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At Least 32 Killed in Ethiopia’s Oromia, Somali Regions

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WASHINGTON — At least 32 people have been killed in clashes across Ethiopia’s Oromia and Somali regions following clashes between rival ethnic Somali and Oromo forces, a former Ethiopian lawmaker said.

Speaking to VOA Somali Service, Boqor Ali Omar Allale said at least 32 ethnic Somalis, including his younger brother, were killed on Monday night in Awaday, a small town between Ethiopia’s most holy Muslim town of Harar and its big eastern city of Dire Dawa.

“They were innocent business people sleeping with their children and spouses. They were attacked in their homes and most of them beheaded. Based on the number of burial spaces arranged, we have at least 32 deaths, including my younger” brother, Allale told VOA Somali from Jigjiga, the capital city of the Somali region of Ethiopia.

Fearing reprisals

Other sources and relatives of those killed have confirmed the incident, although they have sough anonymity, fearing reprisals.

One source said four of his cousins, who were transporting Khat — a plant used as a stimulant in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen — were among those killed.

So far, Ethiopian authorities have not commented on the incident. VOA could not immediately confirm the reported killings with Ethiopian regional and federal authorities.

The alleged incident follows clashes between rival ethnic Somali and Oromo armed groups, which have been raging in areas bordering the Oromia and Somali regional states for months, but escalated this week into violent confrontations. Each side is accusing the other of being behind the deadly violence.

Speaking to VOA Afaan Oromoo, Addisu Arega, the Oromia regional communication director, accused the Liyu (“special” in Amharic) police in the Somali region of crossing into the Oromia region and killing a number of people.

Arega said people were captured during the fighting, and “based on that information, we have now realized, three entities are taking part on attacking our people: Somali region Liyu police, Somali region militias and a man holding a Somali republic regular Army Identification Card, whom we are investigating.”

On the other side, Idiris Isma’il, Somali regional communication director, denied the accusation, saying it was “a total lie.”

“I was surprised to hear such information that our special police force known as Liyu police, are waging attacks on residents. It is absurd,” Isma’il told VOA Amharic Service. “The allegation was not analyzed and confirmed by the federal government’s security apparatus nor by the Somali regional state; therefore, it is a total lie.”

Isma’il has also accused Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) of starting the violence between the two communities, an accusation denied by ONLF spokesman Abdulkadir Hassan Hirmoge.

“We have nothing to do with these clashes. The regimes in Nazareth and Jigjiga always play the two brotherly people against each other to divide or suppress them in times of public revolution,” Hirmoge said.

Recent violence

Journalists in Ethiopia reported on Tuesday that at least two people were killed and more than 600 others displaced during protests across Ethiopia’s east.

On Sept. 7, at least four people were killed near Moyale, a city in Southern Ethiopia, when Oromo militia armed with machetes attacked patients in a hospital, local media reported.

A resident of Moyale, and a relative of one of those killed, told VOA Somali over the phone on the condition of anonymity: “I can confirm the death of four people killed with knives and machetes. They were patients who sought a medical care to a hospital in Oromia region. They were attacked by mobs armed with knives and machetes for revenge.”

Moyale, deep in Ethiopia’s dusty southeastern drylands and straddling the border with Kenya, is divided along the long-contested frontier between Oromia and Somali regional states.

The city, in which three different flags fly side-by-side — the flag of Ethiopian federal government, the Oromo flag, and that of the Somali state of Ethiopia — has been a testament to the success of Ethiopia’s distinct model of ethnically based federalism, established in 1994.

But analysts say the continuation of deadly ethnic clashes will endanger Ethiopia’s federal system.

The latest violence comes a month after the Ethiopian government lifted a 10-month state of emergency imposed after more than two years of anti-government protests, mainly in the Oromia region.

Ethiopian security forces killed more than 400 people in those waves of anti-government demonstrations, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Ethiopia

A major geopolitical crisis is set to erupt over who controls the world’s longest river

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QUARTZ — When Ethiopia’s prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn visits Egypt this week to discuss bilateral cooperation in sectors like health, education, and agriculture one contentious issue will stand out: the completion of Africa’s largest dam.

It is no secret what Egypt thinks about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the centerpiece of the Horn of Africa nation’s bid to become Africa’s biggest exporter of electricity. From the get-go, Egypt was opposed to the idea of the dam, and politicians including former president Mohamed Morsi were caught on air proposing military action against Ethiopia.

Located in the headwaters of the Blue Nile and planned to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, the dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and will boost the economic growth of Ethiopia. As a downstream, desert nation, Egypt says the dam will disrupt the flow of the Nile to its almost 100 million people, potentially crippling its agricultural sector and industries.

During the filling of the reservoir, experts say the Nile’s freshwater flow to Egypt may be cut by 25%. This will also compound the other problems threatening the Nile including climate change, population boom, urban sprawl, besides rising sea levels that lead to saltwater intrusion.

Based on international accords signed in 1929 and amended in 1959, Egypt has always asserted its right to the lion’s share of the Nile’s water. But under president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and as the dam has continued to take shape, Cairo seemed to have softened its stance, even signing a cooperation agreement in 2015 to study the potential impact of the dam.
But those talks are yet to bear any fruit, and to boost its position in the dispute, Sisi launched a charm offensive by visiting upstream Nile Basin nations including Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda—and even Ethiopia.

And now, geopolitical strains between Sudan and Egypt are threatening to undermine any progress and unravel a regional crisis. Tensions over who owns the Hala’ib Triangle on the Red Sea has flared again, leading Khartoum to recall its ambassador from Cairo in early January. In retaliation, Egypt sent hundreds of its troops to a United Arab Emirates military base in Eritrea, and Sudan responded by closing its border with Eritrea and sending more troops there.

The current tensions are also being exacerbated by what Cairo sees as Turkish meddling in the region. In December, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey visited Sudan, with president Omar al-Bashir agreeing to temporarily hand over the Red Sea port city of Suakin to Turkey to increase tourism—a move Cairo saw as Turkey’s attempt to build it third base abroad after the ones in Qatar and Somalia. Cairo also accuses both Khartoum and Ankara of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist outfit that was once the country’s most powerful political group.

On the Nile issue, Egypt also believes al-Bashir is on Ethiopia’s side and recently proposed excluding Sudan from the negotiations. Issandr El Amrani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, says Sudan’s shift is in part because of what it stands to gain including electricity supply and the prevention of flooding during rainy seasons.

The spat over the Nile also takes on a new significance as Egypt heads to the polls in March. President Sisi has said Egypt doesn’t want a war with its neighbors and warned Egyptian media from using “offensive language” against them. But with no “trusted mechanism” for negotiations now, El Amrani says the dust-up will only intensify.

“The Nile issue is really important in Egypt,” he said. And “the larger question that we have to ask ourselves now is ‘Where is this headed?’”

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Ethiopia

Egypt, Ethiopia FMs meet over dam-building dispute

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CAIRO, Jan. 17 (Xinhua) — The Egyptian and Ethiopian foreign ministers discussed here on Wednesday the negotiations on Ethiopia’s dam building on the shared Nile River, Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The talks between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Ethiopian counterpart Workneh Gebeyehu came ahead of a joint meeting at the presidential level for the first time.

“Convening the committee at the presidential level will be a positive message for the public opinion in both countries,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said in the statement.

Ethiopia started the project of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in April 2011 when Egypt was suffering turmoil following an uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.

Previous tripartite meetings of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the GERD were fruitless, as Ethiopia and Sudan expect massive benefits from the dam construction while Egypt sees it as a threat to its share of the Nile River water.

Egypt is concerned about its annual share of 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile River water amid the reservoir’s rapid construction.

Last December, Egypt recommended the World Bank as a technical mediator in the issue of Ethiopia’s dam building, a proposal that has not been accepted by Ethiopia and Sudan.

Shoukry’s talks with Gebeyehu also covered the ongoing cooperation between the two countries in various fields as well as regional issues of mutual concern including the conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan.

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Ethiopia

Ethiopia Is Falling Apart

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For a brief moment last week, Ethiopia seemed poised to shed its reputation as Africa’s Stasi state.

At a press conference on Jan. 3, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn vowed to free political prisoners and shutter the notorious Maekelawi prison, which has long served as a torture chamber for government critics, opposition leaders, journalists, and activists.

Desalegn’s announcement shocked Ethiopian citizens and observers alike. Initial reports indicated that the Ethiopian regime had finally accepted that mistakes had been made and serious abuses had been committed on its watch.

Indeed, the stark admission would have marked the first time ever that Ethiopia had acknowledged holding political prisoners in the country. (Human rights groups have estimated that they number in the tens of thousands.)

The outpouring of optimism did not last long. Within hours, an aide to Desalegn clarified the prime minister’s remarks, saying that “mistranslation” by the media was to blame for the confusion. And indeed Desalegn’s actual comments in Amharic were less clear-cut.

He spoke of the need to cultivate national reconciliation and to expand democratic freedoms, adding that “some political leaders and individuals whose crimes have resulted in court convictions or their ongoing trial” would be pardoned or have their cases withdrawn. A week after the press conference, it remains unclear how many people will be freed or when, if at all.

One fact remains clear, however. Following three years of escalating anti-government protests — mostly by the Oromo ethnic group and to an extent the Amhara, who together comprise two-thirds of the country’s 100 million people — Ethiopia can no longer afford to ignore demands for political reform.
For years, the regime has sacrificed respect for basic political rights and civil liberties on the altar of economic growth. And its claims of a rapidly growing economy have always been dubious at best. The status quo can no longer hold.

A staunch U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, Ethiopia is seen as a stable oasis in the troubled Horn of Africa region, which is plagued by both extremist attacks and ruthless counterinsurgency operations. This image of stability has been cultivated by well-oiled lobbyists in Washington and by an army of social media trolls on the government payroll. However, despite the outward veneer of growth and stability, all is not well in Ethiopia.

In an effort to boost lagging exports, authorities devalued Ethiopia’s currency, the birr, by 15 percent last October. The country is also struggling to mitigate the effects of massive youth unemployment, high public debt, rising inflation, and a shortage of foreign currency. The economic woes that have beleaguered Ethiopia have fueled the increasing unrest.

Amhara and Oromo protesters decry economic marginalization and systemic exclusion at the hands of powerful ethnic Tigrayan leaders. The economic dividends of the country’s modest growth are not broadly shared outside the wealthy business class and associates of the ruling party. To make matters worse, a long-simmering border dispute between the Oromia and the Somali regions has left hundreds of people dead and more than 700,000, mostly from the Oromo ethnic group, internally displaced.

Taken together, these burgeoning crises have raised credible concerns about the risk of state collapse. And there are good reasons to be worried. Western donors and foreign investors alike are increasingly jittery about the political uncertainty and growing popular unrest. In its annual Fragile States Index, which predicts risk of state failure, the Fund for Peace ranked Ethiopia 15th out of 178 countries surveyed, up from 24th in 2016.

Adding to the creeping sense of doom is an internal power struggle that is ripping apart the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power since 1991. The EPRDF is a coalition of four unequal partners, including the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo People’s Democratic Party (OPDO), and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ostensibly, each party is meant to represent the vested interests of its ethnic region within the EPRDF.

In theory, Ethiopia is a federation, based on decentralized ethnic representation. In practice, the federal system has for years enabled the domination of the country’s political space, economy, and security services by ethnic Tigrayans. The TPLF represents the Tigray region, home to only about 6 percent of the country’s population. Yet the party gets the same number of votes as the OPDO, which represents the roughly 40 percent of Ethiopians who are ethnic Oromos.

This inherent tension broke the surface in October 2016, when newly elected OPDO leaders began to openly embrace protesters’ grievances and calls for reform. This marked the first sign of a split within the EPRDF and set the stage for the ongoing power struggle over how to respond to the increasingly deadly and destabilizing Oromo protests.

The Oromo protest movement has amplified the OPDO’s voice within the EPRDF. At the press briefing held with Desalegn on Jan. 3, Lemma Megersa, the head of the OPDO and president of Oromia, accused TPLF officials of planting cronies inside his party and viewing political power as their own personal property. He made this claim in the presence of the TPLF chairman — a stunning public rebuke.

On the surface, the ruling coalition now appears open to correcting course. Instead of blaming its failures on terrorists, “anti-peace elements,” or diaspora-based opposition groups as the EPRDF has done in the past, Desalegn acknowledged the need for reform.

To stop Ethiopia from falling apart, however, the government will need to go much further than the halfhearted concessions hinted at by the prime minister. It must undertake a host of long-overdue political and legal reforms, including dismantling the fusillade of draconian laws it has enacted over the last two decades to stifle dissent, decimate civil society, and muzzle the opposition.

A number of prominent Ethiopian opposition leaders, activists, and journalists — some of whom are expected to be freed after Desalegn’s remarks — have been unjustly detained and convicted under a noxious trio of laws, namely the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.

To ensure that prisoners who are pardoned do not end up back behind bars, and to truly reckon with the abuses committed during the EPRDF’s 27-year rule, Ethiopia’s leaders should immediately begin dismantling the machinery of oppression by repealing and replacing those laws, which have been routinely condemned for failing to meet international standards.

In addition, to turn the page on its checkered past, the EPRDF regime — which now controls 100 percent of seats in parliament — must also implement a process of national reconciliation based on the principles of inclusivity and genuine political dialogue. In his Jan. 3 statement, Desalegn cited the need for social healing as a reason for the pardon of some prisoners.

It was a historic moment. But for it to translate into real change, the country’s leaders must resolve to release all political prisoners without delay or preconditions; fully implement the country’s rarely applied but progressive constitution; ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary; end unchecked impunity for corrupt officeholders and security officials; and hold to account those responsible for the death and displacement of hundreds of Ethiopians.

No one expects change in Ethiopia to occur overnight. The reform process will undoubtedly be lengthy and fraught with potential obstacles. But to rescue the country from the undue weight of its own repression, EPRDF leaders have no choice but to change course.

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