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Why is Ethiopia’s the most under-reported conflict in the world?

German chancellor Merkel in Addis Ababa (October 2016)
German Chancellor Merkel in Addis Ababa, October 2016 (Photo credit: Bundesregierung/Steins)

According to Chris Blattman, the situation in Ethiopia is the most under-reported conflict in the world right now. This is rather true. (Although some media outlets reported on the recent political turmoil in Ethiopia, such as some German press in the context of the recent visit by Chancellor Merkel to Addis Ababa.)

In November last year, the first protests against the Ethiopian Government unfolded in the Oromia region when the government wanted to expand the margins of the city of Addis. As this implied the resettlement of the local Oromo population, this was considered by the Oromo – the largest ethnic group in the country – as a further expression of their political and economic marginalization.

The situation calmed down a little over spring this year and erupted again in summer, when the Amhara people in the North started anti-government protests. The military was deployed and further unrest unfolded again in the Oromia region. For the first time, an alliance between the Oromo and the Amhara was built. Since November last year, at least 500 people have been killed by security forces and tens of thousands have been arrested according to Human Rights Watch. What started as protest against the expansion of Addis turned into an expression of general dissatisfaction with authoritarianism and lack of public participation in the past two and a half decades.

On October 9, the Ethiopian Government declared a state of emergency for the first time in 25 years. This was after more than fifty people died at an Oromo religious festival in Bishoftu (close to Addis). A week after, further details on the state of emergency were made public. Now, the government can arrest and detain for six months (the duration of the emergency state) any person contravening the emergency prohibitions, and conduct searches without a court warrant.

There are now severe restrictions to the freedom to assembly and protest, and any communication with foreign governments or foreign NGOs “that is likely to harm sovereignty, security, and constitutional order” as well as any communication with “anti-peace groups” is prohibited. Moreover, the Government can monitor and restrict “messages transmitted” through different sorts of media outlets. This is reflected in cutting off the internet access through the mobile network, which is a major internet access route in Ethiopia, as well as the disabling of social media.

On October 15, shortly after declaring the state of emergency, the Ethiopian Government also announced reforms, including a reform of the electoral system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation. A change of the cabinet has already taken place, and tackling corruption has been declared a priority.

So why are these developments in Ethiopia the most under-reported conflict in the world?

To reiterate: Ethiopia is experiencing political unrest over an extended period, and the  state of emergency has been declared for the first time in 25 years. This could be reason enough to report on the situation, but there is more: Ethiopia has the second largest population in Africa (with nearly 100 million inhabitants), only topped by Nigeria. Secondly, Ethiopia’s GDP grew rapidly over the last years, with a growth of 9.6% in 2015. Thirdly, Ethiopia is considered by many as a bulwark against Islamist movements on the Horn of Africa. Despite recently retreating some forces, Ethiopia has been very active in the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia.

The importance of Ethiopia (for the West) is a good reason to follow the current political events. At the same time, it provides at least a partial explanation for the lack of coverage. Looking at the increasing levels of development assistance (ODA) to Ethiopia, most notably the United States and the United Kingdom, it seems as if the West buys into two arguments by the Ethiopian Government: Political participation and democratic rights are less important than (1) Ethiopia’s economic development and (2) regional stability in the fight against terrorism.

For the U.S. and the United Kingdom, this is also reflected in their national focus on the “war on terror” and their own balancing of national security in relation to human rights. A similar dynamic exists with regard to the World Bank’s and other donors’ prioritizing of poverty reduction over issues of political governance when they decide on Ethiopia’s ODA levels.

Though it has to be mentioned that the U.S., among others, expressed that they were “deeply concerned” over the situation in Ethiopia, actions speak louder than words. It needs to be seen whether or not Western ODA levels continue to grow. In the same manner, we should all observe (and report on!) whether or not the Ethiopian government will really deliver on its reform promises.

Commonwealth Meeting 2013: Sri Lanka’s PR Miscalculation

The Official Photo of CHOGM 2013
CHOGM 2013 Official Photo

They had prepared the stage with impressive skill. Streets had been refurbished, a new motorway from the airport to the city had just been finished a few weeks before the first dignitaries arrived, and the Sri Lankan tourism authority had branded everything in a delightful range of colors, even the bottled water.

In preparation of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo last week, the Sri Lankan government had spared no effort to present the island country in the most shining light possible. It had also worked hard to invite Commonwealth member states to send their heads of government to the meeting. Sri Lanka was to stand out for its rapid economic development, investment opportunities and organizational skills.

Instead, allegations of war crimes by the Sri Lankan armed forces during the last phase of the war, the lack of press freedom and other human rights violations took center stage in international and social media. A press conference held by President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the summit was completely dominated by these issues – in fact, not a single question was asked on issues that were actually on the CHOGM agenda. Only 28 out of 53 heads of government actually attended the summit (a record low), with Canada and Mauritius officially boycotting (the latter subsequently declining to host the next summit) and India’s Prime Minister giving in to domestic pressure to stay away as well.

When it came to the crunch, the Sri Lankan government demonstrated its lack of commitment to Commonwealth values such as press freedom with astonishing clarity. Promisingly, it had allowed the British TV station Channel Four into the country, despite their highly critical documentaries on war crimes allegations. But instead of giving the Channel Four journalists free reign, the government had them followed by intelligence officers at all time, organized demonstrations blocking their way to the Tamil-dominated North of the country and sent police to constrain their reporting.

The British journalists were finally able to travel to the North as part of British Prime  Minister David Cameron’s press convoy. Demonstrating the utility of attending the summit, Cameron was the first world leader to visit Sri Lanka’s North since the country’s independence. After he had spoken to the newly elected Tamil chief minister as well as visited a Tamil newspaper office and a camp of internally displaced persons, Cameron called on the authorities to lead a full, independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes. As a newly elected member of the UN Human Rights Council, the UK would press for an international inquiry at the UN Human Rights Council if a credible national inquiry was not forthcoming by March next year.

While the Rajapaksa family at the helm of the Sri Lankan government is used to criticism from Western countries, including the UK, its close international friends started to pick on it as well. After the Commonwealth meeting had ended, a Chinese spokesperson said Sri Lanka should “make efforts to protect and promote human rights,” and “dialogue and communication should be enhanced among countries” on the issue of human rights. China is the biggest bilateral donor (mainly by soft loans) to Sri Lanka and helped to finance, among other infrastructure projects, the convention center where most meetings of the CHOGM took place.

All this amounted to a huge diplomatic blunder for President Rajapaksa and his government. With the increased global attention, Sri Lanka’s attempt to clean its international image faces an uphill battle.