Last Friday, the Ethiopian government declared a six-month nationwide state of emergency, invoking a grave threat to the constitutional order. The emergency, the second in less than a year, was announced a day after the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in what he described as a bid to “smooth the path for political reform”.
The emergency, which is expected to be ratified by parliament in the coming days, provides the government with new, sweeping powers, from restrictions on freedom of assembly and free expression to the deployment of combat-ready troops in civilian centres, particularly cities and towns seen as the hotbed of the protests of the last three years.
The Ethiopian constitution authorises the Council of Ministers to decree a state of emergency, which would allow the government to suspend basic rights and freedoms, under very specific conditions. The fundamental condition that must be met before the imposition of such an emergency is the existence of a situation amounting to “a breakdown of law and order which endangers the Constitutional order and which cannot be controlled by the regular law enforcement agencies”. When public emergencies of such magnitude exist, the government not only has the right, but also the duty to suspend the constitution to restore the constitutional order in which citizens’ rights will be fully respected.
However, despite facing a crisis of unprecedented magnitude, the current situation in Ethiopia does not meet the very high threshold required by the constitution for the imposition of a state of emergency. Just a day before the government declared the emergency, even the government’s chief spokesperson, Negeri Lencho, told the Voice Of Africa: “There will be no other state of emergency. There are no grounds for it.”
At the moment, however grave the political situation in the country may be, there is no imminent threat to the vital interests of the state, legitimising the declaration of a state of emergency. Consequently, this emergency, like the one before it, has less to do with protecting the constitutional order than reproducing and legitimising violence aimed at the elimination of political adversaries.
As Italian political theorist Georgia Agamben explains in his 2005 book, State of Exception, an emergency of this kind is a sort of “legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system”.
The emergency-ethnicity nexus
The state of emergency has always been the working paradigm of the Ethiopian government. Since coming to power in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition ruled with an iron fist, blurring the distinction between normalcy, where normal constitutional norms apply, and emergency, where exceptional situations justify the use of extraordinary power.
An important feature of Ethiopia’s state of emergency is the intersection between emergency powers and ethnic identity, in which emergency powers are used by the ruling elites to maintain their social and ethnic privilege. While repression structured around ethnic inequality and violence has long been the defining feature of the state, the new state of emergency adds a distinctive, and more dangerous, dimension to this problem.
This emergency will serve as a legal and political masquerade behind which TPLF's domination, with all its menacing ideological complexities, will continue to function not only to repress the population into submission, but also to drive a wedge between the country's various ethnic groups.
Former prime minister and chairman of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Meles Zenawi was in firm control of the state machinery and institutions until his death in 2012. To this day, Tigrayan ruling elites, which represent about 6 percent of the country’s population, dominate the country’s political, economic, and security sectors. The Oromos and Amharas, the two largest ethnic groups that make up about 65 percent of the country’s population, and that are represented by the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), on the other hand, have practically been subordinated.
The protests that gripped the country for the last three years, and were used as a justification for the state of emergency, were the direct result of this undue influence enjoyed by Tigrayan elites, and the violent architecture of repression that is being used to sustain and consolidate this influence.
Consequently, in this diverse nation of over 80 ethnic groups, where political parties are predominantly organised along ethnic lines, and ethnic identity serves as the basic principle of political competition, a state of emergency cannot be seen independently of the ongoing ethnicity-based repression.
This emergency will serve as a legal and political masquerade behind which TPLF’s domination, with all its menacing ideological complexities, will continue to function not only to repress the population into submission, but also to drive a wedge between the country’s various ethnic groups.
This state of emergency is not a security measure designed to protect the constitutional order; it is a hostile act intended to punish those voices calling for change. Although announced as a nationwide emergency, the Oromo and the Amhara regions, the hotbeds of the protests, would be affected the most.
Desalegn’s resignation as prime minister was not unexpected. Installed as a compromise candidate following the death of Meles Zenawi, the architect behind Ethiopia’s political economy, Desalegn pursued Zenawi’s policies to the letter.
Although his assent to power allowed other coalition partners to carve out space for manoeuvre, history will remember him as the inconsequential leader who served as an enabler of the status quo. His resignation comes at a time when the country needed a new direction and a new beginning.
While it is clear that TPLF would use the emergency to control the succession process, it is not clear to what extent the emergency would have a bearing on who the next prime minister of Ethiopia will be.
However, it is widely suggested that the next leader of the EPRDF and prime minister will be from OPDO, the party that governs the largest region in the country and contributes the largest number of seats to the ruling coalition in parliament.
Lemma Megersa, chairperson of the OPDO and president of the Oromia Regional state, and Dr Abiye Ahmed, deputy chairperson of the OPDO, are frontrunners for the position, according to party insiders and analysts.
Megersa, a charismatic, well-spoken, and transformational leader able to entice people across nationalist divides, made a bold and positive case for Ethiopia, arguing that Ethiopian-ness is addictive and that Oromo are the quintessential Ethiopians who protected the integrity and sovereignty of the Ethiopian state with their blood. An Oromo nationalist, Megersa successfully articulated the notion that Oromo nationalism is not the anti-thesis of Ethiopian nationalism, and that being an Oromo and Ethiopian are not two mutually exclusive identities, but rather should be seen as mutually reinforcing imperatives.
However, it is Ahmed, the technocratic, verstile, and ambitious operator of the OPDO that is most likely to be crowned as the next Prime Minister of Ethiopia.
TPLF’s militarisation of political life and its ruinous flirtation with violence will not go unchallenged. The party faces resistance not only from the general populace but also from within its own, organisational terrains, the OPDO and ANDM, the two critical coalition partners responsible for running the two most populous regions. Activists are calling upon the OPDO and ANDM to reject the state of emergency when it is tabled before parliament for ratification.
Even if the state of emergency is ratified by parliament, there is no reason to believe that further violence would stabilise the country. It bears noting that the Oromo protests turned into a nationwide movement of people once the government resorted to violence and killed hundreds of protesters in a matter of a month. The government, which already enjoys unlimited extra-constitutional power, cannot hope to silence or suppress demands for equality and freedom through more repression. As the US Embassy in Addis Ababa noted in a strongly worded statement, the answer is “greater freedom, not less”.
Greater freedom means addressing the systemic and structural inequities at the core of the political order, and pursuing the public policy objectives of widening the democratic space and fostering national consensus set out by the party, under a new and visionary leadership.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.