Is Ethiopia’s ruling party securing or smothering the country’s Democracy?

If Ethiopia is Africa’s model of economic growth and development, then the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party has for the past decade been her conscientious shepherd. The party-controlled government has lifted the country out of the marsh of poverty and put it on the march to a middle income nation. It doubled the country’s GDP within 10 years, lifted over 10 million people out of poverty within the same period and is leading the fastest infrastructure overhaul in the continent. However, just as the ruling EPRDF has been bullish in driving economic growth, so too has it been in running down political opposition and press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the country as one of the worst jailers of journalists in Africa, while democracy watchdog Freedom House has constantly rated it as “not free” since 2011. The Ethiopian government has kicked back against such criticisms with the argument that it is only guarding the country’s nascent democracy from terrorists and saboteurs.

In the 2015 general elections held in May, the EPRDF and its ally—the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement—won all seats in the parliament, a result that analysts believe was due to the party’s synthesis of wonderful economic performance, political suppression and media clampdown. A little over a month later, as it prepared to host U.S. President Barack Obama, the EPRDF controlled government released six journalists and activists that it had held for what rights groups have called trumped up terror charges. Many, particularly within the activist community, saw the unexpected unconditional releases as an attempt by the government to play to President Obama and mask the deplorable state of Ethiopia’s democracy. However, as he hosted President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s declared that his government’s commitment to democracy “is real, not skin-deep.”

“My government has expressed its commitment to deepen the democratic process already underway in the country, and work towards the respect of human rights and improving governance,” Desalegn said during a joint press briefing with his American counterpart. “We have both noted that we need to step up efforts to strengthen our institutions and build our capacity in various areas.” President Obama seemed to believe him. “We discussed steps that Ethiopia can take to show progress on promoting good governance, protecting human rights, fundamental freedoms, and strengthening democracy… this is an area where we intend to deepen our conversations and consultation, because we strongly believe in Ethiopia’s promise and its people,” the U.S. President said.

Prime Minister Desalegn and President Obama hold bilateral meetings during Ethiopia visit
Prime Minister Desalegn and President Obama hold bilateral meetings during Ethiopia visit

The Ethiopian leader’s pro-democracy statements may have convinced President Obama and some members of the international community, but they have not moved analysts and human rights activists. Sebastian Gatimu, an East Africa and Horn of Africa-focused researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, said the Prime Ministers avowal of democracy and free speech did not reflect the present reality on ground. “The democratic space in Ethiopia has over the years been declining as the government has continued to silence dissenting voices both from the opposition and civil society organisations…. Kenya hosts 30,343 [Ethiopian] refugees and asylum seekers in various refugee camps and locations, comprising 5 percent of the total number of refugees in Kenya by nationality. Most of refugees and asylum seekers from Ethiopia results from narrowing democratic space in the country that puts a lot of political pressure especially from the opposition, forcing them to leave the country.”

“No private TV exists, 1 prvt [private] radio under unimaginable self-censorship, 10 weak papers/mag, that’s all Ethiopia has to cover…” tweeted Mesfin Negash, a victim of the government’s clampdown on journalists, and is in self-exile in Sweden. A longtime critic of the EPRDF government, he was in 2012 sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for supporting terrorism. He condemned President Obama for endorsing the Ethiopian government’s repression in exchange for the “service in Somalia and South Sudan,” a reference to the Ethiopia’s leading role in combatting the crisis in both countries.

Dozens of Ethiopians, most of them journalists and bloggers, have been jailed on terror charges since the 2009 anti-terrorism law came into effect. Prominent among them are Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and the Zone9 bloggers—a collective which criticised the government’s record on human rights and good governance. Nega was jailed for publishing a column that the authorities said provided moral support to terrorists, Alemu for using journalism to support a terrorist organization, while six members of the Zone9 bloggers together with three affiliated journalists were imprisoned for having connections with terrorist organizations. Reeyot Alemu and two members of Zone9 and three affiliated journalists were released three weeks before Obama’s visit, but Nega, four Zone9 members and several other government critics remain behind bars. In response to the release, Amnesty International called on the government to free all political prisoners saying, “If this is to be more than a token gesture to clean up Ethiopia’s image ahead of US President Barack Obama’s imminent visit, Ethiopia must release all its imprisoned journalists and bloggers.” The government is yet to heed the human rights group’s call.

“I’m afraid. I’m still scared that I might go back to prison… Maybe today, maybe this afternoon,” Tesfalem Waldyes, one of the recently freed journalists, told the BBC after his release. “[Journalism here] is a very dangerous job, because there’s this red line that was marked by the government, and we don’t know when we crossed that red line,” he said. That line, the head of the government told journalists at his joint press conference with President Obama, is “working with violent terrorist groups.” Gatimu says to the government, terror groups mean dissenting voices and the opposition. “Anybody not supporting it becomes a subject for interrogation and can subsequently be regarded as a sympathizer of the opposing forces, regarded as terror groups by the government.” Regardless of the threat, Reeyot Alemu, who spent over four years in jail, plans to carry on with her critical journalism. “There are only two choices,” she told CBS News. “I must not write about this government or I must write it and to be arrested or to be killed.”

Prime Minister Desalegn insists his government is not against freedom of speech or democracy. “As far as Ethiopia is concerned, we need journalists,” he said. However, he argues that the media has to first “be nurtured for democratic discourse.” This idea of “nurturing” or “guiding” Ethiopia’s democracy is a recurring theme in Desalegn and his party’s defence of their style of governance. While briefing journalists on his discussion with President Obama, he spoke of “minor differences” with his American counterpart “with regard mainly to the speed” with which the country’s “democratization process” is moving. Last year he told the BBC that Ethiopia’s democracy was still very new and young and that his government would not allow it to be used to destabilise the country through terror acts. “We are on the right track [in developing democracy],” he said. But ISS Africa’s Gatimu argues that Desalegn couldn’t be more wrong. “This is a time bomb. We have seen many nations come down in search of democracy. Key among these is Egypt, Libya and Tunisia among others. You cannot suppress people’s voice forever…” Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste shares the same point of view, tweeting a few days to Obama’s visit that “When the next generation looks at #Ethiopia’s heroes, they’ll look first at #FreeZone9Bloggers, not at construction and banks.”

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However, removing the grip on political opposition and freedom of expression could knock off some points from Ethiopia’s highly impressive economic growth figures as well as shake up the country’s much touted peace and stability. Gatimu agreed that this was probable because of the closed manner in which the economy is thriving. “Once opened up, it will be expected to slow down for some time before picking up as the system adjusts to inclusivity. At the same time the country will most likely experience some political instability as it adjusts to accommodate the opposition.” For Zelalem Kibret, another of the recently released journalists, what the country needs the most is change. “There is silence here in Ethiopia. It’s not peace,” he told CBS News.

That change, Gatimu said, is a necessary price—with brief and minimal disruptive effects—for the government to pay to save the country from a more radical disruption that will massively impact the security, development and peace of the country. “Any growth that leaves out a huge segment of society is not sustainable. Without democracy, good governance and protection of human rights, such growth are bound to be reversed at some point in future. Mending the gap therefore becomes a necessary ingredient to ensure inclusivity for sustainability.”

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