In another stark reminder that Ethiopia is engulfed in yet another round of deadly conflict, the Council of Ministers of Ethiopia decreed a six-month state of emergency this Friday in the nation’s second-largest region, Amhara, pursuant to the power vested in it by Article 93 of the Ethiopian constitution. The geographic application of the State of Emergency, however, is not limited to the Amhara region and extends, as appropriate, to any part of the country regarding “any activity or circumstance exacerbating the security problem in the region or at the national level”. A statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), said the conflagration of attacks at the hands of “armed extremist groups” in the region, which “posed an increasing threat to public security, endangered the constitutional order, and were causing significant economic damage”, necessitated the declaration of the State of Emergency. It noted the Amhara regional government had requested the federal government to intervene because it was unable to bring the situation under control through the regular law enforcement system, adding it had to declare a state of emergency in order to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to uphold law and order.
The declaration of the fourth State of Emergency to be decreed in Ethiopia since late 2016 comes after the Fano, an irregular force that is composed of volunteer militiamen from the local populace, clashed with units of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) that has led to an unknown number of casualties and took control of some towns. The fighting has developed into one of, if not the gravest, security crisis Ethiopia has faced since the truce that ended the two-year civil war in the neighboring Tigray region in November 2022. The Fano and the Amhara Special Forces fought alongside the ENDF during the civil war. However, they had a falling out with both the federal and regional governments, primarily due to the decision to dissolve all regional special forces. They contended that the dissolution was targeted at disarming them so that Amharas are rendered incapable of defending themselves from attacks by Tiray militants or other elements harboring an evil design towards them.
Further details setting out the scope and implementation of the State of Emergency as well as the powers of the entity tasked with overseeing its execution and prohibited activities have been revealed in the full text of the official declaration. Although many are opposed to the declaration of the declaration in the first place, there can be no arguing on the absolute importance to take extra precautions when exercising emergency powers given that the majority of political and democratic rights contained in the constitution are suspended, albeit to the extent necessary, when the state of emergency is in effect. The limitations that the constitution places on the exercise of emergency powers have to be strictly observed.
While the government has underscored that it will, through the emergency powers granted to it, safeguard the rights of citizens by protecting the country’s peace and sovereignty as well as maintaining public security, law and order, it is imperative that security forces are mindful of the sweeping powers granted to them as they exercise them. Though the exigency to restore order may require the suspension of constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, such measure should be weighed against the long-term interests of the nation and the public. As such everything possible must be done to ensure that unnecessary rights violations do not take place when the security forces, among others, detain suspects or conduct search and seizure without a court order, prohibit public gatherings, impose curfews and road blocks. It is vitally important to see to it that innocent citizens are not subjected to ordeals on account of fabricated accusations motivated by hatred or intended to settle scores.
The measures taken against anyone when the state of emergency is in force must be proportional and adhere to legal prescriptions. In fact a State of Emergency Inquiry Board, comprising of seven persons to be chosen and assigned by the House of Peoples’ Representatives from among its members and from legal experts, is expected to be established to inspect and follow up that any measure taken during the state of emergency are true to the letter and spirit of the constitution. While citizens are called on to observe the state of emergency due regard should be given to obeying the law and legality above anything else. Moreover, the difficulties that arise during the implementation of the state of emergency and the lessons learnt need to be brought to the public’s attention. Insofar as displaying prudence while exercising emergency powers is likely to have benefits that far outweigh harms, the government is obliged to act accordingly.
Decreeing a state of emergency alone cannot bring about a meaningful change in terms of undertaking the necessary political reform that addresses the grievances that has led to the unrest in the Amhara region. It is obligatory to answer promptly the legitimate demands of the Amhara people as well as to engage them in a dialogue that is part of a broader endeavor to find a durable solution to the political challenges besetting Ethiopia. Any other course of action that does not lead to a holistic solution is akin to firefighting and doomed to be short-lived. This calls on the part of all the parties to the ongoing clashes in Amhara to take a step back and refrain from adding fuel to the fire in the realization that violence at best serves to wreak mayhem and destruction. The heavy toll that the recent civil war in northern Ethiopia exacted should serve as an object lesson here. Moreover, there is no guarantee that a military victory by either side will guarantee a return to the stability of the region or for that matter the entire nation. This is why the best and perhaps the only way to restore peace and order in Amhara and beyond is to engage in a genuine effort to reach a political settlement that is spearheaded by cooler heads and advances the interest of the nation and the public at large.