Tigrayan refugees fill their gallons with water at a water station at Hamdeyat Transition Center near the Sudan-Ethiopia border, eastern Sudan, March 24, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty 

G7 countries are "seriously concerned" about alleged human rights violations in Tigray, calling on all parties to provide immediate and "unhindered humanitarian access" to Ethiopia's conflict-hit region.

The foreign ministries of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US as well as the European Union's top diplomat said in a joint statement on Friday that they "condemn the killing of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence, indiscriminate shelling and the forced displacement of residents of Tigray and Eritrean refugees".

They called on all parties to "exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law" and to "provide immediate, unhindered humanitarian access" to the region. 

"We are concerned about worsening food insecurity with emergency conditions prevailing across extensive areas of central and eastern Tigray," the wrote.

Starvation and sexual violence

Ethiopia declared war on the semi-autonomous region controlled by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020. The party had been dominant in the federal government for decades but refused to join a new coalition led by Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy following his ascent to power in 2018. 

They then complained they were being unfairly treated by the federal government with tensions escalating last year when Tigray held an election despite nationwide ballots being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government then accused TPLF of attacking a federal military — which the party has denied — and launched a military offensive. 

No one knows how many thousands of civilians or combatants have been killed since the conflict erupted.

Food security in Tigray, which was already facing a deteriorating socio-economic situation because of the COVID-19 pandemic and an infestation of desert locust, was impacted by the disruption of commercial supplies and failure to pay civil servants, the UN has said.

Wafaa Said, the UN's deputy humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia, said last month that rapid nutrition assessment in the first week of March indicated that among screened children under the age of 5, the proportion affected by acute malnutrition “greatly exceeded the emergency threshold of 15%” in all six areas assessed.

Said cited estimates that 82% of the 229 health centres in Tigray are not functioning, or no communication has been established with them.

The UN humanitarian official also warned of targeted civilians killings and said that five medical facilities recorded 516 rape cases in mid-March.

"It is projected that the actual numbers are much higher," he said. "Women say they have been raped by armed actors, they also told stories of gang rape, rape in front of family members and men being forced to rape their own family members under the threat of violence."

A probe led jointly by the UN's High Commissioner's Office for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission was announced last week to investigate claims of violations.

'Credible elections'

The G7 member countries also welcomed the recent announcement by Abiy that Eritrean forces will withdraw from the region, calling for the process to be "swift, unconditional and verifiable."

Abiy only admitted the involvement of Eritrean troops — long an enemy of the Tigray leaders — in mid-March. It is unclear how many Eritrean soldiers took part in the conflict though witnesses have estimated well in the thousands. They have been accused of looting, killing and raping civilians.

The G7 said the violence must give way to a "clear inclusive political process" leading to "credible elections and a wider national reconciliation process".

They added that they "stand ready to support humanitarian efforts and investigations into human rights abuses."   Euronews/AP

President Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi (L) met March 24 with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) in Cairo. Here, Ndayishimiye delivers a speech during the funeral of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died at the age of 55, at the Ingoma stadium in Gitega, Burundi, on June 26, 2020, while Sisi speaks during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee presidential palace on Dec. 7, 2020, in Paris. Photo Al-Monitor

 

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently welcomed Burundi's president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, to discuss the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis, among several issues. It was yet one more move Egypt has been making lately to gain support for its position regarding the dam. 

Sisi spokesman Bassam Radi said in a press statement that Egypt seeks to strengthen relations with Burundi, especially at the economic, commercial, security and military levels.

During the meeting, the two presidents agreed to intensify coordination about the dam crisis. Sisi reiterated to his Burundian counterpart the paramount importance of water for Egyptians. Sisi said that the issue is of national security concern and that Egypt seeks to reach a legal agreement that guarantees clear rules on the process of filling and operating the dam.

Ayman Samir, an international relations researcher at Al-Ahram newspaper, told Al-Monitor over the phone that this was one of a number of Egyptian moves to gain African countries' support in the dam crisis.

Samir said Egyptian Foreign Minister on March 22 hosted Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel-Razzaq and Somali presidential official Hassan Moallem Khalif to discuss political developments in the African region and ways to boost stability, peace and security.

Samir said Shoukry also met March 4 with Zuhair Dhul-Kamal, the foreign minister of the Comoros, to discuss means to enhance bilateral relations. Shoukry reiterated during the meeting Egypt’s commitment to transfer expertise to the Comoros and other African countries through training programs organized by the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development.

Samir also referred to the meeting held between Sisi and his Eritrean counterpart, Isaias Afwerki, on July 6, 2020, during which they discussed the latest developments related to the dam and the security of the Red Sea.

Samir said these meetings broached the subject of why it would be in these countries' interest to support Egypt on the dam issue.

Samir said Egypt's alliances with countries that are geographically close to Ethiopia or that have common interests with it indicate that Egypt is seeking to place regional pressure on Ethiopia to prompt it to accept a fair agreement with Egypt and Sudan regarding the dam.

Meanwhile, Egyptian media outlets repeatedly mentioned how it would be advantageous for Egypt to establish a military base in Djibouti. Prominent Egyptian journalist Ahmed al-Maslamani called on Egypt to establish such a base to protect national security, especially in the wake of a high-level meeting held between the two countries in December 2016. Back then, Sisi received the president of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh, and discussed ways to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries on the security, military, cultural and economic levels.

A high-ranking Egyptian diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Cairo is intensifying its diplomatic campaigns and political contacts with various African countries in an effort to diplomatically and politically pressure Ethiopia and gain support for Egypt's dispute with Ethiopia over the dam.

The source said Egypt has managed to politically and diplomatically pressure Ethiopia by communicating with its neighbors and with various African countries to explain why Cairo's stance on the dam is justified.

This, he continued, was done through high-level contacts with Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Burundi and Sudan.

The source spoke of the importance of Sudan in particular, which also opposes a unilateral filling of the dam.

He said Sudan and Egypt have been cooperating for a long time at higher levels to unify their visions as far as the dam is concerned, and this coordination has been exemplified by the exchange of official visits at the highest level between the two countries.

Sisi visited Khartoum on March 6 and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok visited Cairo on March 11.

Ammar Ali Hassan, a professor of economics and political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that Egyptian-African relations have been recently witnessing a positive momentum not witnessed in years. He attributed the timing of such improvement to Egypt’s will to strengthen and deepen its African relations and ultimately garner the support of the regional countries on the dam issue. 

He added that Egypt’s ability to change African stances on the dam crisis primarily depends on convincing neighboring African countries of the fairness of the Egyptian stance and subsequently using soft and diplomatic power to establish strategic partnerships that would lead other countries to take stances in favor of Egypt. This, he added, could cause Ethiopia to change its hard-line positions.

Hassan said the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s attempts to gain a greater foothold in Africa and place pressure on Ethiopia have been successful so far, as Egypt has launched several alliances with African countries neighboring or near Ethiopia and important to Africa, most notably Djibouti, Eritrea, Burundi, Somalia and Sudan.

He added that the greater the Egyptian coordination with these countries, the more Ethiopia is likely to feel isolated from the African continent, and that this could prompt Addis Ababa to change its intransigent position should it feel a heavy political and economic cost. If African neighbors and friends are to voice positions in favor of Egypt, he said, then Ethiopia might cave in and change its stance on the dam. - Al-Monitor

KOGELO, KENYA - JANUARY 12: US Senator Barack Obama's step-grandmother Sarah Obama stands in her house on January 12, 2008 in Kogelo, western Kenya. Photo Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

 

Before his 2008 election, former US President Barack Obama’s step grandmother Sarah Ogwel Onyango Obama or “Mama Sarah” as she was affectionately known, was best known in her rural village of Nyang'oma Kogelo, in Western Kenya for bringing mandazi or sugar coated doughnuts and porridge to schools in the community.

As a farmer, an agricultural ambassador, a food security activist, a market vendor, a philanthropist and a food entrepreneur, Mama Sarah’s story was one that could be told in food.

The farm, where her famous step grandson would refer to in his memoir, as “a small plot of earth, an ocean away,” was Mama Sarah’s primary source of income, from which she would raise and educate his father, her stepson Barack Hussein Obama Senior, and help orphans, many of whom would eventually come to live with her.

A member of the Kenya’s Luo ethnic group, comprised mainly of pastoralists, Mama Sarah was no stranger to food insecurity. Croft, Marshall and Hallett (2016) refer to Western Kenya as “a prime example of the interconnected and complex issues of poverty, malnutrition, and low agricultural productivity which has created many food insecure communities.” Eighty per cent of Western Kenya’s farmers are women, the majority of whom do not own the rights of the land on which they work.

Mama Sarah “had no formal schooling, and in the ways of her tribe, she was married off to a much older man while only a teen,” said Barack Obama, of Mama Sarah’s life.

“She would spend the rest of her life in the tiny village of Alego, in a small home built of mud-and thatch brick and without electricity or indoor plumbing. There she raised eight children, tended to her goats and chickens, grew an assortment of crops, and took what the family didn’t use to sell at the local open-air market,” recounted her famous grandson.

Mama Sarah was a poultry farmer. Joe Ombuor, a journalist for Kenyan newspaper, The Standard depicted large numbers of free-range chickens that indiscriminately roamed the Obama property, many choosing to settle atop the adjacent gravestones of her husband and Barack Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who had been a great chicken lover, and Barack Obama’s father, Barack Hussein Obama Senior.

According to Kenyan tradition, a visitor’s significance is symbolized by the size of the chicken slaughtered in their honor and Mama Sarah said that she had slaughtered cocks for her grandson on three occasions— first when he visited upon the death of his father, then as a US senator, and finally as the President of the United States.

Mama Sarah’s shamba or farm was also a home to cattle, exotic birds and a variety of crops such as avocados and bountiful mango trees that littered the soil with their fresh fruits.

There was a dairy unit from which milk was sold at subsidized prices to the local schools, as were eggs from the chickens and fish from the farm’s pond.

Mama Sarah would frequently attend the Nyang'oma market where she had a small stall selling produce from the farm and foods that she had made at home, such as Sukuma Wiki, a spicy dish of braised collard greens.

As a farmer in the early 1940’s, the family matriarch relied on ox-drawn ploughs but would later substitute these for tractors. But even as farming practices in Western Ghana became more automated and commercialized, she continued to rely on traditional farming techniques.

When Joe Ombuor interviewed Mama Sarah for The Standard, in advance of President Barack Obama’s much-anticipated visit to Kenya in 2015, he marveled at how she would thresh maize— a post-harvest practice that is typically automated— by using her bare fingers, as she engaged with other women on her compound.

Mama Sarah was a naturalist and would become a well-known ambassador of ecological push-pull farming, an organic practice that relies on natural insect–plant and insect–insect relationships rather than toxic chemicals to deter pests from food crops such as maize. She began to promote the farming method due to its positive impact on yields and food security.

The interconnection of economic development and food security was not lost on Mama Sarah. After all, the majority of the proceeds from her farm went towards the education of her stepson and the orphans in her community, and agriculture would eventually become one of the pillars of her philanthropic initiatives.

Mama Sarah would use her fame as a platform for her philanthropy, through the Mama Sarah Obama Foundation, which provided food and education to orphans.

The foundation promoted farming as a means of improving food security and reducing poverty and supported the alleviation of waterborne diseases by providing clean water to the communities which it served.

As she became more immersed in her foundation, Mama Sarah’s daughter, Marsat Onyango took over the operations of the family farm.

Onyango would collaborate with Amiran Kenya, a Kenyan farming company focused on creating opportunities through modernized crop production techniques.

Through the collaboration, they would demonstrate how modern methods and technologies, such as greenhouses, can help to make ideal use of small plots of land so that subsistence crops such as beans and maize could be converted into cash crops.

In recognition of her many achievements, Mama Sarah was granted the inaugural Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Education Pioneer Award by the United Nations in 2014.

When Mama Sarah passed away on March 29 2021, she took exactly eighty years of farming knowledge with her. During her eight decades as a farmer, she used food to lift herself and others, including Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Senior, out of poverty.

Mama Sarah Obama was buried on March 30 2021 at her home, beside her husband and stepson. Governor of Kisumu, the capital of Western Kenya, Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o said at her funeral that the Obama home in Nyang’oma Kogelo should remain a shrine to the world as it produced men and women who had made history, despite coming from humble beginnings. - Daphne Ewing-Chow, Forbes

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