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How Organized Crime Plays Key Roles in the Current Ethnic Clashes in Ethiopia

By Sewale Belew – [email protected] – December 30, 2022.

Background to Organized Crimes in Ethiopia

Organized criminal networks in Ethiopia engage themselves mainly in illegal activities for economic reasons. For instance, human smuggling operations spread out from loosely linked opportunists and criminal entrepreneurs up to well-organized syndicates that have an extensive influence over several nations around the globe. Especially, well-organized syndicates have an extensive structure with different individuals filling in various roles as part of the larger network. So far, by going against globally recognized human-rights principles, these organized criminal groups have openly exploited the heavily flawed economic privatization measures taken by the successive TPLF/EPRDF administration in the past.

Even currently under the Prosperity Party rule, the same issues are being dubbed with the persistent aim to amass significant economic power, while the instability within the Prosperity Party administration’s structure and the flaring sudden attacks constantly occurring in most rural communities caused by ethnic-based extremists. Persistently, civil unrest remains a significant threat to stability throughout Ethiopia. The swelling ethnic-led, narrow-nationalism in several regions of Ethiopia has also weakened the Prosperity Party administration’s ability to effectively control organized crime. The typically loose situations in rural areas have mainly allowed the armed criminal factions to replace the local administration authority edifices and school premises into their own. Accordingly, they rooted themselves into these sites permanently with their mission to terrorize local residents who have nothing to do with the country’s political sphere the criminals fiddle with.

Especially, in the last fifteen years, organized crimes and related affairs within Ethiopia have generated significant attention during the reign of TPLF/EPRDF over Ethiopia’s vulnerability to organized crime and the repercussions for the regional peace and prosperity of the populace at large. The unlawful ethnic-based combatants’ expansions throughout Ethiopia currently require a strong national security apparatus, well re-established by the government, so that the security forces can clamp-down the flaring domestically organized criminal  syndicates in various parts of the country. Yet it seems, the Prosperity Party administration chose not to eradicate these organized criminal groups completely. Instead, wary of further violence, the government sought to consolidate its own prosperity party power rather than risk a return to the instability that characterized Ethiopia since 2012, soon after the death of PM Meles Zenawi, who led TPLF/EPRDF/ administration iron-handedly.

More importantly, during the reign of TPLF/EPRDF/, criminal groups were relatedly able to provide some administration officials with unique opportunities while, TPLF/EPRDF/ chose to turn a blind eye to much of the illegal criminal activities occurring in Ethiopia. To our dismay, PM Meles Zenawi at one point pardoned his official involved in illicit trading by legitimizing their wealth and businesses. This action gave leeway for even more government officials to eventually gain free access to illegal profit-making schemes, extensive smuggling networks, manpower, and other illicit services both in Addis Ababa, the capital city, and in other parts of Ethiopia.

The TPLF/EPRDF/ administration also expanded its clandestine cooperation with criminal groups across major export and import trade goods’ at the entry and exit points of the country’s border areas, where criminal activities were most concentrated. Rather than controlling and preventing illicit trading, several of the regime’s intelligence officials seem to have cultivated relationships with organized criminal groups for decades, at  most of the portal entry points, with high-end criminal businesses dependent on relations with other criminal networks among the neighboring countries to survive.

Organized crime in in Ethiopia had also progressed significantly by the time when Mr. Dessalegn Haile Mariam entered the PM office and led the EPRDF administration. In 2016 for instance, criminal business activists were normally identified as tracksuit-wearing, pistol-wielding ‘bandits’ on all entry and exit points, who gave illicit business in Ethiopia a reputation as the ‘Ethiopian Mafia’. No serious legal measures were taken to stop these predators on the national economy. Some of the notorious ones selectively ended-up in jail as governmental face-saving operations. Others simply went underground to continue their illicit trading ventures; yet eventually, they had moved into mainly above-board businesses in clandestine, pulling most local government officials into their business network. These developments allowed TPLF/EPRDF/ to further assume political control over major business. Dozens of pro- TPLF/EPRDF politicians elected to political offices were also busy by openly shared business ties to organized crime in the areas of exporting locally produced commodities and food crops such as: gold, coffee, sugar, sesame and Teff.

Through time, the focus of corruption especially those ones related with enormous convoy movements of contraband goods’, combined with the weakness of control by the local duties (customs) institutions, permitted those TPLF/EPRDF/ government affiliated illegal groups to stockpile substantial economic and political power during and after the death of PM Meles Zenaw. This was the particular time when criminal groups provided both the manpower and weaponries for newly-created ethnic led extremists and militant groups  in several regions of Ethiopia to take up arms against the Amhara people as well as boasting their wealth by running commodity smuggling operations to bring in contraband goods such as: illicit drugs and counterfeit goods from neighboring countries through the border towns and cities of Ethiopia.

The threat of the ongoing ethnic-led conflicts that propped up suddenly during the reign of TPLF and the coming of the COVID-19 epidemic in 2019 generally weakened the Ethiopian state capacity, especially, the ability of the currently functioning prosperity party administration to task itself properly. As well acknowledged by PM Meles Zenaw, the previously appointed pro-TPLF/EPRDF politicians were intentionally allowing organized crime groups with the aim to constantly increase and consolidate their own power-base and public influence. In the same token, the current prosperity party administration officials also are not free from resorting to such criminal ties of using illicit trade groups with the aim to carry forward and continuing the operation of organized crimes. Consequently, these unlawful types of trade situations continue to affect the national economy negatively and even to further complement the ethnic-led extremists’ civil unrest and skirmishes with vigor in various regions.

In order to comprehensively understand the case under discussion, three types of illegally organized crimes are further discussed herein below.

  • Illegal Human Trafficking  

Generally, Ethiopia remains as a point of departure and transit for irregular human migration into other countries in Southern Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Sex trafficking and forced labor are the biggest forms of illegal exploitation of human beings in Ethiopia. Actually, Ethiopia remains as a country of origin and as a destination market for human trafficking. Most trafficked persons start their journey voluntarily and become vulnerable to abuses and related challenges in-route to the Middle East, Europe, South Africa or North America. Meanwhile, the actual internal-human-trafficking processes occur due to the economic migration’s push and pull factors from rural to urban areas.

As recently mentioned by Deputy PM Demeke Mekonnen in his attendance at the Hosanna town conference few days ago, Ethiopia has a relatively high cognizance of the risk of labor exploitation, due to longstanding problems with human-trafficking related to labor migration and employment agencies, mainly in routes to South Africa, the Middle Eastern countries as well as into Southern Europe. For instance, most recruitment agencies for labor migration to the Gulf are said to be unregistered or informal ventures who effectively act as commotions to exploit workers for their own strategic business aims.

Usually, both under the reign of TPLF/EPRDF/ and later under PM Abiy’s OPDO-regime in early 2018, the lifting of the ban on migration to Gulf countries did cause increased human trafficking of Ethiopian nationals to the region. The voluntarily moving illegal migration via underground portal spots in Djibouti and Somaliland was considered as an increasingly aggressive repatriation policy among Gulf countries – and particularly Saudi Arabia – since the 2019 beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has likely had the opposite effect.

Generally, human smuggling occurs across borders to and/or from all Ethiopia’s neighboring countries, with organized illegal smuggling networks often facilitating the flow of human movements. Overland human smuggling channels from Ethiopia mostly make use of three routes – the eastern, western and southern border points. The eastern departure point has Somalia and Djibouti as transit points for migrants looking to reach Yemen. The western departure point actually moves through Sudan. And the southern departure route goes through Kenya and deep into Southern Africa as its stop-over destination. The hitherto existing refugee camps in Tigray and Amhara are also said to be the recruitment grounds for organized smuggling networks.

Additionally, although closed once again, the border crossings between Ethiopia and Eritrea were briefly opened in 2018, renewing the demand for illegal human smuggling networks to assist Eritreans who were seeking to cross the borders. Because of Ethiopia not automatically granting asylum to people from Eritrea entering the country’s territory since 2020, reliance on smuggling networks for Eritreans attempting to enter or transit through Ethiopia also increased illegal human movements in clandestine.

  • Illegal Arms Trade

As far as the in-flow and illicit armaments trading is considered, to date, many illegal weapons have been successfully smuggled into Ethiopia and ended up to fall in the possession of ethnically-led terrorist groups whose passion is simply to chop of heads, or kill innocent civilians barbarically during the last few decades that raged the various regions of Ethiopia.

In an effort to arm ethnic-led local combatants, and to use organized smugglers to bring in sanctioned weapons and military ware into their hiding areas, highly trained individuals were extremely involved primarily in money laundering businesses by using the ‘Islamic Hawalla’ exchange system and by opening up several satellite foreign exchange bureaus (agencies) in several foreign cities, and by registering their accounts into a private bank outside of Ethiopia. Even the remnants of the existing, lucrative tobacco-and liquor smuggling networks in Ethiopia were openly sponsored by several former TPLF/EPRDF politicians with the aim to raise more funds for their political goals and future arms operations. On top of these affairs, the import of illicit drug trade also allowed the TPLF/EPRDF government entities to raise additional cash to strengthen the TPLF/EPRDF-financial-treasury-boxes. But as with guns and bullets have been flooding Ethiopia along with drugs, this illicit act has now created its own social problems in the entire country.

Court systems, prisons, hospitals, and other state owned institutions are gradually becoming overwhelmed by the increased inflow of drug into Ethiopia, while the distribution paths continue to fuel further local criminal activities to directly giving open access to essential illicit products coming from abroad. A case in point is how the TPLF/EPRDF/ administration in the past explored to illegally export and sell Ethiopia’s vast gold reserves on the international black markets.

Although often innovative, the TPLF/EPRDF/ administration’s hold of organized crime in clandestine underlines its sense of desperation to amass much wealth illegally. Withis prime aim, the TPLF/EPRDF/ administration anticipated to further enable its officials’ a continued collaboration with globally organized criminal networks as its own essential tool to safeguard its inbuilt economy underground and to prolong its war efforts against any opposing ethnic-groups within and outside Ethiopia. Subsequently, despite the risks of greater integration with the underworld and a growing dependency on their illicit networks, the TPLF/EPRDF/ administration chose to continue its clandestinely functioning illicit trading maneuvers so long as the TPLF/EPRDF/ government remained holding the governmental power position.

Likewise, it is observable that there is promising growth of organized crime during the current Prosperity Party administration’s reign in Ethiopia. It is said that its roots are held deep in the past operations of the TPLF/EPRDF/ illicit trading mechanisms.

In order to own benefits for some of the Prosperity Party officials in rank and file, the domestically organized criminal groups have further helped few of the Prosperity Party Officials seeking to avoid conscription to leave the country, reducing the manpower available to the administration. Additionally, sustaining the currently entrenched criminal culture and corruption in Ethiopia prevents the country’s further progresses by way of economic and political reforms.

  • Illegal Drugs Trafficking

After TPLF assumed power in 1990, Ethiopia has become a transit point and destination market for dangerous drugs like heroin. Although it is claimed that the domestic consumption of heroin is low, its current supply is growing periodically. Heroin is imported primarily by means of air-routes, with corrupt security officials allegedly facilitating its trafficking. Hence, the landing of heroin in Ethiopia is often in transit mainly coming from Brazil to West African markets, via networks of West African organized crime groups. Heroin also transits Ethiopia on its way to European and United States illicit markets, mainly coming from Central Asia (Afghanistan), as well as South-eastern and Western Asia countries.

Concerning cocaine trafficking, Ethiopia is mainly a transit point for the cocaine drug destined for markets in Southern Africa, particularly South Africa itself. Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa is said to be a particularly exposed trans-shipment point, receiving cocaine shipments coming from the initial West African points of continental entry.

As regards, cannabis, although Ethiopia is primarily a transit country for cannabis trafficked between Central Asia and Western Europe, transiting through neighboring African countries, Ethiopia itself is not a major source or destination market for this drug. Yet, it is claimed that there is little assembly of cannabis (Marijuana or Ganja) farming mainly rigorous in rural areas and around the town of Shashemene. It is said that cannabis use has increased over the course of 2020, as have seizures of cannabis by the police forces in Ethiopia.

As for the illicit use of synthetic drugs, Ethiopia is not a major production hub for synthetic drugs or precursor chemicals. However, Mandrax has emerged fairly recently as an issue in the region as chemical precursors. Consequently, licit drugs are increasingly diverted into the illegal market. Overall, with the Ethiopian Airlines attending the largest number of air-routes in Africa, Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa has become the hub for goods trafficked throughout Africa. There is indication that drug and wildlife trafficking as well as human smuggling are mainly organized by transnational networks from other parts of Africa. East African drug traffickers are very active in Ethiopia, while West Africans and Chinese nationals lead the illicit wildlife trade.

Conclusive Remarks

Although the PM Abiy administration initiated an anti-corruption purge in 2019, there is still increasing corruption, with the gradual process of economic liberalization that has provided new opportunities for criminal misappropriation. On a global arena, Ethiopia has ratified a number of relevant international treaties and conventions pertaining to organized crime. Furthermore, Ethiopia is an active member of the regional international organizations and initiatives. As a result, in an attempt to provide support to the prosperity party administration, few Western law enforcement agencies have shown interest to increase the cross-country coordination process with Ethiopia. The primary aim is to stop the previous TPLF/EPRDF/-backed organized crime before and during the outbreak of the recently waged TPLF-war actions in Northern Ethiopia.

While global bodies such as Interpol, Europol, Frontex, and other institutions have increased cooperation with the Prosperity Party government of Ethiopia in fighting serious and organized crime, yet, the combat against the TPLF/EPRDF/-backed organized crime clearly remains essential to some government officials even today as their livelihoods are heavily entrenched to the trends of how organized crime in Ethiopia will continue to go forward once the large-scale combatants’ fighting subsides.

The main task of TPLF, OLF-Shene and all other ethnic-led narrow nationalist activists and that of Ethiopia’s cruel enemies in a different place is to spread terror, shed innocent blood, create fear, disrupt progressive activities, destroy property / infrastructure / and crops, and bring Ethiopia into turmoil and chaos. This action will eventually be bringing Ethiopia to its knee and forcing the public to surrender to the main foreign enemy’s long set plans and wishes. In fact, the main drive of this externally and internally coordinated campaign of bloodshed and ethnic-led genocide is to destabilize Ethiopia and make it fall into an abyss from which it will not come out; and rather remain completely naked and open to its enemies who plan to rob its natural resource endowments.

At the end of the day, only the enemy will benefit from the internal violence and destruction that is happening in Ethiopia. Mainly Egypt, Westerners and internal enemies who compete for power, will dominate the Ethiopian power struggle by creating such a destructive mission. Optionally, they attempt to assign a loyal government of their desire and choice upon the shoulders of the Ethiopian people.

Therefore, it is time for the Prosperity Party administration of Ethiopia to pay attention to these above discussed dangerous issues at the core and prioritize to resolve them in timely fashion. Rather than busying themselves with cutting the opening rivulets at various events, the Property Party administration officials should prioritize to prevent the human necks from being cut-off by domestic ethnic-led terrorists who are bent on creating havoc and mayhem. Yes, and indeed, the time for such noble and civic action is ripe now.

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