Head of government Meles Zenawi
Death penalty retentionist
Population 82.8 million
Life expectancy 54.7 years
Under-5 mortality (m/f) 138/124 per 1,000
Adult literacy 35.9 per cent
Freedom of association and expression, and the work of human rights groups, were limited by new laws introduced in the first half of the year. Human rights defenders were harassed, with some fleeing the country to avoid arrest and detention. Opposition party leader Birtukan Mideksa, who was re-arrested in December 2008, continued to serve a life sentence in prison. Some 26 people were convicted in November in the trial of more than 30 former military officers and Ginbot 7 party officials accused of plotting an armed attack on the government. Ethiopian security forces continued to carry out periodic arrests of Oromo political leaders, businessmen and their family members, who were often detained, sometimes without charge, for prolonged periods. Sporadic fighting continued between Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and armed opposition Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in the Somali Region (known as the Ogaden). Up to 6.2 million Ethiopians, many in the Somali Region, required emergency assistance because of severe drought. International donor support for humanitarian operations was insufficient.
Legislation was passed restricting civil society groups and broadening the reach of counter-terror operations. Human rights defenders chose to limit their own activities and journalists to self-censor in a climate of heightened anxiety over repression.
By the end of January, nearly all remaining Ethiopian troops based in Somalia had been withdrawn, although there were reports of sporadic cross-border incursions, particularly in the area of Beletweyne, throughout much of the year. Ethiopian government officials were also reported to have played a role in mediating negotiations between the President of Somaliland and opposition party leaders in September in Hargeisa, Somaliland. At that time, a crisis over repeated delays in national elections brought the self-declared independent country to the brink of violence (see Somalia entry).
While the government of Ethiopia hosted thousands of Eritrean, Somali and other refugees from the Horn of Africa, an increasing number of prominent opposition figures fled Ethiopia. These included human rights defenders and journalists who were harassed and intimidated by the authorities, leading them to believe that their arrest and detention could be imminent.
In September, more than 9,500 prisoners were released by the central government and by governments in the Amhara and Oromia regions, in a mass amnesty celebrating the Ethiopian New Year.
Prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners
The government continued to hold several prisoners of conscience and a large number of political prisoners in detention.