Reports confirm a minor but growing labor, teacher, and student unrest in Ethiopia. In November, workers at Matahara and Wanji sugar factories went on a strike. It took the intervention of police to contain about 1000 workers who blocked the main road between Dire Dawa and Adama. The blockade was immediately cleared according to the report. The grievances centered on wages, the increasing cost of living, and inflationary pressures. In related news, a sugarcane farm was torched, costing the government-owned sugar monopoly millions in lost revenue. Although the motives were unknown, finger is pointed at political agitation in the restive Oromia region, the country’s most populous.
On December 9, 2010, students in Awaday town of Eastern Oromia clashed with police and local administrators. It is not clear what caused the skirmish but at least three students sustained minor injuries. Reportedly, the town’s mayor was roughed up by students, remniscent of a similar incident in Sululta, Central Oromia, where residents physically beat and chased away city officials accused of corrupt real estate practices two months earlier. The sale of land expropriated from subsistence farmers at dirt cheap prices to ruling party loyalists from the diaspora and wealthy foreign investors is said to be at the root of a growing popular grievance.
On Friday New Years Eve, as the rest of the world prepared to welcome a new year, the town of Adama witnessed a rally. The protest was quickly smoldered by the police before some of the town’s folks even heard about the news. The grievances also revolved around economic issues.
On Tuesday, the 4th of January, student disturbance was reported in the Arat Killo neighborhood of the capital as well as the bustling commercial district of Markato.
By later today the unrest has reportedly reached Sidist Kilo, the main campus of Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia’s premier institution for higher education. Eyewitnesses passing by campus saw the Sidist Kilo ringed by heavily armed police, part of the rapid reaction force.
The protests are not confined to Oromia. Unconfirmed reports indicate teachers in the southern nations and nationalities region have gone on strike on account of unpaid allowances.
Historically students have been harbingers of larger social and political upheavals in Ethiopia. In recent years, student uprisings have become a common trend in Ethiopia, especially the Oromia region where students have been periodically staged protests against human rights violations in the country until suppressed in late 2006 through a heavy-handed response by the federal police. The fact that labor and teachers, however sporadic and disorganized, has joined with open discontents reflects a deepening economic troubles and demonstrate underlying socio-political tensions.
The spike in the cost of basic necessities such as food prices has stoked worries of an economic malaise, particularly among the burgeoning urban population. Last year’s controversial decision to devalue the birr against the dollar has seen the price of the latter skyrocket to 17, an increase of 30%. Whereas the ruling party touts a rapid economic growth, grassroots activists complain that while the few with government connections have prospered beyond measure, the plight of the large majority of the population has actually deteriorated. Not a few economists dismiss the high growth rate and further claim that the economic figures used by the government are cooked up to bolster sagging political support.