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Protests Over Potential ‘Land Grab’ by Ethiopian Government Turns Deadly

anti-isis-protestHuman Rights Watch says as many as 75 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces in confrontations. The government acknowledges only five deaths.

What’s at stake is the use of land in the Oromia region, home to the country’s largest ethnic group. They are disturbed by expansion plans for Addis Ababa, the capital. But in the last few days the protests have grown in size, and in grievance — and the government’s crackdown has become more violent.

We asked our East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner some questions:

What’s happening in Ethiopia?

The big picture here is that the world’s population is growing and there’s a big push for food and farmland. Something like 60 percent of available arable land is in Africa. And in Ethiopia, the government has been leasing large parcels of land to foreign investors from China and India and the Middle East. The government is legally allowed to do this. It owns all the land in Ethiopia. But critics call it ‘land grabbing’. They say that people are being violently displaced from their ancestral lands. There’s a big ethnic component as well in terms of who is affected.

The spark of the protests was provided last month when a forest was being cleared for development. The protests coalesced in opposition to the government’s so-called “master plan” to expand development of Addis Ababa into surrounding farmland. The government claims that this ‘master plan’ is actually on hold. But since then, the protests have spread to other towns in the Oromia region, and they’re not just about the ‘master plan’ but about a range of issues particular to this group.

What makes these protests different?

From footage posted on social media, these protests seem to be much larger and more diverse than previous protests. The protests have not been without violence — police stations have been torched and some foreign-owned farms have been looted.

But the biggest difference so far is the government’s response. Instead of leaving the regional police to handle these protests, they’ve sent in the feared Anti Terrorism Task Force. The military has also allegedly fired live rounds into groups of protesters, increasing the death toll. The government disputes this.

The asymmetrical nature of the response has been criticized by the United States — the State Department released a statement early Saturday urging the government of Ethiopia to permit peaceful protests.

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