Heading the Wrong Way: The Ever Closing Political Space in Ethiopia




By Adotei Akwei*

Sub-Saharan Africa is facing a growing trend of evaporating political space. Non-governmental organizations are being heavily and often violently restricted, and newspapers, bloggers and other voices of dissent or criticism are being silenced or intimidated into exile.

In some countries such as Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, heads of state are rewriting their constitutions to eliminate term limits, in the process using security forces to squash protests from both political opposition and civil society. In other countries such as in Angola, the governments make use of their control over their judiciaries to intimidate or bury critics and youth activists in legal processes that cripple them financially or trap in never ending trials. Elsewhere, governments invoke the specter of terrorism and threats to national security as justification for passing sweeping laws whose interpretation empowers them to impose draconian penalties on oppositional parties and civil society, with little regard for international standards of due process or international and regional rights standards on freedom of expression, association and assembly.

In several countries government authorities have cracked down on nonviolent protests with violence. On Monday May 17, the Kenyan security forces brutally beat nonviolent demonstrations organized by the opposition Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, to demand the dismissal of the members of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.

On the 6th of May the Ugandan police beat demonstrators who had gathered after it was announced that opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye would face the death penalty for charges of treason.

Ethiopia has been at the forefront of this wave of violent intolerance. Members of the Oromo ethnic group are facing a brutal crackdown following initially peaceful protests that started in the fall of 2015. Some estimates place the number of persons killed at the beginning of 2016 at over 400. Thousands have been detained and hundreds of homes and businesses have been destroyed. The violent crackdown is consistent with the violent security force crackdowns in Oromia in 2014 and in Konso in March 2016 as well as against other protests.

Closing of Political Space in Ethiopia

This is the reality facing Ethiopians whom the government designates opponents of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The government heavily restricts freedom of expression and association, and severely constrains political space, especially for civil society organizations.

In the 2015 elections, the EPRDF and its allies claimed all of 547 seats in Parliament amid concern over the lack of conditions for free and fair elections. It has become virtually impossible to question, challenge or protest against any action of the government. According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, Ethiopia ranks 91 out of 102 countries with severe constraints on government powers and fundamental rights. Freedom House also rated the country “not free”. Ethiopia scores 6 out of 7, on a scale of 1-7 from free to not free, on both civil liberties and political rights. Civil society organizations have been forced to close, thousands of political prisoners are languishing in prisons, and human rights defenders who dare to speak out are forcibly imprisoned and beaten.

The use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation Act continues to be used to silence journalists and other critics who dare to speak out. People like noted journalist Eskinder Nega, Oromo leader Bekele Gerba, and Anuak Land rights activist Okello Akway Ochalla are all behind bars and charged with terrorism for opposing the government policies. They are just three individual stories of many who are suffering under the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on human rights.

Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in jail in 2012 for fulfilling his role as a journalist and questioning the use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to arrest those that criticized the government. This was not the first time Eskinder had faced unjust retaliation due to his refusal to be silenced. Eskinder’s son Nafkot was born in prison in 2005 when both Eskinder and hjs wife Serkalem were imprisoned for criticizing the government’s killing of nearly 200 people in post-election protests in 2005. Four years later after he was unjustly convicted and imprisoned once again, Eskinder Nega still languishes behind bars and more convictions have been handed down using the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.

Bekele Gerba, a prominent leader of the Oromo Federalist Party, visited the United States last August after his release prior to President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia. He told NPR that Obama’s visit to Ethiopia last summer was a trip that sent the wrong message of solidarity to a repressive government with very little support from its own people. He also expressed uncertainty in regards to his freedom when he returned back to Ethiopia. A few months after his return Bekele was arrested on December 23, 2015 and held in a 4m X 5m cell with 21 others. Bekele and his counterparts were charged on April 22, 2016 with various provisions set forth in the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. This charge is clearly meant to silence him and others who dare to criticize and oppose the current regime.

Okello Akway Ochalla, a Norwegian citizen, was abducted from Juba, South Sudan, two years ago and ended up in an Addis Ababa court where he was sentenced to nine years in prison on April 27, 2016. Okello was the governor of the Gambella region, a key location of land grabbing and forced relocation by the Ethiopian Government, before escaping the country following a massacre of his people, the Anuaks, in 2003. Abducted from South Sudan in 2014 and brought back to Ethiopia, Okello was charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for speaking to the international media about the massacre of his people and the ongoing struggle of the people of Gambella. Rights groups are alarmed that the primary evidence used to convict Okello was a confession obtained while Okello was in solitary confinement. There have been reports that Okello was beaten and tortured. His trial highlights serious failures of due process and the rule of law in the Ethiopian courts.

More laws are being drafted by the Ethiopian government that confirm it will continue to suppress opposition and dissent. Current government policies of making access to education, government jobs and services contingent on party membership, forcing citizens to undergo “policy trainings” of indoctrination, and widespread monitoring of all public spaces has created an environment of fear with no room for public debate.

Despite all this, the ruling ERPD still enjoys support from the international community. The United States recently renewed a new defense and security cooperation agreement with Ethiopia, which is being trumpeted as U.S. support of the Ethiopian government’s policies, including the military’s excessive use of force. Ethiopia also continues to receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States, the European Union and other countries in development and humanitarian aid.

It is crucial that governments that commit human rights violations be held to the spotlight and pressed to be accountable. Countries that provide assistance to those governments need to prioritize respect for, and protection of human rights for several reasons.

First, grave human rights violations can further stymy development and it potentially drives voices of dissent to abandon non-violence.

Second, supporting an oppressive regime for the sake of regional security will only further destabilize a region already ravaged by conflict, unclear borders, poverty and lack of respect for the rule of law, all in the pursuit of short term stability.

The Ethiopian people deserve better than that.

*Adotei Akwei, Managing Director for Government Relations and Kayla Chen, Government Relations and Individuals at Risk Intern at Amnesty International USA
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