Ethnic Clashes and Internet blackouts Continue Amid Abiy Government Reform Process


Ethnically motivated conflict; a continuing challenge in Ethiopia

On 3rd May 2019 the Ethiopian army was deployed to quell a new outbreak of deadly ethnic clashes between people from the Amhara and Benishangul Gumuz regions. At least 200 people are reported to have been killed in these recurrent clashes. In a similar incident about a month later, on 5th June 2019, one student was killed and about 20 injured at Aksum University in Tigray following ethnic-based violence which has become a recurring problem at university campuses across the country.

In May, the Geneva-based International Displacement Monitoring Centre reported that an estimated 3.2 million Ethiopians had been displaced after fleeing conflict and drought by April 2019. This figure, in addition to 900,000 refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, makes Ethiopia the country hosting the highest number of internally displaced people globally. About three million people have been displaced by ethnic clashes since Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power last year, with fears of increased violence and unstable civic space as Ethiopia enters a critical political and economic juncture

On 22nd June 2019, President of the Amhara Region, Ambachew Mekonnen, and his advisor, Ezez Wassie, were killed in an attempted coup led by Amhara’s security chief Asaminew Tsige. Hours later, the chief of staff of the national security forces, Seare Mekonnen, was also killed in his home by his bodyguard in Addis Ababa. Asaminew Tsige, who was in hiding since the staged coup attempt, was shot dead two days later on 24nd June. The army intelligence general indicated that the staged coup was meant to create chaos and division within the military. The two generals killed in Addis Ababa were part of the Tigrayan ethnic group and their assassinations renewed fears of political unrest. The ethno-federalist system in Ethiopia has been said to contribute to tensions within and across the regions.

As the country continues to face ethnic clashes, the International Crisis Group warned that instability could worsen in Ethiopia if the southern Sidama ethnic group carries out a threat to unilaterally declare a new semi-autonomous region, warning that others may do the same. The Sidama, who make up about 5 percent of Ethiopia's population, said they would declare their own region under the country’s ethnically-federated system of government unless they are granted a referendum. On 20nd July, at least 17 people were killed during clashes between Ethiopian security forces and Sidama independence activists.

CSOs launch report on rebuilding civil society amid reforms

April 2019 marked one year since Abiy Ahmed came into office as the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, kickstarting overdue reform for the country. In just a year, the country has lifted the contentious State of Emergency, ordered the release of thousands of prisoners, allowed dissidents to return home, and unblocked hundreds of websites and TV channels. The reform has also allowed the re-entry of international organisations into the country, exuding the potential for a long term commitment to human rights ahead of a promised 2020 election. Despite the progressive developments, the country faces increased uncertainty with rising ethnic tensions and security breakdown, especially in the beleaguered Somali region.

On 7th May 2019, DefendDefenders, a human rights organisation, launched a new report, Turning the Page: Rebuilding Civil Society in Ethiopia, examining the challenges faced by Ethiopian human rights defenders (HRDs) amid the ongoing reform process. This report aims to make concrete recommendations for rebuilding a robust and inclusive civil society ahead of elections planned for 2020. Despite some positive developments, serious gaps remain, and rights-based organisations in Ethiopia currently lack the capacity to keep pace with these developments. This report outlines several avenues donors and international organisations can use to help effectively rebuild civil society in Ethiopia, such as capacity-building activities, and areas of focus such as psychosocial support.

Religious leaders oppose travel by LGBTIQ tourist group

In a separate incident, on 4th June 2019, orthodox religious leaders in Ethiopia called on the government to block a US based gay travel company from touring the country’s ancient sites, notably the holy city of Lalibela. The itinerary of the group, travelling under Toto Tours, a company which describes itself as “the only gay tour company in existence”, sparked controversy in Ethiopia, where draconian laws punish consensual same-sex acts with up to 15 years in prison. LGBTIQ HRDs attempting to organise amid the reform process face significant obstacles from both the government and society at large and are often marginalised even within the human rights movement itself. 

Ethiopian Human Rights Commission gets new head

On 2nd July, Daniel Bekele was appointed as the new head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Bekele is a seasoned lawyer and human rights advocate due to his history as former Senior Advisor at Amnesty International and the Africa Director at Human Rights Watch in New York, as well as doing extensive work on the human rights situation in Ethiopia during the past few years. 

Peaceful Assembly

In March, local officials in Sululta marked red crosses and pinned notices of eviction on doors of residences, ordering those whose houses had been built without official permits to demolish their homes within seven days. Individuals who refused would be taken to court and there would be no compensation. Many residents of Sululta had never formally registered the homes they had built a decade ago. Two days after the eviction notices, about 200 residents attempted to travel to Addis Ababa to complain to regional authorities about the impending evictions but were stopped by police while on their way. Since then, residents have not heard from the government concerning evictions or demolitions and have since been living in a situation of fear and uncertainty. 


On 7th June 2019, police officers in Addis Ababa prevented journalist and former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, Eskinder Nega, from holding a press conference to announce plans for his new TV station, Senai. Police officers blocked the entrance to the Hilton hotel, turning away journalists and other attendees. Eskinder was released in February 2018 after serving seven years of an 18 year sentence on charges related to his writing which criticised the government for abuse of power. Since his release, Eskinder has been publishing the weekly Ethiopis newspaper, leading discussions on issues such as democracy, ethnic nationalism and the administration of Addis Ababa.

Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International's Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said:

This harassment is solely aimed at frustrating the outspoken Eskinder Nega and curtailing his right to freedom of expression.

In a separate incident, between 11th June and 18th June 2019, Ethiopia’s only internet provider, Ethio Telecom, cut Internet access and disabled text messaging without explanation. On 18th June, after the internet was restored, Ethio Telecom apologised in a tweet for the internet service interruption but gave no explanation for the situation. However, speculation from local media sources was that the internet was cut across the country as a measure to curb cheating in national examinations. Four days later, on 22 June, Ethiopia experienced another Internet blackout and likewise Ethio Telecom apologised in a tweet for the service interruptions without explanation. This blackout was experienced on the same day that an attempted coup was thwarted in the Amhara region.

Yared Hailemariam, the Executive Director of Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, described the 22nd June shutdown to CPJ as "a very wrong and old strategy of the government."

Previously, the Ethiopian government cut internet access in 2017 and in early 2018 during periods of major protest and political unrest.

On a positive note, Ethiopia went up 40 positions in the 2019 Press Freedom Index, largely due to reforms in the media sector and a loosening of censorship brought about by the Abiy government.