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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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East Africa News

President pardons 4 jailed opponents in Comoros

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May

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Comoros President Azali Assoumani pardons 4 political opponents

Comoros President Azali Assoumani has pardoned four opposition figures jailed for life for an attempted coup in the Indian Ocean islands. In a decree issued Saturday, writer Said Ahmed Said Tourqui, lawyer Bahassane Ahmed Said, Mohamed Ali Abdallah and El-Had Ibrahim Halifa were “pardoned from all of their remaining sentences”.

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May when 17 other jailed opponents were pardoned. The charges were linked to unrest that followed a controversial constitutional referendum to extend the president’s term last year. 

Pay Attention: Comoros awaits results of divisive poll

Bahassane is the younger brother of Jaffar Ahmed Said Hassani, a former vice-president to Azali now living in exile in Tanzania after denouncing the president’s authoritarianism. The pardons follow Azali’s re-election in March, in which he pledged “appeasement measures” to quell accusations of voter fraud.

He was credited with nearly 60 per cent of the ballot, an outcome rejected as fraudulent by the opposition. Comoros has had a volatile political history since independence in 1975, enduring more than 20 attempted coups, four of which were successful.

Pay Attention: Comoros oil boom dream hinges on seismic survey

Azali initially came to power in a coup, then ruled between 1999 and 2006. He was re-elected in 2016 in a vote marred by violence and allegations of irregularities.

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East Africa News

Tanzania mourns 69 who were killed in fuel tanker blast

“We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter

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A Tanzanian security officer controls the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker is seen

Tanzania was in mourning Sunday, preparing to bury 69 people who perished when a crashed fuel tanker exploded as crowds rushed to syphon off leaking petrol. President John Magufuli declared a period of mourning through Monday following the deadly blast near the town of Morogoro, west of Dar es Salaam.

He will be represented at the funerals by Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, an official statement said. “We’re currently mourning the loss of 69 people, the last of whom died while being transferred by helicopter to the national hospital in Dar es Salaam,” Majaliwa told residents in comments broadcast on Tanzanian television. 

The number of injured stood at 66, he said. The burials will start Sunday afternoon, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Jenista Mhagama announced during the morning after relatives identified the dead.

“The preparations for the burials have been completed. Individual graves have been dug and the coffins are ready,” Mhagama said, adding that experts would be available to offer psychological counselling to the victims’ relatives. 

DNA tests would be carried out on bodies that were no longer recognisable, Mhagama said, adding that families could take the remains of their loved ones and organise their own burials if they preferred.

Two men carry the remains of a burnt out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded in Tanzania
Two men carry the remains of a burnt-out motorbike after a fuel tanker exploded on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Fuel tanker blast kills 10 in Nigeria

In the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa, 39 seriously hurt patients had been taken to hospital in Dar es Salaam while 17 others were being treated in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of the economic capital of Tanzania.

Footage from the scene showed the truck engulfed in flames and huge clouds of black smoke, with charred bodies. The burnt-out remains of motorcycle taxis lie scattered on the ground among scorched trees. A video posted on social media showed dozens of people carrying yellow jerricans around the truck.

No-one wanted to listen

“We arrived at the scene with two neighbours just after the truck was overturned. While some good Samaritans were trying to get the driver and the other two people out of the truck, others were jostling each other, equipped with jerricans, to collect petrol,” teacher January Michael told reporters.

“At the same time, someone was trying to pull the battery out of the vehicle. We warned that the truck could explode at any moment but no one wanted to listen, so we went on our way, but we had barely turned on our heels when we heard the explosion.”

Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt out fuel tanker
Police tape cordons off the area where the carcass of a burnt-out fuel tanker is seen along the side of the road following an explosion on August 10, 2019, in Morogoro, 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam. – At least 60 people perished in Tanzania when a fuel tanker overturned and then exploded as crowds of people rushed to syphon off leaking fuel. The deadly blast, which took place near the town of Morogoro, west of the economic capital Dar es Salaam, is the latest in a series of similar disasters in Africa. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Pay Attention: Tanker accident in Tanzania claims 57 lives

President Magufuli called Saturday for people to stop the dangerous practice of stealing fuel in such a way, a common event in many poor parts of Africa. He issued a statement saying he was “very shocked” by the looting of fuel from damaged vehicles. 

“There are vehicles that carry dangerous fuel oil, as in this case in Morogoro, there are others that carry toxic chemicals or explosives, let’s stop this practice, please,” Magufuli said. Last month, 45 people were killed and more than 100 injured in central Nigeria when a petrol tanker crashed and then exploded as people tried to take the fuel.

Among the deadliest such disasters, 292 people lost their lives in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in July 2010, and in September 2015 at least 203 people died the South Sudan town of Maridi.

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Culture & Tourism

Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly.

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Newly-discovered giant 'simbakubwa kutokaafrika

The only hint that something extraordinary lay inside the plain wooden drawer in an unassuming office behind Nairobi National Museum was a handwritten note stuck to the front: “Pull Carefully”.

Inside, a monstrous jawbone with colossal fangs grinned from a bed of tattered foam – the only known remains of a prehistoric mega-carnivore, larger than a polar bear, that researchers only this year declared a new species.

“This is one-of-a-kind,” said Kenyan palaeontologist Job Kibii, holding up the 23-million-year-old bones of the newly-discovered giant, Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, whose unveiling made headlines around the world.

But the remarkable fossils were not unearthed this year, or even this decade. They weren’t even found this century. For nearly 40 years, the specimens – proof of the existence of Africa’s largest-ever predator, a 1,500 kilograms meat-eater that dwarfed later hunters like lions – lived in a nondescript drawer in downtown Nairobi.

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly. A source of intrigue dusted off on occasion for guests, Simbakubwa lay in wait, largely forgotten. How did these fossils, first excavated on a dig in western Kenya in the early 1980s, go unrecognised for so long?

Kibii – who presides over the National Museums of Kenya’s palaeontology department, a collection unrivalled in East Africa and one of the world’s great fossil treasuries – has a pretty good idea. “We have tonnes and tonnes of specimens… that haven’t been analysed, Definitely there are things waiting to be discovered,” he said.

Out of space

The main wing has changed little since legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey first started stockpiling his finds there in the early 1960s. A card-based filing system is still used to find a specific fossil among the trove, the entries written by hand. 

Reconstruction image shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika
This handout reconstruction image released on April 18, 2019, by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa and was larger than a polar bear. (Photo by Mauricio ANTON / Ohio University / AFP)

But the collection has grown exponentially, faster than Kibii and his team can keep up. “We’ve run out of space,” said Kibii, pausing between dusty archival shelves crammed floor to ceiling with finds, dating back more than half a century. “In this section alone, we have more than a million specimens.” 

Gigantic skulls of ancient crocodiles compete for space with a bygone species of horned giraffe. Nearby, the behemoth tusks of an early African elephant take up valuable real estate. Even the windowsills are littered with the petrified remains of all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. 

Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the lab every year, Kibii says, overwhelming his 15 staff who must painstakingly clean and log each specimen. By law, fossils uncovered in Kenya must go to the museum for “accessioning” – the process of labelling, recording and storing for future generations. The backlog is enormous.

Chipping away

In a dark room, a lone staff in a protective mask blast away rock from fossil using an air-powered brush, as Kenyan pop tunes crackle through an old radio. Outside the door, metal chests sent from dig sites filled to the brim await his magic touch – literally years of work stretching before him.

If a specific expert is not on hand to identify a specimen, things can get wrongly categorised or waylaid. In some cases, they’re sent to the dreaded “waiting area”, where faded cardboard boxes, sagging with unknown and abandoned fossils, gather dust.

Pay Attention: Tutankhamun gilded coffin receives restoration in Egypt

“We have fossils from the 1980s that have not been accessioned,” said collections manager Francis Muchemi, chipping away at a giant elephant molar.

Cradle of humanity

Simbakubwa met a similar fate. Thought to be a type of hyena, it was filed away in a backroom and unstudied for decades, until stumbled upon by American researchers. Specific finds unearthed at one of Kenya’s many digs by researchers writing academic papers are given priority and fast-tracked for assessment by the museum.

Even today though, the museum lacks specialists and resources. Kibii is one of just seven palaeontologists in Kenya. He trained in South Africa because there was no course available at home.

“It’s important because Kenya is the cradle of human evolution,” said Muchemi, who learned his skills on the job. “We have very few Kenyans doing this job. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who work here are foreign.”

Kibii said palaeontology was considered a lower priority than conserving Africa’s endangered wildlife. “This one has been in the ground for millions of years. What are you saving it from?” he said, of the prevailing attitude to the science.

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He hopes to acquire collapsible shelves to create space in the collection. Even better, a micro-CT scanner – a powerful tool driving breakthroughs in the world of palaeontology – would allow a fresh look at the museum’s most-forgotten corners.

“I always wonder what lies in there on some of these shelves,” Kibii said. “Simbakubwa is telling a new story. What if, among these thousands, we have 10, 20, new stories that are lying, waiting to be told? That’s always the mystery.”

WATCH: Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

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