African Democracy at Stake in Ethiopia

The African Commission is currently deciding on the merits of the case.

Political Collusion and Brute Force Combine to Undermine Democracy in Ethiopia

In May 2015, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party coalition claimed 100 percent of parliamentary seats in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In doing so, they confirmed the country was a democracy in name alone.

Through a combination of violence, intimidation, and repressive legislation, democratic and political space was brutally restricted until that total electoral takeover remained as the only possible outcome. The Ethiopian government jailed journalists and bloggers, labeled them as terrorists, and threatened them with death sentences. Peaceful protestors were harassed, detained, beaten. Voter education groups were defunded, human rights NGO work criminalized, opposition leaders arrested. The result? A highly effective silencing of dissent in essentially any form and a complete vacuum of information essential for an informed debate and legitimate democratic process.

In the wake of the sham election, incidents of repression continued to mount. A cybercrime law further restricted the free flow of information and public debate and threatened everyone from journalists to ordinary citizens who express views in opposition to government policies. The former head of public relations for the opposition Semayawi Party was charged with “planning, preparing, conspiring, inciting, and attempting to commit terrorist acts.” More than 200 peaceful protestors were estimated to have been killed.

Why is This a Key Case?

This case is in many ways a referendum on democracy throughout the African continent. While Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister who has been in power since 2018, has made strides, including freeing political prisoners and pledging to amend the nation’s previously abused anti-terrorism law, Ethiopia’s first national elections in over half a decade will occur in 2021.

This case centers on the idea that a functioning civic space—journalism, activism, human rights work, legitimate opposition political parties—is integral to any democratic process and, indeed, any free society. By directly connecting civic space to the right to vote, and attempting to litigate exactly what denies that right, the case could help to set foundational standards for what free and fair elections mean in Ethiopia and throughout Africa.

How is RFK Human Rights Supporting the Case?

The organization, along with the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, filed the first-ever case before the African Commission to examine voting rights and establish a continent-wide rights-based approach to free and fair elections under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Case Partners

  • Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa

    Following a sham election, we partnered to file the first-ever case before the African Commission to examine voting rights and establish a continent-wide rights-based approach to free and fair elections.