The East African country is facing its biggest protest movement in decades. Its uncompromising approach to development is to blame.
ADAMA, Ethiopia — For those who would speak frankly about politics in this landlocked East African country, the first challenge is to find a safe space.
But on a recent evening in Adama, a city in the heart of a region reeling from the largest protest movement Ethiopia has faced in decades, most people seemed at ease. University students poured out of the city’s main campus, spilling into claustrophobic bars and pool halls. Others crowded around a cluster of aging taxis, jostling for a quick ride home.
Though it is one of the largest cities in Oromia — where members of Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group have taken to the streets in recent months in unprecedented numbers to protest their political and economic marginalization — Adama has remained mostly quiet. Hidden beneath the casual veneer of daily life, however, lurks a deep-seated suspicion of the government, which has built a massive surveillance apparatus and cracked down violently on its opponents.
Citizens feel they have to watch what they say, and where they say it. At the hangouts where crowds have gathered, a political statement might be overheard. Out on the sidewalks, government spies could be on patrol. Inside the university campus, security officials are on the lookout for suspicious behavior.
In a way, the recent unrest is rooted in Ethiopia’s rapid economic rise. The federal government claims to have notched double-digit GDP growth rates over the past decade, but its rigid, top-down approach to developing industry, and attracting foreign investment, has resulted in mass displacement and disrupted millions of lives. This, in turn, has heightened ethnic tensions that today threaten Ethiopia’s reputation for stability.
All across Oromia, government security forces have been struggling to control the spate of violent protests that erupted in November, partly in response to the government’s so-called master plan to coordinate development in Addis Ababa with nearby towns in Oromia, a sprawling