Monthly Archives: August 2016

Sport and Resistance: Lilesa’s Brave Stand for Freedom in Ethiopia

According to the late Nelson Mandela, the great South African anti-apartheid revolutionary who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, “Sport has the power to change the world.” It brings people together, offering unity and shared celebration. At the same time, however, sport frequently serves as an important outlet for social and political resistance. Specifically, for those suffering oppression, discrimination, and despair, sport is often so significant because it provides a vital means of retaining humanity, dignity, hope, and inspiration.

 

On Sunday in Brazil, as he crossed the finish line to take the Olympic silver medal after a grueling marathon race, Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head. Later, at the conclusion of his press conference, Lilesa repeated the gesture in front of the world’s media. Although at first glance the gestures appeared somewhat innocuous, they were strong and courageous acts conducted in solidarity with the thousands of people in Ethiopia and across the world protesting against the Ethiopian government. Hundreds of anti-government protesters have been killed and countless others arrested by authorities amid the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia. For months, hundreds of thousands of people from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups (primarily the Oromo and Amhara) have rallied to protest political marginalization and systematic persecution by the minority-led government. In Brazil, the young Lilesa, from the Oromia region of Ethiopia, not only won silver, he utilized his platform to stand up for justice and emphasized the underlying socio-political significance of sport.

 

For years, the banned colles castelleres (human towers) or trekking excursions and support for FC Barcelona were a reflection of Catalonian resistance against Franco’s fascistic regime in Spain, while support for Spartak Moscow was, at times, seen as a symbol of political resistance against the official establishment in the former USSR. Additionally, in Korea, football within the curricula of physical education created a platform for Korean resistance to Japanese colonialism (Numerato 2011: 109-110).

 

Similarly, in Eritrea, the most popular sport, cycling, became a symbol of resistance to Italian colonialism. The first sighting of a bicycle in the country was in the latter half of the 1800s in Massawa, having been introduced by the Italians. By the 1930s, clubs were being organized, and on 21 April 1937, the first race took place in Asmara. However, during this period, Eritreans were barred from races and clubs due to the segregationist policies of fascism. Not to be denied, Eritreans soon created their own competitions and formed their own clubs. Then, in 1939, a special “trial of strength” was organized by the Italian colonial administrators; Eritreans and Italians would compete together in the same race. In Mussolini’s Italy, sporting success was to embody the greater glory of the fascist nation-state, and the joint Eritrean-Italian race was expected to display the superiority of the colonial master. Instead, like Jesse Owens’ spectacular destruction of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda about Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Munich Olympics, Eritrea’s Ghebremariam Ghebru won the race and shattered colonial myths about Eritrean inferiority.

 

During the turbulent 1960s, in the midst of the growing black power movement, the civil rights struggle, and the anti-Vietnam war movement, Muhammad Ali, widely regarded as the best boxer ever, became a global symbol of resistance to racism, militarism, and inequality. He unapologetically raised troubling questions and forced society to come to terms with civil rights, race, religion, war, and imperialism, defying all convention and the US government (Rowe 2016; Zirin 2016).

 

“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” Ali stated forcefully. “They never called me ni–er.” With that, despite being at the peak of his career and understanding the implications, he refused to serve in the US Armed Services. Subsequently, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion (facing a 5-year prison sentence), fined thousands of dollars, and banned for several years. While he would eventually make a glorious return to the ring, it was his strongly principled stand and unwavering activism that truly made him “the greatest” and an inspiration for millions worldwide.

 

In 1968, a year after Ali was convicted of draft evasion, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200 meters, made history at the Mexico Olympics by staging a silent protest against the continuing racial discrimination of blacks in the US. They stood with their heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised as the American national anthem played during the victory ceremony. Although they were immediately booed and castigated by many, and then quickly suspended by their team and expelled from the Olympics, Carlos and Smith’s brave act, which soon gained much support from black athletes around the world, “shifted dissidence from the periphery of American life to primetime television,” and “was understood as an act of solidarity with all those fighting for greater equality, justice and human rights” (Younge 2012).

 

Although the authoritarian Ethiopian government has attempted to forcibly crush the protests and rules the country through the politics of fear, Lilesa’s gesture embodies strength, hope, courage, solidarity, and defiance, while poignantly illustrating the broader socio-political significance of sport.

 

 

 

Image 1: Fiyesa Lilesa crossing the finish line and showing solidarity with protesters in Ethiopia.

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Image 2: Fiyesa Lilesa showing solidarity with protesters in Ethiopia

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El Nino in East Africa: Update on Eritrea

In the Horn of Africa, a drought exacerbated by El Niño has directly affected the region, leading to an increase in food insecurity and malnutrition. This post presents an update on Eritrea.
According to a recent summary report by FEWS NET (a USAID-funded initiative),

“Consistent and above-average rain over the past few weeks has led to moisture surpluses throughout much of Eastern Africa. Torrential rain is forecast to continue over western Sudan and the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea, likely to elevate the River Nile and Al Gash River levels further and potentially resulting in flooding over many areas of Sudan during the next week.”

Furthermore, the report notes that,

“While the abundance of seasonal rain is expected favor cropping activities over many areas of the region, frequent and above-average rain over the western Ethiopian and Eritrean Highlands also raises the Nile and Al Gash River levels and thus increases the risks for river flooding along downstream areas in Sudan. For next week, the probability for above-average precipitation remains quite high…”
As well, a late July 2016 report by the FAO and the Global Information and Early Warning System, Good Prospects for Yields of 2016 Main “Kiremti” Season Crops, details that,

“The 2016 “kiremti” rains (June to September) started on time in Debud, Anseba and Gash-Barka regions, favouring land preparation and planting operations. As shown by satellite imagery, crops and pasture in most inland areas are currently in good conditions due to abundant and well‑distributed precipitation.”
Encouragingly, although vegetation health in some areas in the northern Anseba and southern Gash-Barka regions has been negatively impacted by soil moisture deficits, the report also states that the,

“Latest meteorological forecasts for the period from June to September 2016 indicate an increased likelihood of above normal rainfall amounts over most of the country, with expected positive effects on crop yields.”
This positive outlook is paralleled by the WFP which recently claimed that “the forecasts for the main rainfall season of July-October indicate on or above average rainfall across Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.” This is significant since it should promote favourable and improved crop production and pasture resources across the country. Furthermore, the FAO and WFP’s recently published 2016/2017 El Nino Seasonal Overview, which explores the ongoing and future impact of El Nino, suggests that Eritrea will be “moderately affected.”
Additionally, on 16 August 2016, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, released US$50 million from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for severely underfunded aid operations in six neglected emergencies, including Eritrea. Specifically, the press release states,

“An allocation of $2 million will support humanitarian partners in Eritrea in responding to current needs due to arid conditions and poor rains. Additionally, gaps in health care, water, sanitation and hygiene services will be addressed.” Furthermore, the aid will also help address the multi-sector needs of over 2,200 Somali refugees in Eritrea.

Importantly, this will continue to support Eritrea’s broad developmental aims. Notably, the United Nations and various other international partners have had a long presence in Eritrea, collaborating with the Government and other stakeholders to work towards a variety of socio-economic and development priorities. For example, the UN operational presence in Eritrea includes the WHO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNFPA, UNAIDS, FAO, OCHA and UNDSS, while the WFP  maintains a liaison office, and non-resident UN Agencies (such as IFAD, IAEA, UNIDO, ILO, and UNEP) are also represented and work in Eritrea.
In 2015,  US$ 3 million was allocated by UN CERF to support a range of development programmes (e.g. health, nutrition, etc.) in Southern Red Sea (SRS), Northern Red Sea (NRS), Debub, Gash Barka and Anseba regions. This was undertaken in close alignment and coordination with the 2013-2016 Strategic Partnership Cooperation Framework (SPCF). The  SPCF, jointly signed by the UN and Eritrea, focuses on an array of programmes in the nutrition, health, food security, and water, sanitation and hygiene sectors.
As a final point, it is important to properly understand Eritrea’s “unconventional” approach to external aid. Specifically,  Eritrea turns down aid when it does not fit the country’s needs or its capacity to use effectively. Eritrea does not reject external support – it actively welcomes it, but only when it complements the country’s own efforts. The Government has long encouraged aid that addresses specific needs which cannot be met internally, which is designed to minimize continued external support, and which complements and strengthens (instead of replacing) Eritrea’s own institutional capacity to implement projects. This approach is rooted in a strong desire to avoid crippling dependence and to foster a clear sense of responsibility for the country’s future among all citizens.

Unfortunately, this approach is often misunderstood (or even dismissed). Instead, the country’s determination to rely upon itself and promote independence should be encouraged, and external organizations and potential partners should be committed to working with it on that basis.

Figure 1: Total US Foreign Aid – 2016/17 ($US Millions)

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Figure 2: UN CERF Project Allocations by Sector (2006-2015)

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Image 1: Local market in Eritrea

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Image 2: Local market in Eritrea

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(Image 2 credit: Solomon Abraha [@solomonasmara])

 

 


Politics of Fear: Crisis in Ethiopia and the Role of the International Community

Dozens of anti-government protesters have been killed and arrested by government authorities amid ongoing unrest in Ethiopia. For months, hundreds of thousands of protesters from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups have rallied to protest political marginalization and systematic persecution by the government. In June, a 61-page human rights report was released, condemning the Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed response to the protests. According to the report by Human Rights Watch, Such a Brutal Crackdown: Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests, during the widespread protests, largely arising within Oromia (but now extending to other regions), Ethiopian security forces have resorted to excessive and unnecessary lethal force and mass arrests, engaged in the harsh, ruthless mistreatment of those in detention, and restricted access to information. Estimates suggest that over 400 protesters or others had been killed by security forces, while tens of thousands more have been arrested, figures that will now have risen significantly.

 

Corruption and poor governance remain deeply embedded within Ethiopia’s socio-political structure, and the country consistently scores extremely poorly on a range of international governance indicators. The Ethiopian government has been consistently criticized by an array of international rights groups for its broad range of human rights abuses including its harsh repression of minorities and journalists, press censorship, draconian anti-terror laws that are utilized to silence all forms of dissent, and brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protestors.

 

Although the ongoing crisis encapsulates the government’s utter contempt for basic human rights and the overwhelming “politics of fear” that pervades the country’s socio-political landscape, it also reveals, in crystal clear detail, the highly troubling role played by much of the international community, led by the US and the West. Specifically, while the government’s brutal crackdown warrants a strong rebuke and condemnation, there has been a severely muted international response, with many of Ethiopia’s foreign supporters remaining silent.

 

Rather than condemn or censure Ethiopia’s brutal crackdown, the international community has turned a blind eye, abdicated its responsibility, and instead been acquiescent to Ethiopia’s persistent violations and repression. Last year, both US President, Barack Obama, and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, granted legitimacy to the Ethiopian government by praising its “democracy” – even though the country’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Ruling Democratic Front (EPRDF), swept the national elections by winning 100 percent of the parliamentary seats.

 

When the French statesman, Talleyrand, was told by an aide of the murder of a political opponent, the aide said, “It’s a terrible crime, Sir.” In response, Talleyrand answered, “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.” Likewise is the West’s propping up of the Ethiopian government. Unwavering support for and appeasement of Ethiopia are part of a policy approach based upon the misguided belief, dating back to the immediate post-World War 2 period but rearticulated more recently in terms of regional “anchor states” designations, that Ethiopia is vital to protecting US and Western geostrategic interests and foreign policy aims. However, not only is this approach morally reprehensible, with the US and West being directly complicit in the mass crimes, transgressions, and reign of terror perpetrated by the Ethiopian government, the misguided policy approach has largely failed to achieve its objectives, to even a minor degree, and instead only served to stunt regional development and destabilize both Ethiopia and the broader Horn of Africa region.

 

In seeking to address Ethiopia’s flagrant dismissal of international norms and blatant disregard for human rights, a number of measures could be undertaken (e.g. sanctions). However, the first, and possibly most far-reaching and effective, response by the international community should be to withdraw its unwavering support for the repressive Ethiopian government.

 

George Galloway, respected British politician, broadcaster, and writer, has frequently voiced concern of how the West’s support for dictatorial, tyrannical regimes in the name of security only results in “blowback” and harming the populations of those countries. Regarding Ethiopia, Galloway has decried how the UK and US policy of encouraging, arming, training, financing, and facilitating the Ethiopian government’s “reign of terror” is “morally vacuous.” Similarly, respected international economist, William Easterly, has recommended that the international community “stop financing tyranny and repression” in Ethiopia.

 

For decades, Ethiopia has been highly dependent on external economic assistance. In 2012, it was the world’s seventh largest recipient of official humanitarian aid and received $3.2B in total assistance, the latter figure representing between 50-60 percent of its total budget, while its 2011 share of total official development assistance – approximately 4 percent – placed it behind only Afghanistan. Problematically, however, even while it is one of the world’s leading recipients of foreign aid, and is currently requesting even greater financial support, the Ethiopian government also annually spends hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons and arms – which are now being used against its own civilians.

 

With such a critical dependency on and misuse of foreign aid, threats to “turn off the tap” unless Ethiopia changes course may be a viable step toward improving the country’s rights record. Alternatively, rather than providing aid directly to the Ethiopian regime, which has a long track record of corruption and misappropriation, the international community should consider directly supporting local human rights and democracy groups (although this may be difficult due to Ethiopia’s draconian laws on civil society and NGOs).

 

An indication of the possible far-reaching effects of removing external support from a harsh, brutal regime can be seen in the example of Indonesia. Noam Chomsky, internationally renowned professor and activist, has written and spoken extensively on how US and Western support for the despotic regime in Indonesia played an indirect, yet extremely harmful, role in the carnage and deaths of hundreds of thousands in East Timor. However, in 1999, after much pressure, the US finally “pulled the plug” on its support for the Suharto regime, quickly leading to the end of Indonesia’s brutal campaign. Specifically,

 

“[f]or 25 years, the United States strongly supported the

vicious Indonesian invasion and massacre, a virtual

genocide. It was happening right through 1999, as the

Indonesian atrocities increased and escalated, after Dili

the capital city was practically evacuated. After Indonesian

attacks, the US was still supporting it. Finally, in mid-September

1999, under considerable international and also domestic

pressure, Clinton quietly told the Indonesian generals “It’s

finished.” And they had said they’d never leave, they said

“this is our territory.” They pulled out within days, and allowed a

UN peacekeeping force to enter without Indonesian military resistance.

Well, you know, that’s a dramatic indication of what can be done.”

 

While the socio-political dynamics and historical contexts of Indonesia and Ethiopia are admittedly quite different, the comparison also offers relevant and striking similarities. Both regimes received decades-worth of external economic, military, and political support (particularly from the US). Additionally, both regimes systematically and persistently violated human rights, transgressed various international laws (such as through military occupation), and engaged in large-scale campaigns described as “genocidal.”

 

With Ethiopia continuing to overlook basic international norms, standards, and laws in its brutal crackdowns upon opposition groups and protesters, the international community must end its complicity in and indirect support for the government’s various transgressions. As Clinton relayed to Indonesia’s leadership, the international community must tell Ethiopia, “it’s finished.”

 

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US President Obama Discussing Ethiopia

 

 

Wendy Sherman, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Discussing Ethiopia

 

Figure 1: US Assistance to Ethiopia

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Figure 2: Ethiopia Military Expenditure

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