With border open, Ethiopia and Eritrea are back in business

People shop at a market in the southern Eritrean town of Senafe, some 30km north of the border with Ethiopia, on October 3, 2018. The whirlwind peace process between Ethiopia and Eritrea that began earlier this year has seen flights restarted and embassies re-established. (AFP / MICHAEL TEWELDE)
Updated 14 October 2018
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With border open, Ethiopia and Eritrea are back in business

  • After 20 years of bloody conflict and grim stalemate, the Ethiopia-Eritrea border is bustling once again
  • Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea voted for independence in 1993 after a bloody, decades-long struggle

ETHIOPIA-ERITREA BORDER: For two decades, little besides soldiers, refugees and rebels moved across Ethiopia and Eritrea’s closed border, but today the once-barren no man’s land teems with activity.
Horse-drawn carts, buses full of visitors and trucks piled high with bricks and plywood make their way across the frontier, watched by relaxed soldiers from the two nations’ armies who just months ago stared each other down from trenches carved into the rocky soil.
After 20 years of bloody conflict and grim stalemate, the Ethiopia-Eritrea border is bustling once again, revitalizing frontier towns and allowing the countries’ long-estranged populations to reacquaint themselves.
“We have everything we didn’t have before, from the smallest to the biggest products,” said Abraham Abadi, a merchant in the Eritrean town of Senafe whose shop is now filled with biscuits, drinks and liquor made in Ethiopia.
Yet the border’s re-opening has sparked a surge in refugees and also raised concerns over the black market currency trade that some fear will destabilize the economy.
Once a province of Ethiopia, Eritrea voted for independence in 1993 after a bloody, decades-long struggle.
A dispute over the the border plunged the neighbors into war in 1998, leaving tens of thousands dead in two years of fighting.
The conflict continued as a cold war after Ethiopia refused to honor a UN-backed commission verdict demarcating the border, a policy Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reversed in June.
Flights restarted and embassies re-opened shortly afterwards, and in September, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki re-opened the crossing at Zalambessa, an Ethiopian town on a major route into Eritrea.
The opening was transformative for the town, a strip of shops and restaurants damaged in the war and economically paralyzed by the border closure that now bustles with shoppers.
“We’re selling sandals and these shida shoes,” said trader Ruta Zerai, gesturing to a pile of the open-toed footwear popular with Eritreans.
In Senafe, a trading hub 23 kilometers (14 miles) north of the border, the impact of the rapprochement is clear.
Twice a week, organized groups of Ethiopian merchants cross the border, marked by a bare strip of earth only recently cleared of anti-tank mines, for Senafe’s market days.
They bring with them recharge cards for the Ethiopian telecom whose service can be picked up in parts of the town and teff, the once-scarce grain needed to make the staple injera food.
Some even decide to stay.
“I live where I can get a job. As long as I have a job, I’ll stay here,” Sanle Gebremariam, an Ethiopian currency trader working in Senafe, said at a roadside where busses from both countries congregate.
Heading in the opposite direction are thousands of Eritrean refugees fleeing the country’s repressive government and stagnant economy.
Eritreans, many of whom aim to reach Europe, came across the border when it was closed, but the UN says arrivals in Ethiopia have increased nearly eight-fold since its opening.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian traders are grumbling over the unstable value of the Eritrean nakfa against their birr currency.
“We’re trading together, but the exchange rate is unregulated, unstable and illegal,” said Taeme Lemlem, a bar owner in Zalambessa, echoing similar complaints, made before the border war, that were never resolved.
Getachew Teklemariam, a consultant and former Ethiopian government adviser, said the unregulated trade at the border, where there appears to be little customs or immigration controls, risks opening a “shadow monetary front.”
“The exchange rate is being governed by largely speculative perceptions from both sides of the border,” said Getachew. “The overall trade scenario has to be guided by some strategy.”
Both countries’ governments have said they hope the renewed trade links will boost their economies.
But the neighbors are not equals. Eritrea’s economy has underperformed since the war, while Ethiopia has grown at some of Africa’s fastest rates, which hasn’t escaped the notice of visitors to the country.
“I’m very surprised. I didn’t expect this much development,” said Simon Kifle, an Eritrean air force serviceman who was hurrying back across the border before its sundown closing after his first visit to Ethiopia.


Police slam US actor, say he staged racist attack to boost career

Updated 22 February 2019
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Police slam US actor, say he staged racist attack to boost career

  • Jussie Smollett, the African-American actor who stars on Fox music industry drama ‘Empire,’ went from victim to suspect after he reported an assault late last month
  • Smollett accused of first sending himself a fake threatening letter and then staging an attack to tap into Americans’ anxieties over political and racial divisions

CHICAGO: An American TV actor was criminally charged Thursday for allegedly masterminding an elaborate “publicity stunt” that sought to exploit the “pain and anger of racism” with a staged assault on the streets of Chicago.

It was the latest twist in a weeks-long saga that has seen 36-year-old Jussie Smollett, the African-American actor who stars on Fox music industry drama “Empire,” go from victim to suspect after he reported an assault late last month.

An incredulous Chicago police chief accused Smollett of first sending himself a fake threatening letter and then staging an attack to tap into Americans’ anxieties over political and racial divisions, because he was allegedly “dissatisfied with his salary.”

In a sign of the national attention the case has drawn, President Donald Trump weighed in Thursday, taking issue with the fact Smollett claimed his assailants invoked the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan along with racist slurs during the purported attack.

“‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told an emotionally-charged news conference — during which he lashed out angrily at the actor for sullying the city’s image.

“Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process,” he said. “This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.”

Smollett turned himself in early Thursday morning, was arrested and charged with a felony count of disorderly conduct for filing a false police report, and was granted $100,000 bond.

He was freed from jail late in the afternoon, and said nothing to the throng of media. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.

His legal team pushed back hard later Thursday, claiming the police press conference had been prejudicial and “the presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon.”

“Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system,” attorney Jack Prior told AFP in a statement.

“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”

Smollett had claimed that two masked men beat him late at night in downtown Chicago, poured bleach on him and tied a rope around his neck — but police grew suspicious of his account after they failed to corroborate it.

Trump took aim at the actor for having tarnished his supporters, tweeting: “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?“

Meanwhile, Fox Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Television, which produce “Empire” and had stood by the actor, said “we understand the seriousness of this matter” and “are considering our options.”

Authorities said the two men who staged the attack with Smollett were brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, who have both previously worked on “Empire,” and were acquaintances of the actor — while one provided him with drugs.

The brothers have cooperated with police since their arrest late last week and have not been charged with a crime.

Smollett allegedly first concocted a false threatening letter he had sent to himself — which is under a separate FBI investigation — and when that did not get enough attention, paid the brothers to have the assault staged.

Prosecutor Risa Lanier detailed an elaborate plot that Smollett allegedly orchestrated with exacting detail — telling the brothers when and how to attack him, including pointing out a street camera he assumed would capture the event, but was in fact pointing in a different direction.

The allegations were backed by a mountain of evidence, including a cashed check that Smollett wrote to pay for the stunt, authorities said.

Initial news of Smollett’s claims led to widespread condemnation and shock, and an outpouring of support from celebrities and politicians alike, including Democratic 2020 presidential candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris who denounced “an attempted modern day lynching.”

Trump initially described the alleged attack as “horrible.”

Since then, Smollett’s story has become a cautionary tale in an era where incomplete information is quickly spread via social media.

Opinion writers have complained about a rush to judgment, and politicians, celebrities and nonprofit groups have felt pressure to explain their initial reactions.

The president of the LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign said the Smollett news was “both devastating and frustrating.”

“I want to ask everyone feeling angry, hurt and disappointed to channel that into productive activism — because there are thousands targeted by hate violence each year who need our help,” Chad Griffin tweeted.