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June 30, 2007

Weekend reading

Two lengthy but essential reads on Sudan by Alex de Waal.

Sudan: What kind of state? What kind of crisis?
Occasional Paper No.2 Alex de Waal Social Science Research Council

Sudan: International dimensions to the state and its crisis
Occasional Paper No.3 Alex de Waal Social Science Research Council

I'm collecting more of his articles here.

Posted by aheavens at 7:52 AM

O brave new world

The morning after flying into Khartoum, I dropped into the nearest Mobitel store and signed up for one of their 'eeZee' accounts. Five minutes later, one sim card, one working account with - wait for it - a full texting service.

Five minutes walk away from our new house are at least two cafés bathed in the rays of free wireless broadband connections.

We are currently choosing between a domestic 512kbps ADSL connection or two Sudatel MDSL laptop cards, offering connection speeds of up to 2.4Mb/s.

Right now, I am on what appears to be a nationwide, free 'Freenet' dial-up service - no registration, no request for a pre-application covering letter from your employer with accompanying approval from your sponsoring government department, no password. Just a three-figure phone number that anyone can use and a passable 46.6Kbps connection. Fine for text. And - as far as I can tell - no blog blockage.

Unless you have spent several years living with the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation and all its works, all of this probably means very little to you. For someone who has spent several years with ETC, it all seems to be too good to be true. I had even forgotten how to text.

As soon as I get my head around Sudan's new currency, I'll tell you how much all of it costs. Broadly, it seems to be just a little bit more expensive than what you would get in the UK/Europe/US, but way, way cheaper than anything on offer in Ethiopia.

Posted by aheavens at 7:02 AM

Farce Majeure in Darfur

When we first arrived in Ethiopia, some official body handed us a report and a CD-Rom on the true story behind the Ethio-Eritrean border dispute. I can't remember the details now. Let's just say Eritrea did not emerge blameless.

Now that we're in Khartoum, I've just received a copy of Darfur in Perspective by Dr David Hoile, a plush paperback published by the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council.

Dr Hoile's past publications include Images of Sudan: Case Studies in Propaganda and Misrepresentation (2003) and Farce Majeure: The Clinton Administration's Sudan Policy 1993-2000 (2000).

According to the cover blurb, this latest work sets out to expose:

the disinformation and confusion about Darfur. This is the first book to cut through the many media myths about the conflict. It analyses the causes and course of the war, and challenges the accusations of genocide, racism and marginalisation made against the government of Sudan.

I'll report back when I've finished it.

Posted by aheavens at 6:20 AM

King crocodile dies

Earlier this week, Majzoub al-Khalifa, the Sudanese government's chief adviser on Darfur, died in a car crash in the north of the country.

By all accounts, he was quite an imposing figure.

Known for his gruff manner, he was energetic, large of stature and said to be one of [President Omer Al-Bashir's] close inner circle. Sometimes called a "thug" by his critics, he was blunt and to the point in his diplomatic dealings
was how Reuters put it.
He is large and intimidating, a relentless and exhausting adversary. Earlier in his career he led pay negotiations on behalf of the doctors' union, and it was easy to imagine him wearing down health ministry officials with his meticulously researched arguments, his intimidating interruptions and his insistence that any compromise was ‘not acceptable, at all, at all'. Majzoub had files on every member of every delegation; every piece of gossip reached his ears. His underlings swarmed around him as though he were a king crocodile, and his mirthless smile and black gimlet eyes were faintly reptilian.

was how Alex de Waal described him in his excellent LRB article on the Darfur peace negotiations.

When a man like that dies in a car crash, thoughts automatically turn to conspiracy theory. If this had happened to a similarly powerful figure in rumour-loving Ethiopia, people would already be talking about his assassination as a matter of established fact. How, after all, could such a controversial figure be killed by accident?

I don't know enough about the Sudanese scene yet to know what people are saying in private. All I can say is that my tiny collection of well informed 'sources' seem satisfied with the accident explanation. When you see the driving here in Khartoum - as chaotic as Addis Ababa but ten times faster - you can perhaps understand why.

Posted by aheavens at 6:06 AM

June 29, 2007

First story in Sudan

Here's a nice controversy-free story to start with.

Sudan must rewrite rape laws to protect victims

KHARTOUM, June 28 (Reuters) - An international aid group called on Sudan on Thursday to rewrite its laws to protect women from "mass rape" in the war-torn Darfur region. A report from U.S.-based Refugees International accused government-backed armed groups of systematic sex attacks on women and girls in the country's remote west. Legally, it is "all but impossible" to prosecute rapists, the report found. Women who admit to being raped risk prosecution for having sex outside marriage -- an offence punishable by 100 lashes or death by stoning, it added. Sudan's Foreign Ministry declined immediate comment on the report. But Khartoum has often denied that mass rape occurs in Darfur, accusing Western media of sensationalism.

Posted by aheavens at 12:18 PM

June 25, 2007

Ethiopia's biggest export to Sudan...

...must be domestic labour. All the nannies and mamitas here are Ethiopian.

Monthly wages in Ethiopia - almost nothing ("niece" from the country, local employer) to ETB1,000/US$110 (experienced with lots of references, foreign diplomat employer).

Monthly wages in Sudan - US$350 and up (from what I've heard so far).

"I don't like it here. It is so hot," said one Ethiopian woman I spoke to. "But I am staying."

Posted by aheavens at 6:43 AM

Weichegud back?

Weichegud appears to be back. All the archives are gone - no explanation for the six months absence (none needed) - but do I detect a slightly different voice?

Mysterious and mighty welcome, both at the same time.

Posted by aheavens at 5:38 AM

Whatever it is, you can get it on...

So where do you go in Khartoum when you need to stock up on furniture and other household essentals? Why, SudanBay of course.

Posted by aheavens at 5:19 AM

The obvious

Can I break new ground by saying that here in Khartoum, it is very hot and very expensive.

But I am acclimatising.

Posted by aheavens at 5:13 AM

June 20, 2007

Windmill blog

William Kamkwamba, the Malawian schoolboy who built a windmill out of spare parts to power his rural home at the age of 14 - the guy who I mentioned below - the guy who got a standing ovation at TEDGlobal 2007 - has started a blog.

Posted by aheavens at 5:45 PM

Lunch at the Greek club

Had lunch the other day with TED attendee Ted Kidane (try saying that quickly) and his wife at the Greek Club.

We were in a post-conference African Renaissance high. So the conversation turned naturally to trying to imagine what Ethiopia would be like without poverty. It was short conversation as the answer was obvious. The climate, the landscape, the endless variety, the cultures stretching back into time, the food, the coffee, Haile Gebrselassie. It would be paradise on earth.

Maybe those Rastas in Shashamane are on to something.

Posted by aheavens at 7:53 AM

June 19, 2007

I can take it

Bit blown away by the out-pouring of love, peace and understanding in the comments to the post below. Thank you all very much. Really.

Here's part of yegermal!'s take on it:

reading all the comments, all the praises you are showing him is like what people say when someone passes away. he is alright, he is just going next door. you can still have a go at him, take your diaspora frustration out on him, he can take it.

all of a sudden you are going soft, what is wrong with you people!! what happens to the Ethiopian pride of "you dis my nation and I will have you down" diatribe!

Quite right. And here's all of yeah's comment:

good riddance!

Ah, just like the old days.

Posted by aheavens at 9:20 PM

June 18, 2007


I can't think of a slick way to start this one. So I will just say that after two years, nine months and several days, we are leaving Ethiopia and moving to Sudan.

Amber has become the BBC correspondent in Khartoum and I will be working for Reuters.

I have still got a few days left and some more blog posts to come. But I thought I would start these lists and build on them for the rest of the week. All suggestions welcome.

Things I will not miss about Ethiopia
In no particular order

Things I will miss about Ethiopia
In no particular order

Posted by aheavens at 8:32 PM

Kicking Bono

TEDGlobal 2007Some of the photos I took from TEDGlobal 2007 have started to go up on the conference's Flickr page. (UPDATE: Here's the edited Flickr photoset.)

Hopefully more will appearing soon, with captions and credits.

Here is one of Bono who got caught up in a debate over whether development works at the conference. He thinks it works. Several of the African economists and thinkers there at the event were suggesting that it can often do more harm than good.

It is a debate that suddenly seems to have caught on all over the place.

Marc Andreessen's new blog quoted a lengthy chunk of an interview with GV speaker James Shikwati laying into aid.

Then Brendan O'Neill, editor of spiked, had a go with Welcome to the People's Republic of Bono.

The spiked piece was a bit of a cheap shot. Aid does work a lot of the time - remember smallpox? And while it is a shame that we have to rely on rock stars and light entertainers to raise these issues outside Africa, who else is there to take their place?

Here is how Jason Pontin summed up the TedGlobal debate in an article in yesterday's New York Times titled What Does Africa Need Most: Technology or Aid?:

In truth, Africa will need both investment in entrepreneurialism and aid, intelligently directed toward education, health and food.

Herman Chinery-Hesse, the founder of Softtribe, a software development company in Ghana, expressed this thought more personally than I could. “I think this choice between aid and entrepreneurship is false,” he told TED's attendees. “If we wait for trade, it will take generations, and people need help now. On the other hand, only entrepreneurship can make us rich.”

UPDATE: Ethan Zuckerman does a great job of tearing up Bono's special Africa edition of the glossy magazine Vanity Fair in Judging a magazine by its cover:

Let's begin with the cover. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, there are 20 different covers. (Collect the whole set!) Each features a pair of celebrities, shot in closeup in some form of interaction. The twenty are as follows: Don Cheadle, Barack Obama, Muhammed Ali, Queen Rania of Jordan, Bono, Condozeela Rice, George W. Bush, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Brad Pitt, Djimon Hounsou, Madonna, Maya Angelou, Chris Rock, Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates, Oprah, George Clooney, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and Iman Abdulmajid. So… count along with me - that's three Africans out of twenty cover subjects. Yes, it's a great representation of African-American influence on American culture, but the actual African participation in the project seem, uh, limited at best.

Posted by aheavens at 6:00 PM

GlobalVoices on Ethio bloggers on the CUD trial

Just posted a GlobalVoices roundup on Ethiopian bloggers' reaction to the CUD trial verdict.

Ethiopian bloggers first to report shock guilty verdict

Ethiopian bloggers were among the first to report on a court's shock decision to convict 38 opposition politicians of a range of serious charges including “outrages against the constitution” earlier this week. (Here is the BBC story on the trial, and past GlobalVoices coverage.)

There are no quotes from pro-government bloggers in the round-up because, as far as I can tell, there are still no active, pro-government bloggers out there.

Posted by aheavens at 5:21 PM

Dadi wins

Nice post from the great athletics-focused Ethio blog Roocha.

S/he tells us that the winner of the Great Adama Run, which took place on Father's Day over the weekend, was one Dadi Urga.

Posted by aheavens at 5:36 AM

June 17, 2007

All about Badme

This has been the strangest story.

Associated Press came out with an apparent scoop early on Friday:

Ethiopia agrees to give town to Eritrea

UNITED NATIONS - After years of conflict and a tense border dispute, Ethiopia has accepted a U.N. commission's ruling to turn over a disputed town to Eritrea.

"I believe it's good news ... that was one of the bottlenecks in the situation," U.N. associate spokesman Yves Sorokobi said Thursday. "If they do agree, it should move the process forward a bit more quickly."

No one else followed up on it. The general consensus among the other hacks was that it was at best old news, at worst inaccurate ... or worse still "it was an Eritrean plant, a plot," one local correspondent told me. Then later in the day, the Ethiopian government came out with a pretty brutal response to the story:

Foreign Affairs Ministry described AP's report about Ethio-Eritrea border demarcation as "gross distortion"

Addis Ababa, June 15, 2007 (Addis Ababa) - The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said the report circulated by the Associated Press (AP) on Friday concerning Ethio-Eritrea border demarcation is a "gross distortion"...

The thrust of the foreign minister's letter is in fact not demarcation but rather a call on the Security Council to take measures against Eritrea as provided for in Article 14 of the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities for its violations of the Algiers Agreement, he said.

"Thus, unless one insisted on reading what one wanted to read in the letter, the message of the letter is clear. The urgent matter now is to restore the Algiers Agreements which are in tatters now; not demarcation," he noted.

This is what is underlined in the letter, he said. " The rest is misrepresentation. We trust that the distortion by the AP is not malicious."

But the story kept on going. Eritrea went on to dismiss the new announcement from Ethiopia, the announcement that Ethiopia said it had not made.

Posted by aheavens at 7:04 AM

June 16, 2007

The UNSC at the AUPSC

DSC0078A day of untangling acronyms and taking pictures of men in dark suits.

The United Nations Security Council came to visit the African Union's Peace and Security Council this morning, at the beginning of a tour of Africa. Next stop Khartoum. (Here's one of the photos that didn't come out so well, showing the UN representatives from the UK, the US and Russia.)

U.N. Security Council ambassadors begin Africa tour - Reuters

The Darfur crisis was top of the agenda in closed-door talks at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa days after Khartoum agreed to allow a joint AU-UN force of at least 20,000 troops and police, but said command and control should be left to the AU.

"The meeting debated the issue of Darfur at length," Britain's Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry told reporters later.

"There was a clear understanding between the two sides of the desirability to move forward speedily on the hybrid force and the full implementation of the heavy-support package."

The new joint force is not expected to be deployed until next year, and the "heavy support package" is an interim arrangement of about 3,000 military personnel from the United Nations to shore up the beleaguered AU force of 7,000 in Darfur.

"We discussed how best to encourage the speediest progress on the political side between the government and the rebels," Jones said. "We also discussed the necessity for a ceasefire and an end to violence in Darfur."

Posted by aheavens at 3:02 PM

Journalistic nirvana achieved

Most journalists struggle for decades to achieve the balance and even-handedness that their profession demands. Now, after less than three years in Ethiopia, I can say that I have finally achieved that goal.

My writing is so nuanced that it has actually gone beyond being fair and balanced. It manages to express both sides of the argument at the same time. I am pro and anti Meles, pro and anti CUD, pro and anti Ethiopia all at the same time. You doubt me? Check out the endorsements of my happy readers:

This Andrew Heavens fella doesn't stop to amaze me. The topics he raises in his blog are mostly silly. He tries too hard to give the government of Meles the image of a good and stabilized government while he knows full well that the reality is otherwise.


Andrew, May be you, your wife and your anti-EPRDF buddies may not be excited about the new millennium, but Ethiopians all over the world are ready to usher in the new Ethiopian millennium in a festive mood. [For the few who don't know, the EPRDF = "the government of Meles".]

Comment under Bored of the Millennium

Now that Anthony Mitchell is dead, Andrew has stepped up to fill the gap. He's been given the mission of portraying Ethiopia in bad light. It is a disgrace.
Comment under the African Path version of Bored of the Millennium

Meanwhile, the blog also manages to be overly neutral, innocuous, moderate and sweet. How do I do it?

Posted by aheavens at 5:44 AM

June 15, 2007

Mixed Coka

Bernos waxes lyrical about the joys of drinking mixed Coca-Cola in Addis Ababa:

Even yet'eb'er'za Coka had its satisfaction. Whether mixed with water or not I didn't care!! For a long time after coming to the states I still used to water down my Coke.

It took a while to get used to seeing people topping up a glass of Coke with Ambo (fizzy water) or Highland (bottled water). Then, two weeks ago, I was at a friend's house and he offered me a drink – half Coke, half Axumit red wine.

It wasn't quite as bad as it sounds. But where did this habit come from?

Posted by aheavens at 10:46 AM

It could have been here

Forgot to say that the organisers of TEDGlobal were originally planning to host their conference here in Ethiopia. The venue was booked, the hotels contacted. Then someone started setting off bombs around the capital. And suddenly Arusha looked like a much better option.

We'll just have to imagine what might have happened. Addis Ababa as the meeting place for the next generation of African entrepreneurs. Global coverage as the techerati toured Ethiopia's top tourist attractions (instead they all went off on safaris up and around Kilimanjaro). The TED audience also included some of the world's top technology investors including John Doerr of venture capitalists Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. Who knows what deals might have been done.

Another big announcement to come out of the conference was Google's decision to set up its first African base - in Kenya. No idea whether Ethiopia was ever in the frame - almost definitely not. If it was, the deciding factor against it wouldn't have been bombs. It would have been bandwidth.

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Posted by aheavens at 7:41 AM

June 14, 2007

With the cheetahs at TEDGlobal 2007

slide9So I'm standing in line for a lukewarm chicken curry with Bono, Jane Goodall and Google gazillionaire Larry Page. [Sorry, the name dropping only gets worse from here on in.] And I'm asking myself one question.

It is about three years since we started living in Africa. Since then I have attended 40 to 50 special events and conferences on the continent covering everything from cross-border security and arms control to youth and developmental technology. The question is, why is this the only big set-piece event that I can think of that has not been a mind-deadening, life-consuming, jargon-spreading waste of everyone's precious time?1

The event in question was TEDGlobal 2007 – sub-title 'Africa: The Next Chapter'. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and is usually a big-deal big-ideas conference in Monterey, California. From Monday to Thursday last week it traveled to Arusha, Tanzania.

It has taken this long to write about it for two main reasons. The first is that I spent almost all of the conference hiding behind a camera on the edge of the stage, more worried about getting the speakers in focus than in listening to what they had to say. The second reason is that even now I have caught up on the content (thank you Ethan and others) I am still struggling to take it all in.

There was simply so much of it. And even the bad speakers were worth listening to – who needs rhetoric when you've actually got something to say?

So why was this so good when almost everything else that happens in a conference hall in Africa – and lots of other places – has been so bad?

It is nothing to do with funding. African governments, UN bodies and big NGOs have deep deep pockets when it comes to ogranising prestige events in big conference halls.

Hardly surprisingly, the answer lies in the invite list.

TED programme director Emeka Okafor won't be offended if I say that what he did was quite straightforward. He spends a big chunk of his time searching for African entrepreneurs and pioneers and mentioning them on his blog Timbuktu Chronicles. He picked his favourites, got some of them to stand on stage and give speeches and got the rest to sit in the audience, ask questions and go to all the events. And that was it. TEDGlobal 2007 was Timbuktu Chronicles made flesh.

So how does that differ from a typical tech conference here on the continent? Picture any of a dozen that have been hosted in Addis Ababa's UN complex or African Union HQ over the past year or so. Imagine a parade of government officials and state-appointed telecoms execs spouting phony African proverbs and development platitudes. At the last one I went to, the keynote speaker spent an hour going through his ten priorities for African development – "Last but not least let us remember the need for capacity building...". At the one before that, the event only came to life once a day after lunch, as people rushed to the front desk to receive their DSAs (daily subsistence allowances – the lifeblood of any UN-funded conference circuit).

The difference between all that and what happened in Arusha was best summed up by TEDGlobal speaker and Africa Unchained author George Ayittey when he talked about:

The Cheetah Generation - made up of the youth, specifically the TED Fellows present here, the saviors of Africa who are not going to wait for government and aid organizations to do things for them.

The Hippo Generation - the current political and business leaders who are happy to wallow in their water holes, complaining about colonialism and poverty, but doing nothing about it. [Thank you White African for the summary.]
I have only ever attended conferences with hippos on the centre stage. Arusha was full of cheetahs. There was barely a government official in sight – apart from Tanzania's president Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete who rushed in on the last day, mesmerising the crowd with his diamond-studded watch. I only heard the phrase "capacity-building" mentioned once, and I am sure that was a slip of the tongue.

There were no fewer than four Ethiopians on stage – Eleni Gabre-Madhin of Ethiopia's coming commodity exchange; Ted Kidane, the man behind the Feedelix service that lets people compose and send instant messages in Ethiopic; Noah Samara, the man behind the WorldSpace satellite radio; and Zeray Alemseged the paleontologist who dug up Lucy's baby.

Here are some of my other highlights:

William Kamkwamba, the Malawian schoolboy who built a windmill out of spare parts to power his rural home at the age of 14. He followed instructions from a book. "I tried it and I made it," he said to a standing ovation.

The talk by Nigerian novelist Chris Abani and his closed-eyes recitation of Yusuf Kumanyaaka's poem "Ode to the Drum". If anyone can source me a copy of Graceland, I would be more than grateful – it is out of stock on Amazon.co.uk.

Ory Okolloh's combination of gratuitous baby pictures with an investigation into the damage caused by overly-negative presentations of Africa.

Tales from the front line of African technolgy from Nigeria's Florence Seriki, Ghana's Herman Chinery-Hesse and DRC's Alieu Conteh.

British-Nigerian Dr Seyi Oyesola, inventor of the Hospital in a Box, describing carrying out open heart surgery in a typical Lagos hospital. "Does he look happy," he asked, pointing to a picture of one of his assistants after their fifth power cut/surge during the set up to the operation. "No, he does not look happy."

Ron Eglash, the "ethnomathematician" who sees fractals everywhere he goes in Africa.

And of course, the Bono vs. Mwenda & Ayittey & Shikwati development debate
Simplistic it make have been – as argued by Nigeria's former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the end of the conference. But when was the last time you heard an unstaged, honest clash of views at a set-piece conference?

The answer is, according to my own experience, up to now, never. Spend too long with the hippos at the UN and the AU and you could easily give up hope for the future of African technology. Spend some time with the cheetahs in Arusha and you begin to wonder whether there is actually something behind all this talk about an African Renaissance.

1 Actually, that's not quite fair. Last year's Digital Citizens Indaba on Blogging in Grahamstown, South Africa was also good. Possibly because it included some of the same speakers.

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Posted by aheavens at 5:25 PM

June 11, 2007


Just heard that 38 of the CUD defendants - including all the obvious ones - have been found guilty of the main charge of outrages against the constitution. The verdict came down suddenly after they refused to defend themselves. Wasn't in court myself so can't say more than that. They will be sentenced next month. The second the news came in over my mobile, a huge thunder and hail storm broke over Addis.

[Many people are saying many of the CUD people had actually not yet decided whether to defend themselves or not when the verdicts were announced.]

Posted by aheavens at 1:22 PM

Bored of the millennium

coverSome friends here just published the second edition of Abiy Guday - The Big Issue Ethiopia - a magazine sold by homeless people that I am helping with.

Unfortunately we made a big mistake with the cover. I thought Ethiopia's coming millennium would make a great issue for the magazine and designed a cover with the figure '2000' repeated three times in the colours of the Ethiopian flag.

But it turns out that the average Ethiopian consumer is bored to tears of the Millennium. In fact, they associate the hype around it with the government which, if you remember from the last election, is not all that popular in Addis Ababa. So the homeless vendors are having to try extra hard to persuade people to buy this edition.

It is a shame, because inside, there is an essay by an unnamed Addis University student expressing some of their frustrations with the big event. (See the article below.) We are still working on the magazine website. But if you see somone selling it in the street, please look beyond the cover and buy a copy.

I'm trying, but I just can not get excited by ET 2000

By an AAU student

I am sorry to have to say this, just as everyone is starting to get so excited about the dawn of our new millennium. But I have been trying and trying. And I still can not get excited about it.

I know it is unique and I know it is uniquely Ethiopian. I know that it will, technically, mark the beginning of a new era. And I know that it might pull in a few more tourists, and some more millionaires from the diaspora. Maybe we might even get a few more foreign journalists flying in to write some nice things about us for a change.

But, come on. Is your pulse really racing and your heart really beating faster because 1999 is about to turn into 2000 – seven years after everyone else?

Here are my three main reasons for not getting excited about this coming millennium.

Number one: The whole thing is so abstract. If you look at it coldly, it actually means nothing. The second hand on the clock moved forward a few millimeters and one day turns into another day, one month into another month. Nothing has really moved on. Nothing has changed in a real sense. Why not put equal effort into celebrating the transition from 1998 to 1999? Are we really that excited about the arrival of a nice round number?

Number two: Most of the official millennium events are going to be organised by a committee. It might be an independent committee, not a government committee. But it is still a committee. When was the last time you had a good time at anything organised by a committee? Don't bother checking the program. You know what is coming. Huge, carefully orchestrated events. Long, long speeches. Every civic group will have a chance to have its say. Every government minister will have their five minutes speaking on ETV. And what are the chances that Teddy Afro will sing? Zero.

Number three: What do we really have to celebrate at the moment? Trouble is pushing in at us from every border – what are the millennium parties going to be like in Somali region, in Gambella? And you don't need me to remind you about all those terrible development statistics.

How about if, instead of all this effort to mark the millennium, we focus our minds on something else, something more concrete. How about if we work out ways to develop the economy and become self-sufficient by 2010 - another nice round number? We could hold a huge party and make lots of speeches – ‘Thank you Mr UNICEF, thank you Ms Red Cross. You have helped us for so long. And we are hugely grateful. But we don't need you anymore.' That would get them dancing in the streets.

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Posted by aheavens at 8:07 AM

Risky business

DSC0363By Andrew Heavens (for The Pastoralist Communication Initiative)

The phone call came in just after Ali Farah Kadiin had finished breakfast in his house in the centre of Jijiga, the bustling capital of Ethiopia's Somali region.

It was his agent in the port of Mokha, Yemen, telling him that a boat carrying 300 cattle - 35 of them his - had hit a rock just outside the harbour and sank, drowning every animal on board.

It was a serious blow for the businessman who had paid just over 3,500 Ethiopian birr (around US$400) a head in the livestock markets around Jijiga. But he did not despair.

"There was no insurance. There was no compensation. We just lost them," said Ali, one of 15 legally-registered livestock exporters based in Jijiga making their living funneling thousands of cattle, sheep, camels and goats from across the vast expanse of the strife-torn Somali region, through Somaliland's Red Sea port of Berbera and out to the Middle East.

"In this business you have to learn that sometimes life makes you happy. Sometimes life makes you sad. Sometimes Allah gives you something. Sometimes Allah takes something away. You have to be patient. You have to be peaceful."

It was a philosophical reaction born out of more than 15 years in the Somali region's huge livestock rearing and trading industry, an industry where pastoralists and traders have spent centuries balancing enormous risks for often small but steady gains.

"Sometimes it is bad. But it is the only business we have," said Ali who stands out from the traditionally-attired agents and herders in Jijiga's open air livestock market in his sharp grey suit and shades. "Sometimes it is good. There was a time after the birth of my son when I couldn't borrow 10 birr. Now the earnings are good. I export 250 to 300 bulls a month."

His reaction is typical of hundreds of traders operating in the region said Abdi Umar, Pastoralist Livelihoods Researcher for UN OCHA's Pastoralist Communication Initiative (UN OCHA-PCI). "For these traders, risk-taking is part of the business. They live with risk so they learn to manage risk. Just look at what happened with his Mokha deal.

"He only had 35 of his bulls on the boat. All the traders would have split their stock, putting 30 bulls on this boat, 30 bulls on another. They share the risk so that when a boat goes down they only lose part of what they had." The risk-sharing arrangement amounted to a basic system of insurance, he said. In many cases the traders also get together later and quietly pay some compensation to the ones who lost out.


Shipwrecks are only the most dramatic risk facing the Somali region's livestock traders – and the thousands of herders and pastoralists who sell them their animals.

Traders claim there have been times when coastguard officials in Yemen have fired on boats carrying livestock, thinking they are bringing in refugees or contraband. Other times they have made it over to the Middle East, only to find no one willing to trade with them.

Recent reports of Rift Valley Fever in Kenya have cast a shadow over the whole East African livestock trade. In the weeks after the news spread, traders say Yemeni and other Middle East middlemen refused to take Ethiopian animals, even though the disease has so far not appeared in the Horn of Africa nation. Other dealers agreed to take the animals, but at much lower prices.

The disruption came on top of a long running Saudi Arabian ban on the import of Ethiopian animals, again based on fears over livestock health. Ethiopian bulls, sheep and goats still regularly get through to Saudi Arabia, but via Yemeni traders who again use the ban as an excuse for keeping purchase prices down.

Working backwards from the Red Sea, another risk facing Somali region traders come from their own customs officials. Ali might be one of 15 legally registered exporters in Jijiga, filling in all the right papers with the right authorities. But there are scores of others who engage in what they call "informal trade", smuggling their livestock over the long, largely unguarded border with Somaliland.

"I export all my animals informally," said a trader who asked not to be named in Hartishekh market, two hours drive southeast of Jijiga. "There are no banks to give letters of credit. No customs offices here. So that is all I can do."

Women were herding goats and other small animals into one side of the open air market at the centre of a maze of winding streets and huts. But the trader was more interested in the bulls and camels tethered behind a rough stone wall at the other end. Business is so brisk in the town that the market stays open for two hours on Fridays, a day of rest in the rest of the largely Islamic region.

"Most of the time it is no problem to get them out," said the trader, taking a break from the busy haggling to sip a cup of tea from a makeshift stall. "There has been less trouble since they opened the customs office in Jijiga. But there have been seizures. So you send some of your cattle on this path and some on another. And they get through."

Sometimes the animals do not get through so easily. Customs authorities have the power to impound all unregistered goods and regularly boast of the size of their hauls of contraband.

Before the Saudi ban, large scale 'shirkad' or companies from Somaliland or Yemen sent agents deep into Somali region to negotiate the purchase of livestock. Since the ban, the shirkad have moved on, leaving individual Somali Region traders to coordinate the movement of their livestock along the ancient trade routes, taking their profit where they can.

Livestock regularly make the 20 km trek across rough land out of Hartishekh to the town of Alybaday, on the Somaliland border. From there, they are loaded onto trucks by trusted agents and driven to Berbera across the plains of Somaliland.

The risks do not stop there. There are the droughts and floods that hit the region on an increasingly regular basis, destroying livestock and pasture in their wake. Roaming sheep and goats can fall prey to hyenas and other predators. And there is always the possibility of getting caught up in inter-clan clashes, banditry and the growing conflict between Ethiopian government troops and the separatist forces of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Prices can also fluctuate widely from market to market and week to week, according to the demand from the Middle East and local trading conditions, threatening thin profit margins. "We hope to make between US$15 and US$20 a bull. Sometimes you have to take a loss," said Arab Muhomed Guled, another Hartishekh trader with 10 years experience under his belt. The price of cows in Jijiga market ranged from 1,470 Birr all the way up to 2,500 Birr in January 2007, according to figures gathered by the government's Livestock Crop and Natural Resource Development Bureau in the town.

The reason that traders persevere in the face of so many risks is simple. The risks may be high, but the scale of the potential trade is higher still.

The sheer size of the region's livestock trade is often masked by inaccurate Ethiopian government figures that only count the legally-registered movement of animals beyond the country's borders. According to official statistics, Ethiopia as a whole only exported 41,565 animals from 2003/4. But according to a soon-to-be-published report from UN OCHA-PCI, more than 400,000 animals were exported, mostly "informally", through just two Somali region markets in 2005.

UN OCHA-PCI researchers estimate that as many as 100,000 bulls may be leaving Ethiopia's Somali region every year, bringing in, on average, 3,750 birr (US$420) a head. Taking the same journey with them are up to 3 million sheep and goats, each worth around 360 Birr (US$40) to Yemeni traders.

UN OCHA-PCI's Abdi Umar does the sums. "That's about US$162m in revenue split between the 5 million people we estimate benefit from Somali Region's livestock production. The traders are only taking a small margin but the pastoralists can make a lot on each animal.

Somali region traders also do all they can to minimise the daily risks they face. Large herds are split into smaller units as they move across borders to limit their exposure to customs officials and other natural disasters. Animals are handed over to well-trusted agents, bound to the seller by long years of friendship or clan allegiance.

Traders are also starting to minimise the risk of customs seizure by going legal, taking advantage of the first letters of credit schemes set up with local banks just three years ago. "Now I don't have to stay awake at night wondering if my animals are getting through," said exporter Mahamoud Gass Qalinle. Wherever possible, traders make use of the latest communications technology – either mobile phones or high-frequency radio sets known as fonios – to get a jump on changes on market conditions.

"I can stand in the middle of Jijiga market with my mobile phone and find out when there is a boat waiting in Berbera," said Basha Hassan Hussein another legally-registered exporter. "I can find out whether the demand is highest for cows or bulls or shoats [sheep and goats]."


Mid-March, trading was slow in Jijiga market. Recent rains across Somali region had pushed up the prices of livestock – pastoralists like to keep hold of their animals when there is plenty of pasture around to fatten their animals. That coincided with a seasonal drop off in demand from Yemen.

At 10am on a hot Thursday morning, mother-of-five Osub Fahid walked into the open square trailing three camels behind her. They were the last of a 15-strong herd that she had brought from the small markets in Degahbur more than 120 km away, a whole 25 days earlier.

The camels had been brought into Degahbur in ones and twos by small scale herders from some of the most remote corners of the region including Gode and Fik. She had snapped them up and entrusted them to agents who trekked them across the region's flat plains for three days to Jijiga and nearby Babile markets.

It is a business she started 10 years ago when her husband was sent to prison and she was forced into the role of family breadwinner. "It is difficult for a woman. The camel business is not for women. But I am going to continue. I know how to handle camels now. The camel business is what I know.

"I started by selling one camel and now after 10 years, I sell 15. My business is not growing fast. But I have enough to feed my children."

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Posted by aheavens at 5:45 AM