- Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, unexpectedly, on 15 February 2018.
- On the following day, the government declared a six-month nationwide state of emergency, using recent violent clashes as their rationale for doing so.
- The state of emergency grants security forces additional powers and bans protests.
Political: On 15 February 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who has led the country since 2012, unexpectedly resigned his position. Hailemariam stated that his resignation was “vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy”. The day following the announcement of the Prime Minister’s resignation, the Ethiopian government voted unanimously to introduce a six-month nationwide state of emergency. The announcement will grant the security forces greater powers to combat the growing political and civil unrest which has gripped the country for the past three years, as activists have taken to the streets demanding economic reforms and greater political freedoms. The proposal for a state of emergency will be presented to the country’s top court within 15 days for approval, although this is expected to be merely a formality.
SOLACE GLOBAL COMMENT
The announcement by the government comes less than a year after Ethiopia lifted its last state of emergency in August 2017, which was imposed after hundreds were killed during anti-government protests demanding greater freedoms and political representation. The ongoing unrest in Ethiopia centres around the country’s Oromo and Amhara regions. The Oromo and Amhara peoples constitute around 61 per cent of Ethiopia’s population yet receive little representation in Ethiopia’s government or security forces. The country’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), is dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic group, who make up only six per cent of Ethiopia’s 100 million strong population. Protests began on 12 November 2015, in Ginchi, a township in Oromia region, 80km from the capital Addis Ababa. They were triggered by a decision of the local authorities in Ginchi to clear a forest and football field for an investment project; protests were subsequently reported in at least 400 different locations. Early protests were met with a forceful reaction by security forces, who often used live ammunition to disperse the largely peaceful demonstrators. Since November 2015 over 1,000 people are believed to have been killed, thousands injured, and tens of thousands arrested. The majority of the dead are believed to be students under the age of 18.
In an attempt to help stem the spreading violence, the Ethiopian government announced in January 2018 that they would begin the release of all political detainees; recent estimates suggest 6,000 have been released to date. Despite this concession, protests have continued, fuelled by a stagnant economy, a lack of genuine reform, and the apparent slow release of political prisoners. Protests continue to be met with an aggressive government response. The Ethiopian government has continued to restrict the free media in the troubled Oromo region. In March 2017, the government limited access to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter because they were allegedly being used by criminal elements to instigate violence. The government has also blocked diaspora-run television stations, such as the US-based Oromia Media Network (OMN), and reportedly destroyed private satellite dishes at homes and businesses.
This new state of emergency will provide sweeping new powers to the government and security forces. Restrictions will be placed on freedoms of assembly and expression. Moreover, the deployment of combat-ready troops is set to begin in civilian areas, notably the locations which have seen the most prominent cases of unrest over recent years. Commentators have suggested that the state of emergency is an exaggerated reaction, stating that the current situation, while challenging, does not meet the threshold required by the constitution for the imposition of a state of emergency. There is no imminent threat which endangers the country’s constitution, according to some critics. Instead, it has been suggested that the government is using the state of emergency to increase and legalise violence aimed at political adversaries. Indeed, Ethiopia’s international partners would seem to agree with this assessment. On 19 February, the EU cautioned the Ethiopian government over its imposition of a state of emergency as this inherently undermines promising political reforms. The EU has urged normal governance to return as soon as possible and encouraged constructive dialogue between all national stakeholders.
The latest announcement may prove to be a decisive moment for Ethiopia. Since coming to power Hailemariam has been viewed as weak and inept, by both his own party and the opposition. His resignation, while not an immediate event, may help foster new dialogue between different parties and ethnic groups, forcing them to come together. Replacing Hailemariam, widely blamed for the violence since 2015, may help deescalate the volatile situation currently facing the country. Alternatively, as it is feared by many, it could mark the beginning of further ethnic fracturing in Ethiopia’s political system. Recent reports of increased tension between the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation may be seen as warning signs. Moreover, Hailemariam became leader in Ethiopia because he was viewed as a consensus and balancing candidate. A similar individual may be hard to find, which may lead the EPRDF to institute further restrictive measures to guarantee their position. The EPRDF’s critics are unlikely to view another party official as legitimate unless a free and fair election is held.
Travellers and expatriates should remain vigilant at all times, maintain a low profile, and follow local developments closely. Â Travellers should also note that there are communication difficulties in Ethiopia. Social media platforms, such as Whatsapp and Facebook, have been banned or had their access limited. Travellers should be aware of the increased security presence in Ethiopia, especially in the capital Addis Ababa and throughout the Oromo and Amhara regions. If travelling within country, it is vital that travellers adhere fully to the instructions of security forces; opposition may result in a forceful response. In previous unrest in late 2016, a US woman was killed as protesters stoned the car in which she was travelling. The Ethiopian government has previously blamed foreigners for the unrest and foreign companies have been accused of making profit at the expense of the populous.
The government has already stated that protests are not permitted. Therefore, any significant gatherings should be avoided. It is likely police will continue to use aggressive measures against demonstrators. Political gatherings may initially seem peaceful but are liable to escalate quickly into violence. If currently in Ethiopia, it is recommended that all travellers remain in frequent contact with their security providers; an evacuation plan should also be put into place in the event instability and violence spreads.
For most travel to Ethiopia, including the capital Addis Ababa, Solace Global would advised clients to employ the minimum of an airport meet and greet and a locally-vetted driver for all travel. It is advisable that this level of security is increased for other areas of the country or for specific client profiles. Travellers are also advised to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed. This should enable a traveller to be alerted of any security updates within their vicinity, and to update others of their movements in case of an emergency.