Ethiopia has been continuously mired in one manufactured controversy for some time now. A speech Addis Ababa mayor Adanech Abiebie gave at the beginning of this week is the latest such controversy that has caused a furore. The mayor remarked during a regular session of the Addis Ababa City Council appraising its 6-month performance that recently a massive migration has been taking place from some regional states towards the capital with the aim of toppling the [federal] government. She accused “organized forces bent on destabilizing the country” of actively trying to turn the city into a conflict zone, adding they inciting the public, particularly the youth, to violence and destruction through false propaganda. She said the phenomenon constituted an unacceptable security risk and that no one stood to benefit from it. She also shared the figures disclosed by other senior security officials of the city administration, who said the majority of the “elements” which descended on Addis Ababa hailed from the Amhara region followed by the Southern and Oromia regions, respectively.
The remarks of the mayor and her security chiefs have a raft of grave implications. First, using the word “migration” to describe the movement of citizens from part of Ethiopia to another is fraught with conceptual flaws. While we cannot reject out of hand the mayor’s assertion that a large number of people had flocked to the metropolis for nefarious purposes, she has not offered any proof substantiating the declaration that their movement fits the classic definition of migration, which involves the process of a person or people travelling to a new place or country, usually in order to find work and live there temporarily or permanently. As a public official sworn to serve all Ethiopians equally, she should be wary of casually throwing around a concept that has no actual bearing on the ground and can entail unintended consequences.
More importantly however the utterances of the Addis Ababa city administration have serious implications for the right to freedom of movement enshrined in the constitution and other international human rights conventions Ethiopia has ratified. Article 32 of the constitution, which is virtually a verbatim replica of similar provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, provides that Ethiopians or foreign nationals lawfully in Ethiopia have, within the national territory, the right to liberty of movement. The authorities’ statements seem to suggest that the state has a legitimate authority to prohibit the exercise of this right if it is used to undertake an act that it deems to be illegal. In fact, some regions have been routinely preventing people from transiting through their territory to enter Addis Ababa and other regions for a host of factors, including posing a security threat. The only ground on which freedom of movement may be preemptively restricted is the adoption of a state of emergency under which political and democratic rights contained in the constitution can be suspended to the extent necessary to avert the conditions that required its declaration. The regions’ proscription of such a fundamental right in the absence of a compelling reason thus represents an egregious violation of the constitution and as such must be condemned.
Aside from lacking the authority to curb freedom of movement, no regional government or city administration can take it up on itself to avert what it believes to be acts that endanger the constitution. Even if Mayor Adanech’s allegation that a considerable number of people migrated to the capital with the express purpose of violently overthrowing the duly elected federal government, it lies within the sole jurisdiction of the federal government itself to take the necessary action. Needless to say it can solicit the assistance of other entities to discharge this obligation. The appropriate organs responsible for foiling the purported plot to carry out a putsch are hence federal intelligence and law enforcement organs, not the police and security forces of metropolitan city administration or regional governments. It’s not therefore entirely clear why Mayor Adanech’s administration made statements professing it undertook measures that prevented the unlawful deposing of the federal government.
The blatant infringement of the right to liberty of movement jeopardizes the bedrock of Ethiopia’s nascent democracy—the rule of law. As upholding this right guaranteed under the constitution—the social contract by which citizens and the government are governed—is paramount in fulfilling its aspiration to creating one political and economic community, violating it in the name of fending off an ostensible conspiracy to oust the federal government should be vehemently denounced. The statements made by the mayor of Addis Ababa and senior members of her administration implying that close to two-third of the individuals behind the scheme come from a single region only serve to exacerbate the polarization that threatens to rend Ethiopian society. If Mayor Adanech has any semblance of respect for the people of Ethiopia, she needs to offer them her apologies. If she feels she cannot do that, she should do the honorable thing and resign from office.