Meles Zenawi enjoys SA hospitality while Ogadeni Somalis await justice

Meles Zenawi enjoys SA hospitality while Ogadeni Somalis await justice

Instead of being arrested on arrival in SA, Zenawi is warmly welcomed

ON MAY 25, the AU, in partnership with the South African government, hosted the Global African Diaspora Summit at the Sandton International Convention Centre.

Seated among the dignitaries was Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi. Zenawi, a short, balding man with small glasses and a thick moustache, appears less colourful and flamboyant than the stereotypical tyrant.

However, his reputation for cruelty and terror against his own countrymen is just as comparable.

Zenawi did not completely escape notice. On May 24, Ethiopian nationals, many of whom are refugees in South Africa, protested outside the Sandton Convention Centre.

The following day, ethnic Somalis from the Ogaden region in eastern Ethiopia organised a protest at the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria. Zenawi also cancelled his planned lecture hosted by the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute at Unisa’s Pretoria campus, probably to avoid embarrassing questions about abuses being carried out by his regime.

Ogadeni Somalis in South Africa have much to be frustrated and outraged about. In February this year, the Ogaden Community of South Africa lodged a complaint against the Ethiopian government with the South African commissioner of police, the head of the Directorate of Priority Crimes Investigation Unit and the Director of Public Prosecutions in terms of SA’s ICC Act.

The act implements the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and gives SA jurisdiction to investigate international law crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Ogaden is an isolated area in the Horn of Africa, little known to the world. It borders Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia, and has a population of about 8 million ethnic Somalis.

Historically, Ogaden was a part of the Greater Somali territories, but during an 1884 summit in Berlin, European colonial powers divided Africa into separate regions, and Ogaden was placed under British rule. Later, in 1954, it was transferred into Ethiopian hands.

Since then, Ogaden Somalis have been resisting Ethiopia’s repressive occupation and calling for independence.This led to the formation of the Ogaden National Liberation Front in 1984, which aims to liberate the region and establish democratic rule through various means of political resistance, including armed struggle.

A Human Rights Watch report titled “Collective Punishment: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity in the Ogaden area of Ethiopia’s Somali Region” documents crimes against humanity taking place in Ogaden.

These include burning of villages, arbitrary detention, torture and execution of detainees, rape and other sexual violence by Ethiopian armed forces, and an “economic war” involving confiscation of livestock and trade embargoes. This has led to food shortages in a largely pastoralist society, and comparisons with Sudan’s infamous Darfur region.

Such abuses are not well known, due to a media and aid agency embargo in the region. This also applies to international media, who have on several occasions faced arrest and confiscation of equipment. For instance, New York Times investigative journalists were arrested and detained in 2007, as were two Swedish journalists in 2011. While the New York Times journalists were released after five days due to US government pressure, the Swedish journalists were each sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in an Ethiopian jail.

In response to the application lodged by Ogadeni Somalis in South Africa, Ethiopian authorities took revenge against South African Ogadeni leaders by carrying out collective punishment against their relatives in the Ogaden region.

This included the murder of more than 30 civilians in the Gunagado District near Dagahbur town between February 12 and 20. It began when two elders related to South African Ogandeni leaders were shot and killed by government militia. A few days later, villagers held a meeting to discuss the killings, but the meeting was broken up by Ethiopian troops, who shot and killed civilians indiscriminately.

Fortunately, on May 7 a decision by the North Gauteng High Court gave renewed hope to Ogaden community. The court ruled that South African authorities had an obligation to investigate Zimbabwean officials accused of involvement in torture and crimes against humanity in Zimbabwe. Judge Hans Fabricius stated: “In my view it is clear when an investigation under the ICC Act is requested, and a reasonable basis exists for doing an investigation, political considerations or diplomatic initiatives are not relevant.”

So far, Ogadeni Somalis have received no feedback from South African officials in respect of their complaint. Instead of being served an arrest warrant on his arrival in South Africa, Zenawi was offered a warm, stately welcome.

Thus, while refugees entering South Africa garner increasing government consternation, it seems as though the repressive regimes they flee do not.

Whether such approaches will change in future depends on the strengthening of international human rights principles – not only in terms of South Africa’s foreign policy, but also in terms of the country’s domestic justice system.

Mohamed Aden Osman is Western Cape provincial co-ordinator of The Somali Association of South Africa.

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