Eritrea Liberty Magazine Issue No. 55

Saturday, 02 March 2019 22:12 Written by

A checkpoint in Metema in north-western Ethiopia, next to the border with Sudan. The town is a centre of a booming trade in migrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea. (AP Photo)

March 1, 2019 (KHARTOUM) - The Joint Sudanese-Ethiopian Higher Committee (JSEHC) has agreed to complete the border demarcation between the two countries as soon as possible.

On Thursday, the JSEHC concluded its meeting in Khartoum. The final communiqué was signed by Sudan’s Vice-President Osman Kibir and Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime, Minister, Demeke Mekonnen.

Speaking at a joint press conference following the end of the talks, Kibir praised efforts of the joint technical committee between the two countries, saying the two sides have agreed on all issues under discussion.

He pointed out that meeting stressed the need to activate all joint mechanisms and committees, saying the two sides agreed on the need to complete the demarcation of the joint border.

Sudan’s Vice-President also said the meeting enhanced the already strong ties between the two countries, pointing to the importance of promoting relations among the border regions.

For his part, the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister said the meeting would strengthen bilateral relations on all levels.

He pointed out that the joint committees play an important role in promoting bilateral ties, saying the two countries enjoy deep and historical relations.

Mekonnen further said the two sides agreed to activate the rest of the joint political, social and security committees, expressing keenness to implement all agreements reached during the meeting.

Ethiopia and Sudan are engaged more and more in joint security, military and economic cooperation.

In April 2017, the two sides signed a number of joint agreements to promote economic relations and strengthen ties between the two countries.

Also in February 2018, they signed multiple agreements to further boost up cooperation on a range of development activities.

In March 2012, al-Bashir announced his support to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), saying his government understands the mutual benefits the project could offer Ethiopia and Sudan.

Although Khartoum and Addis Ababa have close ties, the border area between the two countries remains a source of tension and violence between the two sides due to the human trafficking and smuggling to reach Egypt and Libya.

Also, Ethiopian farmers are accused by the Sudanese farmers of occupying vast agricultural land in the Al-Fashqa area of Gedaref State.

The third issue until recently was Ethiopian rebels who sneak over the border coming from Eritrea. Many have been detained and handed over to the Ethiopian authorities.

Last month, there were media reports that Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, Workneh Gebeyehu, has warned that Sudan’s failure to curb continued arms smuggling into Ethiopia through its border may lead to cutting diplomatic relations.

However, the Ethiopian government has dismissed these reports as unfounded saying the Foreign Minister’s remarks were taken out of context.

In October 2017, the security committee between Sudan’s Gedaref state and Ethiopia’s Amhara region decided to recommend to the leadership of the two countries to deploy a joint force along the border.

Last August, the Sudanese and Ethiopian armies signed an agreement to withdraw troops from both sides of the border and to deploy joint forces to combat "terrorism", human trafficking and to eliminate any potential security tensions. But it was not clear if effective steps have been taken towards its deployment.

It is noteworthy that the current borders between Sudan and Ethiopia were drawn by the British and Italian colonisers in 1908. The two governments have agreed in the past to redraw the borders and to promote joint projects between people from both sides for the benefit of local populations.

The JSEHC announced in December 2013 that it reached an agreement to end disputes between farmers from two sides of the border over the ownership of agricultural land.

In November 2014, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and President al-Bashir instructed their Foreign Ministers to fix a date for resuming the border demarcation. The operation had stopped following the death of Ethiopia’s former premier, Meles Zenawi.



February 27, 2019 Ethiopia, News

“Popular concerns are increasing about the government’s apparent powerlessness to curtail the growing climate of violence, as is the disillusionment of the literati and civil society elites. The advocates of a classic model of liberal democratization feel increasingly impotent. They believe they can do nothing other than support Abiy and keep silent over the multiple criticisms that they level at him in private, because they are convinced that to express them in public, or to mobilize their adherents, would simply throw oil on the fire. One of them sums up their dilemma in the following way: ‘Abiy is in the driving seat of the bus; if he is pushed out, no one will be able to replace him; the bus will end up in the ditch.'”

Source: Open Democracy

If the Prime Minister chooses to lean on his personal popularity, could he obtain and sustain enough political support ? There is no easy answer or quick fix to the gathering predicament.

lead lead Abiy Ahmed welcomed at Brandenburg Gate before summit on private investment in Africa launched by Angela Merkel as President of G20. Kay Nietfeld/ Press Association, October, 2018. All rights reserved.

In Ethiopia today, most political forces keep repeating the same mantra: we need to get everything in place for free and fair polls in 2020. Elections are heralded as the last crucial stepping-stone to the completion of a democratic transition that is believed to definitively turn the page on the authoritarian order and struggling ethnic federal system established in 1991.

Taking the long view, one might wonder whether holding elections on schedule and under acceptable conditions will really give birth to the new, fair, and stable order as promised, given the political fragmentation and polarization observed in Ethiopia today. In the short-term, however, this mantra raises two questions: Are the political parties publicly advocating for the election to go ahead as planned really committed to that stance? And are they acting as if it is their sincere desire?

While last year’s dismantling of the ‘TPLF system’ was lightning fast and radical, the construction of the framework needed to hold competitive elections is erratic and slow.  Work was announced by the ‘old’ EPRDF during the height of the protests 18 months ago, but pushed as a priority shortly after Abiy Ahmed took office. Yet revising two of the three big anti-freedom laws (terrorism and media) is still ongoing, as is the revision of election laws and the regulatory framework for the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).

The work on the electoral system hadn’t gone much further than a draft bill and the appointment of a new chairperson of the board. Agreement has only just been reached on “the procedure to conduct and regulate the upcoming negotiations and discussions” between the government and the plethora of registered parties. Yet it is via the NEBE that Abiy Ahmed proposed to restart the dialogue between EPRDF and the opposition after the burial of the Political Parties Negotiations Forum, set up in January 2017. In late December, NEBE itself sounded the alarm: “delays in pre-election preparations may create hectic schedule to hold the much anticipated general elections in 2020.”

Sensitive census

The immensity of the task at hand may partly explain this procrastination. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome. The national census is planned for April and its outcome is crucial for credible elections. Highly sensitive issues are at stake.

Close to three million people are now internally displaced. The census will count the number in each of the “nations, nationalities and peoples”, which carries highly significant political and economic weight in a federal system. It will also assess the ethnic composition in mixed areas. But for the first time, no one will be forced to choose an ethnic identity, and can instead register as “Ethiopian” or of “mixed ethnic heritage”. This may prove confusing for the ethnic quota system.

Furthermore, the Constitution states that it is “on the basis of the census results” that “the boundaries of constituencies are determined”. This may appear as a recipe for continued ethnic conflicts and demographic rearrangements (read, ‘cleansing’); or ‘ethnic ownership’ of cities such as Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Harar, and Hawassa. Hence, will existing ethnic tensions prevent completion of the census, or, more likely, preclude its findings from being widely accepted?

In addition, the work of the newly created Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission, or the ongoing demand of different zones in the SNNP to become states, could impact the election’s organization. In particular, will the Sidama statehood claim complicate the election process, as it seems unlikely that the Sidama will accept a postponement of their presumed right to establish their own region? So far NEBE has not started to prepare for a referendum on this question, although they are required to do so within a year of the request, which was made in June/July. Sidama activists are demanding that the process must be obeyed. A separate Sidama state would add additional burdens on NEBE to prepare for elections in the southern region, as a new electoral map would need to be drawn.

Delayed reaction

The herculean task ahead of the NEBE to put its house in order to facilitate a “free and fair ” election in just 15 months’ time has allegedly led to discreet discussions at the center to possibly postpone them for about six months until after the main rainy season. However, whatever they publicly say, for a substantial proportion of political forces, creating suitable conditions for timely elections does not genuinely seem a priority. This position is dictated by beliefs and/or interests.

Let us recall first that in the 2005 election, the only one under EPRDF to have been relatively free, people voted primarily for a party, embodied by a leader, and took practically no interest in the candidate representing their local electoral constituency. The vast majority probably did not even know the names of the local candidates. Thirteen years on, however, some strong representatives, linked with varying degrees to the opposition, have emerged locally, especially during the last few years of widespread protests. This time, voters may be more influenced by these figures than by party leaders in Addis Ababa. And, let’s not forget, the Prime Minister is not on the ballot; it is the House of People’s Representatives that elects the premier from among its members.

Some are convinced that elections can only occur as the culmination of a democratic transition. The recent proliferation of articles pleading for a postponement, for different reasons, is symptomatic of this trend. For example, they should only be heldafter the public has regained its trust in the democratic institutions of the nation… There is a danger in allowing incumbents to stay in office beyond the mandated limit, but there is just as much peril in pushing forward with an election before the foundations for a democratic nation are laid.”

Building these new foundations by May 2020 is an impossible task, given the dearth of reforms completed so far and the disorganization and fragmentation of deeply conflicting political forces. So, how could a democratic transition be managed, according to those calling for elections to be postponed? For its promoters, by a transitional government only. The question of the elections should be shelved until comprehensive institutional reforms are completed and consolidated.

But this logic returns us to the same obstacle: are the present political forces cohesive enough to reach a consensus on how trustworthy democratic institutions should be designed, when simply agreeing on an electoral roadmap has been so laborious?

Systemic opposition

Above all, too many factions and figures believe that elections on the due date and under current rules would be fatal. First among these are the “unitarians” or “pan-Ethiopianists” who prize “Ethiopianness” above all else. In private, they cite years of harassment, even prohibition, as a reason why they should be given ample time to rebuild their constituency and party platform and why the elections should be postponed. But their reasons go deeper. Some of them never accepted ethnic federalism. Yet the most important issue is their observation that radical ethno-nationalist parties currently dominate the political stage.

Some extremist positions are presented. To prevent the next elections being “dominated by over ninety percent of ethnic based parties”, there should even be a ban on “all ethnicity based political parties from participating in electoral politicssome even argue. Without going as far as this, the dominant current within this political segment is surreptitiously pushing to prevent the victory of a “block” of ethnic and resolutely ethnofederalist parties, and at the same time for measures to be taken against the growing insecurity in the country. They argue consistently for the establishment of a sort of special transitional regime. Parliament would be mothballed and the executive would govern by decree.[1]

The new alliance created around Ginbot 7 is the spearhead of the “unitarians”. However, the situation is nothing like 2005, when the Amhara region, Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and parts of the South – in particular Gurage area – were their bastions. It is likely that they would still attract urban votes – Addis Ababa in particular – and from segments of the South, primarily Gurage. But the newly established National Movement for Amhara (NaMA) has the wind in its sails, partly as the ruling Amhara Democratic Party is widely discredited. The growth of Amhara nationalism would diminish Ginbot 7’s support in the region. Elsewhere, they would probably be even less popular, except in urban centers with strong Amhara – or rather ‘Ethiopianised’ – populations.

Party moves

A similar scenario may also face Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). The stigma of being the EPRDF flag bearer may haunt it. We have not met any Ethiopian who is currently a die-hard defender of EPRDF; rather, the opposite – it is generally despised. The ODP political machine, for instance, is so disparaged that a majority of informed observers think the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), possibly in alliance with the Oromo Federalist Congress, might win a majority of federal seats in Oromia.

In the Southern Nation, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS), the governing party, the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM) is a shambles, as the region’s integrity crumbles. Mismanagement, internal power struggles, the stepping down of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as chairperson, and a host of other issues, have left SEPDM in such disarray that most southern observers claim that it no longer de facto exists.

Paradoxically, the only EPRDF party that has more or less sustained its cohesion and regained its grassroots support is the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Strong criticism from the grassroots was articulated against the leadership for mismanagement, corruption and lack of delivery. Certain corrective measures have been undertaken, foremost of these the change of leadership. However, the turn of events elsewhere in Ethiopia, and the more or less open persecution of all things Tigrayan as a consequence of collective blame for the authoritarian streak of TPLF/EPRDF rule since 1991, has led the Tigrayan people to ‘circle the wagons’ for individual as well as collective protection.

Tigrayans are convinced that the only agent strong enough to provide this protection in the uncertain terrain into which Ethiopia is heading is the TPLF; hence its absolute dominance at the ballot box in 2020 seems guaranteed. The Tigrayan opposition parties Arena and Tand are in talks of a merger, also possibly including the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement. Although they may gather some protest votes, it seems unlikely they will pose any threat as a constituency level anywhere in Tigray.

In short, if the political landscape and electoral system remains the same and if a free and fair election is conducted, which is highly questionable as things stand today, then EPRDF – with the exception of TPLF in Tigray – can feel nothing but dread about the possibility of elections in 2020; and consequently Abiy Ahmed about his chances of continuing as Prime Minister.

Ambiguous Abiy

As on so many other points, Abiy Ahmed’s public position is ambiguous.

Heading a federalist party, he has nevertheless made repeated statements and moves which were godsends for the “unitarians”. Abiy’s emphasis on ‘medemer’ – Ethiopian ‘synergy’ or ‘oneness’, is permeating all his speeches, as well as his intentions to reconnect Eritrea, one way or the other, to Ethiopia; making both his own qeerroo constituency and Eritrean nationalists nervous.

And according to a report about the last session of the EPRDF Executive Committee, “the chairman of the ruling party does not seem to have made up his mind whether to let the national elections be conducted on schedule.” His game is obviously to keep things vague in order to hold two irons in the fire, one in each camp, each totally opposed to each other on this subject. On the one hand, he has allegedly stated at a forum with 81 opposition parties that “constitutional amendment, if necessary, will only happen after first having a legitimately elected government with the mandate to govern.

On the other hand, there are multiple rumours about his intention to switch to a presidential system. He declared: “eighty people in the Council of the EPRDF made me PM,[2] even though there are 100 million Ethiopians. We need to open up the leadership to direct elections.” Apparently he recently asked the Attorney General’s Office to prepare a legal brief on this matter, and he all but admitted his ambitions in his recent first major interview with the international media. This would be the major card he could play, in fact his trump card, in order to stay in charge of the country, since there is no other national figure likely to overshadow him.

Bulcha Demeksa, a veteran Oromo figure who still has a certain political stature, has always advocated for a presidential system. It is gaining adherents in Oromia, in particular because the Oromo are the most numerous ethnic community and direct suffrage would increase their chances of getting one of their own to the pinnacle of government. A move to a presidential regime is also advocated by the “unitarians”, including Berhanu Nega, head of Ginbot 7, due to a belief it would have a national unifying dynamic.

Federalist unity

At the other extreme, a pivot to a presidential system is rejected by all those who fought dearly for ethnic federalism and who believe that they would benefit under the current system. This is the case in particular for the resolutely federalist dominant camp ­– not to say confederalist forces – such as OLF, OFC, TPLF, and most parties from the so-called ‘peripheral regions’ of Afar, Somali, Benishangul-Gumuz and Gambella. Nevertheless, some of them, particularly among the former outlawed parties, are considering that a brief electoral postponement would be welcome to help them reinforce their positions.

In the face of this stalemate, the political class, whether in power or in the opposition, seems unwilling or unable to break it. There are absolutely fundamental disagreements among the political forces, mainly on the role of ethnicity and the degree of devolution in the federal system, and on the shift to neoliberalism. They lack sufficient cohesion and coherence to rise to most of the challenges they face. The autocratic rule of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi undermined the collective leadership model of EPRDF after the 2001 split, and authoritarianism devastated the political opposition.

After Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power ended the wave of protests, there is a popular impetus and mobilization to move towards a liberal democratic system, similar to those in countries escaping from an authoritarian regime. However, the mismatch between this business-as-usual approach and the gravity of the country’s situation is striking.

At the federal level, the ruling group comes down to a handful of persons under the thumb of a Prime Minister who is the sole embodiment of power. He is hyperactive and hyper-visible, but is busy with routine tasks. Day after day, he receives foreign VIPs, travels frequently to foreign countries, speaks to various groups, inaugurates… But to the best of our knowledge, he has for instance yet to visit any of the IDP camps scattered across the country; and to tackle head-on the primary crisis of security in Ethiopia.

Instead the PM is focusing on his top priority of resuming high growth, running after potential investors, mainly foreigners, as if the political crisis is in the process of being resolved. Thus he acts in accordance with the analysis of the former government for which the root cause of unrest was the lack of jobs, mainly for the youth.

Collective irresponsibility

Addis Fortune noted an incongruity that “best describes Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.” Addressing an audience of Ethiopian financiers who expected to be discussing “the most important subject” in their eyes – the faltering economy – Abiy Ahmed asked them to put their hands in their pockets to contribute to two tourist amenities in Addis Ababa, together representing a sum of more than $1.2 billion.

Lemma Megersa, President of Oromia, recently travelled to the Netherlands, accompanied by Gedu Andargachew, President of the Amhara region, “to familiarize with some of the Dutch companies active in Ethiopia.” The other ministers are largely invisible, except to some extent Workneh Gebeyehu, at Foreign Affairs. For example two new key ministers, the Minister of Peace, responsible, among other things, for all the security services, and the Minister of Defense, both with no previous experience in their field, are hardly visible in the public domain, although their portfolios are crucial.

The opposition leaders occasionally speak up here and there, mainly to complain about the slow pace of reform, but seem incapacitated or powerless to assume an active position as checks-and-balances to power and push efficiently for genuine democratization. At the same time, these same leaders, whatever their allegiance, are quite ready to claim that the house is on fire, that Ethiopia is on the edge of the precipice and at risk of sinking into a Yugoslavia scenario.

True, the agreement reached between OLF and ODP to put an end to their confrontations, notably in Wollega, sends a positive signal. However, it remains to be seen whether it will be applied by all the Oromo Liberation Army units, many of which are semi-autonomous, and whether the young Oromo activists who recently took up arms to form the mass of the combatants in Wollega will agree to disarm. The Somali region is beginning to heave again. There is a renewal of tensions between Afar and Issa. The conflict – and reportedly mass evictions and killings  – between the Amhara authorities and the Quemant is still ongoing, without any official comment or intervention from the federal government.

In Tigray, the Raya grievance remains tense. Concomitantly NaMA and Amhara nationalists are mobilizing to reclaim Wolkait and Raya areas of Tigray, as they are seen as Amhara lands. In addition, the incorporation of Metekel Zone into Benishangul-Gumuz after 1991 is criticized on the ground that it was historically part of Gojjam. A cold war between Amhara and Tigray is in effect, as their border is securitized and crossing it is restricted, as local Amhara vigilantes erratically prevent personnel and goods going to and from Tigray; most has to be re-routed through Afar region. Former chief of staff Tsadkan Gebretensae, a TPLF veteran thrown out of the party after the 2001 split, known for his levelheadedness, has declared that: “a war [between Tigray and the Amhara region] seems at the zenith of the chaotic situation.”

Displacement activities

Ethnic confrontations, far from diminishing or even stabilizing, are becoming worse. The number of IDPs driven out by conflict has risen from 1.47 to 1.77 million in the last two months. “The country registered one of the fastest growing internally displaced population (IDPs) in the world in 2018”. A recent report puts even this figure as at least 2.4 million: “more than 80 per cent of the at least 3 million IDPs in the country… cited inter-communal violence as the primary driver of displacement”.[3]

Although information on the ground is patchy, not a day goes by without news of civilians being killed here or there by unidentified “gunmen” or by the security forces. Arms-trafficking is exploding,[4] and reportedly gunshots are heard during the nights in cities across Amhara region as people are testing their newly purchased arms.[5] The prices for Kalashnikovs and hand-guns are skyrocketing. The police, whether federal or regional, have ceased to play their full role. The army seems to be the only solution in the event of significant disorder. But there are also some worrying signs that the new “Republican Guard” special force may develop in parallel to the armed forces and is commanded directly by the Prime Minister.

The economy has ground to a halt: the 8 per cent growth forecast for the current fiscal year is probably an over-estimate for two main reasons: insecurity, and as Abiy has decided to turn his back on the developmental state strategy to embrace neo-liberalism. But this U-turn is so sudden and unprepared that its management is chaotic. A close observer of Ethiopia’s economic performances and development since the Derg period draws a parallel with the radical policy shifts seen in the economic sector that happened after Trump’s takeover in the U.S.. Whatever policy Obama had pursued, even if it was working well, was thrown out regardless. Apparently the same is happening in Addis. Ethiopian neo-liberals are called home and given authority to redesign the economic sector. The brain behind Ethiopia’s industrial park program, Arekbe Oqubay, is reportedly sidelined, and with him institutional memory is lost.[6]

The dollar is shooting up again on the black market (now c.37/38 to the dollar, while official exchange is 28), exports have declined by 10 per cent and FDI has fallen by half compared with the same period last year. Ethiopia will not be able to reimburse its loans without restructuring, the industrial parks are failing to keep their promises in terms of both exports and jobs.

Divided rule

So the political class recognizes that the situation is dire, but does not take proportionate action. It seems neither willing nor capable of rising to the challenges – to prioritise – but jumps from one issue to the next without proper empirically underpinned policy planning, accountable decision-making processes, and speedy institutionalization. It is hanging in the air, as if it would be in charge of a virtual country, a country in a tranquil situation. A smart but disillusioned observer close to the political class, including the top players, reveals that they are locked in “pathetic short-term political calculations.”[7]

In this flux, Abiy is said to have informed the EPRDF Executive Committee meeting that the opposition is “highly fragmented and occupied by mutual squabbleshence little worry about their capacity to challenge the ruling party on the electoral front”, which could thus expect “a landslide victory”. This harks back to a similar statement a month before the 2005 elections, when Meles Zenawi was asked by French officials during his visit in Paris about the election outcome. He smiled and responded: “It will be a formality”[8]

All observers agree that the EPRDF is more divided and polarized than at any previous time. Even key leaders and politburo members of EPRDF admit in private that “the party is dead[9], even if it is the only surviving power pole at national level. By way of illustration, although they are supposed to form part of the same coalition, ADP and TPLF are at daggers drawn. The Tigray assembly, composed exclusively of TPLF members, yet with two ministers in the federal government, declared the formation of the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission – an institution backed by the head of the government and approved by parliament – to be unconstitutional and void in matters related to Tigray.

An arrest warrant issued against Getachew Assefa, former chief of the federal security services, has not been executed, and Getachew remains a member of TPLF’s politburo and at large. Most recently, at the Yekatit celebrations commemorating the 44th anniversary of TPLF, the chair Debretsion Gebremichael made his most critical statement against the federal government and the PM to date; calling all federalist forces to stand together against the chauvinist rule in the palace. He stressed that TPLF and Tigray will take all necessary measures to defend the constitutional framework and Tigray region.[10]

It is no surprise, then, that the lines of authority that EPRDF maintained between the federal government and the regions, as well as within the regions, have disappeared to the point that in many places the exercise of power is no longer decentralized, but atomized. In some places, local authorities have been chased out of office by local vigilante groups, or are mainly ceremonial because they are delegitimized by the population. When they do continue to effectively administer, they do largely what they want. With one key exception: Tigray; TPLF maintains law and order and normal public administration throughout the region.

Premier ambition

If the electoral framework is derailed, the compass which sets the only common course of the political leaders in general at least officially, would disappear. Ethiopia would enter into unknown territory. But this could strengthen Abiy’s hand. Objectively, the longer the political class remains divided and impotent, the stronger his position as the irreplaceable leader will become.

Speculations about his ultimate intentions continue. In particular, the question of whether his ostensible reformism is rooted in sincere and sustained conviction, or is instead the card he has played to attain power by riding the wave of the Qeerroo’s anti-authoritarian protest. He is rightly credited with having rapidly shattered the yoke that was weighing on Ethiopia’s neck, and radically opened up democratic space.

However, a double note of caution is in order. First, the high-speed liberalization he introduced had been sought and initiated by his predecessor: the main lines of reform were decided at the EPRDF Executive Committee meeting in December 2017. Second, his conversion to liberalism is very recent. Like his partner Lemma Megersa, and like the number three at the top Workneh Gebeyehu, he spent a large part of his career in the security services of a particularly repressive regime.

Moreover, it is not known whether Abiy initially opposed the brutal repression exerted on Oromo protesters from 2015 onwards. As a Member of Parliament, he did not vote against the proclamation of the first state of emergency. It was only after the stampede at the Oromo Irreecha Festival caused dozens, perhaps hundreds, of deaths in October 2016 that he performed a U-turn to endorse the demands of the Oromo protests.

Abiy Ahmed doesn’t always make a big deal about accountable government, administrative procedures and the rule of law; or at least he turns a blind eye when it is challenged. For example, Abdi Iley, the former president of Somali region, ruled in an unacceptable way. But the federal army couldn’t intervene legally to depose him if not requested by the Somali regional government, which of course did not happen. So the intervention was, de jure, unconstitutional.

Old tricks

Furthermore, the constitutionality of the Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission is also highly questionable. Likewise, the prosecutions for corruption and human rights violations focused on former leaders may appear to have an ethnic bias as most of them are Tigrayan, and some old-class ‘TPLF loyalists’ such as Bereket Simon. Yet there are suspicions that are at least as serious hanging over senior figures who remain untouched. As a result, the neutrality and independence of the judicial system remains in doubt, as it can be perceived as being used as a political revenge tool. The state media has been used to condemn the individuals arrested before they even got to court.

While Tigrayans were overrepresented at many levels of the state apparatus and in public or semi-public companies, and while an adjustment of the ethnic balance is justified, there is no apparent legal basis for the seemingly targeted purge they are experiencing, while currently serving Oromo officials known to be part of the ancient regime are left untouched. Despite appealing endlessly to “medemer”, the ruling power risks the same error for which its predecessor, the TPLF, has paid such a heavy price: to cleave instead of to reconcile.

Abiy Ahmed clearly favours the role of individuals over the work of institutions. Despite a Parliamentary constitution, the representatives “cheer and sing to the tune of the incumbent in the executive as if they are guests at a wedding”. He makes spectacular and mostly unexpected appointments to key positions, showing an indisputable willingness to open things up. But the question is not only whether the appointees have the required skills: are they given the resources, political backing and means to revitalize the often moribund institutions in their charge? He has created multiple committees of eminent figures charged with proposing solutions to the most burning issues, rather than task the institutions concerned with these problems. They are filled with members recommended by him for forgone approval by the Parliament,

In particular, the institutions don’t seem to play a leading role in tackling the major question of ethnic conflict. Most of the attempts at mediation, which have not yet produced lasting results, are entrusted to groups of elders, religious leaders, etc. The recent agreement between the government and Dawud Ibsa’s OLF was organized, driven, and underwritten by the Abba Gadaa Council, the senior body of the traditional Oromo system of governance, which has no constitutional existence. Dawud Ibsa went so far as to announce that the OLF combatants would be handed over to “the Oromo people and the Abba Gadaa”, in other words not to the established state institutions.

The slide towards the personalization and deinstitutionalization of power seems apparent. Apart from Abiy Ahmed’s evident ambition, another factor may be at work. Abiy Ahmed, like the two other key leaders Lemma Megersa and Workeneh Gebeyu, is a fervent Pentecostalist. Pentecostalism is a doctrine with a profoundly individualistic vision, which perceives the achievement of required change much more as a personal accomplishment than a collective enterprise. Such a worldview may also influence his governance thinking.

Illiberal democrat?

Given such a level of complexity, confusion and open conflict, any prediction on the way forward for Ethiopia would be bravado more than ever. But three assessments and one question may be derived. In the present political and legal environment, could the elections lead to an effective winner? Here is the core of the problem. The probability that Abiy and the EPRDF would be defeated in 2020 is high, assuming it is a “free and fair” process. The possibility that another consolidated coalition could rise to power is low. Hence, the likely outcome would, if a democratic vote occurs, be a hung parliament without any strong coalition achieving a majority.

If so, there is a risk that the gate could be open for Abiy to assert himself as the sole vehicle to prevent Ethiopia entering into this unknown territory – a prospect that would increase if there is a renewed drive to convert the EPRDF into a unified party under Abiy; with or without TPLF or other affiliates in the federalist camp. Then a sort of “illiberal democracy” could emerge, dominated by a benevolent and modernizing firm-handed leader, a contemporary remake of the “enlightened despot” or, to draw on Ethiopian history, the “Big Man”, the teleq säw. He would rely for his acceptance on a relative tolerance of dissidence, crushed under the previous regime, on a return to order, and on hoped-for growth, revitalized by economic liberalization.

A recent article by Messay Kebede, a notable opponent of ethnic federalism, is symptomatic of this broader call for something like this. Faced with ethnic parties that seek only to “foment disorder and violence to achieve their true goals,” faced with rising insecurity, Abiy Ahmed and EPRDF are the only game in town. Certainly, “Abiy and his supporters may well be compelled to resort to authoritarian methods.” But “authoritarianism is not always a negative outcome so long as it continues to promote the order of achievement,” so long as it is used by “reforming” and “modernizing” “nationalist elites” “to promote a social order upholding achievement”.

Popular concerns are increasing about the government’s apparent powerlessness to curtail the growing climate of violence, as is the disillusionment of the literati and civil society elites. The advocates of a classic model of liberal democratization feel increasingly impotent. They believe they can do nothing other than support Abiy and keep silent over the multiple criticisms that they level at him in private, because they are convinced that to express them in public, or to mobilize their adherents, would simply throw oil on the fire. One of them sums up their dilemma in the following way: “Abiy is in the driving seat of the bus; if he is pushed out, no one will be able to replace him; the bus will end up in the ditch.”

There is thus no easy answer or quick fix to the predicament Abiy, EPRDF and Ethiopia are in. If the Prime Minister chooses to lean on his personal popularity and reinforce his position in the driving seat, could he obtain and sustain support from enough of the political spectrum? And could he also bring on board the army and the security forces, and the general population, in particular the young protesters that helped bring him to power, so that the bus would continue unsteadily along its treacherous course?

openDemocracy and Ethiopia Insight are pleased to be publishing the author’s pieces jointly.

[1] Personal accounts, Addis Ababa, October 2018.

[2] Where this figure of eighty comes from is unknown. The EPRDF Executive Committee consists of 36 members, the Central Committee of 180 members.

[3] These figures contradict the Abiy Ahmed assertion that “90pc of the people that were displaced since the reform began.”

[4]Bahir Dar: 498 illegal guns seized in the residence of a police commander

[5] Personal account, February 2019.

[6] Personal account, February 2019.

[7] Personal account, January 2019.

[8] Personal account, April 2005.

[9] Personal account, October 2018, January and February 2019.

[10] Personal account, 22 February 2019

February 26, 2019 News

Source: The Guardian

Eritrea Slavery

One in 200 people is a slave. Why?

Slavery affects more than 40 million people worldwide – more than at any other time in history



How many slaves are there today, and who are they?

The word “slavery” conjures up images of shackles and transatlantic ships – depictions that seem relegated firmly to the past. But more people are enslaved today than at any other time in history. Experts have calculated that roughly 13 million people were captured and sold as slaves between the 15th and 19th centuries; today, an estimated 40.3 million people – more than three times the figure during the transatlantic slave trade – are living in some form of modern slavery, according to the latest figures published by the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation.

Women and girls comprise 71% of all modern slavery victims. Children make up 25% and account for 10 million of all the slaves worldwide.

What are the slaves being forced to do?

A person today is considered enslaved if they are forced to work against their will; are owned or controlled by an exploiter or “employer”; have limited freedom of movement; or are dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as property, according to abolitionist group Anti-Slavery International.

Globally, more than half of the 40.3 million victims (24.9 million) are in forced labour, which means they are working against their will and under threat, intimidation or coercion. An additional 15.4 million people are estimated to be living in forced marriages.

Women can fall into a dark spiral of sexual exploitation and forced, unpaid prostitution, unable to escape.
Women can fall into a dark spiral of sexual exploitation and forced, unpaid prostitution, unable to escape. Photograph: NCA

Of the 24.9 million people trapped in forced labour, the majority (16 million) work in the private sector. Slaves clean houses and flats; produce the clothes we wear; pick the fruit and vegetables we eat; trawl the seas for the shrimp on our restaurant plates; dig for the minerals used in our smartphones, makeup and electric cars; and work on construction jobs building infrastructure for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Another 4.8 million people working in forced labour are estimated to be sexually exploited, while roughly 4.1 million people are in state-sanctioned forced labour, which includes governmental abuse of military conscription and forced construction or agricultural work. In certain countries such as Mauritania, people are born into “hereditary” slavery if their mother was a slave.

Again, women and girls bear the brunt of these statistics, comprising 99% of all victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors, according to the ILO.

Where is this happening?

Statistically, modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by Asia and the Pacific, according to the Global Slavery Index, which publishes country-by-country rankings on modern slavery figures and government responses to tackle the issues.

But the ILO and Walk Free warn that these figures are likely skewed due to lack of data from key regions. “We believe that the global estimate of 40.3 million is the most reliable data to date, although we believe it to be a conservative estimate as there were millions of people we couldn’t reach in conflict zones or on the refugee trail and places where we couldn’t be sure of collecting robust data such as the Gulf states, where access and language barriers prevented us from reaching the migrant worker communities,” said Michaëlle de Cock, a senior statistician at the ILO.

More than 70% of the 4.8 million sex exploitation victims are in the Asia and Pacific region. Forced marriage is most prevalent in Africa. But there isn’t a single country that isn’t tainted by slavery: 1.5 million victims are living in developed countries, with an estimated 13,000 enslaved here in the UK.

Why are there so many slaves today?

Slavery is big business. Globally, slavery generates as much as $150bn (£116bn) in profits every year, more than one third of which ($46.9bn) is generated in developed countries, including the EU. Whereas slave traders two centuries ago were forced to contend with costly journeys and high mortality rates, modern exploiters have lower overheads thanks to huge advances in technology and transportation. Modern migration flows also mean that a large supply of vulnerable, exploitable people can be tapped into for global supply chains in the agriculture, beauty, fashion and sex industries.

According to slavery expert Siddharth Kara, modern slave traders now earn up to 30 times more than their 18th and 19th century counterparts would have done. The one-off cost of a slave today is $450, Kara estimates. A forced labourer generates roughly $8,000 in annual profit for their exploiter, while sex traffickers earn an average of $36,000 per victim.

Joe, 10, and Kwame, 12, who were sold by their mother to a fisherman in Ghana

“It turns out that slavery today is more profitable than I could have imagined,” Kara said. “Profits on a per-slave basis can range from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars a year, with total annual slavery profits estimated to be as high as $150bn.”

It’s important to acknowledge that global population rates also affect estimates: the top 10 countries with the highest estimated absolute number of victims are also some of the most populous. Together, these 10 countries – China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines and Russia – comprise 60% of all the people living in modern slavery, as well as more than half the world’s population, according to the Global Slavery Index.

An increase in violent conflict worldwide over the past 30 years has also inflated the number of people at risk of slavery, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with armed groups and terrorists turning to trafficking “to show they have control over the community, or to increase their force, either recruiting child soldiers or giving sex slaves as a reward for their recruitment”.

What’s the difference between slavery and human trafficking?

Human trafficking is just one way of enslaving someone. Whereas centuries ago it was common for a slave trader to simply buy another human being and “own” that person as their property (which does still happen), today the practice is largely more insidious.

Trafficking involves the recruitment, transfer or obtaining of an individual through coercion, abduction, fraud or force to exploit them. That exploitation can range from forced labour to forced marriage or commercial sex work – and the exploiter can be anyone, including strangers, neighbours or family members. Most people are trafficked within their own countries, although they can also be trafficked abroad; most often the individual is trafficked into forced labour.

Victims in the agricultural sector are often eastern European men and women, who were promised a job by traffickers, or they could be individuals on the fringes of society, homeless or destitute.
Victims in the agricultural sector are often eastern European men and women, who were promised a job by traffickers, or they could be individuals on the fringes of society, homeless or destitute. Photograph: NCA

Many times, the victim is led to believe they have been offered a well-paid job in a different city or country, only to find the job does not exist and they are now indebted to their “employer” or trafficker and must pay transportation, lodging and any other “fees” the exploiter demands, thereby forcing the victim into debt bondage.

Guardian investigations have revealed a slew of abuses from Qatar to Thailand, India to the United States. Qatar was forced to take action after revelations of abusive practices foisted on migrant workers helping build its infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.

Trafficking on to fishing boats is still widespread, particularly in south-east and east Asia, where men are lured by the promise of jobs in agriculture or construction, then drugged or beaten and wake up at sea.

Exploitation of migrant workers has also been revealed in Malaysia, Cambodia, China, Italy, Vietnam and the UK.

How does someone end up becoming a slave?

There is no definitive answer to this question. Modern slavery affects people of every colour, age and gender – but is more prevalent among vulnerable people. That might be a Cambodian villager looking for a better paid job in a neighbouring country, only to find himself trafficked on to a fishing boat.

In the maritime industry young men, often Filipino or Indian, eastern European or African, are promised a better life, but instead find themselves in a cycle of debt and exploitation

Slavery is global but flourishes in places where the rule of law is weak and corruption goes unchecked, says Anti-Slavery International.

Will slavery ever end?

Activists such as Kara believe that slavery can be eradicated for good, but that it would take great political will and considerable research.

First, dedicated investigators would need to identify each level in the often murky supply chains of commodities in order to determine where labour abuses are taking place.

Then, independent certification processes would need to be designed for each commodity, so that consumers could make educated choices about the products they are buying and the slavery or labour abuses implicated with those purchases.

Finally, Kara says, industries would need to invest in the communities whose low-cost labour is being used to make the products. “Doing so would help mitigate vulnerability to being trafficked and exploited,” Kara said. “Consumers may have to pay slightly more for certain goods, and multinational corporations may have to accept slightly lower profits. But a freer and fairer labour environment would promote greater productivity, potentially offsetting some of those expenses.”

What do I do if I think someone is a victim of modern slavery?

If you think someone may tick these boxes, it is best to contact authorities directly instead of approaching the person, as approaching them could put them in danger. In the UK, you can contact the Modern Slavery Helpline on 08000 121 700, the police, Crimestoppers or groups such as Anti-Slavery International.


Sudanese protesters wave the national flag during an anti-government demonstration in Khartoum's twin city of Omdurman on 31 Jan 2019. Photo AFP.jpg

February 22, 2019 (KHARTOUM) - Large protests have erupted in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum Friday night following a speech delivered by President Omer al-Bashir in which he dissolved the government and declared a one-year state of emergency.

Following the end of the speech, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Khartoum, Khartoum North and Omdurman demanding the removal of the regime and calling on al-Bashir to step down.

The demonstrators flooded streets and alleys of a number of neighbourhoods in Burri, Jabra, Al-Daim, Al-Manshia, Al-Mawrada, Al-Thawra, Al-Mazad, Al-Sha’abia and Shambat.

The protests came in response to a call from the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), an umbrella organization of trade union spearheading the protests that have been ongoing since last December.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese opposition said al-Bashir’s speech hasn’t met the people’s demands aiming at removing the regime and establishing a transitional government.

In a press statement following the president’s speech, a leading figure at the opposition National Consensus Forces (NCF) Satei Al-Hag said al-Bashir’s call for dialogue came too late.

He said the government must stop the crackdown on protesters, calling to abolish all laws that restrict freedoms as well as releasing political detainees and allowing general freedoms.

Deadly protests have rocked Sudan since December 19, with demonstrators holding nationwide rallies calling on al-Bashir to resign.

The government said 31 people have died in the violence, while other credible reports including from Human Rights Watch says at least 51 people have been killed.

Also, dozens of demonstrators have been injured and hundreds arrested during the protests.

Speaking to SkyNews Arabic Service, Sudanese journalist Faisal Mohamed Salah said that the imposition of the state of emergency increases the confrontations between the security authorities and the opposition and weakens the chances of political solutions.

Saleh added that the regime now is pushing towards violence and called on the international community to increase pressure on the government to avoid the repetition of civil wars that occurred in other countries following the Arab Spring.

"The regime has rejected all the advice and the time has come to take serious steps against him," he stressed.


On the other hand, media sources told Sudan Tribune the security authorities have launched an arrest campaign on the bases of the emergency order.

They pointed out that the Chief-Editor of Al-Tayyar newspaper Osman Mirghani has been arrested at late night on Friday from the premises of the news daily.

Also, the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said security forces have stormed its doctors’ residence in Khartoum using tear gas.

It pointed out that all doctors inside the residence have been arrested after they took to the streets to protest against the president’s speech.



UNHCR plans for refugees in Ethiopia

Friday, 22 February 2019 12:57 Written by

February 22, 2019 Ethiopia, News

Full Report from UNHCR Here

Ethiopia refugees


Since 2000, Ethiopia has received and hosted thousands of Eritrean refugees fleeing  persecution. Testimonies of recent arrivals from Eritrea indicate that involuntary open-ended military conscription, arbitrary arrest and detention without trial, compulsory land acquisition and other systematic human rights violations by the State remain prevalent.

In addition, a number of new arrivals have cited family-reunification with relatives residing in Ethiopia or third countries as a secondary motivation for their flight. Following the signing of the Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship by the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea in July 2018, two official border crossing points were reopened in September 2018.

The reopening of these border crossing points has contributed to an increase in the
average daily rate of new arrivals from 50 person per day to approximately 390 individuals up to the end of the year.

Of particular concern is the high number of unaccompanied and separated children arriving in Ethiopia fleeing impending military conscription, with a disproportionate impact on teenage boys. Children accounted for 44 percent of the total refugee population residing in the Tigray camps, of whom 27 percent arrive unaccompanied or separated from their families.

A key challenge in providing protection, assistance and solutions to Eritrean refugees concerns the high number of individuals leaving the camps to pursue onward movements.

In 2017, over 24,000 Eritrean refugees left the camps in the Tigray Region. While a portion of this onward movement is to urban centres within Ethiopia, the majority are believed to leave the country; motivated by the desire to reunite with relatives, access
improved educational services and earn an income to support family numbers that have remained in Eritrea.

The onward movement of unaccompanied and separated children remains substantial with an average departure rate of 300 per month. While a total of 13,000 Eritrean refugees benefit from the OCP, the official figure is anticipated to rise considerably in line with the number of new arrivals at the close of the year who were granted OCP status.

In 2019, additional investment will be made in reception and registration services, together with a transition to the provision of sustainable WASH and energy services for both refugees and the host community.

Managing Ethiopia’s Unsettled Transition

Friday, 22 February 2019 01:07 Written by

MapWhat’s new? Ethiopia’s new premier, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has made peace with Eritrea, extended a conciliatory hand to opponents, and promised moves to free and fair elections, expanded political space and economic reform. But amid the exhilarating changes, insecurity proliferates, the number of internally displaced people mounts and the economy struggles.

Why does it matter? Abiy’s bold moves have won plaudits from Ethiopians who have been protesting for change since 2014 and from donors who are eager to see democratic reform. But he now must make changes to his governance style in order to defuse ethnic and communal tensions and garner support for critical reforms.

What should be done? In seeking to restore security and calm ethnic tensions, Abiy should govern more inclusively, working collaboratively with state institutions on reforms and involving civil society in reconciliation efforts. He should also begin preparing for the 2020 elections (ensuring broad political support for any violence-related delays) and focus on economic modernisation

Executive Summary

After four years of street protests, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected Abiy Ahmed Ali prime minister on 2 April 2018. For many Ethiopians Abiy is a breath of fresh air. He admits the ruling coalition’s shortcomings, pledges reform, preaches unity and has made peace with Ethiopia’s old foe, Eritrea. Yet if Abiy has raised enormous expectations, he also faces daunting challenges. Insecurity has intensified and proliferated across the country, with communal violence tearing at the multi-ethnic fabric of Ethiopian society. Regional leaders demand more power. The economy is on life support, with foreign debt in excess of $24 billion, many young people without jobs and an old guard resistant to reform. There are no easy fixes for these challenges, but Abiy can give himself the best odds by focusing on three priorities – working to stop communal conflict, preparing for 2020 elections and reforming the dangerously weak economy.

The crisis that led to Abiy’s assumption of power was years in the making. Protests broke out in 2014 over discrimination against the Oromo – the country’s largest ethnic group – and spread to other groups, especially the Amhara, its second largest. Discontent with tough socio-economic conditions, as well as with the ruling party’s 27 years in power and its domination by a small, mostly Tigrayan, elite, was already widespread. The EPRDF, weakened by factional quarrels after the August 2012 death of strongman Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, struggled to contain the unrest. Meles’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, veered from cabinet reshuffles and political prisoner releases to crackdowns including new arrests of opposition leaders and demonstrators. In October 2016, a state of emergency brought temporary calm, but the protesters’ demands for political reform and socio-economic improvements still largely went unmet.

On 15 February 2018, Hailemariam resigned. By then the EPRDF elite – and especially its Tigrayan component – had lost its grip. With power dispersed among the security sector’s upper echelons, who were divided over whether to reform or protect the status quo, the EPRDF proved unable to steer the battle for succession. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, one member of the EPRDF coalition, stepped most assertively into the breach. Backed – in a break from tradition – by the Amhara National Democratic Movement, another EPRDF party, it propelled the Oromo nominee, Abiy Ahmed Ali, into the premiership. At age 42, Abiy is considerably younger than the old guard and, with the sympathy of many protesters, he appears well suited to the task of assuaging the grievances of the country’s neglected groups.

Changes during Abiy’s first months in office have been fast-paced. Abroad, he has signed a peace deal with Ethiopia’s long-time enemy Eritrea, while strengthening ties with other neighbours and with influential Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with whom relations were previously fraught. At home, he has sent long-serving politicians and security officials into overdue retirement and detained others. He has assembled a media-savvy team to disseminate an inclusive message, condemning the EPRDF’s past abuses and promising free and fair elections and a more legitimate and inclusive political system. In order to reduce the country’s crushing debt, he has vowed to open up the state-dominated economy – a major shift from the developmental state model espoused by Meles. Hopes in Ethiopia are high.

At the top of the new prime minister’s priority list must be the restoration of security through calming ethnic tension and violence.

So far, Abiy has set in motion important reforms, but enormous obstacles remain. Many Ethiopians are impatient for change. Communal violence has spread with an intensity unprecedented in the past quarter-century. Ethnic militias are proliferating. Unrest in the capital in September 2018 left at least 58 dead and led Abiy to cancel a trip to the UN General Assembly’s opening week. Within the ruling party, no consensus exists on how to tackle the country’s many challenges. Factions both inside and outside the EPRDF disagree over how much power should be devolved to federal regions and, as Abiy avoids taking a position, regional leaders jostle for greater autonomy, often under pressure from ethnic hardliners. Abiy himself contends with growing nationalist sentiment among his own Oromo constituents, many of whom expect him to serve their interests above those of others. For now, generous Gulf donations are keeping the economy afloat, but sky-high national debt means that Abiy at some point will have to embark upon belt-tightening.

At the top of the new prime minister’s priority list must be the restoration of security through calming ethnic tension and violence. To encourage a positive national tone, Abiy should develop a governance style that matches his inclusive rhetoric. Working with ministries and the civil service to develop the reforms that they will implement can help dispel the impression shared by some that he is governing from a closed circle of co-ethnic and co-religionist advisers. It also can reenergise a bureaucracy that has been adrift. To improve prospects for a planned national reconciliation process, the prime minister should invite civil society – particularly the Inter-Religious Council, a multi-faith group that promotes dialogue among various segments of society – to play a bigger role. Elders, too, should take a more prominent part. The latter two groups may enjoy greater credibility in stimulating frank dialogue at the grassroots level over issues driving violence, including border disputes and perceptions of injustice – historical and more recent – since they are not direct players in forthcoming electoral campaigns.

There are other priorities, too. With the 2020 elections fast approaching (and local elections due in mid-2019), the administration has precious little time to prepare, and the same is true of a raft of political parties that have never before had the opportunity to participate in a credible election. Donors should work collaboratively with authorities and the incipient local civil society movement to help surmount formidable logistical challenges, including ensuring a transparent voter registration process that does not exclude those who have been displaced by violence from their homes. Abiy should reach out to the opposition to agree on a dispute resolution framework ahead of the vote. This step might minimise the temptation of those unhappy with the outcome to resort to violence.

Lastly, the prime minister will need to institute comprehensive economic reforms: creating opportunities for greater domestic and foreign investment; streamlining regulation; breaking up inefficient state monopolies; carrying out banking reform to free up lending to the private sector; increasing manufacturing and agricultural productivity and revitalising the long-neglected small and medium-sized enterprise segment of the economy. All these measures will be critical to begin producing jobs for the burgeoning population.

For their part, Ethiopia’s international partners should, through a coordination mechanism, support his reform efforts with quiet counsel and the substantial financial aid needed to breathe new life into an economy whose pre-existing weaknesses have been compounded by five years of unrest and capital flight. They should disburse these funds as soon as possible to help the new administration address festering grievances over mass youth unemployment, which some leaders exploit to drive violence. All the while, they should keep in mind the dangers of an overly rapid transition and advise Abiy to adopt policies that favour long-term stability.

What happens in Ethiopia matters well beyond its borders. It is Africa’s second most populous country and one of its largest. It is also one of its more geopolitically significant – the only major country on the continent to have escaped colonialism and the seat of the African Union. Abiy’s drive to introduce more legitimate and inclusive governance in this prominent nation bucks a trend toward authoritarianism in the region and is closely watched across the continent and further afield. The stakes are high. If the experiment succeeds, the result could offer a powerful example to others. Failure – and especially a further turn into large-scale ethnic violence – would have major negative implications for an already unsettled region. The hope is that Abiy can create a more open and prosperous society, with benefits for Ethiopia and the region. This will require that the government bring under control the forces the transition has unleashed.

Nairobi/Brussels, 21 February 2019 


February 21, 2019 Ethiopia, News

Source: Financial Times

It is the compound from which Emperor Menelik II conquered swaths of territory, where Haile Selassie passed judgment until he was toppled by a Marxist revolt in 1974, and from which Meles Zenawi, strongman prime minister until his death in 2012, plotted an Asian-style economic miracle on the Nile.

Surveying the same 40-hectare plot in the centre of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, Abiy Ahmed, the most talked-about leader in Africa, sets out his grand plans for transforming Ethiopia. In an act of political theatre, he leads the FT on a tour of the prime ministerial grounds, from Menelik’s cathedral-sized banqueting hall to the cages where the emperor kept lions and the dungeon where he had disloyal generals and ministers tortured on the rack.

In Mr Abiy’s first one-on-one interview with the international media since he was catapulted to the premiership last April, he alternates between homespun prophet, hard man and visionary leader. He mixes humour with a tactile arm-grab worthy of LBJ. His sentences, delivered in proficient English, are laced with biblical references, big data and Michael Jackson.

Committed to opening up Ethiopia’s closed political system, he is fascinated by the nature of popularity. “If you change this,” says Mr Abiy, gesturing to the rubble-strewn compound and the rapidly changing skyline in the capital beyond, “you can change Addis. And if you can change Addis, definitely you can change Ethiopia.”

Improving his own surroundings, he says, is a metaphor for the transformation of a country that has, for 15 years, been the best-performing economy in Africa, but whose authoritarian government provoked a sustained popular uprising.

On his first day, he says, he ordered an overhaul of his office. In two months, what had been a dark and austere interior became a blindingly white luxury-hotel-style affair, replete with wall-to-wall videoconferencing screens, modern art and sleek white rooms for cabinet meetings and visiting delegations.

Cluttered storage rooms are now pulsing data banks and the ground floor is a California-style café — white, of course — where the premier’s mostly western-educated young staffers can sit and brainstorm. “I want to make this office futuristic. Many Ethiopians see yesterday. I see tomorrow,” he says. “This place has gone from hell to paradise.”

The youngest leader in Africa at 42, Mr Abiy is building a digital museum to celebrate Ethiopia’s history, a mini-Ethiopian theme park and a zoo with 250 animals. He envisages thousands of paying visitors coming each day.

“This is a prototype of the new Ethiopia,” says the former army intelligence officer and software engineer. “I have done so many great things compared to many leaders. But I didn’t do 1 per cent of what I am dreaming.”

His words may sound boastful, not to say arrogant, the sorts of qualities that have led many a leader in the past to cultivate a cult of personality.

The recent precariousness of the country should also give pause for thought: only a year ago, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the four-party coalition Mr Abiy leads, faced an almost existential crisis and there was even talk of a civil war. Yet Mr Abiy’s first 10 months in office have been remarkable by the yardstick of any leader around the world.

In that time, he has overseen the swiftest political liberalisation in Ethiopia’s more than 2,000-year history. He has made peace with Eritrea; freed 60,000 political prisoners, including every journalist previously detained; unbanned opposition groups once deemed terrorist organisations; and appointed women to half his cabinet.

He has pledged free elections in 2020 and made a prominent opposition activist head of the electoral commission. In a country where government spies were ubiquitous, people feel free to express opinions that a year ago would have had them clapped in jail.

“He says the most unbelievable things and then he ends up doing them,” says Blen Sahilu, a lawyer and women’s rights activist, referring partly to the unexpected peace treaty with Eritrea that brought an end to more than 20 years of military stand-off. “In many ways, Abiy has been a shock to the system,” she says. “I’m still waiting to see whether the country can sustain that much change in such a short period of time and if these actions have a thoughtful follow-up strategy.”

Mr Abiy’s emergence has unleashed opportunity and danger in equal measure. Some fear that rapid liberalisation could spin out of control, leading to anarchy or violent ethnic separatism.

“It was a given that the euphoria was not going to last,” says Tsedale Lemma, editor in chief of Addis Standard, a website she edits from Germany. “Everyone is waking up to the grim reality that the previous EPRDF administration has left behind,” she says, referring to the four-party coalition that has ruled with a vice-like grip since 1991.

The EPRDF’s track-record was not all bad. For nearly 15 years, the economy had been growing at more than 10 per cent annually, according to official statistics. Even if overstated, growth has propelled a nation long associated with famine from an $8bn minnow at the turn of the century to an $80bn economy that has surpassed Kenya as the biggest in east Africa.

Driven by former prime minister Meles’s vision of a South Korean or Chinese-style “developmental state”, the government poured money into roads, giant dams, agriculture, health and education.

Life expectancy has risen from 40 when the EPRDF took over by force in 1991 to 65. Ethiopia came to be seen by international agencies as a model of authoritarian development and Africa’s best hope of emulating the sort of economic and social transformation engineered in Asia.

But development came at a cost.

In a country with more than 80 ethnic groups, resentment built up against the Tigrayans, who comprise only 6 per cent of the 105m population but who were seen as dominating power.

That resentment was particularly strong among the Oromo, who make up roughly a third of the population, but who have long felt marginalised. The crisis intensified after 2015 when the EPRDF rigged an election so completely it ended up with every parliamentary seat.

Oromia, which surrounds Addis Ababa, erupted in violent protests, some of which targeted the foreign investments and industrial parks at the heart of the administration’s modernisation push.

In an unusual coalition, the Oromo were joined by the Amhara, who make up about a quarter of Ethiopians, and who had been used to running the country until the Tigrayans muscled in.

The EPRDF responded with repression, imposing states of emergency, throwing tens of thousands of people into prison and shooting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters.

Last February, amid talk of civil war, Hailemariam Desalegn, the ineffectual prime minister who had succeeded Meles in 2012, resigned, paving the way for a succession struggle within the EPRDF. Mr Abiy, who was then deputy president of the Oromia region, emerged the winner after two days of heated debate.

Over the objections of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, one of the parties in the coalition, he was elected EPRDF chairman and hence prime minister, the first from Oromia in the nation’s history.

“I knew when they kept insulting me that I had won,” he says. “I ignored it and wrote my acceptance speech.”

Growing up poor, with a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother, in retrospect Mr Abiy seemed destined for the job. He even speaks Tigrinya after spending time as a young soldier in Tigray province.

Indeed, he claims he knew from the age of seven that he would one day lead the country. Stefan Dercon, professor of economic policy at Oxford university’s Blavatnik School of Government, says Mr Abiy’s historic task is to complete the economic transformation that Meles began.

If South Korea’s miracle took 25 years, he says, “Ethiopia has completed half a miracle”.

Mr Abiy must now oversee the political and economic liberalisation needed, he says, to keep rapid levels of growth going for a decade or more, which would bring the country comfortably into middle-income status.

“Meles was too controlling, like Mao,” says Mr Dercon, who knew the feared but respected Ethiopian leader. “But command and control only works so far. That makes Abiy like Deng Xiaoping,” he says, referring to the Chinese leader whose opening and reform from 1979 propelled China’s economic lift-off.

While Mr Abiy remains wildly popular, particularly in the capital, not everything has gone his way.

He has faced one assassination attempt. And on October 10, a cadre of junior officers forced their way into the compound demanding to be heard. “I showed them I was a soldier,” he recalls. “I told them, if something wrong happens, you can’t kill me before I kill five or six of you.”

He followed up with a macho burst of press-ups. Inside an hour, the incipient coup was over.

Such bravado aside, Mr Abiy must grapple with two challenges that would test even the most gifted of leaders.

The first is political.

With censorship lifted and formerly outlawed groups unbanned, some people are demanding greater autonomy for their ethnically constituted regions. Armed militia are forming and youth gangs are carrying out vigilante attacks.

Some 1.2m people were displaced in the first half of last year, although Mr Abiy says many of them have since returned home. The prime minister hints he would like to tinker with the 1994 constitution, which some see as exacerbating ethnic rivalries but others regard as enshrining their rights.

Such delicate changes, he adds, cannot be contemplated until he receives a hoped-for popular mandate in elections scheduled for next year. Some think the timing will slip. He would also like to move to a presidential system in which leaders are directly elected, he says, rather than the current indirect process conducted through an EPRDF-dominated parliament.

While the prime minister preaches “unity of the nation and national pride”, the notion of a greater Ethiopia grates with those pressing for more regional autonomy. He has also moved against generals and officials from the TPLF in what many in Tigray province interpret as an assault, not on the corruption of party cadres, but on Tigrayans themselves.

“Every region has its own reason to fight for the continuation of the current federal system,” says Ms Lemma of the Addis Standard.

“This is very dangerous. Abiy is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she adds, referring to his need to unite the country and to satisfy demands for regional autonomy.

The prime minister professes to be unfazed by the forces he has unleashed. “Yesterday they were on the streets of Mekelle insulting me,” he says, referring to the Tigrayan capital. “But I love that. That is democracy.”

Mr Abiy says he wants to secure peace by persuasion, not through military pacification. “Negative peace is possible as long as you have a strong army. We are heading to positive peace,” he says.

Ultimately, Mr Abiy says, tensions will dissolve if the economy keeps expanding. “When you grow, you don’t have time for these communal issues.”

Keeping growth on track, he says, depends on dealing with past constraints, including debt and a seemingly perpetual foreign exchange crisis that puts import cover at barely two months. He also wants to tweak the Meles developmental model, where so much money was funnelled into public investment that the private sector got crowded out.

“Economically, we’re making big, big change, but the backlog is killing us. Today the debt is up to here,” he says, gesturing to his neck.

He has, he says, eased that situation by renegotiating commercial debt to concessional terms with China and others and by tapping states in the Gulf and the Middle East for loans and investment. Growth slowed to 7 per cent last year, though Mr Abiy suggests this owes more to a realistic assessment than to an actual slowdown.

Among his most critical challenges will be to decide how quickly to liberalise an economy that has produced impressive results, but also shown signs of running out of steam. Recommended Ethiopia Ethiopia arrests senior officials in corruption crackdown

Describing himself as “capitalist”, he nevertheless cites Meles as saying it is the government’s job to correct market failures. “The economy will grow naturally, but you have to lead it in a guided manner.”

Still, unlike Meles, Mr Abiy is less wedded to the idea that the state must control the economy’s commanding heights. He is moving swiftly towards privatisation of the telecoms sector in an exercise that should raise billions of dollars, as well as modernising a network that has fallen badly behind African peers.

Here too there are risks. “I need to realise the privatisation with zero corruption,” he says, adding that people who have stashed money abroad want to launder it back into the country.

Successful privatisation of telecoms could potentially lead to a similar exercise in energy and shipping, as well as sugar refineries and, most controversially, the successful national airline that has turned Addis Ababa into a continental hub. Mr Abiy says that, for the moment at least, he draws the line at banking.

“The biggest challenge for Abiy is not politics. It is jobs, jobs, jobs,” says Zemedeneh Negatu, an Ethiopian banker. With 800,000 students in university or college and 2.5m Ethiopians being born each year, lack of opportunity could quickly catalyse unrest, he adds.

A rally in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa last July. It was later hit by an explosion As Mr Abiy steers through the political and economic rocks, one concern is that he could join a long line of once promising African leaders who turned authoritarian.

“Most of the dictators, including Mugabe [in Zimbabwe] and [Libya’s] Gaddafi, came as liberators,” says Befequadu Hailu, a blogger and activist, who was regularly jailed and beaten under the previous administration. “They ended up consolidating power in their own hands.”

Mr Abiy brushes aside such concerns, saying he will happily leave power if the people reject him. “I am sure I can’t be here eternally. I don’t know when, but I want to leave this office.” Still, another voice tells him that he has a once-in-a generation opportunity to etch his name in Ethiopian history.

“I will be popular if I lift 60m-70m people out of poverty,” he says. “If I do that, whether I like it or not, you will magnify my name.”


February 21, 2019 News

Will Peace With Ethiopia Usher In a Political Opening in Eritrea?

Tanja Müller Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019

Source: World Politics Review

Back in July 2016, I was invited to a gathering late one night at a popular bar in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The gathering was a traditional and quite elaborate coffee ceremony, the kind typically held in the afternoon in most Eritrean or Ethiopian households in order to discuss the day’s events. It had been organized by a group of young people, mostly women.

The crowd of about 12 people in the backroom of the bar was visibly joyful; they giggled as they passed around a mobile phone that contained pictures of one of their close friends, a young woman I’ll call Asmeret. Three months earlier, Asmeret had embarked on a dangerous journey out of Eritrea: Despite not having a passport or a visa, she had managed to cross the border into Sudan and, through trafficking networks, had made it across the Mediterranean.

The photos showed Asmeret smiling after having arrived safely in Germany, her destination. Still wearing clothes more evocative of Eritrea than her new home, she looked happy and wary at the same time. It seemed like the fact that she had made it—out of Eritrea, to Germany—had begun to sink in, but along with that realization came uncertainty about her life ahead. The coffee ceremony had been organized to celebrate her success, and her friends told me that, because I was a German citizen, my presence made it all the more special.

Such ceremonies have become a common feature of daily life in the past decade—not just in Asmara but across the country. Too many of Eritrea’s young people take the route into exile. While concrete figures are not always easy to come by, the United Nations refugee agency reported in 2017 that the ninth-largest refugee population worldwide originated from Eritrea. In addition to the ceremonies marking someone’s successful arrival, there are also the mourning ceremonies that happen with only a little less frequency, organized after friends and relatives in Eritrea get word that a loved one has drowned in the Mediterranean, or been kidnapped in Libya or the Sinai.

Over the years, as a researcher who began working in the early 1990s in what was then post-liberation Eritrea, I’ve gotten to know numerous Eritreans whose loved ones have made the decision to leave. The most common reasons for this outflow are, for many, the inability to fulfill their aspirations due to mandatory national service and the lack of economic opportunities. There is also the lure of greener pastures elsewhere, which is particularly strong in a country like Eritrea that boasts a big diaspora all over the world.

In the deeply divided global perception of Eritrean politics, there are competing interpretations as to the precise nature of the administration of President Isaias Afwerki, who has been de-facto head of state ever since Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991 and achieved de jure independence in 1993, following a 30-year war for independence. Eritrea is often simply described as a brutal dictatorship that needs to be toppled. However, others see this as a gross misunderstanding of the Eritrean polity and advocate in favor of more constructive engagement on the part of the international community to, in the words of former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen “bring Eritrea in from the cold.”

But there is one point that almost everyone agrees on: The border war with Ethiopia that broke out in 1998, and the stalemate that prevailed for nearly two decades after, have played a huge role in shaping Eritrea’s short history as an independent state. The war was on the face of it caused by a dispute over a small piece of barren land around the hamlet of Badme, and quickly escalated into an all-out trench war along the border between the countries. It was also driven by diverging economic policies and conceptions of identity.

While Ethiopia gained the upper hand in the subsequent bouts of fighting, both sides agreed to a cessation of hostilities agreement in 2000 and demarcation of the entire common border by an independent International Boundary Commission. The commission’s verdict was to be final and binding. When that commission awarded the by now symbolic hamlet of Badme to Eritrea, Ethiopia refused to acknowledge its findings, and a “no war, no peace” stalemate ensued. The oft-repeated view from Asmara became, with some justification, that instead of standing up to Ethiopian intransigence in defying a ruling that was to end hostilities, the international community accommodated Ethiopia and vilified Eritrea.

The war had myriad repercussions for economic and political developments within Eritrea. The ruling party increasingly captured all economic activity starting with the quasi-nationalization of the construction industry. Politically, any form of dissent from within the ruling elite, or from independent media outlets that had only just sprung up, was crushed, and any moves toward elections or the implementation of a new constitution were put on hold. In essence, these developments turned Eritrea into a pariah state, sometimes referred to as “Africa’s North Korea,” known for repression and human rights violations of the gravest nature. The effect was to reinforce a feeling on the part of Eritreans that they were being let down by the international community once again—perpetuating a pattern that dates back to when the Italians arrived in the 1930s.

Last year, however, the unexpected happened. Following more than a year of widespread anti-government protests, Abiy Ahmed was named prime minister of Ethiopia, and he quickly moved to make peace with Eritrea. His declaration in June 2018 that his country would finally implement the ruling of the boundary commission and withdraw Ethiopian troops from territory awarded to Eritrea initially took the government in Asmara by surprise. But after a few days of silence on the part of the Eritrean leadership, events started to unfold at great speed. Abiy and Afwerki visited one another’s capitals and made a host of symbolic gestures of friendship. They opened a regional hospital together in Bahir Dar in Ethiopia, for example, and Afwerki announced that he was reopening the Eritrean Embassy in Addis Ababa. Various joint visits to the once-contested border were seen as further proof of the leaders’ new closeness.

The past few months have been a time of profound change for Eritrea, even if those changes are not the sort that grab international headlines.

Much has been written about the significance of this breakthrough for the world beyond Eritrea’s borders. Afwerki, whose whereabouts had often been uncertain for long stretches even within his own country, was newly visible on the international stage, jetting across the Horn of Africa region for trips to Somalia and Djibouti. The role of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in facilitating the peace deal invited discussion of what it might mean for regional politics and stability.

Less attention has been paid to what the peace deal means for ordinary Eritreans. A number of commentators have arguedthat, in contrast to Ethiopia, where the pace of recent reforms has been described as nothing short of breathtaking, nothing much has changed in Eritrea. While the peace deal might have ushered in change in the economic realm, there are few signs of a political opening that many Eritreans dearly hope for.

Beneath An Intact Status Quo, Profound Change

There is some justification for the argument that the status quo in Eritrea remains intact. An initial announcement by the Eritrean government that it planned to end indefinite conscription, instead limiting tours of duty to the originally stipulated 18 months, seems to have come to nothing. And while Abiy made a bold move in releasing political prisoners and imprisoned journalists, Eritrea has done nothing of the sort. To the contrary, such arrests have continued: Berhane Abrehe, a former finance minister and one of the rare critical voices within the country, was arrested in Asmara in September.

This is a missed opportunity. The fact that the country was officially at war with Ethiopia had been used to justify the arrest of politicians and journalists, so the end of the war would have been a logical time to release them. Moreover, those in the large Eritrean diaspora who long to return but are reluctant because they are on record as having stated critical views of the government will have little reason to think they are welcome.

At the same time, there is no denying that the past few months have been a time of profound change for Eritrea, even if those changes are not the sort that grab international headlines. Some of the most fundamental of these changes can be witnessed at the border with Ethiopia, where I traveled to conduct research last October.

Throughout the conflict, the border was heavily militarized. But with the announcement of the peace deal, it transformed seemingly overnight into a far less formidable boundary, one that Eritreans could cross with ease, often without having to show any papers. While it has periodically been closed again for short periods, allegedly in order to manage the flow of people in both directions in a more controlled way, for the most part people have been able to move freely back-and-forth without much trouble.

One of the key crossings, Zalembassa, brings Eritreans to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. Before the 1998-2000 war, Mekelle was a backwater, but in the years since, substantial investment and development have transformed the city. It now has a modern university and various suburbs dominated by modern apartment blocks. The city center is dominated by pleasant tree-lined streets newly furnished with cobblestones and full of small local coffeehouses. Mekelle, like all of Ethiopia, has a young population and high youth unemployment rate, so many young people spend a good deal of time hanging out in these establishments drinking coffee.
These days, the city is even more filled with young people, many of them Eritrean, though detailed figures are hard to come by. A sizeable number have checked into hotels or found other accommodation in Mekelle, and from there tried, via relatives in the diaspora, to get visas to third countries. Others have united with relatives living in Ethiopia. Still more have made their way to Addis Ababa to try and start a business—nearly impossible in Eritrea, where the economy is tightly controlled—or to make new lives for themselves in other ways.

In addition, according to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of Eritreans registering to apply for refugee status around Mekelle in particular has increased dramatically since the border opening. Many are women and children following their husbands or other family members who crossed as refugees before the peace agreement, often to avoid military service or to seek economic opportunities.

However, not all these people are necessarily Eritreans. One Ethiopian researcher who studies migration and spoke to me on condition of anonymity says that many people who register with the U.N. are in fact Tigrayans posing as Eritreans because they think they’ll have a better chance of being selected for a resettlement program in the West. “I actually have a distant relative who went to Australia that way,” the researcher says. I have no means of verifying this claim, but I also have no reason to doubt it. One can easily imagine why would-be refugees, both Eritreans and Ethiopians, would try to take what they see as their last chance for resettlement, before political change potentially makes successful asylum claims more difficult.

Traditionally, Eritreans have a higher chance of being recognized as refugees than Ethiopians. While researching migration from the Horn of Africa to Tel Aviv, Israel, for instance, I learned that many Ethiopians pretend to be Eritreans to obtain the limited protection the Israeli state has offered. These stories underscore the frustration and despair typical of youth in the Horn, who see no future in their home countries and feel that migration is the only path to a better life.

The Double-Edged Sword of Economic Opportunity

During my stay in Mekelle, I encountered numerous Eritreans whose reasons for being there were more nebulous. They came out of simple curiosity, or to stock up on items that are difficult or impossible to get in Eritrea, or a combination of both. After a while, some came to do business as well. Mekelle now has a thriving market for used shoes and fashionable clothes run by Eritreans who bring their wares mainly from Asmara. Others hawk high-end electronic devices.

But most Eritreans who come to Mekelle to engage in commerce are interested in buying rather than selling. In the streets, Eritrean women excitedly speak into their mobile phones to contacts in Asmara, taking orders of all the things they are to buy and bring back home with them. On the side of the road one afternoon, I saw a group of five Eritreans attempting to put a newly purchased refrigerator in the trunk of their old Toyota Corolla, which is one of the most common cars in Eritrea. The fridge was clearly too big and would never fit, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

The most coveted goods to be brought back over the border into Eritrea are cement and other building materials. An Eritrean who I met in Mekelle told me that in recent years, it seemed like nobody in Eritrea could build anything because there were no available materials. Even the simplest projects, like a water tank, were out of reach. Now, suddenly, everything seems affordable, and people are excited to carry out long-dreamed-about projects.

The Eritrean government has not explained why it accepted Abiy’s peace offering, nor has it articulated its vision for what its relationship with Ethiopia should be.

For now, these new trade opportunities and economic exchanges are quite ad-hoc and unregulated. This lack of formalization of the ties between Ethiopia and Eritrea should be cause for some concern. After all, even though it was downplayed at the time, disagreements over trade and economic integration were key factors in the outbreak of the border war in 1998. One of the specific catalysts was the introduction of Eritrea’s currency, the Nakfa, at an exchange rate that was perceived as advantageous to Eritrea, because its higher value than the Ethiopian Birr meant Eritreans could suddenly buy goods much more cheaply from Ethiopia. On the streets of Mekelle today, where one can again exchange Nakfa for Ethiopian Birr, money changers complain that the Nafka is very expensive, with the exchange rate about 180 Birr for every 100 Nakfa. And while this might benefit some Ethiopian merchants, it has the potential to cause anger among the population at large, who feel Eritreans have been given unfair advantage—again.

As mentioned previously, the Mekelle of 2018 is dramatically different from the pre-war backwater of 1997. At the same time, like most parts of Eritrea, it experiences frequent blackouts and electricity shortages. The day I left, there were long queues at gas stations, and my taxi driver, an Ethiopian, told me that gas was often in short supply. He says this was because gas was being sold to Eritrea, where shortages were even bigger, “but nobody has asked us what we think of that.”

Whether or not this is true, it was a reminder of the hostility that Ethiopians and Eritreans can sometimes have for each other—something that was on display even before the war. Back in 1997, shortly before the war broke out, I crossed the border at Zalembassa into the Ethiopian town of Adigrat with acquaintances from the Eritrean diaspora who were also traveling with German passports. Those of us with foreign passports encountered no problems at the crossing, but other Eritreans on the same bus were harassed by the border guards, belying the amicable relationship that officials at the time were insisting the two countries enjoyed.

The Competing Narratives of War and Peace

Today, people on both sides of the border seem to value the new opening, including the economic opportunities it has brought. But some of the discourse—and the absence of discourse—around the peace agreement should give us pause. On the Eritrean side, for instance, no public discussion has taken place about the thaw in relations with Ethiopia. The government has not explained its rationale for accepting Abiy’s peace offering, nor has it articulated its vision for what its relationship with Ethiopia should be.

Meanwhile, some in the Eritrean diaspora are dismissive of the peace agreement, accusing Afwerki of wanting to reintegrate Eritrea into a federal state with Ethiopia, thereby eradicating the heroic history of the Eritrean struggle for independence.

Even those who are in general supportive of peace with Ethiopia and relieved that the stalemate has finally come to an end have their doubts about the wider agenda of a government that seems to have become more secretive—particularly when it comes to relations with Ethiopia, other regional actors and the Gulf Arab states—rather than more open since the peace agreement was signed.

The Eritrean narrative of the stalemate of the past 20 years, but also the outbreak of war in 1998 in the first place, places the blame for the conflict solely on hard-liners in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front—one of the parties in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and, until the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012, the dominant one. This interpretation, which has also been taken up by some commentators, is deeply ahistorical and one-sided, as it neglects the complexity of Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic federation whose different constituencies have very different political outlooks and approaches toward—and linkages with—Eritrea.

I did not find anyone in Mekelle repeating such propaganda. Rather, I witnessed a generally positive process in which people who had been separated by political dynamics were trying to come to terms with one another’s presence again. Because the actual border demarcation is still to be undertaken—a demarcation that in theory could separate families and communities straddling the frontier—this process of mutual habituation is important in order to mitigate potential tensions and maintain peace. Afwerki might have been alluding to this when he reportedly remarked in an interview that the demarcation itself is not the most important issue the two countries face.

Ultimately, while many Eritreans view the peace agreement as the result of a top-down decision by Afwerki made without any public consultation, they nonetheless cherish the peace and have embraced it. At the same time, while people in Eritrea seem better off economically and more goods are available in the shops, there is a widespread feeling that this is necessary but insufficient. As one acquaintance in Mekelle told me, “We did not want peace to buy more products.” Instead, Eritreans were hoping for political change, implementation of the constitution, and the release of political prisoners as seen in Ethiopia. Ultimately, they want a say in how their country should be governed in the future.

‘Change Must Come’

Thus far there is no indication of a move toward a more democratic form of government, nor are there signs that Afwerki plans to enact the constitution that was shelved in 1997, officially due to the outbreak of war in early 1998. Were it enacted, independent media could once more emerge, elections would eventually be held, and many rights and freedoms would be guaranteed—at least on paper.

While the Eritrean government might for now bank on the widespread relief that peace has finally come and put off making real concessions, a failure to create more accountable structures of government means there will be no repairing the relationship between many Eritreans and the country’s leadership. Without such an internal realignment, the high rates of Eritrean out-migration are unlikely to diminish substantially, and coffee ceremonies like the one I witnessed for Asmeret in 2016 will remain frequent occurrences.

One day in Mekelle, I met a man I’ll call Abraham, a former Eritrean solider who fought not far from Zalembassa during the war. He had just returned from the border, and he said it was “very emotional” to see Eritrean and Ethiopian soldiers leave their control posts and sit in bars on the Ethiopian side drinking beer together. Among nine siblings, he is the only one still living in Eritrea—the rest are in the diaspora. “I believe change will come, and I want to be part of it,” he told me. After a short pause, he added, “Change must come.”

Emotions are an important component of political developments, and in this case the emotions of the people on the ground, even if they were not asked or told about their leaders’ plans, have been quite overwhelming. While no institutions are in place in Eritrea that would pass the test of democratic accountability as commonly understood, the sense of joy and relief felt by so many people should not be underestimated. Something did really break free, and there is hope that this not only makes peace irreversible, but will also ultimately usher in wider political changes within Eritrea.

Tanja R. Müller is reader in Development Studies at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, U.K. She first traveled to Eritrea as a journalist in the mid-1990s and has subsequently taught at the University of Asmara. She has conducted research in and on Eritrea for more than 20 years, and published widely on aspirations and political space, as well as Eritrean foreign policy, in key academic journals.


Djibouti/Eritrea Consultations

Source: What’s in blue

Djibouti Eritrea border

Tomorrow afternoon (21 February), Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo is expected to brief Council members in consultations on Eritrea-Djibouti relations under the agenda item “Peace and Security in Africa”. The briefing is taking place in accordance with resolution 2444 of 14 November 2018, which requested the Secretary-General “to keep the Security Council informed of developments towards the normalisation of relations between Eritrea and Djibouti” by 15 February 2019 and every six months thereafter.  Among other things, that resolution also renewed sanctions on Somalia and lifted sanctions on Eritrea.

The lifting of sanctions on Eritrea was the culmination of regional political developments that unfolded since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace agreement in Asmara on 9 July, ending a 20-year conflict. Eritrea and Ethiopia further signed an Agreement on Peace, Friendship and Comprehensive Cooperation on 16 September, which was welcomed by Council members in a press statement (SC/13516). Ethiopia, then a Council member, advocated the lifting of sanctions on Eritrea, which helped inform the Council decision to do so in resolution 2444.

However, issues that led to the imposition of UN sanctions on Eritrea through resolution 1907 of 23 December 2009 remain unresolved, including the Djibouti-Eritrea border dispute and the fate of Djiboutian soldiers missing in action as a consequence of the 10-12 June 2008 skirmishes along the border. On 11 July 2018, Djibouti transmitted a letter to the Secretary-General (S/2018/687) expressing concern about these and other challenges in the relationship between Djibouti and Eritrea, while also welcoming the “latest developments regarding the protracted conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.”  The letter also expressed receptivity to “a good offices process facilitated by the Secretary-General, in collaboration with the Security Council…”.

A letter submitted to the Council on 18 February (S/2019/154) will most likely serve as the basis of DiCarlo’s briefing tomorrow. The letter maintains that Djibouti and Eritrea “have both expressed their satisfaction with the positive developments in the Horn of Africa and their interest in advancing peace and economic integration in the region.” It briefly assesses the position of the two countries with regard to their dispute. It says that Djibouti would like “its border dispute with Eritrea resolved through a binding international arbitration” and remains “concerned about the fate of its soldiers still missing as a result of the border clashes between Djibouti and Eritrea from 10 to 12 June 2008”. With regard to Eritrea, the letter states that it “has been keen to stress the complexity and difficulty of regional transformation and its determination to avoid errors…while emphasizing a holistic approach to the normalization of all inter-state relations in the Horn of Africa and hoping for more progress in this regard, including in its relations with Djibouti.”

The letter concludes on a positive note by maintaining that the parties have behaved responsibly along their border and have not employed negative rhetoric towards each other. Additionally, it outlines goodwill gestures being undertaken by the neighbours, including the resumption of flights between Asmara and Djibouti City.

Council members are likely to welcome efforts being made to help improve relations between Djibouti and Eritrea. In this regard, they may be interested in any information that DiCarlo has about the contacts that Ethiopia has had with Djibouti and Eritrea in an effort to promote the normalisation of relations between the two countries. They may also want to know if any mediation efforts are being undertaken by the UN Secretariat—and what role the Council could play to support such efforts—especially given the openness expressed by Djibouti in its 11 July 2018 letter to a mediation process facilitated by the Secretary-General in collaboration with the Council.