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In-depth: Threats on wheels: Ethiopia's transportation sector faces escalating attacks by armed groups, gov't forces

According to the Ethiopian Heavy Truck Drivers Association, over 53 drivers have fallen victim to attacks by armed groups in the past six months, and 80% of these fatalities occurred along the Djibouti road (Photo: Screenshot)

By Biruk Alemu@Birukalemu21

Addis Abeba – Amid the persistent armed conflicts in various regions of the country, a foreboding presence has descended upon the nation’s transportation sector, impacting operators of freight transportation trucks and mass transit services alike.

Frequent assaults directed at critical infrastructure and personnel have become commonplace, resulting in significant loss of life, destruction of property, and severe economic repercussions.

Over recent years, reports detailing the detention of drivers for ransom, imposition of exorbitant fines, incidents of physical violence, and even homicides have proliferated, depicting a bleak landscape for a pivotal industry besieged by adversity.

During the previous twenty-four months, there has been a pronounced and hazardous escalation, particularly evident in the regions of Oromia, Amhara, and Afar. These areas have experienced a regrettable loss of lives and extensive property damage due to deliberate and targeted attacks.

Moreover, the economic repercussions reach beyond individual tragedies, as they disrupt supply chains and initiate a chain reaction that ultimately leads to increased costs of goods for consumers nationwide.

The Ethiopian Heavy Truck Drivers Association (EHTDA) has designated the East Shewa zone in the Oromia region, specifically the Welenchiti – Awash route, as “perilous” due to recurrent militant attacks.

A distressing incident that took place on 28 December, 2023, serves as corroborating evidence for this assertion. During this tragic event, at least eight civilians lost their lives in a massacre as they were returning from the annual Saint Gabriel festival in Kulubi town.

The violent occurrence transpired at the entrance to Metehara, a town situated in the East Shewa Zone of the Oromia region. Accounts from eyewitnesses also confirm the abduction of ten additional individuals by an armed group during the assault on that particular day.

In recent months, a disconcerting video circulated on social media, depicting numerous vehicles ablaze while truck drivers faced robbery and severe abuse in the aftermath of a vehicle strike reportedly orchestrated by the armed faction of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), identified by the government as “Shene”.

Truck drivers and officials from the Ethiopian Heavy Truck Drivers Association (EHTDA) informed Addis Standard that both armed groups and government security forces have been implicated in incidents of kidnappings, robberies, and fatalities involving drivers across various regions of the nation.

Drivers forced to navigate perilous routes

Tewodros Tilahun has been employed as a truck driver since 2012, supporting himself and his family by transporting goods from Djibouti to different regions within Ethiopia over the past twelve years.

In a recent telephone interview with Addis Standard, he shed light on the challenges confronting drivers, describing the nationwide attacks on drivers as “deeply troubling” and expressing apprehensions about the escalating frequency of organized robberies targeting drivers and their vehicles throughout the country.

The driver reported a worrisome surge in activities perpetrated by organized youth groups, including armed robberies, property destruction, and loss of life across various regions.

“Despite the tragic loss of life, there seems to be a lack of proactive intervention against these militant actions,” he lamented. “This apparent absence of community response, coupled with heightened driver apprehensions, underscores the imperative for enhanced security measures.”

There are specific routes in the Amhara and Oromia regions that have become notably hazardous due to recurrent assaults.”

Tewodros Tilahun, a truck driver

Tewodros recounted a recent incident he witnessed three weeks ago, where a heavy truck carrying sesame seeds was found completely engulfed in flames on the roadside in Gobgob town, located in the Amhara region.

Furthermore, he pointed out specific routes in the Amhara and Oromia regions that have become notably hazardous due to recurrent assaults. These include the road linking Lay Gayint district to Wereta town in the South Gondar Zone of the Amhara region, as well as the route stretching from Metehara to Wolenchiti and Awash in the Oromia region.

Tewodros articulated a prevailing atmosphere of apprehension among drivers stemming from the persistent threat of attacks. He emphasized that traveling beyond midnight has become “unthinkable,” underscoring the profound ramifications these occurrences have on daily operations and the transportation industry.

Drivers have also alleged that armed groups have been requesting bribes of up to 1,000 birr per vehicle at government controlled checkpoints. They have reported instances where vehicles are halted, and the owners are subsequently contacted and coerced into paying up to 300,000 birr.

Tewodros, possessing firsthand knowledge of numerous incidents involving the kidnapping of drivers by militants in Amhara’s South Gondar zone over the past three months, similarly expresses concern about the significant number of similar incidents reported in the Oromia region.

The town of Metehara, situated in the Oromia region, has garnered notoriety as a focal point for assaults targeting drivers. Tesfaye Gadissa, utilizing a pseudonym to safeguard his identity, delineates the pervasive violence within the vicinity to Addis Standard, citing recurrent occurrences of hostage-taking, extortion, and vehicle incinerations.

Residents residing in the Wolenchiti-Metehara vicinity, akin to Tesfaye, document a surge in assaults along the thoroughfare, amplifying concerns for safety and impeding transportation operations.

Despite government deployments, they noted the route has been plagued by numerous incidents, notably vehicle arson, particularly evident in December 2023.

Tesfaye underscores that this persistent violence has precipitated widespread hostage-taking of passengers, drivers, and vehicles by militant groups.

 “While some hostages have been liberated after ransom payments, others remain in captivity,” he asserted.

The perilous circumstances have compelled drivers to cease nocturnal journeys, resulting in daytime traffic congestion and effectively rendering the road impassable.

Tesfaye postulates that the assailants comprised a coalition of “unemployed youth within the community” in collaboration with “militants already entrenched in the forest.”

He substantiates his assertion by referencing the recent surrender of 69 individuals affiliated with these forest-based militants.

In late December 2023, a vehicle strike reportedly orchestrated by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), also referred to by the government as “Shene,” resulted in the burning of numerous vehicles, particularly along the Addis Abeba-Hawassa road (Photo: Social Media)

The severity of the situation is underscored by ruthless abductions and tragic fatalities, such as the incident involving a local district employee transporting water. Tesfaye delineates the kidnappers’ modus operandi, which involves contacting families and coercing ransom payments under the threat of execution.

Furthermore, he recounts an incident from a year prior wherein Chinese factory workers were abducted near Awash and subsequently released following a substantial ransom payment.

Solomon Zewdu, the general manager of EHTDA, expressed similar apprehensions regarding the perilous situation, particularly prevalent in the Oromia region. He attributed the dangers to “armed groups and government security forces,” holding them responsible for the harm inflicted upon truck drivers tasked with transporting essential goods nationwide.

Solomon reported that the thoroughfare linking Wolenchiti and Awash in the Oromia region is beset by violence, with occurrences of “vehicles being torched, drivers being abducted or killed.”

He recounted a harrowing incident from two months ago, wherein gunmen set fire to four officers and held drivers hostage in the Metehara area.

Additionally, Solomon disclosed that the attacks are no longer confined to the nighttime hours; robberies and assaults occur even during daylight, often resulting in accidents as drivers attempt to evade assailants.

He further expounded on the challenges confronting drivers in the Afar region, where “armed individuals” subject them to threats and extortion, drawing parallels with the organized abductions and ransom demands witnessed in Oromia.

Solomon emphasized the profound human toll exacted by this violence, noting that numerous drivers have lost their lives, sustained injuries, or been forcibly displaced in recent years. “Additionally, substantial damage has been wrought upon government and public property.”

Drawing attention to the financial burdens endured by drivers, he revealed that their monthly salaries do not exceed 5,000 birr, while militants demand sums reaching hundreds of thousands. “Those who have not complied with these demands have faced fatal consequences.”

Solomon underscored that these attacks are not sporadic occurrences but rather pervasive throughout the region.

He elucidated how drivers maintain communication with one another through phone calls, exchanging vital information concerning road safety due to the elevated risks involved.

“This is a customary practice observed extensively in the Amhara and Oromia regions, as well as in the southern part of the country,” he asserted.

Solomon conveyed his dissatisfaction regarding the absence of response from military and security forces, as well as the authorities within the Ministry of Transport and Logistics, despite the availability of pertinent information.

The lack of response from both federal and regional governments, as well as security forces, compelled managers of truck driver associations to take independent action.

Addis Alemayehu, Deputy Chairman of the Executive Board of the EHTDA, informed Addis Standard that recently the association had undertaken negotiations for the release of several drivers who had been kidnapped by militants.

“A month ago, 15 drivers were abducted between Wolenchiti and Metehara. We pooled resources and I engaged in negotiations with the militants via telephone. They released some drivers who met their demands, but unfortunately, those unable to comply were killed,” recalled Addis.

“Among the 15 individuals kidnapped by the militants was a close friend of mine,” continued Addis. “He contacted me, stating that unless we transferred 500,000 birr via bank, he would not be released. Consequently, we transferred the specified amount to secure his freedom.”

He further recounted, “However, after the transfer of funds, we notified governmental bodies and security forces encircled the area. A confrontation ensued, resulting in the tragic loss of my friend and another driver in the crossfire.”

Addis revealed that within the previous six months, over 53 drivers have fallen victim to attacks by armed groups. Additionally, he noted that 80% of these fatalities occurred along the Djibouti road, particularly concentrated between Wolenchiti and Metehara.

The deputy chairman informed Addis Standard that, apart from militants, government security forces have also been involved in attacking and extorting drivers.

“This assertion is not an act of defamation; it is an accurate representation of reality,” he affirmed.

Addis recounted a recent encounter he had with Addis Standard. “While I was driving, individuals clad in army uniforms intercepted me, forcibly removed me from the vehicle, and compelled me to kneel. I pleaded with them, and they eventually released me with a warning.”

Addis noted the prevalence of daily robberies in the Oromia region, particularly between West Shewa and Asosa. Areas near the capital, such as Tulu Bolo, a town located 70 kilometers South of Addis Abeba and Gohatsion,a town bordering Amhara region in North Shoa zone of the Oromia, have also witnessed frequent attacks and robberies, according to the driver.

He further underscored the escalating risks along routes such as Wolenchiti-Metehara and Wolkite-Butajira. “The situation has markedly deteriorated over the past two years.”

Dereje Sisay, the president of EHTDA, underscores the significant strain drivers face amidst the persistent crisis. He critiques the government’s insufficient response, highlighting occasions where security forces have failed to safeguard drivers, even within proximity.

Furthermore, he expresses apprehension regarding extortion by certain security personnel, accentuating the widespread occurrence of similar issues extending beyond the incident in the Amhara region.

He notes that vehicle burnings have transpired just 70 kilometers from Addis Abeba, underscoring the gravity of the situation.

Apart from militants, government security forces have also been involved in attacking and extorting drivers.”

Addis Alemayehu, deputy chairman of EHTDA

In a recent interview, Federal Police Commissioner General Demelash Gebremichael acknowledges the deteriorating national situation concerning kidnappings, affirming their utilization for both financial and political motives.

He underscores ongoing investigations indicating the potential involvement of individuals within the security apparatus in fabricating the appearance of state complicity.

“Efforts are currently in progress to apprehend those implicated and facilitate the recovery of ransom payments,” he stated.

Violence threatens economic stability

Stakeholders emphasize that the increasing assaults on drivers and vehicles pose a significant threat to Ethiopia’s economy, which heavily depends on heavy cargo vehicles transporting essential goods from Djibouti.

Solomon cautions against the adverse consequences, particularly amid the prevailing foreign currency shortage, emphasizing the potential for inflation and a worsening economic downturn if the situation persists, given Ethiopia’s reliance on the Djibouti corridor.

He underscores the essential role of the government in guaranteeing safe passage for drivers by implementing adequate security measures, especially along this crucial route.

In addition to the concerns raised, Addis underscored the broader societal ramifications extending beyond mere economic implications.

The ongoing clashes in the Amhara region between government forces and the non-state militia, Fano, also yielded detrimental consequences, particularly within the healthcare sector. Essential supply chains have been significantly disrupted, precipitating acute shortages of medical provisions within hospitals.

Regional health authorities conveyed their apprehensions to Addis Standard, disclosing that healthcare facilities in the area are contending with scarcities of vital medications for chronic ailments like diabetes, along with laboratory diagnostic reagents.

In November 2023, Addis Standard also reported that the continuing conflict in the Amhara region has led to road closures, severely impeding the prompt delivery of crucial food assistance to drought-affected communities in the Waghimra zone.

Additionally, the conflict has impeded the transportation of agricultural fertilizer within the Amhara region. The Amhara Bureau of Agriculture recently underscored the challenges encountered in ferrying agricultural fertilizer, which had commenced transportation from the Djibouti port.

Addis accentuated the threats posed to citizens’ freedom of movement and economic stability as a result of the prevailing insecurity, and advocates for enhanced security measures and greater respect for drivers to effectively tackle these pressing issues.

Concerning the assaults targeting drivers in the Fentale district of the Oromia region, Addis Standard was unable to incorporate the viewpoints of District Police Inspector Temeseng and his deputy, Inspector Muluneh, as they declined to respond to our request for input and clarification.

Similarly, efforts to reach out to the public relations departments of the Ethiopian National Defense Force, the Federal Police, and the Ministry of Transport and Logistics were unsuccessful. AS

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