(New York) - The Ethiopian government's repression of registered opposition parties and ordinary voters has largely prevented political competition ahead of local elections that begin on April 13, Human Rights Watch said today. These widespread acts of violence, arbitrary detention and intimidation mirror long-term patterns of abuse designed to suppress political dissent in Ethiopia.
"It is too late to salvage these elections, which will simply be a rubber stamp on the EPRDF's near-monopoly on power at the local level," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Still, officials must at least allow the voters to decide how and whether to cast their ballots without intimidation."
Human Rights Watch carried out two weeks of field research during the run-up to the polls and documented systemic patterns of repression and abuse that have rendered the elections meaningless in many areas. That research focused primarily on Oromia, Ethiopia's most populous region and one long troubled by heavy-handed government repression.
The nationwide elections for the kebele (village or neighborhood councils), and wereda (districts made up of several kebeles administrations), are crucially important. It is local officials who are responsible for much of the day-to-day repression that characterizes governance in Ethiopia. Many local officials in Oromia have made a routine practice of justifying their abuses by accusing law-abiding government critics of belonging to the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which is waging a low-level insurrection against the government.
Candidates allied with the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will run unopposed in the vast majority of constituencies across Ethiopia. On April 10, one of Ethiopia's two major opposition coalitions, the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), pulled out of the process altogether. UEDF officials complained that intimidation and procedural irregularities limited registration to only 6,000 of the 20,000 candidates they attempted to put forward for various seats. By contrast, state-controlled media reports that the EPRDF will field more than 4 million candidates across the country.
Violence, Arbitrary Detention, and Intimidation
Local ruling party officials have systematically targeted opposition candidates for violence, intimidation, and other human rights abuses since the registration period began three months ago. Particularly in areas with established opposition support, local officials have arbitrarily detained opposition candidates, searched their property without warrant, and in some cases physically assaulted them.
Credible reports collected by Human Rights Watch indicate a pattern of cooperation among officials across all three tiers of local government - zone, wereda, and kebele administrations - in carrying out these abuses. Victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch across different locations in Oromia recounted a consistent narrative. Some were arbitrarily detained and then interrogated or threatened by wereda administration officials in the presence of zonal officials. Others were arbitrarily detained by wereda police and then transferred to the custody to zonal security officials or federal soldiers.
One 31-year-old school teacher in western Oromia was detained by police and then interrogated by wereda and zonal security officials when he sought to register as an opposition candidate. "I was afraid," he told Human Rights Watch. "They accused me of being on OLF member and said I would be shot... They put a gun in my mouth, and then made me swear that I wouldn't go back to the opposition." He was released nine days later, after the deadline for candidate registration had passed. Human Rights Watch interviewed other OPC candidates who had also been detained after trying to register in other constituencies.
Prospective voters who might support the opposition have been similarly targeted by the government. Secondary school students in Oromia's Cheliya wereda, many of whom are of voting age, reported to Human Rights Watch that they have been compelled to provide a letter from representatives of their gott/garee - unofficial groupings of households into cells that are used to monitor political speech and intimidate perceived government critics - attesting that they did not belong to any opposition party. Local officials said that unless they produced those letters, they would not be allowed to register to vote. One civil servant in Gedo town was warned by a superior that he would lose his job if he supported the opposition.
"The same local level officials who are directly responsible for much of the day-to-day political repression that occurs in Ethiopia have their jobs at stake in these elections," Gagnon said. "As such, their efforts to intimidate ordinary people into returning them to office are especially intense."
Local authorities have also prevented the registration of opposition candidates in many constituencies where the opposition's success in 2005 parliamentary polls appeared to give them a chance at winning. In Fincha in western Oromia, for example, the opposition Oromo People's Congress (OPC) made three attempts to register a candidate for an open parliamentary seat. The seat had been vacated by an OPC candidate who won 81 percent of the vote in 2005 but was later forced into exile after local authorities accused him of being an OLF supporter. The OPC tried to replace him on the ballot with three different candidates but each was prevented from registering. All three candidates were physically threatened by members of the wereda administration and police and one was detained for more than a week when he tried to register.
The opposition Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) has encountered similar problems in western Oromia, with 10 of its 14 candidates resigning in response to pressure from local officials. In February, police in Dembi Dollo arrested 16 OFDM members and accused them of belonging to the OLF. Although a court ordered them all released two weeks later when police could provide no evidence to support their allegations, they were subsequently threatened with physical harm by local officials.
The home and crops of one OFDM member in the same area were burned. He reported this to the police with the aid of OFDM officials but alleged to Human Rights Watch that the police then failed to investigate the incident.
Such repression has been widespread in Oromia. The OPC gave Human Rights Watch the names of more than 300 party members it claims have been detained since November 2007. Investigations carried out by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), Ethiopia's preeminent human rights monitoring organization, corroborate claims that many opposition supporters in Oromia have been arrested or illegally detained for periods ranging from days to months, often on the basis of alleged links to the OLF.
Procedural and Other Bars to Opposition Participation
In many cases, acts of intimidation have gone hand-in-hand with unjustifiable bureaucratic and procedural bars on free opposition participation in the polls. Some representatives of the NEB responsible for the registration of candidates at the constituency level have worked with local officials to block opposition registration. In some cases NEB agents have cancelled the registration of opposition candidates either without explanation or based on age and residency criteria despite clear evidence to the contrary. In other instances, NEB representatives provided the names of opposition candidates to local officials and to the police. Police in some of those constituencies then cordoned off access to NEB offices and physically prevented suspected opposition candidates from entering.
Across western Oromia, the country's largest state, local officials have refused to allow candidates of the two main opposition parties there, the OPC and OFDM, to register more than a token share of candidates. In some constituencies, authorities have closed down OPC and OFDM offices and threatened their candidates with arrest if they persisted in competing.
In some cases, local authorities offered bribes to opposition candidates to withdraw. One OFDM candidate interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that local ruling party leaders offered to pay his college tuition and guaranteed him a job in the local administration if he withdrew from the election.
"The run-up to these elections illustrates how meaningless the process of voting can be in an environment of intimidation and fear," Gagnon said. "The Ethiopian government must publicly commit itself to ending the systemic human rights abuses that have become part of the foundation of its hold on power."
The patterns of repression and procedural manipulation that surround the upcoming polls are motivated in part by the increased importance that control of wereda and kebele administration has taken on since 2001. Financed in part by the World Bank and other donors, the Ethiopian government has decentralized the provision of basic services such as health and education. This has effectively empowered wereda administrators, who are appointed by the elected councils, with greater discretion in the allocation of budget expenditures.
The kebele system in particular is also a central part of the ruling party's elaborate system of surveillance, intimidation, and coercion of ordinary people who are perceived as being unsympathetic to the government. The kebele were originally created by the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam for precisely this purpose and have been put to the same use by the current government since Mengistu's ouster in 1991. Because of the kebele system's importance in this regard, the EPRDF is particularly loathe to contemplate losing control over them.
A dominant theme in the EPRDF's political discourse on Oromia is the need to combat the activities of the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which has been fighting a low-level insurrection against the government for years with Eritrean backing. Across much of Oromia, local officials have routinely and for many years used unproven allegations of links to the OLF as a pretext to subject law-abiding government critics to arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killing, and other forms of human rights abuse.
Local officials in Oromia have also made extensive use of the kebele system, along with smaller cells called gott and garee, to keep residents under constant surveillance for signs of government criticism. The overwhelming majority of local and regional authorities in Oromia belong to the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO), which is the regional arm of the EPRDF.
Ethiopia's last elections were parliamentary polls in 2005. The run-up to the elections saw signs of openness in some areas, though in most constituencies the same patterns of repression documented above prevailed. Following the elections, opposition efforts to contest the results sparked a heavy-handed government crackdown that saw several hundred people gunned down in the streets of Addis Ababa, mass arrests of perceived opposition supporters, and several prominent opposition leaders jailed on charges of treason that were ultimately dropped.
Elections for city councils, kebele councils, and vacated parliamentary seats will be held on Sunday, April 13, 2008. Elections for the wereda councils will follow on April 20. The exercise is a vast one - Ethiopia is made up of 547 weredas, and each of those is broken up into numerous kebeles whose governing councils each seat 300 representatives. The weredas are grouped into zones, whose administrations are not at stake in these elections, and the zones are grouped into nine ethnically-based regions.
Ethiopia's government is highly dependent on donor assistance but donor governments, including the United States and United Kingdom, have largely refused to criticize repression in Ethiopia or to demand improvements in the country's human rights record. The United States in particular views Ethiopia as a key ally in the "war on terror," and donor governments in general often express fear that Ethiopia's government will react poorly to human rights-related criticisms. The Ethiopian government has refused to allow any foreign observers to monitor the upcoming elections.