Despite surging forward, Ethiopia “Not FREE” – Freedom House

Ethiopia has made huge strides in the democratic front since Abiy Ahmed was appointed Prime Minister in April 2018, but much more needs to be done to make Ethiopia a truly democratic and free nation, according to the annual report from Freedom House

In Ethiopia, the monopolistic ruling party began to loosen its grip in response to three years of protests, installing a reform-minded prime minister who oversaw the lifting of a state of emergency, the release of political prisoners, and the creation of space for more public discussion of political issues. But none of these progress deny the fact that all 547 seats of Ethiopia’s House of Representatives were elected through fair and free elections, giving Ethiopia a score of 1 out of 12 on its electoral process.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In February, Prime Minister
    Hailemariam Desalegn resigned unexpectedly amid growing antigovernment
    protests. Abiy Ahmed—a 42-year-old former military officer from
    Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, and a member of the ruling
    EPRDF—was confirmed as the new prime minister in April, and has embarked
    on an ambitious reform agenda aimed at opening civic and political
    space.
  • The environment for the media improved
    significantly during the year. The government released imprisoned
    journalists, and by December, there were no journalists in Ethiopian
    prisons for the first time since 2004, according to the Committee to
    Protect Journalists (CPJ). In June, authorities lifted bans against the
    diaspora-run media channels Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), and
    the Oromo Media Network (OMN), which then opened operations in Ethiopia.
  • Restrictions on opposition leader and
    groups eased throughout the year. In January, the government released
    hundreds of political prisoners, including Merera Gudina, leader of the
    Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). In June, Parliament removed Ginbot 7,
    the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Ogaden National Liberation
    Front (ONLF) from its list of terrorist organizations.
  • Intercommunal violence related to
    political, ethnic, border, and land issues continued throughout the year
    in locations across the country, and displaced at least a million
    people in 2018 alone.

Overview: 

Ethiopia
is undergoing a potential transition, set off by the 2018 appointment
of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed following sustained antigovernment
protests. Abiy has pledged to reform Ethiopia’s authoritarian state,
ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)
since 1991, and rewrite the country’s repressive electoral, terrorism,
and media laws. However, Ethiopia remains beset by political
factionalism and intercommunal violence, abuses by security forces and
violations of due process are still common, and many restrictive laws
remain in force.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 7 / 40 (+3)

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 1 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The president is the head of state and is indirectly elected to a
six-year term by both chambers of Parliament. The prime minister is head
of government, and is selected by the largest party in Parliament after
elections, or in the case of a resignation. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—a
42-year-old former military officer from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic
group, the Oromo, and a member of the ruling EPRDF—was sworn in as prime
minister in April 2018, succeeding Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned
in February amid growing protests at which demonstrators demanded
greater political rights. Abiy was reconfirmed at the EPRDF party
congress in October. The last parliamentary elections, which led to the
selection of Desalegn as prime minister in 2015, were not held in
accordance with democratic standards.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

The bicameral Parliament includes the 153-seat House of Federation,
whose members are elected by state assemblies to five-year terms, and
the House of People’s Representatives, with 547 members directly elected
to five-year terms.

The 2015 parliamentary and regional elections were tightly controlled
by the EPRDF, with reports of voter coercion, intimidation, and
registration barriers. The opposition lost its sole parliamentary seat,
as the EPRDF and its allies took all 547 seats in the House of People’s
Representatives.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are
they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
1 / 4

The 2015 elections were held on time and official results were
released within a month. However, opposition parties repeatedly
questioned the independence of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia
(NEBE), and the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party alleged that
it blocked its leaders from registering as candidates.

Prime Minister Abiy has promised electoral reforms, and in November
2018, he met with opposition leaders to discuss how to make the
electoral framework fairer. Also in November, Parliament confirmed
Birtukan Mideksa, a prominent, previously exiled former opposition
leader, to serve as head of the NEBE. At year’s end, Parliament was
considering a draft bill designed to increase the independence of the
NEBE.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 3 / 16 (+3)

B1.      Do the people have the right to organize in
different political parties or other competitive political groupings of
their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and
fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1 / 4 (+1)

Opponents of the EPRDF have found it nearly impossible to operate
inside Ethiopia and were subject to prosecution under restrictive
antiterrorism and other legislation. However, in 2018, authorities took a
number of actions that gave political groupings more freedom to
operate.

In January 2018, the government released hundreds of political
prisoners, including Merera Gudina, leader of the OFC. Bekele Gerba,
another prominent OFC figure, was freed in February. Both Merera and
Bekele had been jailed on trumped-up charged of terrorism. In May,
Andargachew Tsige, who had been sentenced to death for his membership in
the banned opposition group Ginbot 7, was pardoned. In June, Parliament
removed Ginbot 7 and two other groups—the OLF, and the ONLF—from its
list of terrorist organizations as a first step toward fostering
peaceful and constructive political dialogue. And in July, Parliament
approved a widespread amnesty for thousands of individuals charged with
treason and other crimes against the state, most of whom had been
released earlier in the year. These changes have paved the way for many
high-profile opposition figures to return from exile, including Birhanu
Nega of Ginbot 7, who returned in September after 11 years in exile.

Abiy’s administration has pledged reforms that will ease the legal
and practical requirements for opposition parties to operate, though
substantial changes are necessary before political parties can carry out
activities freely.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because the
government took a number of steps that allowed political groupings
greater freedom to operate, including releasing political prisoners,
pardoning opposition leaders, and enacting an amnesty for thousands of
people charged with crimes against the state.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 1 / 4 (+1)

The EPRDF still maintains numerous formal and informal advantages
over opposition parties, and there are no opposition parties represented
in Parliament. However, the changes Prime Minister Abiy’s government
began to implement in 2018 improved conditions for opposition groupings,
which may now prepare more openly for the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Abiy in August 2018 expressed a commitment to democratic polls, and
pledged that he would not allow his reforms to delay the vote.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because Prime
Minister Abiy’s reforms allow opposition groupings to operate more
openly in advance of 2020 elections.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from
domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies,
economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not
democratically accountable? 0 / 4

Ethiopia’s powerful military has been influential in the country’s
politics, and patronage networks, often based on ethnicity, often drive
political decision-making. The authoritarian one-party system in
Ethiopia largely excludes the public from genuine political
participation, though nascent attempts by Abiy to include more diverse
voices in the political system could yield positive results.

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including
ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full
political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4 (+1)

Women hold nearly 39 percent of seats in the lower house and 32
percent in the upper house, but in practice, the interests of women are
not well represented in politics. Prime Minister Abiy has made some
effort, however, to include women in high-level decision-making
processes. In 2018, women were appointed to a number of prominent
positions including the presidency, head of the NEBE, head of the
Supreme Court, and to half of all cabinet posts.

Political parties in Ethiopia are often based on ethnicity. The
country’s major ethnic parties are allied with the EPRDF, but have
historically had little room to effectively advocate for their
constituents. Ongoing friction inside the ruling coalition between the
Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which previously dominated
decision-making as well as resource allocation, and the other ethnically
based parties, including Prime Minister Abiy’s Oromo People’s
Democratic Organization (OPDO), continues.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 due to the appointments of women to a number of senior government posts.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 3 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and
national legislative representatives determine the policies of the
government? 0 / 4

None of Ethiopia’s nominally elected officials were chosen through
credible elections, and the country’s governance institutions remain
dominated by the EPRDF.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Corruption and unequal resource distribution are significant problems
that have contributed to the unrest that has plagued Ethiopia in recent
years. The government has taken some steps to address the issue, which
remains a priority for Prime Minister Abiy’s administration.

In November and December 2018, a number of high-profile military and
government officials were arrested and charged with corruption. Notably,
26 high-level employees of the military-run Metals and Engineering
Corporation (MeTEC), including its chief executive, were arrested on
corruption charges, and were awaiting trial at the end of the year. Some
critics have accused the government of selectively prosecuting
officials from the Tigray ethnic group, which has dominated the military
for decades. However, a number of non-Tigray officials were also
arrested in the sweep.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4

Although EPRDF operations and decision-making processes have
generally been opaque, the government has attempted to increase
transparency in recent years, and in 2018 consulted with community
organizations and journalists to advance reform efforts. The Legal and
Justice Affairs Advisory Council was established in June 2018, and has a
three-year term to study the country’s restrictive terrorism, media,
and nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws and recommend reforms to
them. The council includes a number of legal professionals with various
areas of expertise.

However, government procurement processes remain largely opaque, and
some companies are still awarded government contracts without a tender.
Due to widespread insecurity, in April the government postponed the
census, which was originally scheduled for November 2017, by one year.
(Carrying out the census is essential for planning the budget.)

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 12 / 60 (+4)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 4 / 16 (+2)

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4 (+1)

After years of severe restrictions on press freedom, the government
took initial steps to increase freedoms for independent media in 2018. A
number of prominent journalists were released from prison during the
year, including Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye, who were both freed in
February after they each had served almost seven years in prison for
criticizing the restrictive 2009 terrorism laws. As of December, no
journalists were imprisoned in Ethiopia for the first time since 2004,
according to CPJ. However, this progress was tempered somewhat by the
arrests and detentions of five journalists and bloggers along with
several politicians in March; they had been attending a party, which
violated a state of emergency imposed the previous month that required
permission for gatherings. After being detained for 12 days, the
journalists were released with the others.

Ethiopia’s media landscape is dominated by state-owned broadcasters
and government-oriented newspapers. However, since Prime Minister Abiy
took office in April, the government has eased restrictions on
independent media, permitting both greater freedom for journalists and a
more diverse range of news for consumers. In June, the government
lifted bans on 264 websites (including news sites and blogs) and
television networks. Among the outlets allowed to reopen were the
US-based diaspora satellite television stations, Ethiopian Satellite
Television (ESAT), and the Oromo Media Network (OMN), which had been
charged with inciting terrorism and banned in 2017. They each opened
offices in Ethiopia after the bans were lifted; earlier, in May, the
charges against both networks were dropped.

The government has promised to revise its controversial 2008 mass
media law, which gives broad powers to the government to prosecute
defamation, but at the end of 2018 legislation had not yet been drafted.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because the
government eased restrictions on media, including by lifting bans on
news outlets and releasing imprisoned journalists.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4

The constitution guarantees religious freedom, but the government has
historically discriminated against Muslims, who comprise about 34
percent of the population. In 2018, however, the relationship between
the government and the Muslim community began to improve. Between
February and May, more than a dozen prominent Muslim activists who had
been convicted under the country’s antiterrorism law in 2015 for
protesting against the government’s treatment of Muslims were released
from prison. Additionally, Prime Minister Abiy facilitated dialogues
during the year to heal schisms in both the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
and among the country’s Islamic leaders.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4

Academic freedom is restricted in Ethiopia. The government has
accused universities of being pro-opposition and prohibits political
activities on campuses. There are reports of students being pressured
into joining the EPRDF in order to secure employment or admission to
universities; professors are similarly pressured in order to ensure
favorable positions or promotions. The Ministry of Education closely
monitors and regulates official curricula, and the research, speech, and
assembly rights of both professors and students are frequently
restricted.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views
on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or
retribution? 1 / 4 (+1)

Wide-reaching surveillance programs and the presence of the EPRDF at
all levels of society have inhibited private discussion. However, broad
political changes in 2018, including the release of political prisoners
and lifting of bans against prominent government critics in the media
and other sectors has fostered a more open atmosphere for private
discussion. And unlike in some previous years, in 2018 there were no
reported arrests of private citizens in connection with antigovernment
remarks.

Some international organizations have expressed concerns about a
proposed hate speech law that the Office of the Attorney General began
drafting in November, arguing that it could curtail free speech. The
draft legislation could place restrictions on social media posts, which
some government officials have partially blamed for ethnic violence that
wracked the country in 2018. The law had not yet been enacted as of
December.

In response to violence or unrest, the government is known to shut
down internet access, curtailing people’s ability to communicate. In
August, in response to ethnic clashes, the government shut down mobile
and broadband internet access in the Somali Region for several days.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because broad
political reforms have resulted in individuals’ increased willingness to
express political views in private discussions.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 2 / 12 (+2)

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4 (+1)

Severe restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed by the EPRDF
government in the past eased somewhat in 2018, as demonstrations were
more frequently allowed to occur without interference. However, protests
were still sometimes violently dispersed by security forces. In August,
for example, police opened fire on a group of demonstrators protesting
the looting of property owned by ethnic minorities in the Somali Region,
killing four people.

A government-imposed state of emergency, which was announced in
February in response to the escalating ethnic violence and the
resignation of former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, effectively
banned public protests until it was lifted in June, two months earlier
than planned. The internet was blocked several times in 2018 in response
to mass demonstrations, hampering their organization. In September,
mobile internet was blocked for three days in Addis Ababa in the wake of
protests.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because demonstrations were more frequently allowed to occur without interference.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations,
particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and
governance-related work? 1 / 4 (+1)

In 2018, the space for NGOs to operate opened significantly. NGOs can
now more freely organize public events, renew registration, and make
public statements that are critical of the government without facing
harassment or intimidation by authorities.

The 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation restricts the
activities of foreign NGOs by prohibiting work on political and human
rights issues, though Prime Minister Abiy has promised to revise the
legislation, and the Legal and Justice Affairs Advisory Council sought
input from an array of NGOs during its review of the law. A draft of the
new proclamation, which would ease funding restrictions for human
rights groups and politically oriented NGOs and limit the ability of the
Charities and Societies Agency to interfere with their operations, was
under consideration by the Council of Ministers at the end of 2018.

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because government interference with the work of NGOs decreased.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4

Trade union rights are tightly restricted. Neither civil servants nor
teachers have collective bargaining rights. All unions must be
registered, and the government retains the authority to cancel
registration. Two-thirds of union members belong to organizations
affiliated with the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, which is
under government influence. Independent unions face harassment, and
trade union leaders are regularly imprisoned. There has not been a legal
strike since 1993, though unsanctioned ones sometimes take place.

F. RULE OF LAW: 2 / 16

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 1 / 4

The judiciary is officially independent, but in practice it is
subject to political interference, and judgments rarely deviate from
government policy. The November 2018 appointment of lawyer and civil
society leader Meaza Ashenafi as chief justice of the Supreme Court has
raised hopes for judicial reform. Ashenafi has promised to build
judicial independence and reduce corruption in the courts, and she
claims to have the support of Prime Minister Abiy in this endeavor.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4

Due process rights are generally not respected. However, in 2018, the
Legal and Justice Affairs Advisory Council began a review of the 2009
Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, which has been used to arbitrarily arrest
opposition figures, NGO leaders, journalists, and other critics of the
government. In February 2018, 10,000 people who had been arbitrarily
detained under a state of emergency imposed in October 2017 were
released, though the government also said it intended to bring charges
against thousands of others detained in the sweep.

Despite some positive developments in 2018, arbitrary arrest and
detention remains common. During one weekend in September, nearly 3,000
people were arrested in a sweep purportedly meant to address rising
crime in Addis Ababa, with many detained for activities that are not
criminal offenses in Ethiopia, such as smoking shisha. Although many of
those arrested were promptly released, some 1,200 youths detained for
their alleged participation in September protests against ethnic
violence were sent to a military facility for a month, for
“rehabilitation.” The right to a fair trial is often not respected,
particularly for opponents of the government charged under the
antiterrorism law.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

Ethnic violence and unrest continued in numerous regions of Ethiopia
in 2018, mainly between members of the Oromo community and other groups,
and the violence escalated after Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, took office. In
response to the crisis, in which numerous people were killed and at
least a million people were displaced in 2018 alone, Parliament approved
a new reconciliation commission in December to promote dialogue and
encourage a peaceful resolution to the conflicts.

Earlier, in August, Prime Minister Abiy deployed the army to the
eastern Somali Region amid an apparent dispute between regional and
federal authorities and an outbreak of violence against ethnic
minorities; federal forces subsequently arrested and imprisoned the
region’s president, Abdi Illey, on charges of orchestrating widespread
rights abuses and stoking ethnic violence.

Security forces frequently commit human rights violations including
torture and extrajudicial killings, and often act with impunity.
However, the new government has shown some willingness to hold police
and military personnel accountable. In November, 36 senior intelligence
officials were arrested for human rights abuses including torture, and
awaited trial at year’s end.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4

Repression of the Oromo and ethnic Somalis, and government attempts
to coopt their political parties into EPRDF allies, has fueled
nationalism in the Oromia and Somali regions. The property of ethnic
minorities, and of people living in areas where they are not members of
the majority group, are frequently targeted in the unrest that has
wracked Ethiopia.

Same-sex sexual activity is prohibited by law and punishable by up to
15 years’ imprisonment. Women face discrimination in education, access
to credit, and employment.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 4 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including
the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or
education? 1 / 4

While the constitution establishes freedom of movement, violence,
particularly in the Oromia and Somali regions, impedes people’s ability
to travel freely.

In September 2018, following a declaration of peace between Ethiopia
and Eritrea in July, key border crossings between the two countries
opened for the first time in 20 years.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own
property and establish private businesses without undue interference
from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

Private business opportunities are limited by rigid state control of
economic life and the prevalence of state-owned enterprises. Prime
Minister Abiy has promised to implement significant economic reforms,
and in June 2018, the government announced that it would open state
monopolies in aviation and telecommunications to private investment.

All land must be leased from the state. The government has evicted
indigenous groups from various areas to make way for infrastructure
projects. It has also leased large tracts of land to foreign governments
and investors for agricultural development in opaque deals that have
resulted in the displacement of thousands of people.

Evictions have taken place in the Lower Omo Valley, where
government-run sugar plantations and hydroelectric dams have put
thousands of pastoralists at risk by diverting their water supplies.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms,
including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from
domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4

Legislation protects women’s rights, but these rights are routinely
violated in practice. Enforcement of laws against rape and domestic
abuse is inconsistent, and cases routinely stall in the courts. In 2018,
a joint research project conducted by academics at Debre Markos
University in Ethiopia and the University of Queensland in Australia
concluded that almost half of Ethiopian women become victims of
gender-based violence in their lifetimes.

Forced child marriage is illegal but common in Ethiopia, and
prosecutions for the crime are rare. According to UN International
Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) statistics for 2017, 40 percent of
women are married before the age of 18. Female genital mutilation (FGM)
is also illegal, but the law is inconsistently enforced, and the 2016
Ethiopian Demographic Health Survey found that 65 percent of women
between the ages of 15 and 49 had undergone the practice. However,
reports suggest that FGM rates have reduced in recent years due to
efforts by both NGOs and the government to combat the practice.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4

Trafficking convictions have increased in recent years, though the US
government continues to urge its Ethiopian counterparts to more
aggressively pursue trafficking cases. Many children continue to work in
dangerous sectors and lack access to basic education and services. Most
agricultural labor in rural areas is performed by women, but these
women are generally excluded from decision-making processes regarding
their work.

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