Angered by the arrest of Merera Gudina, his party leader, hours earlier for allegedly “making contact with terrorist groups”, a senior figure in Ethiopia’s opposition said he was willing to commit a crime under the country’s strict state of emergency laws by criticising the ruling party.
The Oromo Federal Congress executive, who asked for anonymity, was scathing about the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the coalition that has governed the African nation for 25 years and controls every seat in the Addis Ababa parliament.
“People want total change. This means the EPRDF has to hold a free and fair election,” he told the Financial Times in an interview. “But they interpret that as wanting to overthrow the government by force. They will cut your neck for saying so.”
At first glance Addis Ababa, a city of more than 3m people at the centre of one of the continent’s fastest-growing economies, appears to be normal. But beneath the surface it is clear that Ethiopia’s authoritarian rulers are in a fight for survival as they combat unprecedented levels of discontent.
The regime, which is dominated by ethnic Tigrayans, who comprise only 6 per cent of the population, admits that more than 500 people have probably been killed since anti-government protests began 13 months ago. Two months into what is expected to be a six-month state of emergency, 11,600 people have been arrested.
Opposition groups say the real figures are several times this. However, both sides’ claims are impossible to verify since neither gives evidence and the internet has been shut down in vast swaths of the country, stifling communication.
The strategy of Hailemariam Desalegn, prime minister since the death in 2012 of long-time strongman Meles Zenawi, appears to be to crush dissent, reshuffle the cabinet and focus on inclusive growth.
“Our democratisation process is still nascent,” he said recently. “It is moving in the right direction, but it has not yet come up with inclusive engagement.”
Diplomats in Addis Ababa described the government’s response as “superficial”. “They have failed to address the underlying grievances that caused the protests in the first place,” one said.
Demonstrations began in November 2015 in opposition to a government plan to extend Addis Ababa into the surrounding Oromia region. The initiative was eventually shelved but the heavy-handed response brought deeper-rooted complaints to the surface.
These included perceived inequitable benefits from more than a decade of double-digit economic growth, nepotism, land-grabbing and a lack of democracy. Memories of a brutal government crackdown after the 2005 election remain strong.
The protests spread to Amhara, and the peoples of the two regions, who make up 65 per cent of the population but for decades have rarely seen eye-to-eye, became united in opposition to the regime. But rather than engage their opponents, the ruling elite became inward-looking and repressive.
“They only talk to themselves and their echo-chamber is very loud but it’s soundproofed on the outside so they only hear their own propaganda,” said the diplomat.
Analysts say the regime’s development model, the foundation of its legitimacy, is becoming an increasingly large Achilles heel. It is founded on copying nations such as South Korea, Singapore and China, which prioritised state-led development over democracy and until last year it proved extremely successful.
Grand infrastructure projects, such as dams and industrial parks, combined with political stability attracted droves of investors, particularly from China. Foreign direct investment rose from $78m in 2008 to an expected $2.5bn this year.
But as Zemedeneh Negatu, a prominent Ethiopian business leader said: “These big economic bets they want to make take time to pay off . . . and the space [available] to allow these bets to deliver is much shorter than the environment the Asian tigers operated in the 1960s and ’70s.”
“Furthermore, the advent of new technologies has elevated the public’s expectations of the timing and the quality of the deliverables.”
Protests have so far put only a slight brake on economic growth. Major investments are still announced each week and on Friday the government said economic growth in its 2015/16 financial year was still 8 per cent despite a bad drought.
Yet such continued strong growth makes little difference to the regime’s opponents.
“Even if they bring gold and diamonds, people have given up on this government,” said a student activist, too afraid to give his name. “They will do whatever it takes to see change. The only question is how long it will take. Maybe five years, we hope only one.”