(The Guardian) — In southern Ethiopia, tens of thousands of people are enduring what aid workers say is a full-blown humanitarian crisis. But the government of the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, appears not to be listening.
It is a stain on the record of an administration that, since Abiy’s appointment last April, has been lauded for opening up Ethiopia’s political space and making peace with neighbouring Eritrea. Last month, Abiy was nominated for a Nobel peace prize. His government has also been praised for passing a new refugee policy hailed as a model of compassion and forward-thinking. Yet the dire situation facing millions of people forced from their homes by conflict, and the new regime’s approach to their plight, has invited a more sceptical response from some observers.
One settlement, in the village of Gotiti, hosts 20-30,000 ethnic Gedeos who have been denied humanitarian assistance – above all food aid – since last August.
More than a million Ethiopians were forced from their homes by ethnic violence in 2018 – the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) of any country last year. The worst of it took place in the south, where an estimated 800,000 mostly ethnic Gedeos fled the district of West Guji in Oromia, the country’s largest region. This is a higher number, and over a shorter period of time, than occurred at the height of Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis in 2017.
The conflict looked, on the surface, like a Malthusian eruption – in which population outstrips food supply. Gedeos and Guji Oromos share some of the country’s most densely populated farmland, and both groups are fast growing in number. But gruesome reports of lynchings, rapes and beheadings, and of complicity among local officials, police and militia, makes it seem more like organised ethnic cleansing than an ordinary tribal clash.
The vast majority of Gedeos – who took refuge in Gedeo zone of the neighbouring southern region – are too scared to return. They say they have nothing to return to: homes were burned en masse and crops (mostly coffee) stolen or destroyed. In recent weeks, displaced people have also said they fear rebels from the Oromo Liberation Front, who are active in West Guji and allegedly terrorise those who return.
But despite the self-evident risks, the government has repeatedly pushed Gedeo people back into Oromia. When it did so in June, two months after the first wave of displacement in April, violence escalated. Nonetheless, in August, the government resumed its efforts, in some cases loading people into buses and trucks and driving them over the border. Aid workers say the withdrawal of humanitarian assistance has also been used as a way of putting pressure on people to return. In December, roughly 15,000 Gedeos fled West Guji once more.
Such tactics are still in evidence in pockets of Gedeo zone like Gotiti. In February, aid workers – speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear jeopardising their access in other parts of the country – said they had been forbidden from providing assistance in the area for months (though in the past fortnight some have been given the green light by the local administration to discreetly distribute things like blankets). Because food is scarce, malnutrition is common. Aid workers worry about the spread of contagious diseases, especially when the rain comes. Most of the wooden shelters lack even plastic sheets for roofs.
Last month, the government said more than a million displaced people had returned to their villages. It has since drawn up a two month “action plan” to return almost all of those yet to come back. This seems to include even Gedeos who firmly believe it is unsafe for them back in Oromia.
Aid workers speak with alarm at the prospect of yet another round of premature returns, especially since it will coincide with the start of the national census in April (possibly triggering more violence). Involuntary returns and the “instrumentalisation” of humanitarian aid are, of course, breaches of humanitarian principles.
Why and under whose authority such a problematic policy has been pursued is unclear. Ethiopia’s system of decentralised, ethnically organised federalism blurs lines of responsibility. Some aid workers, for instance, blame the government of Ethiopia’s Southern region, which has a history of restricting humanitarian access, while others point right to the top. (The federal government denies that it supports involuntary returns or the withdrawal of humanitarian assistance to those in need.)
As for Abiy himself, his gravest sin seems to be one of omission. He has not visited camps housing displaced people in Gedeo or Guji (or, reportedly, anywhere in the country) since he took office. He has, rightly, turned away from the authoritarianism of his predecessors, but has failed to get to grips with the security crisis that emerged in its stead. The more cynical aid workers I spoke to suggested he and those around him simply want to “erase” the issue of displaced people before it spoils the new administration’s international image.
The precedents set by the response to the Gedeo tragedy are deeply troubling. “We failed Gedeo-Guji,” said one senior aid official. “And I’m afraid we are going to fail again [in Ethiopia], but at an even larger scale.”