Ethiopia Cracks Down on Dissent

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“>Gibe 3 Dam in Ethiopia. Investigations by the CRMU and the similar World Bank Inspection Panel are just about the only way that project-affected people can get recourse for problems caused by Bank-supported big dams and other infrastructure projects. Although we at International Rivers are not directly affected, our request was meant to supplement a claim on the project made by people who will be affected in downstream Kenya by the huge dam. Ethiopian villagers were, we knew, in no position to make a claim against the government-led project. We’d argued with the Bank for over three months that the claim could not be signed by directly affected people as required, because local people fear government retaliation.

Our fears were confirmed last week when, in an unrelated case but in the same region as Gibe 3 is being built, the Ethiopian government revoked the licenses of 42 humanitarian and human rights NGOs. The draconian crackdown is believed to be a reaction to a US State department report on Ethiopia’s human-rights crisis, issued in February.

Confidential sources have explained to us the government’s complex system of self-policing: paid local informants have been established in virtually every community, and many people believe that email and mobile phones are constantly monitored. International groups fear being shut down and forced to leave the country. Locals fear prison or violence if they appear to be speaking out against the government. A culture of fear has developed, causing mass silence in place of mass dissent. The BBC reported in March on how difficult it was to even hire local people to act as translators for their trip to investigate the dam, for fear of retaliation.

The crackdown is expected to get worse in the lead-up to the April 2010 elections. New laws regulating charities and another ostensibly to prevent terrorism but which gives the government broad powers to lock up almost anyone (including journalists) are making it very difficult to express opinions or ask tough questions in Ethiopia.

International Rivers has long documented the undemocratic and unfair planning of large dams in many parts of the world. But Ethiopia’s approach to this controversial issue borders on the repressive. The government is planning Africa’s biggest dam-building boom, and building some very pricey dams with massive social and ecological footprints. What little space for public debate on these expensive and often destructive projects appears to be shrinking by the day. Can Ethiopia find its best path to peace, prosperity and sustainable development if it stifles participation and critical voices, and rejects accountability?