Embracing Youth Dissent
There is past precedent in Ethiopia for depicting young people’s roles in political protest as a source of violence and political instability. This has led to the stereotyping of all forms of youth dissent as a source of panic and fear. In this report, we challenge this (mis) perception by amplifying the voices of young people expressing their dissenting views in nonviolent ways, and peacefully engaging in civic spaces. In doing so, we aim to debunk stereotypes associating youth dissent with violence, and ask what would happen if young people’s views were embraced en route to cultivating a new democratic culture in Ethiopia?
About this report
This report is the result of a collaboration between two young researchers, Sewit Haileselassie Tadesse and Ali Altiok.
The objective of this report is to amplify the voices of young people whose views and opinions are often sidelined or disregarded in mainstream discussions on politics and peacebuilding. Through in-depth and informal interviews, we primarily engaged with young people in Addis Abeba working on the streets, in cafés, non-profit organizations, studying in formal as well as informal educational institutions. We also conducted two focus group discussions which brought together young peacebuilders from urban centers of Addis Abeba, Gondar, Dire Dawa and Gambella. We also spoke to number of prominent academics, former youth activists as well as young artists and poets engaged in politics in alternative youth spaces. This report designed by Ali Altiok.
This report generously supported by Global Research Network on Parliaments and People
Challenge of inclusion
With over 80 ethnic groups, Ethiopia is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Managing inclusivity in a political landscape of ethnic diversity has been the corollary and central challenge to building peace and democracy. Recent political reform processes in Ethiopia initially gave hope to those wishing to embrace this considerable ethnic diversity, but more latterly has brought to the surface the multi-layered and complex conflict dynamics in the country.
the missing piece
“Even if we spoke, we would not be listened to”
(A former social media activist from Addis Abeba)
Discussions on political inclusion are quick to dismiss or consider the youthfulness of the country as a threat to stability. Mainstream media, analysts and scholars often depict young Ethiopians as susceptible to political manipulation leading to violent acts. This negative approach to young people’s political agency results that youth protest and dissent is only acknowledged when it breeds instability and violence. This negative cycle generates a reciprocal distrust between young people and the government.
The reality however, is that a large majority of young Ethiopians express their dissenting views through peaceful means. Recognizing youth dissent only when young people are involved in violence fosters a culture of oppression and violence, which marginalizes, actively excludes and silences the voices of peaceful young people. In this vicious cycle of policy panic on youth dissent, political reform processes fail to benefit from the creativity, innovation and social networks of young people who work for peace:
“I do believe that peaceful dissent exists.
Unfortunately, when displayed, we have witnessed that
those in power destroy it by combatting it with violence or tear gas.
It can also be demonstrated by making policies and having healthy negotiations. If I were to be asked to partake again in Ethiopia's protest, I would not accept it because something wrong tends to happen. It is not that I do not trust the protesters, it is how things spiral, but I do not trust the government.”
(A young disabled woman from Addis Abeba)
Being a young person
Being a young person is a unique challenge in the diverse tapestry of Ethiopia. The challenges vary depending on very local socio-cultural norms and traditional hierarchies that are highly gendered.
Assigned roles and accompanying social pressures shape the perceptions of young people’s parameter of success in the transition into adulthood. For both young women and young men, traditional gender norms provide templates for what it means to be an adult:
“The male youth is often seen as physically fit
and is meant to find ways of making money to support
his future family, and the female youth is often measured by how well she can do house chores to see if she is equipped enough
for the marriage life. The male youth is preparing to become
the breadwinner; the female youth is preparing to submit
to house chores for when she gets married to then
take care of her husband and children.”
(A young man from Gambella Region studying in Addis Abeba)
Being a young person within the cultural strata is often closely intertwined with marital status, the defining characteristic for the rite of passage into adulthood in most communities:
“Being young in Haderegna,
the female youth is called Wehachi(gi), and the male youth is called Dermaà. These represent the names of the youth
that are not married yet, and these names change
once they enter the union of marriage”
(A young man originally from the Harare community)
in the Urban Settings
“I did not know much about guns until recently.
Now I can tell you what kind of bullet is being shot in my neighborhood… I do not feel safe in the city. Even with all the police, I do not feel safe. I feel safe in church. At least you are not alone in church.”
(A young woman working as a lawyer in Dire Dawa)
Urban centers offer young people opportunities to freely express their identity away from the smaller communities they migrate from. Young people consider the main benefits of living in urban centers are about access to higher education, economic gain and the opportunities the city offers to young residents. Youth migration to cities comes with security challenges that are unique to the urban context. In tight knit smaller towns as well as in larger cities like Addis Abeba, young rural-urban migrants often experience “othering” as outsiders or newcomers:
“I feel safer in rural communities and towns
when compared to the big city. As stated previously, everyone tends to know each other. The protection I feel since I am “Mr. X’s son” is much higher when compared to what I feel here in Addis, which is odd because Addis Ababa is often considered more civilized. As much as no one is secure in the world, I feel safer in my hometown than I do here.”
(Young man working as a university lecturer from Ambo town)
Young people shared with us that they consider their agency as a source of transformation of the self and their environment. When participants spoke about their agency, they wanted to use the term hayili “ሃይል” (which interchangeably means power and/or energy in Amharic). They told explained that this is the term that describes their choice to initiate and drive change processes as well as their relentless energy in demanding positive change, which we understood as “civic appetite”:
“I believe that being young is a time of choice.
When someone is young, this is the time to try out
who we want to be… That is our time of choice and energy,
when you are young you still have energy. This is when we define who we are. It is also when we defy the system, if it does not suit us, we can protest because we have the energy to protest.
When it comes to political involvement,
it is a time for freedom, it maybe, for example our country,
it is a time to examine what we can do for our country with hope.
It is a time of hope, you see it in a lot of the political movements in Ethiopian history, it is a time of high energy and a sense of possibility to accomplish.“
(Young woman university student from Arbaminch)
Our research participants told us that their diverse lived experience of conflict and violence shapes their understanding of what peace means to them. One participant shared that when he thinks about peace, he imagines,
“The shade of the fig tree in the center of the town
where we used to take shelter on a hot day.”
(Visually impaired man who is originally from the city of Gondar)
Another participant who is originally from the southern city of Arba Minch explained how her interaction with military shaped her vision of peace:
“An Ethiopian daisy set in the nozzle of an AK47
that is resting upside against a wall.“
(Young diplomat originally from Arba Minch)
When speaking about peace, the young people we spoke to portrayed peace as the common ground they wish to reach out to:
“Peace means different things to us...
Some experience straight, smooth paths,
whereas others often come across road
bumps leading them astray.
We, as a community, need to be able to agree on
at least one common ground,
one that we all agree on.
That is what peace is to me.”
(Young feminist activist studying in Addis Abeba University)
Ultimately participants associated peace and peacebuilding to a practice of listening:
“I decided to draw two different types of people
and tried to represent their acceptance of one another.
No matter our differences, having civilized conversations,
engaging in topics, and listening to everyone’s
perspective can fix any issue.
This can bring about peace.”
(A young man studying in Addis Abeba University)
Our research participants shared with us that they usually do not receive a lot of support from the authorities. Young people’s initiatives play a key role in preventing the instigation and escalation of violence in many instances:
“I am still in university and firmly believe that
I am contributing to peace as a student council member,
working in resolutions. Like any other campus, we have our fair share of instances, but we make sure to handle them calmly and collectively.We pay attention to the little problems,
to prevent them from spiraling out of our control,
and we remain as agents of response to queries.”
(A young woman member of the Student Council At Hawassa University)
Participants also explained that youth can help to de-escalate violent conflicts by often acting as a bridge-builder between an “uneducated” community and the government authorities in the de-escalation of violent conflicts. Young people mediate between communities and government representatives, since they can be the vehicles for voicing grievances of community members:
“Taking general examples,
the government will blame one entity,
whereas the youth and the population
would often blame another.
The government does not have trust among the people;
therefore, there is a large communication gap.
We wanted to understand how people
went from disagreeing to killing one another.
There was an incident
where 40-80 people were killed based on disagreements,
and we were able to intervene to understand what happened,
establish negotiations, and find common grounds.”
(A young woman from Oromia Region, University lecturer )
“Despite our differences,
we all share the same level of oppression by the state,
most especially regarding the police and military.”
(A young woman from Addis Abeba)
According to our participants, young people have common experiences of state oppression, disturbed by corruption and violent exclusion in their day-to-day life. Nonetheless, they choose to be peaceful and express themselves through a form of passive dissent:
“In a lot of cases,
we prefer silence to be outspoken
because we fear the repercussions,
which is something I have seen within my school.
For instance, when a young person someone blatantly goes against a Kebele official and expresses his/her opinion,
that person will be seen differently
and is likely to feel unsafe.”
(A young woman from Arba Minch)
Harnessing the Civic Appetite for Peace
Young people may essentially be the most important social category for a peaceful political transition processes in Ethiopia. While there is an abundance of media attention on youth in violent actions, we categorically dismiss the ways in which millions of Ethiopian young people remain peaceful and dedicate their lives to steer political change and serve their communities through peaceful means. Youth dissent played a pivotal role in initiating the ongoing political transition period in 2018, which arguably opened up a larger civic space. This juncture in Ethiopian history presents another crucial opportunity to embrace youth dissent as a key element of democracy and peace in Ethiopia.
While their views are radically different, the one thing our participants agreed on is young people need civic spaces to exchange ideas, identify difference and commonalities and define perspectives. Young people’s voices are fighting to be heard. While experiences of othering and exclusion exist within diversity, young people are seeking and building safe spaces to share stories and aspirations, they need space for dialogues to build consensus and understand one another.