It started off as a political protest by the Oromos of Ethiopia against a host of agendas which includes the Addis Ababa and Oromia Special Zone Integrated Master Plan and some blanket political agendas such as marginalization. Now the series of political unrest in Ethiopia appears to cross the boarders to Amhara Regional States. In fact, in recent months the unrest looks to be reaching its peak. Nevertheless, the movement seems to be quite different in its nature on account of its exploitation of the social media and other e-media platforms. Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter explores the nature of movement and its possible implications.
Revolution fervor is in the air in Ethiopia. Well, at least in the two most populous regional states in Ethiopia: Oromia and Amhara. For more than a month now, public mobilization and mass demonstrations has taunted the two regional states.
Reports show, thus far, heavy loss of life and property has been sustained in these regions. Granted, the number of people who have lost their lives and those who have sustained damages is not yet clear due to conflicting and at times far-off estimates coming out of different institutions. The likes of Human Rights Watch put the aggregate number of people who has lost their lives up to 400 and above. Meanwhile, Ethiopian sources have not been forthcoming as far as divulging the numbers; but for practical purposes much lower estimation is attributed to government sources.
Whatever the estimates may be, one has adequate information to discern that the nation is heading to one of the most testing times in its recent history. Although Ethiopia is not alien to mass mobilization and social movements, few of these recent movements had long-lasting impact on the state structure and country’s overall trajectory.
The revolution that deposed Emperor Haile-Selassie I in 1974 was one of the most significant mass social movements in Ethiopia still casting its shadow over the future of this country.
The events that led to the 1974 revolution, which is referred to by some scholars as the “velvet revolution” signifying its nonviolent nature, were seemingly small, scattered and largely peaceful mass movements among the urban elites in Ethiopia; especially those in Adddis Ababa.
According to historical documents, the political events that gave rise to the deposition of the aged emperor, who at that time has ruled more or less comfortably for over 40 years, were started around January 1974 where rank-and-file of the soldiers of the Negele Borena Garrison mutinied against the empire on account of bad living conditions including food and drinking water.
The soldiers were followed by their comrades at the Debre Zeit Air Force base in February and others in the military service. Concurrently, university students supported by professors and high school teachers went on strike opposing a proposed education reform at the time. To make matters worse for the emperor, the students were joined by school teachers days later, who demanded better pay and living conditions.
On the other hand, the global oil price crisis and the pressure it applied in the Ethiopian economy forced the imperial regime to revise fuel prices resulting in 50 percent increase in the retail price. This was served as an immediate cause for taxi drivers and later street vendors and urban poor to go on general strike and hold demonstration across the city.
The emperor’s sweeping measures to raise the salaries of soldiers, teachers and reduce the price of fuel and further to dismiss the then Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold and his cabinet did little by way of putting a stop to the social unrest. After brief interruption, the protest continued in Addis Ababa with more sections of the society increasingly joining the movement.
Meanwhile, the cascade of small events that precipitated the deposition of the emperor was unfolding under greater canvas of social movements in Bale, Gojam and Eritrea provinces. The deplorable track record of the imperial regime in terms handling the famine in the north—mainly in Wollo and Tigray—has also fed into the structural weakness of the regime in the eyes of the public.
By far, the greatest mass mobilization was yet to come in April, where greater cross-sections of the society joining the movement; and some 100,000 Muslims marching on Addis Ababa demanding for greater religious freedom.
From there to September, the king was finally deposed and things took turns to another direction; perhaps one which is not anticipated by the revolutionary idealists and the public in general. Yes, the military which was at the time, perhaps arguably, better organized to seize political power in Ethiopia, started to take center stage in the social movement.
Eventually, in an incident which is expressed as the “missed opportunity in Ethiopia” the military council a.k.a. Dergcontrolled political power. As they say the rest is for the history books; the military government unleashed one of the most terrorizing times in Ethiopian history.
Nevertheless, history is informative in as far as gauging current events; and the current events speak of deep rooted social movement in the making in Ethiopia. Time and again, history shows that the risk of social movements in Ethiopia emanates from what they call ‘the end game’. Usually, it is in the post-revolutionary periods that the nation finds itself picking up the pieces.
In this regard, political experts argue that the outcomes of social movements are influenced equally by the form and model of the movements as they are with the actual cause which triggered the movement. Various social movements across times have proved this theory.
Focusing mainly on the form, one can see some striking characteristics in the recent political movement in Ethiopia; specifically in the two regional states. The protest in Oromia is the older of the protests in the two regions. It started off as the small clash in an elementary school in Ginchi, some 80 km from the capital, where students protested the town administration’s decision to give away part of the school compound to a third party. The political mobilization in the region grew in demand to bigger issues such as the proposed joint master plan between the special Zone of Oromia Regional State, which surrounds Addis Ababa, and the capital city.
Later on, the government of both Oromia and Addis Ababa decided to abandon the proposed joint master plan. However, before the decision, government security forces responded to protest with force, which, according to Ethiopian Human Right Commission, was well within proportional limits. This is categorically rejected by protestors and they accuse the security forces of extrajudicial killings and arrests. Hence, the demand of the protestors has managed to evolve to regime change in Ethiopia or an all out overhaul of the government and the ruling party.
The protest in Amhara, on the other hand, was triggered by the clash between the people of Kimant and regional security apparatus following the decision of the regional government regarding the question of identity of the Kimant people. Apparently, the decision to grant 42 Kebele administrations for the newly recognized Kimant people was not enough and hence the latest violence claimed many lives.
The Kimnat question was followed by another identity question concerning the Wolkait area, currently under the Tigray Regional State. Meanwhile, in recent months unity of agenda between protestors in these two regions has started to evolve. Hence, recent protest in Gonder and Bahir Dar has paid tribute to imprisoned Oromo politicians like Bekele Gerba and the movement dubbed “Oromo protest” in general.
According to reports, the gesture was reciprocated in the latest demonstrations in the Oromia region.
However, another unique defining characteristic of the movement is the huge scale social media mobilization of supporters of the movements in the two regions. According to Mail and Guardian Africa report of “How Africa Tweets”, which analyzes tweeter trends, hashtags and online activities, since 2012, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Burundi have led political conversation on Tweeter. The hashtag “#OromoProtest” is one of few trending tweeter hashtags in 2015 and 16.
Zerihun Teshome, a political analyst and media personality, says that the recent mass movements in Ethiopia no doubt exhibits mass organizations models which are being facilitated mainly by advancements in ICT and information age. He believes that social media or other internet based communication tools and their role as organizing models in social movements is something that is changing the global political architecture. “It is what analysts are calling a time-space compressor,” he says, since such models has effectively eliminated the need to be present in the same time and space or have known organizing principles to start a social movement.
According to him, such movements are characterized by loose alliances created on the basis of brief exchange of ideas on social media, most of which emotionally charged conversations with little or no way of fact checking the claims.
Another political scientist, who wants to remain anonymous, goes even further in his analyses of the social media fueled social movements. He argues that the nature of social media has one grave side to it, which is instigating a sort of mob mentality among those who share their views. He says social media provide the platform to air views which cannot be aired on the record by individuals. When likeminded people get together on social media platform even the most extreme view would start to be mainstream idea. “To the most part, I found it to be a platform where people can easily reinforce their stereotypes,” he argues.
Lulseged Girma, geopolitical analyst, also takes issue with the anonymity of the social media platform especially with regard to political conversations. “One cannot identify the personalities calling for social change on e-media platforms; and this robs the validity of the claims and arguments made on such forums,” he told The Reporter in an email interview. Thus, the anonymity would eventually expose social media-based movements to manipulation since less-genuine actors could easily infiltrate the political discourse or perhaps steer it to other directions, Lulseged argues.
Nevertheless, social media as a communication tool and organizing principle has long-attracted the attention of political scientists. Literature on social movement theories started to seriously take social media model of social movements following the sweeping revolutionary fervor that engulfed the Arab and North African Region in 2011. The movement which is dubbed the Arab Spring has swept across countries like Tunisia, Egypt Libya, Syria, Yemen and some others.
Hence, political scientists note that this model is a unique from other known forms of social movement theories since it primarily contributes to cutting down transaction cost to organize social movements. Largely relying on loose social networks, highly diffused leadership and linkage among drivers of social change, political scientists argue that this is a positive aspect to social media based movements. The fact that there are fewer impediments to forging social movements and changes now thanks to advent of social media, can be taken as revolutionary change in the socio-political life of the globe.
This attributes are the very factors that are complicating the social movements, Zerihun argues. Although social problem take similar characteristics among people of different nationalities, the law and regulations that will be applied to address this problems would definitely vary across nations. That, according to Zerihun, is one aspect of sovereignty. In his view, most of time, this two approaches are at a course which results in a head on collision.
He claims that the turns of events in Egypt, Libya and Syria after the Arab Spring where the social media platform could not bring together those revolutionary forces to establish stable political order the way it did when they deposed the respective regimes in their countries. “This is a recipe for disaster,” he says.
Unlike the 1970s social movements in Ethiopia, where a cross section of a society with different social and political backgrounds easily participate and engage in protests, the problem with recent movement is that one cannot identify most of the social media users who are supposed to call for protests in a certain area, Lulseged expounds.
“They have also different objectives for their social movements. One is to call for self-administration issues and another is to secede from a region or the federal arrangement. One is also to end the rule by EPRDF and another for distributing stolen matriculation exams for preparatory school leavers. There also social media movements those are against a particular ethnic group. It is not focused,” he says. The result will be social chaos, according to him, and one cannot also identify those on social media, particularly their ethnic identity.
“One who claims to be from Oromia, Tigray or Amhara might not be true. There are groups who manipulate and abuse the social media networks for their own political and socio-economic interest,” he argues.
On the other hand, the commentators also question if there is prudent endgame and some sort of plan as to what would happened if the social movement becomes successful. As far as Zerihun is concerned this should be the biggest fear for Ethiopians. “I could speculate from the fragmented movement we are seeing that there is no prudent plan among the demonstrators as to how and who will keep the nation together should the movements become successful,” he says. And should the movement succeed even in toppling the regime the lack of alternative plan could plunge the nation in situation which makes the Syrian predicament to appear like a cakewalk.
For Lulseged as well, Ethiopia will not survive the complexities of such a social chaos since the infant political order in Ethiopia would not be strong enough to fill the leadership vacuum. Kuma Demekssa, former chairman of OPDO and Mayor of Addis Ababa, on his recent discussion on Fana Broadcasting Corporate, also emphasizing on the fact that young politically active people should make serious considerations with regards to the alternative should the claims of regime change were to become true. “Although most of these youngsters did not see harsh realities during the Derg era, they should understand what they are pushing for in general; it is absolute chaos,” he argues.
Nevertheless, there is sizable number of people who argue that at end of the day everything rests on the government. They say that had there not been real issues to protest about all risks discussed would not have emerged. The anonymous expert believes that in spite of risk of organizing movement on social media, the real questions are the administrative misgivings of the government. In fact, he goes on to criticize the way the government has been approaching the whole protest movement.
He says that labeling and antagonizing the protest would not be the best way to go by and the only way both the ruling party and government could avoid disaster is by promptly and genuinely addressing the grievances. “There simply is no way out,” he concludes.