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Ethnic violence displaces hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians

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Lifting her robe the young woman revealed undulating scar tissue blanketing her breasts, stomach, and extending up her neck and along her arms.

“They poured petrol over me then lit it,” said 28-year-old Husaida Mohammed. “They were Somali boys.”
When IRIN met Mohammed she was in a camp of about 3,500 displaced Oromo people on the outskirts of Harar, the ancient walled city in Ethiopia’s Harari Region.

It had taken her over a month to make the 100-kilometre journey to safety from Jijiga, the capital of Ethiopia’s far eastern Somali Region. For weeks she lay hidden in an empty Oromo-owned house tended to by friends as she recovered from her injuries.

Next to her in the large warehouse being used to shelter the displaced was a woman in a striking pink robe. She had no visible injuries but didn’t utter a word.

“She was throttled so badly they damaged her vocal chords,” a doctor explained. “She can’t eat anything, only drink fluids.”

Tit-for-tat ethnic violence in Ethiopia’s two largest regions of Oromia and Somali began in September and has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Local media have reported upwards of 200,000 displaced, humanitarian workers at the camps talk of 400,000.

Chronology

The unrest began when two Oromo officials were reportedly killed on the border between the two territories, allegedly by Somali Region police.

On 12 September, protests by Oromo in the town of Aweday, between Harar and the city of Dire Dawa, led to rioting that left 18 dead. The majority were Somali khat traders, a mildly narcotic leaf widely chewed. Somalis who fled Aweday said the number of dead was closer to 40.

In response to Aweday, the Somali Regional government began evicting Oromo from Jigjiga and the region. Officials say this was for the Oromo’s own safety, and that no Oromo died as a result of ethnic violence in the region – a claim disputed by those displaced.

In addition to the camps around Harar and Dire Dawa – cities viewed as neutral safe havens – they have popped up elsewhere along the contentious regional border.

In these camps Oromo and Somali tell equally convincing stories of ethnic violence. They accuse the regional special police – in the Somali Region known as the Liyu, and in Oromia as the Liyu Hail – of being behind many of the attacks.

Both regional governments deny their police forces were involved.

The federal government faces fierce accusations ranging from not doing enough, to deliberately turning a blind eye to the violence.

The Oromo see this as punishment after their year of protests against the ruling party that led to a state of emergency.

There has also been a legacy of distrust of the Somali Region in Addis Ababa. The perception is that among the population there is revanchist sympathy for the idea of a Greater Somalia.

Another possibility is that the government simply has not had the capacity to effectively respond, so widespread has been the violence.

Oromia and Somali share a 1,400-kilometre long border. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, numbering about 35 million, a factor Ethiopia’s other ethnic groups remain deeply conscious of – especially its 6.5 million Somalis.

History of hate

Ethnic conflict along the common border and in the rural hinterland has long existed – with Oromo migration a particular source of friction.

The ongoing drought, which has put pressure on pasture and resources, could be another.

“As you move west of the regional border the land becomes higher with more water and pasture,” said the head of a humanitarian organisation who spoke on condition of anonymity over the sensitivity of the issues.

“Where the regional border runs is very contentious – you’ll find different maps giving a different border,” he added.

At the same time, many of the displaced spoke of their shock at how the violence broke out in formerly close-knit communities that had integrated peacefully, often for centuries, and in which intermarriage between Oromo and Somali was the norm.

Some of the history and scale of this violence can be found 80 kilometres east of Dire Dawa, just over the regional border in the Somali Region, where two giant camps for displaced Somalis are co-located in the lee of the Kolechi Mountains.

In the older camp are 5,300 Somali households displaced by a mixture of drought and ethnic violence since 2015. In the newer camp are 3,850 households – roughly six to 10 people each – all made homeless by the recent trouble.

One Somali man who arrived nine months ago, before the current surge of unrest, recounted his experience at the hands of Oromia’s Liyu Hail in Oromo’s Bale zone, hundreds of kilometres to the southwest.

He said a violent mob of Oromo militia had come to his village so he and a group of about 40 men went to the regional police to request protection.

“But the man in charge ordered his men to fire at us,” the Somali man said. “Everyone fell – I wasn’t hit but I was covered in so much blood from the others the police thought I was dead, and I escaped.”
He claims 200 people in total were killed and 893 houses were burned: “Everything was looted, all livestock taken – it was unimaginable.”

The people in both camps pull back clothing to reveal old bullet wounds, scars, and lesions from burns, and broken bones that never healed.

A number of displaced Somalis say they survived thanks to the intervention of soldiers from the Ethiopian Defence Force during the recent violence. But it wasn’t enough to persuade them to remain, or to return.
“If the federal government sends forces to keep the peace, they stay for a week or a month, and then after they leave it happens again,” said one Somali man. “We can’t risk staying.”

What next?

The violence has also crossed borders with reports of Oromo leaving ethnically Somali Djibouti and Somaliland, where two Ethiopians were reportedly killed in the capital, Hargeisa. It’s believed this could have been the revenge of relatives of some of the traders that died in Aweday.

For the Oromo and Somali displaced from their homes, the next step is to find a long-term solution.
But Ethiopia’s federal system devolves quite a bit of power to ethnic regional states. With sectarian anger still running high, this leaves the government in a quandary over how to respond to the crisis, some commentators have pointed out.

“[Those displaced] could be integrated in the communities where they are now, resettled elsewhere, or returned to their original communities,” said one official in an international organisation who asked for anonymity.

“The government [is] committed to everyone being able to return home, as is their constitutional right to live where they want, but for most [of them] we are not sure whether this is possible.”

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 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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Ethiopian PM says they will continue to develop Berbera Port so Ethiopia and Somaliland can benefit

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