The extension by a further four months of the six-month State of Emergency declared in the Amhara region in early August 2023 to “further solidify the existing peace in the region” speaks volumes about the troubling security situation in Ethiopia’s second-largest region. Explaining why it was compelled to ask Parliament to declare the State of Emergency then, the federal government said the conflagration of by “armed extremist groups” in the region, which “posed an increasing threat to public security, endangered the constitutional order, and were causing significant economic damage”, necessitated the adoption of such an extreme measure in order to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to uphold law and order, adding the regional government had requested it to intervene because it was unable to bring the situation under control through the regular law enforcement system. Although precise figures are hard to come by, the ongoing violence has claimed the lives of thousands, forced tens of thousands to flee their homes, resulted in the destruction of both public and private properties, and disrupted transportation services.
The fourth State of Emergency to be decreed in Ethiopia since late 2016, its declaration came about after the Fano, an irregular force that is composed of volunteer militiamen from the local populace, began to clash with units of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and took control of some towns in the Amhara region. The conflict has escalated into one of the gravest security crisis Ethiopia has faced since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed office in April 2018. The Fano and the Amhara Special Forces fought alongside the ENDF during the two-year civil war that pitted the federal government against the forces of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF). The decision to dissolve all regional special forces months after the civil war ended, however, prompted the Fano to take up arms against both the federal and regional governments. They alleged that the dissolution was particularly intended to disarm the Amhara people with a view to rob them of the capacity to fend off attacks by Tigray militants or other elements harboring an animus towards them.
As a move which entails the suspension of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, declaring a state of emergency is and should be a measure of last resort. Admittedly, circumstances may arise where the Ethiopian government has no option but to preserve Ethiopia’s peace and sovereignty as well as to maintain public security, law and order solely through actions that exempt it from abiding by restrictions curtailing its powers. Nonetheless, this does not absolve it of the duty to respect the principles of necessity, proportionality, and non-discrimination in accordance with its legal obligations under the constitution and the international instruments it has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As such it must do everything it can to prevent innocent citizens from becoming victims of abuse of power at the hands of law enforcement and security personnel when they implement the state of emergency.
The constitution has a safeguard mechanism that is intended to avert such a specter from coming to pass. It mandates the establishment of a seven-member strong State of Emergency Inquiry Board which investigates if any measure taken during the state of emergency is inhumane, recommends to the Prime Minister or to the Council of Ministers to take corrective measures if it finds any case of inhumane treatment and ensure that the perpetrators of such acts are prosecuted. While the Board established accordingly has not documented any cases of rights violations to date during the course of the implementation of the state of emergency, there are disturbing reports indicating that they have occurred in all likelihood. The difficulties that arise during the implementation of the state of emergency and the lessons learnt need to be publicized if the same mistakes are not to be repeated in the future. Insofar as displaying prudence while exercising emergency powers is certain to have benefits that far outweigh the downsides, the government is duty-bound to act within the confines imposed on it.
A state of emergency is not in itself the ultimate guarantor of durable peace needed to undertake the political reforms vital to addressing the legitimate grievances that have triggered the conflict in the Amhara region. In this regard it’s of the essence to embark on a political process that brings all stakeholders to the table. The horrors of the civil war in northern Ethiopia serve as an important reminder of the imperative to resolve differences through peaceful means. Unless the parties to the conflict demonstrate the courage to engage in open and inclusive discussions, finding sustainable solutions that address the underlying causes of the crisis and create a more peaceful and prosperous future for the people of the Amhara region and beyond will be well-nigh impossible.
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