Ethiopia’s Other War

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: The other front in Ethiopia’s civil war, how a Zambian student in Russia ended up dead in Ukraine, and Mozambican gas shipments to Europe begin.

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Violence Continues in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region

Fighting between the Ethiopian army and rebel forces have intensified in recent weeks in Ethiopia’s Oromia region just as a peace deal between the federal government and Tigrayan leaders is being put in place in the north of the country. The recent clashes have been condemned by rights groups, which warn that the conflict in Tigray has overshadowed the need for peace negotiations in Oromia.

In July, Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns. “The authorities have sporadically cut communications,” and fighting has led to “serious abuses by government forces, including summary executions and arbitrary detentions” while armed groups have also “abducted or killed minority community members and government officials,” it said.

Disarmament of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began on Tuesday. Yet in the latest round of offensives in Oromia, witnesses say federal government airstrikes on Nov. 9 killed dozens of civilians in the town of Mendi, the Addis Standard reported.

Odaa Tarbii, spokesperson for the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) opposition party that is calling for self-determination, said the drone strikes hit market areas and bus stops, killing more than 30 civilians.

OLF members returned to Ethiopia in 2018 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed invited exiled groups and political figures back to the country, promising political reform and reconciliation. However, although the OLF became a formally recognized political party, its military faction—the OLA—refused to lay down arms and soon began fighting federal forces, prompting the Ethiopian government to redesignate the rebels a terrorist group in May 2021.

Many Oromo nationalists had assumed that Abiy’s election win would lead to greater regional autonomy for Oromia because he is from the region. Abiy came to power in part due to mass protests by the Oromo, the biggest ethnic group within Ethiopia. But instead, Abiy increasingly argued for a centralized state rather than federalism for Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups.

“There have been more than a dozen drone strikes in Oromia in the last two weeks that have killed 300+ civilians,” Tarbii wrote on Twitter. Meanwhile, the OLF said in a statement on Nov. 10 that there were more than 100 civilians injured—many of whom died—in four rounds of airstrikes in two places in Mendi town and near the Daleti area. According to the Ethiopia Peace Observatory, drone strikes conducted by federal forces in at least three towns in the Oromia region between Oct. 29 and Nov. 4 resulted in more than 55 reported deaths.

The federal government and its allies blame the renewed hostilities on the OLA, whose forces reportedly temporarily regained control of key areas after clashes with the government and local security forces.

On Nov. 6, residents said OLA members broke into a prison after heavy fighting between Ethiopian forces and the rebels in the town of Nekemte in the East Wollega area, about 200 miles west of Addis Ababa, the capital. The OLA tweeted that the group’s fighters “rescued over 120 political prisoners” from Kumsa Moroda, a museum turned military camp and prison, and “destroyed several regime military installations in the city.”

The U.S.-based Amhara Association of America argues that the agreed peace process with the TPLF “lacked inclusivity,” which could ultimately be its undoing. Robel Alemu, a spokesperson for the lobby group, told Foreign Policy that in Oromia, where the Amhara are a minority ethnic group, residents have reported a deliberate and “concerted effort by the OLA and elements within the Oromia regional government to ethnically cleanse Amharas” from the region.

“The telecommunications blackouts also make it difficult for residents to reach our investigators, independent media, and others to call for help and alert them to the situation.”

Another key point of contention that the agreement failed to recognize was contested Amhara areas within Tigray or the reintegration of internally displaced people into their ancestral lands.

As Ethiopian lawyer Zelalem Moges wrote in Foreign Policy in February, although Amhara forces, working with federal government troops, took control of Tigrayan areas with “reports of killings, sexual violence, and other serious human rights violations by Amhara militias,” the Amharas had also been “victims of oppression alongside most other groups in Ethiopia for decades under the TPLF-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime,” particularly after the TPLF took control of contested land called Western Tigray by Tigrayans and Welkait and Tegede by Amharas.

“Any arrangement or outcome that doesn’t recognize these lands as Amhara means there will not be lasting peace in the region,” said Dessalegn Chanie Dagnew, an ethnic Amhara leader and a member of the Federal Parliamentary Assembly representing the National Movement of Amhara party.

On Nov. 3, Abiy indicated that identity-related and territorial administration requests would be resolved through “talks and the country’s law.” But many civil society groups have criticized the government for failing to address long-standing regional grievances.

The Week Ahead

Wednesday, Nov. 16: The United Nations Security Council holds a briefing on the 180-day report regarding the activities of the G5 Sahel joint force.

Friday, Nov. 18: Morocco celebrates its Independence Day.

Saturday, Nov. 19, to Sunday, Nov. 20: Leaders of Francophone African countries, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, attend the Francophonie Summit held in Djerba, Tunisia.

Sunday, Nov. 20: Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled in Equatorial Guinea.

Tuesday, Nov. 22: The U.N. Security Council discusses piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

Tuesday, Nov. 22, to Thursday, Nov. 24: King Charles III hosts South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on a U.K. state visit.

Monday, Nov. 21: Kenya hosts Democratic Republic of the Congo peace talks.

What We’re Watching

Zambia probes Russia. The Zambian government has requested that Russian authorities urgently provide information on how a Zambian student, serving a prison sentence in Moscow, “could have been recruited to fight in Ukraine and subsequently lose his life.” Lemekhani Nyirenda, 23, was killed in Ukraine on Sept. 22, but Russian authorities only notified the Zambian government of the death on Nov. 9, Zambian foreign minister Stanley Kakubo said on Monday in a media briefing.

Nyirenda was a government-sponsored student pursuing a nuclear engineering degree at the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, but he was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 for an unspecified offense. Zambia’s embassy in Russia was able to establish that Nyirenda’s body had been transported to the Russian southern border town of Rostov for repatriation to Zambia.

Kenyan flags fly as a cargo train leaves for its inaugural journey to Nairobi from Mombasa, Kenya, on May 30, 2017.

Kenyan flags fly as a cargo train leaves for its inaugural journey to Nairobi from Mombasa, Kenya, on May 30, 2017.TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

Kenya’s China loan. Last week, Kenyan transportation secretary Kipchumba Murkomen made public the details of a controversial $5 billion loan contract signed in 2013 with China’s Export-Import Bank for the funding of the country’s most expensive infrastructure project: the Standard Gauge Railway line, running from Mombasa to Nairobi.

The document reveals that any dispute over the deal could only be arbitrated in Beijing by the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission. A Kenyan court ordered the publication of the contract this year, which the government of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declined to do, claiming that under the agreement, the Kenyan government was obliged to keep the terms “strictly confidential.”

Disclosure was a campaign promise of Kenyan President William Ruto amid continued criticism over the deal. (Ruto was deputy president at the time the agreement was signed.)

Political observers note that Ruto has made a decisive shift from Beijing toward Washington and its Western allies. So far, Ruto and senior Kenyan ministers have met top U.S. officials more than 15 times since his inauguration in September.

DRC negotiations. The first contingent of what will be a deployment of about 900 Kenyan soldiers arrived on Saturday in the city of Goma in eastern Congo. Attacks by the M23 rebel group have surged in recent months, capturing swaths of territory and moving closer to Goma, which has inflamed regional tensions as Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting the rebels.

For two days, Kenyatta and Angolan President João Lourenço mediated African Union talks between representatives of the two governments. Kenya will also host the third round of peace talks between Congo and armed groups on Nov. 21 in Nairobi, according to the East African Community.

G-20 summit. Senegalese President Macky Sall, who is currently serving as the AU chair, will be attending meetings in Bali, Indonesia, in the hopes of pushing through a promise to transform the G-20 bloc into the G-21 by adding the African Union.

Ramaphosa will also be attending talks as the only African member within the G-20, although it is now the continent’s third-largest economy after Nigeria and Egypt.

The addition of the African Union would be an important step toward recognizing the continent’s global voice, Hannah Ryder wrote in Foreign Policy in February. “African countries are often ahead of others globally on key environmental issues—34 African countries have passed laws banning single-use plastic bags, and 30 are formally considering carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier.”

This Week in COP27 Negotiations

Mozambique-Europe gas deal. The first shipment of liquefied natural gas from Mozambique bound for Europe left over the weekend in a British cargo ship. The gas was produced at an offshore plant run by Italian energy firm Eni, but British oil giant BP has the purchasing rights over it, the BBC reported.

African environmental activists accuse European leaders of using the continent as a “gas station” while blocking international financing for fossil fuel projects that would bring grid electricity to 600 million Africans—mostly in rural areas—who don’t yet have access to power.

U.S.-Egypt renewables deal. On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden announced a $500 million deal to back new solar and wind projects in Egypt in return for the country decommissioning gas power plants and cutting its emissions by 10 percent. The move, which is backed by the European Union and Germany, has been criticized by human rights groups due to Egypt’s jailing of dissidents.

According to the White House, Biden spent three hours in meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and raised “the importance of human rights and respect for fundamental freedoms.” In a letter last week, 57 congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Chris Coons, urged Biden to address Egypt’s human rights record, warning that a failure to do so would undermine U.S. moral authority on climate issues. Egyptian security forces have also been accused of “eavesdropping” at high-level meetings among foreign ministers.

Chart of the Week

Although the world’s focus has been on the conflict in Tigray, the Ethiopian army is currently fighting several anti-government insurgencies across the country. The Oromo Liberation Army and federal forces have been accused of violence against civilians in the Oromia region.

What We’re Reading

Spoiler alert? In Foreign Policy, Mohamed Kheir Omer, a former member of the Eritrean Liberation Front, argues that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki could derail Ethiopia’s peace agreement with the TPLF. Isaias already hosts a Tigrayan armed group opposed to the TPLF, known as Demhit, and could also support the Oromo Liberation Army.

“All parties interested in seeing this peace agreement succeed must be cognizant of the spoiler role Isaias has played in the past in the Horn of Africa—and the risk that he could do it again,” he writes.

Ghana’s unused energy bill. Ghana’s government has to pay oil and gas producers around $500 million every year for energy that it doesn’t need or use. In the Continent, Sipho Kings examines how the country became liable for excess output through a contract it signed for a $1 billion loan supported by the World Bank to develop an offshore gas field in Western Ghana.

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