Strikes Spread in Tense Ethiopian Region as Tillerson Visits

Strikes protesting Ethiopia’s state of emergency spread across the restive Oromia region ahead of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s arrival for talks with the Horn of Africa nation’s embattled government.

The closing of shops and roads by members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group is the latest sign of discontent in Oromia state, where unrest has prompted the country’s second state of emergency in two years. Tillerson is due in Ethiopia this week as part of his first government visit to sub-Saharan Africa, less than a month after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned.

More than two years of protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions have left hundreds of people dead, while recent conflict between the Oromia and Somali regions has forced over 900,000 people from their homes. Combined, they pose the largest challenge to Ethiopia’s ruling coalition since it took power a quarter-century ago.

Tillerson’s visit will look at “the problems in the Oromia and the Somali regions,” Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto said in a teleconference.

Youth in the sprawling Oromia territory, which surrounds the capital, Addis Ababa, announced three days of strikes Monday to protest the emergency measures that Ethiopia’s parliament ratified without meeting a required two-thirds quorum, said Bekane Tadese, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University.

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Strike Widespread

“Government offices are closed,” Bekane said. “Shops and businesses are closed. All forms of transport on the main road are blocked. Qeero, or youth, have blocked roads with all possible means like using stones or trees.”

Musa Ali, a chief elder responsible for part of eastern Oromia, said by phone that the strike is being widely observed in the region. Tiruneh Gemeta, a member of the executive committee of the Oromo Federalist Congress, a legal opposition party, also said the action was widespread.

The strikes began in western Oromia and spread east and to other parts of the region including an area south of Addis Ababa, according to Farid Issayas, chairman of the opposition Oromia Liberation National Party. “It’s spontaneous. It’s been called for and well organised by the Qeero, but nobody knows how. This is the voice not of a single party but the voice of the whole Oromo people.”

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Information Minister Negeri Lencho, Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa, and Addisu Arega, Oromia’s spokesman, didn’t respond to three calls and three text messages each seeking comment on the strike. The ruling party-linked Ethiopian Broadcasting Corp. reported Monday that transport links and shops were closed in places including western and eastern Oromia, citing residents.

The state of emergency forbids rallies and public meetings without permission, strikes and absence from work “without enough reason,” Fana Broadcasting Corp., which is funded by the ruling party, reported. The government also declared illegal any “intentional under-performance,” disruption of transport services, social-media posts and distribution of publications that could incite violence.

A Tuesday directive from Attorney General Getachew Ambaye authorizes police and security forces to “take proportionate measures” including detention and searches without warrant to protect themselves and investment institutions from attacks and to “ensure the wellbeing of the people,” Fana said.

Ethiopia, Africa’s fastest-growing economy over the past decade, is a key regional U.S. ally in its battle against al-Qaeda in the region.

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