Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Ethiopia is, by all accounts, a troubled country. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.1 In a region known for recurrent famines, failed rains in some areas and a global decline in the price of coffee led to yet another humanitarian disaster in late 2002. With a population of nearly 65 million, Ethiopia is home to more than eighty ethnic groups. The country is still reeling from the negative effects of its 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea. Its neighbors in the Horn of Africa including Sudan and Somalia are hotbeds of insecurity.

The government of Ethiopia has failed to meet the basic needs of its population, to protect civilians from ethnic or communal violence, and to impose accountability for human rights violations. Political leaders have long sought to control and suppress members of the political opposition, journalists, intellectuals, and members of certain ethnic groups. Students and teachers have been victims of repeated human rights abuses since the present government came to power as well as under previous regimes.

Governance in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. Despite a brief period of Italian occupation, it was never colonized by Europeans. The current government, led by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), came to power in 1991 in an atmosphere of great hope, ending a decade of civil war and overthrowing dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. A coalition of armed groups, including the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), both ideologically driven Marxist organizations, banded together to overthrow Mengistu's "Derg" (an Amharic word meaning committee), which had been in power since 1974. The Derg was responsible for human rights violations on an enormous scale including the torture, murder, and "disappearance" of tens of thousands of Ethiopians during the 1976-1978 period dubbed the Red Terror. The Derg continued to commit widespread violations of human rights until its defeat in 1991.2 Prior to the Derg, Emperor Haile Selassie ruled the country for more than forty years. His imperial rule was also characterized by widespread human rights abuses, autocratic control of the legislature and judiciary, and maintenance of an essentially feudal system in the countryside.

The EPRDF shepherded Ethiopia through a four-year transition culminating in the adoption of a constitution that has been praised internationally for its progressiveness and the holding of national elections.3 Having shed its Marxist ideology to win the favor of international donors, the EPRDF, under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, now cites the promotion of "revolutionary democracy" and "ethnic federalism" as its major policy goals. In 2001, a new ministry was created to oversee an extensive program of capacity-building that aims to provide citizens and civil servants with the skills and knowledge necessary for sustainable development.4 Under article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution, which enshrines the policy of ethnic federalism, each "nation, nationality, or people" is entitled to self-government and the possibility of secession.5

The TPLF-dominated central government claims that its guiding principles are democracy, development, and minority rights, but maintains a tight grip over diverse segments of society and all potential political opponents. The government has enshrined ostensibly democratic institutions at local, regional, and national levels, but, in reality, party cadres remain in control.6 International advisors say that, for example, political decentralization, ostensibly meant to ensure democratic decision-making at local levels, has in fact been carefully crafted by the central government to ensure effective federal (and ruling party) control of regional and local government institutions.7 International observers have cited widespread interference and manipulation, including some political killings, in recent national and local elections. Some opposition parties boycotted the elections to protest a perceived uneven playing field.8

Foreign diplomats, aid workers, and members of civil society complain of a lack of transparency among security forces-for example, high level officials may denounce human rights violations but do not reveal who ordered them-which makes it extremely difficult to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable. One described forcible roundups of street children in June 2002 as an example. A police officer reportedly told one youth while abducting him, "You are an insult to the nation. The country should be cleansed of you. You should be devoured by the hyenas."9 Sources in the police reportedly confirmed that police did in fact round up children and adults on the street and dump them in a forest. However, these sources were not able to ascertain who had ordered the roundup or why.10 Similarly, senior government officials including the minister of education and chief of police denounced the fact that police entered the AAU campus and attacked students there during the April 2001 strike. Yet, as discussed below, a parliamentary committee of inquiry at which they testified failed to ascertain who was responsible for the police actions and no one is known to have been held accountable.

Lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and diplomats interviewed for this report alleged that the executive branch continues to exert decisive influence over the judiciary. Human Rights Watch documented the problems facing the judiciary and political manipulations thereof in a 1997 report.11 Although the U.S. State Department's report on human rights conditions in Ethiopia in 2001 said the judiciary had begun to show "signs of independence,"12 an official with the department's Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor noted that the judiciary continues to be frequently manipulated.13 Research for this report confirmed that conclusion. Human Rights Watch documented several cases of judges who repeatedly adjourned hearings to allow police to investigate while detainees remained in prison on seemingly political grounds without charge. For example, police arrested an Addis Ababa businesswoman, Dinkinesh Deressa, in early June on accusations she had transported documents of the banned Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in her car. She appeared in court five times over two months before the local court ordered her release for lack of evidence. Two days after her release on bail, she was rearrested in another district. As of December 2002, she was still in prison.14 Similar cases of the judiciary's complicity in arbitrary detentions following student demonstrations, including the prolonged illegal detention of a child younger than fifteen, are documented below.

Despite a professed commitment to ethnic federalism and minority rights, Tigreans, via the TPLF, remain the dominant force in Ethiopian politics and members of other ethnic groups wield little power in practice.15 The EPRDF created political parties in each regional state which are (with the exception of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional State (SNNPRS) where no ethnic group predominates) named for the majority ethnic group.16 These parties-including the TPLF, Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO), and Amhara National Development Movement (ANDM)-are members of the EPRDF coalition and are considered mere satellites of the ruling party. One observer found that the creation of these parties has done little to foster political development in some regions and that the offices of the OPDO and SEPDO were virtually deserted, in stark contrast with workers' party offices under the Derg.17 Ethiopian intellectuals interviewed for this report observed that, especially in Oromia, civilians who do not align themselves with the satellite parties risk being pegged as allied with armed insurgents or other subversive groups.

Oromia is Ethiopia's largest and most populous state and the Oromos, who constitute a majority in Oromia, account for approximately 30 percent of the national population. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) participated in the campaign to oust the Derg and was initially part of the Transitional Government. Since the OLF split with the EPRDF in late 1991, however, it has waged an armed independence movement. Although the OLF does not appear to have the capacity to defeat the EPRDF, it has managed to serve as a persistent nuisance; in June 2002 it attacked military installations near the western border with Sudan and a fuel depot in the eastern city of Dire Dawa within the same week.18 The government has arrested thousands of Oromos suspected of collaborating with the OLF in recent years. Those who have been released or escaped and managed to flee the country have provided credible, detailed accounts of widespread and severe torture in prisons and detention facilities in Oromia.19 Many Oromos say that they have been persecuted for declining to support the OPDO and that they sympathize with the OLF because they feel marginalized by the Tigrean-dominated government, though not all of them favor independence for Oromos. Similarly, civilians in Ethiopia's Somali region are at risk of violence from the (Somali) Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF, which has been waging an armed struggle for years), the Somalia-based Al'Ittihad Al' Islami rebel organization, and the government's crackdown on suspected sympathizers of both organizations.

Friction between other ethnic groups around the country periodically results in violent clashes. The U.N. Emergencies Unit reported in July that clashes between the agriculturalist Afar and pastoralist Issas communities over access to water have exacerbated the effects of an already devastating drought in the Afar region.20 Members of the Afar National Liberation Front reportedly launched an armed invasion from Eritrea in August 2002, claiming they had to defend themselves because the government of Ethiopia had teamed up with Issas and Somali groups against the Afar.21 At the same time, in July, fighting raged between members of the Nuer and Anuak groups in the remote Gambella region. Although little news of this conflict reached the outside world, a journalist in Addis Ababa received credible reports that forty people were killed in just one day of fighting in mid-July.22 A month later, a government news agency reported that eighty people were killed in communal fighting in the North Wollo Zone of Amhara State.23 The southern regional state has also been the scene of recurrent interethnic clashes, including angry protests by Sidamas in Awassa and communal violence following demonstrations in Tepi in mid-2002, as discussed below.

Ethiopians who have decried the splintering effect of ethnic federalism on the once highly centralized Ethiopian state form yet another element of political opposition, known as the Ethiopian nationalist movement (as opposed to Oromo and Somali activists, who are considered "narrow nationalists"). This movement is made up primarily, but not exclusively, of ethnic Amharas or Amharic speakers. In addition to the All Ethiopia Union Organization (AEUO, formerly known as the All-Amhara Peoples Organization (AAPO)) and the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP)-both of whose members have been repeated victims of arbitrary arrest and intimidation-students at Addis Ababa University who organized the April 2001 strike have been among the advocates of Ethiopian nationalism.

The government has accused neighboring countries including Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, and Eritrea of harboring Oromo and Somali rebel groups that seek to destabilize the government in Ethiopia. Each of these countries has been plagued by insecurity in recent years, as well as by periodic drought and famine. In addition, Ethiopia is still reeling from the consequences of the war it fought against Eritrea from 1998 to 2000 over their disputed border. The war, which ultimately cost the country some U.S.$3 billion according to government figures, led to widespread human rights violations including the recruitment of child soldiers and the forcible expulsion of Ethiopians of Eritrean descent.24 Since the end of the war, many Ethiopians, especially in Tigray, have expressed anger that the government made peace on what they consider unfavorable terms, which has weakened the ruling party and led to a consequent crackdown on dissent.25

Against this backdrop, the EPRDF government has succeeded in exerting substantial control over potentially critical independent voices. As Human Rights Watch has described elsewhere, the government has periodically used arrests, intimidation, and denial of freedom of association against the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and the now defunct Human Rights League, against individual journalists and the Ethiopian Free Journalists Association,26 against individual lawyers and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers' Association, against the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, and against members of opposition political parties.27 Many of these organizations and individuals have been allowed to resume their activities, at least nominally, but the government's threats and intimidation continue to have a chilling effect.

Targeting the Educated
This report documents a pattern of abuses by the government against students and teachers. Students and teachers, who have been at the forefront of Ethiopian opposition for decades, have been brutally repressed with lethal force and subject to widespread arbitrary arrests by three successive governments.28 The TPLF, which ultimately waged a successful civil war against the Derg, has its own roots in student activism at Addis Ababa University (AAU) as well. Some of those interviewed for this report question how government officials, having been victims of human rights violations when they themselves were students, could repeat the mistakes of their predecessors and continue to suppress student activism. Others believe this is precisely why the EPRDF government cracks down on academic freedom: the government is living proof of how powerful student movements can be.

Ethiopia is now home to four regional universities, each of which also has several colleges. A number of for-profit private colleges of various standards have also been created in recent years. The number of students wishing to enroll in higher education is still much greater than the number of places available. 29

AAU, established as Haile Selassie I University in 1950, is the oldest and most important university in Ethiopia. AAU has several colleges under its auspices. The emperor initially granted the university a charter and thus autonomy, but the Derg suspended this when it took power in 1974. The EPRDF government has announced plans to restore university autonomy but has yet to do so, as discussed below.

The emperor reportedly tolerated student demonstrations between 1964 and 1968. An Ethiopian academic interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the first egregious incident of student repression, which took place in 1969 when a Tigrean student demonstrator, Tilahun Gizew of the Ethiopian University Students Association, was killed by government forces.30 Later during the Red Terror, "simply knowing how to read and write and being aged about twenty or less were enough to define the potential or actual `counter-revolutionary.'"31 Student protests were also quashed by the Derg. In 1990, during the waning days of the Derg, the military government brutally suppressed an AAU student demonstration following a pattern that has been repeated time and again. Students had protested for ten days after learning that twelve army generals had been executed in May 1990. Special Forces and members of Mengistu's personal Palace Guard came to the campus and fired machine guns directly at the students; at least six students were reported killed. Hundreds of students were arrested and nine busloads were taken to the Sendafa Police Training School outside Addis Ababa where they were detained for several days.32

Shortly after coming to power, the EPRDF demonstrated that, like its predecessors, it would not tolerate dissent in the academic community. On January 4, 1993, large numbers of AAU students marched to the hotel where then U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was staying to express their opposition to a planned referendum on Eritrean independence. At the time the EPRDF supported the independence of Eritrea, an important ally in its campaign to topple the Derg. The students had apparently failed to request permission to demonstrate and, during the demonstration, some had chanted ethnic slurs at Tigrean police officers. In response, security forces fired live ammunition into the crowd of unarmed students and beat and arrested large numbers of students as they dispersed the protest. Some eighty-five students were reportedly hospitalized for injuries sustained during the crackdown on the demonstration. Government sources acknowledged one student death and the university was closed for more than three months.33 Shortly thereafter, the government arrested Professor Alemayehu Teferra, president of AAU, on charges of human rights violations under the Derg. As of November 2002, he was still in detention awaiting judgment, his trial reportedly delayed because of a shortage of magistrates.34

After the university reopened in April 1993, the newly appointed university president imposed new contract requirements on all professors. The government-dominated administration also sent letters to forty-one professors who had been critical of the government, summarily informing them of their dismissal-in violation of their contracts, as well as of government and university policies. One of them told Human Rights Watch that their demand for an inquiry into the government response to the protest was among the "political activities" for which they were dismissed; the president of the university reportedly said they had incited students to demonstrate. They and other educators had also been critical of a new policy that local elementary schools teach in local languages and of other government policies.

Those dismissed at AAU in 1993 included five of the university's eleven full professors, its only specialists in some fields, and professors who had won international recognition for their scholarship. Some of them were subsequently harassed by government soldiers. The government also made efforts to ensure their continued marginalization, for example by intimidating their families and friends and staff of NGOs that hired them. Yet another professor, Fesseha Zewde of the history department, was dismissed in June of the same year.35 At the end of a three-week capacity-building workshop for university professors in July and August 2002, Prime Minister Meles was quoted as saying that the government had dismissed the professors because they had made the university their "political headquarters" and that he now "regretted the way the dismissal measure was taken." 36 Despite the latter acknowledgment, the legacy of these firings continues to stifle academic freedom today.

Although the status of academic freedom in neighboring Eritrea (which gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991) is beyond the scope of this report, it is worth noting that the leaders of the newly independent country inherited the same disdain for academic freedom shown by Ethiopian authorities. In a 1993 study of prospects for academic freedom in Eritrea, Human Rights Watch detailed a sustained policy of brutal repression under both Haile Selassie and the Derg amounting to a "systematic policy of denying educational freedom to Eritreans" for more than thirty years.37 Human Rights Watch has continued to receive frequent disturbing reports of arrests of students and other violations of academic freedom in Eritrea in recent years.38

1 Ethiopia was ranked sixth from the bottom in 2002. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2002: Deepening democracy in a fragmented world, July 2002.

2 Africa Watch (now the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch), Evil Days (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1991). Thousands of people who were government officials under the Derg are currently in prison; some have been tried for crimes of genocide and other human rights violations. For an analysis of the prosecutions, see Human Rights Watch/Africa, "Ethiopia: Reckoning under the Law," A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 6 No. 11, December 1994. At least 600 remain in pretrial detention, although the Federal High Court has announced plans to complete their trials by September 2003. "Court to Reach Verdict on All Genocide Charges This Year," Ethiopian News Agency, October 2, 2002.

3 See Theodore M. Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War African State (Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT: 1999), Chapter 9 "An Analysis of the Constitution of the FDRE." On the transition more generally, see Part I: "The Transition Period, 1991-1995."

4 See, Government of Ethiopia, The Program for Capacity Building Strategy of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 2002 (in Amharic). Under this rubric, the government organized mandatory capacity-building workshops for all teachers in July and August 2002. As discussed below, teachers and university professors interviewed for this report said they perceived the workshops as a forum for government and party officials to indoctrinate teachers, coerce them to join EPRDF political parties, and pressure them to cease independent political activities and renounce membership in the professional association of their choice.

5 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

6 "Synopsis of the Book: Ethiopia Since the Derg: A Decade of Democratic Pretension and Performance, Edited by Siegfried Pausewang, Kjetil Tronvoll and Lovise Aalen," The Addis Tribune, December 20, 2002.

7 Human Rights Watch interviews, Addis Ababa, July 14, 2002 and New York, October 9, 2002.

8 See, e.g., Siegfried Pausevang and Lovise Aalen, "Ethiopia 2001: Local elections in the southern region," University of Oslo, Nordem Report 03/2002; Kjetil Tronvoll and Siegfried Pausevang (ed.), The Ethiopian 2000 Elections: Democracy advanced or restricted? (Norwegian Institute of Human Rights 2001); U.S. Department of State, "Ethiopia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2001," March 2002, available at (retrieved September 30, 2002).

9 Ethiopian Human Rights Council, "Put a Halt to Violations of People on the Streets," 52nd Special Report, July 1, 2002.

10 Human Rights Watch interview, Addis Ababa, July 22, 2002.

11 See Human Rights Watch, "Curtailment of Rights," A Human Rights Watch Report (New York: December 1997), pp. 9-12.

12 U.S. Department of State, "Ethiopia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2001."

13 Human Rights Watch interview, Washington, D.C., September 20, 2002.

14 Human Rights Watch interviews, Addis Ababa, July 31, 2002 and, by telephone, Oslo, Norway, November 6, 2002.

15 For an analysis of ethnic federalism see, e.g., Lovise Aalen, Ethnic Federalism in a Dominant Party State: The Ethiopian Experience (Norway, Chr. Michelsen Institute).

16 See Human Rights Watch, "Curtailment of Rights."

17 Human Rights Watch interview, New York, October 9, 2002.

18 "Fighting on Ethiopia-Sudan Border," BBC News, June 26, 2002; "Ethiopia: OLF claims responsibility for bomb blast," IRIN News, June 26, 2002.

19 Human Rights Watch interviewed more than twenty torture victims who had recently fled to Nairobi, Kenya in April 2002.

20 "Ethiopia: Ethnic clashes worsening effect of drought," Irin News, July 29, 2002.

21 "Regional Security threatened; ` Afar suffers mal-administration'; former fighters resume armed struggle," Finfinne Post, August 29, 2002, cited in Ethiopia Press Digest, September 5, 2002.

22 Human Rights Watch interview, Addis Ababa, July 27, 2002.

23 "80 Killed in Feud in North Wollo," Walta Information Center, August 17, 2002.

24 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, "Child Recruitment and Forced Conscription in Ethiopia: Interview with the Oromo children - POW in Eritrea," August 1999.

25 See Human Rights Watch, World Report 2002, pp. 53-60.

26 More than sixty Ethiopian journalists have been arrested since 1991 and a dozen publications closed down. See Center to Protect Journalists, "Ethiopia," Attacks on the Press 2001 (New York) and Reporters sans frontieres, Ethiopie: Rapport annuel 2002.

27 See e.g. Human Rights Watch, "Curtailment of Rights;" "Ethiopia: Government Attacks Women Lawyers," Human Rights Watch letter to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, October 17, 2001; and "Ethiopia: Targeting Human Rights Defenders," Human Rights Watch press release, May 19, 2001.

28 For background on student movements in Ethiopia, see e.g., Fentahun Tiruneh, The Ethiopian Students: Their Struggle to Articulate the Ethiopian Revolution (Chicago, 1990).

29 Pursuant to national education policy, high school students must now take an examination in tenth grade to determine if they will continue on an academic track or shift to vocational schools. The majority of rural students fail the exam, effectively limiting their educational possibilities to vocational training. Less than half of primary school-aged children are enrolled in school; the net enrollment ratio is 43 percent of boys and 28 percent of girls. The figures drop to 14 and 10 percent for children of secondary school age. More than half of Ethiopia's population is under the age of eighteen. Unicef, Ethiopia statistics, available at (retrieved September 25, 2002).

30 Human Rights Watch interview, Washington, DC, September 23, 2002.

31 Rene Lefort, quoted in Africa Watch, Evil Days, p. 104.

32 Africa Watch, "Ethiopia: Violent Suppression of Student Protest," A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 2, No. 27, August 1990.

33 Human Rights Watch interviews, Addis Ababa, July 21 and 24, 2002 and Washington, DC, September 23, 2002; Ivo Strecker, "Addis Ababa University Under Siege," 1993, available on International Ethiopian University Support Site (retrieved August 16, 2002.).

34 Human Rights Watch interview, Washington, DC, November 3, 2002.

35 Human Rights Watch interviews, Addis Ababa, July 21 and 24, 2002 and Washington, DC, September 23, 2002; Ivo Strecker, "Addis Ababa University Under Siege"; Donald N. Levine, "Is Ethiopia Cutting Off Its Head Again?" Ethiopian Review, No. 8 1993.

36 "Meles `regrets' dismissing 42 university teachers," Menelik, August 31, 2002, cited in Ethiopian Press Digest, September 5, 2002.

37 Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Africa), "Freedom of Expression and Ethnic Discrimination in the Educational System: Past and Future," A Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 5 No. 1, January 1993.

38 In 2002, for example, the government of Eritrea embarked upon a campaign to conscript youths, including university students, who had not completed their mandatory service. An Asmara resident said the roundups were carried out ruthlessly and that the city streets were practically deserted-most boys and men between the ages of fourteen and forty had either been rounded up or had gone into hiding. In May 2002, some forty Asmara University students were reportedly arrested and ill-treated for refusing to participate in a summer work program "Nearly Forty Dissident University Students Arrested,", May 13, 2002. (retrieved May 15, 2002). The former leader of the student council told the press that the same thing happened to him and tens of others a year earlier; he managed to escape after spending a year in solitary confinement. Chalachew Tadesse, Interview of Semere Kesete, Sub-Saharan Informer, August 2002 available at, (retrieved September 5, 2002).

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page