Ethiopia admitted on Tuesday that the death toll from 11 months of anti-government protests might have exceeded 500 but warned that so-called “extremist violent groups” would be dealt with forcefully.
However, Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister, did acknowledge at a press conference in Addis Ababa with Angela Merkel, the visiting German chancellor, that the political system needed reform.
The ruling coalition has been in power for 25 years and controls every seat in parliament. Its authoritarian approach to governing has been blamed for exacerbating growing discontent across one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Mr Hailemariam said there had been at least 170 deaths in the region of Oromia and another 120 in Amhara since demonstrations began last November. But he said: “When you add it up it could be more than 500.”
Before Tuesday, the authorities had declined to give a death toll, although they did accept that 55 people died when security forces tried to disperse a thousands-strong crowd at a religious festival in Bishoftu that had turned into a protest earlier this month.
Human rights groups believe the death toll is at least 500, while anti-government activists say it is more than double that.
The protests began over opposition to government plans to extend Addis Ababa’s administration into Oromia. The scheme was shelved but the unrest has escalated in response to the government’s harsh crackdown. In recent weeks, foreign investors have become targets because they are seen as lending legitimacy to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
On Sunday, the government imposed a six-month state of emergency to give security forces greater powers to suppress the protests.
Mr Hailemariam said that any excessive use of force by the security forces would be investigated but stressed that the death toll was not important.
“The point is not the number, the point is [that] we should engage with extremist violent groups in a proportionate manner,” he said.
The government has also blamed unspecified groups in Eritrea and Egypt for supporting the protests.
Vibrant democracy needs opposition, it needs free media. People want to express their views
John Ashworth, an economist with Capital Economics in London, warned in a research note on Tuesday that “there is a clear risk that an escalation in violence poses a serious threat to Ethiopia’s economy”.
Ms Merkel, who was in Ethiopia as part of her three-nation African visit focused on addressing terrorism and migration from Africa to Europe, said the Ethiopian government “had to have open talks with people who have problems” in order to flourish.
“Vibrant democracy needs opposition, it needs free media,” she said. “People want to express their views.”
German officials said that Ms Merkel had declined an offer to address the Ethiopian parliament, citing the lack of opposition MPs.
The chancellor offered the Ethiopian police training from Germany in the use of appropriate force.
The Ethiopian prime minister, who has been in office since 2012, said there were not greater freedoms in the country because “our democratisation process is still nascent”. “We want to go further in opening up political space and engagement with civil society groups,” he said.
Opposition activists and rights groups say that such statements have been made regularly but little reform has materialised. Many opposition groups are banned, the media is heavily controlled and the internet is regularly shut down.
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