1999 Scores

Status: Partly Free
Freedom Rating: 5.0
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 5

Ratings Change

Ethiopia's political rights and civil liberties ratings changed from 4 to 5 due to limitations on opposition political parties and civic organizations to undertake activities and disseminate information.


Ethiopia's political life in 1999 was overshadowed by its ongoing border war with Eritrea. Intermittent fighting continued throughout the year, interspersed with drawn-out and inconclusive negotiations. An Ethiopian offensive in February resulted in some territorial gains. Ethiopia was criticized for expelling, usually on short notice, Eritreans resident in Ethiopia, many of whom had lived there for generations. Humans rights groups estimated the number at more than 50,000.

Although relatively few Ethiopians were directly affected by the conflict with Eritrea, it did have an impact on the political environment. The war proved an effective tool of political mobilization for the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, since opposition to policies pursued by the government could be equated with a lack of patriotism, or even treason. The growth of nationalist sentiment resulted in fewer overt instances of jailings or other forms of political intimidation than in previous years, although this did not translate into productive dialogue among the country's polarized political groupings. A deeply embedded, winner-take-all political culture suggests that major opposition parties may decide to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2000.

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 Moslems account for approximately 40 percent each of the population, with the remainder 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 other 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 subject 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, the Council of People's Representatives. The first official multiparty elections to the council in 1995 gave 540 seats to the EPRDF and linked parties. 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. The EPRDF today controls all of the elected regional councils directly or with coalition partners. 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. The May 1995 legislative elections were tarnished, however, by substantial government manipulation and inadequate protection of basic rights, including a crackdown on the independent media in the months before the vote. Most of the leading opposition groups boycotted the May 1995 parliamentary elections. It does not appear that the scheduled year 2000 elections will represent any improvement. The speaker of the Council of People's Representatives, has stated, for example, that independent foreign election observers would not be welcome during the elections. The Ethiopian government continues to selectively harass opposition parties, and impede their ability to participate in the political process.

Opposition parties also bear some responsibility for limiting in practice the right of Ethiopian people to express their political preferences. Many parties have refused to participate openly in the nation's political life. Some 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 nearly 60 million. OLF supporters have been imprisoned or detained without trial.

Amnesty International reported that thousands of Eritreans living in Ethiopia have been rounded up and forcibly deported. The organization said 52,000 Eritreans have been deported from Ethiopia since the war began. The international human rights organization charged that the deportations in Ethiopia have developed into a "systematic, country-wide operation to arrest and deport anyone of full or part Eritrean descent."

The Ethiopian government claims that even Eritreans with Ethiopian citizenship pose a threat to national security, given the fighting between the two countries. Amnesty International said it could find no evidence to support Ethiopia's charges that 40,000 of its citizens have been seriously ill-treated and forcibly deported from Eritrea since May, 1990.

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 also can be jailed for publishing secret court records. Broadcast media remain under close scrutiny by the government. Harassment and intimidation of the independent print media have led to significant self-censorship.

Prior to the war with Eritrea, much of the independent press did criticize Ethiopia's friendly relations with its neighbor. Harassment of the independent press lessened considerably as the war with Eritrea heated up, and the government policy toward Eritrea shifted . At the end of March 1999, for example, the number of reporters in jail had dropped to 11 from a high of about two dozen at the end of 1998. According to the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association, only one of the journalists who remains in jail was arrested after the border war began.

Women traditionally have few land or property rights and, especially in rural areas, have 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.

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