefully reconsider the need to maintain staff in the country over the coming two-month period and closely monitor events that may trigger widespread unrest. They should ensure personnel has access to accommodation with adequate security provisions and strict access and egress procedures, while testing out travel tracking measures and evacuation plans, in the likely event that protests erupt again over this timeframe.  


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MALAWI: Early moves by President Lazarus Chakwera signals political divisions and risks likely to increase