Since the 2005 Ethiopian national election, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have themselves been victims of a brutal government proclamation that suppressed them from advocating for human, election, and even gender rights. The number of active CSOs has halved over the past fifteen years.
Following the amendment of the restrictive proclamation in 2019, the number of CSOs has currently reached 3,200, an increase of 1,400 new and reregistered organizations.
Nonetheless, the role of CSOs remains a drop in the ocean especially when witnessing the increasing number of conflicts, humanitarian crises, and widening gap between the state and society. Further, only 236 CSOs are registered by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to observe the upcoming national election. EBR’s Mariamawit Gezahegn delves into the trajectory CSOs have endured and their persisting challenges. The aftermath of the 2005 election was a doomsday scenario for civil society organizations (CSOs) in Ethiopia because they boldly declared the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD/ Kinijit), an opposition party at the time, as victor in the national election by taking 84Pct of Addis Ababa seats. The authoritarian ruling party of the time, EPRDF, began cracking down on CSOs. The organizations at the time were strongly engaged in exposing human right abuses by the ruling party, alongside performing humanitarian services and advocacy work for media freedom.
It is in this time in which the ruling party introduced various measurements to cripple active CSOs. The 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation prohibited CSOs from receiving more than 10Pct of their funding from abroad, or were otherwise prevented from working on human rights, voter education, ethnic inclusion, and gender issues. This is mainly because EPRDF classified CSOs receiving external funds as entertainers of ‘foreign interests’ in Ethiopia. In clearer terms, they saw human rights and democratic principles as a cover for indirectly supporting opposition parties and plotting to overthrow the ruling party.
Most CSOs were foreign based and were forced to close down, or stop working on these critical areas. There were 3,822 CSOs at the time, of which 2,300 were nationally registered, blossoming from just 70 in 1990 and 600 in 2001. The total figure of 3,800 included regionally registered CSOs but not traditional structures and informal associations.
While 1,741 NGOs closed down completely, many others were forced to withdraw from serving in crucial areas. This happened in the first two years after the proclamation, according to the Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA) and Institute of Development Studies (IDS).
“The legislation effectively ceased autonomous human rights advocacy. Repressive laws of registration, resource mobilization, budget allocation, and intrusive government oversight significantly shrunk the human rights civil society space. CSOs were forced to reframe their missions away from human rights initiatives and self-censor to avoid dissolvement,” said Mesud Gebeyehu, Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organization (CEHRO), describing the legislation’s legacy as “a society without the capacity for peaceful civil resistance and political discourse.”
“The progressive stifling of dissent and the closing of space for civil society has resulted in periodic outbursts of uncivil society and periods of unruly politics. Following its electoral shock, the EPRDF became more authoritarian and intolerant of political opposition or civic activism,” states a study by IDS.
As Ethiopia is nearing the sixth national election, it is apparent that the country does not have adequate and capable CSOs to fill gaps between the government and public. Civil societies are justice seekers, policy advocators, voices of the marginalized, and agents of democracy. During election periods, they provide support through voter rights advocacy, voter education, and voting process observation. Such services could not be more crucial for the upcoming election. Given Ethiopia’s complicated history with elections and political party transitions, the perception of a fair and democratic election is essential for peaceful post-election governance.
Of course, the new administration of Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has amended the former stifling proclamation with the new Civil Society Organizations Agency Proclamation ratified in 2019. It allows CSOs to ‘receive and utilize funds from any legal source to attain its objective.’
Yet, it also states “unless permitted with another law, foreign organizations and local organizations established by foreign citizens which are residents of Ethiopia may not engage in lobbying political parties, voters’ education, nor election observations.”
Since the new proclamation, some 1,400 new CSOs were formed, while 1,800 reregistered, according to data from the Agency for Civil Society Organizations. There are currently a total of 3,200, of which 460 are international NGOs. The organizations are operating in a multitude of humanitarian, development, human rights, professional, religious, cultural, and traditional sectors.
According to the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), 236 CSOs have been accredited to observe the upcoming national election. Additionally, 155 CSOs are sanctioned to provide civic and ethical education as well as voter awareness creation education. International election-based organizations like the International Foundations for Electoral Systems (IFES) are supporting NEBE with election capacity building and developing a strategic implementation process.
CSOs’ strategy for human rights advocacy through this election process is focused mainly on civic engagement. “Election is a human rights issue not just a democratic issue,” said Gebeyehu. To secure such engagement, CSOs’ are creating an informed voter base, safeguarding voter rights, and promoting government accountability. Their election support strategy can be categorized into three consecutive stages: pre-election, election day, and post-election.
In the pre-election stage—during preparations for the election—CSOs engage with vulnerable populations like women, people with disabilities, and internally displaced people (IDPs). Significant work is being done to include these populations in the voting process as voters, as candidates, and in any other capacity. Their rights and interests are also being promoted for inclusion in the competing parties’ campaign agenda. The focus has mainly shifted to marginalized populations due to the mainstream acceptance of other issues like land rights, foreign policy, and poverty alleviation.
Apart from advocacy, CSOs are extensively engaging in voter education. Based on their self-disclosed capability, there are over 170 CSOs and networks accredited to carry out voter education. This can take several forms including traditional voter mobilization, election observer training, and hosting candidate debate forums.
Some CSOs are holding education activities in hard-to-reach communities impacted by destabilization and insecurity. CSOs are also collaborating with media outlets like radio, TV, print, and social media to distribute election information. Sponsored debates are also a popular form of voter education.
NEBE provides a separate accreditation for debate organization. It has currently approved 12 organizations for the 2021 election of which nine are CSOs. These organizations can develop topics that allow candidates to expand on their manifesto and provide well thought out visions/ policies for their post-election governance.
On the election day, CSOs involve polling station observation. NEBE has selected 36 domestic and 200 international CSOs to send observers to election stations. While most will serve as general observers, some accredited CSOs will have a more specific monitoring purpose. For example, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) will monitor violence against women during elections in 89 zones across Ethiopia. CEHRO will monitor the voter rights of IDPs especially in polling stations that specifically serve these populations. They will also observe limitations of the process and put forth recommendations for post-election reform.
In the post-election stage, CSOs work in facilitating a peaceful transition of government. They will actively engage with those who have grievances and advocate for a peaceful and lawful contention of results. They will monitor the election challenge processes for transparency, fairness, and expediency.
An interesting post-election accountability concept is proposed by CEHRO. The organization is documenting candidate campaign promises and manifestos to hold them accountable for their actions once they take office. They plan to evaluate the gap between the needs of citizens and the response of the incumbent. The aim is to put pressure so government elects to fulfil the visions they sold to the voters.
CSOs’ Limitations in Election Support
Despite the considerable effort exerted by the sector, there are still limitations it faces in securing a fair election process. One such limitation are the changes to the electoral calendar. Voter education is a sensitive matter. Voting needs to be fresh in the minds of voters while participating in voting activities. Postponements kill the momentum as a sense of urgency and interest die down with increasing gaps between voter education and election activities. In another election delay, NEBE postponed the general elections on May 15, 2021 over logistical issues of voter registration, adequate ballot paper distribution, and insufficient electoral staff training.
COVID-19 concerns measurements and the lack of security and enforcement in conflict areas have also made travels difficult. This has isolated these communities from accessing election information. This prompted CSOs to incorporate COVID-19 public health education within their voter education.
There were also limitations in the collaboration of CSOs with NEBE in election labor division, which would have omitted duplication of efforts and created a more streamlined intervention process. While the latter delegated its mandated voter education responsibility over to CSOs, it did not provide enough resources to implement the work. Lastly, funding security was impacted by foreign entities’ perception of the government. Disapproval of policies and/or governing decisions have fended off some donations.
The human rights sector has significant challenges to overcome. The sector has sustained damage to its credibility due to its fractured relationship with the previous government. CSOs need to restore the credibility of the sector and rebuild public trust in their purpose. They need to demonstrate their political impartiality and allyship to the interests of the people. Programs and initiatives need to be visibly promoted to combat any residual false narratives.
CSOs still have not regained their righteous power and role, although the legal frameworks are conducive now. The number of crisis events occurred in Ethiopia over the last couple of years are more frequent and multi-dimensional than any in the past. On November 30, 2020, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) reported to Parliament that there were 113 major conflicts that happened between 2018 and 2020 alone. The burden to solve crisis, provide humanitarian assistance, awareness creation, and filling of the gap between government and society, has largely remained unaddressed or left to the government.
Government is also not capitalizing on the potential of CSOs and delegating them to contribute to conflict resolution and development. For instance, government at first sidelined the need of CSOs during the months-long militaristic law enforcement operation in Tigray Region. The region was opened for CSOs following pressure from Western governments. Humanitarian assistance provision and the account of human rights breach were overdue. This indicates government still needs to consider CSOs as a vital independent arm. CSOs still need to earn the uncompromisable power to influence governments. Even under the election observance, CSOs are not given equal credit as much as other observers such as European Union delegates.
Gebeyehu of CEHRO advises CSOs to use various media platforms to advocate for pressing issues and highlight program initiatives. Choosing platforms that are frequented by the public enhances organization visibility and credibility.
“The human rights sector is facing a difficult journey of moving the country away from ethnic violence and political conflicts. An essential step of peacebuilding is the facilitation of a national-scale political dialogue. Sustainable peacebuilding activities should also incorporate conflict mapping to document individual stakeholder influences and interests. Victims of violence should also be given a space to share their stories and receive a formal acknowledgement of the harm they experienced.”
Peacebuilding competency trainings should be given to community leaders to create a cascading effect. Leaders should be trained on peaceful dialogue and public discourse to manage conflicts within their communities. CSO should also engage the government in peacebuilding efforts that go beyond legal accountability,” argues Befekadu Hailu, Executive Director of the Center for Advancement and Rights (CARD). He suggests that developing comprehensive systems of transitional justice, violence prevention, and conflict-sensitive civil engagement platforms for a peaceful civil discourse participation are critical.
Optimistically, the future of CSOs in the human rights sector appears promising. With less legislative restrictions and renewed operational autonomy, CSOs can build a vibrant and innovative environment. They have experienced sizable successes in election support and vulnerable population advocacy. However, public expectations of their current capability remain idealistically high. It is important to remember that the civil society space is re-establishing a sector that has relatively been dormant. It might take a couple more years to operate at full capacity. EBR
9th Year • May 16 – Jun 15 2021 • No. 98