The rule of law is a mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm which strives to ensure that no one is above the law, everyone is treated equally under the law and held accountable to the same laws, there are clear and fair processes for enforcing laws and human rights are guaranteed for all. Ethiopia has the sad distinction of being a nation with a checkered track record when it comes to upholding the rule of law. Among the different metrics by which a country’s overall rule of law performance may be measured, Ethiopia has particularly fared badly in assuring order and security as well as respect for fundamental rights. The act of turning back some people travelling from the Amhara region en route to the capital Addis Ababa constitutes a clear example of the latter.
For over three weeks now security forces in the Oromia region have been preventing citizens travelling by cross-country bus from the North and South Wollo zones of the Amhara region to the capital through Oromia from getting to their destination if they do not carry a residence ID of Addis Ababa. Federal government officials claim operatives deployed by the terrorist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were recently arrested while trying to infiltrate Addis Ababa using residence IDs and administrative seals it had looted when it occupied some parts of the Amhara region, adding the measure is part of a security operation aimed at thwarting the evil designs of the terrorist group. True, a government’s primary responsibility is to protect the safety and security of citizens. Nevertheless, care must be taken to ensure that the manner in which any operation to ensure law and order does not trample basic liberties enshrined in the constitution.
One such right is freedom of movement. Article 32 of the constitution stipulates that any Ethiopian or foreign national lawfully in Ethiopia has, within the national territory, the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence, as well as the freedom to leave the country at any time he wishes to. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights — the international instruments Ethiopia has ratified and in conformance with which the fundamental rights and freedoms specified in the constitution must be interpreted — also afford protection to this right. Absent a duly declared state of emergency, there can be no justification for the indefensible prevention of Ethiopian citizens from enjoying their freedom of movement on the ground that they pose a potential security threat.
Aside from flouting the rights to liberty of movement, the action of the Oromia security forces has other troubling ramifications. First, it creates a perception of discrimination and ostracization in the individuals victimized by the travel restriction. Moreover, the fact that they are unable to travel to their intended destination entails damaging economic and social consequences for them. This is liable to sow the seeds of resentment and down the line to political conflict. Second, it encroaches on the federal government’s constitutionally granted power to regulate major roads linking two or more regional states. Such intrusion into the federal government’s exclusive preserve sets a bad precedent for other regions. In short it spells danger for the integrity of the constitutional order and the rule of law.
Freedom of movement is a fundamental right all levels of government must respect. Any perceived security threat its exercise may pose should be handled in a manner that does not result in the violation of the right and subjects innocent citizens to inconvenience. There can be no sugarcoating the fact that the act of preventing certain classes of people from travelling to wherever they want is an unequivocal infringement of not only freedom of movement, but also the right to equality. As such it is incumbent on the federal, Oromia and Amhara regional governments need to hold consultations on ensuring that everyone travelling from the Amhara region via Oromia without fear that they will be turned back before getting to their journey’s end. Given upholding the fundamental rights laid out in the constitution is vital to assuring the very survival of Ethiopia as a cohesive polity, overstepping the constitution in the name of containing elements bent on wreaking havoc cannot and should not be tolerated. That is why it’s imperative to put an immediate stop to the blatantly unconstitutional violation of freedom of movement and see to it that it’s not repeated ever again.