Ethiopia: the need for comprehensive, speedy and inclusive reform

Guest article by Fisseha Tekle, Amnesty International

Introduction

In Ethiopia, a wind of change has been blowing since the appointment of Dr Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in April 2018. In addition to the mass release of prisoners, including hundreds of prisoners of conscience, the new administration lifted the latest state of emergency that had been declared in February 2018 as effective for six months.[1] Many hoped that the new administration of Prime Minister Ahmed would rescue a country that was spiralling into full-fledged crisis. Since September 2017, various parts of Ethiopia have seen ethnically motivated mass evictions, frequent killings by the security forces that amount to extrajudicial executions, and a deepening rift in the ruling coalition that paralysed the government in the face of the mounting crisis.

In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Ahmed acknowledged the grievances of the people, such as the lack of equitable economic justice and inclusive political space, which led to the continuous protests. Apologising for the lives lost and those maimed and arrested due to the heavy-handed response to the protests, the new prime minister also promised to review the laws and institutions to resolve systemic failures to respect and protect human rights.

It has been three months since the new prime minister took office. However, the purpose here is not to assess the successes and failures of the new administration to date. Neither is this contribution to the 2018 CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report setting out the new human rights standards the new administration should meet - without downplaying the importance of these. Rather, my focus is on drawing pragmatic lessons from the grim consequences of the constricted space for civic engagement in the last 13 years, covering the time the Ethiopian government started squeezing the media, civil society and opposition political parties in the aftermath of the May 2005 parliamentary election.

Hence this article explores the genesis and impacts of the laws that effectively and significantly crippled the space for engagement. In its pragmatic - instead of theoretical - approach, it sets out how the closure of civic space affected the capacity of the government to accommodate grievances and interests other than those of the ruling elite. This was a worrying development that steered Ethiopia to the precipice.

A decade of repression

It all started with the emergence of a strong opposition that threatened the dominance of the ruling party in the 2005 parliamentary election, which was dubbed as relatively competitive. The amount of enthusiasm and support the opposition mobilised within a short time of its formation sent a shock to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF, a coalition of the four ethnic-based parties, took the reins of power from the military junta of the Derg in 1991 after 17 years of armed struggle.

National media outlets provided live coverage of the campaigns preceding the election and the opposition used this newly found platform to win the support of the people. Against the expectations of the ruling party, on the first day of the election it was already known that the opposition coalition had won in a landslide the whole of the capital city of Addis Ababa and other major cities. On the evening of election day, the then prime minister appeared on national TV to announce a ban on outdoor assemblies until further notice. The next few days witnessed multiple accusations of election rigging, including ballot stuffing and theft of ballot boxes, which led the country to violence, mainly in Addis Ababa. Government security forces cracked down the protests, killing at least 193 people.[2]

Yet that was not all. The government conducted widespread arrests, targeting protesters and members and leaders of the opposition coalition. Among those arrested were three civil society leaders and journalists. Their organisations had been active in voter education, election monitoring and related election activities, attracting the attention of the ruling party. More importantly, they had challenged in court the decision of the Election Board that banned civil society from monitoring the election.

The ensuing court trials, which resulted in the conviction and sentencing of the accused, including the civil society leaders, were far from fair, with noticeable irregularities such as a lack of judicial independence or impartiality.[3] The impacts of the clampdown on opposition political parties, the media and civil society were felt immediately. In the next election of 2007, to fill the parliamentary seats left vacant by the opposition, the EPRDF won all the electoral districts.

Once the ruling party consolidated its power, it took lessons from the 2005 election. It launched a series of legislative measures intended to limit the space for civic engagement, in the media and civil society, and to weaken political opposition parties. The strategy was simple: criminalise and outlaw the freedoms of association, assembly and expression to cripple the media, civil society and opposition political parties. The Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation No 590/08, the Charities and Societies Proclamation No 621/09 and the Anti-terrorism Proclamation No 652/09 achieved their objectives. The EPRDF won all but one seat in the Federal Parliament in 2010. The ruling party broke its own record in 2015 by winning all 547 seats in the body.

The above laws constricted the space for a democratic process such as an election. In the meantime, the ruling party used the national media without any restriction to promote its election campaign agenda. The Election Board limited the role of civil society in election-related activities, something also achieved by the Civil Society Proclamation. On top of that, private media houses were forced to close and flee Ethiopia due to the provisions of the media and anti-terrorism laws. For example, in August 2014 alone, more than 30 journalists fled the country to neighbouring Kenya in the wake of a government-sponsored publication that listed several private media houses as terrorist groups.[4]

However, the EPRDF's strategy to control the formal power structures of the country by stifling a plurality of views was its own nemesis.

Demos and crisis

In April and May 2014, frustrated by widespread displacement of residents on the pretext of development, young people staged protests in many parts of Oromia Region. The immediate trigger was the draft Addis Ababa-Oromia Integrated Master Plan, which protesters perceived as providing another excuse to displace Oromo farmers without adequate procedural guarantees, consultations and immediate and adequate compensation.

These protests met the iron fist of security forces that killed and wounded the largely peaceful protesters. The provisions of the Anti-terrorism Proclamation were used to arrest and detain arbitrarily, charge and convict the perceived leaders of the protests. However, this did not deter the demand for freedom to voice the grievances of the people, a demand that had been simmering for years.

The protests in Oromia, which spread to the neighbouring Amhara Region, were part of a recent history of protests. The Muslim community of Ethiopia, mainly in Addis Ababa, Dessie, Silte, Jimma and other parts of the country, have protested since 2012 against alleged state interference in religious matters. Members of the Konso Community in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) have also protested to demand an ethnically homogenous administrative unit since June 2015.

In October 2015, five months after the ruling party won all the parliamentary seats in the 2015 general election, in an environment of repression and following series of arrests against opposition leaders and critical bloggers, the protests in Oromia re-erupted. Only this time the protesters came back stronger, coordinated and with demands for the government, and protests were widespread. The protesters articulated their demands clearly: political and economic equality, release of prisoners of conscience and the rule of law. The state’s brutal crackdown on the protesters was not able to stop the protest. Instead, residents in Amhara Region joined the protest in July 2016 when security forces arrested community leaders promoting the ethnic identity demands of Amhara people in the District of Wolqait-Tegedae, which was allegedly forced to be part of Tigray Region.

Efforts to quell the protests using sheer force, arrests and trumped-up trials did not yield the anticipated instinctive submission from the protesters. Instead, the ethnic-based parties that formed the ruling coalition, especially the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization and, later on, the Amhara National Democratic Movement, aligned themselves with the protesters and started pulling in different direction from party lines. This was unprecedented in the EPRDF, where the tight ethos of democratic centralism has treated the public expression of dissent and criticism within the party as a betrayal. Usually, the party dealt with those who broke ranks harshly, including through killings, arrests and exile.

By September 2017, the country had started to spiral into crisis as the rift in the ruling party deepened and the protests continued in various parts of Ethiopia. In September 2017 alone more than 700,000 people were displaced from Somali Region due to their ethnic background. Ethnically motivated attacks were popping up in different parts of the country, especially in Benishangul, Oromia and SNNPR. Members of the National Defense Force were also spraying bullets at civilians and protesters in Hamaresa (in September 2017 and February 2018), Chinaksen (December 2017), Ambo (October 2017), Moyale (March 2018) and Weldia and neighbouring towns (February 2018).

It was in the middle of this mounting crisis that Hailemariam Desalegn, the EPRDF Chair and Prime Minister, resigned from both posts in February 2018 and the government declared a state of emergency, the second of its kind in less than two years. Dr Ahmed took over both positions and promised a wide range of reforms to address the grievances of the protesters, widen civic space and ensure economic justice.

The big lesson

The main lesson from the experiences of the last 13 years is that popular demand for freedom cannot be bridled using sheer force. Hence, I urge the new administration to accelerate reform through a process that is inclusive and transparent.

Presumably, members of the ruling party who lost their political power through the reform process are unhappy. Avoiding potential accountability for heinous crimes and systemic corruption are incentives for former security officials and the reactionary elements of the ruling party to fight back against the reform process. Hence, there is a need to entrench the reforms in laws and institutions to ensure that they are irreversible.

Most importantly, the country is approaching the 2019 local elections and 2020 general election. Yet the laws and institutions regulating the framework for civic engagement hinder political parties, media and civil society, inhibiting their effective engagement in the process. At this critical time in Ethiopia, holding a fair and credible election is key to ensuring the legitimacy of the government and peace and stability. However, the credibility of the election is at risk if conducted under the framework of the current repressive laws.

There is also a lesson for other countries in the East Africa region, who have been observing the Ethiopian model. Many neighbouring governments showed interest in the developmental state model of Ethiopia and some of them tried to replicate it. However, countries tempted by the developmental state model should not be deceived by the partial story. The much-applauded economic strides Ethiopia registered in the last 10 years were shadowed by systemic and widespread human rights violations that finally led to political crisis. The whole picture from Ethiopia shows that the benefits of an undue priority being placed on economic development at the expense of human rights are short lived and doomed to crumble. Currently, what stands out is that repressive techniques, as used by the Ethiopia government, are recipes for state failure instead of ensuring sustainable development.

Views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Amnesty International.

[1] ‘Ethiopia: Commentary on the State of Emergency Proclamation’, Amnesty International, 1 March 2018, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr25/7982/2018/en.

[2] Inquiry Commission on the 2005 Post-election Violence, report to The House of Peoples Representatives, 21 March 2007.

[3] ‘Ethiopia: Prisoners of Conscience on Trial for Treason: Opposition Party Leaders, Human Rights Defenders and Journalists’, Amnesty International, 1 May 2006, https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/afr25/013/2006/en.

[4] ‘Mission Journal: Ethiopian journalists must choose between being locked up or locked out’, Committee to Protect Journalists, 29 December 2014, https://cpj.org/blog/2014/12/mission-journal-in-ethiopia-journalists-must-choos.php.