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In Ethiopia, 2016 is off to a violent start. Authorities in the East African nation have killed at least 140 people in a brutal crackdown on protests over the last two-and-a-half months, according to human rights groups, amounting to the worst ethnic violence in years.
The violence has brought renewed attention to the struggle over land rights and political tensions in the country and it has highlighted rights abuses in a nation deemed an important U.S. ally in the fight against terror.
Anger Mounts In Oromia In The Fall Of 2015.
In November 2015, discontent intensified in Ethiopia's Oromia region over a government plan to expand the borders of the country's capital, Addis Ababa, into the surrounding rural areas.
Protesters marched to voice their opposition, fearing that the state's Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan, as the proposal is called, would seize land from the Oromia region's marginalized Oromo ethnic group, which makes up around 35 percent of Ethiopia's population. The area of Oromia that the city seeks to incorporate is already home to two million people, according to Human Rights Watch.
The protesters' fears were informed by years of deep discontent with the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. Though the nation's capital of Addis Ababa is surrounded by the ethnic Oromia region, the city was established by the Amhara people, The Washington Post notes. As the city expanded, there have been clashes over forcible evictions, as well as ethnic and linguistic identity. Furthermore, the authoritarian government has a history of attempting to stamp out dissent, especially among ethnic groups it views as being in opposition to its ruling coalition.
Over 5,000 Oromos have been arrested on charges relating to protests and dissent in the past five years, according to an Amnesty International report. Oromos who were detained were sometimes subject to horrific abuse, including rape, torture and beatings.
Security Forces Respond Forcefully
Demonstrations spread throughout the Oromia region over the course of November, as groups including farmers and students rallied against the government.
Ethiopian authorities responded to the largely peaceful protests with force, seeking to quash the growing dissent. Police used live ammunition to disperse protesters at rallies, activists and rights groups say, killing dozens of people in separate incidents in the areas around Addis Ababa.
As the unrest continued through December, rights groups also reported widespread arrests, beatings and torture at the hands of security services. Even senior members of opposition parties, including Bekele Gerba, a prominent member of the Oromo Federalist Congress -- the largest Oromo political party -- did not escape the crackdown.
And The Protests Escalate.
The security forces' crackdown on demonstrators failed to prevent the protest movement from intensifying -- it actually expanded its demands to also call for an end to police brutality. As of the end of December, over 140 people had been killed in the protests, according to Human Rights Watch -- and the rising death toll began to attract international criticism.
The United States, which has collaborated with Ethiopia on anti-terror efforts and until last September operated a drone base out of the country, issued a statement of concern and called for the government to allow peaceful protests.
Instead of moving toward reconciliation, however, the government doubled down on its position. Authorities denied protesters' requests to hold rallies in Addis Ababa and accused the Oromo protesters of committing terrorism in a bid to destabilize the government.
As demonstrations continued, the Ethiopian government finally caved to the months of pressure on Jan. 13, and scrapped its expansion plan.
While the protests met their initial goal of stopping the urban expansion, demonstrators have been invigorated by the crackdown and have continued to rally against the government.
"The complaints of the protesters have now expanded to include the killing of peaceful protesters and decades of marginalization," Human Rights Watch Horn of Africa researcher Felix Horne told The WorldPost over email.
What began as a protest over land rights is now representative of a number of grievances with the government and ruling EPRDF. Ethiopia has seen a period of rapid economic growth in the past 10 years, but its urban and industrial expansion has also resulted in land disputes, corruption and authoritarian crackdowns on opposition groups.
As demonstrators increasingly demand solutions for Ethiopia's many social and political problems, rights groups worry that the unrest and violence will continue.
"Human Rights Watch continues to receive reports daily about excessive force being used by security forces in Oromia," Horne said. "The death toll continues to rise and the arrests continue."