(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia

    Disagreements over land and resources between the 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia have often led to violence and mass displacement, but a fast and unprecedented shift of power led by reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is causing new strains, experts say.


    “Ethnic tensions are the biggest problem for Ethiopia right now,” Tewodrose Tirfe, chair of the Amhara Association of America, a US-based advocacy group that played a significant role in lobbying the US government to censor the former regime. “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”


    During the first half of 2018, Ethiopia’s rate of 1.4 million new internally displaced people exceeded Syria’s. By the end of last year, the IDP population had mushroomed to nearly 2.4 million.


    Tigrayans comprise just six percent of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million people but are perceived as a powerful minority because of their ethnic affinity with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF wielded almost unlimited power for more than two decades until reforms within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front last year.


    Since coming to power in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy – from the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest – has brought major changes to the politics of the country, including an unprecedented redistribution of power within the EPRDF and away from the TPLF.


    The politics of ethnic tensions


    Despite the conflicting interests and disagreements between ethnic groups, the Ethiopian government has managed to keep the peace on a national scale. But that juggling act has shown signs of strain in recent years.

    “You’ve got millions of people displaced – it’s a humanitarian crisis, and it could get out of control.”

    In 2017, an escalation in ethnic clashes in the Oromia and the Somali regions led to a spike in IDPs. This continued into 2018, when clashes between the Oromo and Gedeo ethnic groups displaced approximately 970,000 people in the West Guji and Gedeo zones of neighbouring Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.


    “The pace and scale of the change happening in Ethiopia is quite unbelievable,” said Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow with the Africa Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House.


    “The impact of inter-communal tensions and ethnic violence presents a serious challenge for the new leadership – in Tigray and elsewhere. Abiy's aggressive reform agenda has won praise, but shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries.”


    Although clashes are sometimes fuelled by other disagreements, such as land or resources, people affected often claim that politicians across the spectrum use ethnic tensions as a means of divide and rule, or to consolidate their position as a perceived bulwark against further trouble.


    “Sadly [around Ethiopia] ethnic bias and violence is affecting many people at the local level,” said a foreign humanitarian worker with an international organisation helping Ethiopian IDPs, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue. This includes fuelling the displacement crisis and worsening the humanitarian situation.


    “The main humanitarian concern is that new displacements are occurring by the day, that due to the wide geographic scope, coordination and response in all locations is practically impossible,” the aid worker said.


    “I would like to see more transparency as to what actions the government is taking to hold regional and zonal governments responsible for addressing conflict, for supporting reconciliation, and supporting humanitarian response.”


    Tigray fears


    Although Tigrayans constitute a relatively small part of overall IDP numbers so far, some Tigrayans fear the power shift in Addis Ababa away from the TPLF leaves them more vulnerable and exposed.


    Already simmering anti-Tigrayan sentiments have led to violence, people told IRIN, from barricading roads and forcibly stopping traffic to looting and attacks on Tigrayan homes and businesses in the Amhara and Oromia regions.


    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Tigrayans on the streets of Mekelle, the Tigray capital.

    In the Tigray region’s capital of Mekelle, more than 750 kilometers north of the political changes taking place in Addis Ababa, many Tigrayans feel increasingly isolated from fellow Ethiopians.


    “The rest of the country hates us,” Weyanay Gebremedhn, 25, told IRIN. Despite the reforms, Tigrayans say what hasn’t changed is the narrative that they are responsible by association for the ills of the TPLF.


    Although he now struggles to find work, 35-year-old Huey Berhe, who does mostly odd jobs to pay the bills, said he felt safer living among his own community in Mekelle.


    Huey said he had been a student at Jimma University in western Ethiopia, until growing ethnic tensions sparked fights on campus and led to Tigrayans being targeted. “I left my studies at Jimma after the trouble there,” he said. “It was bad – it’s not something I like to discuss.”


    ‘A better evil’


    “There is a lot of [lies] and propaganda, and the TPLF has been made the scapegoat for all vice,” said Gebre Weleslase, a Tigrayan law professor at Mekelle University. He criticised Abiy for not condemning ethnic attacks, which he said had contributed to tens of thousands of Tigrayans leaving Amhara for Tigray in recent years.

    But Amhara Association of America’s Tewodrose said the feeling of “hate” that Ethiopians have toward the TPLF “doesn’t extend to Tigrayans”.


    “There is resentment toward them when other Ethiopians hear of rallies in Tigray supporting the TPLF, because that seems like they aren’t supporting reform efforts,” he said. “But that doesn’t lead to them being targeted, otherwise there would have been more displacements.”

    ☰ Read more: The complex Tigray evolution


    Although the TPLF is credited with spearheading the 1991 overthrow of Ethiopia’s military Derg dictatorship, it is hated for usurping power from, and using it against, Ethiopia’s two main ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara – who represent 35 percent and 27 percent of the country’s population, respectively.


    Brewing animosity over its misgovernance erupted after a plan emerged in 2014 to increase the size of Addis Ababa into Oromia. Oromo protests gathered steam in 2015, joined by Amhara protests in 2016, and did not let up for three years.

    A unified Oromo-Amhara opposition is a source of numerical dread for the TPLF and for many Tigrayans given the Amhara region borders Tigray to the south (clashes have already occurred over the inter-regional border).

    When anti-government protests rocked the Amhara city of Gondar in July 2016, hundreds of ethnic Tigrayans living there had to flee. They reported their homes and businesses were attacked because of their ethnic association and perceived affiliation with the government.


    “In Gondar, the Tigrayans suffered because decades of mistrust, decades of grievances, and perceptions and even aspirations from other communities came to the fore, which was hammered into people’s minds through organised and persistent propaganda for two decades by domestic and diaspora media and political groupings,” said Daniel Berhane, founder of the online magazine Horn Affairs, one of few media to regularly cover attacks against Tigrayans.


    “The violence against Tigrayans because of their ethnic association marked a turning point,” journalist Abdi Latif Dahir wrote in an article for Quartz Africa following the Gondar attacks. “Ethiopia, a bastion of stability in a tumultuous region, had for years proved to be resilient and achieved impressive economic growth. But the attacks highlighted how historically, the struggle for political space in Ethiopia has always folded into a battle over land, religion, language, demography, and yes, ethnicity.”


    Tigrayans, however, aren’t as reassured. Despite the vast majority enduring years of poverty and struggle under the TPLF, which should give them as many reasons as most Ethiopians to feel betrayed, even those Tigrayans who dislike the TPLF now say that turning to its patronage may be their only means of seeking protection.


    “The TPLF political machinery extended everywhere in the country – into the judiciary, the universities… it became like something out of George Orwell’s ‘1984’,” Huey said. “But the fact is now the TPLF may represent a better evil as we are being made to feel so unsafe – they seem our only ally as we are threatened by the rest of the country.”


    Others note that Abiy has a delicate balance to strike, especially for the sake of Tigrayans.


    “The prime minister needs to be careful not to allow his targeting of anti-reform elements within the TPLF, to become an attack on the people of Tigray,” said Soliman.


    “The region has a history of resolute peoples and will have to be included with all other regions, in order for Abiy to accomplish his goals of reconciliation, socio-political integration and regional development, as well as long-term peace with Eritrea.”


    Although the government has a big role to play, some Ethiopians told IRIN it is essential for the general population to also face up to the inherent prejudices and problems that lie at the core of their society.


    “It’s about the people being willing and taking individual responsibility – the government can’t do everything,” Weyanay said. “People need to read more and challenge their assumptions and get new perspectives.”



    “Shaking up Ethiopia's government risks exacerbating several long-simmering ethnic rivalries”
    Power shift creates new tensions and Tigrayan fears in Ethiopia
  • Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

    A group of Eritreans lines up outside a small, green army tent surrounded by yellow scrubland at the top of a ridge marking the Ethiopia-Eritrea border.


    After having their details jotted down by bored-looking Eritrean soldiers they get back into the white minibus taking them from the city of Mekelle in Ethiopia’s Tigray region to the Eritrean capital, Asmara. As they set off, another minibus passes them going the other way.


    A short time ago, such scenes were unthinkable.


    After being sealed for 20 years – following growing tensions at the end of the 1990s and then a two-year war – the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea finally re-opened in September.


    To escape the realities of life under President Isaias Afwerki – enforced military conscription, indefinite national service, lack of freedom of speech and movement, and the potential for imprisonment for opposing the regime – Eritreans used to have to risk everything, including a border patrolled by guards with a shoot-to-kill policy.


    With the historic peace agreement signed in July, they can now cross without a passport or permit, and they don’t even have to confirm if or when they will return.


    This lack of restrictions is being embraced by people on both sides, but the sudden freedom of movement has also seen a surge in asylum seekers crossing in search of new lives, placing an additional burden on Ethiopia’s Tigray region and beyond.


    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    For some Eritreans, crossing into Ethiopia is the start of a journey that will take them to the Mediterranean and towards the dream of Europe.

    While arrivals have since stabilised, the unrestricted opening of the border initially led to a fourfold daily increase in Eritreans crossing and applying for refugee status. There are now around 175,000 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.


    Despite this, the Ethiopian government appears to be sticking with its open-door policy for refugees – although there are fears it could change its mind and close the border again if it struggles to cope with the influx.


    “Ethiopia is a signatory to the Geneva Convention on refugees, so for now there is no change in their refugee status,” said Tekie Gebreyesas, regional coordinator in Tigray for the Ethiopian government's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, known as ARRA.


    “The relationship between the two countries has improved, but the internal situation in Eritrea is still the same,” Tekie explained.


    Growing burden


    More than 15,000 Eritreans have crossed since the September border opening, according to local Ethiopian authorities. Most have claimed refugee status: around 10,000 by the middle of October, according to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.


    Ethiopia was already hosting just over 900,000 refugees from various countries, of whom Eritreans are the third largest group.



    The Ethiopian government also has just under three million internally displaced persons to contend with – a number that has swollen this year due to unrest in its eastern Somali region as well as in the Guji and West Gedeo zones.


    Previous rises in numbers of Eritrean refugees coming into Ethiopia occurred between 2004 and 2014 as the Isaias regime hardened and became more oppressive, while UN sanctions against Eritrea – lifted on Wednesday – came into effect in 2009 and made life harder for ordinary Eritreans, spurring even more to try and leave.



    The drop-off from 2014 may be partly down to the EU launching the Khartoum Process, which essentially gave money to Eritrea’s government to help stem migration into Europe.


    “There’s no way I’m going back”


    Since the border opening, buses have reportedly been sweeping in to the small Ethiopian border town of Zalambessa, just beyond the Eritrean checkpoint, to collect hundreds of Eritrean asylum seekers who muster there over the course of a few days.



    In Mekelle, first stop for many en route to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, or other urban centres, IRIN found Yohannes* relaxing with some Eritrean friends.


    An Eritrean of mixed parentage, Yohannes was conscripted at age 16 and served for 18 years, including fighting in the 1998–2000 border war, which pitted Eritrean soldiers with an Ethiopian parent (like Yohannes) against Ethiopian soldiers with an Eritrean parent.


    “There’s no way I am going back to Eritrea,” he said. “I didn’t want to fight. We are the same people. But I had no choice than to fight for my country. If you refused to fight, the government could arrest your family.”


    Yohannes and his friends said they planned to make a living in Ethiopia, and if that didn’t work out they would move to another country.


    For some Eritreans, crossing the border is the start of a journey that will take them to the Mediterranean via Sudan and then onto Libya, and the dream of Europe.



    But many, like Yohannes and his friends, first try to settle in Ethiopia.


    After being registered close to the point of arrival, they are supposed to reside in camps unless they have an exemption. But the majority of Eritrean refugees soon move outside the camps and head to the cities in search of work – they make up 79 percent of the urban refugee population in Addis Ababa, where whole residential areas in the city have a notably Eritrean feel.


    “A key challenge to providing protection and assistance to Eritrean refugees is the high number of persons leaving the camps to pursue onward movements,” notes UNHCR’s most recent Ethiopia response plan.


    “In 2016, approximately 80 percent of the Eritrean refugees left the camps in Tigray within the first 12 months after arriving in Ethiopia,” it said. “Motivated by the desire to access better educational services, reunite with relatives abroad, and earn an income to support their families in Eritrea, many children and young adults consider that their sole option is to reach Europe.”


    Ethiopia has committed itself to the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, or CRRF, which came from the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants and involves affording refugees more opportunities to leave camps and better access to jobs and education.


    How strong that commitment will remain in light of recent events remains an open question.


    “The CRRF was a natural fit in Tigray,” said the head of programmes with a foreign refugee organisation based in Addis Ababa, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue. “But now that the situation has changed significantly no one knows if and how the government might rethink its policy to Eritrean refugees. Will they be awarded the same privileges accorded to refugees through the CRRF?”


    Reunited after decades


    Eritreans used to sneak across the border in search of asylum or a better life. Now, they travel for a variety of reasons. Some are even going the other way too.


    “I went from Addis Ababa to Asmara after the border opened to see my father for the first time in 26 years – he died 10 days after I arrived,” said Senait*, one of the Eritreans lined up outside the army tent on the border.


    Senait moved to the Ethiopian capital after marrying an Ethiopian but wasn’t able to visit her family after war broke out in 1998, and the borders closed. She’s now taking her uncle back to Asmara to live with relatives, but plans to return to her family in Addis Ababa after the visit.


    Many Eritreans are also crossing the border to reunite with family members not seen for decades. Others simply go to shop, or to enjoy the more vibrant social life before returning to Eritrea of their own accord.


    “We’ve been here two weeks seeing our families and will head back to Asmara in three days,” said 24-year-old Qemer, speaking in Mekelle alongside her sister and another friend who was visiting long-separated family members. “We were small children when we last saw them properly, though we stayed in touch via Facebook.”


    Hotels in Mekelle that used to struggle for business are now fully booked. Tired-looking cars with the distinctive Eritrean registration plate beginning ER1 are parked all over the city and can be seen with the minibuses shooting along the road between Asmara and Mekelle.


    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region, is enjoying something of a boom.

    Once known for hosting convoys of camels carrying salt from the Danakil desert, Mekelle’s bustling market is seeing a booming trade in cereals, construction materials, and petrol.


    “In Eritrea they are limited to how much they can take out of the bank each month, but here they can get money sent by relatives abroad,” explained Teberhe, a Mekelle businesswoman who runs clothing and cosmetic shops and a khat house. “They are taking back construction materials in case building restrictions are reduced at home.”


    Doubts remain over the peace deal and over Ethiopia’s capacity to take in so many new refugees, but for now there is genuine joy among ordinary Eritreans and Ethiopians, especially Tigrayans, about reuniting and having a chance to finally reconcile.


    “I am really looking forward to visiting Asmara. We belong together. I have family there too,” Teberhe said. “I don’t think there is any way back now for the Eritrean government; Eritreans are experiencing freedom, socialising, and business – the genie is out of the bottle.”


    (*Note: Names changed for security reasons)



    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge
  • Ethnic violence displaces hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians

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

    “They poured petrol over me then lit it,” said 28-year-old Husaida Mohammed. “They were Somali boys.”

    When IRIN met Mohammed she was in a camp of about 3,500 displaced Oromo people on the outskirts of Harar, the ancient walled city in Ethiopia’s Harari Region.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

    Both regional governments deny their police forces were involved.

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

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

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

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

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


    Ethiopia man burnt
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Victim of the violence

    History of strife and harmony

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

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

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

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

    In 2004, a referendum to decide the fate of more than 420 kebeles around the border—Ethiopia’s smallest administrative unit—gave 80 percent of them to the Oromia Region. This led to thousands of Somalis leaving areas for fear of repercussions.*

    The referendum still hasn’t been fully resolved, which some say could be another factor behind the current conflict.

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

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

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

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

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

    “But the man in charge ordered his men to fire at us,” the Somali man said. “Everyone fell – I wasn’t hit but I was covered in so much blood from the others the police thought I was dead, and I escaped.”

    He claims 200 people in total were killed and 893 houses were burned: “Everything was looted, all livestock taken – it was unimaginable.”

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

    A number of displaced Somalis say they survived thanks to the intervention of soldiers from the Ethiopian Defence Force during the recent violence. But it wasn’t enough to persuade them to remain, or to return.

    “If the federal government sends forces to keep the peace, they stay for a week or a month, and then after they leave it happens again,” said one Somali man. “We can’t risk staying.”

    What next?

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

    For the Oromo and Somali displaced from their homes, the next step is to find a long-term solution.

    But Ethiopia’s federal system devolves quite a bit of power to ethnic regional states. With sectarian anger still running high, this leaves the government in a quandary over how to respond to the crisis, some commentators have pointed out.

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

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


    TOP PHOTO: This Oromo woman lost her husband during evictions from the Somali Region and has no idea of his condition or whereabouts

    * CORRECTION: This version of the story clarifies the use of the term Liyu Hail and adds a paragraph on the 2004 census

    Ethnic violence displaces hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians
  • Why can’t booming Ethiopia handle this year’s drought?

    Ethiopia can’t seem to escape the blight of drought, no matter how hard it tries. Despite impressive economic growth and decades of capacity building, it faces another humanitarian crisis as one of the worst droughts in living memory scorches the Horn of Africa.

    At the beginning of the year, 5.6 million Ethiopians were in need of food aid, primarily in the south and southeast of the country. That number recently jumped to 8.5 million.

    An additional headache is that this year’s response by the government and international partners is proving less decisive than last year’s effort. In 2016, more than 10 million people were reached, food aid poured in, and the government spent hundreds of millions of its own money averting a major humanitarian catastrophe.

    Why are the numbers in need increasing?

    The January estimate of 5.6 million came from the government’s Humanitarian Requirements Document, an annual assessment in collaboration with international partners detailing Ethiopia’s humanitarian needs. The revised figure followed spring rains in April that petered out too soon, taking any hopes of revival with them.

    “The situation is unprecedented,” said Sam Wood, Save the Children’s humanitarian director in Ethiopia. “That was the third failed rainy season in a row, so it’s a cumulative effect of failed rains hitting vulnerable communities.

    “Ethiopia has made lots of progress, but when you have a problem of this sort of scale, duration and scope, any system is going to be overwhelmed.”

    Adding to concerns is the chance the Hagaya/Deyr short rains (October to December), accounting for up to 35 percent of annual rainfall in the southeast, could prove a dud too due to the continuing El Niño effect.  

    The current humanitarian bill is $1.26 billion. So far only $334 million has been received.

    Why the cash shortfall?

    At the beginning of the year, the UN warned that 20 million people were at risk of starvation in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northeast Nigeria.

    “Aid budgets from donor countries have already committed most of their funding responding to other conflicts or disasters for this year, and this resulted in less funding for drought-affected people in Ethiopia,” said Geno Teofilo with the Norwegian Refugee Council.

    “There is also donor fatigue regarding droughts in East Africa,” he added.

    Others note how droughts don’t seize the public imagination to the same extent as disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, meaning there’s less motivation to delve into one’s pockets.

    This year, the Ethiopian government has committed $147 million compared to last year’s unprecedented $700 million.

    “The government has many development demands,” Mitiku Kassa, Ethiopia’s state minister of agriculture and commissioner for its National Disaster Risk Management Commission, told IRIN.

    “If we divert too many funds to humanitarian needs, it will be difficult to continue growth, so we have to request support from the international community.’’

    What are the consequences on the ground?

    Pastoralists in Ethiopia’s Somali Region, bearing the brunt of this drought, have lost hundreds of thousands of sheep, goats, and camels. Often whole flocks have died, representing a family’s entire livelihood, leaving people no choice but to retreat to makeshift settlements, surviving on aid from the government and international agencies.

    A survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration between May and June 2017 identified 264 of these sites containing around 577,711 internally displaced persons, or IDPs.

    Overwhelmed by numbers and additionally challenged by diminishing funds, aid agencies began cutting food rations and faced running out of money entirely this July, until last minute donations from Britain, the EU, and the United States guaranteed food shipments through to the end of the year.

    At the same time, the World Food Programme was able to increase its humanitarian support from 1.7 million people to 3.3 million in the Somali region.

    For now, deaths on a large scale have been limited to animals, though infant malnutrition rates are increasing to dangerous levels, accompanied by reports of cholera outbreaks.

    How is the Ethiopian government handling the situation?

    The government has faced accusations it played down the severity of the crisis to keep the country from looking bad internationally. It was too conscious, critics say, of protecting the narrative of Ethiopia’s remarkable economic renaissance over the last decade – one that has enticed foreign investors.

    “Since 2015, we have been working with international aid agencies, making assessments together and disclosing the numbers of beneficiaries,” Kassa, the agriculture minister, hit back. “So, nothing can be hidden. The government has recognised how serious the situation is.”

    Some aid workers in the Somali Region, however, have spoken about animosity between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the semi-autonomous regional government, resulting in a disconnect that has increased the risks faced by the vulnerable.

    But even if national and regional governments were in perfect harmony, the logistical challenges would remain huge. The Somali Region is hot and arid, with few good roads and infrastructure, and has a significant nomadic population. That makes it harder for local and international aid agencies to conduct accurate assessments to ensure effective action.

    What else is having an impact on the response?

    Earlier this year, inter-community conflict broke out between ethnic Somali and Oromo in the Somali Region, resulting in dozens of deaths and more than 50,000 people displaced. It became unsafe for smaller aid agencies to move around.

    On top of all this, Ethiopia hosts more than 838,000 refugees from Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and other crisis-ridden countries.

    Meanwhile, although the Ethiopian government felt confident enough to end a state of emergency earlier this year, following more than a year of political protests and bloodshed, discontent hasn’t disappeared. Grievances over land reallocation and ethnic federalism ­– both factors during recent clashes in the Somali Region – as well as government corruption, the lack of jobs, freedom of expression, and political transparency, all heave beneath the surface.

    While both the United States and Britain  – two of the biggest donors – have continued supporting Ethiopia’s humanitarian needs so far, both their governments face continuing pressure to reduce overseas aid. US President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget blueprint promises to slash American contributions to international aid institutions, including the WFP.

    Is climate change the real bogeyman?

    Pastoralists in their seventies and eighties who have lived with frequent droughts say this one is the worst in their lifetimes – and they aren’t the only ones to notice.

    “While working in Central America, East Africa, and the Middle East, I’ve always talked to elder people, especially those in agriculture, and the message from them is consistent,” Wood said. “Weather patterns are becoming less predictable and when rain comes it is too much or too little.”

    When natural disasters strike, the situation of vulnerable populations can quickly deteriorate into a food and nutrition crisis.

    What needs to be done?

    The people leading the main aid organisations say the public must be kept aware of the drought, to try to keep money rolling in.

    “A humanitarian need is a humanitarian need even if it is not as dramatic as other disasters,” said Wood. “If we don’t scale up and sustain the response, then everything that came before comes to naught.”

    Yet even if resources can be found to cover this drought and its fallout, building capacity and livelihood security for the future is another matter entirely.

    It can take pastoralists who have lost more than 40 percent of their animals more than seven years to rebuild flocks. As a result, international agencies and the government face having to restock flocks or provide pastoralists with new livelihoods – further stretching budgets.     

    Due to the increasing frequency of droughts, both the Ethiopian government and UN agencies are increasingly focusing on investing in strengthening people’s resilience.

    In Ethiopia’s northern drought-prone Tigray Region, irrigation schemes, fruit nurseries, and health centres are boosting productivity, increasing incomes and improving nutrition so that rural people can better withstand natural disasters.    

    “The government’s goal is to create climate resilience within the context of sustainable development,” said Kassa. “Then, one day, we will be able to deal with drought without any appeals.”


    TOP PHOTO: Caught in a dust storm outside an IDP camp near Gode

    Why can’t booming Ethiopia handle this year’s drought?
  • Displaced and neglected: Ethiopia's desperate drought victims

    Dead camels rot on the outskirts of informal settlements in Ethiopia’s rain-starved Somali region as their owners, once proudly self-sufficient pastoralists, turn to government aid to stay alive.

    Ethiopia is facing a drought so terrible that nomadic herders, the hardiest of survivors, have been pushed to the brink. The lucky ones receive supplies of food and brackish water, but the majority, who have settled in spontaneous camps in the remotest reaches, must look after themselves.

    “We call this drought sima,” said 82-year-old Abdu Karim. “It means ‘everyone is affected’. Even when I was a child, no one spoke of a drought like this one.”

    Across the Horn of Africa, people are struggling after three successive years of failed rains. In Somalia and Yemen, there is real fear of famine. While Ethiopia’s remote southern region has been spared the warfare that has deepened the crisis confronting its neighbours, the drought has been no less brutal.

    “Having lost most of their livestock, they have also spent out the money they had in reserve to try to keep their last few animals alive,” said Charlie Mason, humanitarian director at Save the Children.

    “For those who have lost everything, all they can now do is go to a government assistance site for food and water.”

    Livestock are the backbone of the region’s economy. Pastoralists here are estimated to have lost in excess of $200 million-worth of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels. That is not only a blow to their wealth, but also deprives them of the meat and milk that is the mainstay of the pastoralist life-support system.

    Last year, more than 10 million people were affected by an El Niño-induced drought. The government spent an unprecedented $700 million, while the international community made up the rest of the $1.8 billion needed to meet their needs.

    This year, the appeal is for $948 million to help 5.6 million drought-affected people, mainly in the southern and eastern parts of the country. So far, only $23.7 million has been received.

    “Last year’s response by the government was pretty remarkable,” said World Vision’s Ethiopia director, Edward Brown. “We dodged a bullet. But now the funding gaps are larger on both sides. The UN’s ability is constrained as it looks for big donors – you’ve already got the US talking of slashing foreign aid.”

    Under strain

    The government has a well-established safety net programme managed by the World Bank that supports the chronically food insecure, typically with cash-for-work projects.

    But it doesn’t pick up those affected by sudden shocks like the current drought. They fall under a new and separate programme, which is struggling to register all those in need.

    There are 58 settlements for the internally displaced in the Somali region currently receiving government aid. But that’s only a fraction of the 222 sites containing nearly 400,000 displaced people identified in a survey by the International Organization for Migration.

    Forty-four percent of these camps reported no access to food, and only 31 percent had a water source within a 20-minute walk.

    "People were surviving from what they could forage to eat or sell but now there is nothing left,” said one senior aid worker who visited a settlement 70 kilometres east of the southern town of Dolo Ado, where 650 displaced pastoralist families weren’t receiving any aid at all.

    The only livestock left alive in the camp was one skinny cow, its rib cage undulating through its skin, and her new-born calf. In some shelters people were reported as too weak to move. 


    Pastoralist IDPs in Ethiopia
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    IDPs are falling through the cracks

    Informal settlements have sprung up wherever the exhausted pastoralists have stopped. The further away from the regional capital, Jijiga, the less likely they are to be supplied by the government. There is also a degree of friction between the federal government and the semi-autonomous regional authority.

    “There’s a logical reason to limiting the number of temporary assistance sites – because otherwise getting assistance to people scattered over such a large area becomes a massive challenge,” said Mason.

    “The authorities are doing their best. This is a natural disaster, which has affected a huge number of people over an area larger than the UK or New Zealand, and we’re in a race against the clock to get enough food and clean water to enough people in time.”

    But given the security restrictions on travel in the Somali region, and the well-known nervousness aid agencies have over antagonising the government, it is very hard to gauge how many people may have fallen through the cracks and are not receiving assistance.

    Refugees vs IDPs

    The Ethiopian government is far more open over the refugees it helps. It has maintained an open-door policy and currently shelters an estimated 800,000.

    Just outside Dolo Ado, where the Ethiopian border intersects with Kenya and Somalia, are two enormous camps. With rows of corrugated iron roofs glinting in the sun, each houses about 40,000 Somalis escaping their own food crisis and ongoing conflict.

    “I came with my family because of drought and fear,” said 51-year-old Hasaam Muhammed Ali. He arrived in Buramino camp in 2012 with his two wives and 17 children. “People have different opinions but I know what is there – I will not go back. Perhaps, if the country gets peace like Ethiopia, I might.”

    Refugees complain of headaches and itchy skin due to the pervading heat of 38 – 42 degrees Celsius, and of a recent reduction in their monthly allowance of cereals and grains from 16 to 13.5 kilograms.

    However, they are guaranteed that ration, along with water, health and education services – none of which is available to IDPs in a settlement on the outskirts of Dolo Ado.

    “We don’t oppose support for refugees – they should be helped as they face bigger problems,” said 70-year-old Abiyu Alsow. “But we are frustrated as we aren’t getting anything from the government or NGOs.”

    Abiyu spoke amid a cluster of women, children, and a few old men beside makeshift domed shelters fashioned out of sticks and fabric. Husbands were away either trying to source money from relatives, looking for daily labour in the town, or making charcoal for family use and to sell.

    “When people cross borders, the world is more interested,” said Hamidu Jalleh from the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA. “Especially if they are fleeing conflict, it is a far more captivating issue. But the issue of internally displaced persons doesn’t [generate] the same attention.”

    In the Somali region’s northern Siti zone, IDP camps from droughts in 2015 and 2016 are still full. It takes between seven and 10 years for pastoralists to rebuild flocks and herds after losses of more than 40 percent, according to research by the International Livestock Research Institute and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

    "Humanitarian responses around the world are managing to get people through these massive crises to prevent loss of life,” said Mason. “But there's not enough financial backing to get people back on their feet again.”

    And Ethiopia’s crisis is far from over. The main spring Gu/Ganna rains have finally begun in parts of the Somali region, but they were a month late.

    The forecast is that they will be below average and won’t regenerate pasture sufficiently for the pastoralists, who have lost so much, to rebuild their lives.


    Displaced and neglected: Ethiopia's desperate drought victims
  • Ethiopia extends emergency as old antagonisms fester

    The Ethiopian government has extended a nationwide state of emergency for four months, hailing it as successful in restoring stability after almost a year of popular protests and crackdowns that cost hundreds of lives.

    But while parts of Amhara, one of the hotbeds of the recent unrest, may be calm on the surface, IRIN found that major grievances remain unaddressed and discontent appears to be festering: There are even widespread reports that farmers in the northern region are engaged in a new, armed rebellion.

    Human rights organisations and others have voiced concern at months of draconian government measures – some 20,000 people have reportedly been detained under the state of emergency, which also led to curfews, bans on public assembly, and media and internet restrictions.

    “The regime has imprisoned, tortured and abused 20,000-plus young people and killed hundreds more in order to restore a semblance of order,” said Alemante Selassie, emeritus law professor at the College of William & Mary in the US state of Virginia. “Repression is the least effective means of creating real order in any society where there is a fundamental breach of trust between people and their rulers.”

    The government line is far rosier.

    “There’s been no negative effects,” Zadig Abrha, Ethiopia’s state minister for government communication affairs, told IRIN shortly before the measures were extended by four months, on 30 March.

    “The state of emergency enabled us to focus on repairing the economic situation, compensating investors, and further democratising the nation… [and] allowed us to normalise the situation to how it was before, by enabling us to better coordinate security and increase its effectiveness.”

    Clamping down

    On 7 August 2016, in the wake of protests in the neighbouring Oromia region, tens of thousands of people gathered in the centre of Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara. They had come to express their frustration at perceived marginalisation and the annexation of part of their territory by Tigray – the region from which the dominant force in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition is drawn.

    Accounts vary as to what prompted security forces to open fire on the demonstration – some say a protestor tried to replace a federal flag outside a government building with its now-banned precursor – but by the end of the day, 27 people were dead.

    That toll climbed to 52 by the end of the week. In all, some 227 civilians died during weeks of unrest in the Amhara region, according to the government. Others claim the real figure is much higher.

    A six-month state of emergency was declared nationally on 9 October. Military personnel, under the coordination of a new entity known as the “Command Post”, flooded into cities across the country.

    “Someone will come and say they are with the Command Post and just tell you to go with them – you have no option but to obey,” explained Dawit, who works in the tourism industry in the Amhara city of Gondar. “No one has any insurance of life.”

    Tourists boat Bahir Dar

    James Jeffrey/IRIN

    Local people told IRIN that the Command Post also took control of the city’s courts and did away with due process. Everyday life ground to a halt as traders closed shops and businesses in a gesture of passive resistance.

    In Bahir Dar and Gondar, both popular historical stop-offs, tourism, an economic mainstay, tanked.

    “In 2015, Ethiopia was voted by the likes of The New York Times and National Geographic as one of the best destinations,” said Stefanos, another Gondar resident who works in the tourism sector. “Then this happened and everything collapsed.”

    Lingering resentment

    Before it was renewed, the state of emergency was modified, officially reinstating the requirement of search warrants and doing away with detention without trial.

    Prominent blogger and Ethiopian political analyst Daniel Berhane said the state of emergency extension might maintain calm in Amhara.

    It “isn’t just about security,” he said. “There is a political package with it: Since two weeks ago, the government has been conducting meetings across the region at grassroots levels to address people’s economic and administrative grievances, which are what most people are most concerned about.”

    But bitterness remains.

    “We have no sovereignty. The government took our land,” a bar owner in Gondar who gave his name only as Kidus explained. “That’s why we shouted Amharaneut Akbiru! Respect Amhara-ness!” during the protests, he added.

    Others still feel marginalised and are angry at the government’s heavy-handed response.

    “If you kill your own people, how are you a soldier? You are a terrorist,” 32-year old Tesfaye, who recently left the Ethiopian army after seven years, a large scar marking his left cheek, told IRIN in Gondar. “I became a soldier to protect my people. This government has forgotten me since I left. I’ve been trying to get a job for five months.”

    A tour guide in Gondar, speaking on condition of anonymity, was also critical of the response: “The government has a chance for peace, but they don’t have the mental skills to achieve it. If protests happen again, they will be worse.”

    However, some do believe the authorities have to take a tough line.

    “This government has kept the country together. If they disappeared, we would be like Somalia,” said Joseph, who is half-Amharan, half-Tigrayan. “All the opposition does is protest, protest. They can’t do anything else.”

    Mountain militias

    Even as calm has been restored in some areas, a new form of serious opposition to the government has taken shape: Organised militia made up of local Amhara farmers have reportedly been conducting hit-and-run attacks on soldiers in the mountainous countryside.

    “The topography around here is tough, but they’ve spent their lives on it and know it,” said Henok, a student nurse who took part in the protests. “They’re like snipers with their guns.”

    View of Gondar

    James Jeffrey/IRIN

    “The government controls the urban but not the rural areas,” he said. “[The farmers] are hiding in the landscape and forests. No one knows how many there are,” he said, adding that he’d seen “dozens of soldiers at Gondar’s hospital with bullet and knife wounds.”

    Young Gondar men like Henok talk passionately of Colonel Demeke Zewudud, who led Amhara activism for the restoration of [the annexed] Wolkite district until his arrest in 2016, and about Gobe Malke, allegedly a leader of the farmers’ armed struggle until his death in February – reportedly at the hands of a cousin on the government’s payroll.

    “The farmers are ready to die,” a priest in Gondar told IRIN on condition of anonymity, stressing that the land is very important to them. “They have never been away from here,” he explained.

    Without referring specifically to any organisation of armed farmers, Zadig, the government minister, said the state of emergency had been extended because of “agitators” still at large.

    “There are still people who took part in the violence that are not in custody, and agitators and masterminds of the violence who need to be brought before the rule of law,” he said. “And there are arms in circulation that need to be controlled, and some armed groups not apprehended.” 


    Terrence Lyons, a professor at The School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in the United States, said the government must decentralise power to achieve longer-term stability.

    “Grievances haven’t been addressed by the state of emergency or by the government’s commitment to tackle corruption and boost service delivery,” Lyons told IRIN. “There needs to be a reconsideration of the relationship between an ethnic federation and a strong centralised developmental state, involving a process that is participatory and transparent – but we aren’t seeing that under the state of emergency.”

    In 1995, Ethiopia adopted a federal system of government, which in theory devolves considerable power to the country’s regions. But in practice, key decisions are still taken in Addis Ababa.

    “If the government wants a true and real form of stabilisation, then it should allow for a true representative form of governance so all people have the representation they need and deserve,” said Tewodros Tirfe of the Amhara Association of America.

    In a report presented to a US congressional hearing in early March, Tewodros said some 500 members of the security forces had been killed in the recent clashes in the Amhara region. “Deeper resentment and anger at the government is driving young people to the armed struggle,” he told IRIN.

    But Zadig and the government insisted: “The public stood by us.”

    “They said no to escalating violence. In a country of more than 90 million, if they’d wanted more escalation we couldn’t have stopped them.”

    Lyons warns of complacency.

    “As long as dissidents and those speaking about alternatives for Ethiopia are dealt with as terrorists, the underlying grievances will remain: governance, participation, and human rights,” he told IRIN.

    “The very strength of the [ruling] EPRDF is its weakness. As an ex-insurgency movement, its discipline and top-down governance enabled it to keep a difficult country together for 25 years. Now, the success of its own developmental state means Ethiopia is very different, but the EPRDF is not into consultative dialogue and discussing the merits of policy.”



    (TOP PHOTO: A statue of 19th-century Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros—a legend to many Amhara—dominates the piazza area in the centre of the city of Gondar, in northern Ethiopia's Amhara region. CREDIT: James Jeffrey/IRIN)

    Ethiopia extends emergency as old antagonisms fester
  • Face to face with the Eritrean exodus into Ethiopia

    Under the early morning sun in the most northern region of Ethiopia a motley group of Eritrean men, women and children arrive dusty and tired at the end of a journey – and at the start of another. 

    After crossing the border under cover of darkness (leaving Eritrea without authorisation is a crime punishable by up to five years in jail), they are found by Ethiopian soldiers and taken to Adinbried – a compound of modest buildings at one of the 12 so-called “entry points” dotted along this barren 910-kilometre border. This is where their long asylum process will begin.

    “It took us four days travelling from Asmara,” a 31-year-old man tells IRIN of his trek from the Eritrean capital, about 80 kilometres north of the border. “We travelled for 10 hours each night, sleeping in the desert during the day.”

    With him are another three men, three women, six girls and four small boys. The smuggler who guided them charged $2,500 each.

    “He was good,” the man says. “He showed us the safe paths, and helped carry the children on his shoulders. He didn’t ask for more money like some do.”

    He says they carried very little because of the distance and because they didn’t want to betray their intentions to Eritrean soldiers.

    Asylum pipeline

    From the 12 entry points, Eritreans are taken to a screening centre for registration in the town of Endabaguna, 60 kilometres west of the popular tourist destination of Aksum. Then, they are assigned to one of four refugee camps in the Tigray region, bordering Eritrea.

    In February 2017, 3,367 Eritreans arrived in Ethiopia, according to Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.

    There are around 165,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Ethiopia, according to the UN refugee agency. Thousands more Eritreans live in the country outside the asylum system.

    “Sometimes we get more than 120 people a day,” says Luel Abera, the reception coordinator at Adinbried. “The stories I hear are very sad: pregnant women delivering on the way, people shot at or wounded, hungry and hurt children.”

    Luel fought with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front when it was a rebel group (it is now the largest party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition), which, alongside the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, toppled Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship in 1991. In May of that year, the EPLF marched into Asmara, reinstating Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia.

    “The Eritrean people are good,” Luel says. “They fought for independence for 30 years. But from day one, [Eritrean President] Isaias [Afwerki] has ruled the country without caring about his people’s interests.”

    Push factors

    Among those dropped off at Adinbried when IRIN visits are three Eritrean soldiers – or deserters. Escaping poorly paid and protracted national service is one of the most common reasons cited by Eritrean migrants for fleeing their country.

    “Living conditions in Eritrea are more dangerous than crossing the border,” says one of them, a 39-year-old who served 20 years in the military.

    He explains that the three of them were farmers from the same village who, when drafted into national service, were posted to different locations along the Ethiopian border.

    They decided to cross as it was getting harder to leave their duty stations for the month they needed to be on their farms for harvest time, and because the government recently introduced a new tax on each head of livestock.

    The three soldiers weren’t allowed mobile phones, so, in planning their escape, they communicated by word of mouth and through letters using colleagues they trusted. Each left a wife and child behind.

    “The wives didn’t want us to go and were too scared to come,” the 39-year-old says. “But they’re not angry with us. Whether we are in national service or Ethiopia, they still can’t see us.”

    It’s just over 24 hours since they crossed the border and both groups have moved to the screening centre in Endabaguna. The place is jammed with migrants – mostly teenagers and young adults.

    “Most say they faced military conscription, religious persecution, arbitrary detention, torture. Land division by the government is a new complaint,” says centre coordinator Teshome Kasa, adding that 1,008 new asylum seekers have arrived in the last seven days alone.


    Luel Abera, reception coordinator at the Adinbried entry point, keeping track of the number of Eritrean arrivals.
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Luel Abera keeps track of new arrivals


    From the reception centre at Endabaguna, it is on to the camps.

    Opened in 2004, Shimelba was the first Ethiopian camp for Eritrean refugees. Residents are allowed to construct their own dwellings here and now it looks like a small town. It is home to more than 6,000 people, mostly from the Kunama ethnic group, one of nine in Eritrea and historically the most marginalised.

    Asked whether she would like to be resettled outside Ethiopia, Nagazeuelle, a Kunama who has been here for 17 years, tells IRIN: “I have no interest in going to other countries… My interest is in my country [Eritrea].

    “I need my country,” she repeats. “We had rich and fertile land, but the government took it. We weren’t an educated people, so they picked on us. I am an example of the first refugees from Eritrea, but now people from all nine ethnic groups are coming.”

    Haile, a Tigrinya Eritrean in his fifties who has been a refugee for five years, tells IRIN his father and brother died in prison in Eritrea.

    “The world has forgotten us, apart from the US, Canada and Ethiopia,” he says. “The United Nations is too tolerant of Isaias. What is happening is beyond [words]. It is a deep crisis. So why is the international community silent?”

    About 50 kilometres south of Shimelba lies Hitsats, the newest and largest of the four camps. It has 11,000 refugees and four in five of them are under the age of 35.

    Outside camp coordinator Haftam Telemickael’s office, a group of Eritreans is meeting a staff member to renew ration cards. Each month, every Hitsats resident is entitled to 10kg of wheat, 1kg of palm oil, 1kg of protein powder, a quarter kilogramme of salt and sugar each, one piece of soap, and 60 Ethiopian birr ($2.75) spending money.

    “At least here they get permission to move freely and visit family in places like Addis Ababa,” says Tesfaye, a refugee who also works as a camp social worker. “In Eritrea there are six zones and you can’t move to another zone without permission.”*

    Eritean Information Minister Yeman Ghebremeskel dismissed this claim, saying “there are no restrictions, whatsoever, that regulate movements of citizens in the country.”

    Another source based in Asmara told IRIN however that while Eritreans who have completed national service or who are exempt from it need no permission to travel as long as they show a release card at checkpoints, those who are currently deployed on national service do need to request permission to travel to different areas of Eritrea.

    Sudan is the other main overland option for Eritrean asylum seekers. But around and even inside the refugee camps there, Eritreans are particularly vulnerable targets for gangs who kidnap migrants for ransom, often torturing them during phone calls to relatives to persuade them to send money.

    “In Sudan, there are more problems. We can sleep peacefully here,” says 32-year-old Ariam, who came to Hitsats four years ago with her two children after spending four years in a Sudanese camp.

    Ariam owned a small hotel in Asmara but couldn’t sell it before she left as that would have aroused government suspicion. She lost about 80,000 nakfa ($5,000) on it. Now she survives on rations and by making and selling flatbread injera, generating about 3,000 Ethiopian birr ($136) a month.  


    An Eritrean migrant newly arrived in Ethiopia shows the little money he has left
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Paying smugglers to escape Eritrea leaves many migrants with little money left over

    The common thread to everyone’s story here is the hardship they experienced in Eritrea, a country under semi-autocratic rule that is all but cut off to journalists.

    “It was difficult to live in Eritrea because of my small salary,” says 23-year-old Samrawit after entering Ariam’s home for coffee. “My husband is in prison because he tried to cross the border. I want to go to another country. I don’t dislike it here, but from Ethiopia it’s difficult to communicate with my family. From other countries it would be easier.”

    Worst of neighbours

    Relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara soured not long after Eritrea regained independence and in 1998 degenerated into a two-year border war that cost thousands of lives. The neighbours remain bitter enemies to this day and their shared border is highly militarised.

    One of the entry points is in the town of Badme, the war’s flashpoint, in a region still occupied by Ethiopia in defiance of an international adjudication attributing it to Eritrea.

    “I crossed after hearing they were about to round people up for the military,” says 20-year-old Gebre. “I wasn’t going to go through that –you’re hungry, there’s no salary, you’re not doing anything to help your country; you’re just serving officials.”

    With Gebre are another 14 young men ranging in age from 16 to 20 who also crossed to avoid military service, but there are plenty of young mothers too.

    “Life was getting worse,” says 34-year-old Samrawit. “I had no work to earn money to feed my children.” Only her two youngest children are with her. “I would like to make sure coming here is worth it before the elder two come,” she explains.

    She travelled with 22-year-old mother-of-two Yordanos, having met her at the Eritrean town of Barentua, about 50 kilometres north of the border – their rendezvous point with their smuggler. He took them by car to the Mereb River, where they crossed into Ethiopia.

    Neither knows how much the smuggler was paid, payment having been organised by their husbands who now live in Switzerland and Holland.

    An army truck pulls up while the women and young men are waiting at the Badme entry point. It hasn’t come to take them to the screening centre, rather to deposit another eight refugees picked up at the border.

    “Our soldiers don’t get any sleep they are so busy at night collecting refugees,” says an Ethiopian major.

    (TOP PHOTO: The rugged landscape of northern Ethiopia's Tigray region, which lies on the Eritrean border. James Jeffrey/IRIN)


    *A previous version of this article included an erroneous claim that freedom of movement is restricted in Asmara. 

    Face to face with the Eritrean exodus into Ethiopia
  • Ethiopia’s internet crackdown hurts everyone

    Ethiopia has never been an easy place to operate. But a six-month state of emergency, combined with internet and travel restrictions imposed in response to a wave of anti-government protests, means it just got a whole lot harder.

    The government has targeted the mobile data connections that the majority of Ethiopians use to get online. Internet users have also been unable to access Facebook Messenger and Twitter, with a host of other services also rendered unreliable. 

    This has impacted everyone: from local businesses, to foreign embassies, to families, as well as the extensive and vital international aid community.

    “Non-governmental organisations play crucial roles in developing countries, often with country offices in the capitals, satellite offices across remote regions, and parent organisations in foreign countries,” said Moses Karanja, an internet policy researcher at Strathmore University in Nairobi.  “They need access to the internet if their operations are to be efficiently coordinated.”

    A political decision

    The Ethiopian government has been candid about the restrictions being in response to year-long anti-government protests in which hundreds of people have died.

    It has singled out social media as a key factor in driving unrest. Since the beginning of October, there has been a spike in violence resulting in millions of dollars’ worth of damage to foreign-owned factories, government buildings and tourist lodges across Oromia Region, initially ground zero for the dissent.

    “Mobile data will be permitted once the government assesses that it won’t threaten the implementation of the state of emergency,” government spokesman Getachew Reda – who has since been replaced – told a 26 October press conference in Addis Ababa.


    Security forces
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Security forces ready to crackdown

    The Oromo are the country’s largest ethnic group, constituting 35 percent of the country’s nearly 100 million population. They have historically felt ignored by successive regimes in Addis Ababa. In August, similar grassroots protest broke out among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. The ruling EPRDF is portrayed by opponents as a narrow, unrepresentative clique that refuses to share power.

    Ethiopia is not alone in its approach to political unrest. Around the world, as countries become increasingly integrated with online technology, the more autocratic governments are blocking the internet whenever they deem it necessary.

    “The trend appears to be growing because more people are going online and using the internet, often through the use of mobile connections,” said Deji Olukotun of Access Now, which campaigns for digital rights. In 2016, it documented 50 shutdowns, up from less than 20 in 2015.

    “People are enjoying the freedom and opportunity that the internet provides, which enables them to organise themselves and advocate for what they want,” Olukotun told IRIN. “In response, governments are shutting down the net to stop this practice.”

    Bad timing

    An aid worker, who didn’t want to be identified as her agency needs to renew its government permit, explained how she relies on Skype to communicate with far-flung colleagues.

    “Before, it was hard enough, but now Skype is even more unreliable,” she said. “People can’t connect with colleagues in the field; people miss invites to meetings, can’t arrange logistics.”

    The squeeze comes at a particularly bad time for Ethiopia, beyond the impact of the protest movement. Ten million people are in need of food aid as a result of drought. The Oromia and Amhara regions, where most of the anti-government unrest is happening, have some of the largest numbers of people requiring assistance.

    “Websites like the famine early warning system, FEWSNET, which provides detailed regional analysis and projections on food insecurity, cannot be accessed by most stakeholders,” said an international development official.

    “Some modern software systems for things like pharmaceutical supply-chain management are not working to their full capacity – making it harder to accurately track inventory and deliveries.”


    Andrew Heavens/Flickr
    Careful what you say

    Many humanitarian organisations, including UN agencies, are heavily reliant on cash transfers to government organisations that conduct work on their behalf. They are finding it much harder to account for funds.

    Another aid worker, again speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of operating in Ethiopia, said everything was getting delayed, including the rolling out of new programmes.

    “If we can’t email or phone, we can’t find out how money has been spent, and if we can’t account and there’s no transparency, we can’t authorise new spending,” the aid worker said.


    The importance of social media to people’s lives in Ethiopia is magnified because they so distrust mainstream media, largely controlled by the EPRDF.

    “Many Ethiopians are fed up with local and state media and so they turn to diaspora news,” said Lidetu Ayele, founder of the opposition Ethiopia Democratic Party. “The problem is, a lot of things they’d view as gossip if heard by mouth, when they read about it on social media, they take as fact.”

    The worst disaster during Ethiopia’s protests occurred at the beginning of October. After police and protesters clashed at a traditional Oromo festival beside a holy lake, a stampede ensued that left about 100 people drowned or crushed to death.

    Social media didn’t hang around. It pulsed with claims a circling government helicopter had fired down into panicking crowds.

    “My brother was telling me on the phone he was about to protest, and asking me how I couldn’t after the government had done something like that,” an Addis Ababa resident, who is half Oromo and half Amhara, recalled about the days following the stampede. “But I said to him, ‘Don’t be an idiot, it isn’t true.’”

    Witnesses and journalists at the event had confirmed that the circling helicopter was in fact innocently dropping leaflets saying “Happy Irreecha”, the name of the festival.


    Loading aid
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Unintended consequences

    Policy backfire?

    Even before the state of emergency, Ethiopia was one of the most censored countries in the world and a top jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

    Independent media does exist in Ethiopia, but it struggles. Last month, the Addis Standard, a well-respected private magazine, announced it was stopping its print edition due to the latest round of restrictions.

    “The government has created this problem for themselves,” remarked a freelance Ethiopian journalist.

    The Ethiopian diaspora in the United States maintains a strong cyber presence and is rallying to the political reform movement. Jawar Mohammed, a particularly prominent US-based social media activist, has 500,000 followers on Facebook, and broadcasts information and footage from protests demanding an end to EPRDF rule.

    “The diaspora do amplify what’s happening, but it didn’t start with us,” Jawar said in an interview earlier in 2016.

    Internet shutdowns between mid-2015 and mid-2016 have lost the Ethiopian economy about $9 million, according to a recent report by the US-based Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

    “Internet disruption slows growth, costs governments tax revenue, weakens innovation, and undermines consumer and business confidence in a country’s economy,” said report author Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

    “As internet-powered businesses and transactions continue to grow to represent an increasingly significant portion of global economic activity, the damage from connectivity disruptions will become more severe.”

    Olukotun of Access Now said such blackouts were particularly damaging for developing countries “striving to embrace the digital economy and innovation”.

    “We've seen juice sellers, online banks, courier services, and internet companies all lose drastic amounts of money during disruptions,” he said.

    But for the ruling party in Ethiopia, a country that has known centralised authoritarian rule for millennia, the concept of ceding any of that control is anathema.

    “Censoring the internet is not a solution to the protests or resistance,” said Karanja, the Kenyan researcher. “It is a blockage to the democratic trajectory of a country.”


    Ethiopia’s internet crackdown hurts everyone
  • Europe pays out to keep a lid on Ethiopia migration

    The compound of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, is a microcosm of the region’s troubles.

    Set off a busy main road, it hosts refugees from the conflicts and struggles in South Sudan, Congo, Uganda, Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen, Burundi, and more besides.

    Ethiopia has a refugee population of 700,000, the largest in Africa. In the first few weeks of October alone, an additional 31,000 people fleeing the crisis in South Sudan arrived in the west of the country.

    But Ethiopia is not only an important destination for refugees, it’s also a key country of origin and transit for migrants and asylum seekers as well.

    No jobs

    The economy struggles to provide opportunities for its youth, who are increasingly heading to the Middle East via Yemen, or travelling south to South Africa looking for work.

    The tight local job market means that although refugees are provided with sanctuary, they have no employment rights.

    A $500 million initiative by the UK government, the European Union, and the World Bank aims to provide some of the answers.

    The Partnership Framework initiative plans to build two industrial parks in Ethiopia to generate about 100,000 jobs, with Ethiopia required to grant work to 30,000 refugees as part of the deal. By investing in tackling the root causes, it aims to help put a lid on irregular migration.


    Read more

    Is Ethiopia unravelling?

    Europe tries to buy its way out of the migration crisis

    Go south young man

    Walking into danger


    “Our investment is not going to solve the problem, but it may have a domino effect by showing others that this can work,” Francisco Carreras, head of cooperation at the Delegation of the European Union to Ethiopia, says of the $250 million coming from the EU.

    “We’re putting migrant-related issues at the heart of our support to countries.”

    The initiative is part of a pilot programme also supporting Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Mali. The new strategy uses targeted aid to tackle the migrant crisis afflicting both Europe and Africa.

    During the UN summit on refugees in New York this September, UK Prime Minister Theresa May described the project as, “a model for how we can support host countries [in creating] jobs for their own people and refugees – a mutually beneficial solution and one we must replicate”.

    Total official development assistance to Ethiopia was $3.6 billion in 2014.

     A “free prison”?

    New jobs would certainly be welcome here.

    “I’ve been idle for three years and my plan is to remain idle. That’s all I can do,” says 28-year-old Daniel, a qualified dentist who fled Eritrea for Ethiopia after his involvement with a locally produced publication drew the government’s wrath.


    Refugee women in Addis
    james Jeffrey
    Refugees from the war in Yemen

    Based on his qualifications, he managed to find a potential healthcare job in Addis Ababa. “The employer said I was a good match, but when he checked with the authorities they said I couldn’t be employed.”

    Although Ethiopia’s authorities often turn a blind eye to refugees doing casual work, Ethiopia’s proclamation on refugees prohibits them from official employment.

    “If Ethiopia feels for refugees, why doesn’t it change the law so they can work,” says Shikatende, a 35-year-old Congolese refugee who has been in Ethiopia for seven years. “It’s a free prison here. We are free to stay, but with no hope or future.”

    A change in the law will be required for the industrial park initiative, observers say, although any wholesale opening of Ethiopia’s job market to refugees is highly unlikely while Ethiopia’s 100 million population continues growing at 2.6 percent a year.

    “That means creating millions of new jobs every year. The challenge for Ethiopia is huge,” Carreras says, adding that the giving of millions of euros to Ethiopia is far from altruism.

    “It’s in our own interests and a matter of survival for us: we can’t be surrounded by countries in difficulties and expect that building a wall or the sea alone will keep us sanitised from others’ problems.”

    Build it and they (hopefully) will come

    Despite his enthusiasm for the project, Carreras admits that success requires fending off myriad challenges.

    “You’ve got to build the right sectors in the right places and ensure the right procurement—achieving all those ‘rights’ isn’t easy,” he says. And even if all that is pulled off, he adds, you’ve then got to attract the investors, after which you have to make sure it’s all sustainable: investors must obtain enough profit so they remain and don’t leave after a couple of years.

    Those connected to the Ethiopian government appear confident that history is on Ethiopia’s side.

    “Thirty years ago, large-scale labour left the US and Europe and moved to China,” says Zemedeneh Negatu, an economic adviser to the Ethiopian government.

    “But monthly labour costs there now are around $450-$600 a month – Ethiopia is a fraction of that, added to which a lot of the raw materials are already coming from here.”

    Hence Ethiopia’s embracing of industrial parks, which Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has placed at the forefront of economic strategy.

    Seven are in the process of being built at a rough cost of $250 million each. One park is already operating around Awassa, about 300 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, where it’s serving as a promising bellwether, having attracted more investor interest than it could accommodate, according to Carreras.

    But there is as yet no timeline for completion of the two industrial parks under the Partnership Framework, and no word yet on how refugees will be chosen for the earmarked jobs.

    And all of a sudden, Ethiopia’s reputation as a safe investment option – attracting tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment over the past decade – is looking increasingly shaky.


    Refugees playing table football
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    Refugees haven't won yet

    Protests against the government that have been smouldering since November 2015 have taken on a more violent edge recently. At the beginning of October, more than two dozen foreign companies suffered millions of dollars in damage.

    The timing clearly doesn’t help when it comes to luring foreign investors into industrial parks. By mid-October, foreign embassies in the capital were holding situation briefings with concerned investors to try and allay mounting concerns.

    At least those foreign investors have options.

    “The situation makes me nervous,” says Daniel the dentist. “Not only am I a foreigner but I’m from an enemy country. It could get bad. They can beat me or kill me. There’s no one to protect me.”

    Wrong sort of human capital

    “It was a bold and brave decision by Ethiopia to offer to take in foreigners when so many of its own have dire needs,” Carreras says, contrasting this stance with how Hungary recently voted against housing about 18,000 refugees.

    But at the same time, there is a less salubrious side to the refugee situation in Ethiopia. Encountering groups of refugees in Addis Ababa, it’s not long before someone is sidling up to you, eyes furtively glancing around, wanting to talk about problems.

    Many have harsh words for both the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, ARRA.

    There’s talk of thousands of dollars changing hands so Ethiopians can pose as refugees for resettlement in Europe, of scholarship funding meant for refugees being given to Ethiopians, and of the numbers of refugees in Ethiopia being inflated to ensure foreign funding keeps coming in.

    “The numbers are accurate and based on research by UNHCR,” insists Zeynu Jernal, ARRA’s deputy director. “We gain no financial benefits from the Ethiopian operation and are in fact underfunded – last year the required $280 million budget was only 60 percent funded.”

    Zeynu acknowledges that giving 30,000 refugees jobs still leaves many more without – hence other schemes being initiated.

    These include plans for 20,000 refugee households to be given land so they can farm; 13,000 long-term Somali refugees being integrated into the eastern city of Jijiga with resident and work permits; and higher education opportunities for refugees who pass the university entrance exams. 

    Some of the refugees in Addis Ababa who have been following news about the initiatives online, however, seem less sure whether they will really benefit.

    “Refugees in Ethiopia is a business. That’s what needs to be addressed,” says Shikatende from Congo.

    “If you want to solve the refugee problem, you need to deal with the real cause of refugees, which is African leaders – but [foreign donors] are providing them with more money.”


    TOP PHOTO: Playing dominoes in the Jesuit Refugee Service compound, by James Jeffrey

    Europe pays out to keep a lid on Ethiopia migration
    A $500 million investment aims to keep migrants at bay
  • Is Ethiopia unravelling?

    On Sunday evening, the bars of Addis Ababa were doing their usual brisk business. Just 50 kilometres south of the Ethiopian capital, in the picturesque volcanic lake town of Bishoftu, more than 100 people lay dead.

    About two million ethnic Oromo had turned up to celebrate a traditional cultural festival. But a deadly stampede ensued after police fired tear gas at protesters who were chanting anti-government slogans and throwing stones and bottles.

    Ethiopia is going through its most widespread and sustained protests since the ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came to power in 1991. It’s testing the leadership’s grip, and its big idea of a “developmental state” – the implied bargain in which the government delivers economic growth, in exchange for acquiescence over its authoritarianism.

    Although there has been significant economic growth over the past two decades, it has not kept pace with a “youth bulge”, rising unemployment and growing inequality. The bargain seems to be fraying in the face of increasingly obvious public corruption, disaffection with the suffocation of civil liberties, and localised misrule at the state level.

    When Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa celebrated at the finish line in the Rio Olympics by crossing his forearms above his head, the symbol of the opposition movement, he drew attention to the months of government crackdowns on protest.

    Since November 2015, that has cost upwards of 600 lives, according to human rights groups.

    “The oppressed stay silent but eventually you reach a critical mass and then it boils over,” said Yilikal Getenet, chairman of the opposition Blue Party. “Hundreds have been killed but they keep protesting. They go to protests knowing the risks. So what does that tell you?”

    Discontent spreads

    The Oromo are the country’s largest ethnic group, constituting 35 percent of the country’s nearly 100 million population. They have historically felt short-changed by successive regimes in Addis Ababa, and, initially, the unrest was confined to the Oromia Region.


    Addis Ababa trade

    But then in August, similar grassroots protest broke out among the Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group, starting in the ancient city of Gondar. For the first time, the government seemed to be on the ropes.

    “This movement, fundamentally, involves the peasants in the countryside,” said human rights lawyer Abebe Hailu. “This government came into being with the support of the rural poor. Now it is the rural poor that is against them – this is the irony.”

    Addis Ababa, the hub of political power and the engine of Ethiopia’s economy, has remained relatively cocooned. But there is undoubtedly a degree of uncertainty lurking among the sparkly new malls and rushing traffic.

    Activist alliance?

    It’s hard to say how closely the Amhara and Oromo activists are cooperating; but they are releasing joint press releases, mounting joint demonstrations outsides embassies abroad, and both groups are expressing solidarity with their counterparts.

    “The immediate causes of the two sets of protests were different but they have the same demands: deliver the right leadership,” said Yilikal, the opposition party chairman.

    “That was why, when the Amhara protested in Gondar, they carried posters calling for an imprisoned Oromo leader to be freed. Activists from either side are releasing messages to stand together.”

    Merera Gudina, chairman of another opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress, believes the ruling EPRDF’s political project of “ethnic federalism” could be unravelling.

    “What’s happening is a combination of everything: historical marginalisation and present marginalisation,” he told IRIN. “It’s a revolt against minority rule and its policies.”

    The EPRDF’s federal constitution was meant to accommodate the country’s impressive diversity of more than 80 ethnic groups, providing for shared and decentralised power.

    But the EPRDF is seen as controlled by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which waged a successful guerrilla war against the 14-year military dictatorship of Haile Mariam Mengistu.

    Tigrayans form only about six percent of the population but have a key role in government, business, and especially the security forces – to the chagrin of those that are locked out.


    “The TPLF has trapped itself by ethnicising political life without accepting real autonomy for every regional state,” explained Robert Wiren, a French journalist who specialises on the Horn of Africa.

    “It is an open secret that behind each regional state leader there is a kind of unofficial political supervisor,” he said. “Since Ethiopia’s economic growth is due to a centralised-driven process, a lot of non-Tigray people suspect the Tigray elite to be the only beneficiary of the economic boom.”

    This style of governance has alienated the Amhara, who historically provided the emperors that ruled the country. The Oromo feel they have always been excluded, first by the Amhara, and then by the Tigrayans, a reality that could limit the strength of the new opposition alliance.

    The towering figure of Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia from 1991 until his death in office in 2012, wasn’t blind to such frictions. He chose as his successor Hailemariam Desalegn, who hails from a minority southern ethnic group. 

    While proving himself an able technocrat, Hailemariam hasn’t been able to restrain Ethiopia’s competing elements and balance its fragile ethnic politics.

    But he hasn’t been shy of speaking out, warning that issues facing the regime are a matter of “life or death”, and criticising party members for using “public authority for personal gain at all levels”.

    And he appears willing to make concessions. In the wake of the initial Oromo protests, the government shelved the ostensible cause: a plan to expand Addis Ababa into the surrounding Oromia countryside. This unprecedented government compromise was praised by many.

    “Obviously, the government has to maintain law and order. That’s the point of a government. But you have to balance things: on the one hand law and order, but on the other you have to deliver genuine solutions to people’s demands,” noted Lidetu Ayele, founder of the opposition Ethiopia Democratic Party. 

    “If you balance that, you can really handle the situation. Otherwise, if you always pretend and play the same old political game, it cannot take you anywhere.”

    But the government doesn’t appear willing to go to the extent of opening a dialogue with the opposition. “All we have are our principles and public support – we have no power to negotiate with them on anything,” said Yilikal.

    Do opposition parties have a plan?

    But the civilian opposition – as opposed to the armed insurgents the government still battles – is also criticised for not matching the volume of its anti-government rhetoric with effective policy alternatives.

    During Ethiopia’s now infamous 2005 national election, opposition parties won a significant number of seats, but some refused to take them due to accusations of vote rigging that denied them outright victory.


    Ethiopian girl
    James Jeffrey/IRIN
    A troublesome youth bulge

    While many acknowledge vote rigging occurred, others lament how that boycott proved catastrophic. Today the opposition remains divided, apparently unable or unwilling to coalesce into a single effective voice.

    “What does the Ethiopian public want? Firstly, peace; secondly stability; thirdly prosperity,” suggested one Addis Ababa-based foreign analyst.

    “In most cases, the Ethiopian opposition have conflated opposition with opposite,” he added. “When asked for details of the programme for achieving those three needs, they revert to type and complain about how difficult it is to be opposition instead of answering the questions.”


    “There are two types of opposition: those involved in armed struggle and then there’s legal representation like us, but the problem is the EPRDF puts all opposition in the same basket,” said Merera, of the OFC.

    “If it’s not willing to open political space for moderate forces, how can we do anything?”

    It’s argued, however, that much of the inability of opposition parties to gain traction and effectively engage with the EPRDF has more to do with their funding.

    “Nearly all of opposition political party funds come from the diaspora, and the diaspora are not going to pay for an opposition that cosies up to the EPRDF,” the analyst said.

    The EPRDF’s “revolutionary democracy” ideology is seen as fundamentally anti-democratic. What is needed, observers say, is reform. That would include releasing all political prisoners, unshackling the media, allowing freedom of expression, and reforming key institutions such as the judicial system.

    A sterner test will be ensuring the fairness of the next local elections in 2018 and national elections in 2020.

    The government has started talking about reforms. But for a country with a millennia of centralised, autocratic rule – first under its emperors and then its military leaders – that’s much easier said than done.

    “People need to be calm and patient,” said Abebe, the human rights lawyer. “And we need acceptance by the government about making real reforms.”


    TOP PHOTO: Mural in an Ethiopian orthodox church, by Charles Roffey

    Is Ethiopia unravelling?

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