At their campus in the farmland west of Ethiopia’s capital, the students of Ambo University attend lectures, play soccer and worry about which of their classmates is spying on them.
It was not long ago that Ambo and other towns in Ethiopia’s Oromia region were wracked by antigovernment protests so fierce parliament declared a state of emergency in October last year.
The decree stopped the unrest — and while fear of arrest or death at the hands of security forces has kept protesters off the streets — their anger is as raw as ever.
“We are just living day-to-day life in a situation of being afraid of everything,” a 23-year-old Ambo University student who took part in the demonstrations told reporters while sitting in an empty field above the town, the only place he felt safe from government informants.
Sporadic demonstrations have continued to erupt, despite the state of emergency and, were it to expire as scheduled next month, several Oromia residents believe the unrest would resume.
“It’s a fire under ashes,” a judge in a district near Ambo said of the protests.
As with many people interviewed, the judge and the student spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has dominated Ethiopia since 1991 with promises to bring development to one of the continent’s poorest nations.
While poverty and infant mortality rates have plunged under its rule, the EPRDF is accused by rights groups of running an iron-fisted government that rigs elections and trumps up charges against opposition politicians in a bid to maintain power.
“The military, the economy, education, all institutions are controlled by the government,” said Getachew Metaferia, a political science professor at Morgan State University in Maryland.
A government proposal to expand the Addis Ababa city limits into Oromia provided the spark that ignited years of simmering rage among the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group.
Denouncing the plan as a land grab, the Oromo began protesting in November 2015, barricading roads and burning down government buildings and factories.
A crackdown on the unrest that spread to the neighboring Amhara region left more than 940 people dead, according to two reports released by the government’s human rights commission.
As the bodycount rose, parliament declared a state of emergency that banned meetings and gave police the power to hold suspected protesters indefinitely.
That meant that even in villages in Oromia, police would arrest people just for walking together, the judge said.
Across the country, arrests topped 11,000 with many shipped off to “re-education” camps in far-flung towns.
At Ambo University, dozens of students dropped out, while informants infiltrated the student body and reported any dissenting voices to security forces on campus.
Those who are arrested are often forced to summon any like-minded friends who also end up detained, the 23-year-old student said.
However the protesters are undeterred and have turned to Facebook to communicate and share news with each other, circumventing a social media ban imposed during the height of the unrest.
They stormed the streets of Ambo in March after the state of emergency was extended by four months, resulting in 33 arrests, and again last month.
In the Amhara region, grenades have been thrown at hotels.
A political analyst at a Western embassy in Addis Ababa said the attacks are likely related to the protests that occurred in that region last year.
Ethiopia’s government believes reforms, including a Cabinet reshuffle and dialogue with journalists and opposition politicians, have calmed the countryside.
“Everyone can speak with everyone they want, as long as it doesn’t affect other people,” Ethiopian Deputy Minister of Communications Zadig Abraha said, denying the deployment of spies. “We want our people to be free, to be innovative, to move our economy ahead.”
While agreeing that the government has made genuine attempts to change, the analyst said the number and diversity of the protesters’ demands have stymied administrators.
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