Incidents in urban cities, where those that have run afoul of the rules are dealt with punishment right there on the streets, either by law enforcement officers or even civilians, have become too common, writes Ambessaw Assegued (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The boy, no more than 14 or 15 in age, clings to his bundle as if for dear life while a stout, muscular woman tags at it furiously, trying to wrench the package away from him. With clenched teeth and applying all her might, she drags the boy and his stuff across the dirty ground while trying to fend off a small crowd that has now gathered around her.
The boy, a vendor of Chinese knickknacks, has been caught illegally peddling his ware at the busy Adama Bus Terminal, just south of the capital. The woman, a mere clerk, is enforcing a new rule promulgated that morning banning some, not all, vendors from the site.
A group of men and women try to intervene and plead with the official to let him go. But she scoffs at the intrusion and continues to yank, pull, and jerk violently as the boy hangs to his treasures with equal tenacity.
From one of the side offices emerges a skinny man, wearing an orange vest and a plastic name-tag across his chest, running and swinging a braided leather-whip and quickly pounces on the boy. At this point, the woman releases her hold and the man grips and subdues his catch with uncommon viciousness. He slogs the lad away from the little crowd and pelts the boy with his whip repeatedly and menacingly.
Soon, the young man releases his precious bundle and is left doubled down, rolling on the dirt and cringing with pain. The man gathers the tattered bundle, walks back to the office, throws the package in, locks the door from the outside and turns to grin triumphantly at the uneasy crowd.
Thus, unfolds the Dickensian world of 19th-century justice at a dusty bus station of modern day Ethiopia. By what authority these civilian clerks, wearing no proper uniform, insignia or identification as police officers have been vested with the power to strike a person and seize the private property of an individual is not entirely clear.
Rules and procedures that govern modern laws of arrest, search and property seizures ought to be applied more on the street of our urban centres. The universally accepted legal concept of the individuals’ rights to be protected from the abuses of the police, or from those who appoint themselves as temporary enforcers, is also not well understood or adhered to.
Even with the uniformed police, it is difficult to grasp how policing is conducted in Ethiopia. Police functions are delivered in a mesmerising array of enforcement applications, and it is hard to comprehend, in practice, what limits are imposed on police authority as they patrol the streets and enforce the laws of the country.
Within the City Administration of Addis Abeba, the police forces adorn light blue shirts and dark blue pants and appear to be structured as a traditional police operation with sub-stations and command centres scattered around the city.
And then there are the better organised and better equipped federal police who also patrol the same streets. Aside from these governmental forces, there exists a nebulous collection of civilians, like the skinny man at the bus station, who wield enormous police power to arrest, search and seize property without the due process of the law.
The abuse of police power is nearly universal in every country across the globe, from the slick boroughs of New York City to the tremulous slums of Lagos in Nigeria. It is therefore not surprising that it occurs in the urban areas and rural districts of Ethiopia.
But policing in Ethiopia remains a mislaid public service that deserves special attention. The problem is reflected even in the physical appearances of the police and the unorthodox ways of their operations. It is common to see uniformed officers walking about wearing colourful jerseys under their open shirts with the buttons undone midway to their chests.
The prominent displays of various religious and decorative items around the neck are just as typical. Socks can be worn in any colour that ranges from electric green, red, yellow or even pink; while the hat can sit perched at screwed angles depending on officer’s taste.
The shirt collars are as often flipped up to the ears, and the sleeves rolled towards the upper parts of the arm in a show of personal touches of fashion. When the baton is present, it is exhibited as individualistically as the officers themselves.
If it is the standard issue cylindrical club, it usually is missing its holder. Thus, the officers carry the truncheon in one hand swinging it around and tapping the ground with it.
Such lack of discipline, training and decorum by the police undermines public confidence since they are the arms and faces of government authority. The police are the first contacts the public makes with the justice system on the streets and neighbourhoods. Therefore, they must mirror the care, responsibility and importance that government attaches to this all-important public service.
It mars the trust of citizens in the justice system when a young street peddler is publicly whipped, robbed of his property and flagrantly denied his fundamental rights of protection under the law. This abuse becomes even more grievous when an unsanctioned lowly clerk inflects it at a bus station.
Since citizens have no means of preventing abuses by the police on their own, it is the government’s responsibility to provide a decorous, well-trained and disciplined police force. A paramount aspect of Ethiopia’s new awakening must be reforming policing and guaranteeing the due processes of the law.
Whether it is the case of a small civil misdemeanour violation of theft, trespassing, public drunkenness, or a significant criminal act, it all requires that the proper procedures of the law be strictly observed.
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