By Karen Jays, CAGE Africa
The so-called war on terror has deformed the Ethiopian state and society. The social fabric as a result has been badly frayed with widespread extrajudicial killings and torture. Can anything be done to improve this?
Ethiopian government policy on the “war on terror” has conveniently dovetailed with what many in Ethiopia see as the central administration’s inherently colonialist approach – supported tacitly by the US and her allies – towards ethnic minorities in the country, especially those with movements calling for more self-determination.
In this regard, the country provides a snapshot on how the US-led so-called war on terror is the modern world’s version of colonialism, seeking to imprison, weaken and intimidate communities who are striving for more rights to access natural resources and political say in the region.
Ethiopia’s geopolitical role in the ‘war on terror’
Ethiopia, known as the oldest independent African nation, has never been colonised by Europeans, although many European nations exerted various degrees of influence in different periods of time in its history. A deeply hierarchical nation where power was often vested in the emperor, this power, under the semblance of “democracy” has since been transferred to the government.
Currently, the government has aligned itself firmly with the US and its allies in the war on terror, often casting itself as a bastion of Christianity against “encroaching Islam,” a position that has aggravated a generally peaceful and colourful multi-faith society.
A particular flashpoint in the region is the conflict within Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, with its majority Muslim population. The Ogaden is an ethnic group of Somali origin that exists in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and northeastern Kenya. It is also the name of a region in which the Ogaden people live, which stretches across the eastern region of Ethiopia on the borders with Somaliland and Somalia.
The inhabitants of Ogaden are 98 percent Muslim. Interestingly, although the land is arid and dry, Ogaden is home to four trillion cubic feet of natural gas and several oil fields – drawing interest from international multinationals. It is not only seen as a crucial economic foothold by the Ethiopian government, but is also a launch pad for US-backed African Union (AU) military incursions into neighbouring Somalia.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), however, opposes Ethiopian, and by extension, US dominance in the region. The ONLF was established in 1981 in Somalia, and it aims to establish an independent autonomous state in the broader eastern Ethiopian region, known as the Somali Region, which includes Ogaden. In 1993, 84 percent of its people voted in the ONLF, securing administrative power.
Described by various Western sources as “Islamist” in nature, the ONLF does not have an Islamic creed in its political programme. Rather, it declares the need to protect all Ogaden people’s right to exercise religious belief. It also declares: “The ONLF categorically rejects the manipulation of religious teachings to justify violent and criminal acts targeted at civilians.”
However, the ONLF, during the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia between 2006 and 2009, frequently attacked Ethiopian troops convoying through the region.
In 2007, the ONLF attacked a Chinese-run oilfield in the Somali Region, eliciting a brutal response from the Ethiopian government, which embarked on a programme of what Human Rights Watch termed “collective punishment” against the Ogaden people.
This resulted in retaliatory attacks against civilians by the ONLF. The conflict has been further fuelled by the US-backed war on terror.
Criminalising human rights movements and activists
More broadly and at a national level, the Anti-Terrorism Task Force leads the counterterrorism response in Ethiopia, but there have been widespread reports of abuse published by Human Rights Watch. This has included the killing and torture of members of legitimate political movements, not only in Ogaden, but in other parts of the country.
Police have also detained Andargachew Tsege, a British citizen and father of three from North London known as “Ethiopia’s Mandela,” for two years without charge and tortured him for exposing corruption in the Ethiopian government.
It is well known that journalists and bloggers have been the target of the anti-terrorism police, with a number of journalists arrested and tortured since 2009 under Ethiopia’s incredibly broad and indiscriminate terrorism law, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
Police abuse against Muslims is widespread but under-reported
It should be noted, however, that the global war on terror influences the visibility of causes in Ethiopia. While non-Muslim pro-democracy individuals like those making up the Zone 9 group, “Ethiopia’s Mandela” and many other human rights defenders gain global notoriety and backing from groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Muslim groups and individuals who suffer similar, if not more widespread abuse by police, are not in the headlines. International human rights groups sidestep the abuses committed against these communities, since they have been labelled as “terrorist” movements.
In 2009, a notorious local police force was appointed as a counterterrorism force. Known as the Liyu police, the force was initially extensively funded and supported by Britain, and primarily focused in the Ogaden, a move lauded by the right-wing think tank International Crisis Group, as one of the reasons for Ethiopia’s “counterterrorism success.”
However, the Liyu police are in essence an armed militia accused of widespread atrocities including mass rape and extrajudicial killings, particularly with the tacit support of the UK and US. They have since moved from the Ogaden region to other parts of the country.
The Liyu police were formed under the auspices of the UK, which provided funding. This was then cut in 2014 due to allegations of human rights abuses. After the money was cut, the Liyu police launched a publicity campaign to prove to its funders that it was aiding development – but the ONLF claimed the campaign was staged.
Nonetheless, the UK provided between up to $20million to fund the Liyu giving “peace-building training” which was run by “NGOs and private companies,” and the British media duly followed this with glowing reports of the Liyu’s alleged developmental agenda.
But the Liyu police’s secretive command structures meant they continued to operate with extreme violence and impunity. And as has happened in countries throughout the world who have ceded to pressure to entrench counterterrorism laws and policing into the fabric of their judiciary and security sectors, the rule of law in regions where they are active has crumbled to dust.
There is no recourse to justice for those apprehended, arrested or imprisoned by counterterrorism police, and no accountability for those meting out this “policing.”
The Liyu Police as a destabilising force
Human Rights Watch as far back as 2008 highlighted the way in which Ethiopian counterinsurgency operations were sold to the international community: “The application of terrorist rhetoric to the internal conflict with the ONLF, however, appears designed mainly to attract support from the United States as part of the ‘war on terror’.”
The state of affairs has remained largely unchanged up until now. Mohammed Aden, Director of the Ogaden Somali Community in South Africa, told CAGE Africa for its 2017 report into Ethiopia that communities largely see the Liyu as being supported by Western governments. He insisted that the amount of support in Ogaden for Al Shabab is negligible, but that the continued human rights abuses by the Liyu are seen by the Ogaden people as a ploy to push individuals towards extremism, “They are trying to push the people harder, so they will go somewhere else [like to Al Shabab], or where they will go and do extreme action. That’s the agenda, they want to prove the idea … so that they can get more funding from the international community.”
Towards a solution
The war on terror has not only impacted the eastern region, but has also corrupted the broader justice system.
Ethiopia is one of many countries in Africa that have hosted secret detention sites where men, women and children have been held under suspicion under the broad and indiscriminate banner of the US-led war on terror.
According to Asim Qureshi, research director of CAGE, and co-author with members of Reprieve, of a ground-breaking report into British and US complicity in torture in Ethiopia: “The result of the Ethiopian action was very similar to what took place under US actions, the widespread abuse of men, women and children who had been unlawfully detained.”
We must continue to call for an end to the war on terror. This seemingly unending war is in truth a modern-day colonial project that exploits existing tensions within nations and turns them into full-blown wounds, while solidifying Western imperial dominance. To heal countries, we must insist on US military withdrawal and withdrawal by its allies, whether their current involvement is direct or indirect.
This must be accompanied by a return to justice and the rule of law, and environments in which beliefs and history are respected, and the right of all people to access and benefit from the resources offered by the land they live on is recognised and protected.
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