Meles wants to avoid hunger riots; Djibouti intensifies anti-Eritrea propaganda ahead of election

Unrest ahead of election

The Indian Ocean Newsletter(ION)

The governing EPRDF party’s unopposed domination of the country’s institutions does not insure Prime Minister Meles Zenawi against the dangerous social tensions that are building up in Ethiopia.

Particularly as the price of staples went through the roof in January, coincidentally just at the time when the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were breaking out. But the situation here is quite different. The supervision of the population by the EPRDF and the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s rapid decision to re-impose State control on the prices of staples went some way to defusing consumer discontent before it spilled out into the streets. But for how much longer?

Particularly as social conflicts are also looming in the countryside, in the wake of the massive sales of land to foreign companies whose agricultural production is intended for export at a time when Ethiopia is calling for international aid to help it feed 2.8 million citizens.

Tightening the Screws Preventively

Decimated and discredited, the old parliamentary opposition can no longer play its role of a barometer of the real state of public opinion. Meles Zenawi is consequently very attentive to the slightest sign of discontent among the urban population.

He tries to defuse unease while at the same time preparing “decisive government action ” in case spontaneous protest movements break out in Addis Ababa. Last week the police summoned the troublesome journalist Eskinder Nega to warn him against inciting Ethiopians to follow the Tunisian and Egyptian examples.

For their part, the courts confiscated the funds of two local NGO’s – Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC) and Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (AWLA) – while EPRDF officials toured the capital’s Kebele (neighbourhoods) to warn parents against letting their offspring take part in possible street demonstrations. The reception of opposition radio and television channels based abroad is scrambled with the help of Chinese specialists, and access to Internet web sites critical of the EPRDF is blocked.

Meanwhile, the security around the Prime Minister’s residence has been strengthened, just in case!

The President Raises His Voice

The political cohesion of the Ethiopian executive team is even starting to fray at the edges. A very rare event, President Girma Wolde-Giorgis distanced himself from Meles Zenawi’s land policy. On 20 December 2010, he wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, Tefera Argaw, to ask him to go back on his decision to attribute the Indian company Verdanta Harvest Plc, 3,010 hectares in a protected forest zone in the Gambella region, in the western part of the country. This area has already been affected by sale of land to foreign companies. In his letter in the Amharic language, which has been seen by The Indian Ocean Newsletter, he reminded Tefera Argaw of Ethiopia’s international undertakings in the negotiations on climate change.

But the presidential role is purely honorific and Tefera Argaw took no notice of this advice. Instead, he continued to propose selling vast areas of Ethiopian land to Indian companies. On the other hand, the local officials of the Mejenger district who drew the President’s attention to this affair were dismissed.

Reinforcements on the Djibouti Border

The government in Addis Ababa is not indifferent to Djibouti’s concerns over the increasing level of political unrest in its country. Meetings have been held between officials from Djibouti and Ethiopian defence ministries.

The former want support from the latter in order to avoid any attacks by FRUD rebels during the election period. The Ethiopian army has already reinforced its manning on the Djibouti border on the Moussa Ali side. In return, it obtained the extradition of Ethiopians who had fled to Djibouti and are considered ONLF (armed opposition) sympathisers.

Nevertheless, the diplomatic interests of the two neighbours could well diverge on one point: Eritrea.

Meles Zenawi gives the impression of wanting to resume negotiation with the government in Asmara so that it can stop backing Ethiopian OLF and ONLF rebels.

Djibouti, on the other hand, wants to strengthen its anti-Eritrea propaganda, claiming that this country arms the FRUD.

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Djibouti Protests May Continue After March Ends in Violence

Bloomberg – Djibouti opposition groups will meet today to decide what step to take next after police allegedly fired on demonstrators yesterday, injuring at least two of them, an opposition leader said.

“The situation is very bad,” Ismail Guedi Hared, president of the Union for a Democratic Alternative, said by phone late yesterday. The police “used tear gas and they shot in every direction. I know two people are in hospital.”

Anti-government protests across North Africa since January ousted the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, while similar demonstrations have occurred in Algeria and Libya.

In Djibouti, the Horn of Africa nation that hosts the only U.S. military base on the continent, President Ismail Guelleh’s People’s Rally for Progress party has ruled since independence in 1977.  The 63- year-old leader, who was first elected in 1999, amended the constitution in March to allow him to extend his rule by two more six-year terms.

Yesterday’s protest turned violent near the Hassan Guled stadium in the capital, Djibouti, Hared said. Live ammunition was used by both sides and a crowd of about 100 demonstrators threw stones at the police after leaders of the protest were escorted away, according to the Djibouti-based website Djibouti24.


“The police are confronting demonstrators,” Mohamed Daoud Chehem, head of the Djibouti Party for Development, said by phone from the protest yesterday. “They have opened fire,” he said, without being able to specify if anyone was injured or what type of ammunition was used.

Chehem said that as many as 20,000 people had joined the protest against Guelleh. The country has a population of about 860,000.

Exiled Djiboutian opposition leader Abdourahman Boreh, who is currently in London, said the demonstrations may continue.

“We will see how it goes,” Boreh said yesterday. “This is the first day. We will see how the government reacts.”

Last month, Boreh called for elections scheduled for April to be delayed by as much as a year and for international monitors to oversee an electoral roll that includes 130,000 to 140,000 of the population of about 865,000.

Djibouti ranks 148th out of 169 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and living standards.

U.S. Concerns

“We’re closely monitoring, keeping an eye on developments, especially as they relate to any forces we may have in the region,” Pentagon spokesman, Marine Corps Colonel David Lapin, told reporters yesterday.

The U.S has had a base in Djibouti since 2001, while former colonial power France also has 3,000 troops stationed in the country, which is smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts. The republic borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and is seen as a strategic location in the U.S.-led fight against terrorism and piracy.

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