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Ethiopia: Rights activist wins German Africa prize

September 15, 2021

Ethiopian lawyer Daniel Bekele is the winner of the 2021 German Africa Prize. The human rights defender is being honored for his unceasing commitment to monitoring and speaking out against injustice.

Daniel Bekele
Daniel Bekele will be awarded the prestigious German Africa Prize this yearImage: Deutsche Afrika Stiftung

Daniel Bekele, currently Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), will receive the German Africa Award for his fight for democracy and human rights.

The prize is the highest award of its kind in Germany. It honors outstanding personalities from the African continent who are committed to peace, reconciliation, and social progress.

"I am delighted that the independent jury has selected an outstanding human rights defender," said Uschi Eid, President of the German Africa Foundation, which presents the prize.

"[Daniel Bekele] deserves this prize for his lifelong advocacy of human rights. I sincerely hope that the award will encourage [him] and his colleagues at the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to be fearless and impartial advocates for human rights in Ethiopia," she added. 

Daniel told DW he was "truly excited and humbled to be the first Ethiopian to receive this prestigious German award."

"I know it will go a long way to encourage and inspire my colleagues at the EHRC, as well as human rights defenders in my country Ethiopia and Africa, who work for the promotion and protection of human rights in increasingly challenging environments," he said.

A women in Ethiopia breast feeds her child
As a human rights defender, Daniel Bekele has also fought for women's rightsImage: Reuters/E. Blair

Long career as human rights defender

Daniel Bekele began his dedication to human rights early in his career.

He started representing non-government organizations as a 23-year-old lawyer, quickly becoming a much sought-after expert on democracy and human rights.

In 2004, Daniel became the Head of Policy Research and Advocacy for Ethiopia at the international charity ActionAid. At the same time, he was also highly involved in the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, a network of thousands of organizations promoting an end to poverty.

As a civil society representative, Daniel assumed a leading role in monitoring Ethiopia's 2005 parliamentary elections, marked by flawed counting and repeated incidents of post-election violence.

A critic of the election process, Daniel was attacked and injured by armed men in October 2005. He was subsequently arrested, imprisoned, and convicted on charges of trying to "overthrow the government and the constitution."

He remained in jail from November 2005 until March 2008. 

Resolve to fight for democracy

Daniel Bekele's determination to stand up for political rights, especially those of disadvantaged groups, remains undiminished by his prison sentence.

"The human rights defender believes that economic and social recovery fails to lead to sustainable development without the enforcement of human and political rights," Eid from the German Africa Foundation said.

"As such, [Daniel Bekele] doesn't shy away from criticizing donor countries in the North for their cooperation with authoritarian regimes."

Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopia has started a democratic opening under Prime Minister AhmedImage: Tiksa Negeri/REUTERS

In the wake of Ethiopia's democratic opening under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in 2018, the country's parliament elected Daniel to lead the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission in 2019.

Daniel has not only transformed the commission, but has also successfully advocated for its greater independence, with parliament passing an amendment in 2020 strengthening the commission's operational and financial autonomy.

Ethiopia, a political tinderbox

The German Africa Foundation acknowledges, however, that Ethiopia's political crisis and the civil war in the country's northern Tigray province have cast a shadow over Bekele's work at the Human Rights Commission.

"It is not surprising that [the EHRC] has been subject to criticism in this context," the foundation said, adding that the EHRC had the difficult task of assessing human rights violations impartially in a politically charged atmosphere.

The EHRC is currently conducting an investigation, together with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, into human rights violations committed by all sides in the Tigray conflict.

Long list of prestigious winners

The German Africa Prize will be formally presented at a ceremony in November in Berlin.

Since the inception of the German Africa Prize in 1993, it has been awarded to many notable Africans, including Kenyan IT pioneer Juliana Rotich, Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, and South Africa's former anti-corruption campaigner and ombudswoman Thulisile Madonsela.

Somali peace activist Ilwad Elman was the recipient of the 2020 German Africa Prize.

German Africa Prize 2020

Note: People aren't referred to by their last names in Ethiopia. To respect this custom, we refer to Daniel Bekele here by his first name.