Small Wars Journal

Ethiopia: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 12:21am

Ethiopia: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Sub-Saharan Africa

Hilary Matfess


Ethiopia is frequently described as a “linchpin” in America’s counter-terrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa.[i] According to Human Rights Watch, the United States and other Western countries give “priority to the government’s record on development and economic progress, perception of relatively low corruption, its hosting of the African Union, its security and counterterrorism partnerships, and its contributions to regional peacekeeping operation.”[ii] These roles come with a substantial paycheck: in 2016, the United States government gave a total of $375 million to Ethiopia in aid – a sum that does not include the military assistance the US provides.[iii]

Though the United States provides significant assistance to Ethiopia the US-Ethiopian relationship is hardly characterized by one-sided power dynamics. Ethiopia’s centrality to American strategy in the region grants it some measure of leverage over the United States government. Washington’s policy makers generally conclude that, without Ethiopian cooperation, the Horn of Africa would be an even more ‘dangerous neighborhood.’ One analyst and human rights advocate observed that, “this is not a partnership based on shared values of freedom, liberty, and commitment to democracy, but one based purely on security considerations. Ethiopia served as America’s local ally, and America, in turn, provided enormous financial, technical and diplomatic support,” which allowed the Ethiopian government “to build the political and security infrastructure that has as its main aim the policing, control, and surveillance of internal dissent and opposition.”[iv]

Ethiopia’s strategic value in counter-terrorism operations in the region butts heads with American foreign policy objectives of promoting democracy and liberal democratic values.[v] The Ethiopian regime is a one-party state under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has been in power since 1991. The party has an impressive capacity to monitor its citizens and a damning human rights record.

The events of 2015 and 2016, when the country was wracked by widespread protests, illustrate that the Ethiopia’s strategic importance has given it the ability to use its counter-terrorism legislation to stymie dissent and shut down the Internet without significant American objection. Ethiopia’s simultaneous status as a ‘donor darling’ and human rights violator illustrates the ways in which American counter-terrorism partnerships can be manipulated to prevent domestic political opposition and sheds light on when regimes strategically decide between targeted suppression and broad communications blocks.[vi]

Ethiopia’s Counter-Terrorism Law and Freedom of the Press

The country’s 2009 anti-terrorism law, while adopted under the auspices of improving Ethiopia’s capacity to act as an effective counter-terrorism partner, has been used to crack down on opposition. The law itself is vague, defining a terrorist group as an organization "intending to advance a political, religious or ideological cause by coercing the government, intimidating the public or section of the public, or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional or economic, or social institutions of the country."[vii] Though hundreds of people “including government opponents, exiled and domestic opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders have been charged as terrorists under the law,”[viii] and at least 15 journalists were convicted under it between 2011-2016,[ix] the prosecution of the Zone 9 Bloggers provides a textbook example of targeted suppression by the Ethiopian regime.

Zone 9 Bloggers

Six bloggers, who frequently critiqued the Ethiopian government’s policies on the ‘Zone 9 Blog,’ were arrested in April 2014 under the counter-terrorism law. The blog’s articles generally focused on respect for the constitution and rule of law and bringing to light the plight of political prisoners in the country. They were accused of “using social media to create instability in the country.”[x] As a ‘terrorist act,’ their blogging potentially could have carried with it a 15-year imprisonment or the death penalty.[xi] These journalists were held for more than a year and were brought to court a number of times where police requested additional time for their investigation, before finally being released. All of the charges brought against them were dropped. Many believe that their release, and that of other political opponents, was only because of an official diplomatic visit to the country by then-President Obama.[xii] The imprisonment of the Zone 9 bloggers was generally thought to serve as an example to other would-be dissidents. Their notoriety both facilitated their eventual release and contributed to the culture of fear that pervades life in Ethiopia.[xiii] The repetition of such unfounded prosecutions of dissidents leads the Oakland Institute to conclude that, “prosecutions under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law are deficient in critical respects and in contravention of international law. The process by which many of those charged come to be brought before the court represents a violation of Ethiopia’s international obligations and the defendants’ rights.” [xiv] A review of American-Ethiopian relations observed that the law’s application has gotten out of hand. While adopted under the guise of limiting the ability of terrorist organizations like Al Shabaab to take root in Ethiopia, “the law has effectively institutionalized structural and direct violence against opposition parties and members of the non-ruling ethnic groups such as the Oromo and the Ogaden-Somali peoples.” [xv]The author concludes that the “the use of the law has taken on a whole new trajectory that even the United States did not anticipate as its victims are so far mainly civilian opponents as opposed to proven terrorists.”[xvi]

Communications Restrictions

In addition to this targeted repression of specific newspapers and political movements, the government also shut down the Internet and communication platforms on a number of occasions in response to political opposition. 2016, in particular, saw not only targeted repression of domestic opposition, but also broad communications blackouts. These shutdowns are facilitated by the fact that Ethiopia owns the singular Internet provider in the country.[xvii] Sometimes the Internet shutdown extended only areas with significant political opposition – such as the four times the Internet was blocked in Oromia in 2016 – a cruder, but still targeted example of repression. Between November 2015 and June 2016, there were at least 500 protests throughout the country. The wave of civil unrest unnerved the EPRDF and suggested unprecedented geographic frustration with the party. This triggered a state of emergency in October 2016 that was accompanied by a telecommunications shutdown in the diverse and burgeoning capital, Addis Ababa.[xviii]

Broader Internet restriction only came about following an unprecedented alliance between Oromo and Amhara protestors, the two largest ethnic groups in the country, which together comprises 61% of the country’s populations.[xix] Their grievances, which initially centered on land disputes but expanded to include the anti-democratic tendencies of the regime, threw into sharp relief how narrow the band of support that the part enjoys truly is – despite winning every seat in parliament in the 2015 elections.[xx] The communications shutdown dinged the economic productivity – to the tune of millions of dollars -- of the city by making coordination difficult and mobile payments impossible.[xxi] Internet and telecommunications were restricted or blocked for two months before finally being restored in December 2016.[xxii]

In addition to limiting communication, the state of emergency was also accompanied by a response by the security sector. In the first month of the state of emergency, more than 11,000 people were arrested.[xxiii] As the protests gained momentum, the Ethiopian government designated the generally peaceful protestors as “terrorists,” and subsequently “authorized the Anti-Terror Task Force, a military body, to respond to them.”[xxiv] The government’s director general of communications, Getachew Reda characterized the protests as an organized and armed terrorist force aiming to create havoc and chaos has begun murdering model farmers, public leaders and other ethnic groups residing in the region.”[xxv]This characterization of the protestors as terrorists bent on undermining the state extended from the elite to the lower-ranks of the security sector. The government’s response was predictably bloody; according to Human Rights Watch “400 people are estimated to have been killed, thousands injured, tens of thousands arrested, and hundreds, likely more, have been victims of enforced disappearances.”[xxvi] Human Rights Watch recounted the experience of Jamal, a 19 year old student who was beaten by soldiers and told “You are terrorists, you are trying to mislead students and create insecurity.”[xxvii]

Despite the inconvenience the Internet shutdown presented to the working of the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, the operations of non-governmental organizations in the country, and the obvious human rights violations taking place throughout the country, diplomatic pressure for reform in Ethiopia has generally been limited. Though the US State Department released a statement that urged Ethiopia “to permit peaceful protest and commit to a constructive dialogue to address legitimate grievances,” it also cautioned the protestors “to refrain from violence and to be open to dialogue.”[xxviii]  The US government also released statements related to the imprisonment of the leader of a political opposition leader Bekele Gerba and his associated, but, importantly “has not publicly condemned the use of excessive force by security forces.”[xxix]

This meek response to obvious human rights abuses is disheartening for those invested in the promotion of liberal democracy as there appears to be an opportunity to demand more from our strategic partner. According to scholar Habtamu Tesfaye Dugo, “U.S. policy elites have been in denial about America‘s leverage in inducing positive change in Ethiopia.”[xxx] It is clear that in the absence of American pressure to use counterterrorism legislation responsibly, the Ethiopian regime subverting democratic norms to consolidate its power, often in the name of the War on Terror.

Broader Implications

Ethiopia’s repressive actions, adopted under the guise of counter-terrorism efforts, have wider implications for American counterterrorism strategy in the region, where the United States is dependent on a ‘light footprint’ strategy. Two regional efforts, the 2005 Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) in West Africa, and the 2009 Partnership for Regional East Africa Counter-Terrorism (PREACT), absorb much of the United States’ counter-terrorism efforts on the continent. The objectives of both TSCTP and PREACT involve increasing domestic institutional capacity to respond to terrorist threats and also promote regional integration and cooperation towards this end.[xxxi]

Delegating responsibility for counter-terrorism to individual countries and regional bodies has led to a series of waves of counter-terrorism legislation across the continent. Since 2001, 24 countries (of 46 surveyed) have adopted specific counter-terrorism legislation. An additional 9 had amended or interpreted existing codes to specifically address terrorism. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of US counter-terrorism partners have adopted specific domestic counter-terrorism legislation. All of PREACT’s active members have specific legislation; other affiliated countries have also adopted specific legislation, amended existing legislation, or identified special cells for countering terrorism. Among the TSCTP countries surveyed, only one country (Senegal) did not have specific counter-terror legislation – though Senegal did amend its criminal code in 2007 to “establish criminal offenses for terrorist activities as defined in the Organization of African Unity Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism.”[xxxii] This disproportionate level of adoption, relative to the rate of adoption of such legislation across the continent (just over 56% of countries surveyed had specific legislation), suggests that the stated objectives of American counter-terrorism partnerships of increasing domestic capacity to identify and respond to terror threats has been achieved to some extent.

While on the one hand, the adoption of such legislation signals a commitment to fighting terrorism, on the other, there is evidence that Ethiopia is not alone in using counter-terrorism legislation to target the free press or stymie domestic political opposition. The light-handed approach to American counter-terrorism partnerships in the region has given governments with autocratic tendencies cover to engage in politically repressive activities. Troublingly, in 7 of the 10 cases where there is tangible evidence of counter-terrorism legislation being used in such a fashion, the country is a member of either the TSCTP or PREACT. Of the 17 countries that have experienced Internet shutdowns since 2011, however, only 8 have been American counter-terrorism partners. [xxxiii] This suggests that counter-terrorism legislation is being used to target specific domestic political opponents, both to complement broader repression and to stifle specific agendas.

It is the application of these counter-terrorism laws, not necessarily their drafting or adoption, that has been problematic.[xxxiv] However, the fact that so many American counter-terrorism partners seem to select targeted repression in lieu of broader repression is significant – and likely is the result of a specific set of incentives from both the domestic and international political spheres. From the international community, there are powerful political and financial incentives to identify as a partner in the Global War on Terror (GWOT), though these benefits generally come with balancing American dependence with a nominal commitment to the liberal ideas that GWOT is ostensibly aimed at defending. It is possible that targeted repression, under counter-terrorism laws, is though to present less of a risk to the continued material benefits of partnership with the United States. Domestically, crude repression may engender resentment from domestically supportive groups – suggesting that only in times of great crisis, when there is little international leverage to prevent such a crack down, or when regimes are generally unpopular will they resort to this sort of heavy-handed suppression.

These broader patterns, considered in light of events in Ethiopia suggest that in sub-Saharan Africa, counter-terrorism legislation is Janus faced and used to silence specific domestic voices while currying international favor.

American Leverage in Counter-Terrorism Partnerships

This paper has identified and briefly outlined two trends of note: the first is the frequency with which American counter-terrorism partners in Sub-Saharan Africa are abusing counter-terrorism legislation to suppress domestic opposition; the second is the decision between crude and targeted repression that regimes have to make when faced with domestic opposition. Both of these trends are worthy of further analysis, however, the first is more immediately relevant to American foreign policy. The frequency with which American counter-terrorism partners in Africa abuse the legislation that regional security partnerships incentivize should give policy makers in Washington pause. Though combatting and containing the influence of terrorist groups is a pressing foreign policy objective, American support for liberal democracy abroad is a long-running commitment that has granted the United States ample soft power. Compromising America’s reputation regarding the promotion of democracy and human rights in sub-Saharan Africa in an effort to combat terrorism is not only an example of sacrificing the important to service the urgent – in the long run it is a self-defeating strategy, given the instability that repressive regimes tend to foment.

The attitude that the United States is ‘playing the hand that it’s dealt’ with counter-terrorism partners in Sub-Saharan Africa overlooks the leverage that American foreign aid and military assistance carry with them. Estimating the funding available to counter-terrorism partners in the region is difficult. A number of agencies are involved in regional programs, and bilateral partnerships are variable. Further, activities or developments within host countries can halt the flow of funding. “Coups… civil wars… and poor performance on budget transparency, trafficking in persons, child soldiers, and Leahy vetting” have disrupted engagements under the TSCPT.[xxxv] For a sense of scale, however it’s worth noting that in 2015 the TSCTP’s budget increased to $53 million and PREACT’s funding stream increased to $24 million.[xxxvi] Though this is a small fraction of American military spending, for partner countries, this funding (and the opportunities to foster closer military partnerships with the United States) is a tantalizing carrot.

A more forceful application of existing human rights-related restrictions on military assistance and a realistic assessment of whether or not partners are deploying counter-terrorism assistance in undemocratic ways are necessary for American foreign policy objectives to be met in the region. Consider that a number of those recruited into Boko Haram, the most lethal terrorist organization on the continent, reported that harassment by the Nigerian government was a significant factor motivating them to join.[xxxvii] Further, as in the case of Ethiopia, the failure to apply diplomatic pressure when repression is targeted may give anti-democratic regimes the confidence to engage in broader crackdowns. Human Rights Watch notes that Ethiopia now confidently proactively deflects any criticism of its heavy handedness by asserting that “peaceful protests have subversive agendas and connections with “terrorist networks.”[xxxviii] In a region still struggling with democratic transitions and consolidation, counterterrorism partnerships with the United States should serve as a boon to democracy advocates, rather than sow the seeds of future rebellion against repressive states.

End Notes

[i] (Dugo 2012)

[ii] (Human Rights Watch 2016)

[iii] (InsideGov 2016)

[iv] (Allo n.d.)

[v] (Freedom House 2016)

[vi] (Ross 2010)

[vii] (Solomon 2016)

[viii] (The Oakland Institute 2015)

[ix] (Freedom House 2016)

[x] (The Oakland Institute 2015)

[xi] (The Oakland Institute 2015)

[xii] (Sahara Reporters 2015)

[xiii] (Arendt 1966); fieldwork

[xiv] (The Oakland Institute 2015)

[xv] (Dugo 2012)

[xvi] (Dugo 2012)

[xvii] (Dahir 2016)

[xviii] (Dahir 2016)

[xix] (Dahir 2016)

[xx]  According to Freedom House: As in past contests, Ethiopia’s 2015 parliamentary and regional elections were tightly controlled by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), with reports of voter coercion, intimidation, and barriers to registration. Elections were held on time, and official results were released within a month.

(Freedom House 2016)

[xxi] (Dahir 2016)

[xxii] (Shaban 2016)

[xxiii] (Al Jazeera 2016)

[xxiv] (Al Jazeera 2016)

[xxv] (Human Rights Watch 2016)

[xxvi] (Human Rights Watch 2016)

[xxvii] (Human Rights Watch 2016)

[xxviii] (Toner 2015)

[xxix] (Human Rights Watch 2016)

[xxx] (Dugo 2012)

[xxxi] (US Department of State 2017)

[xxxii] (US Department of State 2013)

[xxxiii] Correspondence with AccessNow and self-generated dataset.

[xxxiv] Additionally, there does not seem to be a link between the adoption of counterterrorism legislation and a significant decline in overall press freedom. Among all countries that adopted a counter-terrorism law, the average change in press freedom since the law was adopted was less than a 1 point increase in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Ranking. Among those countries that are also American counterterrorism partners, the average change in Press Freedom was a decline of less than one point – a slight improvement in press freedom. While this does not necessarily mean that American counterterrorism partners have freer presses (since this measurement does not take into account the country’s initial Freedom of Press score), just that this specific metric did not find a precipitous decline in press freedom since the adoption of the law. These are clearly imperfect proxies, but aimed at capturing general strategies of repression – to wit, whether they are targeted against specific agendas and domestic opposition, or more general.

[xxxv] (Warner 2014)

[xxxvi] (Chwalisz 2016)

[xxxvii] Internally circulated document; fieldwork.

[xxxviii](Human Rights Watch 2016)


About the Author(s)

Hilary Matfess is a research analyst with the Center for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria and the Nigeria Social Violence Project at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Her work focuses on the nexus of governance and security in Sub-Saharan Africa. She has conducted fieldwork in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Nigeria.



Wed, 04/12/2017 - 2:59pm


The approach of the USA to what it sees as "strong men" in government is not a new phenomena or policy stance, although it may be in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is a moot point if the USA can readily change its policy without losing the "strong men" who it relies on for wider policy interests.

There is one case study worth considering, albeit during the 'Cold War' and before counter-terrorism became a significant US policy, is General Mobuto Sese Seko in Zaire(from 1965 to 1997 in the now DRC) who had substantial US support for years. See:

Leaving aside the political and strategic position Ethiopia is in, now of great interest - again - to the USA, you overlook that Muslims constitute 33.9% of the population. If they were to shift their stance towards the violent jihad that would be bad for everyone. (Stats via )