It Should All Be About the Rule of Law

With Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) call for justice and democracy, the offer of an olive branch to opposition parties and liberalisation of the media landscape, the citizenry is galvanized behind the prime minister. People are politically engaged. There is a flood of public opinions and debates. Given that this is one of those moments in history where the pieces can fall anywhere, and one group can come out a winner and another a loser, emotions are high.  Insults are traded and violence is targeted without insight on how to achieve any of the desired goals. There is a great deal of anxiety and that should be a cause for concern.

Last week, just after the report of the unfortunate death of Simegnew Bekele, chief engineer for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a car was burned in the aftermath of a demonstration in the city of Gonder. After parliament passed the amnesty bill, four prisons across the country were set on fire by prisoners. A number of reporters traveling to Addis Abeba to cover the welcoming ceremony of Eritrean President Issayas Afeworki’s visit to the city were attacked by a mob in the eastern parts of Ethiopia.

There was also last month’s vandalism of a hotel and burning of a vehicle in Debre Marqos, to the north of the capital, when it was mistakenly reported that the hotel was hosting a veteran politician of the ruling party. A horticultural farm in the south east was also ransacked by a mob that eluded the local law enforcement. Most recently, three individuals were reportedly killed at the Tana Beles Development Project.

Far more shocking are large-scale conflicts along administrative demarcation lines that have left millions internally displaced people and in need of humanitarian assistance.

Regular occurrences of violence may lead to delegitimize the efforts of the government, as well as encouraging – in some cases, forcing – the aggrieved to take matters into their own hands.

In a country with established civic organisations and democratic institutions, differences of opinion are likely to be settled in court  or on media platforms rather than on the streets. Despite positive developments and a perceptible moderation on the part of activists, the security situation in the country can become unsustainable unless it is managed soon.

It is commendable that Abiy’s administration is convinced that a multiparty system of democracy is the only way forward. Indeed, making democratic institutions autonomous in the eyes of the constituency will pay significant dividends in eliminating violence as an unnecessary tool to achieve political goals.

Nonetheless, the inability of the government to maintain its monopoly over violence may end up legitimising lawlessness by failing to manage it properly. When violence becomes a valid alternative to achieve political ends, there is little the law can do to persuade citizens that the state can protect them and uphold the peace and stability. Law enforcement has to ensure that citizens do not settle their differences using sticks and stones, and that perpetrators are brought to justice.

This administration and its predecessors take the responsibility for the deterioration in the security situation of the country. It started with the public’s mistrust of the security forces, given the lack of accountability of law enforcement bodies to the rule of law. The excessive use of force, non-transparency and recent reports of state-sanctioned torture paint a picture of unethical, unprofessional and unfair law enforcement practices.

Added to this problem is the absence of information on procedures and measures about recent tragic accidents like the grenade attack at Mesqel Square last June. Also, it has to do with the vague usage of  labels to describe destructive elements, such as the perpetrators of the grenade attack. It has led to the casual use of labels to describe groups that do not conform to the popular narrative, leading to their demonisation. This then normalises the use of force against those perceived to be perpetrators.

Abiy’s administration should take the initiative to ensure against the breakdown of law and order. Creating public awareness of the rights and duties of citzens and law enforcement officers and reinforcing the social contract is a time-consuming matter that can only be realised with the institutionalisation of power. This goal can be undermined further, before any meaningful work has been done, if violence and unrest continue in the country.

Even in countries where democracy has been practiced for generations, there are terrorist and radical elements with absolute disregard to the rule of law. It will be impossible to engage constructively in politics for any organisation or individual with this threat hanging over their shoulders.

Those that resort to violence need to be condemned and brought to justice, no matter what their political views are about this administration or the previous one. Accountability cannot be cherry-picked. Selectively applying the rule of law creates the same grievances and radicalisation of groups that presented an existential threat to the state just four months ago.

Law enforcement bodies must regain the public trust. This can only happen when they exercise the necessary level of transparency about procedures without giving away the details of their investigations. The introduction of community policing, where officers are assigned duties in the communities they serve, and creating close ties with those they serve is necessary. A revised curricula may have to be prepared to achieve this.

It is evident that political transformations are bound to be messy. Despite demonstrations against the status quo, it still represents the makeup of the current government. As administrative procedures change, new laws will be enacted, old ones will be repealed, and fresh faces will come to the fore in a short period.

The balance can come, but it requires the observance of current laws. Government can only be improved if changes take place inside existing legal frameworks. There has never been a system of government that we can all agree on. Thus, laws are established to distinguish the rules of engagement, and it is incumbent upon the government to enforce them.

Published on Aug 04,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 953]



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