Repeated State of Emergency Declaration (SOE) in Ethiopia, a Risk of a Slide to a Closed Autocracy by Soli Gebremichael @American University
Befekadu Hailu, a renowned blogger; was taken from his house by civilian clothed security forces on November 11th, 2016 morning. He spent the followed 33 days in a detention camp, being forced of corporal punishment and food deprivation. Befekadu is not the only one who was taken to detention camps in the 10 months stay of the first round State of Emergency (SOE) declared in Ethiopia in 2016. More than 30,000 citizens have been taken to detention camps and released after facing different forms of punishments.
Since 2015, Ethiopia, the second largest country in Africa, is facing widespread protests from the largest region in the country, “Oromia”. The second largest region ‘Amhara” joined the protest in the year 2016. Even though the protests have been largely peaceful, the ruling party which controls 100 % of the parliamentary seat declared a state of emergency in October 2016. It was the first time in 27 years that Article 93 of the constitution was evoked to declare the martial law.
Ethiopian constitution Article 93 sets conditions in which the state of emergency can be declared. These are external evasion, break down of law and order which endanger the constitutional order and natural disaster. When the government declared the SOE, it claimed that there are a law and order breakdown and it cannot be controlled by the regular law enforcement. After the declaration was enacted the erosion of the already restricted fundamental freedoms started.
An “emergency executive command post,” which was established under the state of emergency, prohibits the dissemination of information through internet, text message, or social media deemed to “incite violence.” Communication with “foreign elements” and watching the diaspora-based TV stations was also prohibited. The announcement of the state of emergency was followed by a total shut down of mobile internet, social media, and all VoIP applications in Ethiopia.
Government forces started to take action on protesters and anyone deemed to be violating the SOE. At times the only confirmation that an individual has violated the SOE is a report from another individual. Hence most arrests have been said to be conducted based on reports, at times police confiscate phones to get proves of violation. Those arrested were not taken to court and there was no effective oversight from the parliament (as given by the constitution) on any human rights violated by the command post established. The reported rights violations included extrajudicial killings, mass arrest, and restrictions on any form of gatherings.
The ruling coalition Ethiopian People Liberation Front (EPRDF) has been ruling the country for 27 years and the country’s state of democracy has been deteriorating for a decade. Public gathering permits have been denied for many years and the numbers of private media outlets were getting smaller by year. The year’s long democracy decline was faced by protests and mass demonstration in more than 200 small towns since 2015. Even though the ruling party was known to use courts and independent human rights institutions all these years to arrest dissent voices and silence protests, the SOE is the first bold use by the legislative by the state to squash a nationwide opposition protests.
Extended by the parliament after its first 6 months declaration, the SOE stayed for 10 months. Even though it was lifted in August 2017, another SOE was again declared after 6 months gap in February 2018. The second state of emergency is said to be the same as the first one except it added that there will be the establishment of separate SOE courts for trial of dissents. Even though courts have been used to silence dissents in the last decade the additional politicization of the court is a new regress to the state of democracy.
Ethiopia has never been democratic, and in the last decade, it joined the list of electoral autocracies where one party rule is rubber-stamped by fake elections. But democracy back slide happens whenever the right given for citizens is being limited from what it used to be and Ethiopia’s SOE is the showcase. The declaration with a clear intention to limit the rights of assembly and demonstration of citizens shows a new risk that legislative body can be continuously used to limit citizens’ democratic rights.
Bloggers like Befekadu and active citizens will keep becoming the targets of the SOE and the misuse of the legislative body even though they do not actively engage in politics. After 33 days of detention and release under the first SOE, Befekadu is again arrested from a home gathering party on March 25, 2018.