During a press briefing in Addis Ababa on April 16, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman praised Ethiopia as a democracy, suggesting it had made great strides toward an open and inclusive electoral process.
With Ethiopia preparing to hold parliamentary elections on May 24, the timing of Sherman’s remarks was unfortunate. “Ethiopia is a democracy that is moving forward in an election that we expect to be free, fair and credible and open and inclusive in ways that Ethiopia has moved forward in strengthening its democracy,” Sherman said. “Every time there is an election it gets better and better.”
In reality, however, Ethiopia has been backsliding toward authoritarian one-party rule. The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power for the last 23 years, has won each of the last five elections, and has recently used a slew of harsh new laws to stifle dissent and silence any opposition to the incumbent party. The country’s one-time vocal opposition is severely diminished, making Ethiopia a de facto one-party state. In a statement earlier this year, 33 opposition parties announced plans to boycott the upcoming polls [PDF] citing intimidation and harassment.
“This election is only ceremonial, it’s not really to win the democratic process and empower the people,” Yilkal Getnet, the head of the opposition Blue Party, told Bloomberg last month, adding the upcoming plebiscite “will result in another landslide victory for the ruling coalition.”
Sherman's statements drew quick condemnations. “Ethiopia remains one of the most undemocratic countries in Africa," said Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of Freedom House, in a statement Thursday. "By calling these elections credible, Sherman has tacitly endorsed the Ethiopian government’s complete disregard for the democratic rights of its citizens.”
Freedom House ranks Ethiopia as "Not Free" in its annual Freedom in the World index.
A closer look at Ethiopia’s last two elections paint a clear picture. In what was largely seen as the country’s first genuine experiment with electoral democracy in 2005, the EPRDF opened up the political space to opposition groups and free press. By all accounts, the EPRDF lost that election. But it claimed victory even before the vote counting was completed, leading to post-election violence in which 193 people died. Almost all vocal opposition leaders and critical journalists were rounded up and jailed [PDF].
“The 2005 electoral process did not fulfill Ethiopia’s obligations to ensure the exercise of political rights and freedoms necessary for genuinely democratic elections,” said the Carter Center, which observed the elections, in a report after the poll.
In the most recent vote in 2010, the EPRDF won all but two of the 547 parliamentary seats. U.S. embassy officials, independent observers and the media were denied accreditation and permission to travel outside of Ethiopia’s capital to observe the polls. “An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place even before Election Day,” the White House, said in a statement at the time. “In recent years, the Ethiopian government has taken steps to restrict political space for the opposition through intimidation and harassment, tighten its control over civil society, and curtail the activities of independent media.”
Little has changed in Ethiopia in the intervening years. In fact, the EPRDF has tightened control over the media, jailing or forcing journalists into exile in record numbers. “The Ethiopian government’s systematic repression of independent media has created a bleak landscape for free expression ahead of the May 2015 general elections,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a January report. “At least 60 journalists have fled their country since 2010 while at least another 19 languish in prison. The government has shut down dozens of publications and controls most television and most radio outlets.”
Ethiopia blocks almost all diaspora-based Ethiopian websites, and it has allegedly used European and Chinese spyware to target critical journalists and opposition leaders abroad, including those in the United States.
The U.S. views Ethiopia as a staunch ally in the so-called “war on terror.” Given that dynamic, Washington has habitually looked the other way in the face of gross human rights abuses, but contrary to Sherman's comments, the U.S. government has often acknowledged the lack of freedom and the tightening of the political space in Ethiopia. In a January statement, for example, the State Department criticized Ethiopia for using its anti-terrorism law to silence critics.
Sherman should take cues from organizations such as Freedom House, which is funded in part by her own State Department. In an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday, six U.S.-based NGOs, including Amnesty International and Freedom House, denounced Sherman’s remarks, saying they “undermine the courageous work of those pushing for a freer Ethiopia, many of whom are now imprisoned for exercising their fundamental human rights.”