News week – Ethiopia is facing a political crisis months after anti-government protests and the government’s actions to quell them resulted in hundreds of deaths.The government declared a state of emergency after Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, abruptly resigned on February 15.
Desalegn, who had been in office since 2012, decided to step down following a renewed wave of protests that called for the release of political prisoners.
Earlier this year, the country announced it would free some political prisoners, in a move largely welcomed by human rights groups. The government said the decision, part of wider reforms, aimed to foster dialogue and stability in the country.
More than 6,000 political prisoners have been released since January, but others have remained in custody, sparking rallies in and around the streets of the capital Addis Ababa earlier in February.
Why did Desalegn resign?
The prime minister said in a televised address to the nation that his decision was due to the prolonged unrest in the country that led to “loss of lives and displacement of many”.
“I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy,” Desalegn said.
It is not clear yet who would replace him. Desalegn said in an official statement: “It is also my belief, that the Front and the Government will work to ensure the peaceful transfer of power—a first in the history of our country. Accordingly, I anticipate that following this peaceful transition, a time will come when I will be referred to as the former Prime Minister.”
Some have argued that Desalegn’s resignation is the result of the government’s perceived failure to address people’s grievances. People from the Amhara and Oromo, some of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, have long claimed they are not represented by the government and they call for greater autonomy.
“The latest state of emergency in Ethiopia, the second in two years, is an extension of the long repressive status quo, and that status quo is increasingly untenable,” Jeffrey Smith, Executive Director at Vanguard Africa, which advocates for free and fair transfers of power in the continent, told Newsweek.
“If the country’s leaders are in any way committed to pulling the country out of its economic, humanitarian and political tailspin, then long overdue democratic reforms are necessary.”
What are the roots of the crisis?
Demonstrations started in Oromia in late 2015, where people initially protested over government plans to expand the territory of Addis Ababa, with farmers raising concerns that increasing the size of the city would lead to forced evictions and loss of farming land.
The government later scrapped the plans, but protests continued. Oromo people argued for a greater inclusion in the political process and the release of political prisoners.
The protests, labelled as the biggest anti-government unrest the country has witnessed in recent history, later spread to Amhara region and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR).
The unrest continued throughout 2016. The same year, the government implemented a six-month-long state of emergency, which was further extended by four months last March, to tackle the unrest.
Critics of the state of emergency claimed the government was trying to quell protests by, among other things, restricting freedoms and banning certain media outlets, including the Oromia Media Network. The government denied the allegations.
Rights groups have criticizied Ethiopia for the way it handled protests, accusing the military and the police of using excessive force to quell demonstrations.
The response to the unrest resulted in the death of at least 669 people, a figure the government confirmed in a report released last April.
While the country’s Human Rights Commission recommended prosecution of some police officers, the report maintained that the overall response by security forces was adequate.
Why a second state of emergency?
The Ethiopian government said on February 19 the state of emergency was implemented to ensure security and stability in the country and protection of the constitution. It added the measures were necessary to ensure freedom of movement and citizens’ rights “to live wherever they choose and build assets.”
The government committed to protecting businesses and public institutions and ensuring human rights are respected.
The measures, expected to stay in place for the next six months, banned protests and the publication of material deemed as inciting violence in the country.
The state-affiliated FBC said: “The decree prohibits preparing, printing and circulating via media writings that could cause disturbance and suspicion among people as well as displaying or publicizing signs which could stir up violence.
“The decree allows law enforcement bodies to detain without court warrant any individual who orchestrated, led and organized as well as took part and suspected of taking part in criminal acts against the constitution and constitutional order. The individual will face justice after necessary investigation.”
The state of emergency has not stopped people from striking and staging demonstrations, however.
Local media reported that business and public buildings remained closed on on February 19 in Gondar, Amhara state, in a strike that left the city deserted.
Some have expressed fears that officials will use the state of emergency to curtail on freedom of speech and crack down on political opponents.
“There seems little justification for another state of emergency and it risks plunging Ethiopia into further crisis,” Felix Horne, Ethiopia and Eritrea Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Newsweek.
“It has been clear for a very long time that Ethiopia desperately needs to open up political space. It was hoped the earlier release of political prisoners would be the first step in that direction. But one week later, it seems that hope was misplaced. A state of emergency, which involves the further narrowing of political space, will only lead to more grievances and more anger from citizens.”
He added that more than 20,000 people were arrested under the previous emergency measures.
“It only increased frustration and anger with the government. The government has done little to address the protester’s lengthy list of grievances since that time. The government continues to talk of reform, but it’s hard to imagine a less reformist strategy at this critical juncture than another state of emergency which by definition will involve further suppression of basic rights.”