What We Know and What We Don't Know About the Decree of State of Emergency in Ethiopia in the Wake of the Ethiopian Protests and Ireecha Massacre: What is the way forward?
(By Getahun S Gesso)
The protests in Ethiopia in the current form started in November 2015. Since then, they have claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent citizens in Addis Ababa, Oromia, Amhara and Southern regions. No one knows the exact number but the government (in)consistently tried to admit a suppressed number; and opposition parties and human rights defenders gave numbers based on their respective sources. It is doubtful if the government really knows how many it has killed thus far.
Everyone is killing in their region and the infamous Agazi soldiers, who get superimposed in the regions, kill at will. Following the recent visit of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is quoted as admitting the number of dead from the crackdown “could be more than 500”. The killings and gross human rights violations are in progress.
The government has refused to cooperate with the UN human rights institutions for independent international investigation. It is still dismissive and downplays the atrocities and massacres such as the Irrecha massacre. It wants these atrocities to be investigated by the inept Ethiopian human rights commission, which lost its credibility and respect from the start.
The situation seemed to have reached a pinnacle when the government was compelled to proclaim a state of emergency on 9 October 2016, albeit with a skimpy information to the public. This piece will specifically assess how the Irrecha massacre took place, how the denial by the government of responsibility aggravated the conflict to reach a new high, the government’s proclamation of a state of emergency and whether that is really a solution for the prevailing conflict in Ethiopia.
An overview of the Irrecha festival and the massacre that ensued
The grossness of the response by the government to the ongoing protests was pronounced by the Irrecha massacre on 1 October 2016, committed right in front of local and international media. Several incidents had already exposed the extent of the protests in the country including that of Feyisa Lelisa’s protest sign of crossed hands over his head at the finishing line of his Rio Olympic marathon on 21 August, 2016. The government did not take these publicities lightly and seemed to have been looking for opportunity to revenge. And, it found one perfect opportunity at Irrecha festival.
Irrecha is a longstanding traditional thanksgiving ceremony by the Oromo people celebrated annually at Lake Hora in Bishoftu town (formerly known as Debre Zeit), which is about 40 kilometers south of the capital Addis Ababa. The festival’s ceremony is led by traditional elders known as Abba Gadas and attended by others who thank their god for enabling them finish the rainy season and for reaching the bright harvest season. Millions attend the festival to give their thanks.
Reports show that close to a thousand people were killed during the festival at Bishoftu but the government still insists only some 55 people were killed. The government and its propaganda machine seems to have specialized in denials. They deny citizen their rights; they deny what demonstrators are demanding and externalize the problem; and after killing sprees at Irrecha festival, they denied how many they killed. If anything, this is a classic depiction of the sorry state of governance in Ethiopia.
The question is, how did we reach here? We reached here through a creeping incapacitation of systems of the state and its instruments of popular representation. The government monopolizes the media and all means of information including the Internet. It draconically controls NGOs and CSOs. It controls the economy through state owned enterprises as well as party-owned, affiliated and crony businesses. It controls a 100% of the parliament. There is no judicial independence. The is no credible opposition. The electoral body is fully controlled by EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front). The security sector (military, police, intelligence), controlled by a minority group of Tigray elites, is the most powerful organ. The government is founded on a weakly-woven ethnic federalism apparently grooming balkanization. The government controls religions and even the appointment of patriarchs and religious leaders.
It is crystal clear from these that the government controls the spiritual and mundane aspects of daily life. There is no avenue left for the public to express their dissatisfactions and grievances. The number of unemployed youth is sky high. As noticed during the current popular dissent, instead of looking for solutions, the government is busy with the propaganda of downplaying the protests as inspired by “anti-peace elements” and “foreign hands”. That is a false externalization showing the government’s contempt for the public.
How did the massacre occur? And, who is responsible?
The way the security sector handled the peaceful protests at the Irrecha festival shows how the security sector is incompetent and irresponsible. As referred to above, the festivities take place near the small, deep volcanic Hora Lake in Bishoftu town. The lake is in a deep formation with difficult access route. It was reportedly attended by approximately 2 million people.
As seen from various videos taken by the media present, the place was so full. Reports show that people came in singing songs of dissatisfaction with government. There were all indications that the forum will be used to boost the ongoing protests. As a consequence of the continued suppression, such forums provide the only opportunity to voice collective dissatisfaction. The attendance of government officials and its security apparatus was uncalled for. This is a (religious) traditional ceremony and the government, if it acted responsibly, would only ensure safety and security. Instead, the government was seen competing for the stage to conduct propaganda, which the attendees were tired of. This escalated the situation. This is the first critical mistake on the part of the government.
As they realized that the situation is getting worse, the officials should withdraw, let the participants express themselves and carry on with the ceremony. That didn't happen. Instead, the security forces blocked the only way out and started shooting tear gas and ammunition. They drove pickups and armored personnel carriers (APCs) shooting indiscriminately towards the public. Regrettably, earlier on they were also flying several helicopters right over the attendees. The scene was already tense and scary.
The government claims that they shot rubber bullets and tear-gas. Given the bad history of the security forces, there was no way for the celebrants to know whether the shots were real or rubber bullets. It should be noted that tear-gas is not common in Ethiopia. It makes one wonder why the did not even opt for using water cannons instead of tear-gas. When the people heard those massive explosions, they were be terrorized. It even feels like some sort of stun bomb. As the place was full, it is common sense that a small push from the front/stage side will result in those in the back falling into the lake and surrounding cliffs.
I wish to relate here an old personal experience with the perennial incompetent security crackdown tactics applied by Ethiopian security. On 8 April 2001, I attended a day-long panel discussion on academic freedom led by Dr Berhanu Nega and Prof. Mesfin Wodemariam at the National Lottery Hall in Addis Ababa. A couple of days later, this was followed by a protest at the main campus of Addis Ababa University mainly relating to the quality of food at the University cafeteria. There was fear that the university authorities siphon the funds resulting in provision of bad quality food.
In protest, students moved around the main campus offices and settled in front of the office of the president. The president’s office is at the center of the campus. If you sit in front of it, you will leave the main gate into the university behind you (with another gate called Gate 5 to your left) and face the dormitories (which are behind and to the right of the president’s office). The cafeteria will be to your right. Behind you, you will have some offices and faculty teaching halls and a football pitch. Everyone was seated and we were chanting slogans for the president to address us on the cafeteria issue. For the record, I had met the organizers several times to plan the protests and I know that there was no political purpose behind it.
However, the government twisted the protest and reported it as hijacked by political elements and sent in security forces. Before we knew it, we were surrounded from behind and all of a sudden shooting ensued. Then hell broke loose. They arrested as many students as they could. Those of us who were in front took off towards the dormitories, which was the only opening. In a minute, the shooting came close to the dormitories and then the only other option was to rush to the back of the dormitories, which is a perimeter fence of over 2 meters.
When I reached there, I saw several students struggling to climb the fence wall. Those who had made it were helping their fellows by holding hands and pulling to the top (it looked like some sort of drill). Unfortunately, the fence is reinforced by sharp metallic tops protruding upwards. Once on top, if you are not careful, those metallic protrusions will tear you apart. Once you climb the over-2-meters fence, you will see behind it a long cliff that could be up to 6 to 7 meters low (the backside of the university is a rugged lowland famously known as Afincho Ber). Assisted to the top, I looked down and jumping was unthinkable. Going back was not an option either. Automatic guns roared. As I was kind of preparing myself on how to best get down the cliff, I heard someone call my name. It is a friend who had already made it. May I call him a savior?
He told me to quickly run on the fence and reach for a tree branch that is a few meters away close to the fence and jump on it. To be honest that was dangerous, but at the same time, it was safer. Then I struggled over the sharp metallic tops and made it to the tree. I could be shot while trying to figure out all of these. Fortunately, the security forces who were busy with their arrests were just approaching. How I held onto that branch, made it to the main stem and slid downwards was something I can’t explain well to date.
Finally, I found myself on the ground. My jeans trouser was terribly torn and it had lost its blue color and had become greenish. Many broke their arms, legs, backs etc. To make matters worse, there were plain clothes security personnel on the ground and they were arresting escaping students. With my tarnished clothing and my distraught face, I realized I am in danger again. Across the street, several Afincho Ber residents had come out to witness what the heck was happening. They were offering a hideout. I run as fast as I can to a friend’s house which was right behind the university and hid there for about a week. Several of my classmates and other students were arrested during the incident and some I never heard about since. That memory pains me deeply.
This is, in part, to show that wantonly endangering the lives of protesters is not new for Ethiopian security. There was no reason at all to attack the completely peaceful protests at the university. All the same, there was no reason to intervene in the angry protests during Irrecha festival on October 1, 2016. The gathering was religious and the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. The only stones I saw being thrown were in apparent self-defense after a chunk of the people were thrown into the lake and cliff. I wonder when the government starts learning from its past mistakes!
It is a matter of public knowledge that Ethiopian security forces are unaccountable. They have committed all sorts of illegality with absolute impunity over the last quarter century. I wish to once again relate this to another of my personal experiences. It was in 1993/4. I went to a hotel in my neighborhood for the usual coffee break (and a bit of billiard) from my studies. I was a high school student then. Right at the exit of the hotel (this time there was no fence), there were lots of people: some chatting in standing position, others sitting, walking by, doing some street business etc. It was a normal day in the streets of the town.
As I was leaving the hotel, a certain shabby soldier approached me and instructed me to move away fast. Surprised, I inquired, why? Without any explanation, he pointed his Kalashnikov to my head and told me to move or he is shooting. With no choice, I moved but I was staring at him with a serious look on my face (honestly that was not to show any courage but I was taken by complete surprise). He kept the gun over my head until I was far away. After I moved a few meters away, he told me he could shoot me and the only consequence for him would be transfer to another station. To date, I do not understand why I was targeted and why he told me that he could shoot me and just be transferred to another station.
Afterwards, I inquired the people around as to what had happened. There was nothing. If he had killed me, he would just be transferred to another station for his own safety. Strange, but the philosophy is that he might be revenged by family members or concerned citizens. Then, he would be transferred as the only punishment. This is the hallmark of Ethiopian security to the present.
Why share these personal stories? It’s to demonstrate that the general public and the protesters know that the security forces are merciless killers, irresponsible, unaccountable and uncontrolled. The protesters during the Irrecha ceremony also knew this fact. So, they had to flee in any direction possible to save their lives. The security forces terrorizing them knew this. But what they did was inexplicably stupid. One can't forcefully push millions of people like herds of sheep towards a lake and cliff and expect them to disperse safely. How on earth could one argue that this is an anti-riot measure? I doubt if these forces are trained on riot control.
Hence, the government should muster the courage to own up its deed and accept responsibility for the Irrecha massacre.
The subsequent declaration of state of emergency
This enraged the protests which looked to have somehow lost momentum before the Irrecha massacre. It was aggravated by the government’s denial of responsibility and the attempt to downplay the number of victims. Immediately after the incident, the government declared some 52 celebrants had died and declared a three-days national morning with flags flying at half mast. This was supposed to cool down the protest as the government thought it will get away with the disaster by declaring national mourning and blaming the incident on anti-peace elements.
The celebrants came from all over Oromia and beyond. This makes it nonsensical to downplay the numbers. Every village knows what happened. As a result, the protest intensified all over the country particularly in and around Addis Ababa, Oromia and Amhara regions. Several more lives were lost; government institutions got burnt down; private properties particularly those belonging to foreign investors were destroyed and the country almost came to a standstill. The situation got bleaker. When the going got tough, the Prime Minister proclaimed a state of emergency on October 9, 2016 for six months, renewable for four months each afterwards, without giving any substantive detail on what it means.
Since then, there were, and still are, lots of speculative analyses on what the state of emergency means, what the Prime Minister and his subordinates have said and have not said, as well as what the consequence of such a declaration could be. Everyone seems worried and rightly so.
During her visit on 11 October 2016, Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the state of affairs and offered to provide assistance for anti-riot training. She suggested that only democracy will resolve the conflict. On its part, the Department of State of the US government also issued, on 12 October 2016, a stern statement in objection to the declaration state of emergency and sated that democratization and introduction of political pluralism are the only way forward fro Ethiopia:
“We are troubled by the potential impact of the decision to authorize detention without a warrant and to further limit freedom of expression, including by blocking Internet access, prohibiting public gatherings, and imposing curfews. This declaration, if implemented in these ways, would further enshrine the type of response that has failed to ameliorate the recent political crisis…”
The confusion and fear is all over. The government officials who gave press conferences were unclear on what the state of emergency means and entails. It looks like it was just a desperate measure. Apparently due to the lack of clarity, Fortune Newspaper, a weekly government affiliate, reported that Ethiopia declared a “Marshall Law”. That added extreme confusion.
A Marshall Law occurs when the military overthrows a civilian government and takes control. A good example of military takeover of power is Egypt during its uprising in 2013. Field Marshall Abdel Fatah El Sisi declared Marshall Law, took power and remained in office to date. What has happened in Ethiopia is different. It is just a suspension of the constitutional rights and freedoms by the incumbent “civilian” government until such time that the emergency is declared over. Put differently, the state of emergency is to be led and implemented by the incumbent government although it was controlled by the military already.
What the Ethiopian Constitution requires (or seems to) about decree of state of emergency
Needless to state, constitutions provide for general frameworks for detailed laws to implement them. Accordingly, as per Art 93(1)(a) of the Ethiopian Constitution, “the Council of Ministers of the Federal Government shall have the power to decree a state of emergency, should … a break down of law and order which endangers the Constitutional order and which cannot be controlled by the regular law enforcement agencies and personnel, … occur.” It should be noted from the outset that the Amharic version translates decree to mean “አዋጅ”. The issuance of a proclamation (“አዋጅ”) is the prerogative of the parliament under Ethiopian constitution (see Art. 55(1) for instance).
Art. 93(2) stipulates that if declared while the parliament is in session, the decree shall be submitted to the House within forty-eight hours of its declaration for approval by a two-thirds majority vote of members of the House. However, if the House is not in session, the decree shall be submitted to it within fifteen days of its adoption. Art 55(8) outlining the powers of the parliament stipulates:
“In conformity with Article 93 of the Constitution it shall declare a state of emergency; it shall consider and resolve on a decree of a state of emergency declared by the executive.”
That is why the decree has to be submitted to it for approval. Under the circumstances of Ethiopia's decree of state of emergency, what comes to mind is:
• What is decreed by the executive? Shouldn't the content of the decree be made public in writing so that they comply with it for the 15 days?
• Can an oral press conference replace the proper issuance of a written law or decree?
• If it is not issued properly and the security forces take it for a blank cheque to kill, steal and maim, who will be accountable?
• That notwithstanding, what should be the exact provisions of a decree in law?
• Or, should we wait until the 15 days expire for us to see the decree?
From these queries, it is clear that upon declaration, the decree must have been duly prepared and made public with its detailed provisions pending the required parliamentary approval. Otherwise, what is being implemented? This would have made the public and the implementing agencies aware of exactly what to do and what not. It would also have introduced a degree of accountability on the part of the loose security forces as well.
A related queries include why did the government try to exploit the recess of the parliament, which opened just the next day on 10 October 2016? Is there some fishy plan to create more confusion in the conflict and suppress the protests? All along, the government was saying the situation was under control and was downplaying the extent of the protests. What broke the camel’s back just one day before the parliament came back to session? Or, was it a shrewd plan to gauge the internal and external response within the 15 days before the submission to parliament? For sure, the parliament is not going to question the decree. After all, is it not 100% controlled by EPRDF? This is perplexing.
The Federal Negarit Gazeta Establishment Proclamation No. 3/1995 provides that laws of the Federal Government shall be published in the Federal Negarit Gazeta and all Federal or Regional legislative, executive and judicial organs as well as any natural or juridical person are required to take judicial notice of (የመቀበል ግዴታ) laws published in the Federal Negarit Gazeta (Art. 2). Sources like Fortune Newspaper are reporting that the decree is still in the making. Now, if it is not available for use, then:
• How can a verbal press conference (probably followed by a letter from the Prime Minster’s Office) be enforced duly?
• Does this mean that the so-called decree is illegal as it fails to comply with basic constitutional standards?
• Or, does it mean that even proclamation No. 3/1995 is suspended?
• Can the regions refuse to implement the decree on the basis of legality?
• Is the public not justified for feeling terrorized for such a decree it doesn't understand?
• Are not the law enforcement officers justified to abuse the state of affairs till it is clarified? Particularly those rogue elements?
Indeed, many questions can be raised. If there were an independent judiciary, this could even have been brought for proper legal litigation and scrutiny.
Furthermore, the constitution which is now being suspended provides under Art 93(4) that in the exercise of its emergency powers, the Council of Ministers can not suspend or limit the rights provided for, among others, in Articles 18 and 25 of this Constitution. Articles 18 provides for the right to protection against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment while Articles 25 provides for the right to equal protection before the law. In this respect, the constitution guarantees to all persons equal and effective protection without discrimination on grounds of race, nation, nationality, or other social origin, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, property, birth or other status. In other words, these fundamental rights need to be protected under all circumstances, be it under state of emergency or otherwise.
A matter worth noting at this juncture is the fact that the declaration seems to have emboldened ethnic cleansing moves in Oromia (reportedly in Arsi Zone) and Southern region (particularly in Gedio zone) where several ethnic groups, perceived to be not belonging there, are being horrendously killed, their properties looted and burned down. There are reports that even the security forces are being involved in the looting and abuse of rights. This emanates partly from the lack of clarity in the content of the decree and needs to be addressed, at least, in accordance with the constitutional provisions.
What is the way forward?
The sudden declaration of state of emergency took everyone by surprise, Ethiopians and the international community alike. What’s worse, it emboldened the protests against the government with the belief that the government is weakened and needs to be pushed out. This worsened the ethnic divisions the TPLF-led government has been cultivating over the last 25 years and beyond. That is why egregious killings and destructions are being witnessed all over the country. The government has even failed to apologize for atrocious human rights violations and massacres it committed. The solution certainly should not include a decree of state of emergency.
It is just hoped that the incompetence of the TPLF-led government and its trademark of ethnic federalism will not drive Ethiopia back to the dark Era of the Princes (ዘመነ መሳፍንት), which we threw away in 1855, i.e., over 160 years ago. That era was the last time Ethiopia was at its lowest: divided and weak. God forbid that, but TPLF seems to be reading from that script.
The way forward should be to listen, act judiciously and, most of all, open up to democratization. A lot has been said about the possibility of considering an inclusive snap election and forming a consensual national government. The underlying idea is that there is no need to wait for 2020. It will only elongate the pains for all sides. Introducing grand reforms in areas such as popular representation, the media, empowerment of civil society organizations, the economy (and land reform), the judiciary, the security sector, independence of electoral bodies, interference in religious affairs, and most of all, dismantlement of the discredited ethnic federal policy should be given priority. No doubt, such reforms will also speak to the root causes of bad governance and corruption that are bleeding the country.
For that to happen, however, there is certainly a need for constitutional reform which had been a ground for bickering for the last 25 years. This is the most opportune moment for the government to embrace. The late premier Meles Zenawi had said once that such reforms will take place only on EPRDF’s dead body. Now he is gone and the country is demanding it.
Last but not least, Ethiopia is heading to the main harvest season reportedly after the worst drought in 50 years. Peacefully collecting the crops and focusing on food security should be the core business. If the conflict continues this way, another hunger/famine disaster could be in the making as a result of failure to duly collect harvest. The government should start thinking responsibly for Ethiopia. It should either introduce genuine changes or leave the seat for whoever is ready. But, are there people with substance in government to advise on such grand reforms? Let’s keep praying for Ethiopia’s sake.
The author can be reached at .