BURAYU, Ethiopia — There are creeping signs of tension in this small town on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the capital. Small groups of federal police officers prowl the streets, eyeing taxi stands and coffee shops. On a side road near the town center, a rectangle of black soot and a single burst tire mark the site where a bus recently went up in flames.
One resident, who asked that his identity not be revealed because he feared persecution for speaking openly, said this whole town had been on edge, especially after the security forces quickly quelled a protest this week.
“There are rumors that two students died, but we don’t know their names because the government uses different ways to keep its actions secret,” he said.
Since late November, dozens of violent confrontations have erupted in towns across Ethiopia’s central Oromia region, home to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. Merera Gudina, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress opposition party, estimates that at least 50 people have been killed in clashes with security personnel over the past few weeks, affecting dozens of towns across Oromia.
This protest movement is “far, far bigger” than anything the country has experienced since the governing party came to power in 1991, Mr. Merera contended. In towns outside the capital, witnesses have reported fatalities, ransacked buildings and gunfire.
Protesters and opposition party members say they are fighting against an urban plan — commonly referred to as the master plan — that would link infrastructure development in Addis Ababa with that of surrounding towns in Oromia, including Burayu. Critics say the plan threatens the sovereignty of Oromo communities.
“The request of the Oromo people is this: Do not expand Addis into Oromia,” said the Burayu resident who asked that his name not be disclosed.
Ethiopia has claimed double-digit economic growth rates over the past decade and is pursuing an ambitious development agenda to become an industrialized nation and step away from the poverty that has dogged it for centuries.
But the government has been accused of authoritarianism, and in a telling sign of its dominance, the governing Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies won all 547 parliamentary seats in national elections in May.
Getachew Reda, a government spokesman, said that citizens had the right to question the master plan, but he added that the demonstrations had been co-opted by people looking to incite violence.
“Elements trying to take advantage of the misunderstanding now have reached the point where they are organizing armed gangs and routinely burning down buildings belonging to private citizens, along with government installations,” he said.
Mr. Merera conceded that some protesters had resorted to violence but accused the government of vastly exaggerating the problem in order to discredit the movement, especially since so many longstanding grievances were fueling the unrest.
“People are frustrated to live under this government, frustrated with the election, frustrated with their local governments, frustrated with their whole lives,” he said.
The central government presides over a federalist system that, on paper, ensures equal rights for the more than 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. But many Oromo activists complain of political and socioeconomic marginalization that stretches back generations. The master plan has become a rallying cause.
“The government has admitted that it didn’t do enough to introduce the master plan,” said Hallelujah Lulie, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa. “However, beyond the issue of the proposed master plan, the protests are caused by broader issues, including the proper implementation of federalism and the capital’s relationship with the Oromo community that surrounds it. The movement, which is informed by historic injustices, also targets bad governance and calls for respect for human and political rights.”
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