Ethiopia blocks food aid to Ogaden

Boy, does it ever look like a case of “meet the new boss” in Ethiopia. A front-page story by Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times July 22 informs us that the government is blocking food aid to the restive Ogaden region. “Food cannot get in,” said Mohammed Diab, the director of the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia. Another anonymous “humanitarian official” said: “It’s a starve-out-the-population strategy. If something isn’t done on the diplomatic front soon, we’re going to have a government-caused famine on our hands.” The government says the blockade covers only strategic locations, and is meant to prevent arms from reaching the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The really sick thing is that this is a tactic pioneered by the exiled dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who has been convicted on genocide charges by the current regime. Back during the famines of the 1980s, Mengistu barred food aid from reaching the restive Tigray region (as the Library of Congress Country Studies page on Ethiopia recalls). Now the new (Tigray-dominated) regime is emulating this genocidal stratagem against its own ethnic enemies.

But the real news here is perhaps less that it is happening than that it is on the front page of the New York Times—as was Gettleman’s on-the-scene report of Ethiopian army brutality in the Ogaden last month. The new report also follows a July 17 AP story—also given prominent treatment by the Times—which found:

Both the Bush administration and Congress are growing exasperated over Ethiopia’s backsliding from democracy but are wary of applying too much pressure against a country that has become an important anti-terror ally in East Africa…

In the House of Representatives, the Africa subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee is completing work Wednesday on legislation that decries Ethiopia’s recent human rights record and opens the door for sanctions. The subcommittee’s approval would be a first major step, but the bill still would have to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by Bush.

Democratic Rep. Donald Payne, the subcommittee’s chairman, told The Associated Press he has had no response to his bill from White House officials, but “I think they would prefer if we just left it alone.”

Undoubtedly. But these media reports are an unsubtle message to Abbis Ababa that it is in danger of wearing out its welcome in Washington. Which explains why, in a surprise move, the Ethiopian government has ordered freed 38 political prisoners arrested after the 2005 contested elections. A July 22 AP report explicitly states that issuing of the pardons was the fruit of US pressure.

Not that the Bush administration gives a flying freak about human rights (needless to say). But it appears to be reacting to rumblings from the more enlightened members of Congress who realize that continued autocratic rule could lead to the destabilization of a strategic US ally—a process already well advanced in Pakistan.

See our last post on the politics of the Horn of Africa.

  1. Ethiopia strafes Ogaden nomads
    Gettleman’s latest from the New York Times, Nov. 20:

    NAIROBI — Separatist rebels fighting in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia accused the government on Monday of strafing nomads in recent days at a watering hole with helicopter gunships, killing up to a dozen civilians.

    The government denied the claims of attacks, which would be a deepening of a conflict that until now has been confined largely to hit-and-run clashes between rebel soldiers and Ethiopian ground forces. But Western diplomats in Ethiopia said that the government had indeed used assault helicopters and that the war in the Ogaden was intensifying.

    Abdirahman Mahdi, a spokesman for the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the leading rebel group in the area, said government helicopters attacked the nomads, who were noncombatants, near the village of Gurdumi several times since Thursday. Mr. Abdirahman, who is based in London, said he had spoken to field commanders who provided detailed information, including the names of several nomads killed next to their camels. He said the Ethiopians apparently attacked the watering hole because rebel soldiers had recently killed several government soldiers in an ambush nearby.

    “The Ethiopians are turning to air power because they can’t face us on the ground,” Mr. Abdirahman said.

    Col. Yasaf Adankegn, an Ethiopian military spokesman, said nothing could be further from the truth. “The O.N.L.F. has repeatedly misinformed the international community,” Colonel Yasaf said. “Nothing has been happening out there. There is no fighting. The rebels have been eradicated.”

    These claims and counterclaims are similar to recent, conflicting reports by both sides, each claiming a string of victories. Last week, the government said it had killed 100 rebels. The rebels denied that, saying they had killed 700 government soldiers and allied militiamen.