Ostensibly intended to quell unrest perpetrated by “anti-peace” forces, Ethiopia’s extension of a state of emergency in March signals a continued crackdown on the country’s restive and aggrieved population. This repression disproportionately affects 65 million Ethiopian youth, who make up more than two-thirds of the country’s total population. Such brutality has increasingly left these young people—Ethiopia’s greatest asset or, conversely, a massive liability—a choice between two dangerous options: escape or rebel.
As is the case elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopia’s youth bulge is a double-edged sword. It strains scant natural resources and limited infrastructure, but, if harnessed, could be a boon to the country’s economy and the foreign companies looking to outsource operations there. But the government’s stubborn refusal to reform undermines prospects for its increasingly educated and connected youth to stay and prosper in Ethiopia. Moreover, the violent nature of the government’s clampdown has extinguished nearly all avenues for youth to legally and peacefully express their grievances, creating the conditions for violent rebellion.
Young Ethiopians are increasingly able to afford and access the internet, where they flock to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, or connect with friends and relatives on messaging applications like WhatsApp. Access to mobile data has given even Ethiopia’s rural youth a window into the political transformations taking place across the Middle East and Africa, as well as across their own country since sporadic protests began last year. The internet also serves as a conduit to broadcast malfeasance by the country’s security forces—social media was a key tool for disseminating photos and videos of the bloody crackdown on protesters to the diaspora and international activist organizations. That explains why the government has so frequently blocked the internet.
Since April 2014, Ethiopians have been taking to the streets intermittently to demand political reforms and express their discontent over issues like ethnic marginalization, insufficient land rights, corruption, and the government’s ruthless suppression of independent media and opposition groups. What started as a movement led by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, quickly metastasized to include a coalition that crossed regional, ethnic and religious lines.
Momentum peaked last fall, when demonstrations occurred in at least 200 towns across Oromia region and dozens more in Amhara. Ethiopians of all ages turned out, though students were especially well-represented in organizing and participating in the protests. Moreover, most of those killed in the bloody aftermath were youth.
Such brutality has increasingly left young people—Ethiopia’s greatest asset or, conversely, a massive liability—a choice between two dangerous options: escape or rebel.
In response to the unrest, security forces fired live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators, provoking a deadly stampede in at least one case. Rumors of security forces raiding houses in the dead of night or bursting into classrooms to look for the protest ringleaders swirled; gruesome images of bloodied protesters, some allegedly found murdered, circulated on social media.
In October, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced a six-month state of emergency, granting sweeping powers to the police and military to quell the unrest. In an apparent win for demonstrators, the government simultaneously announced that it would enter dialogue with Ethiopia’s opposition groups to identify key political reforms. However, little progress has emerged from those talks, and the opposition’s participation appears shakier every day.
The past year’s unrest coupled with internet blackouts has damaged Ethiopia’s reputation as a haven for foreign investment, which previously contributed to some of the highest annual growth rates in Africa. But providing alternative opportunities for Ethiopia’s urban-dwelling college graduates—who find agriculture, the mainstay of Ethiopia’s economy, unappealing—remains a pressing challenge in a country where urban unemployment is already 18 percent.
Ethiopians, like other African migrants, already undertake the dangerous journey to Europe or the Gulf to join friends and relatives and to seek employment. While government repression has caused thousands to seek asylum outside the country, economic conditions have had the same result—so much so that the United Kingdom, European Union and World Bank announced a $500 million project to create jobs and stem migration from Ethiopia in 2016. Young people, and especially high-skilled workers, make up a worryingly large portion of this migration.
To date, Ethiopia has successfully fended off the kind of open conflict seen in neighboring South Sudan and Somalia. It has also successfully immunized itself against the Islamist terrorism that bedevils Somalia and Kenya, and there is little evidence to suggest that Ethiopia’s Muslim community is open to the radical ideology of either al-Qaida or al-Shabab. The brutal murder of more than a dozen Ethiopian migrants by the so-called Islamic State in Libya last year, for example, prompted overwhelming national anger and mourning.
Ethiopia has also resisted attempts by secessionist movements seeking to impose their political agendas through violence. Long-running but low-level insurgent campaigns continue in the country’s hinterlands, though the military in concert with regional militias have for the most part neutralized those threats. The military remains on high alert for sporadic flare-ups along the Eritrean border, which broke away from Ethiopia after a deadly three-decades-long war and remains an uneasy neighbor.
A large and capable military, strong border controls, advanced surveillance capabilities and an extensive human intelligence network have been integral to Ethiopia’s success in preventing both terrorism and homegrown rebellions. But too often, the Ethiopian government conflates legal political opposition or activism with membership in banned groups, allowing security forces and Ethiopia’s courts to treat all demonstrators as terrorists. Doing so exacerbates decades of ethnic, religious and political marginalization. In the end, these tactics may create the very rebellion they seek to quash.
A recent series of grenade attacks that targeted a university and two hotels follow an unsolved 2015 grenade attack on an Addis Ababa mosque that killed more than a dozen people. Should the Ethiopian government continue to dismiss nationwide discontent, these now-isolated violent incidents could become the new normal. Time is running out for the government to prove its interest in listening to its aggrieved youth—and the consequences of not doing so are dire.
Kelsey Lilley is associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.