On October 8, the Ethiopian government imposed a six-month state of emergency. Under international law, this permits the government to derogate from certain rights such as those relating to arrest and detention, and the freedoms of expression and association.
This dramatic step comes in the wake of nearly a year of peaceful protests, which began in the expansive Oromia region, home to the largest ethnic group, and recently spread to the Amhara — the country’s second largest ethnicity. However, at the beginning of the month, a number of domestic and international businesses were attacked prompting the imposition of the current state of emergency.
Both the protests and the authorities’ heavy-handed response bring the Ethiopian government’s self-portrait as a popular developmental state into question. However, the situation comes as no surprise to analysts who have long argued that the lack of visible opposition and limited critical voices — with the ruling party claiming an unbelievable 100 per cent of the vote in last year’s general election — is due to severe repression, rather than to unanimous support.
While measures included as part of the new state of emergency are draconian to international observers, to a large extent they simply codify repressive practices that were already in place.
For example, under the emergency measures, there is a ban on the publication of content or the use of gestures which might incite violence, while there are also far-reaching restrictions on the use of social media.
However, the excessively broad provisions of existing anti-terrorism legislation were already being used to target the publication of dissent; while the government had also invested heavily in surveillance technology and personnel, with a number of social media activists and users arrested on charges of terrorism and other offences.
However, many in the international community have opted to overlook such repressive measures for expediency in the face of alternative priorities; notably, partnerships for regional security, large donor-funded development projects and burgeoning international business interests.
The government’s failure to engage the protestors in dialogue, and to instead resort to violence — with over 500 people killed over the months of protests, tens of thousands arrested and torture in detention widespread — only exacerbated the situation, increasing both participation and fervour in the protests. The imposition of a state of emergency clearly fails to address underlying grievances or to even provide space for their discussion.
The Ethiopian government, which has now been in power for 25 years, is relatively extreme in the level of repression meted out against protestors. It has also occasionally been explicit in its argument that political freedoms should come after developmental progress.
However, the delegitimisation of opposition in the interests of peace and stability is a narrative that is becoming increasingly common across the region. Citizens across the region are called upon to unite behind their governments in the interests of stability and development, and to refrain from rhetoric and action that could foster division and disunity.
Such politics is far from new. Instead, there are clear similarities between the arguments made by the Ethiopian government for unity today, and those made by authoritarian nationalist leaders of the 1960s to early 1990s.
However, what the history of these regimes, and recent events in Ethiopia, highlight is that criticism can be silenced in the short-term, but not eradicated. The lesson is that development without freedom, especially when the ruling elite and associated groups are perceived to enjoy the majority of the spoils, is unsustainable in the long-run.
What is needed in the face of criticism is dialogue and debate, not the legalisation of repression.
Claire Beston, Independent Consultant, and Gabrielle Lynch, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, UK ([email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6)