Almost a year after popular protests began in Oromia Regional State, before expanding to Amhara and more recently the southern regional states – and after the loss of hundreds of lives and damage to properties costing millions of birr – authorities at the federal government were compelled, last week, to declare a state of emergency. This is a provision in the Constitution invoked for the first time in the 25-year rule of the Revolutionary Democrats.
The closest to this was during the bloody aftermath of the national elections in 2005; the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had called a quasi-state of emergency, passing executive orders in banning public demonstrations, while putting federal and regional law enforcement agencies under his direct command. However, his order had stayed for only two months and the Council of Ministers was not consulted to pass a proclamation – as was the case with Prime Minister Hailemariam’s cabinet last week, requesting a six-month state of emergency period.
Essentially, a state of emergency is all about the involvement of the military in the role of enforcing civil and criminal laws at a time of civil unrest gone out of control.
Uncontrolled it certainly was over the past two weeks – particularly after the incident in Bishoftu (Debrezeit) town, where no less than 55 individuals perished largely as the result of a stampede. This has caused a resurgence of anger among citizens in several parts of the regional state. Private residences, factories, farms, administrative buildings, social service units and vehicles, including trucks, were burnt to ashes, vandalised or ransacked to the dismay of both local and foreign investors and citizens. News of looting, destruction, arson attacks and the blocking of roads has dominated the nature of the protests and indeed the headlines being reported.
Off surface, the unfortunate events that have unfolded lately have marked a new low and caused a critical breach of trust on the region’s ability to maintain law and order. Those in charge of the region`s governance have failed to provide protection to individual citizens, including those protesting, and the hard won investment projects there. The wave of attacks came following the incompetence of the region’s security apparatus in handling an angry crowd at the Irreecha celebration.
These violent protests have undercurrent causes that make the state of emergency a rather temporary fix. Understandably, the immediate impact of the decree is a divided public between those who see it as long overdue and others who are unhappy with the suspension of individual liberties. The authorities argue that declaring a state of emergency is timely in order to dispose the state`s constitutional duty to protect the country from threats, and maintain law and order.
Despite these arguments, a government forced to employ a rare provision in the Constitution does not imply a nation at peace with itself. Ethiopia may have remained largely peaceful for the past two decades, where its relative stability has earned it a strategic partnership with the West in the fight against terrorism in an otherwise volatile region; however, intensified protests driven by cries for wider political space and equitable wealth distribution have led to the regrettable loss of lives.
What is not debated, predominantly due to all the unknowns, is the disparities on the procedures – or the lack of clearly stipulated procedures – with which the decree has been enforced over the past week. Proponents of a more functional procedure, with the state of emergency currently being implemented with a rather loose legal and procedural framework of derivative laws and principles, argue that it has been very effective in stopping the anarchy.
Such an approach, they argue, also does the job without extensively disrupting normal life and with minimum infringements on the basic rights of citizens. To their credit, incidents where angry protesters inflict damage have drastically decreased since then; although violent engagements in military deployed areas are reported to continue.
Alarmingly though, the state of emergency, as it has unfolded, has ended up being everything and nothing at the same time – though it serves a functional purpose, it is still highly questionable.
With the “Do’s and Do not’s” of both the state and the public remaining unclear – as the Attorney General only outlined possibilities of incursion into political rights and civil liberties – the lack of clarity continues to instil a sense of uncertainty, if not fear, among many people. The Council of Ministers is dragging its feet to issue a focused directive to be used by the Command Post, which is in charge of carrying out the duties of bringing about law and order during the duration of the decree.
Prime Minister Hailemariam`s administration would do itself a lot of favours and serve justice to the nation if it were to move fast in outlining the details on operational matters. The burden should no doubt lay on the shoulders of an administration that has suspended the right to the due process of law; it should not be complacent in making its operational guidelines public in the interest of accountability.
Though a state of emergency is declared in the country in light of the breakdown of law and order, the lack of properly instituted procedures are casting a shadow of doubt and opening up huge space for the abuse of citizens’ rights, rather than its intended purpose.
While the administration wasted very little time in bringing the state`s coercive machinery under a centralised command to oversee security operations during such extraordinary times, Parliament, which is mandated by the Constitution to approve the adaptation of the Council of Ministers’ declaration, is in slow mode. Though the Council adopted its declaration while Parliament was on recess – giving the Parliament a 15-day period to approve the declaration – it resumed its session less than 48 hours after the declaration.
Parliamentarians, all voted for under the platform of the ruling EPRDF and its regional affiliates, are yet to deliberate on the rationale for the decree, approve it and establish the safeguards required to ensure the administration does not subject suspects to inhumane treatment and violate rights that are constitutionally guaranteed even during a state of emergency. They need to act swiftly and set up a State of Emergency Inquiry Board in order to ensure that the state does not overstep its mandated roles.
These roles are arguably about restoring calm and order in the turbulent parts of the country. The decree gives the federal government the mandate to act swiftly, without necessarily being constrained by laws, in its relations with the federated states. Nonetheless, it will be a grossly tragic mistake to take it as a permanent remedy to a nation suffering from a terminal illness of its political system.
The stage that this illness has reached was unprecedentedly acknowledged by President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) during his address to the joint assembly of both houses earlier last week. In his rather long speech, the President fell short only of pronouncing the politics of the nation as dysfunctional.
Again, it was unprecedented to hear such a person of stature indicating what is in store in the way of reforms the Revolutionary Democrats have in mind. President Mulatu has indicated that there will be a reform of the electoral system, while disclosing the administration`s plans to create a revolving fund for the youth amounting to 10 billion Br.
For a country with an ailing politics, these are simply prescriptions that are too little to late to address the popular demand. Interestingly, they revealed how much the EPRDFites are reluctant to concede to moderate demands, only coming around in response to so much collateral damage. Ironically, the price becomes high and the demands shift when they are compelled to do that.
One valuable lesson they can draw from their recent ordeal is that addressing public demand in time saves lives.
While pursuing a policy of projecting brute force to restore order, the EPRDFites have also continued with their politics of provisions, judging from their proposal of a youth fund. This too appears to be too little to calm a generation that is demanding a new social order through the politics of concession. The issue remains about how much the EPRDFites are prepared to concede in abandoning their hegemonic grip on power, in order to give way to an inclusive system where their supporters and opponents equally feel at home.
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