Now is the Moment to Encourage Political Reform in Ethiopia

By Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International USA

Ethiopia faces a critical moment in terms whether it will continue along the path of increasingly violent autocratic governance or whether it will listen to its people, change course and enact political and legal form. The United States also has an important opportunity, to reaffirm a commitment to human rights, the rule of law and inclusive governance and in the process, encourage a key ally to move in the right direction.

For the past three years Ethiopia has been a cauldron of brutal repression in response to growing protests against the autocratic rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). By most estimates at least 1000 people have been killed since 2015 and according to the government’s own admission over 10, 0000 people were arrested during the first state of emergency between 2016 and 2017 with nearly 1200 being detained in 2018 alone.

The government’s crackdown was in response to protests that upended the tight control of a government that had aggressively utilized sweeping laws to criminalize and silence all forms of dissent and had jailed any societal leader it thought were threats and that it could get it hands on. In the process independent newspapers, civil society organizations and religious groups were targeted and shut down. Some of the organization’s that were close were providing a voice for poor and marginalized communities such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the country first national, independent civil society organization with a focus on monitoring, investigating and reporting on human rights in Ethiopia was forced to reduce its staff and operations by 80% as a result of the 2009 Charities and Societies proclamation that severely restricted foreign funding for groups doing human rights work. Likewise, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association had been focused on raising awareness of women’s legal rights in Ethiopia supporting effort to ensure that gender was taken into account in new laws also worked to provide access to legal services to women from poor and marginalized communities. It is hard to visualize what threat such organizations could pose to a government.

That façade of calm was ruptured in 2015 when protests a land grab by the government from the Oromo community triggered a brutal crackdown. The protests did not die down and were soon augmented by protests by the Ethiopia diaspora in Europe and the United States demanding their respective governments call on the Ethiopian authorities to change course.

Then 2018 happened: Incumbent Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalgne announce his resignation in February and Dr. Abiy Ahmed was named the new Prime Minister. Ahmed is the leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the four ethnic parties allowed by the government and part of the ruling the EPRDF coalition. He was the minister for science and technology and as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army founded Ethiopia’s Information Network and Security Agency, which is responsible for cyber-security and controls access to the internet. According to some reports this agency restricted and shut down various parts of the internet in Ethiopia for as many as 36 days since 2015. Most significantly Dr. Ahmed is a member of the Oromo ethnic group that while the most populous in the county has historically been the most politically marginalized and has been at the heart of the protests

The government finally bowed to s the intensifying protests and released as many as 7,000 political prisoners. Among those who walked out of jail were Oromo Federalist Congress leaders Bekele Gerba and Dr. Merera Gudina, journalist Eskinder Nega and opposition leader Andualem Arage.

Unfortunately, apart from the releases, the Ethiopian government has fallen short of key reforms that are needed to get the country off the path of increasing repression and violence and most importantly that are being demanded from the protesters. Protests have continued in the capital Addis Ababa, in Oromia, and in Gondar among other regions. The government imposed a second state of emergency maintaining the broad power of the Ethiopian security forces to curtail any form of activity it considers a threat. Calls for the amendment and or repeal of sweeping repressive legislation that has turned even simple criticism and dissent with government policies into a crime have been dismissed as have been appeals for an independent impartial investigation into abuses committed by the security forces during the three years of unrest where some estimates of casualties running into the thousands have also been rejected. In short, any optimism around the change in leadership of government and the releases of political prisoners while important and welcome may not be enough to lead to a new path for the country.

Adding to these concerns about Ethiopia’s future is the current disarray of US foreign policy toward Africa, along with the continued absence of senior leadership in the State Department. When this situation is combined with the public repudiation of traditional foreign policy goals of advancing and strengthening democracy and human rights by the President, it becomes clear that US support for reform in Ethiopia could use a serious boost which is exactly what the US Congress has provided.

Both the House and Senate have introduced separate resolutions that call on the Ethiopia government to enact legal and political reform, improve the respect and protection of human rights, agree to an independent impartial investigation of human rights abuses committed over the last 3 years and seek more inclusive governance. H. Res. 128 and S. Res. 168 enjoy strong bipartisan support and H. Res 128 is scheduled for a vote on April 10 in the House and S. Res 168 awaits action in the Senate. It is critical the Congress sends a clear message to the leadership in Addis Ababa that it must move forward with reform. The recommendations in the two resolutions remain as necessary as when they were introduced: some of the released political prisoners have already been re-arrested and all of them remain at risk, as long as the state of emergency and the country’s security laws remain unchanged. In the absence of leadership from the Trump administration Congress must encourage Ethiopia to move forward with critical reforms now by passing H. Res. 128 in the House and advancing S. Res 168 in the Senate.

This is not the time for a congratulatory pause for actions it should have undertaken years ago and that could all too easily be reversed. Ethiopia cannot afford to miss the moment of opportunity for peaceful change, and Congress should make sure that the message is heard loud and clear in Addis Ababa.

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