About a year ago today I was in my office in Bahir Dar when something caught my attention. It was the sound of a crowd getting closer and closer. Looking out of the window, we could see hundreds of people – children, youngsters, elderly, men and women – walking towards the city’s Regional Council located amidst green ficus trees in a spot just before a bridge crosses the River Abay, also known as the Nile. The crowd was peaceful, chanting songs and some of them holding neem tree leaves, some pictures of Jesus in their hands. The protest was over a piece of religious land that was going to be converted into a new asphalt road.
Some minutes later we could hear the first gunshots. Then came a sound I will never forget, the sound of a screaming crowd, all now running towards the direction where they had originally come from. The gunshots went on. During all of this, I was looking at it from my office window, having this strange sickening feeling of for the first time witnessing violence of this sort.
I was taken out of the office at this point, to the safety of my own home. Later on I heard from some friends that after the gunshots had come an even worse kind of violence, performed by special security groups who beat people, even those already lying on the ground. We heard that at least five protesters had been killed.
I felt bad for days, couldn’t really grasp what had happened. I felt shocked over what I had seen. Violence makes me sick. Then came the moral ponderings. How was my work as an aid worker justified in this country, if such things are happening right under our nose, and yet there is nothing we can do to change them? And what about Ethiopians? How do they deal with the feelings caused by such events? What I found was a certain numbness to it all: I had gotten used to Ethiopian friends whispering when they referred to politics, and talking about elections as a joke, not as a means for change.
I didn’t blog about what I had seen, I didn’t have the courage, because as an aid worker I had been given one official guideline: do not interfere in politics. But not speaking out also made me feel like a coward.
I am writing this because now Ethiopia is (again) in the news for violent protests. This time the protests have taken place between the country’s largest national group, Oromos, and the government forces. There has been a rising tension between these two as Oromos have lost their lands to an expanding capital. Many protesters have reportedly been killed. According to the officials the protesters are the ones causing havoc.
What’s going on, Ethiopia?
On one hand we have the story of a country with double-digit economic growth. Yes, I have seen this Ethiopia. I love this Ethiopia. There is ambition and belief in the future. There are growing cities and new buildings and roads and things are getting better in a lot of places.
On the other hand we have the story of a country in which economic growth does not benefit a big portion of the country’s huge population. A large number of young people feel like the future is not theirs for the taking, their sense of optimism fading as they realize there are no jobs despite years spent studying. Some are losing their lands.
I realize Ethiopians are sick and tired of the image that has been created of them by the West. By singing ‘Do they know it’s christmas’ over and over again we have painted an image of a disease infested poor country which is doomed to fail. This is not the Ethiopia I know and we in the west should feel ashamed for reinforcing these stereotypes of Africa.
I also realize the world is not black and white. Believe me, this is the number one lesson I learnt during my two years in Ethiopia.
These stories we read about protests can also be questioned. We can hear questions like: aren’t the protesters the ones terrorizing? Do we really know what’s going on? What if the police forces were only defending themselves? Are these kind of news just part of a plan to impose the western doctrine of democracy on African nations?
We can go on with these debates.
However, after what I saw in Bahir Dar in December 2014 I am sceptical towards the official statements. I believe there is a better way for Ethiopia and this is not it. For a country to prosper in the long run, there needs to be space for criticizing those in power. Those in power should be open to scrutiny. That is part of their job.
And those in power turning on their own people? Those in power using violence as a means to silence people? That can never be accepted. Not in Finland, or in Ethiopia.