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PoliticsThe legislative takes historic action to deal with crisis

The legislative takes historic action to deal with crisis

A State of Emergency was declared on Sunday, October 9, 2016 by Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, although the state of emergency reportedly took effect on Saturday, October 8, 2016. The first-of-its-kind state of emergency was declared followed massive protests in various parts of the Oromia and Amhara regional states. Eventually, the House of People’s Representatives endorsed the State of Emergency proclamation issued by the Council of Ministers October 8, 2016. This makes the lawmakers the first to endorse a state of emergency and are safely navigating the country through unchartered waters, writes Yonas Abiye.

To those who follow local politics, the unprecedented legislative action taken by the House of People’s Representatives (HPR) in 2001 is one to remember. It was not an ordinary legislative action lawmakers usually take in the lower house. This legislative action has kept several politicians, activists and observes wondering for years. It was the adoption of the Anti-corruption and Ethics Proclamation criminalizing acts of corruption and bribery, and penalizing them with long prison terms.

Most remember it as one of the most extraordinary legislative actions the HPR has ever adopted in its 22 years of existence. There are even those critics who satirically call it “Lovely”, after a brand of local biscuit introduced then. The time of the proclamation coincided with the time when commercials for the biscuit were being constantly played on ETV (now rebranded as the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation). The commercial had the catchy phrase, Tewat Temerto Kese’at Merkato (akin to “Fresh from the Oven”, but the literal translation goes, “Baked in the morning, and sold in the afternoon at Mercato). It was a well-articulated commercial designed to seduce customers to buy a fresh product.

Such a humorous association of a legislative action with a commercial was made because the proclamation was endorsed swiftly after it had been drafted. The MPs took no more than a couple of days of deliberation before they endorsed it. It typically takes quite a long time before bills are endorsed in the Ethiopian parliament. For many observers, the anti-corruption bill is by far the most controversial and hysterical legislative actions ever taken by the incumbent regime.

The piece of legislation described above was not an exceptional case that might be treated as an isolated incident during the tenure of the Ethiopian parliament over the past two decades. Though the life span of proclamations from preparation of a draft bill to the time it takes when they are presented to the house and then referred to the respective standing committees for further revision before they get voted is quite long, there are other controversial bills that are subject to heated debates before and after they were voted in by majority vote. Among them was the Anti-terrorism bill adopted in 2009 during the third term of parliament.

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At that time, the house was not fully controlled by members of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) MPs, as the current one is. There were at least 110 MPs drawn from opposition parties (representing mainly EPDP, EUDP, OFD, a splinter group from the then CUD) as well as the then sole independent MP, Negasso Gidada (PhD) – former president of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) before he joined the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (Medrek) after his parliamentary term ended.

Stand firm, no matter the result

Some controversial laws that had stirred heated debates were passed with a majority vote, though. For instance, the Anti-terrorism Proclamation (No. 652/2009) and the Charities and Civil Societies Law (Proclamation No, 621/2009) are some of the major laws that the parliament passed over the past decade.

The Anti-terrorism Proclamation was approved on a 285-91 vote, while the Charities and Civil Societies Law (Proclamation No, 621/2009) was approved the same year with 327 members in favor, and 79 against.

With the anti-terrorism legislation, the government argued the bill was necessary to “protect the safety of people and ensure the rights of citizens to live in peace, stability, and harmony.” Meanwhile, those opposing it voiced their concern that the bill was a deliberate move “designed to repress opposition and intimidate opponents”.

The chairman of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), Bulcha Demeksa, opposed the draft law, describing it as a “tyrannical tool”. He had even gone as far as claiming that, “The proposed terror-proclamation is a weapon designed by the ruling party not only to weaken their (the opposition parties’) role, but also to totally eliminate all political opponents”.

Meanwhile, former president Negasso Gidada had this to say at the time, “Such a law is meant to weaken opposition groups.  It would be invoked as a cover when arresting and prosecuting members of the opposition”. Similarly, there were other MPs, including Merera Gudina (PhD) who was one of the most notable opposition figures against the dominant EPRDF.

No matters how controversial and debatable, the draft bills have been endorsed with majority votes of representatives of the ruling party and its partners. In any case, the number of opposition representatives is so small that nothing could be done to prevent the ruling party’s draft bills from being passed. The debates and the challenges from opposition groups in the house were significant to the extent that they would be part of the historical record.

Unfortunately, the absolute dominance of the ruling party in the house resulted in the first-past-the-post electoral system. That saw even further shrinking in the fourth parliamentary term that lasted from 2010 to 2015. During that parliamentary term, Girma Seifu was the only one MP representing the opposition while Ashebir Woldegiorgis (MD) was the sole independent MP. Though Girma’s position in the house has no impact on government action, he was able to be a center of attention. Similarly, the other figure whose role may be hard to ignore was Ashebir. The former president of the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF), though he once publicly declared that he was not against the ruling party’s ideology and policy, he was also vocal in airing his views in parliament on any draft bills, provisions or any other issue when he found it worthwhile to challenge the ruling party.

Meanwhile, the course of the country’s political journey continues unfolding yet again in the current, fifth parliamentary term. In the current term that began last year, parliament (which went into recess last week) has been conducting its activities with no single dissenter’s voice.

Like in previous years, the house conducts regular sessions of its second year and has adopted several bills since the parliamentary year began early October 2016 (September 30, 2008 EC). The parliamentary year began with an address by the FDRE president. In his speech, delivered to a joint session of parliament (HPR and the House of the Federation), the president outlined the plans for the year and highlighted major activities to be undertaken during the year.

As a result, the house has been passing several laws and deliberating on various issues. Among them, the major draft laws that were presented to the house and were later endorsed are bills related to loan agreements that the Ethiopian government had signed with various governments and financiers over the past few years. The house also deliberated on bills, which were first proposed for amendments on some existing proclamations. Similarly, there were few laws, which were proposed as new draft proclamations, which the MPs passed with unanimous votes in the first six months of the parliamentary year.

As the Reporter has been witnessing what was going on in parliament over the past six months, , no challenges were aired by the excising MPs over draft bills, except for questions for clarifications or suggestions for revisions on particular proposed draft bills.

In fact, there have been some cases when MPs seemed to raise critical questions on some draft bills. However, the draft bills were later voted unanimously after the standing committees brought them back to the house. It is very rare to witness MPs abstaining from voting.

The making of history at the toughest time

Unlike the previous two decades, the year’s parliamentary sessions began at a time when the country was living through one of the “most difficult” and toughest periods of recent memory, with some parts of the country engulfed in a wave of protests and violence.

Protests and deadly clashes took place in the two largest regional states of Oromia and Amhara. Though the unrest had started several months ago during the previous parliamentary year, the situation turned most tragic at the annual Oromo thanksgiving “Irrecha” ceremony at Bishoftu, when more than 55 people died, and hundreds were injured. The tragedy happened only ten days to go for the commencement the current parliamentary year.

As one of the most horrific incidents of recent memory, the “Irrecha” tragedy left the entire nation in a mourning mode. The “Irrecha” incident, along with the wave of protests in some localities, provided a compelling case for the current parliament to pass the first and arguably the most controversial legislation of recent times – at least over the past quarter of a century. It was this parliament that ratified the ongoing state of emergency proclamation at its third regular session held on 20 October 2016, a week after the commencement of its second year’s parliamentary term.

Hence, following the endorsement of a bill forwarded by the Council of Ministers, the house also revealed the establishment of an Inquiry Board with seven members, who were introduced by Speaker Abadula Gemeda to the house. Accordingly, Tadesse Hordofa, who is the chairperson of the Higher Educational Institutions Affairs Standing Committee, was elected chairman of the Inquiry Board while another MP, Genet Tadesse, who is also chairwoman of the Budget and Finance Standing Committee was voted to serve as deputy chair of the board.

Within a week, the Inquiry Board officially embarked on the tasks of following on reports of human right handlings of the government while implementing the state of emergency decree. Immediately after the Council of Ministers issued the declaration, the state of emergency drew mixed reaction from experts, human rights groups as well as the entire public even before being adopted overwhelmingly by lawmakers.

As later expounded by the attorney general, the state of emergency would be applicable retroactively, to include incidents that had occurred one year ago. That raised numerous issues of legality. The declaration consists of some 20 provisions, including seven major specific articles that either totally place bans or restrictions.  Some of the provisions were related to social media, broadcast media, protests, gestures, curfew, travel ban on diplomats and guns. The proclamation also includes provisions authorizing the Command Post to see to it that detainees undergo rehabilitation programs before they were released.

As a result, this historical declaration led to the mass arrests of thousands of citizens in several parts of country, particularly in Oromia and Amhara regional states – places the command posts considers as hotbeds of the sporadic protests and violence.

According to recent reports by the head of the Secretariat of the Command Post, Siraj Fegessa (who is also the Minister of Defense), over 25 thousands suspects had been detained by the Command Post over the past four months under the state of emergency. He also reported that over 9,500 of those suspects were released in December after duly undergoing rehabilitation programs. He, however, noted that so far over 2,449 detainees have been identified as having played major roles in the violence, and hence would face justice.

Meanwhile, the Command Post has revealed that it has confiscated over 1500 items during raids. The seized items include AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, pistols, explosives, mobile phones, motor bikes and military uniforms.

Beyond the proclamation

Even if the adoption of the state of emergency was by far the most significant one, the HPR has also passed other important pieces of legislation over the course of the first half of the year. To mention just some of these: the appointment of new cabinet members presented by Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, the Second Human Right Action Plan, supplementary budget (around 19 billion birr), the Youth Revolving Bond, pay rise for civil servants, amendment to the Proclamation on the Rights and Benefits of Outgoing Heads of State and Senior Government Officials.

Other agenda items taken care of by the parliament before the mid-year recess include listening to reports from the executive branch, a series of deliberation by standing committees, approval of appointments for government posts as well as some supervisory tasks.

Of course, the house accomplished all these without any opposition from rival parties occupying seats in parliament. Admittedly, the passing of legislation like the state of emergency would have taken a different course had opposition groups been represented in parliament.. In fact, such views have recently been coming from the government itself, attesting to the fact that the ruling party’s absolute dominance in parliament has created an unfair representation.

“The last couple of elections have resulted in domination of the ruling party in the parliament and this in turn has given rise to absence of representatives of other voices of the society who have dissenting views. To fill this gap, a dialogue forum shall be prepared for discussion with peaceful opposition parties and create a space for them in the coming election,” said President Mulatu last October while delivering his opening speech to the joint houses.

Prime Minister Hailemariam, on his part, told the HPR in November “that a new electoral system – a hybrid electoral system — would be in place for the next election cycle in order to install a more representative house”. He also noted that the government came to the decision of changing the current legal framework of the electoral system taking in to account the concern that voters who cast their ballots for parties other than the EPRDF were left unrepresented in our parliamentary system.

But it is not yet known whether electoral reform would be on the agenda for the parliament after the recess. However, it was said that reform of the electoral system is part of the agenda in the ongoing discussion between the ruling party and 21 opposition groups, which officially kicked off Monday in the premises of HPR.

The ongoing discussion among political groups has received mixed reaction among various sections of society. Some welcome it as a hope to salvaging the nation from political crises that has battered it over the past two or three years while others from the extreme side remain skeptic. The latter are suspect of the motives of the ruling party, noting that it has a track record of taking rigid positions on vital points of negotiation.  In the meantime, Prime Minister Hailemariam, who is also the head of the Command Post, as well as Minister of Defense Siraj who is the head of the Secretariat of the Command Post, are both claiming that the state of emergency has already “effectively” restored peace and stability in the country to what it was few years back. This was achieved while the state of emergency is still in effect, and has some two more months to go. However, none of them has hinted whether the government has the intention to request the HPR extending the decree.

Whether the government seeks to extend the state of emergency or not, the current parliament has indelibly put its mark in the legislative history of the land by adopting the first-ever state of emergency proclamation. Only history will tell the significance of this historic piece of legislation.

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