Nile Politics: Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to Meet Regarding Grand Renaissance Dam

A few weeks ago, I looked at the regional politics of sharing water from the Nile River in the wake of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death. The conflict between upstream and downstream Nile countries over water usage has historically pitted Ethiopia and the upstream countries against Egypt and Sudan. In Meles’ final years, Ethiopia began pursuing a more aggressive strategy, including the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, set to be completed in 2018. The Dam has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and Egypt, and Meles’ successors have continued to pursue the project.

Alongside disagreement, however, Egypt and Ethiopia have made efforts at dialogue. This week brings news that may help reduce tensions. From the Africa Report:

A tripartite commission, established by Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan will meet on 8 October 2012 in Addis Ababa to discuss the impact of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam on the three other countries.

[...]

The commission, established after Egypt raised alarm, will discuss the effects of the Ethiopian on both Egypt and Sudan.

However, Ethiopia maintains that the dam over the Nile River will not affect either Egypt or Sudan.

Ethiopia seems unwilling to halt construction of the Dam, but it is possible that the commission could produce some agreements and compromises. With or without the Dam, the situation is unsustainable – by 2017, even under the status quo, experts predict that Egypt’s share of the Nile will be insufficient for its needs. And in the meantime the upstream countries’ water needs and dissatisfaction will only grow. The two sides will eventually need a mechanism to settle the dispute. Hopefully the commission will represent a step in that direction.

Nile Politics in a Post-Meles Era

Conflict and tension between upstream and downstream countries over the use of the Nile River has been going on for years. But changes in leadership in the Nile region could affect the course of the struggle. Egypt, the leader of the downstream bloc, and Ethiopia, the leader of the upstream bloc, both have new heads of state. At a recent meeting between Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi shows, parts of the status quo will remain in place, but other parts may be set to change.

Kenya’s Africa Review reports (Kenya is one of the upstream countries):

In what must be construed as a warning to the other Nile waters sharing countries, both President Bashir and his Egyptian counterpart reaffirmed their countries “identical position” in regards to the water dispute.

Mr Morsy’s spokesperson did not hide the fact that the issue of the Nile Water is “an Egyptian national security issue”. The two countries receive 55 billion ( Egypt) and 18.5 billion ( Sudan) cubic meters of water annually thanks to a series of agreements that date back to 1929 and drawn by Britain when it was the main colonising power over much of the continent.

The upstream countries maintain that these agreements, which also give the two countries veto powers over projects deemed as “harmful’ to their interests, where [sic] signed during the “colonial era, and should be rewritten to allow countries to equally share in the river’s economic potential.”

One of Egypt long standing objectives over the body of water is that it would never consider the calls for a decrease in its annual share, in fact it would actively seek to increase it – already both Egypt and Sudan control approximately 87 per cent of the water resources of the Nile.

Back in 2010 then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, following the signing of the the Cooperative Framework Agreement water treaty by Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, flatly stated Egypt’s annual share would not be affected.

That view has pretty much remained unchanged in the eyes of the newly elected government and whilst it also seeks to increase that share, it has been at pains to add that this is “through cooperation and coordination with the Nile Basin countries”, not unilaterally.

In the midst of continuity – Egypt and Sudan against the upstream countries – there is also some change, at least in the diplomatic tone Egypt takes. Africa Review writes that “President Morsy’s government has gone on a charm offensive with its African counterparts,” adding, “What steps Khartoum and Cairo will take is still unclear, but the signs do point to a more conciliatory tone though not to the extent where they will agree nor accept the demands of the other Nile Basin countries unconditionally.”

Read about Morsi’s July visit to Ethiopia here.

How will the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who had ruled Ethiopia since 1991, affect Nile politics? Meles’ most ambitious move on the Nile issue as of late was the Grand Renaissance Dam, projected to be one of the largest dams in the world. Construction began in April, and by late May 10% of the dam had been completed, with the project set to finish in 2018. So far, it looks as though the project will remain on track even without Meles there to oversee it. The International Monetary Fund recently suggestion that Ethiopia slow down the project, but the government refused:

Ethiopia’s government won’t reschedule construction of the Grand Renaissance dam, said Communications Minister Bereket Simon, who co-chairs a fundraising committee for the plant.

“It was a well-considered plan and it’s one of the mega projects for which the government commits itself unconditionally,” Bereket said in a phone interview [September 13].

The Grand Renaissance Dam has caused substantial alarm in Egypt, which fears the project may reduce its water supply. Experts project that by 2017, even Egypt’s current share of the waters will be insufficient for its population’s needs. Egypt may attempt, then, to frustrate the Renaissance Dam project by “lobby[ing] foreign donors and international organisations to withhold financing for the dam because of the adverse impacts on its economy.”

The existence of South Sudan adds another complication to the status quo. The National writes,

The 1959 treaty did not foresee an independent South Sudan, and the implications for Juba’s share of Nile waters. Like most post-secession issues between Sudan and South Sudan, the South’s allocation of Nile waters is not agreed. Nor is Khartoum, like Cairo before it, likely to easily give ground to a state upstream. The acrimonious relationship between Juba and Khartoum is unlikely to help.

Tension with Khartoum has not, however, prevented Juba from taking action. As part of its strategy to meet the country’s energy needs, South Sudan has stated that it will build dams on the White Nile and its tributaries. Reuters reports, “One of the most ambitious plans is the construction of a 540-megawatt Bedden dam across the White Nile south of Juba, but the government has not yet provided details of funding for the $1.5 billion, seven-to-eight-year project.” As details on this and other projects emerge, South Sudan’s role in the new politics of Nile water usage will become clearer.

As populations grow, the Nile issue will only become more urgent over time. The new leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia, no matter how friendly the tone of their diplomatic interactions, will face difficult choices in the coming years about how and whether to share the waters.

Meles Zenawi’s Death and the Sudans’ Negotiations [Updated]

Sudan and South Sudan have been at odds over various issues, particularly oil revenue sharing, border demarcation, and security, since South Sudan became independent last year. Negotiations – sometimes fruitless, sometimes more promising – have taken place in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. A round of talks in early August saw a breakthrough of sorts: a tentative agreement on oil revenue sharing, subject to further agreements on security.

This week the Sudans are back at the negotiating table:

Western diplomats and African Union mediators now hope to build on progress after the two struck an interim deal on oil fees last month. Sudan says it wants a border security deal before oil flows resume.

Officials from both sides have been much brighter in their predictions than in previous rounds.

“Sudan’s delegation is ready to reach an agreement by the end of this round,” El-Obeid Morawah, spokesman for Sudan’s Foreign Ministry, said. “I think they (South Sudan) are also open-minded and open-hearted.”

Michael Makuei Lueth, chairman of the border committee for South Sudan, said he was optimistic about resolving issues such as cross-border trade, the status of citizens in one another’s countries, and the disputed Abyei border region.

“If the government of Sudan is coming to negotiate in good faith, then we are likely to agree on everything except the borders that will follow at a later stage,” he said.

The United Nations, which previously set a deadline of August 2 for the resolution of the two sides’ disagreements, now says they must finalize a deal by September 22. Based on the experience of August it seems the deadlines are meant to generate a sense of urgency, but that some flexibility remains.

What has changed in the interval between the talks in early August and the current talks is that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a powerful influence in the region, has passed away. Some eulogies for Meles emphasized his role as a peacemaker between the Sudans, and some observers have wondered whether his absence might decrease the chances of peace:

It is Sudan and South Sudan where Meles’ personal engagement might be irreplaceable. Meles is the only regional leader to maintain strong relations with both Sudanese President Omar Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. Meles often personally mediated meetings between the two foes.

The Sudans’ optimistic rhetoric suggests that the talks in early August established some momentum toward peace. The loss of Meles complicates an already fragile situation, but perhaps not critically so. And it will, of course, take some time to assess the impact of his death on the region, and to understand how Ethiopia’s new leaders will approach the conflict between the Sudans.

[UPDATE]: Sudan Tribune reports on talks in Addis Ababa between Sudanese presidential assistant Nafie Ali Nafie and Acting Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegen.

A Roundup of Reactions to the Death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Ethiopia announced on Tuesday that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had died at age 57 (biography here). Meles took sick over a month ago, touching off speculation about the state of his health and the future of Ethiopia. Now that his death has been confirmed, reactions are pouring in from around the world. Here is a sample:

Governments:

  • Statement from the Ethiopian News Agency
  • Statement from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon
  • Statement from US President Barack Obama
  • Statement from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
  • Statement from UK Prime Minister David Cameron
  • Statement from President Jose Barroso of the European Commission

Press

  • The AP: “Is Ethiopia’s New Leader in Place for Long?”
  • The New York Times: “Ethiopian Leader’s Death Highlights Gap Between U.S. Interests and Ideals”
  • VOA: “Time to Assess Meles Legacy in Ethiopia”
  • The Wall Street Journal: “Ethiopia in Flux After Leader Dies”
  • The Guardian: “Ethiopia’s Renaissance under Meles Zenawi Tainted by Authoritarianism”
  • Reuters: “Ethiopians Mourn Strongman Ruler Meles, Dead at 57″
  • The Atlantic: “A Modern Dictator: Why Ethiopia’s Zenawi Mattered”
  • The Economist: “Meles Zenawi”
  • Time: “The Strongman Who May Be Missed”
  • Al Jazeera (Arabic): “The Death of the the Ethiopian Prime Minister”

Non-Governmental Organizations

What is your reaction? What comes next for Ethiopia?

Ethiopia: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Illness and Potential Political Changes in the Greater Horn

When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi missed an African Union summit this past weekend, rumors spread that he was ill. News agencies reported yesterday that Meles was in “critical condition” in Brussels. By late in the day the Ethiopian government had announced that Meles was “in good condition.” Under Article 75 of the 1994 Ethiopian constitution (.pdf), Deputy Prime Minister (and Minister of Foreign Affairs) Haile-Mariam Desalegne will act on the Prime Minister’s behalf in his absence.

Meles, a former rebel leader who took power in 1991, has previously stated his desire to step down when his current term ends in 2015. If Meles leaves office, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front will almost certainly retain power, but Meles’ absence would represent a significant political change for Ethiopia.

Indeed, Meles’ illness potentially foreshadows a coming period of political change (specifically the installation of new heads of state) for several countries in the greater Horn of Africa. Change could occur in several ways.

First, there is retirement. Meles is not the only leader in the region who has said he will step down in 2015 – Sudanese President Omar al Bashir made the same promise during a small wave of protests in early 2011, and Djibouti’s President Ismael Guellah has stated that he will step down in 2016. Some observers have doubted the sincerity of these pledges, but Meles in particular sometimes seems fatigued and ready to give up the job, an appearance that this illness underscores.

Elections will bring changes in leadership elsewhere in the region. Many observers expect Somalia’s ongoing political transition, which includes presidential elections next month, to produce a government fairly similar in personnel to the current Transitional Federal Government. But in Kenya, presidential elections set to take place in 2013 must produce a new head of state. President Mwai Kibaki, who has reached the limit of two five-year terms, cannot run again, leaving the field open to a number of major politicians, including current Prime Minister Raila Odinga and current Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta.

Other transitions, as Meles’ case reminds us, could come about because of sudden illness or death, a grim possibility but one that must be mentioned. These leaders are not old: indeed, all of them (not counting Kibaki) are short of seventy – Meles was born in 1955, Bashir in 1944, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir in 1951, Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in 1964, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki in 1946, Djibouti’s President Ismail Guellah in 1947, and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni around 1944. Yet four of them have been in power for over nineteen years (Museveni came to power in 1986, Bashir in 1989, Meles in 1991, and Isaias in 1993). The high stress of being head of state seems to accelerate aging in some leaders. There remain only six African leaders who have been in office longer than Museveni.

Finally, no leader in the region has faced a monumental threat from mass protests, but significant anti-regime protests have occurred in the last two years in Sudan, Uganda, and Djibouti. If nothing else, such protests add to the pressures these heads of state face in other areas.

It is possible, of course, that in three or four years only Kenya, out of all the countries in the greater Horn, will have new leadership. But a combination of factors could produce transitions in Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, and elsewhere, potentially shaking up, within a relatively short period of time, what has long been a fairly stable roster of leaders.

Ethiopia: Terrorism, Journalism, and Human Rights [Updated]

Yesterday, the Lideta Federal High Court in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa pronounced prominent journalist Eskinder Nega and twenty-three others guilty of having “links to US-based group Ginbot 7, considered a terrorist group under Ethiopian law, and other outlawed groups.”

Both Eskinder and [opposition leader] Andualem [Arage] were found guilty of “participation in a terrorist organisation” and “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt of (a) terrorist act.”

Andualem was also found guilty of serving as a “leader or decision maker of a terrorist organisation.”

[...]

Both Eskinder and Andualem are accused of using examples of Arab Spring uprisings in the media to promote anti-government protest in Ethiopia.

[...]

Five of the defendants, including Eskinder and Andualem, will reappear in court on July 13 to present their mitigating circumstances.

According to Reuters, “prosecutors said they would not demand the death penalty and called for jail sentences from five years to life for the group.”

The case adds to controversy surrounding Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism legislation, which critics argue is more a tool that the government uses to suppress dissent than a vehicle it uses for punishing genuine terrorists. Both Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists issued statements on the case yesterday. Amnesty wrote, “Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, used to convict the defendants on several of the charges, enables the prosecution of legitimate and peaceful activities as ‘terrorist’ acts.” CPJ, meanwhile, said, “With its ruling, the court has effectively criminalized free expression, trivialized the genuine threat of terrorism, and undermined the credibility of the judicial system in Ethiopia.”

Some background on Eskinder Nega and his case, including his previous encounters with the Ethiopian legal system, can be found here and here.

Eskinder and those tried with him are not the first to be targeted by Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. In January, Human Rights Watch denounced the conviction of five persons (including three journalists and an opposition leader) under the law. An HRW researcher stated, “The verdict against these five people confirms that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law is being used to crush independent reporting and peaceful political dissent. The Ethiopian courts are complicit in this political witch-hunt.” HRW also said that the conviction of two Swedish journalists under the law in December “demonstrates that the country’s anti-terrorism law is fundamentally flawed and being used to repress legitimate reporting.” In addition to condemning the ways in which the government uses the law, HRW has raised concerns about reported torture of suspects detained on terrorism charges.

As I wrote in February,

Ethiopia is a country that plays a large role in the Horn of Africa; some in Washington consider Ethiopia an important ally in American efforts to stabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is also one of the largest aid recipients in the world (more here). The contrast between Ethiopia’s favored status in strategic and aid circles on the one hand, and the sharp criticisms its government draws from human rights groups on the other, raises important questions about how the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” plays out at the local level.

The conviction of Eskinder Nega and the others adds even greater urgency to these questions.

So far I have not seen any official reaction to the trial from the US government.

[UPDATE]: A statement from the US State Department:

We are deeply concerned about the Ethiopian government’s conviction of a number of journalists and opposition members under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. This practice raises serious questions and concerns about the intent of the law, and about the sanctity of Ethiopians’ constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

The arrest of journalists has a chilling effect on the media and on the right to freedom of expression. We have made clear in our ongoing human rights dialogue with the Ethiopian government that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are fundamental elements of a democratic society.

As Secretary Clinton has said, “When a free media is under attack anywhere, all human rights are under attack everywhere. That is why the United States joins its global partners in calling for the release of all imprisoned journalists in every country across the globe and for the end to intimidation.”

For those who are interested, Ginbot 7′s website is here.

Ethiopia: Protest in Addis Ababa Mosques

Reuters reports on a “protest” movement in Ethiopian mosques, with protests taking the form of sermons that accuse the government of playing favorites within the country’s Muslim community, and expressions of support for these sermons from Muslim congregations. Specifically, the sermons and other protest statements say that the country’s Islamic Affairs Supreme Council is attempting to impose the values and beliefs of a group called Al Ahbash (read the Wikipedia entry on them here) on the rest of the country’s Muslims. Reuters describes one such “protest”:

On the outskirts of Addis Ababa, a muezzin* leads a solemn sermon at a mosque before thousands of worshippers stamp their feet to protest against what they say is the Ethiopian government’s interference in religious affairs.

[...]

The protesters accuse [the] government of interfering by seeking to impose the beliefs of a little-known sect as doctrine. They say the government is promoting the Al Ahbash, an Islamic movement that opposes ultra-conservative ideology and rejects violence.

The protesters broadly say they adhere to moderate Sufi-inspired values and not the ultra-conservative Salafist interpretation of Islam.

“Call me a terrorist but I will defend my religion,” said the muezzin in his sermon, denouncing the Al Ahbash movement.

Since the beginning of the year, demonstrations have taken place on an almost weekly basis in mosques throughout the capital, and more are expected.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has reacted by framing the protests as “tell-tale signs of extremism” – hence the disavowal of “terrorism” from the imam quoted above. Ethiopia’s government has presented itself to the West and within the Horn of Africa as a strong force against Islamic extremism, and has charged other dissidents inside Ethiopia with committing terrorism. Labeling Muslim objections to state policies as extremism fits into larger narratives that the government promotes.

The State Department has Muslims as 34% of Ethiopia’s population, and Christians as 62%, but these numbers are rough estimates. My familiarity with different Muslim tendencies in Ethiopia is weak, and from Reuters’ article I cannot discern, amid the accusations and counter-accusations, precisely what tendencies the protesters represent. However, I recently began reading a book on the Salafi tendency in Ethiopia called Localising Salafism and on the basis of the first few chapters I would highly recommend it, both for information about Ethiopia and for its treatment of Salafism. There is a lot of glib talk on the internet about Salafism, especially in connection with discussions of elections and terrorism, but it is rare to find analyses that treat Salafi beliefs with any degree of sophistication, or that highlight the complex interactions between global religious movements on the one hand and local history and politics on the other. The book offers a perspective that would likely help to explain some of the issues at stake in the current mosque protests, as well as in Ethiopia’s religious and political struggles more broadly.

One final point is that in a country whose government suppresses dissent, religious institutions like mosques can become one of the few spaces where dissent can be expressed. Examples are legion; one is Algeria in the 1980s.

*Reuters keeps saying “muezzin,” which refers to the person who calls the prayer, but usually the imam leads the prayer and gives the sermon.

Egypt Enters Sudan-South Sudan Conflict

Reuters, yesterday:

Egypt is mounting a diplomatic offensive to defuse tensions between Sudan and South Sudan that have raised fears the two former civil war foes could return to a full-blown conflict.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr arrived at Khartoum airport on Sunday for talks after the two countries clashed during the past week for control of an oil field.

“Egypt will make every possible effort to try to bridge the gap in viewpoints between Sudan and South Sudan and contain the existing border tensions between them after the occupation of Heglig,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA reported.

Tensions have run high between Khartoum and Juba since South Sudan seized control of the disputed Heglig oilfield on Tuesday. Sudan has vowed to recapture the region, which produced about half of the country’s 115,000-barrel-a-day oil output.

The fighting, which has halted production at the field, has been the worst since South Sudan declared independence in July.

As Reuters writes, the seizure of Heglig (more on Heglig here) marks a tense moment in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. The larger conflict stems from the history of violence between the two areas and from the issues left unresolved after South Sudan’s secession, namely oil revenue sharing, border demarcation, and the fate of various communities on the Sudanese side of the new border.

Egypt’s role in Sudan is complex. Egypt has been preoccupied with its own transitions during the last fifteen months, but historically Egypt has exercised tremendous influence in Sudan. Even if we just take the period post Napoleon, Egypt occupied Sudan from 1820 until the rise of the Mahdi in 1884/5, and acted as the UK’s partner in the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium from 1899 to 1955 (Sudan gained independence in 1956, having chosen not to remain part of Egypt). Since independence, strong cultural and political links have remained between the two countries – for example, Egypt and Sudan have presented a united front against the upstream Nile countries in arguing that the status quo for water-sharing (which the upstream countries say favors Egypt) should remain in place.

I bring up the Nile issue deliberately, because that conflict has often pitted Egypt against Ethiopia, the most outspoken of the upstream countries. Ethiopia has also been the site of African Union-mediated talks between Sudan and South Sudan in recent weeks. In light of that, will Egypt’s new diplomatic push be seen to imply Egypt’s lack of confidence in the diplomatic effectiveness of Ethiopia and the AU? Will Egypt be seen as pro-(north) Sudan? This is yet another illustration of how the break-up of Sudan is affecting relationships in the region: Egypt’s relationship with South Sudan remains to be fleshed out.

In any case, I think Egypt’s new level of involvement demonstrates how worrying the situation in the Sudans has become to their neighbors (and other countries with an interest in the Sudans, particularly China). It is not like Egypt has resolved all of its own internal uncertainties, so the fact that Egypt is making the Sudans such a high priority right now says that Egypt is quite concerned. We will see if Egypt can make headway where others, thus far, have failed.

Maps of the Military Situation in Southern Somalia

Since October, Kenya has been waging war against al Shabab, the Muslim rebels of southern Somalia. Kenya’s incursion into Somalia has also prompted Ethiopia to send (not for the first time) some of its own soldiers into the southwestern part of Somalia. The capital Mogadishu, since al Shabab withdrew in August, has been controlled by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The TFG is supported by the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

With conditions changing by the day, determining who holds what is difficult. It is clear that al Shabab is losing territory by the month, and that Kenyan forces are advancing on some of the movement’s key strongholds, particularly the port city of Kismayo. Beyond that details are somewhat hard to pin down – I have probably gotten some things wrong in what follows. On a technical note, things are made even more confusing by the fact that transliterations of Somali town names vary widely in English.

Here is one list of the towns Kenya controls: Bilis Qooqani, Ras Kamboni, Bibi, Jilib, Tabda, Gherile and Bardere. Other sources say Kenya controls Burgabo (“a key trade route” for al Shabab), Hosingo and Badade. Top towns that Kenya is targeting appear to include Baidoa, Afmadow, Afgoye, and Kismayo.

VOA describes the areas where Ethiopia has a presence:

Soldiers…reached the town of Luq in the southwest Gedo region.

The location includes a major road leading to the Bay and Bakool regions, which are under al-Shabab’s control. The official says the Ethiopian convoy entered Somalia through the border town of Dolow.

And here are two maps: one, by the BBC, is a political/military map of all of Somalia.

The second is my own creation. The red shows towns that seem to still be in al Shabab hands, the blue shows towns in Kenyan hands, and the green town is Luq, held by Ethiopia. No pin marks Mogadishu, but it should be visible.

Finally, here is an in-depth Al Jazeera report on the recent al Shabab-al Qaeda merger.

Ethiopia, Anti-Terrorism, and Human Rights

Recent and upcoming trials of journalists and dissidents in Ethiopia have focused attention  - and criticism – on the country’s anti-terrorism law. Critics, including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, have raised concerns that the Ethiopian government uses the law to crack down not on terrorism, but on dissent.

Ethiopia is a country that plays a large role in the Horn of Africa; some in Washington consider Ethiopia an important ally in American efforts to stabilize the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia is also one of the largest aid recipients in the world (more here). The contrast between Ethiopia’s favored status in strategic and aid circles on the one hand, and the sharp criticisms its government draws from human rights groups on the other, raises important questions about how the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” plays out at the local level.

Following bombings in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 2008, the Ethiopian parliament passed the anti-terrorism law with a strong majority in July 2009. Domestic and international criticism began to focus on provisions of the law that regulate speech. I have not been able to find the text of the law, but Human Rights Watch published an analysis of the draft law in March 2009, and AFP quotes the relevant section of the law as passed:

“Whosoever writes, edits, prints, publishes, publicises, disseminates, shows, makes to be heard any promotional statements encouraging… terrorist acts is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from 10 to 20 years,” it says.

Criticism surfaced again in 2011. In November, the government charged twenty-four people under the law. In response, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued a joint statement which began, “The Ethiopian government should cease using its overly broad anti-terrorism law against journalists and peaceful political activists.” In December, the Ethiopian government invoked the anti-terrorism law when it gave 11-year prison sentences to two Swedish journalists who had been arrested last summer in the company of rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

Criticism of the law has continued in 2012, following the sentencing of three journalists in January (one in absentia); see the Committee to Protect Journalists’ statement on the cases here. More defendants (the same group of twenty-four arrested in November, I believe) are set to stand trial soon, and the UN has spoken out “against the ongoing use of anti-terrorism laws to curb freedom of expression in Ethiopia.”

The Ethiopian government, for its part, has responded to such criticisms by saying that the law’s scope is properly defined:

Ethiopia holds journalists accountable when they commit crimes, Communications Minister Bereket Simon said.

“Ethiopia clearly differentiates between freedom of expression and terrorism,” he said in a phone interview from the capital, Addis Ababa, today. “This is simply a very wrong defense of foreign journalists who have been caught red-handed when assisting terrorists.”

The Ethiopian government also sees a significant threat to its stability from rebel groups like the ONLF and al Shabab, the Muslim rebels who operate in neighboring Somalia. Addis Ababa believes it needs a tough law in order to deal with such threats.

These defenses have not stopped critics from questioning not only Ethiopia’s human rights record, but also the place Ethiopia holds in its allies’ and donors’ hearts. The Guardian writes, “Ethiopia doesn’t appear to be ticking the good governance boxes required of donors,” and suggests that Ethiopia could see its aid from some donors suspended, as recently happened with British aid to Malawi.

One question – which becomes more acute given the ongoing civil war in Somalia, where Ethiopia has repeatedly intervened – is whether the criticism Ethiopia catches for its domestic record will also target Ethiopia’s allies, including the United States. The US provides massive military and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, and supported Ethiopia’s occupation of Somalia from 2006 to 2009. Given the importance of Ethiopia to US efforts to fight terrorism in the Horn, will Ethiopia’s own “anti-terrorism” measures have reputational consequences for the US?