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Kathleen Ndongmo

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East Africa News

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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Central Africa Politics

Gabon’s president orders PM to form a new government

Ali Bongo last month sacked his vice president and forestry minister following a scandal over the smuggling of precious timber.

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Ali Bongo
Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba flanked by his wife Sylvia, leaves the airport helped by a stick upon his arrival in Libreville

Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, in his first televised speech since he returned to the country after a long absence due to a stroke, on Saturday called on his prime minister to form a new government.

He called for a smaller government, capable of being “exemplary, honest and ethical”.

Ali Bongo last month sacked his vice president and forestry minister following a scandal over the smuggling of precious timber.

The recorded speech came more than two months after his return to the country after a five-month absence in Morocco, where he was recovering from a stroke.

And it came as the country marked the 10th anniversary of the death of his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country before him for 41 years.

Television pictures showed Ali Bongo, his wife and senior politicians at a mass in his memory in the presidential palace on the seafront of the capital Libreville.

Saturday’s speech was the first speech by the president since before his stroke.

But apart from a few words spoken on his return to the country in late March, he has said nothing in public since.

During his extended absence, the army quashed a brief attempted coup.

When he did return, on March 23, some opposition politicians called for a judicial enquiry into his state of health to determine if he was still capable of leading the country.

Ali Bongo took office after an election in 2009 that followed the death of his father.

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Mozambique cyclones: Donors pledge $1.2 billion to aid recovery

UN officials say International donors have pledged $1.2 billion, while a total of $3.2 billion is needed for humanitarian efforts

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Mozambique cyclones: Donors pledge $1.2 billion aid to tackle devastation
A woman walks through a camp for displaced people in Nhamatanda, Mozambique where 8465 people have been displaced. - Cyclone Idai devastated much infrastructure and agricultural land as it made landfall on March 14, ripping roofs off buildings, pulling down electricity pylons, uprooting trees, and bringing heavy rains and floods that swamped an area larger than Luxembourg. (Photo by ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP)

International donors have pledged $1.2 billion to help Mozambique recover from the devastation caused by cyclones Idai and Kenneth, but $3.2 billion is needed overall, UN officials said Monday.

A conference in the central city of Beira met on Friday and Saturday to pledge the funds, with 700 participants from groups including UN agencies, the European Union, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank.

“The amount raised in the pledging conference was $1.2 billion,” equivalent to 1.07 billion euros, a UNDP press officer told AFP.

The storms smashed into Mozambique in March and April 2019, hitting the centre and north of the country just six weeks apart.

More than two million people were affected and about 650 died.

“This recovery needs to be resilient,” Noura Hamladji, UNDP Africa regional director, said in a statement.

“Mozambique is prone to climate-change disasters, and those cyclones were not a one-time event unfortunately and the probability of these disasters reoccurring, many times in the future, is very high.”

The UNDP said it would work with President Filipe Nyusi, who was at the conference, and the government on transparency and accountability and to ensure the funds were well spent on reconstruction projects.

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