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Political crisis in Ethiopia and the risks of ripple effect humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa

Political crisis in Ethiopia and the risks of ripple effect humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa


By:Nick Ogutu

Refugee and Immigrant Rights Activist, Executive Director of Columbia University based Initiative, Safari Yangu Immigrant Stories, President, Amnesty International Bronx New York. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Nick Ogutu
Mr. Nick Ogutu

Ethiopia, with more than 100 million people, is the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria. It hosts the headquarters of the African Union and its geographical location makes it a strategic resource for the Western powers in their counterterrorism efforts. Ethiopia maintains very strong support from foreign donors despite its deteriorating human rights record (New York Times, 2016).

Ethiopia is currently under a state of emergency due to recent protests and violence. This violence has caused widespread internal displacement. In addition to its own internal turmoil, Ethiopia plays a crucial role in the region as a host of refugees itself. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, 2018), “Ethiopia is host to the second largest refugee population in Africa, with over 847,200 refugees from nineteen countries, the majority originating from neighboring South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan”. The political crisis in Ethiopia cannot, therefore, be told in isolation. Ethiopia is part of the Horn of Africa, the easternmost extension of African land, comprised of the countries mentioned above, and Kenya. These countries share a long history and many diverse communities live across the region. Due to political instability, the region has seen many conflicts and is very fragile. This article will examine the complex relationships between Ethiopia and its neighbors in order to understand the risks of a multi-country humanitarian and refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa.

The Ethiopia and Eritrea Conflict

Following many years of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea and at some point, involving Italy as well, Eritrea was formally recognized as an independent country after the 1993 referendum. Eritrea believes that Ethiopia is constructed of different nationalities that were forced together during the imperial scrambles for Africa, and is therefore held together with weak, artificial alliances. Therefore, the Eritrean opposition’s approach has been to conduct sharp, well directed military offenses in the hopes that Ethiopia will collapse. Hence, they identified south-eastern Ethiopia, inhibited by Ethiopians of Somali origin, as the weakest point of Ethiopia. For more than 30 years, escalation of conflict has continued along borders killing many people, displacing many people from their homes and adding to the regional refugee crisis (Axel Borchgrevink & Jon Harald Sande Lie, 2009).

The hostility between these countries has adversely affected the Somali communities that live along the common border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. According to a Human Rights Watch report (2018), the Somali region security forces’ intolerance for dissent by the Somali community extends beyond the border into Eritrean territory, targeting families with relatives across the border. Hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced since.

Ethiopia’s Long Border with Somalia & The Somali Diaspora
(Photo credit: Nick Ogutu) Ethiopia’s Long Border with Somalia & The Somali Diaspora

Somalia has almost one million citizens living in the diaspora, many of which are refugees and asylum seekers. Any conflict in Ethiopia would result in a grave situation in Somalia, given the long, unmarked border that Ethiopia and Somalia share. In fact, Ethiopian military has in the past crossed its southeastern border and intervened inside Somalia (New York Times, 2011)

Somalia is one of the most unstable countries in the region at the moment. Since the former president Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in a bloody civil war in 1991, Somalia has not had a stable government. Parts of the country have either seceded or are run by different warlords. Some militant groups like the Union of Islamic courts, which later evolved into the now infamous Al-Shabaab, have been labeled as terrorist organizations.

More than 10 peace conferences were held throughout the 1990s to address the sources of conflict and possibilities for peace in Somalia, but they were largely unsuccessful. (Axel Borchgrevink & Jon Harald Sande Lie, 2009). Since then, other efforts followed, and Somalia is now governed under the Federal Government of Somalia, a government which is not widely accepted and has faced constant opposition and threats from different militant groups. The fragile government is protected by the African peacekeeping forces, AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia).

Ethiopia’s southern Kenya Border & Regional Refugee Hosting Challenges

Kenya is one of the most stable countries in the region, with a diverse economy and vibrant democracy, civil society, and press. However, Kenya has faced its own human rights challenges. Just like Somalia, Kenya shares common ethnic and geographical similarities with Ethiopia. The upper eastern province of Kenya is predominantly Oromo and Somali ethnic populations, ethnic groups that also reside in Ethiopia and Somalia. Apart from the recently arrived refugees, many of the Oromo and Somali ethnic populations have lived in Kenyan for decades and are Kenyan citizens.

The Kenyan government has long supported the Ethiopian government, showing a blind eye to the human rights violations it is accused of.   Ethiopian refugees face so many challenges in Kenya. It takes months if not years to get official recognition as a refugee, a status you need to access any benefits from the host government or UNHCR (United National High Commission for Refugees). Kenya has an encampment policy, which requires refugees to stay in the camps at Dadaab and Kakuma. These camps presently also house refugees from Sudan and Somalia. The two camps are the biggest in the world and cannot accommodate any more refugees. Refugees in Kenya who choose to not stay in the camps faces arrest and prosecution by the Kenyan authorities. Amnesty International Annual report (2018), explains how the Ethiopian government has taken advantage of that loop-hole in Kenya refugee policy to harass their own citizens in Kenya. The Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi has recruited spies and bribed the Kenyan police to target the Oromo refugees in Nairobi and other cities (Human Rights Watch, 2018). Many of these refugees have been either killed, tortured, or deported back to Ethiopia.

Kenya has gone through its own internal economic and social challenges that have had negative effects on the refugee populations it hosts. The economy is shrinking, and the country is divided along tribal and regional lines due to political upheavals. For a number of years, Kenya has threatened to close down the refugee camps (UNHCR, 2015) and repatriate the refugees back to their countries of origin, citing security fears and the economic burden. Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps remain open only due to a court order and international pressure. UNHCR (2017) while urging the government to reconsider their decision, issued this statement, “UNHCR works closely with the Government of Kenya and we understand well the current regional security situation and the seriousness of the threats Kenya is facing. We also recognize the obligation of the government to ensure the security of its citizens and other people living in Kenya, including refugees.” Kenya is concerned about terror groups using refugee camps as recruitment centers, especially after the Garissa university terror attack (Kenya Daily Nation, 2017). The terror suspects were found to be operating from the Dadaab refugee camp.

Current Ethiopian Political Concerns

If the Ethiopian crisis escalates, it could spiral into a regional catastrophe affecting more than six countries. When the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his draft of reforms that included the release of thousands of political prisoners (Human Rights Watch, 2018), there was a sense of relief among civil society and the international community that finally the government was serious about addressing some of its political issues. However, his resignation weeks later shocked many, and the subsequent declaration of a state of emergency (Reuters, 2018). Some of the recently released prisoners have since been re-arrested (Amnesty International, 2018) and then released on bail, and many people live in fear.

Ethiopia Prime Minister
(Photo credit: Nick Ogutu: Ethiopia Prime Minister)

Since the state of emergency was declared in Ethiopia, almost one million Ethiopians have been internally displaced, and thousands have crossed the border into Kenya. Activists have also sounded the alarm on the rising incidences of rape and other gender-based violence, allegedly committed by the police and the military (Amnesty International, 2018). Last month’s election of the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, a former lieutenant-colonel in the army and the first Prime Minister from the Oromo community, has not definitely quelled any fears from the general public.

The Ethiopian situation is a time-bomb that the international community must take an active role in to ensure stability. With a population of over 100 million, the current refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa risks meeting the levels of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Iraq, and the Congo. With so much instability in the region, including the ongoing war in South Sudan, most of the countries neighboring Ethiopia are terrified.

There has been evidence of victims of slavery and human trafficking in Libya are refugees from the horn of Africa (The East African, 2018). Any further escalation of violence Ethiopia and instability in the region will push more refugees to attempt the already dangerous journey to Europe through North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.

Reforms Required: A Call to Action

The political opposition, civil society, and the press must be given a respected space and a voice in Ethiopian society to ensure transparent governance. The Ethiopian democratic space must be opened and widened as the political landscape is quickly shifting. It will have to accommodate the people’s demands, especially the most vulnerable such as displaced populations, if the current ruling party wants to govern equitably.

As a key western ally receiving billions of dollars from the U.S., U.K., Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada, the West must use that leverage for reforms before instability in Ethiopia have widespread repercussions across the region. All political prisoners should be released, responsive and representative government formed, end state of emergency, compensate victims of violence and perpetrators of crime to face justice.  Without these urgent reforms, unrest in the country could have a domino effect in what is an already volatile part of the African continent.

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The Deadly Scandal at NYCHA

The Deadly Scandal at NYCHA

By Robert Golomb


The United States  Declaration of Independence guarantees every American the “Right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Tell that to the more than four hundred thousand mostly poor and working- class tenants of New York City Housing Authority buildings, many of whom live in apartments containing dangerous levels of exposure to lead paint poisoning.

Such exposure, medical research has found, can cause severe medical problems across all age groups. A woman’s exposure to lead paint during pregnancy has been proven to be among the greatest risk factors for the premature birth of their newborns; a child’s exposure to lead paint poisoning from their infancy to the age of 6 has been shown to be linked to lower mental and  physical development and impulse control problems,  sometimes leading later to failure in school and even violent criminal activity;  an adult’s exposure to it increases the chances that he or she will suffer from high blood pressure, joint and muscle discomfort and memory loss.  For people of all ages, extremely high levels of such exposure can result in death.

This, though, is far from a new problem, for the dangers associated with lead paint poisoning exposure for people residing in all public as well as private housing units built prior to 1978 (the year that the use of lead paint, the most common cause of lead poisoning, became prohibited by federal law in all newly built private and public housing) have been known by physicians, other health care providers and scientific researchers for years prior to 1978.

However, there had been few reported public outcries blaming elected officials or their appointed health and housing commissioners for not solving the problem. Rather, most were seemingly given the benefit of the doubt by the media and the public, which, realizing that most public housing units were built before 1978, viewed lead paint poisoning as a health concern, rather than as a political issue.

Yet, as was documented in an 80- page complaint which was issued recently by the United States Attorney of the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman against the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), there is sadly a highly political component intertwined with the health issue of exposure to lead paint poisoning.  Politics, of course, is not a vice, and many politicians are virtuous. But as Berman made clear in his report, which came after a 2- year investigation, the political environment surrounding the running of the NYCHA under the watch of both the current Mayor Bill de Blasio and his predecessor Michael Bloomberg became a breeding ground for deception and corruption.

That deception and corruption, detailed by Berman in the complaint, involved a systematic scheme in which NYCHA officials actually instructed their staff on how to hide signs of lead paint exposure from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) investigators during their yearly inspections of city public housing sites. More disheartening still, as Berman was aware from the outset of the investigation, this scandal actually went to the top of NYCHA chain of command- to now former NYCHA chairwoman, Shola Olatoye.

Appointed to her position by Mayor de Blasio 4 years ago, Olatoye had prior to 2016 been the subject of an investigation from the New York City Department of Investigation (DOJ), which later formed the basis of Berman’s federal complaint.  The DOJ investigation culminated this past April with a report that found that Olatoye had on several occasions issued false reports to HUD, citing dates and times of NYCHA inspections, while knowing such purported inspections had never occurred. It came as little surprise, but no help to the tenants who were the victims of her deceit, that she resigned from her position at NYCHA shortly following the release of the DOJ report. It did come as a surprise to many NYCHA tenants and some in media that Mayor de Blasio refused to acknowledge the harm that she had caused to the residents of NYCHA by falsifying reports about lead inspections.  But the lies did not end here.

The plot to deceive federal inspectors, Berman also found, was not restricted to covering up lead paint exposure which is the most lethal, but far from the only health hazard faced by families living in public housing.  He discovered that through a “Quick Fix Tips” list they covertly developed, NYCHA officials instructed their managers, mechanics and other staff on how to hide other serious health and safety related hazards-  including roach and rodent infestations, infectious molds, malfunctioning elevators, water leaks and heating outages- from federal housing inspectors.

Fortunately for the beleaguered tenants of the NYCHA, the daily ordeal of living under these horrid conditions appears to have ended along with the corruption that caused it.  With Berman’s report staring them in the face, NYCHA officials had no option but to accept responsibility for their unspeakable conduct and agree to sign a federal consent decree as part of a legal settlement with the federal government.  Losing their former autonomy over public housing, NYCHA will now under the provisions of the decree have to answer to a court appointed monitor. With that, the days of NYCHA tenants being deprived of basic services due to false reporting by NYCHA officials have seemingly ended.

NYC tenants will also benefit from the financial obligation that the decree placed on New York City, separate and apart from NYCHA.  Found by Berman to be critically underfunding public housing, NYC under the decree must allocate from the city’s budget an additional $ 2.2 billion dollars to NYCHA- a believed significant but undisclosed amount of which will go to pay for the damages awarded to 19 children who incurred serious medical damage due to their exposure to lead poisoning.  NYCHA also agreed to pay $ 200 million for a minimum of one year after. With that, the days of NYCHA tenants being deprived of basic services due to the frugality of the NYC government elected officials have seemingly ended.

Still the harm already suffered by many tenants cannot be undone. The monetary settlement given to the 19 children who were the victims of lead paint poisoning cannot, of course, restore  their health to them.  And tragically they might well be just a small percentage of the actual number of the victims.  According to the finding of Berman’s investigation, there are likely to be many more children suffering from exposure to lead paint poison who remain undiagnosed because, due to the cover up of NYCHA officials, they were never tested for it.

If somehow these officials who perpetuated this horrible deceit are still able to sleep at night, that might end if Berman, as he suggested he is considering, files criminal charges against them.

There are two reasons why Mayor de Blasio, who has a long record of missing public events due to oversleeping, has probably not allowed the harm caused to these children to interfere with his own sleep.  For one, he knows that he himself does not face criminal charges concerning the scandals at NYCHA, for indifference to the suffering of the citizens he swore to serve is not a crime.

Secondly, de Blasio has seemingly exonerated himself from his own moral and political responsibility in this scandal, instead placing the blame on the state and federal governments for what he claimed were their “decades of divestments” in the NYCHA.  However, upon hearing de Blasio’s claims, Berman responded that it was not the feds or the state who bore the blame but rather the cause was that NYCHA was “a dysfunctional operation … fundamentally flawed and engaged in a culture of false statements and concealment.”

Thankfully for the good men, women and children living in NYCHA buildings, Geoffrey Berman has finally ended that sorrowful culture.

The Deadly Scandal at NYCHA



Robert Golomb is a nationally and internationally published columnist. Mail him at and follow him on Twitter@RobertGolomb