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Protesting and Policing in a Multiethnic Authoritarian State: Evidence from Ethiopia

Published in 2013, Arriola, Leonardo R., Journal of Comparative Politics - Archived on June 18th, 2013

Title: Protesting and Policing in a Multiethnic Authoritarian State: Evidence from Ethiopia
Author: Leonardo R. Arriola (University of California, Berkeley – Department of Political Science)
Published: Journal of Comparative Politics Vol. 45, No. 2 (2013): 147-168.
Language: English

When do ethnic groups engage in antigovernment protests in authoritarian states? What impact do the repressive strategies of such governments have on the violence associated with protests? Widely accepted theories of ethnic conflict suggest that the introduction of electoral competition in multiethnic states almost inevitably degenerates into violence. Yet, while it seems straightforward that groups experiencing an uncertain political liberalization might resort to protest or other forms of violence to pursue their collective interests, the empirical findings on the relationship between regime type and ethnic mobilization remain ambiguous. Some scholars find that political violence is more likely to occur with the initial democratization of multiethnic states, while others show that ethnic protest is no more likely to emerge in newly democratized states.

Beyond the uncertain association between regime type and ethnic mobilization, only a limited understanding exists of how dissent unfolds in multiethnic states governed by authoritarian regimes. This gap in knowledge is troubling considering that the countries classified as autocracies and partial democracies have levels of ethnic diversity that are 40–50 percent higher, on average, than countries considered full democracies. Establishing whether or how authoritarian regimes liberalize thus entails identifying the conditions influencing the mobilization of the aggrieved groups they govern. It also requires understanding how the repressive strategies of those regimes influence the dynamics of mobilization. Although studies of ethnic conflict and state repression have produced important contributions in this respect, the cross-national and aggregated nature of much of this scholarship may obscure what occurs within these countries. If this is the case, the impact of ethnic mobilization’s most commonly cited causes—grievances and resources—may be misspecified.

In this article, I examine the antigovernment protests that erupted in Ethiopia’s most populous, ethnically defined region, Oromia. The protests began when the long-ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and opposition parties failed to reach an accord on the composition of a new parliament after elections in 2005, the first in the country’s history to be contested nationwide. The protests among the titular ethnic group of Oromia resulted in more than 15,000 detentions, over 500 documented instances of woundings, and some 80 confirmed deaths. These protests present puzzling patterns. Why were protests concentrated in thirty of Oromia’s 180 districts when the titular ethnic group forms the majority in every part of the region? Why did the protests vary in levels of violence with twelve of thirty districts accounting for over 80 percent of woundings?

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