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Regional Special Forces: threats or safeties?

Regional Special Forces: threats or safeties?

The war in Tigray following PM Abiy Ahmed’s announcement of an attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) on November 4, 2020, let the genie out of the bottle. Following the announcement of the war as well as its conclusion in the northern part of the country, uncountable debates, arguments, and disagreements are emerging on a wide range of issues. The constitution, the multinational federalism, the war itself, upcoming general elections, and many more are at the center of this play.

Another issue that recently came to the fore following the war in Tigray is the case of regional special forces that keep proliferating across the 10 regional states in the country. All regional governments within the federation have special forces and newly emerging regions make training and inaugurating special forces among their priorities. For instance, the Sidama region was officially formed in June 2020 and it inaugurated its first batch of special forces in August 2020 - within two months of its formation.

Pertaining to the fact that the regional government in Tigray trained and armed special forces to perpetrate attacks on the bases and military depots of the Northern Command of the ENDF, the debates surrounding special forces question their allegiance, legality as well as accountability. The special forces in Tigray were later called Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) along with the militia and regional police forces. While there are also questions on the legality of the local militia that are tasked with preserving peace and security at the kebele level, they do not pose such a threat as regional special forces because of the low level of training and arms at hand.

The genesis of regional special forces in Ethiopia goes back to the early 2010s when the Somali Special Forces were recruited, trained, and armed to control the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) insurgents who allegedly killed many Ethiopians and Chinese citizens that worked on a gas exploration field.

Although the government was criticized for the widespread attacks and tortures of citizens in the Ogaden area of the Somali region, the ONLF, proclaimed terrorist group by the Ethiopian House of People’s Representatives at the time, was also “responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). These include the summary execution of dozens of Chinese and Ethiopian civilians in the context of its April 2007 attack on the oil installation, the ONLF practice of killing suspected government collaborators, and the indiscriminate mining of roads used by government convoys,” according to a report by the Human Rights Watch.

The government recruited these special forces numbered between 10,000 and 14,000 in a way the insurgents would do and Europeans including the United Kingdom and other partners supported the training and recruitment of the personnel within their peace-building initiatives, reported the Guardian in 2013. The report conceded that this did not mean they were not concerned about the reputation of these forces, especially concerning human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch disclosed these abuses repeatedly in its reports. One of these reports released in 2012 detailed summary executions, tortures, and abuses by the Liyu (Special) Police. In his speech in the early days of his incumbency, PM Abiy also narrated the atrocities committed in the Somali region by the special forces that ranged from killing to intimidating detainees by caging them along with wild animals like lion cubs.

But these regional special forces formed in the name of fighting insurgencies in the Somali region did not remain exclusive to the region. Rather, the spillover reached all regions across the country and they are also seen brushing shoulders with one another. Cases in point are the frequent show of forces between the Tigray and Amhara special forces, and the frequent clashes between the Afar and Somali special forces.

After the official engagement of the Amhara Special forces in the war in Tigray, the Amhara Police Commissioner Abere Adamu offered the federal government a hand to resolve the recurring attacks on civilians in the Metekel zone of the Benshangul Gumuz region claiming the region is incapable of protecting the safety and security of citizens.

“If the federal government is busy with other issues, we are more than ready to protect civilians as the majority of people being killed are ethnic Amhara,” he stated to the regional Amhara Mass Media Agency.

This was worrying for many observers who said that regional police forces are established based on the constitution to protect citizens and ensure peace and security in their respective regions. Those sharing this view are adamant that police forces cannot engage in security matters of other regions.

According to article 52 of the Ethiopian Constitution, regional governments have the power “to establish and administer a state police force, and to maintain public order and peace within the State.”

It seems that this is also a center of gravity within the federal government. When presenting her Ministry’s three months performance report to the House of People’s Representatives (HPR), the Minister of Peace, Muferyat Kamil said the House should prepare a legal framework for government regional special forces as they are unconstitutional.

Highlighting that the constitutional provision for the establishment of regional police forces refers to regular police forces, Muferyat asserted that this does not mean that they could partly be half militarized. Muferyat’s concern relates to the global phenomenon of police militarization for reasons of increasing organized and armed crimes. This is said to result in failing public trust in the law enforcement apparatus, according to the US-based Charles Koch Institute, and this impedes law enforcement’s ability to effectively secure public safety.

Jaylan Abdi, the Communications head at the Federal Police, told The Reporter that it has proved difficult to put these forces into check and standardize their training and arms.

“What law governs these forces? No law can put these forces into check,” Jaylan said; “there is no standard regarding their arms and training.”

Jaylan is also concerned that these forces bear the name special forces and their training is different from that of the regular police forces. Currently, regional governments seem to compete over the strength of their special forces. The recent phenomenon has people concerned about their unconstitutionality.

Commissioner Abere argues that their region does not have special forces but special police forces.

“We do not have special forces but special police forces. We do not have any force that contradicts the constitution. The government knows where such forces exist,” he told The Reporter over the phone.

But he declined to answer questions related to the level of training these special (police) forces receive as well as the types of armaments they carry.

While the Oromia region has a dedicated commissioner for its special forces, the commissioner stated that he could not reply to questions from The Reporter as he has gone out of Addis for work.

However, Jaylan asserts that if these forces are influenced by the political interests of some group or if they show allegiance only to a certain ethnic group, they could be harmful to national unity and won’t contribute to the national interest.

While maintaining that all of the special forces in the country should not be likened to that of the Tigray special forces, Jaylan pointed out, these forces should be reoriented in a manner that serves national unity.

Security and military expert and Director of Balsillie School of International Affairs Ann Fitz-Gerald (Prof.) believes that these forces could be threats to national security because of the different chains of command they operate in. She explains:

Unless national military forces are unable or incapable of providing security in certain regions, regional ‘special forces’ – which operate similar to paramilitary forces – can certainly become a threat to national security.  I say this because if regional states have slightly different views than the federal government at the center, you would have a situation where two different paramilitary capabilities with two different chains of command may act in different lines of loyalty to the views and objectives of their commanding authorities.  This would risk the two forces entering into conflict with each other. In federal systems with plural politics, one may also observe regional leadership from different political parties – something which, with the presence of regional ‘special forces’, could open even wider potential space for conflict.

Therefore, she points out, “although legislation exists in Ethiopia which enables regional Presidents to request the support of the national defense forces, prospects for a trained paramilitary force to ‘stand-down’ and be superseded by the authority of, what it would consider as its operational equivalent, may be limited – particularly if there were fundamental differences in the views on a situation.”

But the presence of regional forces, be it special forces or regular police forces, has its advantages to the country according to Fitz-Gerald.

One potential advantage of the presence of a regional ‘special force’ would be in the case where the national security capability could not extend from the center into and across a particular region and provide a regional population with acceptable security provisions. 

“In these cases, and where there may be a real and imminent threat to a regional state’s security, a ‘special force’ could, in specific circumstances, bolster the capability of the regional security forces,” she affirms. “However, if, under legislative provisions, regional states can request the support of the federal military and particular security agencies to bolster regional capacity, then the presence of regional special forces risks duplicating (and competing with) national capacity, which would result in an inefficient use of taxpayers’ money.”

According to her, regional ‘forces’ should be essentially reserve components of national forces, available for call-out in event of natural disasters or more localized needs to support civilian populations using military capabilities – but not lethal or combat capabilities.  The police forces should lead in the enforcement of law and order – and the provision of public safety.  A ‘national guard’ – similar to that which is used in the United States – falls under regional authority to address regional or state issues or conditions (such as fire, flood, etc.).  These conditions would not include fighting other states in the federation. 

This thought is also shared by Jaylan who says that police forces should be free from any political or ethnic allegiance and stand for humanity. Hence, they should not be loyal to a certain political view or ideology and attack others. Although he did not specifically point out the real impact on the ground, Jaylan indicated that the proliferation of these forces could drain human resources with the potential of recruitment at the federal police and military forces.

“They waste human resources that could serve in the national security forces. Because of the high level of competition, the federal police, as well as the military, could lack recruits,” he indicated.

The security expert Fitz-Gerald also believes that the growing regional security forces have this impact on the national security forces.

“Growing special forces at the regional level would, in time, undermine recruitment supporting both the federal police and federal military forces. Federal military and police forces are non-partisan ‘people’s’ institutions – institutions for the nation-wide population.  As such, they must represent the nation-wide population in every way, shape, and form - including identity and ethnic background. Bolstering the capacity of both regional militia and special forces will undermine efforts to build truly representative security forces which reflect institutions for the people,” she observes.

In his recent appearance at the HPR to answer questions from members of parliament, PM Abiy Ahmed indicated that the military was unable to recruit 1,000 personnel each from Amhara and Oromia regions, the two largest regions in the country. Many have linked this to the strengthening of regional special forces with military-level training and armaments in some cases affecting their potential of joining the national level security apparatus.

Jaylan says that the way out of this nationwide problem of the growing special forces at the regional level is the standardization of the police forces across the nation.

“They can be retrained and incorporated either in the federal police or the national defense forces,” he suggested.

But the assertion from the regions that they are allowed under the constitution to form police forces could pose a challenge to this effort.

In the same manner, Fitz-Gerald believes that the forces need to be standardized to resolve the issues observed with the special forces at regional level.

“Security forces should be standardized from the top-down.  In this context, legislation should also cascade down from the highest levels and the statutes governing the federal police forces should also apply to the regional police forces.  If legislation is to apply equally across federal and regional jurisdictions, then it should start from the top.  It would not be workable to establish regional legislation that also applied to the federal level.  If the regional special forces were to disband, then capacity-building – in the context of policy, doctrine, legislation, and training - should be directed towards regional police forces,” she suggests.

However, she does not deny the fact that these forces are quite prolific and have been allowed to expand over recent years, particularly in regions such as Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia.  Based on the prolific nature of these forces, it would take a number of years to manage a meaningful and sustainable drawdown.

“Moving forward, there should be a ceiling on the number of sworn members of regional security forces; agreed standardized weapons and firearms; and control and oversight of agreed standardized weapons and firearms which comes directly from the authority of the criminal code.  This legislation should also outline the specific circumstances in which various levels of force could be utilized,” she concludes.

Since the initiative to reform the security sector after PM Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, the Federal Police and the Military have been working to develop arms standard in the country. But no announcement has been made regarding the progress of ongoing efforts of standardization. A very recent development in this regard is the police doctrine prepared and approved by the Ministry of Peace – the executive overseer of federal security agencies in the country.