News of Ethiopia

Written and complied by Barry Hillenbrand (Debre Marcos 63-65)

How to raise some cash

Ethiopia is in need of cash for development projects. Sure, the World Bank and other donors give Ethiopia a lot of help, especially in food aid, but the country’s five year growth plan unveiled in 2010 calls for more than $35 billion to be invested in infrastructure projects including roads, dams and railroads. How to get the cash? Ethiopia has already sold off some farm land to foreign investors causing considerable controversy, but now an Addis research company suggests that the government sell five of the crown jewels of state-owned companies, including Ethiopian Airways, Ethio Telecom and the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. That could raise nearly $7.8 billion, which would build a lot of bridges.

Difficult trials

Several important trials are taking place in Addis, with the government dragging various opposition leaders and journalists in front of courts charged with terrorism. Right after the Genna Christmas celebration, Bekele Gerba and Olbana Lelisa appeared in federal court to hear charges accusing them of conspiring to overthrow Ethiopia’s government by force. They were also accused of being recruiters for the Oromo Liberation Front, an outlawed separatist group.

According to a Voice of America report, Bekele and Olbana had been considered among the brightest of the young generation of politicians being groomed to take over following the 2010 electoral disaster, when the opposition was virtually shut out of Parliament. Bekele had been named deputy chairman and external relations chief for the Oromo Federal Democratic Movement (OFDM), and Olbana held a similar post in the Oromo People’s Congress.

The men were arrested last August after meeting with a visiting delegation from the Amnesty International rights group, which was later expelled from the country. Along with seven co-defendants, Bekele and Olbana had also assisted a BBC news crew that been investigating allegations that Ethiopia used billions of dollars in development aid as a tool for political repression. The government strongly denied the report, calling it irresponsible.

In court, Bekele tried to argue that he had been working for peaceful change on behalf of what he called “downtrodden Oromos.” Chief Judge Endeshaw Adane cut him short, saying the hearing was only for entering a plea.

The trial of Bekele and Olbana is being heard in the same high-court complex where a verdict is due soon in the case of two journalists also charged with terrorism. Reeyot Alemu, a columnist with the weekly paper Fitih [Justice], and Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of the now defunct Awramba Times, are charged with plotting to sabotage telephone and electricity lines.

In a third terrorism trial, opposition politician Andualem Aragie and internet blogger and political analyst Eskinder Nega are among 30 defendants charged with conspiring to overthrow Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government by violent means. While Eskider and Andualem will be in the courtroom, most of the defendants are in exile and being tried in absentia.

And in a related ruling, Ethiopia sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in jail in December on charges of supporting terrorism after the pair illegally entered the country with a Somali rebel group. Photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye were arrested by Ethiopian security forces in July during a gunfight between Ethiopian soldiers and rebels in the no-go region of Ogaden, and were put on trial in October.

Judge Shemsu Sirgaga ruled on 27 December that Persson and Schibbye should suffer “rigorous imprisonment” following their convictions. The verdict, he said, “should satisfy the goal of peace and security.” Prosecutors had asked for 18 years in prison for the pair. Speaking from Stockholm, Karin Schibbye, Martin’s mother, told The Guardian, “It’s absurd. You can’t really take in that they are sentenced to 11 years. It’s obviously so wrong. They are innocent. They entered the country illegally and should be punished for that and nothing else.”

In and out of Somalia

In 2006 Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia to support a fragile and largely ineffective Africa Union backed government against Islamists, including al-Shabab. While the Ethiopians managed to secure parts of Mogadishu and some outlaying towns, they were not really comfortable nor successful. The Somalis were always resentful and suspicious of the Ethiopians, who had fought a war with them in the 1970s. In 2009 Ethiopian troops withdrew.

Since then, conditions in Somalia have not improved greatly, but a growing African Union force, called Amisom has gained strength as countries like Uganda, Djibouti and recently Kenya have contributed troops. But still the Islamists have power and in last August Ethiopian troops once again entered Somalia. In December Ethiopian forces ousted Al-Shabab from a border town called Bulo Hawo. They helped secure Beledweyne, long a strong hold for the government. But Ethiopia is once again pulling back. They will give their positions to the African Union forces — and wait for the next call for assistance from the AU.

Stick to marijuana

The Netherlands, long famous among young travelers in Europe for its lenient soft drug policies and pot cafes, is banning khat. Four times a week fresh shipments of khat came through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Khat leaves, as some RPCVs may, err, ahh, recall hearing tell, need to be fresh, otherwise they lose their potency. The trade is worth some $18 million per year (bless those EU statistics), but the Dutch are eager to limit the trade because it is causing problems in the Somali/Ethiopian/Eritrean communities in Holland. Khat is banned in the U.S., Canada and several other EU countries.

Commitments not forgotten

BEST BUDS: President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis

Since leaving office three years ago, President George W. Bush has kept a relatively low profile, but in December Bush traveled to Ethiopia to support a project which may be one of the proudest accomplishments of his administration. Bush delivered the keynote address to an international conference on AIDS in Africa. He spoke to an audience of mostly African scientists, health professionals and AIDS activists. But he addressed his most pointed remarks to U.S. lawmakers and taxpayers. According to a VOA report, he drew enthusiastic applause when he said this is not the time to cut back funding for the battle against sexually-transmitted diseases. “During lean budget times, the United States and the developing world must set priorities, and there is no greater priority than saving human life,” he said.

Mr. Bush was showered with gifts and honors during his one-day visit to Ethiopia for his leadership in creating PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief. The 10-year, $39 billion program is considered the largest ever initiative dedicated to fighting a disease.

Bush said that he understood that in the U.S. there is pressure to balance budgets and cut spending, but he said that reducing successful humanitarian programs would diminish America’s standing in the world. “I know that during moments of economic hardship, there can be a temptation for Americans to disengage from the world. But we cannot retreat. We cannot afford to falter when we’re needed most. Isolationism is always short sighted. It’s always a mistake. It can always lead to greater hardship and despair,” he said. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presented Mr. Bush with his government’s Outstanding Leadership award for PEPFAR’s contribution to improving health.

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