General update

Ethiopia continues to face internal struggles, including ethnic unrest, with the recent election in the Tigray region igniting fears of military confrontation. Despite the regional election being declared “null and void” by the Ethiopian House of Federation, voting went ahead with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) being declared the winner on 9th September 2020. On 5th October, leaders in the Tigray region stated that they would stop recognising the federal government and administration in Addis Ababa. Shortly after, on 7th October, lawmakers passed a resolution for federal officials to cut ties with leaders in the Tigray region, in a move that furthers the breakdown in relations between Tigray and Addis Ababa.

In addition, concerns have been expressed in relation to several recent incidents of intercommunal fighting in Benishangul-Gumuz, in western Ethiopia. Reports emerged in mid-September 2020 that at least 140 people had died and hundreds had been displaced. Following the most recent attack, it was reported that at least 45 local officials were fired from their positions and five districts in the region were placed under martial law.

Meanwhile, the external conflict with Egypt and Sudan concerning the Blue Nile River dam is intensifying. In September 2020, the US suspended part of its financial aid to Ethiopia due to the stalemate in negotiations concerning the dam.

Separately, the official mandate of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government expired on 5th October 2020, due to delayed elections as a result of COVID-19. On the same day, President Sahle-Work Zewde gave a speech promising free, fair and credible elections within the next year. However, opposition parties called the decision to extend Abiy’s term unconstitutional and that it delegitimises Abiy Ahmed’s rule.

Association

On 19th September 2020, the Attorney General’s office announced that they had filed terror charges against Jawar Mohammed, a leading opposition leader, together with other activists. The arrests were initially made in relation to the protests following Hachalu Hundessa’s death. Charges were laid against more than 20 suspects, including Bekele Garba – a leading Oromo opposition leader. Concerns have already been raised about the fairness of Jawar Mohammed’s trial. In early October 2020, the Federal Attorney General was requested by High Court judges handling the case to explain his recent comments at a press conference, following accusations by Mohammed and Garba that he was assuming their guilt.

In separate developments, renowned professor Mesfin Woldemariam, founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and renowned human rights defender, passed away on 30th September 2020 at the age of 90. Tributes were paid to Professor Woldemariam, whose activism started as a lecturer while at Addis Ababa University in 1960.

Peaceful Assembly

There have been ongoing protests in Wolaita Zone of Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State (SNNPR), since 9th August 2020. At least 17 people are reported to have died in the protests so far, as a result of heavy-handed tactics by police. Demonstrations began with calls to end all unlawful arrests and killings of opposition political leaders, respect for Wolaita’s right to self-rule, and the freeing of all political prisoners.

Since the mass protests sparked by the death of Hachalu Hundessa in July 2020, at least 2,000 people have been charged, and 9,000 arrested for participation in demonstrations. On 2nd October, terrorism charges were filed against four suspects in connection with Hundessa’s assassination.

Separately, this year’s ‘Ireeccha’ festival, which is an Oromo harvest celebration that takes place in the town of Bishoftu, Oromio region, took place on 3rd and 4th October amid increasing tensions. Thousands celebrated the festival despite a heavy security presence and COVID-19. Authorities reported that they had seized weapons and arrested over 500 people, who they suspected of planning to cause violence, in the lead up to the festival.

Expression

On 7th September 2020, ten people, including four journalists who were travelling to cover the controversial regional Tigray elections, were barred from boarding a local flight to the region. They reported being told by officials that the elections were illegal and suggested that the refusal to allow them to travel was intended to prevent coverage of the election.

In a separate incident, three journalists were re-arrested on 8th September 2020 for alleged incitement to violence in the June and July protests, after having been initially arrested in August 2020 and then released on 7th September 2020. The three - reporter Belay Menaye, news anchor Mulugeta Anberbir and camera operator Misganaw Kefelgn - were re-arrested by police officers in civilian clothes shortly after they were released on bail.

Ironically, these events come amidst a clampdown on independent media in Ethiopia, despite Ethiopian Broadcast Authority Director Getachew Dinku recently stating that the government is committed to facilitate the existence of a vibrant media.

CPJ’s sub-Saharan Africa representative, Muthoki Mumo said.

“Ethiopian authorities’ pattern of maneuvering around bail orders to extend pre-trial detention is alarming and points to a disregard for the legal process as well as journalists’ and media workers’ well-being, considering the increased risk of contracting COVID-19 behind bars”.