The Ethiopian government has warned that al-Shabaab could target Ethiopia next. What could this mean for relations between Ethiopians and the country's Somali minority?
ARTICLE | 20 NOVEMBER 2013 - 2:13PM | BY BENNO MUCHLER
Jemo, a predominantly Somali neighbourhood on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Photograph by Benno Muchler.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:
In early November, Ethiopia's state broadcaster, ETV, warned the public of attacks by the Somali Islamist militants al-Shabaab. The message was a joint statement by the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the federal police: “There is strong evidence that indicates al-Shabaab and terrorist groups backed by Eritrea are preparing to carry out attacks in Addis Ababa and other areas of the country soon,” it said. Citizens should report suspicious activities to the police, and hotels and landlords should check the identity of visitors and subtenants, it warned.
The televised statement has contributed to growing suspicion of Ethiopia's Somali population, Ethiopians from the Somali region of the country known as the Ogaden and a large number of Somali refugees from neighbouring Somalia. It has added to people's fear of attack following recent events and many Somalis no longer feel safe.
A month ago, Ethiopian government officials said two suicide bombers of Somali origin had tried to carry out a major assault in Addis Ababa. The government claims that the plot could have led to a similar catastrophe as in Nairobi where al-Shabaab gunmen killed 67 people during an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in September. However, the men's bomb exploded too early and killed only them, in a house in a Somali neighbourhood of Addis Ababa. In 2009, the Ethiopian government passed broad anti-terrorism legislation, which also restricts freedom of the press, following a bomb attack on an Ethiopian trade mission in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
Accounting for 6% of Ethiopia’s 80 million population, Somalis are a significant minority in the country. Almost the entire east of Ethiopia, the so-called Ogaden, is inhabited by ethnic Somalis and has been contested by the Somali population and Ethiopian government for decades. To date, a rebel group continues to fight for the autonomy of the region.
Yonas Gemede, a 25-year-old student, stands in Bole Michael, the district where the attackers were reported to have planned their attack. Behind him, trucks and excavators drive up and down an unpaved road. After renovating the city's main road, a new bridge is to cross the highway in this area. “When I'm around a Somali person who I don't know, I get suspicious,” he says in Amharic, Ethiopia's national language. “And I'm not the only person who feels this way.”
Tewodros Telahun, a 30-year-old cab driver, waits for customers in front of his blue Lada, which is ten years old than he is. “The only reason why the Somalis don't get kicked out of Ethiopia is the money they get from outside,” he remarks, referring to the remittances Somalis receive from relatives abroad.
Some hundred meters up the road, an Ethiopian woman says goodbye to a friend at the gate of her house. “When we see a Somali who looks suspicious, we directly inform the police,” she says, but refuses to give her name. She says she is deeply worried that al-Shabaab will hit Addis Ababa.
The alleged attack a month ago was reminiscent of events in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010 when al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for killing 74 people in two bomb attacks targeting crowds watching the football World Cup final. In Addis Ababa, investigators claim they found the jerseys of Ethiopia's national football team, suggesting that the men may have planned to detonate their explosive belts whilst surrounded by thousands of people watching Ethiopia's World Cup qualifier match against Nigeria on Addis Ababa's streets.
Ever since US-backed Ethiopian troops invaded neighbouring Somalia in 2006 to drive out the ruling Islamic Court Union, the remnants from which al-Shabaab emerged, Ethiopia has been threatened with retaliatory attacks – so far without success.
On this note, Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia's Minister of Information, says he believes Ethiopia's security measures are already very effective. But in light of the failed bombing, he insists that close cooperation with the public must be a new security priority. “The populace has to participate in securing its own safety,” he says. “So, we now have this community policing. And every city and every community has to organise itself and be always on the lookout for anything wrong that could happen.”
Redwan tries to make clear however that no-one should mistrust Ethiopia's Somali population as a whole. “They're enjoying a peaceful life here,” he says. “They don't want to destabilise and deny this privilege that they have been enjoying in Ethiopia. They will never be a hub for any destabilising factor of al-Shabaab.”
However, back in Bole Michael, 32-year-old Isayas Wendemo, a driver for a consulting firm, is worried about the future relations between Somalis and Ethiopians. “The threat has been born in our minds,” he says. “I don't expect the relations to go back to what they used to be.”
Wade Seyou, 65, who works as a waitress in a Korean restaurant, shares Wendemo’s concern, but adds, “Yes, I'm afraid of attacks, but we have no problem with the community and are not suspicious of our Somali neighbours."
Jemo is another neighbourhood where many Somali refugees and Ethiopian Somalis live next door to Ethiopians, here in dozens of yellow public condominiums. On this rainy morning, young Ethiopian women wrap their hair in plastic bags, protecting it against the rain, while two Somali women, covered in colourful shawls, are chatting on the pavement.
Khadija Omar, 50, runs a grocery shop where she sells eggs, matches and twigs used for cleaning teeth. She says she fled from Somalia twelve years ago, first living in Saudi Arabia before coming to Ethiopia four years ago. She says she does not believe that Ethiopians suspect her and other Somalis of being terrorists. “We did nothing, so how can they suspect us?” she asks. However, Omar and other Somalis say the police checked their IDs after the attack and that a community leader in Jemo asked all non-Ethiopian Somalis to register for a new community ID card.
Inside a shop sits Mohamed Ahmed. The 55-year-old, wearing a prayer cap, sandals and a traditional green skirt for Somali men, is a refugee from Mogadishu. Four days ago, when he wanted to pay his 1,800 Birr ($90) rent for his flat, his Ethiopian landlords told him he had to move out by the end of the month. “They said I have to leave because I'm Somali,” he says. He has been looking for a new room in Jemo, but has been refused several times. He says the same thing has happened to Ethiopian Somalis.
33-year-old Mouna Ali is an Ethiopian Somali from Dire Dawa, Ethiopia's second city. “The attack created a problem because people who now want to rent a home are suspected,” she says. “Of course I'm afraid of attacks. I don't want that kind of killing in Ethiopia. I want to sleep well, I want to eat well.” Will suspicion of Somalis in Ethiopia grow? “God knows,” she says.
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