Economy & Development

Placating Ghor, For Now: 10-days protest pushed the government to respond


Protesters gathering on the main street in Firuzkoh city on 22 January 2020. Photo: Nesar Ahmad Kohin.

Frustrated by the exclusion of their primary development needs from Afghanistan’s budget for the coming year, a growing number of residents in the neglected and isolated central province of Ghor brought the local administration to a standstill by staging a sit-in for around ten days (21-31 January 2020). They only agreed to end their demonstration after the central government sent a delegation followed by a reassuring presidential video conference, making promises to address the protesters’ demands. AAN researcher Reza Kazemi (with input from Asadullah Sadat) reviews the Ghor protests and notes their high potential for re-eruption if the government fails once again to honour its time-bound pledges.

A brief context and an old grievance

Ghor, a mostly mountainous and multi-ethnic province in central Afghanistan, (1) is disadvantaged on all counts. Latest available data from 2016/17 points to it as the seventh poorest among Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, with 70.1 per cent of its population living in poverty. Of the total population aged 15 and above in the province, about 53 per cent are jobless. Together with Panjshir, it has the lowest school attendance, under 10 per cent.

Ghor also suffers from severe food insecurity as indicated by high levels of child malnutrition. The World Bank characterised Ghor as a province with low international spending.

Relatedly, locals also described it as an underdeveloped province in conversations with AAN. For instance, only residents in downtown Firuzkoh, the provincial capital, have night-time access to public power from diesel generators, when they are not out of order, for Afs 25 and Afs 40 per kilowatt hour respectively for domestic and commercial use, while inhabitants outside the city centre lack any access to publically generated electricity. As for road connectivity, a central issue for Ghoris, the poor infrastructure in the mountainous terrain means it takes a lot of time and money to use what limited roads exist for travel, trade (both import and export) and other needs such as transferring their sick for medical treatment, mostly to Herat city in the west and the capital Kabul in the east. This is especially challenging during the winter when roads are blocked by heavy snowfall.

This social and economic deprivation exists alongside violent conflicts among a confusing multitude of actors in several of the nine districts outside Ghor’s provincial centre (find a detailed map here). These warring actors include illegal armed groups and armed criminal groups, Taleban insurgents and Afghan government forces, often with no clear lines separating them (for details and specific cases, see previous AAN reporting here and here; and media reports herehere and here).

Many of Ghor’s residents are not just hit by violent conflict and hampered by socio-economic impoverishment. They are also exasperated by what they see as an indifferent central government that has neglected the development of their province for years. Ghor’s civil society activists, provincial council members, traders and others have time and again protested against an unresponsive central government, demanding electricity, roads and other basic services (read, for example, about their protests in February 2013 here and in November 2017 here).

These past protests have been met with more words than action. The provincial authorities have done little more than communicate local grievances to Kabul, where the central government has made pledges that either have not been implemented or have been grossly inadequate to meet the key demands for electricity and the construction of improved Ghor-Kabul and Ghor-Herat roads. The ways in which the provincial and central governments have handled past instances of demonstrations have only compounded local frustration and anger.

A new protest: better organisation and broader reach

The immediate precursor to the most recent protest in Ghor came on 15 January 2020, a week before the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament, approved the national budget for the coming fiscal year 1399 (20 March 2020-20 March 2021). Some of Ghor’s residents and provincial council members staged a demonstration, lambasting the budget document as “unbalanced” and demanding that the government include long-overdue projects for Ghor. They warned of more demonstrations if their demands continued to go unheeded by Kabul.

Three days later, on 18 January, around the time the national budget was being considered in a Wolesi Jirga plenary session, parliamentarians from Ghor and Herat held a press conference in Kabul where they demanded that the central government allocate funding for the construction of the Herat-Ghor-Kabul road in the forthcoming year’s budget. Ghor MP Gul Zaman Nayeb warned of more protests if their demand for road construction in Ghor was not included in the budget document. The road-building demand is a central issue for multiple provinces because, if asphalted, the Kabul-Ghor-Herat highway (also called East-West Corridor or Central Highway by the protesters) will not just benefit Ghor but all six provinces (Kabul, Wardak, Bamyan, Daikundi, Ghor, Herat) that the road passes through. (2)

As the central government did not respond to these requests, a large protest took place around midnight on 21 January, hours before the Wolesi Jirga passed the controversial 1399 budget (101 yes and 45 no votes and 25 abstentions) with dissenting MPs from Ghor and some of their counterparts from neighbouring Herat, condemning the bill and voting against it. (3) Ghor MP Atta Muhammad Dehqanpur articulated the Ghoris’ frustration and criticised the government, including the Wolesi Jirga, for not taking his province’s dire needs into account for far too long: (4)

… Last night Ghor people closed the government offices. They’re frustrated and disappointed with the government, because the government has never paid attention to them. You can’t find one kilometre of asphalted road in the whole province. Ghor has no place in the national budget for [Afghan calendar year] 1399 [2020/21]… You [Wolesi Jirga] voted for a budget that was not balanced.

According to Afghan news agency Pajhwok, around 1,000 Ghor residents took to the streets in Firuzkoh at 7 am on 22 January, shut down most government offices, including that of the provincial governor, and effectively put the city in lockdown, at least for the first few days of the protest. In statements in support of the protesters, Ghor governor Ghulam Naser Khaze and his spokesman Abdul Hai Khatibi said they would again pass their concerns on to the central government in Kabul. Obviously, this failed to placate the protesters, given their past disillusionment with the government. So they staged a sit-in in front of the provincial government compound in Firuzkoh city in temperatures as low as minus 20 grades Celsius. “Until the lock of the geographic prison of the central region is broken,” read their banner on the gate of the compound, “the gates of the Ghor local administration offices will not be unlocked.” This was a reference to President Ashraf Ghani’s 2014 campaign promise to improve road connectivity in the central parts of Afghanistan.

One group that helped amplify this new Ghor protest on and offline was a local organisation called Harakat-e Rah wa Roshani (Movement for Roads and Light), named after the protesters’ two key demands of roads and electricity. (Its name also echoed the demands and the name of a protest movement in Bamyan province in 2016-17, see AAN analysis here.) Established in 2017 and involved in the previous protests that led nowhere, the movement says it represents “all segments of Ghor’s population including parliamentarians, provincial council members, ulama [religious scholars], influential figures, women, artisans, civil institutions, people with disabilities, heirs of martyrs, youth and other Ghor residents” and strives “as a collective force for the realisation of our common goals, namely electricity and roads.” (5) In a conversation with AAN, Nesar Ahmad Kohin, a member of the movement, said the local group was “representative of both Firuzkoh and Ghor’s districts and had no other option but to take to the streets and speak out, so its voice is heard and its rights are taken from Kabul.” It is difficult to know how representative the movement really is across Ghor, but its demands do seem to transcend local fault lines and unify a wide cross-section of the province’s inhabitants.

The latest protest did have a wider impact this time. The sit-in effectively suspended the provincial administration, drawing extensive domestic media coverage (see, for instance, here and here). They also won backing from groups in neighbouring provinces, numbering in their hundreds, who held demonstrations in support of them, at least in the cities of Herat and Kabul.

Within Ghor, around ten days after the start of the demonstration, a group of women joined the protesters on the streets in Firuzkoh (see a media report here). In their statement, they said “hundreds of mohajjaba [veiled] women took to the streets beside their brothers to advocate for Ghor’s legitimate rights.” (6) They said that “the heads of the government can no longer ignore the legitimate requests of Ghor citizens” and went on to suggest that if their participation in the presidential and other elections had “no import but disappointment and division,” then “all ballots cast by Ghor people should be taken out of the Election Commission depot and set on fire.” Overall, the number of protesters increased from hundreds in the beginning to several thousand people, locals told AAN.

Women joining the protests in downtown Firuzkoh on 30 January 2020. They carried paper sheets on which were written their main demands: “electricity” and “road.” Photo: Nesar Ahmad Kohin.

The protesters put forward three demands: fulfilment of the government’s commitment last year to asphalt 100 kilometers of road in Ghor, a commitment in the new budget to build another 100 kilometers of road, and the resumption, acceleration and completion of the construction of the Garmabak Puzalij hydroelectric dam over the river Harirud, located some five kilometres to the north of Firuzkoh city. (7) If their demands are not met, the protesters warned of wider “civil disobedience” by “respectfully” ejecting provincial government officials, who are mostly not locals, out of the province to the capital, closing the Ghor-Herat-Kabul road and staging a sit-in in Kabul, among other things.

Government response: delegations and promises

The shutdown of the provincial government was apparently only reported to President Ghani on 27 January, almost a week after the recent demonstrations began in Ghor, according to Wahid Omar, a senior government official in charge of public and strategic affairs. Omar said a government delegation would travel to the province to “carefully listen to the requests of the people of Ghor and make specific recommendations to address them.” He added: “The government neither ignores nor quells these protests but is ready to listen to protesters’ legitimate requests and act, within its capacity, to fulfil them.”

The delegation made a round trip to Firuzkoh city on 31 January, (8) only managing to persuade the protesters to let the provincial administration reopen after the accompanying Ghor MPs guaranteedthe pledges that the delegation made to them, local activists told AAN. This brief provincial visit was followed by a video conference that President Ghani, flanked by senior government officials, held with Ghor provincial officials and representatives of the protesters on 2 February (watch it here). There, the commitments were reiterated. Ghani said: The people of Ghor have a right not to see promises on paper only. The Ghor people don’t want empty promises. They want action. And we are people of action.”

Habibullah Radmanesh, Ghor deputy provincial governor, who attended the delegation’s visit to Ghor and the subsequent presidential video conference, detailed the government’s pledges to protesters in a conversation with AAN. On roads, the government promised to start building 40 kilometers of first-grade road (asphalted and nine metres wide) on the section between Ghor and Kabul in April 2020, which will be in addition to 21 kilometers which is already planned or under construction (10 km under construction between Ghor and Kabul and 11 km planned between Ghor and Herat). “The Ghor-Kabul section was approved for construction first because it’s already been surveyed,” Radmanesh told AAN. That is on top of 45 kilometers of second-grade road (rural, asphalted) in Lal wa Sarjangal district which is already part of next year’s budget.

The government also pledged to operationalise a five megawatt solar power project in Firuzkoh city in the coming Afghan calendar year 1399 (March 2020-March 2021) and connect Ghor to the national electricity grid from Herat in the next two years. Concerning the Garmabak Puzalij hydropower dam, “President Ghani said the construction of the dam should be decided after a cost-benefit analysis is done,” said Radmanesh, without specifying whether and when the government committed to undertaking such a study. Furthermore, a statement released by the presidential office seems to make more promises (and highlight existing development projects), noting a nine-kilometre-long urban water supply project that is “under way” and will to benefit some 7,200 families in Firuzkoh city, a pledge to give “attention” to water management, river bank protection and marketing for Ghor’s livestock produce, particularly fur and meat, and an “instruction” to safeguard the Minaret of Jam, a UNESCO world heritage site (see also this media report on threats facing the historic site).

Given the three demands of the protesters, it appears they have reached some sort of a compromise with the government, at least for the time being: reducing a demand for 200 kilometers of road construction to just 40 kilometers along the section between Ghor and Kabul, and subjecting the local hydropower dam request to a cost-benefit assessment. Perhaps to compensate this compromise, the government has pledged to operationalise a solar power project and link Ghor to the national electricity network via neighbouring Herat, among other things.

Conclusion: the protest calms down, for now

By staging a better-organised protest, residents in this far-flung province did manage to force the attention of what they usually feel is an indifferent central government in Kabul. It even created ripple effects that went beyond Ghor, including protests in solidarity with the Ghor protesters and protests already held or planned in Paktika. (9)

Without their show of street power, it is difficult to imagine that the government, undermined by ongoing electoral chaos, fraught with political infighting and facing an uncertain peace process with the Taleban, would have responded to their grievances at all. Even if the Afghan government has for now pacified Ghor’s protesters with promises, this may not hold if the government is not able or willing (or both) to deliver its pledges on time. The onus is now firmly on the government to act. Otherwise, it is likely to face Ghor protesters heading back to the streets and no doubt trying to create even more turmoil than a sit-in to shut down the local administration.

Edited by Rachel Reid and Thomas Ruttig

One of Afghanistan’s most important archaelogical sites, the minaret of Jam in Ghor. Photo: David Adamec (2006), under Creative Commons.

(1) Historically, Ghor is where the Ghorid Empire once had their summer capital in the 12th century. Archaeologists believe the Minaret of Jam pinpoints that lost capital, Firuzkoh (literally Turquoise Mountain). Ghor’s provincial capital, Chaghcharan – some 60 kilometers to the east of it –, has been officially given this name in April 2014 on recommendation from the province. In terms of physical geography, Ghor is mainly mountainous with around 85 per cent of it covered with mountains; its provincial centre, Firuzkoh, is some 1,250 metres above sea level. As for its human geography, it is inhabited by Tajiks, Pashtuns, Chahar Aimaq (primarily the Taimani and the Firuzkohi) and Hazaras (see previous AAN reporting).

(2) In more peaceful times and before the construction of the national ring road (AAN reporting here), this road used to be the fastest connection between Kabul and Herat. It was motorable during part of the year, but vulnerable to flooding, as large stretches followed the bank of Harirud river.

(3) AAN’s monitoring of Afghan parliament, 22 January 2020.

(4) AAN’s monitoring of Afghan parliament, 22 January 2020.

(5) Declaration no 2 of Ghor’s Movement for Roads and Light, 5 Dalw 1398 (25 January 2020), Firuzkoh city.

(6) Resolution of the Gathering of the Women of Ghor Province, 8 Dalw 1398 (28 January 2020), Firuzkoh city.

(7) Declaration no 1 of Ghor’s Movement for Roads and Light, 3 Dalw 1398 (23 January 2020), Firuzkoh city.

(8) The government delegation consisted of representatives from the presidential office, the relevant government ministries and agencies (finance, transport, energy and water, electricity, local governance) and some Ghor MPs.

(9) AAN has been told by residents in Ghazni city that there were protests there against the failure to allocate funding in next year’s budget for the province, which lacks representation in the new parliament inaugurated in April 2019. Ghazni’s parliamentary elections have yet to take place (read previous AAN analysis here). Also, AAN has heard that protesters in Sharana, the centre of south-eastern Paktika province, are considering staging a sit-in in front of the provincial government compound in order to make the government tackle rising crime there.

 

 

 

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development