News of Ethiopia

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

Oromo Ceasefire?

Oromo troops

As any foreign correspondent who has covered Ethiopia and its long war with the Oromo Liberation Front knows, getting to talk with leaders of the OLF is a difficult and dangerous business. Journalists traveling in search of interviews in the south of Ethiopia have been detained and roughed up. So when Emily Wax, a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post now working in Washington after a tour in Africa, wanted to get an update on the OLF, she drove up to the Petworth section of Washington, D.C., and sat down at a café on Georgia Avenue NW. It turns out that while U Street in Washington is little Addis, upper Georgia Ave is Oromo-land.

Taha Tuko

Wax scored not only an interview with Taha Tuko, a leader of the OFM, but came across a bit of news. Tuko told her that “the violence is over, and this is good news.” The OLF has been retooled, Tuko told Wax, “Our mission is no longer independence.” Rather, he said, they would like to work with other opposition parties to bring down — via elections — the present government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. “You’ve heard of the Arab Spring,” said another Omomo, Abebe Belew, a radio host with the cynical, comical air of Jon Stewart, “Well, this is our Ethiopian Winter because of the dropping of secession. But soon it’s going to be much bigger than the Arab Spring, because our biggest breakaway group wants unity and they will join forces against the current government.”

While the Oromo community in Washington, which may number as many as 10,000, has an extensive network of church and mosques, social clubs and newspapers, even a Miss Oroma contest and an on-line dating service, bringing unity to all the political factions will be difficult. Splintering political groups have long beset the community, both in Washington and back in Ethiopia.  And to get the Oromos to work with other opposition parties, including those dominated by Amharas, will be doubly hard. Still the declaration of a ceasefire in the long secessionist war is a major step forward to bring peace to Ethiopia. To read Wax’s long and informative piece on the Oromo in the Washington Post, click HERE.

Free Eskinder Nega

Eskinder Nega

In recent months, pressure has been building in support of Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist and blogger who has been on trial in Addis on charges of terrorism and incitement to violent revolt. Eskinder was arrested after he published articles linking the Arab Spring to Ethiopia. In his stories he also disputed the number of journalists claimed being held by the government as suspected terrorists. He also was critical of the arrest of popular actor Debebe Eshetu. After Eskinder’s arrest in September 2011, he was charged with plotting to bring arms into Ethiopia from Eritrea.  On national TV, the government claimed that Eskinder was “a spy for foreign forces.”

Serkalem Fasil

Eskinder has been arrested more than a half dozen times by the present government. In 2005 he and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, were arrested and charged with treason for writing about the arrests of opposition party members following the election of 2005. Eskinder and Serkalem were held for 17 months. Their child was born in prison. He and his family were released in 2007 with warnings to behave themselves, but he bravely and obstinately continued to write and publish.

Eskinder Nega gives the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi severe headaches. Meles relishes his role as one of the reasonable and enlightened leaders of Africa. He is always jetting off to this conference or that to talk about African development. He’s been invited to the next G8 meeting. And he points to two elections to confirm his legitimacy as a democratic leader. But Ethiopian democracy has a thin, even imaginary, veneer. As a result, Meles and his people do suffer critics lightly. Those who speak out against the government are arrested and locked away to be forgotten. So while Meles is busy delivering often commendable programs to the country — which has made progress in recent years — he also has constructed a quasi-Stalinist state that people like Eskinder are busy exposing for what it is.

In May Eskinder was awarded the prestigious Freedom to Write award by PEN America. Hours before the ceremony, Serkalem arrived from Addis to accept the award. In a touching speech, she said that “prison has been Eskinder’s home away from home for the past two decades.” She continued: “If Eskinder were standing here, he would accept this award not just as a personal honor, but on behalf of all Ethiopian journalists who toil under withering repression in Ethiopia today, those forced into exile over the years, those in prison with him now, and even those who serve in state media for no other reason than making a living.”

Beer Wars

Jumbos at the Beemnet Bar

Okay, tela and tej are great, and they sustained a great many PCVs during their years in Ethiopia. But western, lager-style beer, like St George and Harar, was a pleasant — albeit more expensive — alternative widely consumed. As Ethiopia’s middle class expands and its urban population explodes, beer is fast becoming a much more popular drink.  It is consumed, for example, in over-sized mugs called “jumbos” in sports bars like Addis’ Beemnet Bar while fans watch English Premier League football matches on flat screen TVs.

Ethiopia’s beer market is projected to increase by 15 per cent a year, and the prospect of ever more consumption of jumbos has brought the big foreign beer companies into the market.  In the 1990s BGI Ethiopia, a French run brewery consortium (yes, the French know how to make great beer too!), acquired the iconic St George brewery from the government as part of the post-Deng privatization. But BGI, Ethiopia’s largest brewing concern, is in for competition. Last year Heineken, the Dutch brewery, paid $163 million for  two breweries in Ethiopia: the Harar Brewery, which produces Harar Beer and Hakim Stout, two very popular beers, and the Bedele brewery in the west of Ethiopia.

In May, Heineken announced that it will invest more money in additional brewing facilities to be built near Addis. It will also build a water treatment plant and plant hops to help produce top quality beers. In addition to the present brands, Heineken may brew its own green label beer and Amstel in the new brewery near Addis.

In addition to the French consortium and Heineken, Diago, a British based liquor giant that owns part of Guinness and Johnnie Walker, recently bought Meta Abo Beer Factory for $14.5 million.  There’s lots of room for expansion.  Ethiopian beer consumption is a mere four liters per capita, compared with 11 liters for Nigeria and 12 for Kenya — and a whopping 60 liters for South Africa. Order another round of jumbos, goshi.

Lucy’s cousins

Lucy, the famed Ethiopian fossil of an upright humanoid dating back 3.5 million years, was not without the company of other pre-human species. In a March issue of Nature a team of scholars reported on the finding of bones from a foot in the Afar region of Ethiopia, near a location called Burtele. “The Burtele partial foot clearly shows that at 3.4 million years ago, Lucy’s species, which walked upright on two legs, was not the only hominine species living in this region of Ethiopia,” said lead author and project leader Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “Her species co-existed with close relatives who were more adept at climbing trees, like ‘Ardi’s’ species, Ardipithecus ramidus, which lived 4.4 million years ago.”

This new species, which does not have a name yet because skull and dental elements have not been discovered, had a big toe which was probably adept at holding on branches, but lacked “an expansion joint that would allow for an expanded range of movement required for pushing off the ground for upright walking,” said co-author and project co-leader Dr. Bruce Latimer of Case Western Reserve University. “This individual would have likely had something of an awkward gait when on the ground.”  The findings indicate that one sort of hominine was adapted to living in the trees while Lucy was living on the land.

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