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Ethiopia 2011 OSAC Crime and Safety Report

Africa > Ethiopia > Addis Ababa

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is a developing country in East Africa. It is comprised of nine states and two city administrations (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa). The capital is Addis Ababa. Tourism facilities can be found in the most populous regions of Ethiopia, but infrastructure is basic. The ruling EPRDF party and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi maintain strong control of the government and economy. Despite several years of high economic growth, the country remains vulnerable to external economic shocks and recurring drought.

Crime Threats

Review your personal safety and security posture, remain vigilant, and be cautious when frequenting prominent public places and landmarks. Pick-pocketing, “snatch and run” thefts on foot and from occupied vehicles, and other petty crimes are common in Addis Ababa. These are generally crimes of opportunity rather than planned attacks. Exercise caution in crowded areas and avoid visiting the Mercato in Addis Ababa, a large open-air market. In 2008, an explosion in the Mercato killed several and wounded more than a dozen individuals. Limit the amount of cash you carry, and leave valuables in a hotel safe or other secure place. Keep wallets and other valuables where they will be less susceptible to pick-pockets. If you have a cellular phone, carry it with you.

Road Safety

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ethiopia has the highest rate of traffic fatalities per vehicle in the world. Roads are poorly maintained, inadequately marked, and poorly lit. Road travel after dark outside cities is dangerous and discouraged due to hazards posed by broken-down vehicles left in the road, pedestrians walking in the road, stray animals, and the possibility of armed robbery. Road lighting in cities is inadequate at best and nonexistent outside of cities. Excessive speed, unpredictable local driving habits, pedestrians and livestock in the roadway, and the lack of adherence to basic safety standards for vehicles are daily hazards on Ethiopian roads. Many vehicles are unlicensed and many drivers lack basic driver training or insurance. Drivers should always carry spare tires, fuel, and tools on long trips, as there is no roadside assistance.

Public transport is unregulated and unsafe; if travelers do use public transport, they should use taxis, not minibuses or large buses, and ensure they are the only passengers in the vehicle. 

Political Violence

Historical Perspective

While Ethiopia is generally stable, domestic insurgent groups, extremists from Somalia, and the heavy military build-up along the northern border pose risks to safety and security, particularly along Ethiopia’s borders and in the Somali region of Ethiopia. In southern Ethiopia along the Kenyan border, banditry and incidents involving ethnic conflicts are also common. Travelers should exercise caution in any remote area of the country, including the borders with Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya and Sudan. Ethiopian security forces do not have a widespread presence in those regions.

Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime

Due to serious safety and security concerns, U.S. government personnel and their families are presently restricted from visiting the Merkato area in Addis Ababa, and also from traveling to the following outlying areas of the country:

Somali Region (Eastern Ethiopia): Travel to Ethiopia's Somali region and to the cities of Harar and Jijiga is restricted for U.S. government employees. Since the mid-1990's, members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) have conducted attacks on civilian targets near the city of Harar and in the Somali regional state, particularly in the Ogaden zones. Expatriates have been killed in these attacks.

Ethiopia/Eritrea Border (Northern Ethiopia): Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement in December 2000 that ended their border war. However, the border remains an issue of contention between the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The border area is a militarized zone where the possibility of armed conflict between Ethiopian and Eritrean forces continues to exist. Travel is, therefore, restricted within 30 miles of the Eritrean border west of Adigrat to the Sudanese border, with the exception of the town of Axum, and within 60 miles of the border east of Adigrat to the Djiboutian border.

Gambella Region (Western Ethiopia): Sporadic inter-ethnic clashes remain a concern throughout the Gambella region of western Ethiopia. There is a heavy military and police presence in the town of Gambella. While the security situation in the town of Gambella is generally calm, it remains unpredictable throughout the rest of the region.

International or Transnational Terrorism

A number of al-Qaida operatives and other extremists are believed to be operating in and around Africa. Since the July 11, 2010 terrorist bombings in Kampala, Uganda, for which the Somalia-based, US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility, there have been increased threats against public areas across East Africa. Current information suggests that al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against US interests in multiple regions, including Africa.

Post-Specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Ethiopia is a mountainous country, and the high altitude may cause health problems, even for healthy travelers. Addis Ababa is the third highest capital city in the world, at an altitude of 8,300 feet. Travelers may experience shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, headaches, and an inability to sleep. Individuals with respiratory (including asthma) or heart conditions should consult with a health care professional before traveling.

There is a risk of earthquakes in Ethiopia. Buildings may collapse due to strong tremors.

Land mines and other anti-personnel devices can be encountered on isolated dirt roads that were targeted during various conflicts, especially along the Eritrean border. Before undertaking any off-road travel, inquire with local authorities to ensure that the area has been cleared of mines.

Industrial and Transportation Accidents

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has assessed Ethiopia’s Civil Aviation Authority as being in compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards for oversight of Ethiopia’s air carrier operations.

The government has closed air routes near the border with Eritrea and has referred to the airspace as a “no-fly zone.” The FAA currently prohibits U.S. aircraft and pilots from flying in Ethiopian airspace north of 12 degrees north latitude, the area along the country's northern border with Eritrea.

Police Response

The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line in Ethiopia is 991. If you or someone you know becomes the victim of a crime, should contact the local police and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

If you are in a traffic accident, do not leave the scene unless you fear for your personal safety. Special units of the traffic police investigate traffic accidents. Normal investigative procedures require the police to conduct on on-scene investigation, after which all involved parties go to the Traffic Department for a vehicle inspection and to provide details about the accident for a final report. If possible, obtain the names and contact information of all persons involved in the accident and make a note of the extent of any injuries; make a note of any registration information (tag number) of other vehicle(s) involved; and obtain the other driver’s permit data, and give similar information or registration/permit data to the other driver and to the police upon request.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

If you are arrested or detained in Ethiopia, it is unlikely that government authorities will notify the U.S. embassy. You have the right to request authorities alert the U.S. embassy of your detention or arrest in accordance with the 1951 Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations between the United States and Ethiopia. Therefore, use whatever means of communication available to alert the embassy of your situation.

Medical Emergencies

Health facilities in Addis Ababa are very limited and are generally inadequate outside the capital. Even the best hospitals in Addis Ababa suffer from inadequate facilities, antiquated equipment, and shortages of supplies (particularly medicines). There is a shortage of physicians. Emergency assistance is limited. Psychiatric services and medications are practically nonexistent. Travelers must carry their own supplies of prescription drugs and preventive medicines, as well as a doctor's note describing the medication. If the quantity of drugs exceeds that which would be expected for personal use, a permit from the Ministry of Health is required.

Serious illnesses and injuries often require travelers to be medically evacuated from Ethiopia to a location where adequate medical attention is available. Such “medevac” services are very expensive and are generally available only to travelers who either have travel insurance that covers medevac services or who are able to pay in advance the considerable cost of such services.

Vaccinations & Risk of Disease

Travelers should avoid swimming in any lakes, rivers, or still bodies of water. Most bodies of water have been found to contain parasites. Travelers should be aware that Ethiopia has a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Ethiopia has had outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea, possible cholera, typhoid, or other bacterial diarrhea in the recent past, and the conditions for reoccurrences continue to exist in both urban and rural settings. Malaria is prevalent outside of the highland areas. Travelers who become ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling in a malaria-risk area and up to one year after returning home should seek prompt medical attention and explain their travel history and which anti-malarials they have been taking.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Do not carry unnecessary items in your bag; leave your credit cards, social security card, etc. at home.

Persons violating Ethiopian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Ethiopia are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. For example, do not buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may also be breaking local law. Permits are required before exporting either antiques or animal skins from Ethiopia. Antique religious artifacts, including "Ethiopian” crosses, require documentation from the National Museum in Addis Ababa for export.

U.S. citizens should consider the risk of attending or being near large public gatherings or venues where westerners gather on a routine or predictable basis. Such gatherings or venues can provide vulnerable targets for extremist or terrorist groups.

US citizens should avoid, if possible, using public transportation and transportation hubs. Beware of unattended baggage or packages left in any location, including in mini-buses and taxis.

Travelers should be cautious at all times when traveling on roads in Ethiopia. There have been reports of highway robbery, including carjacking, by armed bandits outside urban areas. Some incidents have been accompanied by violence. Travelers are cautioned to limit road travel outside major towns or cities to daylight hours and travel in convoys, if possible. When driving, be wary of other motorists warning you of a mechanical problem or loose tire. This may be a ruse used by thieves to get you to stop the vehicle. Most of all, be alert and aware of your surroundings at all times to ensure that you aren't being followed. While in a vehicle, keep your doors locked and the windows rolled up at all times. Keep bags, purses, and valuables out of sight. Do not open your doors or windows to give to beggars. It is unlawful to use a cell phone or other electronic communications device while driving in Ethiopia (even if it has a hands-free feature), and use of seat belts is required. Be sure to carry your valid Ethiopian driver’s license with you, as well as proof of comprehensive local insurance coverage, and your US passport or Ethiopian Identification card.

Ethiopian law strictly prohibits the photographing of military installations, police/military personnel, industrial facilities, government buildings, and infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, airfields, etc.). Such sites are rarely marked. Travel guides, police, and Ethiopian officials can advise if a particular site may be photographed. Photographing prohibited sites may result in the confiscation of film and camera.

Ethiopia is primarily a cash economy. Cash dollars and some of the more popular traveler's checks can be changed at the airport and at some banks. There are some ATMs at major hotels and commercial centers that accept the major international credit and debit cards although connectivity problems sometimes limit their availability. Credit cards are not accepted at most hotels, restaurants, shops, or other local facilities, although they are accepted at the Hilton and Sheraton Hotels in Addis Ababa. While credit cards are gaining acceptance with some hotels, travel agencies, and merchants, it is best to check ahead and ensure you have sufficient cash reserves. Also, Ethiopian institutions have on occasion refused to accept 1996 series U.S. currency although official policy is that such currency should be treated as legal tender. Foreign currency should be exchanged in authorized banks, hotels, and other legally authorized outlets, and proper receipts should be obtained for the transactions. Exchange receipts are required to convert unused Ethiopian currency back to the original foreign currency. Penalties for exchanging money on the black market range from fines to imprisonment. Some hotels and car rental companies, particularly in Addis Ababa, may require foreigners to pay in foreign currency or show a receipt for the source of foreign exchange if paying in local currency. Many hotels and establishments, however, are not permitted to accept foreign currency or may be reluctant to do so.

Resident and non-resident travelers can carry $3,000 in foreign currency in and out of Ethiopia with proper evidence of its source. Employees of embassies and foreign organizations or individuals entering into the country through embassies or foreign organizations on temporary employment (e.g., to attend seminars, to give training) may leave the country carrying more than $3,000 in cash only when they can produce evidence that they were paid directly from a bank. Residents may carry foreign currency upon departure, but only by producing evidence that the currency was purchased from a bank or by producing a customs declaration not more than 45 days after it was issued. Travelers can only carry up to 200 Ethiopian Birr out of the country.

Business travelers or employees of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who intend to stay for 90 days or more must apply for a residence card/work permit in order to continue working and living in Ethiopia. Travelers must apply for this permit within the first 30 days of their stay in Ethiopia and must not work until this permit is approved. Travelers should check with their sponsoring organization to ensure they have the correct documentation in place, or they risk penalties, including detention, fines, and deportation. The Government of Ethiopia’s regulations also allow for similar penalties for those who assist others to reside illegally in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia does not recognize dual nationality. The Government of Ethiopia considers Ethiopians who naturalized in the United States to be U.S. citizens. Such individuals are not subject to Ethiopian military service. The Ethiopian government has stated that Ethiopian-U.S. citizens in almost all cases are given the same opportunity to invest in Ethiopia as Ethiopians. Several years ago, the Government of Ethiopia arrested people of Eritrean origin who initially failed to disclose their U.S. citizenship. However, this has not occurred in recent years. Ethiopian officials have stated that Eritrean-U.S. citizens are treated as U.S. citizens and are not subject to arrest simply because of their ties to Eritrea although, as noted above, they are not permitted to obtain tourist visas at the airport.

Contact Information

The embassy can help replace a stolen passport, can help you find appropriate medical care, contact family members or friends, and help them send you money if you need it. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime are solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if you need.

If you are going to live in or visit Ethiopia, please take the time to tell the embassy about your trip. If you enroll, we can keep you up to date with important safety and security announcements. It will also help your friends and family get in touch with you in an emergency. To enroll your stay or visit, click the STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) button at http://travel.state.gov.

US Embassy Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Switchboard: +251 11 130-6000

Facsimile: +251 11 124-2435 and +251 11 124-2419

OSAC Country Council Contact Information

An OSAC Country Council has been established in Ethiopia. For more information, or for advice and assistance on crime and safety, please contact the Regional Security Office (RSO):

Security Office: +251 11 130-6400

RSO Cellphone: +251 91 151-1683

Marine Guard (24 Hours): +251 11 130-6911

Email: DS_RSO_AddisAbaba@state.gov