My three days in Addis Ababa recently felt like a step back in time. As part of my day job, I keep abreast of developments in Ethiopia, so I thought I knew the true extent of the restrictions the people there have to endure every day, especially since a state of emergency was imposed last October.
But I was unpleasantly surprised on my recent visit there. You really cannot imagine what it’s like to live under the state of emergency just by reading about it in a newspaper in Nairobi, Johannesburg or London. You need to visit and live it yourself, however, briefly.
From the moment I landed at the airport, it was question after question from strangers about why I was in the country. I don’t doubt one bit that some of them were just being friendly, but I couldn’t shake off my suspicion of others.
I got to see firsthand how forbidding the emergency rules can be. As we prepared to launch a report on how the African Union (AU) deals with human rights abuses committed in conflict situations, we realised we should have informed the police, and the Command Post – the body responsible for enforcing the state of emergency. With more than 40 confirmed guests, including AU and European Union diplomats, we knew it would be quite an inconvenience if our event were to be cancelled, so we quickly drafted a letter in English and Amharic and broke up into two groups to deliver them to the two agencies. At the police station, where we were greeted with life-size portraits of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, we met a friendly female officer who saw no problem with our notice. But the Command Post saw it differently. As Amnesty International, we have examined the State of Emergency Proclamation enough to know that an invite-only panel discussion of AU activities does not amount to a public assembly. But the Command Post took a different view.
They said no, and we had to cancel the event. But they also dispatched police to ensure the hotel. This kind of repression has been common in Africa, but in 2017, it would be considered unseemly. Many people actually take it for granted that even the most critical of opposition rallies go unhindered in many parts of the world, and that they have unfettered access to the Internet. In Addis Ababa, I had to buy coupons at a hotel to access their Wi-Fi at $10 an hour. Perhaps not surprising, given that the state-owned Ethio Telecom, has no competitor to help force down broadband tariffs. And where there was free Wi-Fi, it was mostly slow, and many times, try as I might, I couldn’t access Facebook or Twitter. The Ethiopian government is known to heavily monitor and even block online communications. All I could see on my newsfeed every time I tapped my Facebook app were posts from three days earlier. I felt like I was in an Internet black hole.
Back in Nairobi, as soon we hit the tarmac, my phones started buzzing with emails, including one notifying me that my flight would be delayed. I had already endured a six-hour wait at Bole International Airport.
Luckily for me, my foray into this time warp was short-lived. The same cannot be said for the Ethiopian activists who face such emergency restrictions – and often worse. Dozens of government critics are languishing in jail on trumped-up terrorism charges, and another 5,000 are being held under the state of emergency law for taking part in the wave of largely peaceful protests that engulfed parts of the country last year. Others are behind bars for simply posting their thoughts on Facebook. Merera Gudina, an opposition leader, was arrested on his return from a visit to Europe where he had criticised the state of emergency law. Yonatan Tesfaye, a spokesman for the opposition Semayawi (Blue) Party, was arrested in December 2015 for comments he posted on Facebook. Journalist Eskinder Nega was jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges in 2011. He is one of many journalists jailed for doing their job.
And recently, the Federal Supreme Court ruled that two members of the Zone-9 bloggers’ collective on terrorism charges should face a new trial for offences against the Constitution, partly for encrypting their mobile phone messages to protect their privacy.
The first step for Ethiopia to emerge from the ongoing repression must be to bring an end to its sweeping crackdown on freedom of expression and release the people being held merely for expressing their opinions.
Seif Magango is the media manager for East Africa at Amnesty International.