Domestic and Regional Turmoil Color Ethiopia’s Millennium Celebration – By Lauren Gelfand

September 21st, 2007 Print Print Email Email

LONDON — Pomp, pagentry and the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas accompanied Ethiopia’s celebration of its entry into the third millennium, seven years after the rest of the world but in line with the Coptic calendar of the Horn of Africa nation.

But with the exchange of fiery rhetoric threatening to upset a fragile peace with neighbor Eritrea, new broadsides in the internal conflict raging in the Ogaden region on the country’s border with Somalia, and dissatisfaction with progress toward improved social welfare, Ethiopia has entered the 21st century much the way it wrapped up the 20th: divided and poor.

In honor of the Sept. 11 and 12 celebrations, the capital, Addis Ababa, was lit up with fireworks that cast long shadows on the expensive civic projects funded by the increasingly unpopular government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

The elite — few and far between in the country of 70 million people that is ranked 170 of 179 on the U.N. Human Development Index — attended lavish celebrations at five-star hotels, including the Sheraton, considered one of Africa’s most luxurious.

Many among them are members of the Ethiopian diaspora, some of the more than 35,000 people who flew home from around the world, from Washington, D.C. to London.

For those diasporans who remained in their adopted cities, there were parties galore: London’s Trafalgar square hosted a concert attracting some 10,000 people, and Ethiopian restaurants around the United States advertised banquets, music and dance parties.

“People think of starving children and famine and poverty when they think of Ethiopia, when really we are a country where civilization took root and created sophisticated arts and music and education,” said one Addis native in London, an artist who refused to give her name, hunched over a plate of spicy chicken in sauce at a south London Ethiopian restaurant.

“This millennium party is a chance for us to change the way our country is perceived. Politics should not enter into the equation, it should be about partying and celebrating!”

‘There is Nothing’

For the average Ethiopian, however, unable to shell out the equivalent of two months’ salary for the extravagant parties, there seemed to be little on offer to preserve a festive mood.

Many of the planned festivities, including the annual racing of the Great Ethiopian Run, a “Taste of Ethiopia” celebration of national cuisine and a free concert hosted by the Rastafarian community, were all cancelled by the government amid “security concerns.”

Many residents of the capital spent the evening in church, following marathon prayers with meals of roasted goat and the spongy sourdough flatbread known as injera.

But even their festive meals were bare of the berberi spices essential to the traditional “wat” sauce that flavors many dishes. Price hikes put hot peppers out of reach for most of the population, leading many to decry the 21st century as the “pepperless millennium.”

So glum were residents of the capital that a wry joke was making the rounds, both of Addis Ababa and the international media: What’s Amharic for Millennium? The answer: minnum yellum, which literally translates to “there is nothing.”

Ogaden Humanitarian Crisis

Further east, in the Ogaden region on the border with Somalia, the atmosphere was anything but festive.

An untold number of refugees have flooded into makeshift camps, escaping rape, looting and murderous rampages perpetrated by Ethiopian troops and civilians on the mostly-Muslim population living in the triangle that juts into Somalia.

The Coptic Christian regime has launched a major crackdown on the mostly ethnic Somali and Muslim population of Ogaden, fueled, according to the Meles government, by its opposition to the independence-seeking rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

For nearly two decades, the ONLF has fought both with force and through diplomatic efforts to end what it considers the region’s systematic marginalization by Addis Ababa.

In ramping up efforts to crack down on the ONLF, however, humanitarian organizations including Médecins Sans Frontières have warned that civilians are facing collective punishment and being deprived of humanitarian aid — a public pronouncement that has resulted in the organization’s ouster from the region.

Three of the worst-affected areas have been decreed off limits to both MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, leaving an estimated 400,000 people in a very precarious state, with limited access to food, clean water and medical care.

There is a humanitarian crisis,” said William Robertson, the MSF head of mission, from Nairobi on Sept. 4.

“Our teams have treated people who were forced to flee their homes and who are now battling for their survival with next-to-no assistance. They are living in fear, the targets of armed groups or in the crossfire.”

So preoccupying is the evolving humanitarian crisis in Ogaden that the United States, a staunch ally of the Meles government and major contributor of foreign aid, has sent a senior diplomat to help resolve the issue.

Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, called the situation in Ogaden a “humanitarian crisis” on a Sept. 8 visit to the region, putting Washington squarely at odds with a country it relies upon to bring a measure of stability to the restive Horn of Africa.

Border Tension With Eritrea

Washington is also looking warily at the resumption of combustible rhetorical exchanges between Ethiopia and perennial rival Eritrea, seven years after they signed an agreement to end two years of bloody war.

Noting recently that Ethiopian troops were just “meters” away from their Eritrean counterparts, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin breathed new life into the intractable stalemate, a tacit warning that Addis would continue to obstruct the implementation of a ruling that awarded the disputed town of Badme to Eritrea.

Despite the presence of U.N. troops in the border region these last six years, the two sides have continued their dispute over Badme, a dry and dusty town that has limited strategic value beyond its symbolic worth to Addis and Asmara.

“At this time there is little separation of troops from the two neighbors. . . . The armies of the two countries are only 70 or 80 meters apart,” Mesfin said during a Sept. 10 news conference.

Mesfin also chided a U.N. border commission’s work to reinforce the 2002 border decision ahead of its dissolution in November, criticism that was backed up on Tuesday by Meles himself, who reiterated Ethiopia’s resistance to giving Badme to Eritrea.

Analysts contend that Meles is maintaining his bluster on the border dispute in order to boost his sagging popularity and to obfuscate the ongoing domestic travails faced by his impoverished population. But there is real concern that the stalemate could edge into violence again, as neither Addis nor Asmara shows any signs of backing down.

More than one in 10 Ethiopians is “food vulnerable,” according to development agencies, which means they have no financial security that will allow them to regularly purchase what they need to feed their families.

“It is absolutely the case that Ethiopia faces some very serious political and security challenges, both at home domestically and in the Horn of Africa,” said Tom Porteous, the London director of Human Rights Watch, in an exclusive interview with World Politics Review. “Violating human rights law and international humanitarian law is not an effective way of dealing with those challenges, aside from being wrong and causing a lot of civilian suffering.”

Lauren Gelfand is a freelance journalist and commentator with a special interest in African issues.

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