Freedom in the World
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In 2004, increasing focus was paid to national elections due to take place in Ethiopia during the first half of 2005. The dominance of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), regional strife, internal unrest in parts of the country, and a threat of boycott by opposition parties characterized the pre-election environment.
On the international front, tension continued with Eritrea in a bloody border dispute that lasted from 1998 until 2000. Draft press and nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws pending during the year were criticized by press freedom and civil society groups as threats to civil liberties.
One of the few African countries never to have been colonized, Ethiopia saw the end of a long tradition of imperial rule 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 was overthrown by a coalition of guerilla groups in 1991. These groups were spearheaded by the EPRDF, itself an alliance of five parties.
The EPRDF government instituted a transition period that resulted in the establishment of formal democratic institutions. As expected, the EPRDF gained a landslide victory against a weak and divided opposition in the most recent national elections, in May 2000, after which parliament reelected Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to another five-year term. Opposition parties and some observers criticized the government's conduct of the vote, stating that the polls were subject to government interference, that media coverage was significantly tilted in the EPRDF's favor, 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 were broadcast over state-run radio and television during the electoral campaign.
A dispute over borders with neighboring Eritrea resulted in open warfare from 1998 until 2000. In the wake of the bloody conflict, the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC), a mediating body established to draw up a new border, announced its decision, which included assigning the town of Badme to Eritrea in April 2002. The boundary commission's decisions were supposed to be binding on both sides, but Ethiopia formally rejected the EEBC decision. The result is an indefinite postponement of the physical demarcation of the new border.
Considerable focus in 2004 was centered on upcoming national elections in 2005. Critics of the government, who argued that the playing field was seriously imbalanced in favor of the ruling coalition, cited draft press and nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws that raised concerns that they could be used by the government to further inhibit the NGO sector. A leading NGO in restive Oromia Province was closed by the government. In addition, guerilla activity continued by the Oromo Liberation Front and other groups amid intimidation of regime opponents, especially in the southern Oromo-dominated region.
Ethiopians cannot change their government democratically. The EPRDF has been in power since 1991, although six other major parties and numerous smaller ones participate in the political system. The country's legislature is bicameral, and executive power is vested in a prime minister, who is selected by the House of People's Representatives. 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. However, the reality differs from what is constitutionally mandated, in practice seriously limiting the right of the people to select their government. In 2003, the central government acquired additional powers to intervene in states' affairs in situations where public security was deemed to be at risk.
Ethiopia is preparing for its third national election since 1991. Previous elections have included polling for local officials (1992), a Constituent Assembly (1994), and regional and national legislatures (1995 and 2000). Previous elections resulted in allegations from opposition parties and civil society that serious irregularities had existed, including unequal access to media, biased election officials, lack of transparent procedures, a flawed election law, and a partisan National Electoral Board. The ruling EPRDF proclaimed the 2000 elections "free and fair" and used its overwhelming victory to consolidate power. Regional elections in 2001 were marred by killings, candidate harassment, voter intimidation, and allegations of ballot box stuffing.
There are currently more than 60 legally recognized political parties active in Ethiopia, although the political scene continues to be dominated by the EPRDF. While opposition parties claim that their ability to function is seriously impeded by government harassment, observers note that these parties are often reluctant to take part in the political process. Some parties have supported, either directly or indirectly, armed resistance to the government.
Ethiopia was ranked 114 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. The government has taken a number of initiatives to limit corruption, although it has also been accused of participating in corrupt practices.
The press is dominated by the state-owned broadcast media and government-oriented newspapers. Opposition and civic organizations criticize slanted news coverage. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has officially pledged that opposition parties will receive fair coverage during the upcoming elections in 2005, but it is not yet clear how this would be ensured. A number of privately owned newspapers exist, but they struggle to remain financially viable and also face intermittent government harassment.
A draft press law has been widely criticized by press freedom groups as further chilling the press environment. Issues of concern include restrictions on who may practice journalism; government-controlled licensing and registration systems; harsh sanctions for violations of the law, including up to five years' imprisonment; excessively broad exceptions to the right to access information held by public authorities; and the establishment of a government-controlled press council with powers to engage in prior censorship.
The government announced in 1999 that private FM radio stations with a range of approximately 150 kilometers around Addis Ababa would be permitted, but to date no licenses have been issued. Under the draft press law, cross ownership of newspapers and FM stations would not be permitted. This provision has drawn criticism from the independent media, which argue that, in practical terms, the ruling party currently owns both. There is extremely limited Internet usage, mainly in the major urban areas.
Constitutionally mandated religious freedom is generally respected, although religious tensions have risen in recent years. 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.
Academic freedom is restricted. In recent years, students have gone on strike to protest the government's repressive policies and to seek an end to police brutality. These strikes have resulted in scores of deaths and injuries and hundreds of arrests, including arrests of prominent human rights leaders. Student grievances include perceived government repression of the Oromo ethnic group.
Freedom of association is limited, although a large and increasing number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active. However, NGOs generally continue to be reluctant to energetically discuss issues and advocate policies that may bring them into conflict with the government. A draft NGO law, which includes a provision permitting the government to arbitrarily close NGOs at any time, is opposed by much of the civil society sector. In 2004, some NGOs were harassed or shut down by the government.
The freedom of trade unions to bargain and strike has not yet been fully tested. The law governing trade unions states that a trade organization may not act in an overtly political manner. Some union leaders have been removed from their elected office or forced to leave the country. All unions must be registered, although the government still retains the authority to cancel union registration.
The judiciary is officially independent, although there are no significant examples of decisions at variance with government policy. The competencies of police, judicial and administrative systems at the local level are highly uneven. Some progress has been made in reducing a significant backlog of court cases.
There are more than 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia, of which the Oromo is the largest. There were continued incidents of ethnic conflict during 2004. Security forces were involved in some ethnic clashes, including with the Oromo, and, most prominently, in disturbances in the Gambella Region that began in December 2003.
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.