The decision by the House of Peoples’ Representatives this week to cut short the six-month state of emergency it enacted in November has elicited mixed reactions. The lawmakers’ decision came three weeks after the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) approved a resolution calling for a lifting of the emergency measures in view of a turnaround in deteriorating security conditions in Ethiopia. In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy sent troops into the northern Tigray region in response to unprovoked attacks on army camps by the TPLF. The state of emergency was imposed following the capture by the forces of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) of the strategic towns of Dessie and Kombolcha towns in the Amhara region and their advancement further south en route to the capital Addis Ababa. However, the TPLF forces were pushed back into Tigray in an offensive launched by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and other allied forces in December.
Reflecting the public mood, Members of Parliament (MPs) were divided on the early termination of the state of emergency. In a departure from the usual voting pattern out of the 312 lawmakers in attendance a fifth voted against the motion, while 21 chose to abstain. Citing the fact that the TPLF continues to wage war in the Afar region and control some territories in the Amhara and Agar regions as well as the uptick in the killing and displacement of thousands of innocent civilians in the Oromia region, these MPs called for the emergency measures to remain in place until such time that these threats are contained. Questioning the government’s justification behind lifting the state of emergency, an opposition lawmaker said it was ending it to please the diplomatic community and burnish its image, adding the move was premature as things stood now. The government though argues that it has the capacity to control the danger which necessitated the imposition of the state of emergency through the regular law enforcement agencies. Noting that the emergency measures had dampened tourism and economic activities, it said maintaining them would do more harm than good.
The downsides of the state of emergency were not limited to the economy though. Some law enforcement personnel abused the powers it granted them to settle scores or extort money from several victims. Moreover, widespread rights abuses reportedly took place after it took effect with the state-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) disclosing thousands of ethnic Tigrayans, including very elderly people, nursing mothers and children, were detained. Although most of the detainees, which were kept in unsuitable makeshift prisons, were released, hundreds remain in detention. The police, however, have strenuously refuted the accusation, saying no ethnic group was targeted and that they only arrested individuals suspected of providing various support to the TPLF. Regardless, the State of Emergency Inquiry Board established by Parliament needs to inspect and follow up that no measure taken during the state of emergency was inhumane. Furthermore, it must recommend to the Prime Minister or to the Council of Ministers corrective measures if it finds any case of inhumane treatment and see to it that the perpetrators of such acts are brought to justice.
While the veracity of the misdeeds law enforcement agencies have been blamed for when the state of emergency was in force may be debatable, the government needs to be the first to bring the institutions under it to heel the minute they infringe the law in the name of enforcing it. In particular the onus is on law enforcement organs to have a proper grasp of the law while performing their duties. All persons held in custody or facing criminal prosecution have the right to treatments respecting their human dignity as well as to be presumed until proven guilty according to law. Although these rights may be suspended during a state of emergency, there can be no excusing the maltreatment of suspects no matter the gravity of the crimes they are alleged to be involved in. If law enforcement institutions abide by constitutionally enshrined principles in executing their duties, the law will be observed by all stakeholders. The prevalence of injustices for centuries has made life an ordeal for the vast majority of citizens, earned successive governments universal condemnation and forced the country to hang its head in shame. Now more than ever before when basic liberties are supposed to be honored citizens are entitled to a treatment respecting their due process rights. Inasmuch as upholding the rule of law is vital to ensuring the continuance of Ethiopia as a viable nation, it’s the essence to put an immediate stop to misdeeds perpetrated under the guise of enforcing the law. The law must never be enforced unlawfully. Failure to learn lessons from the mistakes made during the state of emergency can have unpleasant consequences.