Perhaps the major political story in the last year has been the continual dysfunctional relationship with Eritrea. Even the rare, shocking murder and kidnapping of foreign tourists was linked to Ethiopia’s northern nemesis. In January five tourists were killed, two wounded and four others kidnapped and eventually released in an attack in Ethiopia’s arid north. Ethiopia’s foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti said the Germans were freed from kidnappers who were associated with the country’s archrival, Eritrea.
Five tourists were killed and two wounded in the January 18 attack. In a statement, the Eritrea based Afar Revolutionary Democratic Unity Front (ARDUF) said the two Germans were handed over to local elders in the presence of German Embassy representatives. The captives were among a group of 27 foreign tourists and two Ethiopians (a driver and a policeman) who came under attack by gunmen, while visiting tourist attractions in Ethiopia’s Afar region. The assault took place near Erta Ale, one of Ethiopia’s most active volcanic sites, located along the inhospitable Danakil depression, where temperatures regularly exceed 50 degrees Celsius in the summer. The assault led to the killing of two Germans, two Hungarians and an Austrian. Four other people from Germany, Belgium and Italian nationals were wounded in the shootout. Two Ethiopians and Two Germans were also kidnapped and subsequently released. Shortly after the incident, the Ethiopian government blamed Eritrea for the attacks saying the cross-border assailants were trained and armed by arch-foe Eritrea. However, Asmara immediately dismissed the accusations. The little known ARDUF rebel group claimed it is struggling against political marginalization by Addis Ababa and to the unity of the Afar peoples in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. But the Ethiopian government insisted the ARDUF is a group of bandits who serve as mercenaries for the Eritrean government. This action led to Ethiopian defense forces attacking Eritrean military bases, penetrating over 10 miles inside Eritrean territories and destroying three military camps in Ramid, Gelahbe and Gimbi areas. It was the first preemptive attack against Eritrea in more than a decade. The Ethiopian government said the attacks were to secure the borders against militants.
The Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu denounced the attacks and said they were contemplating revenge after; “a military bellicosity that encroaches on Eritrea’s sovereignty.”
“The military camps housed terrorist groups and have been run under command and control of the Asmara regime, which continues to launch attacks against Ethiopia using it surrogates,” Shimeles Kemal, State Minister at the Government Affairs Communication Office, told Capital at the time.
“Eritrea is not in a position to launch a war,” said State Minister Shimeles, “if they do we will respond accordingly but they must understand the only benefit it would bring them is demise.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations said the Ethio-Eritrea unresolved border dispute that led to a bloody war in 1998 is still a pressing concern. In 1998 the two countries unexpectedly entered into a full scale war, suffering massive casualties and hundreds of millions of dollars of expense. The conflict ended in June 2000 when a peace deal was signed.
“I am concerned that this border issue has not been resolved in accordance with Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission’s recommendations. The Algiers Agreement of 2000 was able to address this war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. With the binding agreement on delimitation and demarcation between Eritrea and Ethiopia [border], it is up to the two countries to implement these recommendations,” said the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in an interview with Capital last October.
Although Ethiopia said it is always ready to assume talks with Asmara to resolve the dispute, unless Asmara complies by stop arming and sending militants into Ethiopian territories, the Ethiopian army will actively respond to attacks, Kemal had reiterated.
Terrorism laws are supposed to protect the masses from violent predators trying to impose their own world view on others. However the labels we give words frequently becomes a moot point. As former US President Bill Clinton famously said “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is. One persons cause is another person’s terrorism. One journalist’s fact becomes another’s irresponsible reporting. One person’s attempt to foster dialogue becomes another’s attempt to aid terrorists. Such has been the case repeatedly this past year in Ethiopia.
Jailed Swedish Journalists
Last December the federal court convicted and subsequently sentenced two Swedish journalists, Reporter Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, to 11 years imprisonment over charges of entering the country illegally and helping the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). They are now serving their sentence in Kaliti prison.
Following their conviction the two jailed Swedish journalists submitted pardon requests.
“What kind of response they will get to their request for pardon is anybody’s guess. Anyone who tells you otherwise would be lying,” said a top government official who also assumes a senior role at the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) leadership.
“There’s a tradition of pardoning and forgiving in Ethiopia and we choose to trust in this tradition,” said the journalists’ families spokesperson Anna Roxvall in a statement emailed to international news agencies.
A law expert told Capital that no legislation including the antiterrorism law prohibits people convicted of terrorism charges from asking for pardon.
According to the expert, the two Swedish journalists can ask for a pardon as the law allows them to do at any time after the sentence. “Even if their first clemency request is rejected, they may seek it again and again every six months should they wish do so,” the expert said.
Pardon requests are submitted to the Board of Pardon chaired by the Justice Minister and would be decided by majority votes there. The board submits “recommendations” to the republic’s president who has the final say.
In recent years the Ethiopian government has approved high profile pardons including to the opposition group leaders, and some journalists and civil society personnel who were convicted in connection to the post election violence in 2005.
During the trial the two journalists have acknowledged illegally entering Ethiopia but denied supporting ONLF claiming that they were gathering news about a Swedish oil company exploring Ethiopia’s Somali region for oil.
Ethiopian Journalists, opposition members jailed
The New York based Committee to The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had said during the last decade PM Meles Zenawi was responsible for forcing more journalists into exile than any other leader in the world.
In mid-July Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega was sentenced to eighteen years in prison. The US government and Human Rights Watch have condemned Eskinder’s imprisonment.
And Temesgen Desalegn, editor of Feteh newspaper, was released from Kality Prison after a week of imprisonment in August in connection with his articles that appeared in seven editions of Feteh Newspaper. Charges against him were also dropped.
Meles had argued that journalists in Ethiopia are facing crimes they commit; as it is been seen in London when journalists hacked into people’s phone or the alleged sex crime charges against the founder of Wiki-leaks.
During one parliamentary address last year Meles had solemnly asked why the famous whistle blowing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange charges of rapes was seen as “law enforcement” but the two Swedes self-professed crime of entering to Ethiopia illegally was an “attack on press freedom.”
Meles had offered two reasons for such “double standard”. Groups like the Human Rights Watch are trying to discredit Ethiopia’s governance and force the country to adhere to the neoliberal ideology only because it is different from their subscriptions of policy.
“There was a case of one white man who came to Ethiopia few decades back. From his experience in colonial territories like in neighboring Kenya he expected people to stand and leave their seat when they saw a white man standing in bus rides. When he entered a bus here people remained seated though he was standing; he could not comprehend this “contravention”; similarly the fact that we prosecuted two Swedish journalists for their self professed crime of entering the country illegally is a “contravention” for some people,” Meles had explained.
Meles had declared such mindsets amount to requests for extraterritoriality – a state of being exempt from the jurisdiction of local law – colonials used to enforce in their colonies.
Non-colonized Ethiopia should not give in to such demands and the solution is “to take it to the Ethiopian people to explain the matter and see if they are willing to sacrifice to preserve their sovereignty. It is not always through blood one preserves his sovereignty; in this case it is paying the price of the defamation campaign.”
In a rare pinpoint against Girma Seifu, the soft spoken and a lone opposition MP, Meles said during one parliament session: “By citing multiple articles from the constitution you appear as one who likes (respects) it.” “I can tell you in full certainty, with 100 percent, that there are members and leaders of Medrek who are members of terrorist groups,” Meles had said.
The opposition Medrek coalition only won a single seat in the May 2010 national elections. Filled by Girma, who won a seat running against the capital’s mayor advisor in woreda six Autobis Tera area, the single seat now represents the largest opposition in the House.
Meles says despite the government being certain about some Medrek members being terrorists, it doesn’t arrest them only because it lacks evidence to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt in courts.
“We saw some cases where individuals have been sent free by the courts though we are certain of their terrorist activities. After looking at this we are now only pursuing those we can present clear-cut evidence against,” the PM had explained.
Meanwhile, from London to Paris and to Washington DC, various international right groups have been accusing the government of taking measures to silence dissidents by imprisoning journalists and opposition politicians.
The MP also said the government has employed a crackdown strategy to weaken opposition and silence dissidents.
“We are not able to rent offices to operate, get halls to hold meetings. Though the constitution guarantees such rights and stipulates that we should not ask permission to exercise them, we are repeatedly asked to do so. And when we bring permissions, we are banned with a phone call,” Girma said accusing the government of severely narrowing the political sphere more than ever.
Meles, responding to a number of questions including from ruling party MPs, had appeared not to fully understand the MP’s question.
“If the cost of renting office is becoming too high for you to afford, aiding your party is an idea we can entertain as a government,” he had replied. But if it is claims of abuse, Meles had said it is cheating to paint a different reality.
“As far as I know you have an office and also hold meetings. So this could be usual accusations to swindle,” Meles also said.
Prominent opposition beaten in police custody, despite PM pledge for faultless prosecution
Less than a week after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had pledged for flawless prosecution of suspects facing terrorism charges, a leading suspect and opposition politician Andualem Arage was severely beaten in police custody.
Andualem, a vice chairman of the main opposition party Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), was convicted last Ethiopian year on terrorism charges. The politician who has recently risen in ranks within the party is kept in Kaliti prison which is located at the outskirts of the city.
Prime Minister Meles had appeared in parliament on February 8 pledging to stage a flawless and transparent prosecution of suspects in custody. “We did not send these people abroad to other countries or military courts; we took them to an independent court and their trial has been fully transparent,” Meles had told MPs.
“On February 15, Andualem was beaten severely inside his cell,” said UDJ in a statement it released.
Fearing that he would be killed, Andualem refused treatment, a UDJ leader said. The politician, reportedly beaten unconscious and lying on the floor, was attacked by a convict named Ibas Asfaw.
Ibas, confirmed as Andualem’s attacker by authorities, is serving life for murder after a death sentence handed out to him was commuted through pardon.
Prison officials who admitted Andualem was attacked say it is an ordinary incident which is a result of a quarrel between the politician and the convict. At the time Andualem was awaiting trial and some lawyers pointed to the criminal code which states that those awaiting trial should be kept separate from those who are convicted. “The convict Ibas also took away Andualem’s documents that were prepared as a defense to the court procedure,” stated UDJ.
This isn’t the first time safety of suspects under Ethiopian prisons was called into question. “Prison and pre-trial detention center conditions remained harsh and in some cases life threatening. Severe overcrowding was common, especially in sleeping quarters,” said the United States State Department’s annual human rights report in its latest edition.
One of the strengths of federalism is that it addresses the need of diverse people groups. However there are still those who face homelessness and economic insecurity.
Last Ethiopian year close to a third of over 230 households that were relocated in a state run “villagization” program in Gambella region left resettlement areas due to poor facilities and living conditions there, a diplomatic source said.
“Conditions are such that people decided to walk one to two hours back to where they came from a year ago. Some people are disappointed with the lack of medicine or underequipped health and other facilities,” according to the diplomatic source. There has been “capacity limitation” on authorities’ part to meet the expectations of the settlers, said the source adding that majority of those included in the “villagization” program say they are “better off” there and like to stay around.
Increased access to clean water, health facilities, schools, fertile farm land that leads to increased production and food aid currently being provided by the World Food Program are cited as main benefits of moving into the new villages.
The Ethiopian government says the number of people who have left the resettlement program are very few. Their return shows their voluntary inclusion into the program and they are exercising their right to leave the village when they wish to do so, according to the government.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) had issued a report accusing the government of forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous people from the western Gambella to new villages that lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare, and educational facilities.
The rights group also claimed many of the areas currently being leased to investors for commercial farms are areas where people have been forcibly removed.
In a rebuttal statement issued by the Federal Affairs Ministry derided the HRW Report as an ideologically driven attack that bases its claims on imaginary accounts and pure fabrications.
The diplomatic sources that have talked to residents in newly setup villages in Gambella back government’s accounts. The source said people there said they moved into the villages voluntarily and majority of them prefer to stay there.
At times angry, in other moments serene Prime Minister Meles appeared upbeat about his government’s economic performance last year despite latest soaring inflation rates in his address to parliament. The opposition Girma countered Meles’ performance report to Parliament in February 2012 with opinionated questions which said the government missed its targets of holding inflation to single digits, a key target Meles had promised to realize in the ongoing five year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP).
“According to one study, since inflation rates have been so high even if it goes to zero now its average for the five year GTP period will be high, and this shows one of the GTP’s crucial targets has been missed,” Girma had asked the PM after hearing the federal government’s mid-year performance report.
Meles didn’t directly respond to the assessment by MP Girma but rebuffed what he calls ‘repeated rumors and unsubstantiated claims’.
Meles had said at the time that all the data about the 2010/11 economic performance are in. “Earlier in the budget year our economy has registered an 11.4 percent growth,” Meles told the House. This current fiscal year, already half way through, would similarly register another double digit growth, he projected.
Meanwhile, latest annual economic performances have led to a dispute between the Ethiopian government and international financers including the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“In 2010/11the mission estimates at 7.5 percent compared to an official estimate of 11.4 percent,” the IMF mission dispatched here last year said in a statement released on May 31.
For the just ended fiscal year 2011/12, IMF had predicted lower growth, at about 6 percent, on account of high inflation, restrictions on private bank lending, and a more difficult business environment.
Ragnar Gudmundsson, IMF Resident Representative in Kenya, had admitted that after projection differences between a country and the IMF it is always the country’s figures that will be adopted by the parties at the conclusion of the economic period, saying “We tend to take national accounts.”