Lukewarm public reaction as Ethiopia eases state of emergency

Ethiopia Federal Police

Three young men in their mid twenties sit inside a small pub in northeastern Addis Ababa on Thursday night. A muted TV in front of them shows Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn speaking at the parliament earlier that day. The state of emergency he declared five months ago after a yearlong wave of protests has been instrumental in the restoration of order, said Hailemariam in his speech.

The command post tasked with the implementation of the decree announced Wednesday the relaxation of some restrictions on civil liberties. Accordingly, security forces can no longer detain suspects without due process nor can they make house searches in the absence of a court issued order. Curfews imposed around industrial parks and mega state projects are also lifted. However, according to a government survey, 82 per of those polled favored the extension of the state of emergency, Hailemariam told the parliament.

But Abel, one of the three young men doubts that figure. “Many people I know are happy about the return of stability,” he says. “However, that doesn’t necessarily means they’re happy about living under a state of emergency. Personally, even the name itself gives me discomfort.” While things got more stable gradually, in the months immediately following the declaration fear filled the air as “a great deal of the detention process seemed arbitrary,” he adds. “Who wants that back?”

After the decree, the government announced the detention of close to 25,000 thousand alleged protesters, the majority of whom were released after taking a ‘rehabilitation training’ at six makeshift camps. Opposition sources put the number of detainees as high as 70,000.

Abel’s friend, Eskender, a tour guide, is worried about the impacts of the past couple of months on his business. “There has been a concerning drop in the number of incoming tourists,” he says. “I don’t think a partial lifting can change that fact.”

Questions about timing

Ethiopia declared the six-month state of emergency on October 2nd, 2016 after protesters drawn from the two largest ethnic groups in the country, the Oromo and the Amhara, rose against the government claiming systemic marginalization. The decree gave a green light for security forces to arrest any suspect without court warrant, and it banned watching satellite TV channels and participating in political demonstrations. Initially also diplomats were ordered not to travel more than 40 km outside the capital, though this was lifted earlier.

The current easement comes less than a month before the state of emergency would have expired anyway, leading some to question the motives and timing of this new announcement. Kassahun Mamo, an economics lecturer at Haramaya University in the eastern part of the country believes the government’s move of relaxing the decree might have been aimed at diverting the public attention from two disasters the country is facing: a major landslide at Addis Ababa’s main garbage landfill and the killing of dozens by armed men from South Sudan in the western regional state of Gambella.

“I am sure the government doesn’t want public anger to boil up so it is possible that they might have thought of stealing the news,” Kassahun says. “One thing very clear, to the government as well as to the public at large: The majority of the questions that triggered the protests last year and the year before have not been addressed. So any incident might re-activate the unrest.”

Befeqadu Hailu, a blogger with the Zone9 collective, who was detained last year at Awash, one of the camps for training for more than a month, has another theory. “I think the government is testing the waters and trying to heed the public’s heartbeat,” he says.

Befeqadu thinks the government will lift the decree entirely in due time. In addition to the political “the economic cost is far too high which I am sure they know,” he says.

According to Befeqadu, the current measure is next to meaningless “because the hand of the security apparatus in Ethiopia is far reaching. In practice the police never had any problem securing arrest warrants,” he says. Gebru Asrat, an ex-senior government official who headed the Tigrayan Regional State until he left the ruling party to form an opposition group, Arena Tigray for Democracy, concurs. “The lifted restrictions mean nothing when they are compared to the ones still in effect,” he says. “Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are still suppressed.”

The people want the complete removal of rule by decree, argues Gebru. “That was never the solution. It can never be a solution,” he says.