international analysis and commentary

Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa: anti-terrorism and migration


Eastern Africa does not rhyme with wealth, development, or peace. Ethiopia is currently on the edge because of its oppressive regime. Somalia has become the first case study – and benchmark – for every potential failed state in the world and is now more abandoned than ever by the international community. Eritrea is the place of origin for thousands of migrants escaping a vicious dictatorship, while Kenya (repeatedly singled out as a relative “success story”) is once again under the jihadists’ fire. The question many analysts keep asking is whether these countries are effectively trying to fight terrorism and enforce human rights by all means possible, or their governments are just taking advantage of internal challenges and regional conflicts for their own political benefit.

Ethiopia is one of the largest nations in Africa. With its 99 million citizens, it is the second most populated country in the continent. In the 2015 general election, which has made Ethiopia a de facto one-party state, opposition parties lost the only seat they still held to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies. The government was recently labeled an “authoritarian regime” by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Ethiopia was ranked as the 118th-most democratic out of 167 countries examined.

Despite a critical situation in terms of human rights, Ethiopia so far seems to be (almost) immune to extremist terrorism. The main cause is probably theintense focusthe government in Addis Ababa put on the jihadi threat well before any other country in the region (i.e. Kenya, with radically different outcomes). The clearest example concerns al-Shabaab, the jihadist terrorist group based in East Africa.

Indeed, since al-Ittihad al-Islami, al-Shabaab’s forerunner, engaged in border attacks from Somalia in the early 1990s, Ethiopia has heavily participated in the international fight against Islamic terrorism, throughout the whole region. Addis Ababa has proceeded with the creation of a buffer zone along its 1.600km border with Somalia; it has trained local militias and established a militarized zone across the border, which international military and even humanitarian personnel are prevented to enter. An extraordinarily far-reaching intelligence system controls the internal order.

But like the United States, Kenya and many others, Ethiopia has not escaped what Christina Goldbaum has labelled the “great irony of counterterrorism”: undermining human rights as it tries to protect them. In 2009 the government passed a controversial anti-terrorism bill (Proclamation 652/2009) that allows the police to arrest and prosecute protesters, automatically categorizing them as “terrorists”. This law provides no distinction whatsoever between demonstrators exercising internationally recognized rights to free speech and association, and violent extremists. Moreover, it authorizes the use of unrestrained force against suspects and pre-trial detention of up to four months. As a result, international organizations and NGOs have long focused their attention on the countless violations of human rights perpetrated in the name of counterterrorism in Ethiopia. The concern is twofold, because as Bronwyn Bruton – Deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center – puts it, such unpopular governmental policies are eventually going to push people straight into the arms of extremists.

Currently, the country’s capital is experiencing a wave of protests in opposition to the government’s Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan to expand the city’s municipal boundary, thus englobing much of the neighboring region. This could result in mass evictions and the seizure of agricultural land in the Oromia region, as well as in extensive deforestation. The plan fits the framework of an aggressive and intense policy of planned economic development by the central government. Critics say that the government’s plans have enabled and exacerbated civil and human rights abuses in the country. During protests in December, at least 140 people were killed by the police on the basis of the anti-terrorism law, with the massive use of force confirmed by Human Rights Watch. Several international observers are now warning that the wanton labeling of peaceful activists as terrorists is not only a flagrant violation of international human rights law, but it also contributes to an erosion of confidence in Ethiopia’s ability to fight real terrorism.

Under the controversial “villagization” program, the Ethiopian government is forcibly relocating over 1.5 million people to make land available to investors. This policy is encouraging an increasing number of Ethiopians to flee the country. Outgoing migration has always been a constant with the Horn of Africa. Up until a few years ago many Ethiopians attempted to enter Yemen, whereas now the civil war in the Arab country has proved a strong deterrent (with Yemenites now escaping towards the Horn of Africa). Today Ethiopians are fleeing their country more than ever and often yearn for Saudi Arabia and southern Europe (only accessible through the extremely dangerous Libyan and Mediterranean routes), but have recently also tried and reached South Africa. This journey is as perilous as the northward one, since hundreds of them end up incarcerated and abused in Malawi or – at best – warded off by South African authorities.

The Ethiopian government has sought the cooperation of the Sudanese and Kenyan border police to stop migrants from leaving the country and fight smugglers. Nonetheless, worsening domestic repression and extreme poverty are formidable boosts. So much so that it is virtually impossible to distinguish, within the Ethiopian diaspora, those individuals who left for political reasons from those who left because of poverty and economic stagnation. As if this was not enough, novel problems have emerged in connection with the recent border crackdown, such the trafficking of young women to Middle East countries.

In light of this deteriorating situation, the international community is now repeatedly calling on the government to soften its laws and reaching out to the opposition – consisting mainly of peaceful popular movements and a few political parties, such as the Coalition for Unity and Democracy.

Even Ethiopia’s tough choices on countering terrorism may no longer be enough, in any case: despite the successes against the al-Shabaab’s threat, terrorist attacks have spread all over the region – which makes it uncertain whether the country can remain relatively immune. Somalia, the cradle of this extremist Islamist movement, has been engulfed in total chaos and lawlessness for the last 20 years. Within Somalia’s borders, al-Shabaab manages to control the principal weapons depots of the country and most of the sea harbors. The federal government does not have the means (nor the willpower, someone could argue) to stop the terrorists, and no international plan has been crafted to help this collapsing country.

Analysts suggest that, besides relying on burglary and leaning on the local population, Somali jihadists enjoy external financing. Private wealthy donations play a crucial role – just as they do for ISIS. Money and goods are flowing increasingly from neighboring Eritrea, the self-proclaimed Somaliland (an entity in northwestern Somalia, on the Gulf of Aden, not yet recognized by the international community), and even Kenya. Experts also claim that al-Shabaab has deeply infiltrated the federal government, and this was allegedly the reason that pushed the UN Security Council to put on hold general elections that had been expected in 2016. All in all, heavy military presence by foreign forces on Somalia’s borders is condemning the population to live where not even NGOs deem it safe to operate anymore.

As recent events remind us, terrorism knows no boundary, especially in a region where borders are blurrier than ever. It is no surprise then to learn about an increasing number of attacks by Somalia-based groups in nearby Kenya, where suicide bombings and kidnapping have more than doubled since 2013. Here, repressive anti-terrorist efforts of the kind we see in Ethiopia might clash with a relatively well-off country (the wealthiest in Central Africa, according to the Human Development Index) and a rather open political environment by African standards. Nevertheless, Kenya looks determined to get rid of the jihadist threats for both security and economic reasons. Earlier this month Kenya and Nigeria sealed a military cooperation deal. Given the ongoing fight between the Nigerian state and terrorist group Boko Haram this may be a sign of Nairobi’s growing fears that it too might face a similar challenge. Just like in various portions of the Middle East, the security risks posed by al-Shabaab and locally recruited radicals could quickly morph into ethnic-tribal rivalries, thus threatening the partial economic and political successes of countries like Kenya and Ethiopia – and destroying what little remains of countries like Somalia.

Evidence suggests that the whole region is facing the double threat of terrorism and diaspora. Ethiopia, with its strict laws, is living the ambiguous situation of a success in counterterrorism measures, and yet a deep undermining of human rights. Poverty and the authoritarian regime remain the main causes for outgoing fluxes of migrants. Somalia appears to be mode abandoned than ever, with jihadist from al-Shabaab now leaking onto every aspect of social life. Kenya – although managing to convey western tourism on its land – has seen a vertical rise in terrorists’ attacks, with possible disastrous consequences.