Ethiopian Rights Groups Forced to Reduce Work Before Elections

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By Jason McLure

May 14  — Aid agencies and Ethiopian rights groups said they have scaled back work to promote democracy after the government blocked much of their foreign funding, making it harder to ensure free and fair elections on May 23.

A law passed in January 2009 banned organizations that promote human rights, democracy and gender equality from receiving more than 10 percent of their revenue from abroad.

The implementation of the law is part of a widening pattern of repression by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling party that includes the continued jailing of a prominent opposition leader and the denial of food aid to government opponents, critics said.

“This is another dimension of closing space,” said Jeffrey Steeves, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan who studies East African politics, said by phone on May 12. “By restricting civil society, it’s a way of containing political support going to institutions other than the government.”

Groups that have scaled back their operations include the Research Center for Civic and Human Rights Education, South Africa-based ActionAid, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association.

The Research Center has cut its permanent staff to five from 50, closed five of its six offices and is doing nothing related to this month’s election, the group’s executive director, Mulleta Hursa, said in an interview on May 10 in the capital, Addis Ababa. At the last elections in 2005, the center trained and dispatched 1,300 voter educators and observers.

Instead, the group, which was forced to change its name to the Research Center for Development and Education, is now training Ethiopian villagers on non-political topics such as organic farming, environmental protection and eco-tourism.

‘Ethiopian Character’

The goal of last year’s law was to ensure that non- governmental organizations are “Ethiopian in character,” not cut their funding, said Atakilti Gidey, deputy director general of the country’s Charities and Societies Agency.

“If you provide a huge amount of money in this area and that money comes from outside, their work will not be for the government and the people, it will be for foreigners,” he said in an interview in Addis Ababa on May 12.

Preventing outside influence in the election process is also important, Communications Minister Bereket Simon told a press conference on the same day. “We are creating a favorable climate where citizens are engaging in the electoral process,” he said. “This is an Ethiopian election and we’d like to see that these groups are Ethiopian.”

Activists Jailed

ActionAid coordinated a group of 36 non-governmental organizations that successfully sued Meles’ government in 2005 to allow the deployment of local election observers during that year’s election.

Activist Daniel Bekele

Jailed Activist Daniel Bekele

After both the ruling party and the opposition claimed victory in those polls, security forces loyal to Meles killed 193 demonstrators and tens of thousands of people were jailed, including activists such as Daniel Bekele, an ActionAid manager involved in the groups’ pro-democracy work.

“Because of the new legislation we are no longer doing that work,” said Retta Menbenu, the group’s country manager, in an interview yesterday.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council, which also monitored the 2005 polls, has closed nine of its 12 offices while some staff have fled the country. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association, which provided women with education on their voting rights, has laid off 70 percent of its staff due to the law.

Mulleta says that he hopes that European donors can resume donations after the elections.

“I still call on the Western countries not to stop supporting civil society and pro-democracy forces in this country,” said Mulleta. “They have to find a way.”

–Editors: Philip Sanders, Karl Maier

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason McLure in Addis Ababa via Johannesburg at

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