By the Strathink Editorial Team
The Ethiopian Government has declared a “state of emergency” following a series of protests that have rocked the country to its core. Disenchantment with the government, high rates of unemployment, rising costs of living and the absence of a platform for
expressing any opposition to the government (e.g. legislature) have all contributed to the current unrest. At the same time, the expression of legitimate grievances has been hijacked by external forces that prefer Ethiopia on a downward spiral rather than on a path towards resolution. The strathink editorial team invites our readers to consider these questions. What is the cost of this ‘state of emergency’? Is it too high? What is the path towards resolution? What can be gained from this experience?
Why declare a ‘state of emergency’?
Implicit in declaring a state of emergency is a breakdown of the social contract between the government and the people. The breakdown signals the dissolution of trust between those who govern and the governed. When the people feel the government is not listening to them—or they have no other platform to express their grievances—they express themselves through protest. Protest can either be expressed peacefully or through violence. Peaceful protest in Ethiopia is legal and protected by the constitution.
Let’s take the peoples’ case in Oromia. Since 2005, Ethiopia’s formal opposition has sputtered to a halt. Strathink has argued that the opposition’s failure to take their seats in the parliament was a colossal blunder that set back democracy in Ethiopia 25 years. Without a platform to express their grievances, Ethiopia’s opposition has no place to go but the streets. And they did. For the past two years, there have been a series of protests in Oromia.
Although the Addis Ababa Master Plan was the flash point for protest in Oromia, it was more a symbol of dissatisfaction with the status quo—corruption in governance, land policy and perceived marginalization. If the people felt that their interests were being represented and protected by Oromia’s majority party—the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO)—then the people would have a platform to address their grievances. Unfortunately, OPDO is perceived as part of the problem, not the solution.
There are other parties, such as the Oromo Federalist Congress, led by a member of the Medrek coalition, and the Oromo Liberation Front. Medrek has no seats in the parliament given the “first past the post” election rules. The OLF, once a member of EPRDF, withdrew from the front’s coalition immediately preceding the 1992 elections. It is not a legal organization. The Oromo Democratic Front is also illegal made the unfortunate decision to ally with Ginbot 7, a 200-man army based in Asmara led by Berhanu Nega. The average Ethiopian citizen of Oromo descent who is dissatisfied with the government has scant choices to express his/her dissatisfaction.
So, the peoples’ case is based on legitimate grievances with no place to express them other than through protest.
From the government’s perspective, the people have violated the social contract—and the constitution—when their protests turned to violence. The number of people who died because of the violence is in the hundreds. The destruction of property, with much of the violence directed at foreign investments, is in the millions.
Do the costs of the lives lost and the property destroyed justify the declaration of the state of emergency?
Constitutionally, the government has the right to declare a state of emergency for six months should “an external invasion, a breakdown of law and order which endangers the Constitutional order and which cannot be controlled by the regular law enforcement agencies and personnel, a natural disaster, or an epidemic occur.”
The government, in declaring a state of emergency, must:
Make public within one month the names of all individuals arrested on account of the state of emergency together with the reasons for their arrest.
Inspect and follow up that no measure taken during the state of emergency is inhumane.
Recommend to the Prime Minister or to the Council of Ministers corrective measures if it finds and case of inhumane treatment.
Ensure the prosecution of perpetrators of inhumane acts.
Submit its views to the House of Peoples’ Representatives on request to extend the duration of the state of emergency.
Does the loss of hundreds of lives and the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property justify the declaration of a state of emergency?
First, recognizing that the people have legitimate grievances and no legislative platform to articulate these grievances, strathink believes that the government had an obligation to the people to take the constitutional measure of declaring a ‘state of emergency’ for public safety.
Second, there seems to be credible evidence that political actors in Egypt, not necessarily the government, as well as Eritrea have had a hand in exploiting people’ frustrations and using the protests to advance their own narrow agendas.
Third, there are constitutional requirements to the declaration that the government must fulfill in order to maintain the ‘state of emergency.’ Therefore, there are checks and balances on the government’s power during the state of emergency.
The international media, human rights organizations and various governments have suggested that that the ‘state of emergency’ is a ploy by the Ethiopian government to as a means of repression. Yet, what are the alternatives? Can the violence continue without significant repercussions?
Why is it that the international community holds Ethiopia to a higher standard than any other country?
The terrorist attack in Paris last November led President Holland to declare a state of emergency in France. The government set curfews, limited public gathering, established so-called secure zones and extended police powers to carry out house searches without judicial oversight and confiscate certain classes of weapons, even if they’re being owned legally. In July this year, following another attack, the French government extended the ‘state of emergency’ six months.
Where was the outcry over France’s state of emergency?
It is reasonable to say that the costs of recent protest that turned to violence are clearly too high to sustain. The loss of life is immeasurable. Damage to the economy was significant. Not only was there millions of dollars worth of property destroyed, but also thousands of jobs were lost. The violence will have an impact on short-term future investment in Ethiopia—especially in the wake of violence that targeted farms and factories with foreign investors.
There is also the fear that the violence created for ordinary Ethiopians. Generally, Ethiopians do not live in the fear experienced by Somalis, Kenyans, Eritreans and South Sudanese. No one believes an incident like the one that took place in Garissa University where al-Shabab shot over a hundred students in cold blood could happen in Ethiopia. Public security in such a rough region has a price.
Are the restrictions imposed on the public for six months too onerous a burden in exchange for peace and order?
We think not. As long as the government adheres to the rules detailed in the constitution, and as long as there is goodwill in interpreting the rules and restrictions, the public should not be afraid of their rights being hijacked. It is a temporary measure taken under extraordinary circumstances.
Governments cannot become complacent about their achievements. Despite the enormous progress made in virtually every sector of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian government has made mistakes with unintended consequences.
There are huge numbers of people in Ethiopia who feel marginalized. This is a very serious issue that has to be addressed. Ethnic federalism was supposed to create a sense of empowerment. Why do people who, for the first time, are being governed by their own ethnic elites feel disempowered?
We must remember that the majority of Ethiopians—over 70% are under 20 years of age—grew up speaking their own language, learning in their own language, practicing their own cultural traditions, and seeing members of their own ethnic group governing their region. For 70% of Ethiopians who never lived under the emperor or Mengistu Haile Mariam, this is the norm. Their expectations, then, are higher than older generations who have a different perspective.
There should be a sustained and concerted effort to understand what this generation wants in terms of its government. Social media has empowered them, not electoral politics. The government needs to learn to use social media, not ban it.
Another problem is electoral politics. There must be political space for the opposition to operate. It seems illogical to suggest that the government built up the opposition. However, opening political space by scrapping “first past the post” will allow more voices in the government. The people need an outlet to voice their dissent, otherwise the streets are the only option.
Should the government be responsible for strengthening and building the capacity of the opposition?
Yes. If the government is genuinely committed to building a democratic society, then it must create the conditions that allow an organic opposition to operate freely within the parameters of the constitution. The “word “organic” is important here because the opposition should be homegrown and not a product of the diaspora. The diaspora tends to act as a spoiler to the democratic process. The diaspora has the money to control the agenda and the freedom to avoid the consequences of their decisions. This is not fair to the people of Ethiopia.
The government, long hidden behind party walls, must venture out among the people. The party leadership needs to communicate with the public through the media—creating greater transparency and openness in the decision making process. The culture of secrecy, necessary for a clandestine movement, should be replaced . The people need to know who are their leaders and what do they represent.
What the government can do is begin a dialogue with the people. This should be done from the kebele up to the federal government. One major step is engaging more with the media. Each Minister should be required to hold a weekly press conference open to both the government and independent media.
Another method is open town hall meeting where people can question their elected officials. These town hall meeting should include not just party members, but all people—especially people in the opposition. These press conferences and town hall meetings should be broadcast on all government media, particularly radio.
Strathink understands the conundrum of the independent press in Ethiopia. Many outlets are party organs and not a genuine independent media. The government needs to provide training to all independent media, as well as government media, in the essential of fair and objective reporting. Rather than suppress the media, the government needs to build the capacity of the media. The people will decide what is trash and what is gold.
The electoral laws should be revised to of the omit “first past the post” voting system. A system of proportional representation will create a legal platform for opposition voices to be heard.
Ethiopia’s youth is better educated, healthier and are becoming global citizens through information technology. Their expectations are higher than previous generations. The government must work harder to listen to what youth are saying and provide them with the means to fulfill their potential. They must be provided with meaningful employment and an outlet for their voices to be heard.
The path towards resolution will not be easy and it is not a one-sided process. The people, too, must be open to creating and sustaining a dialogue with the government. The people, through their leaders, need to commit themselves to the truth—no rumors, lies and innuendos. Ethnic hatred must be replaced by tolerance and reason. The people must also understand that change, even the most positive changes, may have unintended consequences that are beyond the control of the government.
Most importantly, the government and the people have to repair the broken social contract. There are many indications that the majority of Ethiopians support the current state of emergency. Children are going to school. Public services are being provided. Farmers are tending their fields. Health clinics are operating. People are going about their daily lives without fear of violence or imminent state collapse. This is important because it demonstrates the strength of Ethiopia’s institutions.
The government is not the bad guy in this scenario. The government has made mistakes and must correct these mistakes. The people have made mistakes as well. Inciting violence and ethnic hatred has no place in a democratic, pluralistic society. Destroying property has real consequences for Ethiopia’s economy and its most vulnerable people.
What can be learned?
Complacency is the government’s enemy. The remarkable achievements made in the last 25 years cannot be used to justify complacency. The “Ethiopia rising” narrative has taken hold globally, but cannot compensate for the dissatisfaction of large numbers of Ethiopians. Strathink has made this argument on several occasions—the Ethiopian government is a victim of its own success.
The last year has been a wake-up call for the government. These tensions have been simmering for quite a while. Ethiopia’s significant growth and development have masked the more fundamental problems of good governance.
Can the government engage in meaningful reform and repair its fractured relationship with the people?
We think it can. Forty years ago, the best and the brightest from all over Ethiopia went to the bush to start a revolution. A luta continua.