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by Robbie Corey-Boulet
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vow this week to head for the front lines of his country’s brutal year-long war has boosted recruitment for the beleaguered armed forces.
At least one prominent distance runner — marathoner and Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lelisa — has joined thousands of ordinary Ethiopians keen to follow Abiy’s lead.
World powers have voiced alarm about a military escalation that could scuttle efforts to broker a ceasefire, as rebels claim they are advancing towards the capital Addis Ababa and foreign governments tell their citizens to leave.
On Wednesday hundreds of new army recruits took part in a ceremony held in their honour in the Kolfe district of Addis Ababa.
As officials corralled sheep and oxen into trucks bound for the north, the recruits broke into patriotic songs and chants.
“I was amazed when I heard” Abiy planned to join soldiers in the field, one of the recruits, 42-year-old driver Tesfaye Sherefa, told AFP.
“When a leader leaves his chair… and his throne it is to rescue his country. His focus is not to live, but to rescue this country, and I sobbed when he said ‘follow me’ and went to the front line.”
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Abiy announced on Monday night his plan “to lead the defence forces” from the front, but officials and state media have not provided details on his movements since then.
The recruits in Kolfe nevertheless took his statement to heart, sporting T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Abiy in uniform and the words “We have a historic responsibility to defend the free name of Ethiopia.”
“I feel proud and I stand with him,” 25-year-old Esubalew Wale, another recruit, told AFP.
- ‘Great opportunity’ –
Ethiopia’s war erupted in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into the northernmost Tigray region to topple its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The 2019 Nobel Peace laureate said the move was in response to TPLF attacks on federal army camps and promised a swift victory, but by late June the rebels had retaken most of Tigray including its capital Mekele.
Since then the TPLF has pushed into neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, and this week it claimed to have seized a town just 220 kilometres (135 miles) from the capital.
Feyisa, the distance runner, told state media the rebels’ advance presented “a great opportunity” to defend the country.
The marathoner gained political prominence by raising and crossing his arms as he finished the marathon at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — a gesture of solidarity with fellow ethnic Oromos killed while protesting abuses committed during nearly three decades of TPLF rule.
In the state media interview which aired Wednesday, Feyisa said he would relish the chance to fight the TPLF himself.
“When a country is violated, there is no way I will stand by and just watch,” he said.
A separate state media report quoted Ethiopia’s most famous distance-running champion, Haile Gebreselassie, as saying he, too, would fight at the front.
But footage of the interview did not air and AFP could not independently verify it.
© Agence France-Presse. All rights are reserved.
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Notes from APS Radio News
According to Finnian Cunningham, a former editor and writer for major news organizations, through the auspices of USAID, US Agency for International Development, the US’ World News
involvement in Ethiopia is an indication of intervention in that country’s conflict, even as intervention appears to be in the form of humanitarian assistance. Online News
Abiy launched military operations in Tigray in November 2020 after he accused local authorities of attacking a military camp and attempting to loot military assets. The TPLF
denied the charge and accused Abiy of concocting the story to justify the offensive.
The region is in the mountainous north-west corner of Ethiopia, and borders Eritrea and Sudan. There are about 7 million inhabitants, out of a total Ethiopian population of
110 million, but the region has played an outsized role in the country’s recent history.
Tigrayans have a history of military success. They spearheaded the rebel march to Addis Ababa that ousted a Marxist regime in 1991 and bore the brunt of a 1998-2000 war with
Eritrea, during which hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Their region’s rough terrain is ideal for guerilla-type warfare with local knowledge and support.
Diplomatic efforts to try to avert an attack on Addis Ababa gathered pace this week with a visit to the city by the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman.
There have been calls for an immediate ceasefire from the UN, which has said “the stability of Ethiopia and the wider region is at stake”, and from the Intergovernmental
Authority on Development, a bloc of east African countries.
The blockade of Tigray has been described by the US Agency for International Development as “perhaps the most egregious humanitarian obstruction in the world”.
Some critics, such as journalist and author Benjamin Dangl and Eva Golinger of the Venezuelan government, who both focus on the cases of Bolivia and Venezuela,say that the
US government gives aid to reward political and military partners rather than to advance genuine social or humanitarian causes abroad. William Blum has said that in the
1960s and early 1970s USAID has maintained “a close working relationship with the CIA, and Agency officers often operated abroad under USAID cover.”
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The 1960s-era Office of Public Safety, a now-disbanded division of USAID, has been mentioned as an example of this, having served as a front for training foreign police in
counterinsurgency methods (including torture techniques).
According to the Script News.com, Ethiopia owes about $12 to China in loans provided by the China Export-Import Bank.
Many of China’s loans to developing countries have included infrastructure packages.
With bilateral trade reaching 187 billion, China maintained its status of Africa’s top trading partner in 2020, stated the China-Africa Economic and Trade Relationship
Annual Report (2021) released Saturday.
For its part, News Sources reports that Ethiopia has asked the IMF for a new loan program as France and China have convened a creditor committee to try to rework Ethiopia’s
nearly $30 billion in external debt.
The IMF in December 2019 had approved credit facilities for $2.9 billion but has yet to make any disbursements.
Recently the IMF announced that it would continue its technical assistance programs, despite the ongoing conflict.