Six soldiers burst into Beckham’s dormitory at Gondar university in northern Ethiopia one evening without pausing to question the student.
“They grabbed me and beat me so hard, I’d have preferred it if they had killed me,” the undergraduate says of the November raid.
Beckham’s crime was to share with the world, via a diaspora network, how 104 other Ethiopian students had been detained for complaining about conditions on campus.
Despite the beating, the smiling Ethiopian, who is studying applied science, considers himself lucky because he is still alive.
Beckham was held in a police station rather than a military camp, unlike many of the tens of thousands of people detained under a state of emergency imposed last October to contain anti-government protests.
“After a few weeks the police let me go. They seemed to sympathise with our cause,” says Beckham, who asked to use the name of his favourite footballer for fear of reprisals.
Beckham is among hundreds of thousands who joined protests over the past two years in the biggest threat to the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front since it seized power 26 years ago. The autocratic government has responded with force, sending troops and police to break up protests, in which more than 500 people have been killed, imposing the state of emergency and rounding up tens of thousands.
It has vowed to crush any threat to its economic model, which has been lauded by development experts and helped lure billions of dollars to one of Africa’s best-performing economies. Yet the protests have underlined the fragility of the economic success. They spread from Oromia region in the centre to the northern highlands around Gondar, for generations the seat of imperial power, drawing in Ethiopia’s biggest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara.
Human rights groups, domestic and foreign, have documented repeated and widespread abuses by the security forces. They also reported increasing use of violence by the opposition, particularly before the emergency was imposed.
Protesters’ grievances include a lack of democracy, repressive rule, limited job opportunities and the dominance of the Tigrayan ethnic group, which accounts for 6 per cent of the population, in the state and ruling coalition.
“We have no freedom and no prospects unless we join a party in the EPRDF,” Beckham says. “We need change and so we have to fight for it however we can.”
Raised in the city of Ambo, 120km west of Addis Ababa in Oromia, Beckham, who is in his 20s, has experienced the manner in which the EPRDF crushes dissent.
The unrest began in early 2014 when the government announced it wanted to extend the capital Addis Ababa into Oromia. Locals considered it a land grab and protested.
“In Ambo 72 people were killed on one day,” Beckham says of a demonstration in April 2014. “I was there and saw them shot [by soldiers].”
The authorities say the highest number of fatalities in Ambo on any day during that period was eight.
Stung by the level of anger, the government offered to negotiate with the Oromo over the Addis Ababa master plan. No deal was reached and 18 months later, in November 2015, protesters took to the streets again.
Beckham was then studying in Gondar, 730km north of Addis Ababa, but rushed back to Ambo after his 16-year-old brother was killed by soldiers in one of the first protests.
“He had been shot once in the heart and hit on the head with a stick,” he says. “It was difficult to identify if it was him or someone else because he was beaten so badly.”
The capital expansion was scrapped but the protests morphed into a wider anti-government movement and spread north.
A further source of discontent was the annexation of Welkait, once part of Amhara, into Tigray more than two decades ago. Protests flared in Gondar in July after Tigrayan police tried to arrest Demeke Zewdu, a former colonel and leader of the self-styled Welkait Committee, which has agitated for the area’s return to Amhara.
“About 300,000 people took to the streets of Gondar when they tried to arrest Colonel Demeke and everything went from there,” says a university lecturer who asked to be called Sufi Seid. “For about 20 days shops did not open as a sign of protest and demonstrations continued.”
“In Gondar and a couple of other towns that I know of about 120 people were killed and many many were arrested,” says a café owner.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, said in November the death toll since November 2015 might be 500. His ministers admit that more than 20,000 have been detained. Activists say those are huge underestimates.
The emergency has brought a semblance of calm to Gondar, although grenade blasts rocked two hotels last month and violence has been reported in nearby towns.
“The protests have not gone away. People are just waiting because they don’t want to get into trouble,” Beckham says. “And nothing is being done to address the roots of the problem. So some people are now fighting back with weapons.”
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