When governmental forces killed at least 9 civilians in last week’s security operation in Ethiopia’s Oromia region to enforce the country’s state of emergency, popular outrage at the government reached new levels. Even if the killings were later labelled an “accident” due to wrong intelligence, and although apologies were sent to the families, these actions did little to calm the storm already brewing in the country. While the Horn of Africa has seen continual strife for years, the events that have been unfolding in Ethiopia risk spreading instability far beyond the country’s borders. The world should pay attention.
Tensions in Addis Ababa have been running high ever since a state of emergency was imposed on February 16th after the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The government stated the state of emergency was intended to protect the constitution and safeguard stability, but the main opposition party, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), fiercely rejected the decree as null and void after evidence of vote rigging in the procedures emerged.
The OFC, and indeed Ethiopia’s wider population, has good cause to be suspicious of the governments’ motives. After all, Addis Ababa has harnessed measures like this for nefarious reasons before. A state of emergency was declared for the first time in 25 years in the country in 2016, when anti-government protests rocked the Oromia region. Protesters of the Oromo ethnic group demanded greater autonomy and an end to the economic marginalization perpetrated by the ruling Tigrayan ethnic group. In response, former PM Desalegn eventually imposed emergency laws because “the situation posed a threat against the people of the country.” In reality, however, both emergency periods were used as a ploy to crack down hard on dissent.
International observers now fear widespread human rights abuses under the guise of ’protecting stability’, as the emergency measures severely curtail freedom of speech and assembly rights. They bar the distribution of writings that could incite violence – though what constitutes “inciting” tends to be arbitrarily defined by the authorities. And with its sweeping new powers, the military is authorized to suppress any form of opposition.
No wonder, then, that the recent killings are not regarded as the accidents the authorities want to make them seem. While peaceful protests in Oromia and the capital continue, where shops have shut down and public transport has stopped, Ethiopia’s population is more divided than ever. Next to the ethnic divisions paralyzing national politics, Ethiopia’s economy has ground to a halt, further widening inequalities between ethnic groups.
This is all bad news. Not only is Ethiopia the Horn of Africa’s economic engine, but its US-allied military plays a significant role in regional peacekeeping and the fight against terrorism. Should Addis Ababa spiral further into chaos, the glue that has been keeping a war-torn region together would melt away and instability would rapidly spread to Ethiopia’s neighbors, especially South Sudan and Djibouti.
Mired in civil war since 2013 following its split from Sudan, South Sudan is heavily reliant on Ethiopia’s peacekeeping forces and its diplomatic heft. Addis Ababa is the main contributor to the various UN security forces in the country and has played a key role in guaranteeing the August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan.
The chaos that would ensue in South Sudan if refugees and possibly even armed groups from Ethiopia were to be added to this volatile mix is hard to imagine. Besides the nearly daily massacres, South Sudan is already unable to feed its population, the majority of it internally displaced people. As of March 2018, more than 5.3 million people are in dire need for food assistance while 204,000 are seeking refuge in UN camps. With ceasefires routinely ignored, stability is unlikely to take hold any time soon.
Another country whose fate hangs in the balance is pocket-sized Djibouti. Much like South Sudan, the port nation is vitally dependent on foreign resources to sustain its economy and its people. Ethiopia provides most of Djibouti’s electricity, fruits and fresh water and is responsible for keeping the country’s ports busy. Since Ethiopia is a landlocked country 100 million strong, Djibouti’s ports are an essential part of its trade. As such, any conflict in Ethiopia threatens the supply lines that have thus far saved its diminutive neighbor from collapse.
Despite its semblance of stability, Djibouti’s iron-fisted ruler Ismail Omar Guelleh, has become increasingly volatile. In power since 1999, Guelleh has stepped up its suppression of human rights and dissent, while doing precious little to raise the fortunes of the country’s impoverished population. While shining new buildings dot the landscape in the country’s capital, most locals live in squalid suburbs lacking access to clean water or economic opportunities. Observers worry that an external shock to the country could reignite long-silenced protests in one of Africa’s poorest countries.
Much of Djibouti’s woes are its own doings. Other than Ethiopia, Guelleh has found an ally in China, which is playing a major part in keeping the Djiboutian economic engine going. While Beijing has poured $14.4 billion into its foothold since 2015, Guelleh has been eager to show his gratitude. In February, the government seized the Doraleh Container Terminal, previously run by Dubai’s DP World, in an apparent favor to China. Such preferential treatment isn’t doing Guelleh any favors with the local population, already unhappy about the Chinese presence.
Though Djibouti seems unlikely to revolt as long as China is watching over it, even Beijing won’t be able to hold back the tide if Ethiopia collapses and the ensuing instability inevitably adds fire to notoriously fragile South Sudan.
Given the magnitude of the stakes, Ethiopia’s emergency laws have therefore become a pan-African problem. They are not just a threat to Addis Ababa, but to the entire region, which relies heavily on the country for trade and aid. Unless Ethiopia’s government changes its ways, abolishes the state of emergency and allows for free and fair elections to be organized, Addis Ababa might well be the spark that lights the fuse on the Horn of Africa.
Russia wants to bolster economic ties with Lesotho
In southern Russian city Sochi, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations of the Kingdom of Lesotho, Lesego Makgothi, held wide-ranging diplomatic talks mid-February to understand deeply how to continue to build upon relations in numerous areas especially economic cooperation.
Makgothi, who has been Minister since 2017, made his first official trip to Moscow.
According to the official media release, Lavrov and Makgothi exchanged views on important global and regional issues, including Russia’s participation in international efforts to resolve conflicts and crises in Africa and some ways to ensure sustainable socioeconomic development of the continent.
They noted a desire to expand these relations in all areas, beginning with the political dialogue and then cooperation within international organizations, as well as in trade and economic, cultural and humanitarian areas.
During the discussion, both noted geological prospecting, mining and the energy industry as promising areas. The economy is based on agriculture, livestock, manufacturing and mining. Water and diamonds are its significant natural resources.
Both ministers also focused on cooperation in education exchanges. Russia has expanded the quota by five times for students from Lesotho. This will make it possible to meet the interests of Lesotho and to train specialists in healthcare, meteorology and mining starting next academic year, 2019/20.
There was also the possibility of sending law enforcement officers to study in advanced training courses at the educational institutions under the Russian Interior Ministry.
Lavrov informed that an inter-parliamentary Russian-African conference has been scheduled to take place later this year, and Russia would host a general meeting of the African Export-Import Bank’s shareholders.
Lavrov and Makgothi believed that this would make it possible to considerably raise the level of cooperation and to chart specific ways of further enriching Russia’s relations with Africa. He invited Makgothi to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum scheduled for June.
In general, Lavrov and Makgothi advocated for greater cooperation between Russia and the African countries in all areas, primarily within the context of a proposal put forward by President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, at the BRICS summit in July 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lesotho’s geographic location, the southernmost landlocked country in the world and is entirely surrounded by South Africa, makes it extremely vulnerable to political and economic developments in South Africa.
Relations between the two countries were established soon after Lesotho gained independence in 1966. Lesotho, with about 2.5 million population, is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
‘Endemic’ sexual violence surging in South Sudan
A surge in sexual violence in South Sudan’s Unity state targeting victims as young as eight years old, has prompted a call from the UN human rights office, OHCHR, for urgent Government measures to protect victims, and bring perpetrators to justice.
Despite the signing of a peace deal between belligerents last September, UN investigators found that at least 175 women and girls have been raped or suffered other sexual and physical violence between September and December 2018.
The actual level of violence is likely to be considerably higher, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists in Geneva on Friday.
“Obviously (it is) not the whole picture, but they found 175, women and girls who had been either raped, gang-raped or sexually assaulted or physically harmed in other ways,” he said. “And 49 of those girls who were raped, were children.”
Nonetheless, it warns that such incidents are “endemic” in northern Unity state, on the border with Sudan, creating a sense among communities that it is normal to be a victim of sexual violence.
Victim’s testimony recalls recurring attacks
Citing the testimony of one victim, Mr. Colville explained that many women are raped while fetching firewood, food or water – often more than once – as they lack any protection.
“She said, ‘If we go by the main road we are raped, if we go by the bush, we are raped. I was raped among others in the same area repeatedly on three separate occasions.”
The surge in conflict-related sexual violence is attributed to many factors including the breakdown in the rule of law, the destruction of livelihoods, forced displacement and food insecurity, after years of civil war.
Large numbers of armed young men, a ‘toxic mix’
But one of the main reasons is the large number of fighters in the area, who have yet to be reintegrated into the national army, according to the peace deal.
Most of the attacks are reported to have been carried out by youth militia groups and elements of the pro-Taban Deng Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, SPLA-IO (TD), as well as South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF).
In a few cases, attacks were perpetrated by members of the group affiliated with reinstated Vice President and peace deal participant, Riek Machar, Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO (RM), the UN report says.
“Particularly in this area, there are essentially three main groups who…are involved in these rapes, including the National Government force,” said Mr. Colville. “And a lot of these young men who are heavily armed, are just waiting around…This is a very toxic mix, and there are also youth militia which some of these official groups ally with and you don’t know exactly who they are; they’ve been heavily involved as well.”
Rule of law ‘just not applied’
A key challenge is tackling the prevailing impunity throughout Unity state, which is linked to the volatility of the situation across the country, OHCHR maintains.
“There’s been very little accountability in South Sudan for what is chronic, endemic problem of sexual violence against women and girls,” Mr. Colville said. “Virtually complete impunity over the years, as a result, very little disincentive for these men not to do what they’re doing. The rule of law has just not been applied.”
Mobile courts provide glimmer of hope for victims
Among the practical measures taken to a bid to help vulnerable communities in Unity state, UNMISS has cleared roadsides to prevent attackers from hiding from potential victims.
A mobile court system is also operational in towns, including Bentiu, which has had “some success” in bringing perpetrators to trial, OHCHR’s Mr. Colville said, noting nonetheless that “this is just a drop in the ocean”.
“There are thousands and thousands of perpetrators, there are officers involved, there are commanders who’ve got command responsibility who instead of being investigated and brought to book…have been promoted, and are still in charge of groups operating in this area who are still raping women,” he concluded.
Italy making its way back to Africa
The countries of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia) have recently been the focus of attention of Italian diplomacy, with the need to find political partners in Africa to resolve the migrant crisis, the signing of a long-awaited peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, China’s rapidly expanding influence in neighboring Djibouti amid the French and US military presence there making the region a strategically important hub.
Rome would like to see an end to Ethiopia’s “landlocked imprisonment” on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea and Djibouti, restore Italy’ presence in the region, based on its colonial past, and ensure Italian companies’ participation in the construction of a strategically important transport infrastructure in the region where they could be entrusted with looking at the possibility of building a railway connecting the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with the Eritrean port of Massawa.
The share of Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans in the migration flows from Africa to the European Union via Chad, Sudan and Libya has been traditionally high. Italy, which currently ranks third after China and the United Arab Emirates in terms of investment in Africa, wants to help reduce migration by investing in the Horn of Africa countries’ economy and transport infrastructure to improve the economic situation in the region and bring locally produced goods to foreign markets.
With 90 percent of Ethiopian exports going to Djibouti, a country with a population not exceeding 900,000, this helps check the number of Ethiopians heading to the EU, since the country depends on Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia both in terms of infrastructure and also from the standpoint of ensuring political stability in these countries.
While still remaining a poor country, Ethiopia keeps growing fast economically, raking in an impressive yearly growth of 10.3 percent between 2007 and 2017, compared to the regional average of just 5.4 percent. According to experts at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, Ethiopia, with its fast-growing population and relatively cheap labor, will soon emerge as an “African China” in terms of production volumes.
Addis Ababa is also active diplomatically, promoting closer ties with Kenya and Sudan. Italy, for its part, is staking on Ethiopia as an economic and political springboard for expanding its foothold in the Horn of Africa and extrapolating this presence into the Arabian Peninsula via the Red Sea and towards the Indian Ocean.
It is apparently with this goal in mind that, while traditionally maintaining a partnership with Ethiopia and having access to the Indian Ocean, Rome seeks a more dynamic relationship also with Kenya. Italian donor NGOs are currently working in Kenya, and Italian exports to this East African country now exceed €182 million. According to Italy’s Foreign Development Assistance Program (la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo Esteri), Somalia enjoys a priority position here with €270 million worth of Italian grants expected to come in the next 20 years.
Chad and Niger, which border on Libya, are a logical continuation of the Sudan – Eritrea – Ethiopia – Djibouti – Somalia – Kenya geopolitical chain being built by Rome. This explains why Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Ndjamena and Niamey in January after stopovers in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Chad and Niger play a key role in balancing the international security system in the Sahel region, where Italian troops serve as part of a multinational force deployed there. Since the collapse of the Libyan state, Niger and Chad have been viewed by Rome as Europe’s southern border. Rome credits the 80 percent drop in migrant flows from these two countries to Libya to its cooperation with Chadian and Nigerian partners.
Meanwhile, the broad outlines of a rivalry between European powers, above all Italy and France, for control over strategically important African regions and their resources are already visible.
France fears that Italy’s diplomatic successes in Africa could eventually give Rome political and/or economic control over a vast region stretching from Algeria to Kenya, which in turn could politically separate French-speaking North Africa from Central Africa.
Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, which have been a traditional zone of French influence, have not been overlooked by Rome either with an Italian embassy expected to open in Burkina Faso shortly.
Rome’s expanding foothold in Kenya and Somalia is geographically taking it to Madagascar on the east coast of Africa, which is a place where France has its own interests too.
The present cool in Franco-Italian relations, stemming from the two countries’ conflicting views on the migrant problem and the ways to solve it, as well as the degree of political and legal sovereignty EU member states not sharing the views of Brussels, Paris and Berlin on matters pertaining to foreign and domestic economic policy, gives us a reason to expect the competition between Italy and France in Africa to heat up.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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