Ethiopia | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Ethiopia received a downward trend arrow due to the government's response to civil unrest that has included heightened restrictions on freedom of assembly and organization.


The year 2001 was marked by conflict within what has traditionally been a highly polarized political environment. The central committee of the key member of the ruling coalition, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), split between hardliners and reformers. Kinfe Gebre-Medfin, the country's top intelligence official, was assassinated. State President Negaso Gidada resigned, citing interference from Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The president of the lower house of parliament also resigned, citing a lack of political freedom. Local elections in March were boycotted by the seven main opposition parties. In April students went on strike at the leading institution of higher education, Addis Ababa University, to protest the government's repressive policies and to seek an end to police brutality. Those strikes, and the subsequent response by security forces, resulted in more than 40 deaths and 200 injuries. Hundreds were arrested, including leading human rights leaders.

The provisions of a United Nations-supervised peace treaty with Eritrea, which was signed in 2000, was generally respected. The hostilities with Eritrea had proven an effective tool of political mobilization for the government of Prime Minister Meles, since opposition to policies pursued by the government could be equated with a lack of patriotism, or even treason. With the end of fighting, internal tensions rose again to the surface.

Ethiopia is the third most populous country in Africa, with a mixed ethnic makeup reflecting its imperial heritage. The Ethiopian Coptic Church is influential, particularly in the north. There is a large Muslim community in the south, made up mainly of Arabs, Somalis, and Oromos. Christians and Muslims each account for approximately 40 percent of the population, with the remaining 20 percent 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 that lasted until it 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 government harassment, although observers note that these parties are often reluctant to participate in the political process. There is a small but growing civil society, which has been subjected to some restrictions by the government.

A constitution adopted in 1994 established a federal system of government, with power vested in a directly elected 548-member body, the Council of People's Representatives. The first official multiparty elections to the council in 1995 were boycotted by the opposition. The 2000 legislative elections resulted in the ruling EPRDF coalition winning 472 seats. A second chamber of parliament, the 117-member Federal Council, represents ethnic minorities and professional groups. Ethiopia is made up of nine federal regions.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

In principle, the 1995 constitution is an extremely progressive document. The government has devolved some power to regional and local governments and courts.

The constitution provides for a broad range of democratic institutions and political activity, including the right of secession. As with many elements of the Ethiopian political system, however, the reality differs from what is constitutionally mandated. 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. It is 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. 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 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 government interference, that the opposition was denied some access to the media, and that opposition supporters were subject to harassment and detention. The Ethiopian government continues to selectively harass opposition parties and impede their ability to participate in the political process. 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. One key party, the All Amhara People's Organization (AAPO), made clear that it 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. A rebellion in the south by the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia, for example, continues at a low level. Oromos constitute 40 percent of Ethiopia's population of 65 million. OLF supporters have been imprisoned or detained without trial.

Events in 2001 demonstrated that the government places clear limits on the freedom of association. Two leading human rights advocates were arrested on charges of "inciting students" following a meeting to discuss human rights attended by a large number of students from Addis Ababa University. Following the arrest, the offices of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council were shut down by armed police for ten days with no reason given. More than 100 members of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party, and 30 members of the AAPO were arrested. By November, 326 out of a total of 1,114 of those being held in prison had been sentenced to jail terms ranging from four to ten months. Some 417 people, including 164 police officers, were injured in the riots, up to 100 of them seriously.

Human Rights Watch has accused the Ethiopian authorities of using "brutal violence" at Addis Ababa University, stating that the government used "the ensuing crisis to justify a general crackdown on figures critical to the government." In August the respected Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association was suspended by the government. In a letter, 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."

A 1992 law guarantees freedom of the press. However, it also forbids publishing articles that are defamatory, threaten the safety of the state, agitate for war, or incite ethnic conflict. Journalists can also 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. Reporters Sans Frontieres protested against the remaining in detention of Merid Zelleke and Mengistu Wolde Selassie, editors in chief of the weeklies Satanaw and Moged, respectively, published in Amharic, and against the recent wave of arrests among the privately owned press.

A number of recent press freedom violations, reported by both the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists, suggest that the Ethiopian government is continuing its crackdown on the media. CPJ expresses "alarm over the fact that press freedom abuses have increased sharply in recent weeks, after a brief period of relative calm."

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.