The sad affair of law enforcement in Ethiopia found itself back in the spotlight, more intensely than usual, after an incident on March 10, 2018, in the town of Moyale, bordering Kenya. By the government`s admission, members of the army shot and killed 10 civilians. In its aftermath, no less than 5,000 Ethiopians fled to neighbouring Kenya, the Kenyan Red Cross Society disclosed.
A statement from the secretariat of the Command Post, tasked to oversee the enforcement of the reinstated state of emergency decree, attributed the incident to the mistaken intelligence that reported that fighters from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an insurgent group, had sneaked into Ethiopia through Kenya. The five military officers, including their commander, were disarmed and an investigation is underway to determine why the officers, who are now under arrest, failed to follow their mandated manual when engaging in such cases and when receiving the reported false intelligence that they had acted on, according to Hassen Ibrahim (Lt. Gen.), spokesperson of the secretariat.
The unfortunate and regrettable incident in Moyale called attention to the murky business of accountability, or lack thereof, the emergency decree generates once such bodies of government are allowed to operate beyond the usual bounds of law enforcement under a civilian order. While citizens are made to give up their political rights of assembly, association, organisation and expression, law enforcement has had its powers extended in the name of stability, security and the greater good.
This comes with the backdrop of Ethiopia’s political stalemate for close to four years now, which has shown very few indications of abating. Too many signals are still there that indicate that it will continue, if not intensify. There are three examples regarding the former, the decision by Hailemariam Desalegn to quit his premiership and the dropping of the charges against prominent political figures such as Merara Gudina (PhD) and Bekele Gerba, chairman and deputy of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), respectively.
The third example was the closure of the notorious detention facility, the Federal Police Crime Investigation Centre, a.k.a Ma’ekelawi, on Belay Zeleke (Dej.) Street. The facility has long had its name associated with gross human rights abuse and the exercise of torture on detainees. The official pledge to close it, signalled a ray of hope that the EPRDFites are willing to make reforms where law enforcement bodies are concerned. It is a promise yet to be fulfilled.
Ma’ekelawi serves as a microcosm of the sort of impunity law enforcement agencies and officers have been believed to possess for far too long. It was an institution that operated under the shadows, was unaccountable and exercised force beyond the writ of the law. It is an institutional reminder that Ethiopia’s law enforcement leaves much to be desired and accounted for.
This has instilled a loss of trust of the citizenry in the legal and proportional use of force by state agents in arresting public unrests and violent protests. It has also contributed to the deterioration of the instinct to exercise only proportional force by law enforcement officers, especially in situations where there is a high risk for collateral damage, as in the case of Moyale.
With more power comes more responsibility, the latter of which critics of the reinstated decree, including those that are trying to cause a blockade of goods into Addis Abeba, doubt that law enforcement bodies possess. Instead, the argument goes, under the guise of enforcing peace and stability, opposition figures will be muted, and protests would be violently put down. It will not be the law that would be imposed, but force, at the expense of the rule of law and citizens’ fundamental rights.
Extrajudicial killings are the perfect recipe for more trouble and chaos if they are not followed up and the perpetrators are not held accountable. Sadly, the failure to uphold the principles of the proportional use of force in law enforcement and the importance of holding those who use excessive force accountable are subjects that have remained elusive for the administration of the Revolutionary Democrats.
The violence across the country has not ceased, as Siraj Fegessa, minister of Defense, told members of the media earlier this month. If there are those that argue that lifting the state of emergency now is not a viable option, it should not come as a surprise. The reports on the number of deaths may not be disclosed, but the injuries incurred, as well as the damages to property, are evident. It is premature to lift the emergency decree, for violence has continued to be privatised, not to mention that it has been regularised.
Instead, the Moyale incident should call attention to the institutionalisation of power, where its exercise should be limited according to the principles of proportionality and accountability. The guarantors of such a state are checks and balances that exist to ensure that officers will be held accountable when their exercise of force is unwarranted and excessive.
The state of emergency does grant law enforcement officers more power, such as the right to arrest civilians without a court order. But the constitution rightly precludes them from committing any act that is in violation of individuals’ fundamental human rights. It also provides for the establishment of an inquiry board, such as the one that became operational last week, that inspects actions that violate constitutional rights that the Council of Ministers cannot limit even in times of an emergency decree.
There is nothing in the constitution that protects the right to life from suspension or limitation by the Council per se. It depends on what “inhuman” precisely denotes. Thus, it rests upon the shoulders of the Inquiry Board. It does not have the mandate to interpret the constitution but can make recommendations either to the Prime Minister or to the Council, based on the directives by the Command Post on the implementation of the emergency rule.
These recommendations must take into consideration the contexts of incidents such as the one in Moyale and rule upon the proportionality of the force that the security forces utilise.
While it is critical that the security forces are held accountable – if their guilt is established beyond all reasonable doubt – it does not on its own terms prevent more incidents from occurring in the future. Thus, the rulings must be made public, for it is critical that it be known that those who are allowed to exercise a particular power will also be held accountable. This serves as a deterrent.
Such efforts must continue after the emergency decree as well. There are parliamentary supervisions, hierarchical oversight by the executive body of government and internal disciplinary departments within the various law enforcement bodies of government. In theory, the checks are there, but they mean little without the balances. Encouraging competitiveness in politics and lessening the hegemony of the ruling EPRDFites in government could create the incentive to check executive power, that infringes on constitutional rights.
It would be unfortunate if the government fails to restrain its forces under a decree instituted to contain privatised violence. There cannot be a double standard at such a time. Security forces should not be allowed to abuse their power at a time when civilians are disarmed of their constitutional rights. This will retard any chances for constructive national discourse and will turn it into one that is overshadowed by violence and abuse.
Above all, the regrettable loss of lives in Moyale calls for a thorough inquiry and public disclosure of the results.
Survivors of those who perished deserve to know why they were made to lose their loved ones, for the constitutional provisions guarantees citizens “protection against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
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