Copenhagen climate talks' backstory: Ethiopia PM accused of genocide is top African negotiator
December 18, 2009
By Alexander Kelly
COPENHAGEN – Deafening chants rocked the entrance to the conference center where negotiators tried to piece together a global treaty to fight climate change today – chants that shed light on the intricate nature of the talks and the difficulty of concluding a deal.
[caption id="attachment_7630" align="alignright" width="342" caption="Ogaden is the region colored bright yellow."][/caption]
As 130 heads of state took their place at the negotiating table, just hours before the talks were scheduled to come to a close, the cries outside came largely from Ogadenians, people from a southeastern territory in Ethiopia, 3,600 miles from Denmark. They made their way to Copenhagen to tell United Nations leaders not to negotiate a climate deal with an alleged génocidaire.
That would be Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia. Months ago, he was appointed as the African Union’s spokesman for the final days of the UN climate talks. Now, as he appears to be willing to accept less than most Africans want from the industrialized North out of a climate finance deal, many – including the Ogadenians outside – are calling for his removal from power as top-level negotiator.
[caption id="attachment_7532" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Ogadenians protest at the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen. InvestigateWest photo by Mark Malijan. "][/caption]
The rift among Africans calls into question whether most countries on the continent will be willing to live by the terms of whatever agreement is reached here. (Update: Late today news broke that President Obama has worked out a deal with China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Presumably those countries to will try to sell the plan to others overnight. The climate talks have been extended by at least one day.)
Outside the Bella Center, where the climate talks are going on, it was difficult counting all the African protesters rallying behind a flags in bright blue, green, red and yellow representing the Ogaden National Liberation Front and Oromo Liberation Front.*
The protesters warned that the money funneled into Africa to fight climate change will likely be used to strengthen Zenawi’s campaigns against Ogadenian resistance to his leadership.
“The Western world… their money is being used to buy weapons and kill people,” said a man from Ogaden named Abdurahman.
[caption id="attachment_7536" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Ogaden nationals from the ethnically Somali province of Ethiopia protest against giving Ethiopia climate funding; they say it will be used by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to harm the people of their homeland. InvestigateWest photo by Christopher Crow."][/caption]
“We are suffering from climate change,” said a boy named Nemarra. “Of course the people are suffering, and also we truly need money to be compensated, because our people are dying . . . but he needs the money for another purpose.”
The charges of genocide relate to actions of Zenawi’s army in Ogaden, which borders Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti and is populated largely by ethnic Somalians. Ethiopia and Somalia for decades disputed ownership of the land, until Somalia’s government fell apart and it descended into lawlessness in 1991. Ogaden is also known as the Somali Regional State.
In 2007, with the backing of the U.S. government – which considers Zenawi an ally in the war on terror – Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia, to the east of Ogaden. A UN-backed transitional government friendly to Ethiopia took over early this year, although it faces resistance from jihadist Muslims and has been unable to contain pirates based on its shores.
Ethiopian troops also have been accused of killings, maimings and rape in Ogaden. The Ethiopian military is trying to contain the Ogaden National Liberation Front, which seeks to have Ogaden granted autonomous status, something like the Kurds in northern Iraq. Over the last half of the 20th century, various groups also dreamed of uniting Ogaden and Somalia into “greater Somalia,” although those plans appear moribund given the current Somali government.
The conflict in Ogaden bears some resemblance to the genocide in Sudan, Ethiopia’s neighbor to the west**: Both appear to stem at least in part from climate change. Drought and desertification have played a role in the genocide in Sudan. In Ogaden, an unusually long and deep drought also has figured into the conflict, from what outside observers can find out. (It’s been difficult and dangerous for reporters from outside Ethiopia – and sometimes inside the country – to report on Ogaden because of government interference, according to a 2007 article in Slate.)
Inside the Bella Center – where the InvestigateWest team finally was admitted today after two weeks of denials by the United Nations – Zenawi faced criticism from African environmental and “civil-society” groups for agreeing to $10 billion a year in aid for Africa, instead of the $67 billion the African nations said they wanted.
Environmentalists and others in an umbrella group that calls itself African Civil Society released a statement deploring the move, saying it would “allocate to the industrialized countries . . . atmospheric space worth more than $10 trillion between now and 2050, denying it to developing countries, and threatening Africa’s prospects of economic and social development and the alleviation of poverty.”
Efforts to reach the Ethiopian consulate in Seattle for comment have not yet been successful. We’ll update this post if we hear back from the consulate.
* Due to an editing error, this post originally said the protesters were waving Ethiopia's national flag. Sorry about that.
** Due to an editing error, this post also originally said Sudan is north of Ethiopia, although it actually is to the west. Again, our apologies.
InvestigateWest senior environmental correspondent Robert McClure contributed to this report.
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