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Policing Ethiopia: The force vs. service dilemma

Kalkidan Yibeltal

On the last Sunday of May 2015, more than 35 million Ethiopians have flocked to cast their votes in an election that eventually proved to accentuate the absolute hegemony of the incumbent, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF). Two days later the African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM), the only international body to observe the election by sending its members to 356 of the 42, 000 polling stations throughout the country, declared that since its arrival a few weeks prior to the election the political environment had been “generally peaceful and calm and has remained so up until the election day.” It went on to say that in all visited stations the presence of security forces was “unobtrusive.”


It was a statement Yonathan Tesfaye, public relations head at the opposition Blue Party, found hard to confirm. He says the law enforcement apparatus have effectively served as instrument of intimidation for the ruling party. “Quite contrary to what the law guarantees, there were police officers, some of them undercover, in polling stations.” In one polling station around Kera [in Addis Abeba], for instance, there was an incident of disruption because an undercover agent was identified by his party’s observer, Yonathan told Addis Standard. It is an argument most opposition party representatives confirm; far too many security officers, some disguised as civilians, were roaming polling stations throughout the country.


When declaring the situations that might necessitate the presence of a police officer in a polling station, article 63/4 of the Amended Electoral Law clearly states that “the chief election officer or the public observers at the polling station” have to believe “that a police force is needed to defend the security of the polling station, [and] they may make a request to the concerned body.”

Nevertheless, for Yonathan, law enforcement officers attending the election were motivated by reasons far beyond law and order. “They wanted to create the impression of vigilance and power on the voters,” he says. And although Article 47 of the Amended Electoral Law prohibits the police from showing up at polling stations with their uniforms on, Yonathan said some polling stations were visited by the police with their full uniforms on.

Yonathan’s accusation doesn’t come as a total surprise to Hallelujah Lulie, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Researcher at Institute of Security Studies (ISS). The police “are not considered independent by the opposition, by most of the media and some of the academia,” he told this magazine. But “[these accusations] do not exist in a vacuum.” Misgivings held towards the integrity of law enforcement officers are just reflections of problems the country faces “in the democratization process.”


Demilitarization, depoliticization and decentralization
The Ethiopian Police, as a modern institution, has a history that goes back to 1942 when a department within the Imperial Ministry of Interior was established by law. It stayed within the Ministry, which later, at the advent of a Marxist military regime, was rebranded as the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

When the ruling EPRDF came to power in 1991 at the climax of a civil war that lasted for 17 years, “it had three major reforms with regard to the police, namely: demilitarization, depoliticization and decentralization,” says Hallelujah. During the Marxist Derg era, the military and the police were closely knotted to each other that the later, for instance, were awarded the formers’ ranks. That explains why the post Derg organizational transformation began by attempting to inaugurate “a clear institutional separation.”

With the surfacing of a new administrative arrangement in the country, Federalism, the police, like many other institutions, had to enter an unprecedented phase. In fact, argues Degu Marew Zegeye who in 2010 wrote a dissertation entitled, Evaluation of Personnel Management Capabilities of the Federal Police of Ethiopia in Addis Abeba, the paradigm shift occurred at the very onset of the transitional period when a Charter of National and Regional States Proclamation was issued endowing national and regional states with the power to establish their own police force; an act that ostensibly put an end to the unitary state police structure.


Of the three guiding principles the current government initiated in its initial days, “the most successful was decentralization,” says Hallelujah. “Now, every regional state has its own Police Commission responding to the national regional states. Each even has its own uniform. National regional states like Tigray, Amhara, Oromia as well as the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional state have formed their own Police Colleges. These are the changes we have witnessed in the past two decades.”

But progress had not been limited to subsidiarity. As the complex nature of the police’s involvement in the country’s affairs began to unravel there surfaced the classic debate of ‘the force vs. service dilemma’. These are debates that scrutinized whether the police were providing the service of protection and law and order to the public or have simply become “a force loyal to the political power of the day,” elaborates Hallelujah. Undeniably in the first half of EPRDF’s reign, there were attempts that favored the service spectrum; “professionalism was developing, police institutions were formed and even a number of officials were sent abroad for further education.”

Then in came the year 2005 and things took an unfortunate wrong turn after the May general election when “the way the police responded to the [post election] riots created nervousness” and placed the service aspect of the police in question mark. “Now the police are seen as a force,” that increasingly moved towards unprofessionalism and political partiality, according to Hallelujah.

A report by an independent inquiry commission into the killing by police forces of nearly 200 protestors in the streets of Addis Abeba alone found out that the police have used excessive force in handling the protestors. For Ethiopians, it was a game changer; a defining moment that altered the security forces vs. citizens’ relations for the worst. Ten years later, many Ethiopians do not hesitate to categorically place the police as loyal to the political party in power; there are countless instances that gave birth to and have sustained the public’s mistrust of the police.


The federal-regional police nexus
One of the large scale law enforcement bodies in the country, the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission (EFPC) was established as per the Federal Police Proclamation 720/2011 as “an autonomous federal government organ having legal personality.”(Originally the proclamation was passed in 2003 as Proclamation No 313/2003 but it was repealed). The Ministry of Federal Affairs (MoFA), which was established in 2000 with an official (and by many accounts an overstretched) mandate to ‘prevent and resolve conflicts, to strengthen Federal system, to uphold federal -regional relations in the country, and to maintain good relations, peace and tolerance among different religions and beliefs’ is also tasked to oversee EFPC. The main responsibility of EFPC lies in preventing and investigating crimes that may fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal courts. These include criminal activities that might endanger the Constitutional order of the country like terrorism, hooliganism, trafficking in persons and drugs. It also provides security to institutions with federal jurisdiction like airports, highways and other major installations and infrastructure centers. Additionally, it has a role of standardization of police theory and practice across the country.

Regional Police Commissions, on the other hand, are under their own respective national regional governments. But Article 23 of the Federal Police Proclamation states that EFPC “shall work in cooperation and mutually supportive way with the Regional Police Commissions in the prevention and investigation of crimes.”


Regular meetings between the EFPC officials and the Regional Police Commission officials are held with the intent of catalyzing coordination and addressing the possible overlapping of mandates. “The Federal Police may interfere in regional operations at the invitation of Regional Police Commissions in matters of grave national importance like terrorism,” says Kiya Tsegaye, a practicing lawyer and legal affairs researcher at Addis Standard. “The EFPC is obliged to delegate its powers to Regional Police Commissions in order for them to prevent and investigate crimes that are eventually going to a Federal Court. But there are instances when EFPC bypasses its responsibility of strategic direction of policing and makes operational interventions, like making arrests, in the regions,” says Kiya.


Hallelujah, who in 2009 authored his Master’s thesis on Police Reform and Democratization Process in Post 1991 Ethiopia, also believes that tensions between regional and federal police have happened at different times including in Oromia Regional State and the capital Addis Abeba. “For example the way some of the Regional Police handled post 2005 election riots were seen by some members within the EFPC as either sympathetic towards the protesters or weak and lacking decisiveness.”

Many of these instances have witnessed the excesses of EFPC against some of the national regional government police forces. In an exclusive interview with this magazine in May 2015, Bekele Gerba, a prominent opposition politician who has just been released from jail, confirmed Kiya’s assertion when he said: “in March 2011 about one thousand Oromos were taken to the Ma’ekelawi prison in Addis Abeba” without the knowledge of the Oromia regional state. “They didn’t have any knowledge of the Oromos taken by federal security agents from every corner of Oromia.”

The relationship between the two supposedly independent entities (the Federal and the Regional Police Commissions) gets a more complicated twist in the case of the capital Addis Abeba. “It is a city administration which has its own city police,” says Kiya. “The Federal Police also have jurisdiction over the city because it is made to become the Federal Capital of the country and there are many Federal institutions, not to mention the international ones.” The city is also the capital of the Oromia National Regional Government and when it comes to policing it, it feels the city is experiencing what looks like “an identity crisis,” says Hallelujah.


It’s not the numbers
Besides the EFPC and Regional Police Commissions, federal institutions like the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (ERCA) as well as the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC) run their own law enforcing apparatus.The Federal Prisons Administration Commission (FPA) structured as per Federal Prisons Administration Commission Establishment Proclamation 365/2003, again under the Ministry of Federal Affairs, is yet another policing organ in the country.

One of the changes in policing that the country is experiencing after the second half of the year 2000 is the advent of community policing. (Even though it officially came into existence in 2006, moves towards community policing had been done since 1997) “In theory it is the most preferable kind of policing,” says Kiya. “It is founded up on the principle of aborting crimes before they happen because criminals don’t come from outer space.” Increasingly popular all over the world not only among police departments and societies but also governments, community policing engages communities in their own security provision.



Cover inside

A sight too familiar to miss (I)
A 2013 report authored by Lisa Denney and Demelash Kassaye for the UK’s Overseas Development Institute on community policing in Amhara National Regional State highlights that its practice has a unique top-down model shaped by the country’s political structure and ideology as well as state-society relations. The region’s Police Commission claims to have dedicated community police officers in most of the region’s 3,429 kebeles (the smallest administrative units), according to the report. The structure includes advisory councils, conflict resolving committees, family police and using shoe shiners as police informants.

Community policing is also seen as an essential tool in averting potential crimes in the making. In the Amhara national regional state there is a decline in the number of crimes from 73,384 in 2008 to 51,368 in 2003 according to Denney and Demelash. But the structure can have an additional political impact. “It can have a frightening effect on the public,” says Kiya. “There is this feeling of being constantly under surveillance.”

A 2011 study commissioned by the World Bank to investigate corruption in key sectors in Ethiopia found out that some of the frequent complaints against the police include petty bribes, especially among the traffic police, and abuse of power or excessive use of force.


However the deterrence of offenses and the effective implementation of various laws are often seen suffering from the insufficient number of police officials in the country. In the mid-2000s, albeit the elusiveness of accurate figures, the police to population ratio was estimated to be around 75 to 100 000, which is far below than the standard recommendation of 300 to 100 000, states the WB study. Hallelujah agrees. “The police to people ratio in Ethiopia is one of the lowest in the continent. Of course there might be regional disparities. The national ratio and the Addis Abeba ratio could be different,” he says, “but numbers are not important. What matters is the perception of the public. A lot of Ethiopians feel unease around the police.”

Going by daily experiences, be it during providing security to high level meetings the city of Addis Abeba is hosting frequently or during rare public rallies (even the ones organized by the state), the face-to-face experience between police forces and citizens are often marred by the formers’ excesses.

Kiya associates this overwhelming feeling of apprehension many people feel around law enforcement officers, especially the Federal Police, to the police’s infamous and brutal approach often marked by excessive application of force. Police harassment is common place and the rule of law can become a rare commodity in the hands of the very forces assigned to lead by example.


Beyond the quest for professionalism
For Denny and Demelash transformation in policing in Ethiopia requires a broader decoupling of the “police from the politics”; and Hallelujah wrote in his paper that the initial affirmative moves seen towards professionalizing the police and building its capacity were fettered by the negative developments in the country’s political and public sphere. This has “hampered the independence of the police and its vital contribution for a peaceful and democratic system.”

Lack of professionalism is the watered down excuses the government in Ethiopia often gives when faced with accusations of police brutality. For Kiya, the argument on the lack of ethics and professionalism of the police emanates from two possible reasons: lack of proper training and the profession’s failure to attract the best and the brightest. “For example the election law states that the police shouldn’t be within a justifiable distance from polling stations as they might influence voters. But I doubt if many of them are aware of such legal provisions. I find it hard to say that they are well equipped in the knowledge of human and civil rights the public is guaranteed to enjoy by the constitution,” he says.

Police officers have nine to twelve months of academy training before they join the force. But for Hallelujah, who has examined the course materials at the police colleges, the problem lies not just in the training. Absence of accountability mechanism to put the police as an institution and hold individual police officers accountable for misdemeanors or violation of rights committed; and the practice and political reality within which the police functions are some of the major causes, according Hallelujah. “Efforts to create effective and efficient police without democratizing the state and the institution in focus will not succeed as the changes won’t last long and won’t be legitimate enough to gain the respect and trust of the Ethiopian public,” he says.

Disregard to and abuse of human rights is more conspicuous amongst police members of the Federal Prisons Administration Commission (FPA), a state organ yet again under the auspices of the Ministry of Federal Affairs. FPA is established to implement judicial decision to undertake “the function of the custody, reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners,” with a vision to be an institution “whereby good governance and rule of law [are] prevailing.” For many Ethiopians however, it is anything but just that. There are instance when the FPA “seems to comfortably ignore judicial orders and refuses to release prisoners [set free by a court of law], for example,” says Kiya. News of torture, particularly against prisoners of conscience, is a constant fixture at Ethiopia’s notorious jails.


Cover A

A sight too familiar to miss (II)
Recent intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests both by federal and regional polices of hundreds of opposition party members in the run up to this year’s election clearly shows the police have long walked away from the right tracks of organizational independence, ethical responsibility and professional standards, and have become loyal to the political order of the day.

Ethiopia is a comparative oasis surrounded by a region marked by unstable geo-political dynamics. While most of the credit goes to the military and the intelligence the contribution of the police in tackling criminal activities that may endanger the public is in no way dismissible. Yet there is no mistaking that the debate on the force vs. service dilemma squarely put the role of the police tilted towards the former; in the eyes of many Ethiopians the police have lost the legitimacy to be entrusted as servants of the public attending to the needs of the masses and guardians of law and order.








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