News of Ethiopia

As elections approach, violence and money games

Just a few more weeks until Ethiopia’s May 23 elections and already the charges and counter-charges are flying. In an interview by phone with Bloomberg news agency, opposition coalition leader Merara Gudina said that the election so far “looks like sort of a war, not an election,” Merara accused loyalists that the government party have thrown stones at his car, breaking its windows and puncturing its tires over various occasions while campaigning in the Oromiya region in April. Ethiopian government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said one of the ruling party’s candidates had been stabbed to death, in a first murder accusation against Medrek, the country’s main opposition coalition.

A NOSE FOR TROUBLE: Prime Minister Meles

No one is sure who is really ahead in the election, of course, but following the money is one way of getting a sense of the flow of the campaign.  One report in Afrik.com has it that big money is flowing from the business community to Meles’ ruling party. More than 22 million birr, about $1.6 million, has been raised by the business community. As the ruling party tells it, the business people approached the party with offers to help in the election and, according to Hailemariam Desalegn, EPRDF election coordinating committee member and government whip at parliament, “We told them to mobilize all the business people and raise a target of 20 million birr; however, they raised 22 million birr in cash.” Another 10 million birr,  Hailemariam said,  had been targeted for buying t-shirts.  But companies volunteered to make the t-shirts for free, so in effect that’s more money given to the ruling party.

ABSENT HERO: D.C. fundraisers and picture of Birtukan Mideksa

Meanwhile, the opposition parties are raising money in the United States. Hundreds of Ethiopians in the Washington, D.C. metro area paid $30 on a Sunday in April  to hear from major contenders for the 23 May parliamentary election back home.  Bertukan Mideksa, the  charismatic chairperson of the Unity for Democracy and Justice party, was noticeably absent. She is, of course, in jail in Addis.  Though her photo captioned “Free Birtukan Mideksa from Kaliti Prison” was placed on the table. Gizachew Shiferaw, her deputy, waived to supporters as he entered the room and took to the stage. “I greet you in the spirit of peace,” Gizechew said, raising his right hand aloft. That gesture has become an opposition symbol in the election.  “Our leader, Bertukan Mideksa, languishes in prison, but we will not stop our struggle,” he said to loud applause and cheering. Medrek brought former foes under the same political platform. The National Election Board of Ethiopia does not permit Ethiopian citizens living outside the country to vote absentee ballots,  so these meetings focus on getting financial support — not votes — from the diaspora.

The health of children and their moms

Every year 381,000 children in Ethiopia die before their 5th birthday. This includes 120,000 newborn babies. Twenty-six thousand women also die annually from complications in pregnancy. Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers 2010 highlights the annual mothers’ index, which ranks the best and worst places to be a mother. Ethiopia is ranked 20th among the least-developed 40 countries for women’s health and well-being and 32nd out of 42 least-developed countries in children’s health and well-being. The index is based on an analysis of indicators of women’s and children’s health and well-being.

Water problems, to the north and south

Ethiopia has lots of water problems, big and small. Getting water in villages is a constant problem. But sometimes the water problem goes beyond the village and is entangled with other issues, like electric power or international affairs. Ethiopia wants to build a dam on the Omo River which flows from southern Ethiopia into Lake Turkana in northern Kenya. The Ethiopian government awarded a $2.1bn contract to Italy’s Salini for the construction of the dam, the country’s biggest infrastructure project ever. But environmentalists are appalled at what they consider the damage the project will cause. A report by International Rivers says that the project, called the Gibe III Dam , “will devastate the fragile ecosystems of the Lower Omo Valley and Kenya’s Lake Turkana, on which 500,000 poor farmers, herders and fisherfolk rely for their livelihoods.” Campaigners also fear that the dam would reduce the flow of water into Lake Turkana and would flood a huge area, creating a 150km-long lake.

But Ethiopia’s government disagrees, saying that the dam is needed to generate enough electricity for its population and to sell abroad. Tewolde Gebre Egziabher, head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority, says that the project was “very sensible.” He told the BBC that “the advantages for the whole country, the local communities, and even for our neighboring countries, including Kenya, far outweigh the small problems that will be caused at the short term.” Construction work is underway on the dam, which would be Africa’s second largest hydro-electric dam. But International Rivers says the government still needs about $1.4bn to complete it. Are you listening World Bank?

WHO OWNS THE WATER: fetching water from Kenya's Lake Turkana threatened by Ethiopia's Gibe III Dam

Ethiopia also has a water problem to the North.  For generations, Ethiopia and its sub-Saharan neighbors have been battling Egypt over the water which originates in the south, including Lake Tana, and flows north to water the Nile Delta.  Last month the squabble came to a head when upstream countries declared after a water meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh that they would launch separate talks on control of the water since Egypt and Sudan refused to revise water pacts dating to 1929. “Egypt’s historic rights to Nile waters are a matter of life and death. We will not compromise them,” said Moufid Shehab, Egypt’s minister of legal and assembly affairs. The 1929 deal, brokered on one side by British colonial powers in Africa, gives Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres a year, the biggest share of a flow of some 84 billion cubic meters. It also gives Cairo the power to veto dams and other water projects in upstream countries that include six of the world’s poorest nations. “We will not sign on to any agreement that does not clearly state and acknowledge our historical rights,” Egyptian Water Minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam said.

The Ethiopians are not amused. “Egypt has tried in the past to complicate the issue.  They are dragging their heels,” says Shimeles Kemal, spokesman for the government of Ethiopia, which, we all know, is the source of the Blue Nile. Egypt and Sudan “are pushing for a position that would negate everything we’ve achieved in years of talks and negotiations,” said Isaac Musumba, Uganda’s state minister for regional cooperation. They control the White Nile. Upstream states have invited Egypt and Sudan to take part in the new deal — whose legal standing would be uncertain — but on their terms. “We hope to convince them,” said Christopher Chiza, Tanzania’s deputy minister of water and irrigation. Talk of such a deal triggers alarm in Egypt, where Nile waters feed a farm sector accounting for a third of all jobs. Egypt, unlike upstream nations, cannot rely on rain and gets 87 percent of its water needs from the Nile. Climate change and rising sea levels could also swallow much of the slim, fertile Nile Delta in Egypt, already the world’s largest wheat importer.

Coffee and climate change

And speaking of climate change, Ethiopia seems to be having problems of its own with global warming. According to a study conducted in the Ethiopian state awkwardly named Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State, coffee is under threat from climate-change induced diseases. Farmers in the study area reported that yields of coffee and other crops had fallen in the last four years. The study  attributed this to a loss of soil fertility, drought and unusually high rainfall at the wrong time. Also, a slight increase in annual maximum and minimum temperatures was recorded in recent years at Yergalem. “High temperatures aggravate the problem of coffee berry disease during a long dry season,” the study noted.

The study added the threat is not isolated to The Southern Nations.  An analysis of 32 years of climate data from Jimma, a city in Oromia Regional State and an important coffee area, found that before 1984 temperatures were too low for beetles to regenerate more than once a year. But after the temperature began to rise, the insect began to regenerate twice per year causing increased damage to crops including coffee.

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