Ethiopian News Notes
compliled by Barry Hillenbrand
Meles Jamming with the Chinese
In search of new markets and sources of natural resources China has been making lots of friends in Africa with its foreign aid and trade. But it has also been helping some of the more repressive regimes in Africa with a Chinese specialty: controlling the press. The Ethiopian Free Press Journalists’ Association (EFJA) has demanded that China put an end to its complicity in jamming Ethiopian Satellite Television and other reputable broadcasters such as the Voice of America and Deutsche Welle Amharic Services.
Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), which recently resumed transmissions to Ethiopia after nearly two months of interruption, claims that the China has been providing technology, training and technical assistance to Ethiopia to enable it to jam ESAT’s transmissions to Ethiopia. After investigating the matter, EFJA has confirmed the allegations with sources inside and outside of Ethiopia.
Kifle Mulat, President of EFJA, noted that stifling freedom of expression and undermining efforts to spread democratic values in Ethiopia sets a bad precedent in the whole of Africa. “Ethiopia is not only the seat of the African Union but also a historic symbol of freedom in Africa as the only African nation that has never been colonized. Aiding tyrants to stifle their people and block the free flow of information is tantamount to committing unwarranted crimes against the freedom-loving people of Africa that are making sacrifices to exercise their inalienable rights and free themselves from corrupt tyrants who are hampering progress in the continent,” Ato Kifle said.
Print journalists detained
Ethiopian authorities have been holding a newspaper columnist according to local journalists. Reeyot Alemu, a regular contributor to the independent weekly Feteh, was expected to spend the next four weeks in preventive detention under what appears to be Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism law. Alemu is the second journalist picked up and held without charge in less than a week and taken into custody at the federal investigation center at Maekelawi Prison in Addis. Deputy Editor Woubshet Taye of the weekly Awramba Times is the other journalist arrested.
Local journalists said they believe Alemu’s arrest could be related to her columns critical of the ruling party. Alemu’s June 17 column in Feteh criticized the public fundraising methods for the Abay Dam project, and made parallels between Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Ethiopian authorities said that the two journalists it detained planned to sabotage the country’s power and phone lines and recruit others to work with arch-foe Eritrea to destabilize it. “The group was caught while plotting to sabotage electricity and telephone lines in an attempt to wreak havoc in the country,” according to Demelash Woldemikael, assistant commissioner of the country’s federal police. Ethiopia’s sweeping anti-terrorism law criminalizes any reporting authorities deem to “encourage” or “provide moral support” to groups and causes the government labels as “terrorists.”
Alemu was picked up at a high school in Addis Ababa where she teaches English, according to the journalists. Police then searched her house. Ethiopia has six journalists currently behind bars, behind only Eritrea as the nation detaining the largest number of journalists in Africa. Eritrea holds at least 17 members of the press in its secret prisons.
No days of rage
A group calling itself the Ethiopian Youth Movement set May 28 as the “day of rage” against what it said was Meles Zenawi’s authoritarian regime. The day was chosen to coincide with the 20th anniversary celebrations of victory of Ethiopia’s ruling party. Online networks and the blogosphere claimed that thousands of Ethiopians had subscribed to the cause, giving rise to feeble hopes of a rare challenge to Meles’s hold on the Horn of Africa country.
But on the appointed day, tens of thousands of people turned out in Addis to fervently celebrate the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front, in a brief — but colorful — party. At Meskel Square throngs chanted praises of Meles in a solid show of support. The Opposition, which may be brave on line, was nowhere to be seen. No Arab Spring in Ethiopia.
Writes former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn, “Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, protest in Ethiopia has been muted. The government-controlled radio and television have given limited coverage to the protests in North Africa and the Middle East, but persons with access to satellite TV are well aware of the issues. There have been reliable reports of increased arrests of persons who support the political opposition to the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Ethiopia keeps a tight rein on any group that threatens EPRDF control in the country.”
Commuted Sentence for Mengistu’s men
Ethiopia has commuted the death sentences of 23 of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s top officials convicted of genocide in 2008. Their sentences were reduced to life imprisonment. Mengistu and dozens of others were sentenced to death for the murder of thousands during a 17-year rule that included famine, war and the “Red Terror” purges of suspected opponents. The ex-president and his senior officers were convicted after a 12-year trial that ruled that Mengistu’s government was directly responsible for the deaths of 2,000 people and the torture of at least 2,400 others.
Ethiopian President Girma Woldegiorgis announced the act of clemency following an appeal for leniency by a panel of heads of religious institutions, as well as an expression of remorse by those convicted. The group does not include Mengistu, but comprises several high-profile figures from the Mengistu-era such as Legesse Asfaw, known as “the butcher of Tigre,” former vice-president Fisseha Desta, and former prime minister, Fikresellassie Wogderes. They have been behind bars since 1991 and have publicly apologized for their crimes. Mengistu, who has lived a life of comfortable exile in Zimbabwe since he was driven from power in 1991, is unlikely to face any punishment as President Robert Mugabe has refused to allow his extradition.
For over a decade during the regime of Egyptian President Mubarak, no Egyptian Prime Minister had visited Ethiopia. But on May 12 Egyptian PM Essam Sharaff arrived in Addis Ababa to join Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for discussions that took place on May 13 at the National Palace.
At the end of the discussions an Egyptian journalist raised a question — is there a problem between Egypt and Ethiopia? The Ethiopian Prime Minister responded unequivocally, “There is no problem between Egypt and Ethiopia that cannot be resolved by Egypt and Ethiopia.” The Prime Minister further assured him that the state of relations between the two countries is good. “Our position is clear. We want to work in cooperation with Egypt for mutual benefit. We have no intention or policy that is designed to hurt others. We told this to the Prime Minister in our discussion,” the Meles added.
The Ethiopian government has achieved what was previously thought impossible: to convince Egypt to rethink its long held position over the Nile River issue. Egypt reiterated that it positively accepts the construction of the dam on the Nile River. Several months ago this stance from Egypt would have been untenable. “We told him in our discussion that Egypt played an obstructive role to our plans to use the rivers. But now we have observed a positive change of attitude,” Meles noted.
Ethiopia has expressed willingness for the “international experts” panel to assess the impact of the dam upon Egypt. “On the part of Ethiopia there is a 100 percent belief that the dam will never have a negative impact on Egypt. The international experts can thoroughly evaluate it. We are willing to form an independent technical group composed of our experts, Egyptians and other international experts. The delegation was happy when we forwarded this idea,” said Ambassador Dina Mufti, spokesperson of the Ethiopian Foreign Minister.
Ethiopian TV puppets
In April CNN’s African Voices service ran a story on Bruktawit Tigabu, co-creator of Ethiopian children’s TV show “Tsehai Loves Learning.” For millions of Ethiopian children, it’s the most cherished moment of their day: a wide-eyed, smiling giraffe hops in front of them, crooning funny songs in a language they can understand. The beloved sock puppet, known as Tsehai, is the star of a ground-breaking TV show that’s been revolutionizing childhood education in the east African country. Think Ethiopian “Sesame Street.”
The brainchild of Ethiopian educator Bruktawit Tigabu and her husband Shane Etzenhouser, “Tsehai Loves Learning” is the only children’s TV show in Ethiopia in Amharic, the nation’s official and most widely spoken language. The show uses puppets and animation to teach young Ethiopians about sanitation and hygiene as well as the importance of culture and honesty. “They don’t realize that they’ve been taught on TV,” says Tigabu from her cramped studio in suburban Addis Ababa where awards share space with the paraphernalia of puppetry. For more on the show and several long and informative video clips from CNN’s interview with Bruktawit, see http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/04/26/ethiopia.bruktawit.tigabu/
Voice of America reported in March that Ethiopia is cutting back by as much as 90 percent the number of inter-country adoptions it will allow, as part of an effort to clean up a system rife with fraud and corruption. Adoption agencies and children’s advocates are concerned the cutbacks will leave many Ethiopian orphans without the last-resort option of an adoptive home abroad.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women’s, Children’s and Youth Affairs has issued a directive saying it will process a maximum of five inter-country adoptions a day, effective March 10. Currently, the ministry is processing up to 50 cases a day, about half of them to the United States. A copy of the directive provided to VOA says the reduction of up to 90 percent in cases will allow closer scrutiny of documents used to verify a child’s orphan status.
Ministry spokesman Abiy Ephrem says the action was taken in response to indications of widespread fraud in the adoption process. “What we have seen so far has been some illegal practices. There is an abuse. There are some cases that are illegal. So these directives will pave the way to come up with [safeguards],” said Abiy Ephrem.
American couples often pay more than $20,000 to adopt an Ethiopian child. Such amounts are an enormous temptation in a country where the average family earns a few hundred dollars a month. U.S. State Department statistics show more than 2,500 Ethiopian orphans went to the United States last year. That is more than a ten fold increase over the past few years, making Ethiopia the second most popular destination for Americans seeking to adopt overseas, after China.
More land deals
Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc, a food company owned by billionaire Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, said it plans to invest $2.5 billion by 2020 developing a rice-farming project in Ethiopia. The company, based in Addis Ababa, leased 24,711 acres in Ethiopia’s western Gambella region for 60 years at a cost of $9.42 per hectare annually. The company plans to rent an additional 290,000 hectares from the government.
The project forms part of Ethiopia’s plan to lease 3 million hectares, an area about the size of Belgium, to private investors over the next 2 ½ years. Critics have argued that domestic farmers are being dispossessed and the country shouldn’t rent land cheaply to foreign investors to grow cash crops when about 13 percent of its approximately 80 million people still rely on food aid. “There is lots of land in Ethiopia, especially in the lowland areas,” said Chief Executive Officer Haile Assegide. “So, if you develop this lowland area and make Ethiopia self-sufficient in food, I see no problem.” Karuturi Global Ltd., an Indian food processor, plans to produce commodities including palm oil, sugar and rice on 312,000 hectares of rented land in Ethiopia.