NAIROBI, Kenya – Ethiopia is denying opposition supporters food, other aid, loans and government services in a widespread effort to suppress political dissent, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Tuesday.
Much of the aid being denied to ordinary Ethiopians is provided by foreign governments such as the U.S. and Britain and international financial institutions like the World Bank, Human Rights Watch said in its report "Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia."
"The Ethiopian government is routinely using access to aid as a weapon to control people and crush dissent," said Rona Peligal, the global rights group's Africa director. "If you don't play the ruling party's game, you get shut out. Yet foreign donors are rewarding this behavior with ever-larger sums of development aid."
Ethiopian government officials were not immediately available for comment.
According to the group, Ethiopia received $3 billion in aid in 2008. Donors have privately told Human Rights Watch they are aware of the allegations but they do not know the extent of the alleged abuse. The donors, however, have not conducted an independent assessment into how aid is used in Ethiopia, the group said.
The report said rural villagers reported that many families of opposition members were barred from participation in the food-for-work or "safety net" program that supports 7 million of Ethiopia's most vulnerable citizens.
Human Rights Watch also documented, in interviews conducted over six months in 2009, how high school students, teachers, and civil servants were forced to attend indoctrination sessions on the ideology of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front as part of the capacity-building program funded by foreign governments.
Attendees at training sessions reported that they were intimidated and threatened if they did not join the ruling party and superiors told teachers that ruling party membership was a condition for promotion and training opportunities, the report said.
In the past, some of Ethiopia's donors have suspended aid in response to allegations of abuse by Ethiopia. Following violent protests against the results of the 2005 election, during which 193 people were killed, the World Bank and other donors suspended budget support, funding that is not pegged to any particular project and is spent at the discretion of the Ethiopian government.
Afterward, when the suspension was lifted, donors then channeled that money directly to district governments, many of which are controlled by members of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party.
During local elections in 2008, opposition parties claimed the ruling party conducted a systematic campaign of beatings, arrests and intimidation that forced out more than 17,000 of their candidates in local elections for some 4 million low-level seats. The ruling party, which won overwhelmingly, denied there was intimidation.
"By dominating government at all levels, the ruling party controls all the aid programs," Peligal said. "Without effective, independent monitoring, international aid will continue to be abused to consolidate a repressive single-party state."
Mark Schroeder, an Africa analyst at the global intelligence firm Stratfor, said that with pressing international issues like Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. does not have time to tackle all the world's human rights problems.
"They (Ethiopian officials) can do whatever they want. It would take a lot of political capital for us to tackle the human rights issue," Schroeder said.
Meles' Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies won another five-year mandate in May. EU observers said the poll was marred by an uneven playing field favoring Meles' party. Opposition parties unsuccessfully called for a rerun over claims their supporters and candidates were intimidated.
Associated Press writers Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya and Samson Haileyesus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.