Lines of taxicabs were parked along Fairmount Avenue in City Heights yesterday afternoon–Sunday April 28. Police cars were parked in front of the Golden Hall East African Community and Cultural Center where approximately sixty people were holding a protest that spilled into the adjacent parking lot. Signs with “Stop Human Rights Abuses” were visible among the group waving Ethiopian and American flags.
According to protesters, the Ethiopian Consulate from Los Angeles was barricaded inside the cultural center with an undetermined number of members of the San Diego and Los Angeles Ethiopian Community. The Consulate was attending a widely publicized meeting to promote the purchase of bonds to build a controversial dam in Ethiopia that threatens the livelihood of thousands of indigenous peoples.
Protesters maintained that flyers advertising the meeting had been left in City Heights Ethiopian markets and restaurants. One woman told me that when the protesting group entered the cultural center they were met with invectives, hostility and intimidation before being dispersed from the meeting which had been publicized as open to the public.
Protesters were anxious to describe the current conditions in Ethiopia under a government led by the minority Tigray tribe. Someone handed me the 2012 US State Department Human Rights Watch which detailed the Ethiopian government suppression of journalists and bloggers and the alarming incidences of imprisonment and torture. There is no independent press in Ethiopia and dissenting political views are often treated as “terrorism.”
The enormous dam under construction in Ethiopia, undertaken by the current government/Tigray minority, has become a flash point for inter-tribal tensions. The protesters represented non-Tigray ethnic and tribal groups who described being left out of the dam planning process, despite the profound impacts it would have upon their villages.
Because the funding for the dam has not been fully secured, the government has demanded that the populace pay directly for the needed bonds. Protesters described the pressure brought to bear on businesses and individuals to make “donations” for the bonds. Protesters that I spoke with emphasized that dissenters are imprisoned under horrendous conditions. “We have freedom here in this country, but our families have no such freedom,” was repeated by men and women holding both the American and Ethiopian flags.
According to the Ethiopian Review, “The Ethiopian National Transitional Council (ENT) has sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) demanding an investigation into the legality of the Nile dam bond sales that are being conducted in the US. The letter challenges the commission that the sales are in violation of the US trade laws and the Ethiopian Embassy in the US has no legal ground to do such business. ”
There were a few signs protesting the World Bank decision to fund the dam project. I asked protesters what response they feel is important from the US government. Many of them said that we cannot keep supporting the Ethiopian government politically and economically when we have reports outlining the extent and severity of human rights abuses there. They supported sanctions, if necessary, to pressure the government as well as a full fledged investigation of the legality of the bond process being carried out here in the United States.
While the protesters included activists from Los Angeles, the majority of the people were residents of San Diego, and more specifically City Heights, where so many taxicab drivers and their families live. Cars driving past honked their horns in support. At one point, parishioners from a local Ethiopian church joined the group. Protesters described a tradition of Muslims and Christians living side by side in Ethiopia. They emphasized that the protest was not a reflection of religious divisions. No one spoke about the Ethiopian government’s recent active persecution of Muslims.
Human Rights Watch describes the current situation in Ethiopia:
The death in August 2012 of Ethiopia’s powerful prime minister, Meles Zenawi, led to new leadership but seems unlikely to result in tangible human rights reforms. Ethiopian authorities continue to severely restrict freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Thirty journalists and opposition members have been convicted under the country’s vague Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, and security forces responded to protests by Muslim communities with excessive force and arbitrary detentions. The Ethiopian government continues to forcibly resettle hundreds of thousands of rural villagers, including indigenous peoples, as part of its “villagization” program, relocating them through violence and intimidation, and often without essential services.
There is perhaps an even larger story to consider here. The dam constructed in Ethiopia will have consequences upon another eleven countries which rely heavily upon the Nile for agriculture, fishing and electrical power. This raises the obvious concern that the next war in the region may not be about politics at all. It will be about water.
Photos by Richard Kacmar
Update 4/29/13: Photos, commentary and youtube from Ethiopian Review
Editor’s Postscript: Getting it Right 4/29/13:
I am neither Ethiopian nor a cabdriver. I live in the community of City Heights a few blocks away from where the protest took place. I simply wanted to know what was going on, got out of the car and asked. As a San Diego Free Press writer, I wanted to provide documentation of an event that probably would not receive coverage in the local media outlets. We are all about community news.
I would like to add a few notes of clarification for readers. Sunday’s protest were directed at the Los Angeles Consulate’s involvement in selling bonds for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Hydropower Dam Project on the Nile river. The Nile basin includes Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan and Egypt. The impact of Ethiopian dams is clearly not limited to Ethiopia.
Various treaties have been initiated since 1891 when Britain concluded agreements on the use and control of the Nile. The Renaissance Dam project is complicated, affecting eleven countries and 160 million human beings who are dependent upon the Nile for agriculture, fishing, hydro-electric power and drinking water. According to the Global Health and Education Foundation“… current water supplies are barely adequate, and demand will only grow as the basin’s population is projected to double during the next 25 years.”
The Renaissance Dam project is also complicated within Ethiopia. The Meles Zinawe government also began construction of a dam on the Omo river, which is wholly within Ethiopia- ie not part of the Nile. The Guardian articles cited at the beginning of my article refer to that particular dam and the impacts of its construction on Ethiopia’s indigenous peoples and neighboring Kenya. And those articles also raised the issues of government suppression of dissent and lack of local input and control of the project.
The protesters on Sunday were raising the issue of human rights abuses in Ethiopia, many of which are tied to civilian responses to the construction of the country’s hydro-electric dams. For the protesters, the Renaissance Dam Project and human rights abuses are clearly inseparable.
The initial article has been read by people with IP addresses in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Canada, United Kingdom, Sweden, Kenya, Germany and Switzerland as well as throughout the US. This international readership no doubt reflects the Ethiopian Diaspora throughout the world, the complexity of the issues, and yes–the high stakes involved. My Ethiopian neighbors in City Heights and the larger Ethiopian community felt it was important to voice their opinion in their new homeland here, which they praise for permitting freedom of speech and assembly. I have done my best to listen and understand.