For Immediate Release
Ethiopia: Government Repression Undermines Poll
International Election Observers Should Condemn Voter Intimidation
NAIROBI - Ethiopian government and ruling party
officials intimidated voters and unlawfully restricted the media ahead
of the May 23, 2010 parliamentary elections, Human Rights Watch said
In assessing the polls, international election observers should
address the repressive legal and administrative measures that the
Ethiopian ruling party used to restrict freedom of expression during
the election campaign, Human Rights Watch said.
"Behind an orderly façade, the government pressured, intimidated and
threatened Ethiopian voters," said Rona Peligal, acting Africa director
at Human Rights Watch. "Whatever the results, the most salient feature
of this election was the months of repression preceding it."
In the weeks leading up to the polls, Human Rights Watch documented
new methods used by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF) to intimidate voters in the capital, Addis
Ababa, apparently because of government concerns of a low electoral
During April and May, officials and militia (known as tataqi
in Amharic) from the local administration went house to house telling
citizens to register to vote and to vote for the ruling party or face
reprisals from local party officials such as bureaucratic harassment or
even losing their homes or jobs.
The May poll was the first national parliamentary election in
Ethiopia since the government violently suppressed post-election
protests in 2005; almost 200 people, including several police officers,
died after the 2005 poll and tens of thousands of people were arrested,
including opposition leaders, journalists and civil society activists.
In a March 2010 report, "‘One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure': Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia,"
Human Rights Watch described the complex and multi-faceted way in which
the government has sought since 2005 to silence dissent, restrict the
media and independent civil society, and leverage government resources
such as civil service jobs, loans, food assistance and educational
opportunities to encourage citizens to join the ruling party or leave
The government's efforts to ensure the election outcome continued
right up to polling day in Addis Ababa, according to Human Rights
Watch's research in different areas of the capital, including in
Merkato, Piazza, Wollo Sefer, Meskel Flower, Aya Ulet, Kera, Gotera,
Hayat, Kotebe-CMC and Bole neighborhoods.
"Intimidation to register and to vote for the ruling party is
everywhere," a resident of Addis Ababa told Human Rights Watch. "If the
local administration is against you, they'll be after you forever. They
can come and round you up at will."
Residents of Addis Ababa described numerous forms of intimidation in Addis Ababa in recent weeks.
Pressure to Register to Vote
Many people told Human Rights Watch that tataqi, local kebele
(or neighborhood) militia members came house-to-house asking to see
registration cards and checking if people were members of the ruling
A couple living in the Meskel Flower area said they were visited on
a weekly basis by members of the neighborhood militia who were checking
whether they were registered as EPRDF members. The wife told Human
Rights Watch: "One of them approached my husband. ‘We know who you
are,' he told him. ‘If you don't want to register, no problem, but then
don't come to the sub-kebele and ask for your ID renewal, or for any
other legal paper. We won't help you. It's up to you, now." The
following day the couple registered.
Pressure to Join the Ruling Party When Registering
Different sources across the capital confirmed to Human Rights Watch
that alongside registration, voters were requested to sign a paper,
under a heading "Supporter of EPRDF," that included ID number, age, and
An Addis Ababa resident said, "There's a lot of pressure for you to
obey. They have your name, they ask you to sign. If you don't, it means
you're against them. And they can come back to you whenever they want.
At the end of the day, you just have to do what they force you to do."
Pressure to Vote for the Ruling Party
Pressure to vote for the EPRDF appeared to take a number of different
forms. Pressure was particularly acute among civil servants, people
living in government-owned housing, and those living in poor
An elderly resident living in state-owned housing said local
government officials visited her house a few weeks before the elections
asking to see her registration card. She said they wrote down her house
number and told her, "We are going to check. And don't forget to vote
for EPRDF. We provide you the house, we can have it back." She said
that she was frightened by the threat and registered even though she
had not intended to vote.
Civil servants are particularly pressured to vote for EPRDF, saying
that ruling party officials remind them that it is the EPRDF government
that employs them. Patterns of intimidation of teachers and others that
were recently documented in Addis Ababa echo the examples previously
documented across the country by Human Rights Watch in "‘One Hundred
Ways Putting Pressure'." For example, a teacher in a public school in
Addis Ababa said: "A few weeks ago my headmaster called us all. He
asked us to show him our registration cards. He wanted to know whom we
were going to vote for as well. I refused. He harassed me and said,
‘You better get your card, and vote properly, otherwise after the
elections you might lose your job.'"
Residents also described an EPRDF pyramid recruitment strategy called One-for-Five. A coordinator (ternafi) had to identify five recruits or fellow voters (teternafiwoch)
among family members, friends, colleagues or neighbors. Coordinators
then tried to compel their five signers to go to the polling stations
and vote all together.
A woman in Aya Ulet area said, "A neighbor came to me. He said: ‘I
know you voted for the opposition last time. Are you going to vote for
them again? Do I have to report it to the kebele?' I am a civil
servant; I know that party officials and local administrators are the
same thing. For fear of losing my job, the next morning I went to his
place and signed."
Pressure on the Media and Foreign Diplomats
Simultaneous with the increased pressure on voters, in the weeks before
the polls the Ethiopian government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi acted
to restrict electoral scrutiny by independent media and foreign
The government issued several codes of conduct covering media and
diplomatic activity. Initial drafts of the media regulation restricted
foreign and local journalists from even speaking to anyone involved in
the election process, including voters on election day, in violation of
the right to freedom of expression. Several journalists in different
countries told Human Rights Watch that when they applied for media
visas to cover the elections, they were extensively questioned by
Ethiopian embassy diplomats.
The government told Embassy staff they needed travel permits for any movement outside of Addis Ababa between May 10 to June 20.
"The government has used a variety of methods to strong-arm voters
and try to hide the truth from journalists and diplomats," said
Peligal. "Donor governments need to show that they recognize that these
polls were multi-party theater staged by a single-party state."
Repressive Context of the Elections
Since 2005, Human Rights Watch has documented patterns of serious human
rights violations by the Ethiopian government. Members of the security
forces and government officials have been implicated in numerous war
crimes and crimes against humanity both within Ethiopia and in
neighboring Somalia. The pervasive intimidation of voters and
restrictions on movement and reporting are serious concerns for the
integrity of the electoral process, but represent only one aspect of
the Ethiopian ruling party's long-term effort to consolidate control.
The EPRDF's main instrument for stamping out potential dissent is the local administrative (kebele)
structure, which monitors households and can restrict access to
important government programs, including seeds and fertilizer,
micro-loans and business permits, all depending on support for the
local administration and the ruling party.
Since 2008 the government has also passed new laws to clamp down on independent civil society and the media.
The Charities and Societies Proclamation restricts Ethiopian
nongovernmental organizations from doing any human rights work,
including in the areas of women's and children's rights, if they
receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources.
Since the law's adoption in 2009, the leading Ethiopian human rights
groups have closed most of their offices, scaled down their staff, and
removed human rights advocacy from their mandates. The new regulatory
agency established by the Charities and Societies Proclamation froze
the bank accounts of the largest independent human rights group, the
Ethiopian Human Rights Council. At least six of Ethiopia's most
prominent human rights activists fled the country in 2009.
Another law, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, has also been used to
threaten with prosecution human rights activists and journalists for
any acts deemed to be terrorism under the law's broad and vague definition of the term.
Several journalists also fled in 2009, including the editors of a
prominent independent Amharic newspaper, and in February 2010 Prime
Minister Meles acknowledged that the government was jamming Voice of
America radio broadcasts.
Human Rights Watch urged the international election observer teams
from the European Union and the African Union to take into account in
their public reporting the insidious apparatus of control and the
months of repression that frame the 2010 polls.
Ethiopia is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, which accounts
for approximately one-third of government spending. The country's
principal foreign donors - the United States, the
United Kingdom, and the European Union, which provide more than US$2
billion annually in humanitarian and development aid, - were timid in
their criticisms of Ethiopia's deteriorating human rights situation
ahead of the election.
Human Rights Watch called on the principle donors and other
concerned governments to publicly condemn political repression in
Ethiopia and to review policy towards Ethiopia in light of its
deteriorating human rights record.
"Ethiopia is an authoritarian state in which the government's
commitment to democracy exists only on paper," said Peligal. "The
question is not who won these elections, but how can donors justify
business as usual with this increasingly repressive government?"
Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.