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Trump, Ethiopia: Neither is Normal

November 29, 2016
By: Elizabeth Fraser

In the weeks since Donald Trump was elected, many have focused on the need to not normalize the man, his words, or his actions.1

This call is vital. We cannot normalize having someone in the White House who has become the very face of bigotry, islamophobia, white supremacy, misogyny, and contempt for the environment.

Ethiopian army soldiers monitoring Suri people during a festival in Kibish. Credit: Oakland Institute.
Ethiopian army soldiers monitoring Suri people during a festival in Kibish. Credit: Oakland Institute.

This call has also got me thinking about the many times and ways that normalization gets in the way of real change. One country that comes to mind is Ethiopia.

One Year Anniversary of Oromo Protests Against Land Grabs

November marked the one year anniversary of the start of mass protests in Ethiopia’s Oromo region. The protests began in reaction to a proposed land grab by the government in order to expand the borders of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Land grabbing in the name of “development” is not new to Ethiopia, and previous grabs have involved widespread human rights abuses. So, it was a major victory when this particular land grab was successfully defeated. But the protests didn’t stop. Instead, they expanded into calls for human rights, democracy, and justice, and spread across the country.

These protests are a reaction to an authoritarian state that has oppressed people for years; a state that has cracked down on freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion; a state that has jailed students, political opposition members, land rights defenders, religious leaders, journalists and more for raising their voices; a state that received 100 percent of the seats in a supposedly “democratic” election; and much more.2

Ethiopian Government's Response: Bloodshed and Brutality

Sadly, the protests have been met with bloodshed and brutality. In early October 2016, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn admitted that 500 protesters had been killed by security forces in previous months. This came one week after the Irreechaa tragedy which took between fifty-two and several hundred lives and one month after a fire at the Kilinto prison left dozens dead. Days later, the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency that included a laundry list of curtailed freedoms.

For a few weeks around the state of emergency, it felt as if all eyes were finally on Ethiopia. US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski penned a scathing op-ed that called the abuses perpetrated by the Ethiopian government “self-defeating tactics.” Social media exploded with images, videos, and reports from the ground. A Human Rights Resolution was put before the US Congress, one of Ethiopia’s largest donors.

But in recent days the international outrage appears to have shifted.

While the Ethiopian government continues to crackdown, Germany has lifted its travel ban to the country. Diplomats are allowed to travel outside of Addis Ababa. The World Bank has gone back to publishing articles on so-called climate smart agriculture. Civil society groups are organizing a conference on changing food systems in Africa later this month. The list goes on.

Trump, Ethiopia: Not the Time to Normalize

“Not normal” is happening all over the world, and looking away is not an option.

But things in Ethiopia are far from normal. In mid-November, the government released a list of over 11,600 people who were arrested in the first six weeks of the state of emergency. Mobile internet is frequently turned off across the country, and social media sites remain blocked. You can still be arrested for crossing your hands above your head, discussing the situation with outsiders, or listening to diaspora radio and TV. At the same time, the Ethiopian government has gone out of its way to issue diatribes against the work of the Oakland Institute and Human Rights Watch,3 and, according to The Hill, even mocked the potential of the US House Resolution on human rights in Ethiopia to pass.

There has been nothing normal about the political, social and economic situation in Ethiopia for years. But this past year has seen things get far worse, with increasing state violence and restrictions on basic human rights.

The world is calling on us to stand up for a lot of things right now. As we work to keep from normalizing Trump, let us extend this standard to all of our work. “Not normal” is happening all over the world, and looking away is not an option.