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Ethiopia struggles to stem ethnic tensions threatening hunger

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been hailed for his efforts to end the iron-fisted rule of his predecessors

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More than a year after his house in southern Ethiopia was razed to the ground, his coffee plantation destroyed and cattle were stolen, Teketel Memheru is still too terrified to return home. The 22-year-old is one of hundreds of thousands of people uprooted from their homes by Ethiopia’s ethnic clashes in a burgeoning domestic crisis the Ethiopian government is battling to contain.

“I witnessed a neighbour of mine hacked to death and another neighbour was burnt alive in his house. I’m scared to go to farm my agricultural plot for fear of attacks,” said Teketel, an ethnic Gedeo who says he came under attack by Oromos – the country’s largest ethnic group.

A man receives aid distribution as Internally Displaced People ( IDP ) on May 20, 2019 at Cherqo village, Southern Ethiopia.
A man receives aid distribution as Internally Displaced People ( IDP ) on May 20, 2019 at Cherqo village, Southern Ethiopia. – More than a Million people have been displaced due to ethnic conflict in southern region of Gedeo state and west region of Oromia state. Nearly 1,400 households were affected in Gedeo alone. (Photo by Yonas KIROS / AFP)

Officials insist that what became the world’s biggest internal displacement crisis in 2018 is under control and that more than a million people have returned to their homes. However, those working on the ground – speaking anonymously to avoid a government backlash – say the displaced are being forcibly returned. They warn that the dire humanitarian conditions are only set to get worse.

“Peace is not restored, I didn’t meet a single person who wants to return under these conditions. People are really scared. It will get more difficult,” an aid worker said. The worker said that in May local officials and soldiers had entered the camps and ordered people to leave. Most people, however, had just disappeared once again into a fatigued host community and were living in utter “misery”.

In addition, hunger levels had become a “catastrophe”. “We believe levels of violence and displacement will continue,” said the worker.

Related: Dozens killed in Ethiopia ethnic clashes -Regional official

Reforms open Pandora’s box

Since coming to power in April 2018 after two years of anti-government unrest, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – himself an Oromo – has been hailed for his efforts to end the iron-fisted rule of his predecessors. He has embarked on economic reforms, allowed dissident groups back into the country, and an easing of control has seen Ethiopia jump 40 points in the 2019 press freedom index.

Internally Displaced People due to Ethiopia Ethnic Tensions sits in front of his house burned during an ethnic conflict on May 20, 2019 at Cherqo village, Southern Ethiopia.
Teketel Memhiru an Internally Displaced People ( IDP ) sits in front of his house burned during an ethnic conflict on May 20, 2019 at Cherqo village, Southern Ethiopia. – More than a Million people have been displaced due to ethnic conflict in southern region of Gedeo state and west region of Oromia state. Nearly 1,400 households were affected in Gedeo alone. (Photo by Yonas KIROS / AFP)

But the loosening of the reins has had a dark side, as years of tensions between ethnic groups who are divided into nine autonomous regions, have boiled over – usually over land and resources – leading to deadly violence in the country of over 100 million people. One of the hotspots is along the borders of the Gedeo district and West Guji in Oromia.

The verdant, rolling hills of this southern region, are where some of the world’s best coffee is grown. It is also the most densely populated part of the country, with residents facing a critical shortage of farmland. Tensions have long existed between the groups, but last year the Oromo of West Guji attacked the Gedeo living on their side. The clashes led to the world’s largest displacement crisis, with over a million mostly ethnic Gedeos displaced, according to government figures.

Similar violence erupted in 2017 between Somalis and Oromos in the southeast Somali region, also displacing around one million people and leaving hundreds dead. And last month dozens of people were killed in clashes between residents of northern Benishangul Gumuz and Amhara states.

“None of these conflicts is entirely new, but several of them have flared at a larger scale than we’ve seen in the past,” said William Davison, the International Crisis Group’s senior Ethiopia analyst. He said there were multiple factors at play stoking tensions.

Abraham Dembi displaced due to Ethiopia's Ethnic tension waits on line to receive aid distrubution on May 20, 2019 at Cherqo village, Southern Ethiopia.
Abraham Dembi an Internally Displaced People ( IDP ) waits on line to receive aid distrubution on May 20, 2019 at Cherqo village, Southern Ethiopia. – More than a Million people have been displaced due to ethnic conflict in southern region of Gedeo state and west region of Oromia state. Nearly 1,400 households were affected in Gedeo alone. (Photo by Yonas KIROS / AFP)

These include the weakening of the once all-powerful ruling EPRDF as a result of years of protests and infighting, an economic slowdown that has hit the poor hard, and a shake-up of the security apparatus under Abiy. “There has been a loosening of control which has led existing disputes to take on a new dimension,” said Davison.

Add to this a poorly functioning ethnic federal system, opportunities presented by the political transition, and competition for resources in an impoverished nation. Abiy’s opening has led to ethno-nationalists staking different claims, but at the same time, he is loath to lean back on the repressive tactics once used to deter and crack down on inter-communal violence.

“Abiy has been clear his government is disinclined to use past methods and send in police or soldiers to apply lethal force and conduct mass arrests on the spot.”

We have seen no peace since Ethiopia’s ethnic clashes

Ethiopia’s Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil last week said that all displaced people would be returned to their homes by the end of June, and officials have denied forcing anyone to return.

However in the town of Yirgecheffe, a stadium housing thousands of displaced people were cleared out by police ahead of a visit by journalists in late May, another aid agency official said on condition of anonymity.

A group of people displaced due to the ethnic tensions in Ethiopia pose in front of their shelter on May 20, 2019 at Qercha village, southern Ethiopia
A group of people Internally Displaced People ( IDP ) pose in front of their shelter on May 20, 2019 at Qercha village, southern Ethiopia. – More than a Million people have been displaced due to ethnic conflict in southern region of Gedeo state and west region of Oromia state. Nearly 1,400 households were affected in Gedeo alone. (Photo by Yonas KIROS / AFP)

“The government pushing people to return to their home communities prematurely will only add to the ongoing suffering,” the US-based Refugees International said in May. According to World Vision, only 145,516 people have returned home from Gedeo and hundreds are still lining up for food aid.

“There’s a concern that there hasn’t been anything like sufficient reconciliation to be confident about the safety of people returning home,” said Davison. Teketel is one of the lucky ones, having managed to set up a small shop in Cherqo village in Gedeo. But he longs to return home to farm his land.

Related: Ethiopia begins electricity rationing following water levels drop

“We have seen no peace since Abiy came to power. Peace is the most important thing for a human being, not only to farm, but also to cultivate and eat what is farmed.”

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Africa News & Updates

Health minister issues Ebola threat alert in Tanzania

Tanzania’s northwestern Kagera, Mwanza and Kigoma regions are most at risk.

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Health workers stand at a non-gazetted crossing point in the Mirami village, near the Mpondwe border as Tanzania issues Ebola threat alert

Tanzania’s health minister issued an Ebola ‘alert’ Sunday after the disease, which has killed over 1,400 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, appeared in their shared neighbour, Uganda. “I want to alert the public that there is the threat of an Ebola epidemic in our country,” Ummy Mwalimu tweeted days after officials confirmed that members of a family who had travelled to the DRC had died in western Uganda.

The minister said the alert was necessary given the frequent interactions between Tanzanian and Ugandan people “via the official borders or by other, unofficial channels.” Tanzania’s northwestern Kagera, Mwanza and Kigoma regions were most at risk, said Mwalimu. But “given that this disease transmits very easily and very quickly from one person to another, nearly the entire country is in danger.”

The minister began a tour of the frontier regions on Saturday to assess the measures in place at ports and border posts to deal with potential incoming Ebola cases. The country has not yet been touched by the often fatal viral disease that causes violent vomiting and diarrhoea, impairs kidney and liver function, and sometimes internal and external bleeding.

Ebola spreads among humans through close contact with the blood, body fluids, secretions or organs of an infected person, or objects contaminated by such fluids. The current outbreak in the DRC is the worst on record after an epidemic that struck mainly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone between 2014-2016, killing more than 11,300 people.

On Friday, the World Health Organization said the outbreak does not yet warrant being declared a “public health emergency of international concern”, meaning it would require a “coordinated international response”.The UN body declares public health emergencies when a disease outbreak in a country risks spreading beyond its borders.

Two members of a Ugandan family, a woman and her five-year-old grandson died of Ebola this week after travelling to the DRC to take care of a dying family member and attend the funeral. The boy’s brother, aged three, is also infected, and several family members are in isolation. To date, no locally-acquired Ebola cases have been reported in Uganda.

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East Africa News & Stories

Militant group kill nine civilians in Somalia

The victims were rounded up from the streets or their homes and then shot dead on the outskirts of Galkayo

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Militant group kill nine civilians in Somalia

Nine civilians were executed by a local militia in Somalia after the killing of a policeman by the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, police said Saturday.

The revenge attack on Friday just outside Galkayo – one of the most developed cities in the centre of the country – targeted the Rahanweyn clan, several of whose members are suspected of being Shabaab fighters.

“This was a horrible incident, a gruesome killing against nine unarmed innocent civilians in southern Galkayo. All of the civilians belong to one clan and the gunmen shot them dead in one location a few minutes after suspected Shabaab gunmen killed” a policeman, Mohamed Abdirahman, a local police official said.

“This is an unacceptable act and we will bring those perpetrators to justice,” said Hussein Dini, a traditional elder. 

“Their killing cannot be justified. It seems that the merciless gunmen were retaliating for the security official who they believe was killed by Al-Shabaab gunmen belonging to the clan of the victims.”

Witnesses told local media that the victims were rounded up from the streets or their homes and then shot dead on the outskirts of Galkayo.

Local officials have in the past fingered the Rahanweyn clan for fomenting instability in the region and supplying fighters to the Shabaab.

The local militia which staged the revenge attack are from the Saad Habargidir, a sub-clan of the Hawiye group which is dominant in the southern part of the city. 

Galkayo, situated about 600 kilometres (380 miles) north of the capital Mogadishu, straddles the frontier with the self-proclaimed autonomous regions of Puntland and Galmudug. 

The city has been the scene of violent clashes between forces of the two regions in recent years and also witnessed violence between the two rival clans occupying its northern and southern districts.

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Africa News & Updates

Inside Kenya’s Sh 3.02 trillion 2019/ 20 budget

There is an estimated deficit of Sh 607.8 billion, an increase from Sh 562 billion this financial year

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Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich leaves with the budget briefcase for Parliament to read

Kenya’s 2019/20 budget will be the seventh under the country’s jubilee administration. Its National government plans to spend Sh 3.02 trillion, about 10 billion higher than the current (2018/19) budget.

There is an estimated deficit of Sh 607.8 billion, an increase from Sh 562 billion this financial year. The government is likely to borrow more in the next fiscal year to bridge the deficit as Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) is expected to miss this year’s revenue collection target by Sh 118 billion.

Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich (C) poses with the budget briefcase before leaving for Parliament
Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury Henry Rotich (C) poses with the budget briefcase before leaving for Parliament to read the budget speech for 2018-2019 in Nairobi, Kenya, on June 14, 2018. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Related: Kenya’s Safaricom, Equity bank seal digital banking partnership

Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich, has set a revenue target of Sh 2.2 trillion while KRA is expected to collect approximately Sh 1.9 trillion. Experts say the government might also heighten the tax regime to fill this budget deficit.

In the 2018/2019 financial year, the government was forced to introduce stringent tax measures to raise funds to support the budget.

This year, the government will likely raise Value Added Tax (VAT) from the current 16 per cent and Capital Gains Tax, which targets the wealthy. The betting industry will also be targeted.

Raising the VAT will contribute to a high cost of living as prices of basic goods such as food will go up. According to the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), Kenya’s public debt stands at Sh 5.4 trillion.

In the financial year beginning July 1, 2019 Kenya will spend Sh 800 billion to repay maturing loans mostly owed to foreign lenders.

The budget as a share of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expected to decline to 28.1 per cent, from 32.4 per cent in 2018/19 financial year, a 4.2 per cent drop.

According to the Budget and Appropriation Committee, Sh 2.45 trillion will be allocated to the three arms of government, a slight increase from Sh 2.23 trillion in 2018/19 financial year.

Kenya budget: Kenya's National Treasury building is pictured in Nairobi
Kenya’s National Treasury building is pictured in Nairobi on June 14, 2018. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Related: Kenyans protest bid to build East Africa’s first coal plant

The country’s judiciary remains the least funded of the three arms of government having been allocated Sh 18.88 billion. The Executive and Parliament have been allotted Sh 1.84 trillion and Sh 43.78 respectively.

In the past financial years, the Education sector has always received the lion’s share of the budget, likewise Sh 473.3 billion has been allocated to the sector; followed by Energy, Infrastructure and ICT which have been allocated a combined budget of Sh 406.7 billion.

Rotich’s budget today will crown the total Jubilee administrations ambitious spending to Sh 13 trillion over eight years against total tax collections of less than Sh 8 trillion over the same period.

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