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Despite Challenges, Ethiopia’s Civil Society Remains Committed to Democracy

Ethiopia stands at a critical moment in its history. Since 2018, the country has made significant strides in its endeavors on human rights reform and in its transition toward a more participatory democracy. Despite these efforts, the country currently faces critical challenges – COVID-19 and the postponement of the August 2020 elections, as well as civil unrest following the tragic murder of singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. These challenges underscore the crucial need for vibrant civil society organizations (CSOs) to fight for inclusive policymaking and foster an educated, engaged citizenry. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is committed to offering Ethiopian CSOs the knowledge, skills, guidance and practical opportunities they need to make that a reality.

Prior to 2018, Ethiopia was one of the world’s most repressive environments for civic activism. After taking office in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took swift actions to change this: releasing political prisoners, welcoming home exiled activists and brokering a peace accord with neighboring Eritrea.

As part of Abiy’s aspirational reform process, the Ethiopian government also repealed and replaced the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation in February 2019, which had forbidden CSOs from engaging in human rights, governance or advocacy activities. The repeal has allowed CSOs increased maneuverability in the democracy and governance space and encouraged a plethora of new organizations once focused solely on service delivery and public health to register as citizen interest groups. Since these changes were instituted, civic organizations and networks such as the Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations for Elections (CECOE) swiftly mobilized international support from the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the European Center for Electoral Support (ECES) and others to field more than 100 domestic observers to monitor the Sidama regional statehood referendum in November 2019. This resulted in Ethiopia’s fifth largest ethnic group gaining statehood.

Ethiopia’s revived civil society has taken steps to ensure the country’s democratic progress is not halted by the COVID-19 crisis, with the Consortium for Ethiopian Human Rights Organizations and its members providing the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission with specific recommendations to respect basic freedoms during Ethiopia’s state of emergency. These examples demonstrate the eagerness and potential of Ethiopian civil society to fulfill a critical role in Ethiopia’s democracy.

Though these reforms have contributed to increased optimism for positive change in Ethiopia, there is still a long way to go and it is critical that CSOs, not only in Addis Ababa but throughout the region, are equipped to serve as credible advocates for the most important issues affecting Ethiopian citizens. With support from the National Endowment for Democracy, the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and the United States Agency for International Development, IRI has worked with a range of CSOs and activists from across Ethiopia to capitalize on the country’s democratic opening. By providing CSOs with mentorship, skills training in areas such as program and organizational management and civic engagement partnerships, IRI is working to improve  their effectiveness in advocating to decision-makers, providing civic and voter education to the broader public and serving as a collaborative bridge between government institutions and their constituents.

Despite the postponement of Ethiopia’s elections and the challenges of a complex reform process, CSOs are taking the lead in acting as community representatives and engaging effectively with government institutions. IRI is proud to work alongside our partners on the ground to ensure that Ethiopia remains on the path to democracy.