Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 1998

1998 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Ethiopia's civil liberties rating changed from 5 to 4 due to improvements in civil society and greater economic freedom.


Ethiopia diverted desperately needed developmental resources to strengthen its armed forces for renewed hostilities against its northern neighbor, Eritrea, with which it fought a brief border war in May and June. Skirmishes over small patches of barely arable land along the countries’ ill-defined frontier escalated into air strikes that led to scores of civilian deaths and mass deportations by each country of the other’s nationals. The United Nations warned in October that Ethiopia faces a serious food crisis, but national attention remained focused on war preparations. Small-scale insurgencies simmered in the southern Oromo areas and in the vast and ethnic Somali-inhabited Ogaden, with reports of security forces abuses including torture and killings. The government launched decentralization and anti-corruption programs, but made scant progress toward genuine democracy with respect for the rule of law. Attacks on and jailings of journalists and opponents of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government continued through 1998. The government's narrow ethnic base divides Ethiopian politics. Ethnic Tigrayans from the country's north, whose guerrilla forces defeated the Marxist military regime in 1991, still dominate. The EPRDF faces political opposition from the traditionally dominant Amhara people as well as Oromo, Somali, and other ethnic groups that demand self-rule far more substantial than the decentralization proposed by the government.

The EPRDF formed a transitional government after its 1991 victory over the Dergue military junta led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The junta had overthrown Emperor Haile Sailaise in 1974. As many as 100,000 people were killed in efforts to crush ethnic rebellions during waves of political terror over 17 years of Dergue rule. Mengistu's downfall saw a sharp decline, but not an end to extrajudicial executions, torture, and detention without trial.

The ruling EPRDF government was elected in 1995 polls that were generally free, but not fair. Set amidst harassment of the political opposition and independent media, the polls were conducted under a constitution adopted in 1994 by a newly elected constituent assembly. Most opposition parties boycotted both votes, and the EPRDF won 483 of 548 seats in the Council of People’s Representatives. Under the new constitution, Meles Zenawi was elected prime minister by the Council and retains much of the power that he held as president of the transitional government from 1991 to 1995. Prime Minster Meles’ Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, which led the military drive that toppled the Mengistu regime, is the most important political grouping and at the heart of the EPRDF. A president with only symbolic powers was also appointed.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The people of Ethiopia chose their government through a relatively open electoral process for the first time in May 1995 legislative elections. Most international observers judged the election as largely free despite substantial government manipulation and inadequate protection of basic rights, including a crackdown on the independent media in the months before the vote. There are few signs that a more level electoral playing field will exist for scheduled 2000 elections.

The December 1994 constitution provides for significant decentralization, including regional autonomy and, nominally, even secession from the federation. The government has devolved some power to regional and local governments and courts. The EPRDF today controls all of the elected regional councils directly or with coalition partners, and there is little likelihood that any regional government will seek to exercise its right to secede.

The ethnic Somali Islamist-leaning Al-Ittihad Al-Islam movement continues the centuries-old conflict between the Somali clans who inhabit the vast Ogaden Desert and Ethiopian rulers who have long maintained at least nominal suzerainty over the area. In 1977, Ethiopia repelled a Somalia invasion aimed at annexing the territory. A rebellion in the south by the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia is potentially far more dangerous. Oromos, who constitute 40 percent of Ethiopia’s population of nearly 60 million, are the country’s single largest ethnic group. Sporadic fighting in the countryside has produced numerous casualties and reports of human rights abuses. Many OLF supporters are imprisoned or detained without trial. Oromo grievances include governmental neglect of their region, which is desperately poor even by Ethiopian standards, and migration of other ethnic groups onto traditional Oromo lands. In August, at least 140 people were killed in land clashes between the Gudji and Hadyia ethnic groups.

Nonviolent activists are also intimidated, harassed by security officials, or detained without charges. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council and other human rights groups are active, but the government has closed numerous nongovernmental organizations for failing to comply with new registration requirements. Thirty UN workers were forced to leave in September after being accused of spying. The mass expulsion of Eritreans and the detention of an unknown number without charges have been condemned by local and international rights groups. Ethiopia is one of only two African states that has not ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. The government launched an official Human Rights Commission and an Ombudsman’s office in May, but it is unclear whether these will operate autonomously.

Broadcast media remain firmly under government control. Harassment and intimidation of the independent print media have led to significant self-censorship. Prohibitively high bail is set for detained journalists, and severe fines effectively close publications. In January, the offices of the Tobiya newspaper were burned soon after the arrests of four employees. In February, Abay Hailu, the editor of the Wolafen, died of lung disease soon after he had served a two-year jail sentence for writing about the alleged threat of Islamic fundamentalism. Today, approximately 20 journalists, the most in any African country, remain jailed.

Women traditionally have few land or property rights and, especially in rural areas, have 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 announced sweeping financial liberalization to attract foreign investment.