Daniel Calingaert and Kellen McClure
Published on May 23,2015 07.00 BST
On Sunday, millions of Ethiopians will line up at polling stations to participate in Africa’s largest exercise of political theatre. A decade-long campaign by Ethiopia’s government to silence dissent forcibly has left the country without a viable political opposition, without independent media, and without public challenges to the ruling party’s ideology.
For most Ethiopians, these elections are a non-event.
The one potential dividend of these sham polls, however, is the international attention they will garner for the government’s growing political repression. The blatant disregard for internationally recognised standards for free and fair elections just might convince Ethiopia’s largest donors that it is time to rethink their relationship with an increasingly authoritarian government.
As long as democratic governance and respect for human rights are pushed aside by donors in favour of economic development and security cooperation, Ethiopia’s long-term stability is at serious risk.
Since 2005, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) has cracked down on independent media and human rights groups.
In 2009, parliament passed the charities and societies proclamation, which placed restrictive regulations on non-government organisations, including limitations on foreign funding. Today,only a handful of these groups exist, and most are struggling to survive.
The preferred government strategy for eliminating independent media is to file criminal charges against publishers, and to impose hefty fines and prison terms. When lawsuits do not succeed, the government simply arrests journalists, as occurred last year when bloggers and journalists affiliated with the Zone 9 blogging collective were apprehended. The group remains imprisoned and charged as terrorists.
Post-election, the EPRDF, secure in its hold on power, might be willing to allow a small degree of dissent: Ethiopian officials are increasingly wary of reactions by the international community to the crackdown on critics and in 2013 published a national human rights action plan.
The US, UK and European Union – Ethiopia’s largest donors – need to increase their support for democracy and human rights because much can be done right now.
Despite years of political repression, a new generation of human rights defenders is slowly emerging. The Zone 9 bloggers represented this new generation, using new technologies to educate fellow Ethiopians on exercising and defending their rights.
The human rights and democracy groups that remain are finding creative ways to conduct their work. This includes working with traditional development organisations, which the government generally tolerates, or focusing on seemingly apolitical issues, such as government accountability and corruption, that are important in strengthening Ethiopia’s democracy.
Donor countries fall short in their support for these groups. In the US, President Barack Obama’s latest budget request includes some $400m (£257m) in assistance to Ethiopia – but only $2m of it is for democracy and human rights programming.
The UK is equally parsimonious in democracy support. One reason is that the EPRDF makes it difficult for domestic groups to accept outside aid.
Donors could take concrete action right now. First, supporting off-shore programming allows activists to travel outside Ethiopia to get technical and strategic advice. Second, donors’ strategies for Ethiopia should include funds specifically dedicated to strengthening independent media outlets and journalists; the EU intends to take this step after the election.
Also, donors can find ways around foreign funding restrictions by pushing for the creation of funding pools considered local under Ethiopian law. The EU did this in 2011, when it created the Civil Society Fund, providing assistance to local human rights and democracy groups. The US should use its economic and diplomatic leverage to do likewise, a move that would provide a much-needed lifeline for these groups.
Greater funding for human rights will be vital for Ethiopian activists, whose reach has been limited by the charities and societies proclamation.
Before that came into being six years ago, the country’s leading human rights organisation, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), operated with a budget of $400,000 and 60 employees.
Today, its budget is less than half that figure, and staffing is down 80%. The only thing keeping EHRCO alive is financial aid from the EU Civil Society Fund.
Ethiopia receives nearly $4bn in official development assistance. This is more than any other country in Africa and makes up a significant portion of the government’s annual budget. If the US, UK, EU and Canada coordinated policies, Ethiopia would have to respond to their human rights and democracy concerns.
Ethiopia’s election should be a wake-up call for the international community. With each successive election that does not allow genuine choice, both apathy and resentment grow, and Ethiopia risks falling prey to the same instability that has plagued its neighbours.
Daniel Calingaert is executive vice-president of Freedom House. Kellen McClure is an advocacy officer in its Africa programmes
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