EditorialEthiopiaLaw & Justice

Editorial: Ethiopia should reject the normalization of civilian sufferings in the hands of law enforcement officials

Addis Abeba – Reports of violence, assassinations, and mass killings have become common in the last four years after Ethiopia ushered in what many hoped was a democratic transition. Mass killings and displacement were regularly reported long before the onset in November 2020 of the war in Tigray. At the dawn of the reform, Ethiopia was the global leader for internally displaced persons (IDPs) by violence coming before countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. In 2019, Ethiopia recorded close to three million IDPs due to violence across the country. In December 2020, over 200 people were massacred in a single attack in the Benishangul Gumuz region and were buried in a mass grave a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the region and spoke about the need to end such massacres.

Ironically the country became replete with militarized violence and communal strife after the country established the Ministry of Peace to curb such phenomena . The death of civilians is always unaccounted for while the government often attributes the attacks to unidentified armed groups. Justice for gross violation of human rights such as mass killings and rape never saw the light of day as such reports quickly fade out of public attention as suddenly as they made headlines.

Cascade of statements from rights groups, political parties, and government officials spark controversies in their wake. The statements often elicit heated debates but never address the key questions as to who the perpetrators are, or whether the attacks were ethnically motivated as claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide grew louder.

The deteriorating security situation in the country became attractive for mobilization of armed groups and border tensions between regional states. Conflicts in the Afar,Somali, Oromia, and Amhara regions as well as the Southern Region Nations Nationalities and People’s Region are commonplace. Armed groups are blamed to have involvement in violence in contested areas such as the East Wollega zone in Oromia, North Showa and Oromo zones in the Amhara region as well as the Metekel zone in the Beneshngul Gumuz region.

In December 2020, over 200 people were massacred in a single attack in the Benishangul Gumuz region and were buried in a mass grave a day after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the region and spoke about the need to end such massacres.

The government is not blamless either. The recruitment, arming, and training of civilians were sanctioned by deputy prime minister Demeke Mekonnen who in October 2020 recommended the arming of civilians in the Metekel zone to “defend themselves” against the continued attacks.“There’s no other option,” he said. The Oromia regional government also said that it has put directives in place to take immediate measures against members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group the government refer to as “Shene”, encouraging security forces to act with impunity.

These crises were further compounded by the practice of mass imprisonment and extrajudicial killings that have become commonplace after the assassination of popular Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020, and following the designation as terrorists of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and OLA by the House of People’s Representatives in May 2021. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission confirmed widespread mass detentions and unlawful arrests in the Oromia, Benishangul Gumuz, and Somali regions.

In the Oromia region, the killing of civilians by government security forces including those who are under the full custody of law enforcement under the pretext of Shanee has become so common that the practice is widely normalized; government officials feel above the law in justifying the brutal killing of civilians and widespread arrests as measures taken against the terrorist groups. Government officials and rights groups grew accustomed to blaming recurring violence on OLA and the TPLF, paying no attention to addressing the death toll and the humanitarian crisis in the wake of incidents of violence and holding perpetrators accountable.

Government security forces are accountable to civilian lives. The misuse of power should not go unchecked to the point where the killing of civilians should not be written off as a ‘mishap’.

The Oromia regional government which is often criticized for failing to protect civilians in its engagement with the OLA issues periodical statements announcing that it has ‘taken measures’ (killed) against members of Shanee. Such practices not only lack transparency but are at odds with the constitution that stipulates that no one should be deprived of life except as a penalty for a major criminal offense determined by law.

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While enforcing the law is commendable, it should not come at the cost of civilian lives. Security forces in the region have also faced several allegations of a crackdown on civilians receiving condemnations by international rights groups. Victims and families of the crackdown who Addis Standard spoke to often proclaim that they are not affiliated with the OLA.

Government security forces are accountable to civilian lives. The misuse of power should not go unchecked to the point where the killing of civilians is written off as a ‘mishap’. The media and rights groups have the obligation to investigate and report the incidents impartially, providing wider context that informs law enforcement and the justice system. The role of rights groups however doesn’t stop at reporting. They should ensure that perpetrators, as well as security forces who failed to dispose of their duties in protecting civilian lives, are held to account. Civic organizations should push for the rehabilitation of displaced people and the de-escalation of hostilities. The government should opt for bringing communities together through shared traditional values instead of encouraging arming minorities.

Addressing the furthering of entrenched conflicts is as important as the cessation of hostilities in parts of the country where there are conventional wars. Unchecked law enforcement and informal mobilization of civilians is a recipe for a full-blown civil war. In addition to the death toll and humanitarian crisis, constant violence will result in insidious erosion of cultural integration and multinationalism that Ethiopians painstakingly built for decades. AS

Editor’s note: This editorial was first published on on this year’s February edition of Addis Standard’s print magazine.

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