On October 9, 2016, the government of Ethiopia declared a state of emergency. According to the Ethiopian government, the declaration is necessary to protect private and public property from destruction. Prime minster Hailmariam Desalegn appeared on a state owned television channel where he explained that “a state of emergency has been declared because the situation posed a threat against the people of the country.” The state of emergency immediately followed the break-out of demonstrations, particularly in the Oromia and Amhara regions. The demonstrations began as a protest against the government’s plan to expand the capital city of Addis Ababa. They were also a result of death of dozens of innocent individuals in a stampede, which was sparked by the police using tear gas at a crowd that protested during Irreecha, a religious festival. The protests turned violent as state security used lethal force against the peaceful protesters.
According to international human rights standards, the right to life is considered to be inviolable in all situations. In the Ethiopian constitution however, this right is not included among the rights that cannot be suspended during a state of emergency. Instead, the government is taking the lives of innocent individuals by using the state of emergency as a legal justification.
The government is using the declaration as a legitimate weapon to violate the basic rights of its citizens.
The state of emergency is a great threat to fundamental human rights. The government has put restrictions on several basic rights. These restrictions include using social media to contact “outside forces”, watching or reading media that operates outside of the country (such as Ethiopian Satellite and Television Radio and Oromo Media Network that are labeled as “belonging to terrorist organizations”), protesting in universities or schools or being involved in a political campaign. Even making gestures such as crossing arms (to show solidarity with jailed innocents) or any other gestures to communicate a political message are forbidden. Moreover, visiting governmental institutions, farms or factories are prohibited from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m the next day.
If anyone is found violating these restrictions, government bodies are authorized to take “necessary measures”. During the state of emergency, the police are allowed to arrest and detain individuals on order from the command post, even without a court warrant. According to article 95 of Ethiopia’s constitution, a state of emergency can be declared if the situation endangers the constitutional order and if it cannot be controlled by regular law enforcement agencies and personnel. It is however difficult to say if the situation could have been controlled by regular law enforcement or not.
It is clear that restricting fundamental rights of the people cannot be a solution for the current political instability within the country. The government is using the declaration as a legitimate weapon to violate the basic rights of its citizens. The state of emergency is serving as an excellent shield for the government to kill, arrest and detain whoever is involved in any anti-government activities. The government of Ethiopia acknowledged that more than 11,000 people have been arrested between the declaration of the state of emergency and November 2016. The arrests have occurred particularly in the Amhara and Oromia regions, where most demonstrations took place before the declaration of the state of emergency. Those arrested are detained in unofficial military camps. The government stated that those who are detained in the Awash, Alage, Bir Shelko and Tolay centers will be released after participating in a “training” regarding “how to be a responsible citizen”, or as Befeqadu Hailu puts it in an article in Addis Standard, “to discipline ‘suspected’ political protesters”. According to the article, serious human rights abuses are being committed against the detainees held in these training centers.
The media within the country is run and administered by the regime, and social media is an important way of getting information about the political situation, especially among youths. Mobile internet services, including access to social medias, were blocked in Addis Ababa. Such measures by the government have highly affected people’s access to independent media. The only media now available is privately owned television and radio programs which focus on other issues than political matters. This is mainly because they do not want to take the risk of getting banned by the government.
Most online human right activists within the country have stopped blogging about the political situation as a result of the declaration of the state of emergency, but there are individuals who have continued to criticize the actions of the government openly. These and other activists are arrested as a result of their sever criticism against the government, though the government uses the state of emergency as a justification for their detention. Befeqadu Hailu, member of Zone 9 bloggers, and journalist Anania Sorri could be good examples in this regard. Befeqadu was arrested for a “violation of the state of emergency” and released after taking the “necessary training”. Anania was arrested on November 17, 2016 and was not released until March 13, 2017.
The government stated that the number of detained individuals reached up to 11,000. I personally believe, however, that the number of people detained in the camps exceed the figure reported by the governmental media. Furthermore, the government stated that the detained individuals were pressured into protesting by oppositional political organizations based abroad. I am not convinced that such large number of people was pressured by outside forces to engage in anti-government activities.
Restricting fundamental rights of citizens can never be a solution for the current problem within the country. Banning basic rights may lead citizens to choose violent measures to make sure that their voices are heard. People do not engage in violent activities because they choose to, but rather because they feel that they do not have any other choice. The system does not have a legal platform where citizens can raise questions and criticize the wrong actions of the government. The current killings, arrests and detention of dozens of people during the state of emergency might temporarily suspend any violent action of the people. However, sooner or later, the situation will be worse than the government anticipated. As long as basic questions and fundamental rights are left without being properly addressed, people will continue to fight to have their voices heard.