The Ethiopian government is putting more than a decade of economic development at risk by banning meaningful political opposition, muzzling the media and suppressing civil society, the UN’s human rights chief has warned.
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Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said there “appears to be a clear need” for Addis Ababa to “ensure a far more substantive, stable and open democratic space for all its people”. He warned that, if not, the “social pressure will build to a point where dramatic things happen”.
Ethiopia, often touted as one of Africa’s star economic performers, has been under a state of emergency imposed by the autocratic government in October as it battled to crush a wave of countrywide protests.
Last month, the state-controlled Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that 669 people were killed in demonstrations between August 2016 and March 2017. Tens of thousands of people have been detained.
Independent human rights activists believe the death toll is much higher.
Mr Hussein, who spent three days in Ethiopia, said he could not corroborate any figures because his staff had been prevented from visiting the affected areas, mainly Oromia and Amhara. He said he asked for access to be granted but this had not been given.
The Ethiopian government, which took power 25 years ago, has delivered annual economic growth of about 10 per cent for the past decade. Tens of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and the country is considered one of the premier investment destinations in sub-Saharan Africa.
But there is very little political and social freedom. The ruling coalition controls every seat in parliament, the media is tightly censored and there are very few independent civil society groups. Critics are routinely detained, often for years.
Mr Hussein, who met Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, and other senior officials, said some people in government were on the “cusp of a new understanding” that economic development alone was insufficient to guarantee long-term prosperity.
“I am convinced the Ethiopian government will find its most important and productive investment will be in the rights of the people, which build strong and safe societies,” he said. “If it stumbles, mistrust and grievance will grow, and this may well have considerable negative impact on prospects for development and for the people’s wellbeing.”