Freedom in the World 2003


The past year in Ethiopia was marked by both positive and negative events. In April the International Court in The Hague issued a final boundary demarcation of the Ethiopian-Eritrean boundary. Border disputes had led to warfare between the two countries. Both countries reluctantly agreed to the common border, but they also continued to claim the town of Badme. Ethiopia was also admitted to the joint International Monetary Fund-World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, which qualifies the country for debt relief. Internally, however, the year was marked by an upsurge in guerilla activity by the Oromo Liberation Front and heavy-handed government intimidation of regime opponents, especially in the southern Oromo-dominated region.

Ethiopia, with a mixed ethnic makeup reflecting its imperial heritage, is the third most populous country in Africa. The Ethiopian Coptic Church is influential, particularly in the north. In the south there is a large Muslim community, made up mainly of Arabs, Somalis, and Oromos. Christians and Muslims account for approximately 40 percent each of the population, with the remainder largely animists.

Ethiopia's long tradition of imperial rule ended in 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a Marxist military coup. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam subsequently became the leader of a brutal dictatorship which was overthrown by a coalition of guerilla groups in 1991. These groups were spearheaded by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), itself an alliance of five parties.

The EPRDF government instituted a transition period that resulted in the establishment of formal democratic institutions. There are currently more than 60 legally recognized political parties active in Ethiopia, although the political scene continues to be dominated by the EPRDF. Opposition parties claim that their ability to function is seriously impeded by governmental harassment, although observers note that these parties are often reluctant to participate in the political process. In April 2001, students went on strike at the leading institution of higher education, Addis Ababa University, to protest the government's repressive policies and seek an end to police brutality. The strikes and the response by security forces resulted in more than 40 deaths and 200 injuries. Hundreds were arrested, including prominent human rights leaders.

There is a small but growing civil society, which has been subject to some restrictions by the government.

According to Human Rights Watch and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, in early 2002 five students were killed and dozens arrested as Oromiya state police violently dispersed peaceful marches by high school students protesting regional government educational and land policies. In May, 30 people were reported killed when soldiers fired on 3,000 demonstrators in Awasa, south of the capital. In July, 150 Oromo rebels reportedly were killed and 340 were captured in two battles with the national army near Gambela. The Ethiopian government undertook a violent crackdown on students from Oromiya regional state.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Ethiopia is a federation of 11 regions, with a bicameral legislature and an executive prime minister. The EPRDF has been in power since 1991, although six other major parties and numerous smaller ones participate in the political system.

The 1995 constitution has a number of unique features, including decentralization based on ethnicity and the right to secession. The government has devolved some power to regional and local governments and courts. As with many elements of the Ethiopian political system, however, the reality differs from what is constitutionally mandated, in practice seriously limiting the right of the people to select their government. The EPRDF today controls all of the elected regional councils directly or with coalition partners. The government uses divide-and-rule strategies to minimize the influence of larger ethnic groups, selectively harassing opposition parties and impeding their ability to participate in the political process. It is also highly unlikely that any region would, in fact, be allowed to secede.

Executive power is vested in a prime minister, who is selected by the Council of People's Representatives. The first official multiparty elections to the council in 1995 were boycotted by the opposition. As expected, the EPRDF gained a landslide victory against a weak and divided opposition in the 2000 legislative balloting. A handful of opposition candidates were elected, but the parliament subsequently reelected Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to another five-year term.

Opposition parties and some observers criticized the government's conduct of the May 2000 legislative elections. They stated that the polls were subject to governmental interference, that the opposition was denied some access to the media, and that opposition supporters were subjected to harassment and detention. However, the opposition was able to engage in some criticism of the government in the media during the official election campaign, and a series of unprecedented public debates was broadcast over state-run radio and television during the electoral campaign.

Opposition parties also bear some responsibility for limiting in practice the right of Ethiopian people to express their political preferences. Until the 2000 elections, many parties refused to participate openly in the nation's political life. Leaders of one key party, the All Amhara People's Organization (AAPO), made it clear that the party was only taking part because it would lose its legally constituted status if it failed to take part in two consecutive elections. Some parties have supported, either directly or indirectly, armed resistance to the government.

In May 2002 the International Federation of Human Rights charged that "serious human rights violations persist in Ethiopia." Federal and regional government authorities tend to view all forms of protest against their policies as instigated by the rebel Oromo Liberation Front, which is leading a decade-long armed struggle for the autonomy of Oromiya. The state government, the federal police, and the military have a history of repression and abuse, mainly involving Oromo intellectuals and community leaders who are viewed as sympathetic to the OLF. Refugees who have fled to neighboring countries in the past decade have told of the widespread use of torture and extrajudicial killing in the region.

Freedom of association is limited, and civil society organizations often face arbitrary harassment, including suspension and banning. Meetings called by the Addis Ababa Teachers' Association in 2002, for example, were forbidden by the City Administration, which said the association had no legal recognition by the government. In 2001 two leading human rights advocates were arrested on charges of "inciting students" after a meeting to discuss human rights attended by a large number of students from Addis Ababa University. In August 2001 the respected Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association was suspended for three months by the government. The Ministry of Justice stated that the association had been suspended as it was found to be engaged in activities that were "outside its established objectives" after it criticized the government's handling of a woman's abuse case.

A 1992 law guarantees freedom of the press. Televised debates between the prime minister and the academic community on policy directions took place in 2002. However, the law also forbids publishing articles that are defamatory, threaten the safety of the state, agitate for war, or incite ethnic conflict. Journalists also can be jailed for publishing secret court records. Limits on the freedom of the press were clearly reflected in the government's response to the April 2001 unrest, in which journalists were arrested. Broadcast media remain under close scrutiny by the government. Harassment and intimidation of the independent print media have led to significant self-censorship. The press continues to be faced with direct and indirect government intimidation. In 2002, for example, Reporters Sans Frontieres criticized the jailing of three journalists who were imprisoned for "inventing news likely to demoralise the army and make people anxious," libel, and for publishing "immoral and indecent material."

In August 2002 the Committee to Protect Journalists charged that Ethiopia had "a dismal press record," and that the government there "is planning alarming changes to the country's 10-year press laws that would severely restrict the rights of Ethiopia's already beleaguered private press corps."

Women traditionally have few land or property rights and, especially in rural areas, few opportunities for employment beyond agricultural labor. Violence against women and social discrimination are reportedly common despite legal protections. Trade union freedom to bargain and strike has not yet been fully tested. Religious freedom is generally respected. Privatization programs are proceeding, and the government has undertaken a major financial liberalization reform program to attract foreign investment. The judiciary is officially independent, although there are no significant examples of decisions at variance with government policy.

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)