Is it safe to travel to Ethiopia right now?

With hostilities in the news again, is it safe to take a trip to Ethiopia in 2019 and 2020?

Having taking stock of the situation, I am reserving a trip for January and feeling good about it.  The situation is complex, however, and ever-changing but here’s a summary of everything Dispatches knows, starting with a story of how things go wrong…

Image courtesy of MedrekOFCRally

Civil Unrest Can Quickly Unfold in Ethiopia 

It was a late Sunday afternoon in Addis Ababa, 2016.  The preceding year had seen regular outbreaks of unrest in the south but the city was calm.  We had planned to spend the weekend at the lake in Debre Zeit, but the friend sorting the car had not sorted anything and so we were at home.  

After lunch, we wandered the residential backstreets behind Canada Embassy. The area is green, with thickets of grass, privet hedges and eucalyptus.  Guards dozed outside villas, heads resting on rifle butts and cats stretched out in the dust.

We got back to the bungalow to a fading sun and the smell of coffee coming from the other family who shared the compound.  We had no plans except to doze and then visit the tiny souk opposite to buy beer or a bottle of sprite to with ouzo and ice.

Then the phone rang. 

It rang over and over with panicking friends.  “Where are you?  Where are you?”

It had been a bloody afternoon in Debre Zeit, the place where we had planned a weekend holiday.  The Oromo festival of Ireecha had turned into a clash between protesters and the police.  Many had been trampled to death as they tried to flee via a ditch.  Official media reports stated that 52 people died; the local rumour mill flourished amidst a news black-out to quickly bring this number to 200 and then 500.

The country changed overnight.  Tension was in the air.  Instead of the usual cheek and buoyancy in the streets, everyone was sullen.  Roads out of Addis were reportedly blocked.  Taxi drivers were serious, muttering things were going the same way as Rwanda in 1994.

The friend who had failed to organise a car to Debre Zeit congratulated himself on his forgetfulness over that particular errand.  It was the only thing to laugh about in those times. 

Three months later the internet went back on and everyone just seemed to exhale.  Tourists started trickling in, there was more money floating around.  Things were back to normal for a while.  But it was a good lesson in how unpredictable things are.   It had been the milk that went sour overnight.

What’s the current situation?

When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power, many Ethiopians were swept up in a tide of optimism. Hopes were high for a new era of peace and stability. Prime Minister Abiy has made a range of sweeping reforms, often at breath-taking speed including releasing political prisoners and re-opening relations with Eritrea after 20 years of border conflict. 

But the previous thirty years of oppression has meant that simmering grievances have now bubbled over resulting in more protests, many of which have turned violent.

Abi Ahmed may have won the Nobel Peace Prize for his ambitious range of reforms however, as the New York Times commented, he still has to prove if he can bring about the peace people need.

In October, tensions between Oromo opposition media activist Jawar Mohammed and the government resulted in outbreaks of violence in southern towns where 67 people were reportedly killed. 

And in June, there were allegations of an attempted coup against the government of the Amhara region, when Mr Ahmed’s chief of staff was killed. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from the Oromo region, fleeing inter-ethnic conflict.

Other issues have included demands from the Sidama people for their own federated state and interethnic conflict around the Gondar region in Amhara.

What’s the official advice?

The advice of different governments vary.  However there is no recommendation to avoid the country altogether for reasons of security.

UK FCO travel advice as per 18th November 2019

The UK government reports frequent episodes of civil unrest which can arise without notice. At the time of writing, there are longstanding recommendations not to travel to the Gambella region or parts of the Somali zone as well as avoiding border areas. Other recommendations include avoiding all but essential travel to the north part of Gondar zone and West Wollega as well as east of Dire Dawa which includes the Muslim town of Harar.

The US travel advisory gives similar advice but also includes recommending avoiding the region of Benishangul Gumuz and the western part of Oromia as well as the whole state of SNNPR.

Meanwhile, Canada gives no travel restrictions on the usual tourist areas aside from recommending caution in SNNPR while France requests citizens to register their movements if travelling to the Bale mountains as well as the southern towns of Shashamene, Adama, Ambo, Debre Zeit, Dolola and Ziway.

All travel advisories urge caution and the possibility of more sporadic unrest and security disruptions.

You should, of course, check the most up to date advice before travelling as well as listening to the advice of Ethiopians when in country.  

What else do you need to know?

Protests in Ethiopia seem to arise out of nowhere. Foreigners are not targets, however situations can quickly turn violent. In 2016 a US citizen was killed when hit by a rock thrown by protesters although it was not believed she was a target.   This is a rare incident.  So far, there are no other reports of incidents involving serious injuries or fatalities to foreign nationals.

While it’s worth registering with your embassy on arrival, you should also be aware that the help on offer is limited if you are caught in trouble spots. 20 years ago, registering at the British Embassy involved a trip into the lush compound to meet someone in person and complete a form.

 This has become an online process which generates an email by return with a four page list of all the ways in which they are not prepared to help you.  It was a little discouraging to read….

Mobile and internet networks can be cut all together which can last days.

Panic at brewing trouble can mean people are busy fleeing home to their families. It’s all too easy for people to forget about you. If you have a driver or tour guide, or have friends in country, ask them to be responsible for keeping you informed.

If you must travel to uncertain areas, take supplies such as torches, water purification tablets and high energy snacks. Have an action plan for the event of trouble as there may not be time to make one in the moment.

Follow your instinct. If the atmosphere seems tense or the streets are unusually empty, stay indoors.

What do Ethiopian’s think?

While it’s impossible to give a general opinion for a country of 90 million people, most friends are optimistic that travel to most usual tourist areas is ok right now.  Some are hopeful – perhaps wishful – that the high level talks going on might settle things down.

Is now a good time to visit Ethiopia?

Traveller’s make decisions based on personal experience, attitudes to risk and the need and opportunity to travel at any given time.The complexity of the situation and longeivity of tensions mean that further outbreaks of unrest seem likely.   You should also be aware that elections are also planned for May 2020. 

This article cannot tell you what to do, I can only summarise the issues. But with flights from London to Addis in late January at a bargain £400 and no foreign diplomatic advice to avoid the country, it seems like as good as any other time to go.  Just be thoughtful about where you go.



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