'It's life and death': how the growth of Addis Ababa has sparked ethnic tensions

Addis Ababa had a plan – to expand, and lead newly prosperous Ethiopia into a brave new century. But after protests led to a violent and harrowing state crackdown, what happens next could reverberate across. Africa.

Police fire teargas during Oromo festival

Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people in Bishoftu town of Oromia region, Ethiopia. Photograph: (c) Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

“The police came with officials a few weeks ago. We had a day’s warning,” says Haile, a 19-year-old former resident. “Old people, children, pregnant women … It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, your house was smashed to bits.”s Africa.

Drive out of Addis Ababa’s new central business district, with its five-star hotels, banks and gleaming office blocks. Head south, along the traffic-choked avenues lined with new apartment blocks, cafes, cheap hotels and, in the neighbourhood where the European Union has its offices, several excellent restaurants. Go past a vast new church, the cement skeletons of several dozen unfinished housing developments, under a new highway and swing left round the vast construction site from which the new terminal for the Ethiopian capital’s main international airport is rising.

Here, the tarmac gives way to cobbles and grit and the city loosens its hold. Goats crop a parched field beside corrugated iron and breezeblock sheds, home to a shifting population of labourers and their families. Children in spotless uniforms neatly avoid fetid open drains as they walk home from school. Long-horned cattle wander. Beyond the airport, the road splits into a series of gravel tracks that quickly become dusty paths across fields, which take you to the village of Weregenu.

There is nothing remotely exceptional about Weregenu. It is just another cluster of flimsy homes like many others around, and within, Addis Ababa. Nor is there much exceptional about the series of demolitions here over recent months. As the Ethiopian capital expands, it needs housing, rubbish dumps, space for factories. All land is theoretically owned by the government, merely leased by tenants, and when the government says go, you have to go. So Weregenu’s thousand or so inhabitants know they are living on borrowed time. All have been warned that the bulldozers will come back.

“No one told us why they wanted the land, except it is needed for development. We’ve been living there for years and years. I grew up there. Now we have to find somewhere else, or pay rent – and we can’t afford it.”

All over the developing world, there are people with similar stories. By 2050, according to the UN, over half of Africa’s population will live in cities, a much lower proportion than elsewhere in the world but twice as high as now. Ethiopia is one of the countries where urbanisation is moving fastest, and like elsewhere the process is placing massive strain on established political, economic and social systems. One result, as elsewhere, is violence.

The unrest in Ethiopia started in late 2015 with a small demonstration at a town where locals suspected officials of planning to build on a popular football pitch and a forest reserve. They rapidly intensified, prompting a brutal reaction from security forces. This prompted more protests and, inevitably, more brutality. By early autumn last year, several hundred people were dead and the unrest had become a full-blown political crisis.

Accounts of the violence are harrowing. Security forces have shot into crowds of unarmed schoolchildren, students and farmers. Footage of such incidents shows teenagers bleeding on the ground just metres from officials. Police have gone from house to house hunting suspected protesters, combed universities for activists who are then beaten with rifle butts or worse, and picked up any politicians suspected of dissent. Many detainees simply disappear. There is evidence of extra-judicial executions, while prisoners describe being kept for weeks in solitary confinement in dark cells, subjected to successive interrogations and beatings.

“I had no idea if it was day or night,” one prisoner, a musician held for weeks in prison in Addis Ababa last year, remembers. “I was interrogated for about two weeks, and punched or slapped. Then they tied my wrists together and hung me up by my arms from a hook. They hit my hands with sticks, breaking the bones. I passed out.”

When he regained consciousness, the 31-year-old was treated for his injuries and then held for a further two months in a “big hall, deep underground” where more than 100 detainees lived on water and bread, using a bucket for a toilet. He later fled overseas, where he spoke to the Guardian.

Many of the protesters were young, so a high proportion of those killed or injured were teenagers. Security forces targeted those who provided assistance or shelter to suspected activists, too. Parents, friends and schoolmates were detained to pressure fugitive children to turn themselves in. Two teenage athletes who defected while in South Africa for a competition last summer described how friends and relatives had subsequently been roughed up and detained. “They have been rounding them up,” one said.

The protests continued throughout last year at a rate of more than one a day. Some factories were burned, a few vehicles torched and occasional stones thrown. The government described the protesters as “armed gangs”. The numbers of dead or injured demonstrators mounted.

The final act came in October at Bishoftu, a city 35km from Addis Ababa, during a vast religious festival. When some among the crowd of hundreds of thousands began to raise slogans against the government, security forces moved in, firing tear gas and, some witnesses claim, live ammunition. In the stampede that followed, at least 100 died, according to western officials who watch Ethiopia. Activists claim the number was many times higher. The news prompted a new wave of protests. A state of emergency was declared, followed by mass arrests.

Ethiopia had long been held up as one of Africa’s star economic performers and an island of stability in an anarchic region. Though recent months have been calmer, the fallout from the unrest of the last two years may still dramatically change the history of one of the continent’s most important countries – and possibly the future of hundreds of millions of people across the entire continent. The questions posed by the crisis here are vital ones. Does the accelerating expansion of cities – from Algiers to Dar es Salaam, from Cairo to Kinshasa – inevitably mean violence? Will urban development heal existing tensions between communities in fragile nations or aggravate them? Could it be economic success, rather than failure, that brings revolution?

‘We are marginalised in everything’

Gataa, an activist, is slim, small, bespectacled and in his mid-40s. He is inconspicuous, sitting and sipping water in northern Addis Ababa while he talks softly of protest, death, detention and violence.

Gataa (not his real name) is an Oromo, the largest single ethnic group within Ethiopia, comprising 35-40% of the population. The Oromo have played the principal role in the recent unrest, suffered the most significant casualties and been arrested in the greatest number.

The primary grievance outlined by Gataa is that the Oromo have been oppressed for centuries by other ethnic groups in Ethiopia, first the Amhara, which comprise somewhere between 25-30% of the population, and, more recently, the Tigrayans, only 6%. Many Oromo, and others, say the current government is dominated by the Tigrayans, at least behind the scenes, who are also viewed as benefiting disproportionately from recent economic growth. Both charges are contested by officials and nuanced at least by many analysts and historians. But there is no doubt that there is a powerful Oromo identity and a strong sense of grievance.

“We are marginalised in everything,” says Gataa. “All the best jobs, the contracts, the power is with the others. It has always been this way.”

In 2014, municipal authorities in the capital had published a new strategic document outlining the future development of the city. In most places, this would be a mundane exercise attracting little attention. But for Gataa, and millions of others, “the Addis Ababa integrated zone master plan” was far from innocuous. Ethiopia is split into nine regions, each one for a different ethnicity, and two cities that run themselves. Addis Ababa is one of these, and is effectively an enclave within Oromia, the state of the Oromos. The state resembles a belt of territory straddling the country with Addis as the buckle. The “integrated zone” covered in the plan included a 1.1m hectare strip of land around the city, outside the current municipal boundaries. A glance at a map shows how the expansion of the Addis Ababa it described would have neatly bisected Oromia.

“It is a land grab, an eviction, a new invasion,” says Gataa. “This is Oromo land. Already we have been pushed to the outskirts of the city. Now they push us further so they can build and develop and construct. The farmers have to go. They get jobs on the construction sites on the land where they lived. There is no question of compensation, or any benefit. So what do you expect? Land is everything for the Oromo. It is our culture and identity. It is a matter of life and death.”

If discontent and resentment at the government cuts across all ethnic groups, the Oromo had a powerful narrative to frame their grievances – and to mobilise.

“This was a rallying cry,” says Gataa. Half a dozen activists in the influential Oromo diaspora – from the US to South Africa – echoed his words.

The masterplan of 2014 did not prompt immediate protests however. Officials say this is evidence that unrest was manufactured from overseas, a charge Oromo activists inside and outside Ethiopia deny. Either way, the protests rapidly left the original issue of the masterplan far behind, almost everyone interviewed for this article said. Many recent demonstrations have been in the Amhara region, where there are few Oromo, but similar frustrations.

“The masterplan was a trigger but not the cause,” says Gataa. “It seems calm now but under the surface much is happening. We are gathering our forces now. People are talking, meeting, organising. Now no one – not even the young people – is interested in [economic] growth. Once you have lost faith in the government, everything is dark for you.

“Am I afraid? Yes, but when those in the front line fall, others will take their place.”

That Addis Ababa is in dire need of planning is not in doubt. It was founded in 1886, by the emperor Menelik II, who is widely seen as the architect of modern Ethiopia and whose statue now towers over a busy roundabout in the capital’s scruffy, lively neighbourhood of Arada. In the 1930s, just before Italy’s short-lived occupation of Ethiopia, the British writer Evelyn Waugh described the city as being “in a rudimentary state of construction” with “half-finished buildings at every corner”. Just over 30 years later, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinsk told his readers of “the wooden scaffoldings scattered” about a city that resembled “a large village of a few hundred thousand, situated on hills amid eucalyptus groves”. The hills are still there, as is the wooden scaffolding, which is more practical in the heat and sun than its steel counterpart. The trees are gone.

The growth of Addis Ababa has been extraordinary. In 1974, when Haile Selassie was deposed in a military coup after 58 years as emperor and regent, its population was estimated to be half a million at most. By 1991, when the brutal “Derg” regime was finally ousted by rebel groups, there may have been double that number, living at around 2,300m in a dusty bowl below the Entoto hills. Today there are somewhere between 3.4 and five million people living in Addis Ababa. Most are without proper sanitation or clean water, many lack steady electricity, there is limited public transport and rubbish collection is grossly inadequate. The World Bank expects the city’s population to double over the next 10 to 15 years.

“This certainly raises some major challenges, as it would for any city,” says a UN official who has worked on urban issues in the city. Some forecast a population of 35 million by the end of the century. So one would imagine that any effort to put in place a strategic plan to manage that expansion would have been welcomed.

‘A climate of fear’

Aster lost her house in the demolitions of Werengenu village. She is now living, along with her HIV positive mother and her teenage daughter, on the floor of a neighbour’s two-roomed home.

“What do you think we feel? I had a legal lease to this land,” she says, standing in the rubble of her home. “I built my house here long ago. I have friends, neighbours, relatives here. It’s a community. Where do I go know? These officials, they do not care about ordinary people. The government just work for themselves.”

When anyone is prepared to talk, and has checked over their shoulder to see who is listening, this a common charge