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June 30, 2005

Hitting the headlines

dsc_0004Bloggers are notorious for lifting newspaper articles and simply copying and pasting them on to their sites. An average edition of the New York Times, for example, must get duplicated thousands of times every day on weblogs across the world.

Well, in Ethiopia, it happens the other way round. The photo shows the last MeskelSquare.com entry as copy and pasted by The Addis Tribune. Its editors took it off the screen and used it as their front page story and double page feature. A feature on the page before it was unwittingly provided free of charge by my wife, taken from the BBC's news website.

One of the things journalists have to get used to in Ethiopia is the rather flexible attitude of the country's newspapers to copyright. You write an article for the Times or Reuters one day. And the next you wake up to discover that you've just written the front page lead for the Addis Tribune, or become an unpaid feature writer for the Daily Monitor.

It has become common practice and no one is that bothered about it. I am not sure what would happen if I called up the Tribune and asked for payment. (If they are offering one, they can reach me by the email address in the top right hand corner of the page.)

But it is perhaps no coincidence that the best written English language papers - The Reporter and Fortune - are the ones with the smallest proportion of "borrowed" content. (Although a number of front page pictures published by The Reporter in recent weeks did look a little familiar).

Back to the elections - it is probably not the best day to be having a dig at local newspapers. Four editors of Amharic newspapers have been arrested for their coverage of the post-election violence when at least 36 people were killed in clashes between stone-throwing youths and armed police.

Befekadu Moreda, editor-in-chief of Tomar; Zelalem Gebre, editor-in-chief of Menilik; Dawit Fassil, editor-in-chief of Asqual; and Tamrat Serbesa, editor-in-chief of Satenaw, all Amharic weekly newspapers, were detained for seven hours and later released on bail of 2,000 birr each (about US $228), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said.

They faced charges of "defamation and misrepresentation" of the Defence Ministry, state-run news agency ENA said on Wednesday. "The editors were charged for persistently carrying news items that slur the good name of the Ministry and attempt to alienate the military from the Ethiopian people", it said.

That last two paragraphs, by the way, were copy and pasted from IRIN and Reuters. And no, I'm not paying.

Posted by aheavens at 5:28 AM

June 20, 2005

Bereket speaks

DSC_0064_1Here, in what is probably going to be the last in the series, is a transcript of an interview with Bereket Simon, Ethiopian minister for information and chairperson for the election committee for the EPRDF.

The key quote for me was:

Well, I definitely believe that it [the violence] will tarnish the image of the country. But, what was the alternative? Let's look at it. The alternative was strife between the different nationalities of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide look like childsplay. This was the alternative. If you allow people who defy law and order, take matters into their own hands and government sits idly, not discharging its responsibility of maintaining law and order, anybody who feels they are capable of taking matters into their own hands will reign over society and that will definitely bring the whole Ethiopian society into turmoil. This is what the government wanted to avoid. And I think one needs to balance. In the first place this is an isolated incident. Secondly, the alternative to this would have been much more disastrous where you might find millions or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands perishing within the coming days and months. And you can not have Ethiopia in this context. So, I think we shouldn't look into a single picture and conclude. We need to look into the whole process – what this country is trying to do. We're moving forward but unfortunately, in this very short period of time, some mishaps have occurred in this country. We definitely are ready to investigate it and we are definitely sure that we will come up with the legal measures based on the results of the investigation. Nevertheless I don't think that Ethiopia deserves to be judged by this isolated event. People need to look into the larger picture and I think we need to get the understanding of the developed world and the Ethiopian people as well.

As ever, the full interview is available below the fold.

Interview with Bereket Simon, Ethiopian minister for information and chairperson for the election committee for the EPRDF 17 June 2005

Could you clarify how many people have been arrested in Addis Ababa and in other parts of the country?

I cannot give you the exact numbers at this point because I don't look into the exact figures. But I assure you, given the circumstances that were created last Monday up to Thursday, especially during the riot that broke out all over Addis on Wednesday, there were about 3,000 people detained out of which more than 600 have been released so far. And probably less than 30 per cent of these people will basically be charged with the facts that so far the policemen have arrived at. The general assumption tells them that the people who are going to be charged with these violent crimes or violent actions that were exhibited on Wednesday and prior to it will be around 30 per cent of the detained.

So that was 3,000 detained in Addis. What about the rest of the country?

Well in the rest of the country I can assure you there are not too many people. Because there was no significant violence taking place in other parts of the country. For sure there might be people who might have been arrested for criminal activities but it only numbers in tens.

So 336 people were released on Wednesday night into Meskel Square - is that right?

Yeah, this morning as well, another 300-400 people were released.

Why have some people been released and some are still detained?

Well, you know, this event took place in a very rapid way and when the protesters went on rampaging the city, the police had to make sure that a stop was made to it. And, taking this into account, they had to isolate the rioters and people who have engaged in destructive activities and they took them because – it was something like a containment activity taken by the police. Given the investigative capacity of the police we can not say that all these cases will be finalised within a day or two. So…

I thought people in Ethiopia could only be held before they were charged for 48 hours. Have these people still in custody been charged or will they go to court? What is the procedure?

It is true that police in Ethiopia, under normal circumstances, have the responsibility to go to the courts and get the permits to detain people. This was a violence that broke out. It happened in the streets. It was a demonstration that defied the orders of the government on demonstrations bans and went on rampaging and crashing property and disrupting movements. So the government had to contain this spread of violence. And you can not go to the courts when violence is spreading in the city. The first thing they have to do is pre-empt it – pre-empt it by detaining people or by taking the necessary action. And then you go to the courts and bring charges regarding these people. Now what the police are doing is going to the courts and securing the permits to bring people to justice. Of course they are releasing people on advice, on counselling, especially those people who committed minor crimes who were engaged in not too big subversive activities. They have also released without anything those who have not been found guilty. We do not need to go to the courts to get permits in order to detain these people in order to keep them longer than they have stayed for. So we are trying to put it back on rail and pursue it the legal way.

So how long will it take for these 2,500 people to go through the courts – to either be put in jail or to be freed?

Well, for instance, I can assure you about 500 which we believed were seriously engaged in the criminal activities have been presented to the court, and depending on the efficiency of the courts we will make sure whether these people will be detained for further investigations or will be released on bail. So the police are doing their best and probably, in two or three days time, the police will finalise all the legal procedures.

And will any more people on top of this 700 be released?

Definitely. As I have told you, although the police has ample evidence regarding most of the detained people, they were telling me that they will start differentiating between the serious and the light offences. So that those who are accused of light offences will be released either on bail or on advice and counselling basis. So most of them will be released, I assure you.

What impact do you think the arrests and the violence and the killings will have on Ethiopia's relationship with the international community?

You know, if one has to judge Ethiopia on what it deserves, it needs to look into the whole picture, the whole range of pictures. Coming here to look at some isolated incidents will not give the right picture. You can say that for the last 14 years, Ethiopia has changed a lot and in the right direction. We have democratised the country. We have introduced the free market economy system. We have arranged a federal system of administration. We have decentralised power. The government has delivered on most of its promises and we have also been fighting corruption. So, in many respects, the track record of this government indicates that this country is moving in the right direction. And, if you look into this year's election, the run up to the election and the polling day activities and performances were superb. The Carter Center has witnessed that the process at and before the election was good. The same witness has been given by the European Union observation mission by African Union observers as well and others as well. But, unfortunately, this was an uphill fight that was conducted, on the one hand by the ruling party which tried to ensure a democratic consummation of the process and the opposition forces who were bent on pursuing this destructive avenue. The opposition have been declaring time and again that they are not participating to win majority seats and run government. Because they felt winning the majority will force them to implement the constitution that was devised by the ruling party. And they felt that they will implement the ruling party's programme. So they were opting for a complete unconstitutional change of the whole process. For this reason they wanted to discredit the whole election process. They wanted to incite violence and bring the government to its knee. And then that was not possible because the whole process denied them such a chance. And then it was after the election was conducted and the results were being posted that they started to tell the people that fraud had been conducted by the ruling party. This unfortunately brought some of the urban areas, where nobody can say there was fraud, to conclude or reach an unwarranted conclusion that somewhere else the election was rigged. And after feeding all this wrong information to the public, they incited violence. And the government had to discharge its responsibility of maintaining law and order. And for this reason, it has taken the measure that were intended to make a stop to the violence that was initiated by the CUD especially. Definitely we have seen unwanted loss of life which we regret. Of course, this is the making of the opposition parties because there was a ban on demonstrations and they have defied that. Every legal means was put in place. They have told the rioters that the legal means are not going to work before they even test it in practice. So basically, it was the making of the opposition. And I feel this doesn't indicate what this country stands for in terms of democracy and development.

But the international community is not very happy. Hilary Benn [The UK's Secretary of State for International Development] announced he was going to freeze aid to Ethiopia.

We are not happy that people have died. We are not happy as well that Ethiopians are being detained, some of them for reasons they don't stand genuinely for. But this is a country that needs to move forward, that needs to guard itself from anarchy taking it over. Otherwise, if you allow violence and anarchy to reign in this country, probably the result or the outcome which we have managed to avert would take place. And that, definitely, I assure you, would be very, very, very disastrous and I don't think one can contemplate such kind of disasters to happen here.

But do you not think that on Wednesday when police opened fire and 36 people were killed, that that damaged Ethiopia's reputation which has been very good internationally?

Well, I definitely believe that it will tarnish the image of the country. But, what was the alternative? Let's look at it. The alternative was strife between the different nationalities of Ethiopia which might have made the Rwandan genocide look like childsplay. This was the alternative. If you allow people who defy law and order, take matters into their own hands and government sits idly, not discharging its responsibility of maintaining law and order, anybody who feels they are capable of taking matters into their own hands will reign over society and that will definitely bring the whole Ethiopian society into turmoil. This is what the government wanted to avoid. And I think one needs to balance. In the first place this is an isolated incident. Secondly, the alternative to this would have been much more disastrous where you might find millions or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands perishing within the coming days and months. And you can not have Ethiopia in this context. So, I think we shouldn't look into a single picture and conclude. We need to look into the whole process – what this country is trying to do. We're moving forward but unfortunately, in this very short period of time, some mishaps have occurred in this country. We definitely are ready to investigate it and we are definitely sure that we will come up with the legal measures based on the results of the investigation. Nevertheless I don't think that Ethiopia deserves to be judged by this isolated event. People need to look into the larger picture and I think we need to get the understanding of the developed world and the Ethiopian people as well.

So you just talked about an investigation into these events. Who will conduct this investigation? Will it be independent? Will it be conducted by the international community? What would you like to see happen?

You know, this is a democratic system. At least, although this is an emerging democracy, we are trying to put in place all the institutional and legal mechanisms to make investigations, come up with recommendations based on the results of the investigation. Let me give you two or three examples. There were some incidents in the early days of this government where a clash between opposition forces and police took place. This was during the transitional period. The Parliament ordered an investigation and a special investigation committee was organised by the Parliament, independent of the executive branch of parliament. It came up with this result and the parliament decided the measures that were commensurate with the results of the investigation. Last year, during the Gambela crisis, once again the Parliament took the initiative and ordered an investigation into the case. Definitely, it formed an independent inquiry team composed of the Supreme Court's president and members of the civil society, well known personalities in Ethiopia, religious and other personalities. They went there, investigated the whole case, came up with reports and as per the reports, the government has taken the necessary measures. Those army members who have been found guilty of the crime, they have faced the court. So, we have built a system where an independent system, ordered by the parliament, takes place and these independent bodies report back to the Parliament. And based on the findings and recommendations of these inquiry teams, the government takes action. So, we are not saying different, extra-legal institutions must be set up. We need to make sure that the system has an inbuilt mechanism to investigate and redress problems. That's what we are trying to do.

So this will be an independent investigation led by the parliament?

I am saying there will be an investigation into it. The normal procedures, the normal way of doing things, based on our experience, will take place.

Do you know when this will start?

Well, I am not sure at this point. But definitely the government will make sure the right measures will be taken.

So, now, 10 days has passed since the violence. Looking back, do you think it was still right for the police to go in there with guns and to shoot people who were armed with stones?

Well, I was trying to avoid describing an incident. Let me give you the whole picture. First, we had a very democratic election. And all of the parties had an obligation to believe in this democratic process and accept the verdict of the people as per the official results. And if any one of them has complaints or misgivings about some of the results or the whole results for that matter, they could follow all the legal procedures. They could ask to be heard and to get a chance for an investigation. They can go to the courts if need be. These are the legal mechanisms that are put in place. The opposition, having known this, were not ready to abide by this modus operandi and they opted for violence. And through that violence they were aiming to overthrow a legally formed government. So what can a government do when one defies every legal and peaceful means and resorts to violence? I think the government has an obligation to protect society. An obligation to protect the legitimately constituted government. Otherwise, you know, any group who feels he can not satisfy his needs through the legal means will opt for the violent way of solving things. This is democracy. This is capitalism. I don't think any country will allow its legitimately formed government to be overthrown by force. So I think I can assure you that the police did the right thing, not in terms of the killings but in terms of protecting a legitimately formed government. I know for sure this is a poor country. We have little equipment and anti-riot police which for the future we need to strengthen. But we have tried to control it using these anti-riot police. Nevertheless, the anti-riot police were overwhelmed by the onslaught that happened to them. If the anti-riot police are lost in this confrontation, then the whole thing will get out of hand and police had to control it. I assure you the government is not interested in such killings. We have a clear stand. Everybody has a right to life. We believe in it. No matter what the situation is, we would basically guide ourselves based on this principle of our constitution. But there is also another side of the story. If these people, the protesters, those who took matters into their own hands, were allowed to reign over this society, the result would have been much more disastrous.

Just to pin down the specific question about guns. Why was deadly force allowed when you could have used water canons or tear gas?

We have used that, I assure you. We have used that. For instance, if you take Monday. On Monday, some university students blocked the main gate and they refused to allow people to move in and out of the campus. And the government, the police force, sent the anti-riot police. And there was no incident in containing these kinds of violent measures taken by the students. On Tuesday, a college in the centre of the city broke out in violence and the police went there. Students, passers-by, unemployed, what have you, assaulted police. Police were retreating. This was an ominous thing. When police start retreating in the face of such assaults, then that would bring the whole society to its knee. Because if the police can not protect itself, then retreats in the face of such assaults, that will embolden the rioters. They will take the whole city. We had such an experience before four years. We had an experience where we have seen the office for school-leaving exams was burned down and years of documents of students were wiped out. A big telecommunications infrastructure was burned down to earth. Many buses were burned down. Gold shops were entered and looted. That has happened. We know it. If you don't control such riots, civilian life will be disrupted. Not only that, especially with the emboldened nature of the protesters, where the opposition have told them that Kofi Annan had come to Ethiopia and told the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi not to shoot a single bullet, or that Mike Honda, the US Congressman, did the same thing. And all these things had added up to create the agitated mood in which the protesters found themselves. So they were not ready to be contained by the anti-riot police. This is one thing. Secondly, in many places it erupted at the same time. So you can not contain, using a limited number of anti-riot police, such violence taking place in many place in many parts at the same time. They tried one. When they contain it, another erupts. And when you send them, the other one flares again. This was the situation. So this was the situation where we found ourselves on that day. It was unfortunate there was the killing but this is the situation.

I am still not sure why guns were necessary and not tear gas or water canons.

Well tear gas and water canons were used.


During that day. We used them. But the enormity and the overwhelming power of the protesters was not there to be stopped by tear gas. We have used it here in the schools. We have used it somewhere else. We have used it during that day. But to no avail. So the enormity and the overwhelming nature of the protesters was the reason to… And we need to understand there is unemployment, which we have been trying to tackle. And unemployment is a curse on society. And when people are told that they can loot and get rich in this type of occasions, the unemployed can become agitated and they will listen and be guided by false promises and expectations.

Thank you.

Posted by aheavens at 8:59 AM

June 19, 2005

ARTICLE: Thousands imprisoned after days of violence

Here's an article I wrote for Scotland on Sunday. It was cut down to fit the page. The full version is available under the fold.

Thousands imprisoned after days of violence

EARLY tomorrow morning, Rahel will set out from her small house in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, and start searching the streets for her husband.

Thousands imprisoned after days of violence [Full version]

In the early hours of tomorrow [Monday] morning, Rahel will set out from her small house in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa and start searching the streets for her missing husband.

The last time she saw him was 11 days ago when he popped out to buy food from a nearby stall and never came back. The father-of-two became one of thousands of people who disappeared after being picked up by police at the climax of three days of political violence.

"People say some of the prisoners might be in court on Monday or might be released," said Rahel who only wanted her first name to be used to protect her identity. "I will go out to find him. His daughter is crying and I can't be on my own any more. But we haven't heard anything about him since he disappeared. We don't know anything for sure."

She is not the only one in the dark in Addis Ababa a week after bloody clashes between armed police and stone-throwing protesters left at least 36 dead.

Families across the city were yesterday still waiting for definite news of the fate of an estimated 2,300 detainees, despite increasing pressure on the Ethiopian government by human rights groups, Live Eight supremo Bob Geldof and the UK's development secretary Hilary Benn.

The unrest started on Monday last week when students at Addis Ababa University defied a government ban on demonstrations to protest against what they saw as a string of irregularities in Ethiopia's May 15 national elections.

It came to a climax two days later when police in the commercial heart of the city opened fire on crowds that the authorities claimed were trying to storm banks and police stations.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) on Friday said it was taking the government to court in an effort to track down six of its members who disappeared after the unrest.

"If we don't know where our own members are, then how can families be expected to find their loved ones," said Adam Melaku, EHRCO Secretary General. "People are going out to the detention centres to find them."

The Ethiopian government on Friday confirmed that up to 3,000 people were arrested in the capital in the aftermath of the violence. Around 700 were released over the past three days, either without charge or on bail.

Bereket Simon, Ethiopia's Minister of Information, defended the mass arrests and use of deadly force, saying they had contained the violence. "When the protesters rampaged through the city, the police had to put a stop to it. They had to isolate the rioters and people engaged in destructive activities."

He added that 500 of the most serious cases had already been taken to court and promised that further detainees would be released next week after their cases were reviewed.

The crisis has tarnished the reputation of a regime which has been held up by many as one of the most progressive in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Last year Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was named as one of the key members of Tony Blair's flagship Commission for Africa – a body of leading economists and statesmen charged with the task of drawing up an action plan to solve some of the poverty-stricken continent's worst ills.

Last week Ethiopia was one of 18 countries picked out for debt relief in a ground-breaking development deal brokered by the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

But on Wednesday, Hilary Benn, the UK's secretary of state for development, flew into Addis Ababa to deliver a sharp rebuke to the Ethiopian government. The minister spoke of the UK's "grave concern" over the deaths and detentions and announced that he was freezing a planned £20 million increase in aid to Ethiopia.

"I raised with Prime Minister Meles specifically the question of those who have been detained, the importance of allowing access by the Red Cross to the detention facilities, the importance of notifying the families of those being detained of what's happened to them and the need for people either to be charged in line with Ethiopian law or for them to be released," he said.

Bob Geldof also slammed the crackdown on Ethiopian protesters, telling Channel 4 News: "Spare me, what are they doing? It is pathetic. I despair, I really despair."

Early provisional results showed that the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had held on to power despite unprecedented gains from opposition groups in the country's third ever multi-party elections.

But the National Election Board of Ethiopia on Friday announced it had launched an investigation into the voting in almost 40 per cent of the country's 547 seats. The move followed complaints from the leading opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and other parties of irregularities including vote rigging and intimidation of candidates.

Posted by aheavens at 5:17 AM

June 17, 2005

Hilary Benn speaks

hilary benn 3 of 3Below the fold you'll find the full text of a short press conference held by Hilary Benn, the UK's secretary for international development, in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.

The headline announcement was that the UK is freezing a planned £20 million increase in aid to Ethiopia following the post-election violence. The Secretary of State said he had expressed the UK government's "grave concern" about the deaths during a meeting with Meles Zenawi. He also brought up the issue of the detainees - mentioning five in particular that had been highlighted by a journalists group and Amnesty International.

There was also a veiled threat about Ethiopia's recent debt relief agreement.

As far as I can see, this is the first concrete action that a foreign government has taken against Ethiopia since the election.

The opposition has called for the release if detainees. Do you support that?

In my meeting with Prime Minister Meles - and I met him and the opposition leaders - I first of all expressed the British government's grave concern about the situation here in Ethiopia. I raised with Prime Minister Meles specifically the question of those who have been detained, the importance of allowing access by the Red Cross to the detention facilities, the importance of notifying the families of those being detained of what's happened to them and the need either for people either to be charged in line with Ethiopian law or for them to be released. I also raised with him the circumstances of the CUD party workers who have been detained not least because it is very important that everyone should be able to concentrate on the National Election Board process in order to ensure that the complaints that have been made about the election process can be determined. I also raised with the prime minister in expressing my profound regret and sadness in the loss of life and expressed my condolences to the families who have been killed, the importance of there being a full investigation. The Prime Minister told me there would be an investigation and the results of that would be published. And I said both to the Prime Minister and to the opposition leaders that I met that the priority in these circumstances is for calm and restraint on all sides, for upholding the constitution, human rights and the rule of law, and ensuring that the NEB process can now enable the voice of the people to be heard because that is what this election has been about. The people of Ethiopia have spoken and the NEB must now be allowed to do its work and all of the parties must accept its outcome.

What impact will this have on the UK's aid to Ethiopia?

We have a very large and important aid programme here in Ethiopia. There is a great deal of poverty and the country has been making progress. Indeed we have not all that long ago committed to the new safety net programme which is trying to address the issue of food security. But we have been planning to increase our direct budget support. I am currently putting that on hold while we review how the situation here in Ethiopia develops. I hope very much that there will be a return to the constitutional path, upholding of the NEB process. But it is also at the same time very, very important that the poor of Ethiopia do not suffer as a result of what has been happening here. And the international community I am sure, and it will go for other donors as well, will be watching very carefully so that we can take appropriate decisions at the appropriate time.

Could you give us more detail on the aid freeze?

I am putting on hold the planned increase in direct budget support that we were looking at which was £30 million [later corrected to £20 million] - that is currently on hold. We haven't yet got to the point where we would have been taking that decision. We are working up to the time for that decision to be made. In my view it is sensible to hold on that to see how the situation develops. But, can I make it absolutely clear, that Britain remains to the development partnership that we have with Ethiopia above all because it is in the interests of the Ethiopian people and I do not want the poor to suffer as a result of what has happened here in the past few weeks.

Will this have any impact of debt cancellation?

Well, in the debt cancellation agreement that was reached last weekend by Gordon Brown there is a commitment to good governance. And in the run up to the G8 Summit I think what happens here is Ethiopia is a very important test if Africa's commitment to good governance and that's why I urge all of the parties to show restraint, for there not to be further demonstrations. The complete focus and energy of everyone must now be on the NEB process because there isn't yet an election result declared in Ethiopia. There needs to be because the people want to hear that the voice that they have expressed in the ballot box is expressed in the final outcome. And that's where the focus must be. And I welcome the fact that the parties have reached agreement on a means of ensuring that the NEB can get on with its work and it is important that everybody allows the NEB to do that so the result can be declared as soon as possible, the complaints having been investigated and the NEB having done its job.

What impact will this have on Britain's relationship with Ethiopia?

Well I've talked about the importance that we attach to the importance of upholding the constitutional principles and the rule of law. But we remain a committed partner. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister said to me today that, in view of the terrible loss of life, he doesn't want anything like that to happen again. I welcome the fact that he has told me that there will be an investigation and there will be a report published into that investigation. I welcome the commitment that he made to me that due process would be followed in relation to those who have been detained. I also handed him a list of five names about whom Amnesty International and a journalists organisation have expressed particular concern so that those could be looked into. What we will need to watch and see is what now happens. There has been this terrible incident, an awful loss of life. But there is now this opportunity for the government and for the opposition to use the NEB process to resolve this. And it is important that this happens because it is of fundamental importance to the future of Ethiopia and to Ethiopia's relationship not just with the United Kingdom which has been a strong supporter through the development programme but also as I saw to the continent of Africa in this very important time in the run up to the G8 summit.

Do you think Meles Zenawi should be a member of the Commission for Africa?

Well. Prime Minister Meles has been one of the commissioners on the Commission for Africa. The Commission's work is now done. We have published our report. He made a very important contribution to that. The focus now moves with the Commission for Africa's recommendations out there to the Gleneagles summit where there will be a very important discussion about aid and trade and debt relief. We have already seen the focus the British government has put on the G8 and delivering in terms of the EU aid agreement that was reached three weeks ago which we negotiated as EU development ministers and of course the debt cancellation agreement reached last weekend by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Those are the fruits of the focus on Africa. But it has to be in the spirit of partnership. The deal is Africa honours its commitments on good governance, peace and security and the rest of the world honours its commitments on aid and debt relief and opening up trade so that Africa in the next generation can earn and trade its way out of poverty. Thank you very much indeed.

Posted by aheavens at 6:07 AM

June 14, 2005

Admasu speaks

Below the fold you'll find the full text of an interview I did this morning with Dr Engineer Admasu Gebeyehu, the CUD's Vice President and a successful CUD candidate for the Addis Ababa city administration.

True to form, it was out of date almost as soon as I had finished it. Since this morning, Hailu Shawel has been released and the negotiations between the CUD, the UEDF and the EPRDF have resumed.

But I thought you still might find it interesting. It was for an article I've just finished for IPS. Just for the record, I also asked for interviews with the Ministry of Information. But no one got back to me.

What is your latest understanding of where Hailu Shawel is and what his status is?

At the moment, Engineer Hailu Shawel is under house arrest and the sad story I have very recently today is that he is being prevented from having food supply. People tried to get him food supply – they were not allowed to do so. Otherwise his health is in good condition. His spirit is high and he is quite strong spiritually. That is where he is – the situation.

What is your understanding about why he is under house arrest?

Well, you can not arrive at a logical conclusion about what they are doing, how they are doing it. We just can't understand. It is not on the basis of the law we have in this country. It is not on the basis of possible threats that he could create, because I am 100 per cent sure that we are anti-violence. Not only do we follow the strategy of non-violence but we are totally anti violent acts. We don't think anyone of us deserves to be detained.

The EPRDF claims that Hailu Shawel is under arrest because he had somehow encouraged the strike and somehow encouraged the violence on Wednesday – that he was a "threat to national security".

That is the story they are telling. I don't believe that. I can not buy that. Knowing Ato Hailu and Ato Lidetu and knowing the rest of my colleagues these are stories that I cannot buy.

Does the CUD feel any responsibility for the unrest this week?

Not at all.

I have attended press conferences here where there were appeals made for peaceful protests or mass strikes or stay-at-homes. And that would fit in with the taxi strike and the shops shutting. Does the CUD feel responsible for that level of protest?

No, CUD has never been involved, and I don't think CUD will ever be involved in such acts which are initiated by other groups. But we have to make clear that what they did - what students did, what the taxi drivers did – has nothing wrong with it. They just demanded a response from government officials. Nobody bothered to pay attention. And what they tried to do is just to attract attention – nothing more. They were not violent as far as I am concerned. But the response given by the government security police forces was very brutal. The phrase "excessive force" is not sufficient for what has happened. OK, it is in the category of "excessive force" but the concept of excessive force is, if there is any retaliation from the other side then the act taken by the government side is much more than the action taken by the other side. But I don't see any forceful act taken by the protesters. I don't see. It is just a wild act.

At press conferences, I heard you calling on people to organise peaceful protests, stay-at-homes, prayer vigils or strikes. Did that lead on to the taxi strikes and the student protests?

I don't think so. What CUD has been saying is that we will keep on trying a number of solutions that can be provided by the existing institutions like the election board like the court. And if we are not satisfied, then we go to peaceful acts like strikes, assemblies. These are also constitutional rights of the citizens.
All along what we have been saying is that we know that there are reasons for people to be angry but this anger shouldn't push it to be violent. Just try all possible means within the category of non-violent struggle. But the people shouldn't be submissive to struggle for their constitutional right. Not only is it a human right, it is also a constitutional right, a citizen's right to ask for clarification, to complain. And the acts could include, for example, Article 30 of our constitution says that strike, assemblies and the like are basic rights of citizens. We take these steps. First let's see what the election board is going to do about these problems. Then, if we are not satisfied, let's see what the court can say about it. Then of we are not satisfied, still we have the citizen's right to exercise. Then what we are saying is, lets follow these steps, but in the meantime be ready for this. We are not saying 'go ahead' or do anything. Because we have to calm the people. But by calming people we can not discourage them from using their constitutional right.

Are you at all worried that if it does reach that stage that we will have a repeat of the violence of Wednesday?

Well, I think the government has learned not to do it again. That is what I hope. And it has to pay for the deeds that is has done already. And without finishing its debt, and then coming again to another terrible act, is not advisable. I can't tell because I am not in the mind of the government officials. But if I were – already enough damage has been done.

But would it not be safer or wiser just not to have any more protests, just in case it creates more violence?

Well, it is the decision of the people. I mean, here is a basic citizen's right, already endorsed in the constitution. The people have already made a lot of sacrifices to make the past election successful. I think, the participation was very astonishing. After doing all this and all of a sudden someone comes and says to the people, 'No you haven't elected Mr A, rather you have elected Mr B'. This is totally unacceptable. So, what we are saying is, let the people see how things go, how the election board is working on this issue to solve the problem, how the court system is working to solve the problem and then we do hope that a satisfactory solution will come to convince the people. But if not, still this exercise is their basic right. Nobody can stop them from doing so. All that we are trying to say is let's find out a solution right away through the process that the election board is going through. We want it to be finished there. If not then there is also court. If the court is just working its duty on the basis of the law of the land, then we will all be satisfied. Because we are demanding that all institutions should act according to the law of the land, not the law of some other country. We are saying the law of the land has to be respected – election laws and all other laws. If there is any distortion of the law, that is not acceptable. It is not only CUD that is not accepting it. People themselves whose rights have been violated can not accept. So let this process be given a chance. And we do hope that, if not the first, then the second phase will make everything acceptable…We are not trying hard to go to the third level before the first and second levels are given a chance.

What is the current status of this agreement that you signed late last week?

At the moment there has been complaint about the statement made by CUD. And we said we are sorry that a statement made by CUD seems to give an interpretation that is not appreciating the basic document. We are saying that if that is so then that can be corrected. And we corrected it, I mean we tried to explain.

What was the statement? Was it from Hailu Shawel or Lidetu?

No. It has nothing to do with them. The signatory was Engineer Gezachew. There are two steps. We have agreed that problems arising due to the counting and in general post-elections has to be first screened by a certain screening body, than, once screened, it would go to further investigation and through this process we will come to an acceptable end…If there are cases regarding constituencies that require further investigation then they can pass the first phase. These are things that we have agreed on. This was the agreement. And on the same day, the closing statement was made saying that this is perfectly OK. We have agreed. It is already signed. But to take this agreement to practical implementation phase we are demanding that certain things have to be streamlined. Like, if you go to our office now, most of our office facilitators are detained. If you give me any assignment now – even a single-page letter – it is very difficult for me, let along producing evidence, let alone communicating with 156 constituencies and organising evidence and so on and so on. So what we are saying is, given the situation now, given that most of our members are detained, some of our leaders are under house arrest and the office facilitators, office workers are detained, then how can we produce support for the implementation of the agreement that we are in. And in the presence of total deprivation of electronic media like radio, like television, how can we communicate with our supporters and the population at large. How can we tell them that we are on the right track and seeking support in this direction and so on. We are helpless. We are so weak that we can not support this agreement for its implementation. It is really a practical problem.

The person who is representing us on this platform is not the only one responsible for this. We have debated and discussed and agreed that this message has to be sent. Signing it and putting it on the shelf is not our intention. Signing is agreeing on the ideal. So what we are saying is that unless A, B and C are in order, we are afraid that this agreement may not be practical. But some people misunderstood it so we tried to correct it, at least to the satisfaction of the diplomatic community who are involved in this part of the process.

If you could sum it up, how would you describe your relationship with the EPRDF at the moment?

The situation may improve but at the moment, the attitude of the EPRDF towards us is not a correct one. It is rather damaging. But, I think, if we do something together or of we have a forum which makes us work together for one end then the situation may improve. That is my personal feeling. Because we will have at least one common objective to achieve which requires the contribution of all parties towards its achievement, then maybe trust may develop in this way. I think that if we get into the implementation of this agreement soon and then EPRDF and international community and all of us may understand why we are demanding that the atmosphere should be conducive for this useful agreement to be implemented.

How many of your members are being detained at the moment?

Two of the officials – Hailu Shawel and Lidetu. There are very many but let me tell you the basic staff that we are missing. One is office coordinator, the office administrator, we have what we call a regional coordinator and again two general coordinators and one of the office facilitators. And again, our south region coordinator and two of his secretaries. This is only here in Addis. Regional offices in Dessie, Jimma, Asela, Oleya, Bahar Dar – all of their coordinators, the key personnel there are detained. The CUD's worry is there is a very important process in front of us covering more than 50 per cent of the total constituencies, then in order to do so, one of the stakeholders, the CUD, and another, the UEDF who also have the same problem, how can we be expected to deliver our share to the satisfaction of what is being expected to be done.

My last question, could you still boycott the parliament as your last resort?

Well, the thing is there are many options. We haven't gone into detail and come to a conclusion. But boycotting is one of the options. We know that it is the worst option. But if everything is bad then we are not going to be part of this bad process and outcome. So better to stay away. We have no vested interests, just looking for minor benefits like the salary or the name tag. That is not our interest. We are really serious to contribute to the democratic process. And if we are not contributing to this process then we had better forget it because there is no use…So we give priority to our integrity because we have promised the people that we will stand for their interests and we will never stand against their interests. If their interests are better served by boycotting, we will do it. If their interest is served by not boycotting, we will do that as well.

Posted by aheavens at 2:49 PM

June 13, 2005

A quiet weekend

Addis Ababa had a mercifully quiet weekend although tension remained in the air. People jumped whenever a wedding procession went by with guests shouting and car horns blaring. And I wasn't the only one to mistake the first crashes of thunder yesterday afternoon for gunfire.

But, as far as I know, there were no large scale clashes between police and protesters. Yesterday, for the first time, I noticed a significant number of taxis - both cars and minibuses - on the road. We will have to wait and see whether shops start opening today.

The main news was the continued house arrest of Hailu Shawel, chairman of the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).

Here is the Reuters version of the story at it appeared in Scotland's Sunday Herald:

Ethiopian opposition leader arrested
(Sunday Herald)

ETHIOPIAN opposition leader Hailu Shawel and his family have been put under house arrest after a week of violence in the country which has left 26 protesters dead. "I am not allowed to leave my residence, my wife and maid are not allowed to leave and nobody is allowed to visit," said Hailu, chairman of the main opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). "I am virtually in prison."

One small detail of the Hailu story was the photographers who went to cover the arrest were "roughed up" by police and had their cameras confiscated.

I can now only think of a handful of journalists out here who have not been detained or harassed in some way over the past week. A photographer and reporter were arrested during student protests on Monday; five journalists had their accreditation removed on Wednesday; I was briefly detained on Friday and the other photographers were roughed up on Saturday. Another European freelance photographer told me he had been arrested three times last week - detained for up to three hours at a time in police stations before his embassy could free him. Another MeskelSquare reader who has been wandering round Addis with a camera, emailed in to say that they too had been stopped.

Posted by aheavens at 7:47 AM

June 11, 2005

Meles speaks

Reuters got the first interview with Meles Zenawi yesterday. I would have been there if I hadn't been "detained" for about half an hour down the road between Urael Church and the Atlas Hotel. Federal police caught me lurking around after a minor clash between young men and police in the Bole Tele area.

As ever, there had been conflicting reports. One person said youths had been putting rocks in the road to block traffic and ran away when the federal police arrived. Another "witness" said the youths had started throwing stones after police started arresting young men hanging around a barber's shop. He added that the police opened fire - but I didn't hear any shots.

The bit that I saw for myself was when the federal police started driving up and down the road, arresting the youths who had taken shelter in various shacks and the grounds of Urael church.

Once they had spotted me they held me for a bit then asked me to get into one of the trucks. But then the rest of the photographers (and two passing election observers) arrived and used a bit of snapper solidarity to stop me getting in. A few phone calls to the embassy and Reuters, and a lengthy check of everyone's paperwork, eventually sorted it all out and we were allowed to go - with an apology from the senior officer.

Back to the real story.

The main line from the interview was that Meles Zenawi defended the use of force against demonstrators this week.

"Things were beginning to get out of control. At that stage it was prudent to stop this with forceful action," he said in his first public pronouncement on the unrest.

"My guess is that the worst is behind us, both in terms of the scale of disturbances and most certainly in terms of deaths involved."

"We deeply regret that lives have been lost, and if there has been an instance of excessive use of force, that is obviously something we will look into."

Here is the full story:

Ethiopia PM defends crackdown on poll unrest (Reuters)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Friday defended a crackdown on post-election unrest in which security forces shot dead at least 26 people but said the worst of the violence was now over.

Posted by aheavens at 5:19 AM

June 10, 2005

An uneasy calm

ethio patrol 1There was a welcome break in the hostilities yesterday as an uneasy calm settled on Addis. It could have been because people were still stunned after seeing the images of the dead and injured from Wednesday's clashes. It could also have been because the army started patrolling the city in armoured personnel carriers.

I was walking past the main stadium when I saw a line of four of them trundling through Meskel Square. It was shocking to see them there - the scene of last month's peaceful rallies, the Bob Marley concert earlier this year, the annual Meskel celebrations and the Great Ethiopian Run every September. The military vehicles dwarfed the regular traffic, looking a little like tanks with the top cut off.

It was almost a relief when the political parties went back to their claims and counter-claims about the alleged arrests of opposition politicians, and news of a court ruling against the national election board.

Here are some of the headlines:

Ethiopia Stores Closed After Riots (AP)

Most stores were shuttered Thursday and families collected the dead for burial following riots over election results and government warnings that any more civil unrest would be dealt with sternly.

US urges restraint by all sides in Ethiopia (Reuters)

The violence in Ethiopia that has left dozens dead in unrest sparked by last month's disputed elections is unacceptable and the government and protesters should show restraint, the White House said today. "Everybody needs to refrain from violence and exercise restraint," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesperson, told reporters while travelling with president George W Bush in Ohio.

Ethiopia: Arrests follow bloodshed (CNN)

Ethiopian security forces held a number of opposition leaders under house arrest Thursday, a day after police and troops fired into crowds killing at least 22 people in the country's worst bloodshed in four years. Troops patrolled deserted streets and, for a second day, most shops were closed.

Posted by aheavens at 4:59 AM

Comments on comments

I have just made a rather harsh cull of the comments attached to the last post. It was a horrible thing to have to do, especially as I know people have a lot to get off their chests at the moment. Also, I really appreciate the time people take to read this blog and add to its content. There are now three times as many comments on Meskel Square as there are postings which I think is a very healthy mix.

However, I felt I just couldn't leave "Day three" as it was. Unlike other blogs, I haven't got anything like a "comments policy". But here it what I have been doing up to now.

I have always deleted racist comments (generally directed against ferengis or a particular Ethiopian ethnic group) and postings from trolls (people who say outrageous things just to wind us all up). Recently I have also deleted comments when they start to descend into tit-for-tat abuse sessions - generally because they are very boring for everyone else.

In the current climate, I am also wondering whether I should delete any party political postings (EPRDF vs CUD) or comments which take their criticism of particular politicians to extreme levels.

My real problem at the moment is that I just don't have the time to police the site. The worst case scenario for me would be to turn comments off. (I have already had to do this to anyone who isn't a 'contact' on Flickr where the comments were particularly extreme).

What do you all think?

UPDATE: I have just turned comments off temporarily, until this situation cools down a little bit. The decision was made for me by someone who left a particularly vicious comment to the above post (now deleted and blocked). If anyone is desperate to contact me in the meantime, my email is in the top right hand column.

Posted by aheavens at 3:45 AM

June 9, 2005

Day three

ethio hospital 5There is very little time to post right now but I am sure you have all seen the stories on the news. If not, here is a good summary by Associated Press. The best I can do at the moment is point you to my pictures on Flickr.

Just to say that they fall short in showing the full tension here on the streets and the terrible grief and injuries in the hospitals.

It is a very strange position to be in as a journalist. Everyone is desperate for you to record what is going on. I was practically grabbed by doctors and protesters at the Black Lion hospital and dragged from ward to ward. Before I could focus my camera on one patient I was being ushered out to the next ward and the next morgue.

People walk past you and shout "look at this" and "can you see what is happening".

At one point a young man burst out of the morgue roaring with grief. He kept charging on the surrounding doctors, clenching his fists, desperate to find someone to take his grief out on. Seconds later he ran out of the room in tears.

Just for the record, I saw 11 bodies at the Black Lion and Zawditu hospitals, all with gun shot wounds, some to the head. As you know the official count at the moment is 22.

ethio hospital 6They all seemed to me to be in their twenties or at most their early thirties. Most of the protesters I saw earlier yesterday were much younger - see this picture of stone-throwing youths. The real worry is that this unrest will spread from the students to "street people" across the city, turning the protests into widespread unrest.

If you want to say anything about this post, could you consider keeping your comments moderate.

Posted by aheavens at 4:30 AM

June 8, 2005

"Illegal reporting activities"

Ethiopia revokes permits of VOA, Deutsche Welle journalists

Xinhua - The Ethiopian government said Tuesday evening it has revoked the permits of journalists of Voice of America (VOA) and Deutsche Welle for illegal reporting activities during the post-parliament election process...

The permits have been revoked after the reports of the journalists on the post-election process have been scrutinized and found "false" and "imbalanced," according to the ministry.

Posted by aheavens at 4:46 AM

June 7, 2005

Trouble in Mexico

ethio protest 6Violence flared up in Addis Ababa again today and this time I was at the heart of it taking photos for Reuters.

According to one student who spoke to me minutes before he was arrested, the trouble started after police arrived at Addis Ababa Tegbareed Industrial Technology College in the Mexico area of the city at around 8am (local ferenji time) and started detaining students. A policeman contradicted this story saying officers arrived following reports of students throwing stones.

The student said: "People were crying and shouting 'leave them alone'. They were so angry. We want to fight them. We can not tolerate the EPRDF any more."

ethio demo 1The student, who asked not to be named, said that police then loaded an unspecified number of students into the back of a row of trucks at around 8.30 am local time and drove them off.

"There were so many police. They wanted to take the people away from here. The students have so many problems. They don't feel they have any guarantees in life."

Police cleared the road outside the college through the morning. But drivers and minibus passengers in the other carriageway leant out of windows to appeal to police and journalists, shouting "how is this fair" and "see what is happening." A handful of women also remonstrated with federal police at a bus stop outside the college gates but were soon ushered away.

ethio protest 3By about 10.30am another group of students started gathering in the street and shouting at the armed police. The police then climbed into an open-top truck and drove towards the crowd, which scattered.

Police wielding batons then chased them, arrested them and put them in a truck. A number of youths were arrested after talking to journalists at the scene. Whenever we tried to talk to someone, soldiers arrived to clear them away.

For me the most frightening incident was when four police charged into the compound of a local government office on the other side of the road of the college. About four men were arrested - I'm not sure why. One middle aged man, pictured bottom right, was kicked, shoved and had his hat knocked off his head. I also saw police chasing and kicking people the other side of the gates.

Click on the pics to make them bigger. There are more available on Flickr.

Posted by aheavens at 11:49 AM

"Trouble kicked off today"

I friend of mine out here just emailed me this account of yesterday's events in Addis Ababa:

Trouble kicked off today - first there was the arrest of AAU students in the early hours of the morning then the university was surrounded by the police. I went off home and noticed loads of people on the streets and all the kids from private schools being whisked off home. An hour later I went back and saw the truck loads of male students being transported away in military vehicles under heavy armed escort. The girls followed, many crying, in buses. People lined the streets with tears in their eyes, braver souls shouted their support or raised their clenched fists in anger. The tension was palpable and the scene continued throughout the afternoon. Another hour later we received a phone call. Shooting had been heard in the vicinity of the British embassy and it was best to avoid the embassy road. We took a detour home but from the other side of the embassy we could see the build up of special forces and riot police.

We heard later that children from Kokebe Tsiba Secondary School had blocked the road trying to stop the passage of the military vehicles taking their older counterparts out of Addis to an unknown destination. Some people suggested Shoa Robit. In the past students have been transported to boot camp for correctional training for a few weeks while the situation calms down. A friend also saw pick-ups ferrying casualties, young students from the school to hospital.

Posted by aheavens at 10:17 AM

June 6, 2005

The first protests

protest2Scores of Ethiopian students were arrested this morning after mounting the first public protests over Ethiopia's national elections. Police charged into Addis Ababa University campuses at arat and sedist kilo to subdue the demonstrations.

According to AP:

Army's special forces troops stood by, armed with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades. Riot police with tear gas and a water cannon also stood by as regular police quelled the demonstration.

Troops were photographed using batons and the butts of their rifles to beat students in the streets and inside the campuses. Armed soldiers sealed off the whole area around the main university buildings up to near the turning to the Sheraton Hotel this morning.

A local journalist on the scene told me that a paper arranging the protest had been circulated among students last night. Somehow the police also got a copy and moved in early to prevent the demonstration spreading.

I arrived too late to see the actual protest. By the time I got there students were still being held back in the university premises and passers-by, including journalists, were barred from walking up the main streets. This photo is as close as I could get (click on it to make it bigger).

There are some much better pics here and here.

And here are some stories:

Arrests for Ethiopia poll protest (BBC)

Hundreds of Ethiopian students have been arrested in the capital, Addis Ababa, after staging protests over last month's elections. Baton-wielding police stormed the two university campuses which the students had occupied. They had accused the ruling EPRDF party of fraud.

Ethiopian police arrest election protesters (Reuters)

Ethiopian police locked down a university in the capital on Monday and arrested scores of students protesting against election results they said were manipulated by the ruling party. Police officers rounded up chanting protesters at Addis Ababa University, the scene of deadly riots in 2001, and took them away in four trucks.

Police surround Ethiopian campuses as students defy post-election demo ban (AFP)

Ethiopian security forces surrounded two university campuses in Addis Ababa on Monday as hundreds of students defied a government ban on demonstrations to protest last month's disputed elections, witnesses said. Ethiopian troops blocked the road to Addis Ababa University as federal police officers surrounded the Faculty of Social Sciences and the nearby Faculty of Science and Medicine where up to 900 students were protesting, alleged ruling party fraud in the May 15 polls, they said.

Ethiopia arrests election protesters (AP)

Police arrested hundreds of students who defied a government ban to protest the results of Ethiopia's disputed legislative elections, hours after surrounding and locking down the country's largest university on Monday...Minister of Information Bereket Simon ... said not a single police officer or student had been injured, but pictures taken by an Associated Press photographer and others showed officers hitting students with the butts of assault rifles and bloodstains on the ground.

Posted by aheavens at 2:43 PM

June 1, 2005

Tangled up in stats

Another milestone is approaching with the official "provisional" figures. The combined opposition forces of the CUD and the UEDF are now just six seats away from claiming a third of the House of People's Representatives. (They need more than 182 seats for this).

With a third of the seats, they would for the first time be able to table their own bills and initiate their own debates. They could also block major moves like changes to the constitution (which needs a two-thirds majority according to that same constitution).

Of course everything is still up in the air at the moment. The CUD and the UEDF still claim that they have won the full election. The National Election Board is currently looking into allegations of voting irregularities in more than 200 constituencies, based on complaints made by all sides. The elections in the Somali region (with their 23 seats) won't start until August. And there are still 14 official results to come in from the May 15 count.

But it is still a milestone worth marking.

I had an interesting interview with Beyene Petros of the UEDF about this, as part of an article for IPS. I will post his quotes as soon as it is published.

Posted by aheavens at 9:59 AM