By: Jennifer Keck
When you think of Ethiopia, images of starving children probably come to mind. But the East African nation has come a long way since the 1984-1985 famine, which claimed over one million lives. Economic growth has increased around 10 percent annually for the past decade, putting it in line with the government’s goal of becoming a “middle-income” nation by 2025.
The country’s “pro-poor” polices are transforming the nation and creating a path to prosperity and stability. Western governments—including the United States and Canada—consider Ethiopia an “island of stability” surrounded by the struggling states of Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Eritrea.
Yet for all its economic success, the Ethiopian government casts a long shadow on human rights.
Last year, a violent crackdown on protesters in Oromia resulted in upwards of 200 deaths, according to Human Rights Watch. The anti-government demonstrations, which were set off by plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into the region, have been fueled by frustrations over political and economic marginalization. Protesters say the military and police responded with public beatings, unlawful arrests, and even killings.
Eyewitness testimonies, mostly reported via social media and by activists, have been difficult to verify. Restrictions on travel have made independent investigations next to impossible. Journalists can’t travel without permission and are typically assigned a government minder when they do.
Ethiopia’s devastating drought has only pushed human rights concerns further to the margins as the country pleads for foreign aid. And even that narrative is tightly controlled by the government.
CBC Foreign Correspondent Margaret Evans writes of her visit, “Local officials assigned to accompany us on our recent trip were reluctant to allow us to see any real signs of suffering in the face of the drought.”
Restricting access may be due in part to the government’s desire to project an image of strength after decades of being portrayed as a charity case.
“There appears to be a tendency by some in the international humanitarian system to change the message in such a way that what the rest of the world hears from Ethiopia is a shrill cry of an SOS for immediate intervention,” Ethiopia’s communications minister, Getachew Reda, told CBC.
But government control of the national media is far more problematic. Today, Ethiopia is “one of the leading jailers of journalists on the continent,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Ethiopia deserves to be lauded for its economic progress, but unless it begins protecting human rights, millions will be locked out of participating in its development. It will take more than a steady growth rate for the nation to truly become the shining star of East Africa.