“Rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re privileges. That’s all we’ve ever had in this country, is a bill of temporary privileges. And if you read the news even badly, you know that every year the list gets shorter and shorter. Sooner or later, the people in this country are gonna realize the government … doesn’t care about you, or your children, or your rights, or your welfare or your safety… It’s interested in its own power. That’s the only thing. Keeping it and expanding it wherever possible.”
The question that comes frequently about Ethiopia these days is whether the government will extend, or not, the soon to expire State of Emergency (SoE).
But first, what does the SoE mean for Ethiopia and its citizens as they go about their daily lives?
It’s hard to get a clear picture of what the SOE is for many people. Judging from the streets, it means peace and protected order. Indeed, the SoE brought an apparent calm and security to the country following last year’s unrest. Some initial steps to introduce democratic change and reform the functioning of the public sector have also been made. But any real political reform has not found either a midwife or a patron.
This said, what people are conscious of is that the SoE still means that the government, at all levels, could crack down on virtually anyone at any time. It means that the authorities have been given a number of exceptional powers, including the right to limit the movement of people, set curfew, forbid mass gatherings, regulate the freedom of expression, assembly and various other citizen rights.
The state of emergency also gives more powers to the security services and police, such as the right to conduct house searches at any time without judicial oversight, enforce house arrest and confiscate weapons, even if people hold them legally. In fact it’s no longer just the act of committing a crime or even the intention of doing so that is prosecuted. Merely belonging to a group that is considered terrorist by the government is sufficient for punishment.
The concept of the SoE is nothing new to Ethiopia. In the late seventies the Derg enshrined it in its charter until its final days in power. The focus then was eliminating terrorists eager to dismember the country. Failed mission! Twenty years later we’re back at it, this time it’s about eradicating terrorists keen to do us, and the country, harm. So, here we are again doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
So, what’s at stake in extending the SoE? You know the answer – people are satisfied with the status-quo.
We are not particularly shocked by this, for it has long been apparent that our citizens are indifferent about politics only until something happens that might affect them personally.
And yet, once upon a time in Ethiopia, there lived a nation of young citizens that showed tremendous interest in the state of their country’s well-being. With incredible zeal, these citizens worked tirelessly to correct any local, national or international issue that threatened them either as individuals or collectively, showing no fear and great resolve to march in the streets and demand justice or changes in the way the government functions. Today, that’s gone.
Today Ethiopia is silent. It does not stand for any cause. Students, who were the vanguard of Ethiopia’s revolution in the sixties and seventies, are today replaced by students too busy chasing Birrs. Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms have become irrelevant to them. Citizens quietly observe EPRDF rulers dismantle the already fragile institutions guaranteeing democracy and popular participation using the SoE in the name of protecting these very same institutions. And yet, the SoE is precisely the instrument by means of which totalitarian authorities installed themselves in Europe in the 1920s and in Ethiopia in the seventies.
Hitler’s first act (Megistu Haile Mariam followed the same line), after his nomination, was to proclaim a state of emergency that was never revoked. When one is surprised by the crimes that could be committed with impunity in Germany by the Nazis, it is forgotten that they were perfectly legal, because the country was subject to a state of exception and that individual freedoms had been suspended.
Many would certainly argue that Ethiopia is not Germany, and that it’s impossible that a similar scenario can reproduce itself in Ethiopia… May be – if we want to ignore Mengistu’s regime!! But in a country that lives in a prolonged state of emergency, and in which police operations progressively replace judicial power, a rapid and irreversible degradation of public institutions must be expected.
Back to the Derg regime for a moment – Remember this was a regime that perfected the maintenance of a generalized state of fear, the de-politicization of citizens and the renunciation of all legal certainty. Today some of us may feel secure in our little world and even technically feel free. In reality, however, we’re only as free as a government official may allow us to be. Can we really claim we live in a free country where all that we own, all that we earn, all that we say and do – our very lives – depends on the benevolence of government agents for whom power will always trump principle? Yet, by gagging the citizenry, by restricting the basic precepts of the constitution that allow people to speak their minds, air their grievances and contribute to a larger dialogue that hopefully results in a more just country, the government is deliberately (or not) stirring the pot, creating a climate in which violence becomes inevitable.
We are at a crossroads. The world is at a crossroads. The SoE concept [in general] is not just a concern for the people of Ethiopia, but also a concern for the people of Europe (France and Turkey are currently under a SoE) and of the US, who had so carefully constructed the edifice of rights protection after the second world war and is now being dismantled. Attacks against privacy, civil rights, including habeas corpus are taking Europe and the US into a permanent state of emergency.
What to do then?
In truth, we the people should first understand what the SOE is and its long term implication on our lives and country, and then stand against it, because the SoE means unlawfulness and arbitrariness. It means not to be able to exercise and protect rights and freedoms. It means the disablement of parliament and putting aside the judicial protection and principle of rule of law when violations come into question. It means no inclusive participation in the affairs of the people and the state. All told, the state of emergency is rejection of democracy; it is a war policy and practice. That’s why it must be resisted.
We say no to the state of emergency, the state of emergency must not be extended!