Ethiopia: What is there to hide in the Omo Valley?

by ASO and Re:Common | 23 Nov 2016


The long road from our hotel to the Ministry of Communications is overflowing with traffic. Cars proceed at walking pace, while along the roadsides, buildings under construction scroll past, a perfect image of a city in chaotic and seemingly unstoppable expansion. It will take longer than expected to reach our destination.

This is not an ideal start to the morning, since our flight from Italy landed in Ethiopia at 4 a.m. With eyes still fogged from sleep and with shortness of breath as we adjust to 2,500 meters altitude in Addis Ababa and its air poisoned with smog, we prepare for the final step in the long bureaucratic process that for months separated us from the Omo Valley. We must obtain official clearance to travel in Ethiopia. This seems, on this sunny morning in early December, the easiest and quickest part after the grueling hurdle of obtaining a visa. As we shall see, our optimism was totally misplaced.

Of course, we do not delude ourselves that it would only take a few minutes. We enter the slightly dusty office of the person responsible for relations with foreign journalists and settle into an armchair, trying to make the time pass. The first “crazy” rumors on our progress – the documents are lost in the depths of the Ministry – should make us suspicious, but we prefer to believe it is just an oversight by a somewhat distracted official. Therefore, we begin lazily to read local newspapers in English, an anthology of praise for Government actions. Then a stack of paperback books catches our eyes, their titles more resonant than ever: The Ethiopian Human Rights Landscape in the Context of Rights-Based Approach to Development. A nice cadeau for members of the international press who must pass through this office, willingly or not.

Intrigued, we wrest ourselves from our torpor and begin to read the 166 pages of the publication, written in an elegant English with sections rich in emphasis. The first few words of introduction make the tone of the pamphlet clear. “Launching allegations of systematic human rights violations at Ethiopia has become a hallmark of the “stew” cooked up by overly-zealous NGOs and international think tanks.” There is no doubt, local authorities are absolutely determined to wipe out this “mantra” that in their eyes looks like a dangerous virus to eradicate as soon as possible with an aggressive treatment. Whoever points the finger at Ethiopia, we read further, is guilty of an ideological approach, or even hiding malicious “ulterior motives.” All the organizations that deal with Ethiopia were wrong to want to stubbornly reduce the role of the State, attempting to subordinate it to the free market. The authors decry this error, because it defeats the understanding of State interventionism as the source of benefits for the entire Ethiopian population. Development indicator figures would demonstrate this. Numbers, however, are not everything. Having read many of the reports that the pamphlet criticizes so fiercely, we have the impression that rather than an ideological battle, it is an attempt to stay on the safe side. The material and testimonials that global civil society organizations somehow manage to gather, some rare reports in the international press, not just rehashing the statements of Western leaders on a duty visit here, and the news of massacres and grave acts against those who are not on the same wavelength as the Executive Office in Addis Ababa do not appear to be the ingredients for a “partisan stew.” Of course, it should be admitted that this news on European media has a rather muffled sound. We have nothing against the drafters of Landscape, but the other neighboring countries, including Eritrea, make easy targets to cast as the “bad guys” on the international chessboard. This allows Ethiopia to remain an esteemed ally of the West, considered an essential barrier against the Islamic fundamentalism plaguing that part of the world.

The West attempts some half-hearted criticism when there are elections, “democratic,” as the publication hastens to point out. In reality, not only Human Rights Watch and other “biased” NGOs tell these stories, but according to a long list of media and global institutions, voting in Ethiopia is not exactly a shining example of ecumenicity. The elections in late May of 2015 were the first since the death in August 2012 of Meles Zenawi, who had been in power since the end of the civil war in 1991. The Zenawi Party, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (Eprdf) led by his successor, Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn, claimed 100 percent of the votes. This was an improvement over the outcome of 2010, with a “mere” 99.6. Need they add how little “tolerated” (and much abused) is the opposition?

Then there is all this blustering against land grabbing in large areas of the country! The analyses of respected independent bodies, such as the Oakland Institute, are dismissed and belittled in an attempt to show their “hypercritical” naïveté and their lack of awareness of the Addis Ababa executive’s commitments to promote mitigation measures to reduce “collateral” effects
(the quotes are ours) of the great work in progress. What a shame that the problem is the way these mitigation measures are “implemented,” for example, in the villagization programs we will discuss at length later. Just to reiterate our concept, just weeks after returning to Italy, Human Rights Watch reported some chilling news. They spoke of Oromia, the region around Addis Ababa, and the largest in the country. From November 2015 onward, protests against the expansion of administrative powers from Addis to Oromia were smothered in the blood of at least 140 people killed and thousands detained. Eventually the project was postponed sine die. The Ethiopian Executive branch seemed to take it in stride, but then began to deny the facts related by the organization. In mid-February, the Minister of Communications Getachew Reda, who we did not have the pleasure of meeting during our stay in Addis Ababa, denied everything resolutely, accusing Human Rights Watch of “compiling reports from the other side of the world” without really knowing the facts. Yes, there have been some incidents, but nothing comparable to that leaked in the international press by Human Rights Watch via its sources. ...sources who obviously were present on the field. We can imagine the difficulties of such a position. We suspect that serious and esteemed organizations such as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International cannot go so easily to see for themselves what is happening in the country. Maybe this is because there really is something to keep away from prying eyes. There may be little desire to allow activists or journalists to wander the country. We discovered that ourselves. 

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Author: ASO and Re:Common
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