Long-distance runner Feyisa Lilesa won silver in an exciting race at the Rio Olympics and then used the opportunity to show his support for the protests against the Ethiopian government’s privatisation of certain areas of land, and plans to expand the area of the capital Addis Ababa further into Oromo land.
By Alemayehu G. Mariam
What exactly is the message the U.S. and the U.K. governments are communicating by issuing travel warnings in Ethiopia? On the surface, a travel warning is just that. But does it signify something deeper about U.S./U.K. perceptions of the political situation in the country? Is there a hidden message buried in the warnings?
Time was tourists flocked to Ethiopia in search of the “Land of 13-Months of Sunshine” and adventure. Ziggy Marley, son of the late great reggae king Bob Marley, even wrote a song about it:
13 Months of Sunshine/Is what we got/Take us to, take us to, take us to that land/Who shall ascend the hill/Stand in that holy place/Lift up your heads/
O ancient gates/13 Months of Sunshine/Is what she got/Forward to, Forward to , Forward to that land/Where the water run (free)/We want to be
In 2017, the song heard from the U.S. of A and the U.K. is, “Get away, begone from that Land!”
For the past quarter of a century, Ethiopia has become “Land of 13 Months of Darkness” under the corrupt tyrannical rule of the Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF). Some 400 thousand Ethiopians have fled to Saudi Arabia alone, the vast majority are “undocumented”. Millions of others scattered throughout the world. Ethiopians are leaving their country by sea, land and air to escape oppression, injustice, brutality, abuse, persecution and the indignity of second class citizenship under T-TPLF rule. They cry out, “Take us out of the Land of 13-Months of Darkness because we can’t breathe with T-TPLF boots on our necks”.
Now the governments of the U.S. and U.K. are advising their citizens, in no uncertain terms but with diplomatic delicacy, “Avoid Ethiopia like the plague! If you travel to Ethiopia and get in a jam, and the likelihood of getting jammed is high, you are on your own. Don’t call us because you can’t. Normal communications are shut down. We can’t help you.”
On June 13, the U.S. State Department issued a “Travel Warning” advising,
U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Ethiopia due to the potential for civil unrest and arbitrary detention since a state of emergency was imposed in October 2016. The Government of Ethiopia extended the state of emergency on March 15, 2017, and there continue to be reports of unrest, particularly in Gondar and Bahir Dar in Amhara State. This replaces the Travel Warning of December 6, 2016…
The Government of Ethiopia routinely restricts or shuts downs internet, cellular data, and phone services, impeding the U.S. Embassy’s ability to communicate with U.S. citizens in Ethiopia and limiting the Embassy’s ability to provide consular services. Additionally, the Government of Ethiopia does not inform the U.S. Embassy of detentions or arrests of U.S. citizens in Ethiopia… (Emphasis added.)
What exactly does this travel warning mean?
The U.S. issues two types of travel notices. A “travel warning” is issued when U.S. officials recognize the existence of a high risk situation to personal safety and seek to urge U.S. citizens “to consider very carefully whether they should go to a country at all.” Such a warning is issued when there is “unstable government, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, or frequent terrorist attacks”; and “remains in place until the situation changes; some have been in effect for years.”
A “Travel Alert” is issued “for short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country”, often because the destination country is experiencing “strikes, demonstrations, disturbances, health issues or an elevated risk of terrorist attacks.”
On June 13, the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office also issued a travel warning advising its citizens to prepare their own “alternative communication plans when travelling in Ethiopia”. The warning strongly advises against travel to a number of locations in the country, including the “Bole area (in the capital) at night and in more secluded areas, such as the Entoto Hills” because of “incidents of violent assaults”. The warning urges against any travel in the “Amhara”, “Somali”, “Gambella” and other regions.
On June 13, the T-TPLF announced the launch of its “e-visa service” (electronic travel authorization for international visitors) for travelers to Ethiopia effective June 12, 2017.” The service is alleged to be “part of a new national initiative to transform the tourism sector in the country.”
How cleverly convenient?! Vintage T-TPLF. They love one-upmanship, trying to stay one step ahead in the game and do an end run to score a touchdown.
Of course, the T-TPLF was notified in advance of the travel warning by the U.S and the U.K. officials. The T-TPLF guys just could not resist the opportunity to stick it in the face of Uncle Sam and John Bull by announcing that visitors can just cyber-walk (cakewalk) their way into Ethiopia, travel warning or no.
There have been previous U.S. travel warnings in Ethiopia.
In December 2016, the State Department issued a “Travel Alert”, set to expire in February 2017, informing “U.S. citizens of the risks of traveling in certain regions of Ethiopia due to anti-government protests, some of which have involved violence.”
In May 2015, the State Department issued a “Travel Alert”, with an expiration date of June 30, notifying “U.S. citizens residing in or traveling to Ethiopia of the upcoming elections scheduled for May 24, 2015.”
In April 2010, the State Department issued a “Travel Alert”, set to expire in July 2010, informing “U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Ethiopia before and after national parliamentary elections scheduled for May 23, 2010.”
For the first time, the U.S. issued a “Travel Warning” in June 2017.
Tourism in Ethiopia went to the dogs after the T-TPLF declared a state of emergency in October 2016
According to data cooked in the kitchens of T-TPLF tourism office, statistical agency and central banks and smoothly massaged and craftily laundered through the World Bank, (I did not say Bankrupt), the International Monetary Fund, tour operators, travel agents and others, Ethiopia has been on a steep trajectory of massive increases in tourism.
2006 330,000 2007 358,000
2008 383,000 2009 427,000
2010 468,000 2011 523,000
2012 597,000 2013 681,000
2014 770,000 2015 864,000
The T-TPLF alleges Ethiopia earned over $5.6 billion from tourism activities in 2016 with over 800, 000 tourists. By November 2016, tourism had dropped by 100,000. Yet, the “Ministry of Culture and Tourism hopes to increase the number of tourists to one million and the revenue to well over $29.8 billion in 2017.”
From $5.6 billion to $29.8 billion in one year! Such a thing can only happen on Planet T-TPLF (nom de terre Thugistan).
Over the past year, tourism in Ethiopia has nosedived.
Estimates vary but tourists are staying away from that country in droves, possibly by the hundreds of thousands. Travel alerts and warnings issued by the State Department are making Americans planning to travel in Ethiopia skittish. There is substantial anecdotal evidence of trip cancellations, changes in travel plans, re-routings to other African destinations and travel postponements by American citizens. Informed American travelers believe it is too dangerous and highly risky to travel to Ethiopia and check out the usual historic tourist spots. To complicate things and make matters even worse, the T-TPLF has turned back upon arrival at Bole airport a number of Ethiopian Americans whom it suspects or believes are its opponents.
The impact of a dried up tourism industry on the local services economy has been devastating.
A story in Addis Standard in March stated that tour businesses were reporting cancellations of “more than 95% of the bookings for the high season.” One tour operator complained, “But there are no tourists now and we can’t even rent the cars to business tourists coming to Addis Abeba. We don’t know what to do. We are just paying rent, maintaining a small staff and hoping for the best at the moment. Most of their clients come from abroad after communicating with them via the internet, guide, says he is now considering a change in career.” The operator added, “Last year at this time, I worked at least 4 days a week. Now getting tourism work has become very difficult. Some of my friends have started working as taxi drivers. At this point, we don’t know what is going to happen next and that is scary.” Many tour guides are also changing professions and looking for other non-tourism related work.
The T-TPLF has sought to drum up tourism by participating in tourism fairs and exhibitions and conducting “workshops” for travel agents and tour operators in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and other cities. They have also launched tourism web-marketing under the tagline “Land of Origins” in apparent reference to Ethiopia as the “origin of mankind” and of the “Blue Nile”. None of the public relations efforts have worked. Tourists are staying away.
The collapse of tourism appears to have been blamed on the former chief executive officer (CEO) of “Ethiopian Tourism Organization” (ETO) who has been in office since 2014. According to a recent report in the Ethiopian Observer, the CEO was appointed “to promote the country’s tourist destinations and to restore the country’s bad image in the western media.” But, “Last year after a wave of anti-government protests in Oromia and Amhara regions, and the government’s move in declaring state of emergency,… the number of foreign tourists visiting the country has fallen by half. The inflow of European tourists fell dramatically due to travel restrictions and sales of travel packages.”
Leo Tolstoy observed, “It’s too easy to criticize a man when he’s out of favor, and to make him shoulder the blame for everybody else’s mistakes.”
The decline in tourism has also impacted the availability of foreign currency. Tourism contributes significantly to the country’s foreign currency supply which is used to finance imports (I did not say imports of luxury cars, designer clothes and fancy construction supplies for T-TPLF bosses and cronies). The black market for greenbacks and Euros is said to be sizzling hot. Word on the street is that one U.S. dollars could fetch up to 31 T-TPLF birr, especially if the conversion amount is over $1 thousand.
The IMF says the birr is overvalued, which among other things, makes exports relatively more expensive, dampens domestic demand and increases spending on imports. With declining exports (in 2011, Ethiopia allegedly exported nearly $870 million worth of commodities compared to barely $600 million in 2016), chronic shortages of hard currency, an insatiable demand for imports (imports in Ethiopia increased to $4.2 billion in the third quarter of 2016 and averaged $2.7 billion from 2006 until 2016), widening trade deficit ($3.2 billion in 2016), crushing foreign debt (nearly $40 billion in 2016 representing 54.8 percent of GDP), the Ethiopian economy is spiraling downward as average Ethiopians drown in a morass of a mismanaged economy.
Two weeks ago, “the Auditor General’s latest report” to the “Parliament” “revealed illegitimate transactions close to 20 billion Br in 158 federal institutions during the past fiscal year.
A pariah among nations?
What exactly is the message the U.S. and the U.K. governments are communicating by issuing travel warnings in Ethiopia?
On the surface, a travel warning is just that, but does it signify something deeper about U.S./UK perceptions of the political situation in the country? Is there a hidden message buried in the warnings?
Reading between the lines, there is little question that the U.S. and U.K. governments have concluded there will be no end to the political turmoil in Ethiopia which remains barely contained by a state of emergency decree which authorizes illegal mass arrests and incarcerations and use of live fire on protests including peaceful ones. It is clear to both the U.S. and the U.K. that T-TPLF has no legitimacy whatsoever in the eyes of the vast majority of the Ethiopian population. They know the T-TPLF is sitting atop an ethnic powder keg connected to a slow burning fuse fast approaching the loaded barrel. The T-TPLF barely hangs on to power because it has minimal control over the military. However, the military is highly fragmented along ethnic lines. Nearly all of the military brass are ethnically affiliated with T-TPLF regime leaders. The vast majority of the rank and file are members of other ethnic groups.
The U.S. warning speaks about the “unpredictability” and state of “unrest” “particularly in Gondar and Bahir Dar in Amhara State”. The U.K. warning concurs. That fact is corroborated by substantial anecdotal evidence of individuals who have visited those areas in the recent past. The areas mentioned in “Amhara State” are now self-administering. There is little doubt that the T-TPLF has lost complete political and military control in a number of areas throughout the country. Just a few days ago, the T-TPLF sent a contingent of troops to suppress resistance in the Arba Minch and Gamu Gofa areas some 500 km south of the Ethiopian capital.
The U.S. perceives a direct relationship between the “state of emergency and the unpredictable security situation” in Ethiopia in urging its citizens to avoid travel to Ethiopia. The U.S. understands that the T-TPLF would not have resorted to a “state of emergency” unless it believed it was facing a clear and imminent existential threat. There is little question that there currently exists a vast groundswell of opposition to T-TPLF rule. The T-TPLF claims “protests and demonstrations” against its rule are limited to a few isolated areas remotely managed by overseas opposition groups. That is inconsistent with the fact that the T-TPLF issued a nationwide state of emergency. For the T-TPLF to impose a nationwide state of emergency decree, it must necessarily believe there is broad and deep resistance to its tyrannical rule throughout the nation.
The U.S. is manifestly disapproving of the means the T-TPLF is using to impose its will on the vast majority of the Ethiopian population and its excessive and indiscriminate use of violence on peaceful protesters. The U.S. is communicating its disapproval in its advisory language underscoring the fact that there is “widespread arbitrary arrests and detentions throughout the country” and the intentional failure of the T-TPLF to “notify the U.S. Embassy of detentions or arrests of U.S. citizens in Ethiopia.”
The U.S. expects notification of arrest of its citizens abroad within 24-72 hours. But the T-TPLF does not honor such diplomatic courtesy. There was a time when such reporting was required (Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations between the United States of America and Ethiopia, Sept. 7, 1951, art. 6(2) (entered into force Oct. 8, 1953). Art. 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (1963) also provides for consular communication and contact with nationals of a foreign state when arrested in the host country.
Of course, legal obligations mean nothing to the T-TPLF ignoramuses who have absolutely no regard for the rule of constitutional and international law. As I have often remarked, preaching the rule of (international) law to the T-TPLF is like sermonizing Scripture to Heathen or pouring water over a slab of granite. It is a complete and total exercise in futility!
The U.S. Congress is righteously indignant about the T-TPLF’s “use of force and live fire in response to demonstrations” and on “peaceful gatherings”. In February, Representative Christopher Smith introduced H.R. 128 condemning the use of excessive violence and to “support respect for human rights and encourage inclusive governance” in Ethiopia. In May, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced S.R. 168, co-sponsored by 14 senators, which mirrors the House version. I discussed these bills in my May 29 op-ed piece in The Hill.
The T-TPLF’s “disruptions” of communication throughout the country by “routinely restricting or shutting down internet, cellular data, and phone services” are a sore point for the U.S. and the U.K. In its annual human rights report for 2016, the State department expressed its disapproval of the “Ethiopian government’s shut down of mobile access to the internet, wired access to several social media and communication sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber, news websites such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, and many other sites, including foreign university homepages and online shopping sites such as Amazon.”
My informed conclusion is that it is highly unlikely that the T-TPLF will make a monkey out of the Trump Administration. I cannot imagine the T-TPLF wrapping the Trump Administration around its little fingers as they did the Obama Administration.
I do not doubt that the T-TPLF leaders believe they are so crafty and clever that they could outfox, outmaneuver and outsmart Trump and his administration any day of the week. Why else would they take hire a $2 million dollars from the mouths of starving Ethiopian babies and feed the voracious appetite of a Washington lobby firm in January unless they believed they can make a patsy of the Trump Administration?
I believe the Trump Administration has given some consideration to the points I raised in my letter to Trump dated February 3, 2017 and other follow-up communications.
President Trump is the object of savage criticism for his “America First” foreign policy”. During the presidential campaign, I was one of his harshest critics on a variety of issues. On the issue of human rights and cuts in U.S. aid to dictatorships, I agree with him completely.
As I defended U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley in my op-ed piece in The Hill last week, the Trump Administration is right in its decision (yet to be implemented) to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council than be part of an organization that is run by the some of the world’s notorious human rights violators, including Ethiopia. Haley was absolutely right when she declared, “Being a member of this council is a privilege, and no country who is a human rights violator should be allowed a seat at the table.” Haley had the courage to stand up and tell dictators to shape up or ship out.
I am so glad that Nikki Haley is no Susan Rice, Obama’s Ambassador to the U.N. In 2012, Rice canonized the late Meles Zenawi, the ruthless and bloodthirsty genocider, as “brilliant and a son of Ethiopia and a father to its rebirth.”
Rice has never been able to tell the difference between the death and rebirth of a nation in Ethiopia, Rwanda or anywhere else. There has never been a murderous African dictator Susan Rice did not madly love.
The question is “not to be or not to be”. The question is who is on the wrong side of history on the issue of human rights? Obama or Trump?!
Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is “focused on American interests and American national security”, not about the feeding and care of savage African dictators or making excuses for the mess they have created. It is about “withdrawing” from messy entanglements that cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars. It is about accountability and not giving handouts and free money to African dictators who stash it in their offshore accounts.
The Obama Administration prolonged the political life of the T-TPLF with infusion of massive amounts of American tax dollars. It is unlikely that Trump will dump hard-earned American tax dollars to prop up a bloodthirsty thugtatorship; and will certainly not buy the “terrorism partnership” scam of the T-TPLF.
I believe the Trump Administration has concluded that things in Ethiopia have gone beyond a point of no return when the T-TPLF renewed its state of emergency in March. No doubt, the T-TPLF will continue to renew its emergency decree until it is removed from power.
When that time comes, que sera, sera (“what will be, will be”)!
PROFESSOR ALEMAYEHU G. MARIAM teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino. This article previously appeared on his website.
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