Ethiopia's Fear Factor: Silencing Dam and Political Critics

Turkana residents protest Gibe 3 Dam, before authorities started cracking down.
Turkana residents protest Gibe 3 Dam, before authorities started cracking down.
Lucas Ng'Asike/The Standard
The Gibe 3 Dam and Ethiopia's coming elections have something powerful in common: the silencing of dissent at any cost. Ethiopia's government has systematically developed a culture of fear that silences any dissent of the ruling party and its policies. In villages, people fear what they say or do could be reported to officials by their neighbors. 

As Gibe 3 Dam is a priority project of Prime Minister Zenawi's government, anyone seen to be critical of the dam – including project-affected people asserting their legal rights – is seen as an enemy. Up to 63 local associations in South Omo Zone have been suspended, pre-emptively shutting down forums for discussing local issues. The government has denied licenses for community radio stations, and two-way radios are considered contraband. One Ethiopian was arrested for unknowingly wearing a Gibe 3 protest shirt borrowed from a cousin across the Kenyan border. Worse, a translator was reportedly arrested for treason after helping independent researchers communicate with affected communities. Other translators have been harassed and intimidated, helping drive the government's greatest silencing tool: its culture of fear.

Birtukan Mideksa is currently a political prisoner in Ethiopia
Birtukan Mideksa is currently a political prisoner in Ethiopia
One month from today, Ethiopia will hold its first national elections since 2005, when hundreds of protestors and opposition leaders were beaten, thrown in jail and killed. Several opposition leaders are still in jail, including Birtukan Mideksa, one of Africa's most notable political prisoners. She was pardoned in 2007 but re-arrested and returned to prison in 2008. Her health is suffering immensely and she has been denied access to medical personnel. 

Last September, the International Crisis Group predicted a violent crackdown in the run-up to next month's elections. Sadly, the crackdown seems to be swinging into full force. In March, Aregawi Gebre Yohannes, an opposition candidate, was stabbed to death in what was believed to be a political murder. Earlier this month, another opposition activist, Biyansa Daba, died a week after being brutally attacked at home.

Any skeptic of Zenawi's silencing methods should read Human Rights Watch's new report, "One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia." The report documents how the ruling party has used its near-total control of local and district administrations to undermine opponents' livelihoods through withholding services such as agricultural inputs, micro-credit, and job opportunities. New legal restrictions limit the ability of independent Ethiopian groups to monitor the elections; to date, only government-affiliated organisations have been licensed. A recent electoral code of conduct for the media forbids interviewing voters, candidates and officials on Election Day, while observers are barred from making any statements until election results are announced.

The ruling party is also shutting down the media. Ethiopia's most prominent independent weekly, Addis Neger, shut down in December 2009 after several editors feared arrest and fled the country. Last month, the US State Department criticized Zenawi's government after it admitted to jamming Voice of America's broadcasts. VOA officials say their Amharic broadcasts were also jammed in 2005 and 2008 around elections.

Gibe 3 Dam and the election have something else in common: donors who may overlook Ethiopia's fear factor unless we make enough noise. The International Crisis Group believes that the international community should take Ethiopia's governance problems much more seriously and that donors must convince Ethiopia to improve current standards of governance and promote democratic reform or risk destabilisation in the Horn of Africa. International Rivers believes that donors must also withhold funds from Gibe 3 Dam. Real development does not come at the cost of human rights and the silencing of dissent.

What you can do

  • Watch the media for coverage of the runup to Ethiopia's May 23 elections and the government crackdown on dissent. Tell your government officials to withhold support of this repressive regime.