5 September 2016

The Sources of Unrest in Ethiopia

Sept. 1, 2016
The instability is rooted in internal divisions that the government has failed to address.
Over the past three months, Ethiopia has experienced violent internal unrest in the Amhara, Oromia and Somali regions, each of which has a different reason for protesting. These protests are a continuation in a pattern of unrest caused by endemic ethnic tension and separatist movements. Potential instability in Ethiopia is concerning because it is a major U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa and one of the largest economies on the continent. 

This week’s Deep Dive is a follow-up on one of the items listed on our recently introduced Mid-Term Taskings related to unrest in Ethiopia. Waves of violent internal unrest throughout the country have swelled over the past three months. Three separate conflicts are currently playing out. However, our assessment is that they do not appear capable of deposing the current government due to a lack of cohesion among the protesting groups and U.S. interests in maintaining stability in Ethiopia, which has led the U.S. to support Ethiopia’s government.
Why Ethiopia Is Significant
Ethiopia is one of the most important countries in Africa in terms of size, military and location. With 99.4 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest African country by population. Its military ranks as the third most powerful, according to the Global Firepower Index, and its GDP is the eighth highest, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country has also enjoyed rapid growth over the past 10 years, averaging an annual growth rate of 10.66 percent, which makes it a leader among emerging economies.
Ethiopia’s location in East Africa is very strategic for several reasons. First, the headwaters of the Nile River, a vital source of freshwater in the region, are located in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa can, in theory, unilaterally control the flow of water through the Nile River. This poses a huge strategic risk to Egypt and Sudan, which depend heavily on the river for freshwater. Currently, Ethiopia is in the process of constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the river, which has stirred controversy in Egypt and Sudan. Negotiations over the dam and its impact will be vital for Egypt’s stability and economy.

Second, Ethiopia lies in close proximity to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. While landlocked, Ethiopia has access to these waterways through ports located in neighboring countries. These bodies of water serve as key trade routes to the East African coast, South Asia and the Mediterranean. Today, these waterways hold particular importance because they allow oil to be shipped from the Persian Gulf to the West.

Third, Ethiopia is a predominantly Christian country in a region dominated by Islam. The Kingdom of Aksum, which preceded modern-day Ethiopia, adopted Christianity in the fourth century and was one of the first areas to do so. The natural geographic barriers surrounding this kingdom allowed Christianity to thrive despite the introduction of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries and the subsequent rise of successive Muslim empires.

Due to the strategic values listed above, the stability of Ethiopia is key to maintaining stability in other parts of East Africa and to U.S. strategy against Islamist jihadists in the Horn of Africa.

Understanding the Domestic Unrest

Ethiopia’s political administration is divided into nine regions and two administrative cities (one of which is the capital, Addis Ababa). Three of these regions – Amhara, Oromia and Somali – are experiencing massive violent unrest and clashes between local communities and national government security forces. The official reasons media report for the unrest are the change in administrative boundaries in Amhara, Addis Ababa’s plans for industrial zoning expansion that threaten farmers in Oromia and Islamist terrorist threats in Somali.

However, the real reasons for unrest are far more deeply rooted in…

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