Since the advent to office of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) five years back this week, a flurry of development s have been unfolding in Ethiopia’s political arena at a pace seldom witnessed before in the country’s history. The latest hot-button issue to have inflamed passions is the commencement by the federal government of active steps to implement its decision to dissolve the controversial regional state special forces. While the move has been hailed by some sections of the public, it has also drawn fierce criticisms from quarters which contended that it was targeted at disarming Amhara Special Forces so that they do not hinder the hand-over of the contested “Western Tigray” and parts of southern Tigray, which have been under the control of these forces immediately after civil war erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020, to the Tigray regional government.
After turning a deaf ear to these charges for days, the federal government broke its silence this week in a statement it issued, emphasizing it had embarked on practical measures to dissolve all regional special forces in furtherance of the imperative to build a strong centralized army capable of ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. It has flatly denied the accusations thrown its way, saying the measure was not intended to neutralize any particular special forces and that none of their members would be compelled to give up their arms. Indicating that these members can, as they see fit, join either the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, the federal police or regional policies, or rsume normal civilian life after undergoing rehabilitation, it added that the decision was passed after a consensus was reached by all regional state leaders following a thorough study and deliberation on the matter. In an apparent rebuttal to reports that the dissolution of the special members will be phased, the government underscored that it is being undertaken simultaneously throughout the nation.
The place of regional special forces in Ethiopia’s security architecture has always been contentious ever since they emerged over a decade ago. According to the 1995 constitution, the task of ensuring peace and security in Ethiopia is apportioned between the federal and regional state governemnts. Accordingly, the responsibility of establishing and administering the national defence and public security forces as well as a federal police force lies with the federal government. On the other hand, regional governments are empowered to establish and administer a state police force, and to maintain public order and peace within their respective territories. The clear delineation of this dichotomy of powers leaves no room for interpretation, rendering the very existence of regional special forces constitutionally dubious, if not unambiguously extraconstitutional. Aside from this, the fact that these forces are armed to the teeth and have been implicated in documented inter-regional conflicts as well as egregious human rights breaches has further prompted calls for their disbandment.
Broadly speaking, the decision to abolish regional special forces is welcomed, albeit misgivings over its timing, given the serious questions raised over their constitutionality, the rights they have been associated with, and the potential threat they pose to the nation’s stability. This said, there are a host of critical issues that need to be addressed as their demobilization gets underway. Chief among is the exigency to fill the possible security void that it may cause. Second, the distrust running deep between some regional states at loggerheads over numerous sensitive issues may well engender resistance to the dissolution of forces they view as the ultimate defendors of their interests. This credibility gap was manifested in the calls made made by opposition parties that demanded a halt to the disbanding. It’s also borne out by the federal government’s admission that the process has been disrupted in the Amhara region by certain special forces units owing to a misunderstanding about its purpose on the one hand and on the other the deliberate peddling of a false narrative acting at the behest of “promoters of a destructive agenda”.
Disarming the special forces and absorbing them into federal or regional security structures is a task fraught with complex challenges. Going forward, it’s incumbent on all stakeholders of the process to demonstrate the required commitment in order for it to succeed and avert unintended consequences. Although the federal government has declared that the process was preceded by careful planning, consultation, and the formulation of a comprehensive integration program, words are not enough. There are a raft of practical measures that can be thought of with due regard to the fulfillment of the stated objectives of the dissolution, including, among others, enacting laws that lend it constitutional and legal legitimacy; taking such confidence-building steps as giving members of the special forces explanations about the national importance of the process and assurances that their future is assured as well as forming a joint central command, comprised of both federal and regional security forces, that is entrusted with overseeing security arrangements in regional states until such time the demobilization and integration process is fully completed; and providing the general public with regular update. Instituting these and similar other measures will contribute its share, however small it may be, toward steering Ethiopia on the path to the rule of law, reconciliation and enduring peace.