Authorities locked down Afghanistan’s capital on Monday as thousands of demonstrators from Afghanistan’s ethnic minority group Hazara marched through Kabul to protest the planned route of a multi-million dollar power transmission line, posing a major challenge to the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
By early morning, protesters crammed streets leading into central Kabul.
Organizers have urged protesters to “shake the palace of despotism.” But authorities blocked their path to the presidential palace, their intended destination, with armed police and stacked shipping containers, closing off Kabul’s commercial center to all vehicle and foot traffic. Some threw stones and tried to climb over but no significant violence was reported by mid-morning.
The demonstrators are demanding access to a planned route for the 500 kV transmission line linking Turkmenistan with Kabul. The original plan routed the line through Bamiyan province, in Afghanistan’s central highlands, where most of the country’s Hazaras live. But that route was changed in 2013 by the previous Afghan government, saying that it would cost millions and delay the badly needed project by years.
As well as the potential for violence, the rally underlines the political tensions facing Ghani’s government as it fights the Taliban-led insurgency and tries to get an economy shattered by decades of war back on its feet.
“We want our rights,” said Abdul Rauf Safari, 35, a protester from Ghazni, a city in central Afghanistan with a large Hazara population.
“We will no longer accept discrimination and there is no way the government can ignore us this time,” he said.
Hazaras account for up to 15 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated 30 million-strong population, are considered the poorest of the country’s ethnic groups, and often complain of discrimination.
Afghanistan is desperately short of power, with less than 40 percent of the population connected to the grid, according to the World Bank. Almost 75 percent of the country’s power is imported.
Hazara leaders, who include senior government members, say the route chosen for the transmission line discriminates against their people, something President Ghani and national power company DABS deny.
Only around 30 percent of Afghanistan is connected to electricity. Modernizing the creaking power system, which is subject to frequent blackouts, has been a top priority.
The transmission line, intended to provide secure power to 10 provinces, is part of the wider TUTAP project backed by the Asian Development Bank to link the energy-rich Central Asia republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
DABS says the current plan ensures ample power to Bamyan and Wardak and that switching the route would add tens of millions of dollars to the cost and delay the project by as much as three years, leaving millions without secure electricity.