Ethiopia must not lose the long war for justice amid its COVID-19 battle

The state’s struggle against the pandemic should not impede the people’s quest for democracy

The coronavirus pandemic has brought life to a halt across the world as more and more countries have begun to adopt extreme measures to slow down the rate of the infection. This has meant parting with a familiar way of life and some basic freedoms as quickly as the virus is spreading. Clearly, we are in uncharted territory. War is upon us, and an unholy one at that: In the fight against this pandemic, there is no villain to condemn and triumph over or a moral high ground to defend, nor is there a guarantee that we will come out unscathed.

In a recent op-ed for the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy wrote that: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different.” These are profound words, however in such an endeavor we must not lose sight of the values that inform who we are as a nation, as well as our aspirations for democracy. Because how we fight this pandemic will reveal our character as Ethiopians and as human beings.

As Ethiopia recently embarked on a democratic transition, it must take care to preserve its nascent institutions. We are confronted with some tough trade-offs. In that regard, the government should be guided by an imperative to protect lives but also liberty, especially so with the measures it undertakes to fight COVID-19.

While the government scrambled to respond to the pandemic, the National Electoral Board stated that, given the circumstances, it would be impossible to guarantee a free and fair vote. Subsequently, the federal government declared a state of emergency (SoE) on 8 April, suspending “criminal procedural provisions” and introducing some sweeping powers.

Whether an SoE was appropriate and best constitutional solution for postponing the election, in contrast to constitutional amendment or other legally stipulated maneuvers, is a matter for debate. But in any case, there is sound reasoning behind the decision to delay national elections until the health crisis subsides. Acknowledging this, however, is not reason to underestimate the dangers of granting the government a host of unchecked powers, even in this difficult time. The question, then, is: what permissible steps can we take to safeguard our fundamental rights?

Setting the record straight

The progress made by the government over the last two years should be lauded. Measures include greater tolerance of political dissent, epitomized by the return of exiled political parties, including those engaged in insurgency, and release of thousands of political prisoners. There the attempts at ensuring the impartiality of institution—including, crucially, the judiciary—are notable. Although there is plenty of reason for optimism, some questionable decisions were made along the way. Many have legitimate grievances against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration, either for leaving lingering social ills unresolved, or for its own policies.

For example, the government’s response to incendiary political rhetoric from extremist political actors has been questionable, as demonstrated by the impunity with which ethnic-based militias and mobs have at times operated within the two largest regions, Oromia and Amhara. The government’s shady handling of the case of kidnapped students, allegedly conducted by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), has irked even the most restrained observers.

Repeated incidents of kidnappings and even murder by bandits in Amhara only spurred the regional and federal governments into action once the indifference of local authorities prompted public outcry. Notwithstanding the government’s reluctance to address these security challenges, its own policy initiatives have been equally problematic. Its economic reforms, for instance, drew sharp criticism for their apparent enchantment with neoliberal doctrines.

In truth, the government began skating on thin ice the moment it opened up political space.

The release of stifled voices risked unleashing pent-up frustration. The government’s increasingly knee-jerk reaction to dissent has been to fall back to repression. Some charges brought against critics seem arbitrary. For example, the case of right’s activist and lawyer Elisabeth Kebede, who was allegedly abducted from Addis Ababa and taken back to Harar, and the arrest last year of journalist-turned-activist Elias Gebru reveal a failure to apply the law even-handedly. While the authority to judge the legal merit of such cases lies with the courts, the apparently selective use of prosecutorial power and lengthy pretrial detentions indicate a proclivity to weaponizing fear. This marks a continuation of a worrying trend that may deviate the country from the path of justice and equality.

Forward thinking

Political culture is resistant to change, especially without stable institutions. Even when a good leader takes over from a bad one, remnants of the previous power structure and modus operandi can persist. Moreover, weak political and legal institutions amplify the difference good leadership can make and the catastrophes bad leadership can cause. Mindful of this, the foundation of modern democracy rests on the premise that no person or group, regardless of intent, has access to unlimited power. It follows that the only enduring path to a democratic society is through establishing an independent justice system that only answers to the rule of law as well as a strong civic society committed to the defense of basic rights.

The government must therefore double-down on its commitment to establishing such an institution, especially amid a life-threatening crisis that may otherwise incentivize undermining it. It would be wise for all civil and political actors to show restraint, suspend political mudslinging, and cooperate in the face of a public health crisis that will spare no one if given the chance. In this effort, the government should lead by example.

The state of emergency (SoE) has granted the government special powers in the interest of public safety. What is important about Article 93 of the FDRE constitution that governs the SoE is not what it prescribes but what it leaves out. Under sub-article 4(c), the provision identifies rights that cannot be suspended under the SoE, namely the prohibition against inhumane treatment, the right to equality, and the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples.

Curiously, there is no mention of the rights to life, to the security of person, and to liberty—omissions that requires scrutiny. Even though Ethiopia is also signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the government must explicitly renew its commitment to upholding these fundamental rights and freedoms. This is especially necessary during the SoE, given that a flawed constitution otherwise leaves the protection of these fundamental freedoms up to interpretation.

To this end, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently released a statement of recommendations in which it laid down guiding principles for the implementations of the SoE. The commission’s statement reiterated the importance of including the right to life, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, non-retroactivity of criminal laws in the group of non-derogable rights listed under Art 93 (4) (c) of the constitution.

On liberty

The freedom of the press, including access to information of public interest, should also be added, since in times of crisis it is precisely the press that stands between the people and tyranny. In democracies, the media holds government accountable for its actions and sounds the alarm at the earliest signs of authoritarianism.

Thus far, the government’s constraints on the freedom of speech set a dangerous precedent. “Causing terror and undue distress among the public” by “disseminating information” is not strong enough grounds for curtailing freedom of expression. It is disturbing that the prohibition makes no reference to disinformation but simply seeks to regulate how an information ought to be received by the public. If the truth is justifiably terrifying, as the reality of COVID-19 can be, will the government choose to side against the truth emerging?

Similarly, Section 4, Article 14 of the State of Emergency Proclamation imposes a duty on retired professionals to return to service on call, when this should only happen on a voluntary basis. On this point, even serving medics should reserve the right to quit if, for instance, they do not have personal protective equipment or for moral reasons as conscientious objectors. These rights are taken for granted in mature democracies, and there is no reason any government committed to justice should suspend them.

In a sentiment reminiscent of American constitutionalism, one would be right to declare with (a phrase sometimes attributed to) Abraham Lincoln that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact”, and we must regard ours in the same way. Protecting civil rights in addition to the laws governing the SoE should not be considered a violation of Ethiopia’s constitution. Rather, broadening the scope of protection only goes to demonstrate the government’s commitment to justice and the dignity of its citizens. John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Outside of that which concerns the safety and liberty of others, Mill declares, “over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

The government must take stock of the constitution and the many ways it fails to recognize that individuals are sovereign and equal members of the political community. In doing so, it must actively overcome the aforementioned limitations that threaten democratic principles. In practice, this may mean, for example, suspending forced evictions around Addis Ababa as well as non-urgent prosecutions of non-violent petty crimes and misdemeanors, such as picketing, jaywalking and traffic offenses until, after this crisis is over. There is no justice in cruelty, and no humanity in the state’s apathy towards the suffering of its citizens.

As we navigate through these trying times, Ethiopians must not forget the pitfalls of unchecked power and the corrosive effects it has. We should be under no illusion that the restriction of some of our fundamental rights hands over the keys to the very chains that bind us. In the same way we accept restrictions on some of our freedoms, we must also remain vigilant and reserve the right to protest, should the government choose to wield its power in unjust ways. This is because, to paraphrase Ronald Dworkin in Justice for Hedgehogs, without basic liberties and dignity our lives will become mere blinks of duration.

The way we fight this pandemic will be a testament to our courage, resilience, and compassion. Hopefully, we will emerge with flourishing national unity and solidarity and with Ethiopia steadfastly on track to becoming a more democratic country.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Editors: Rebecca Zerihun Assefa, William Davison

Main photo: Attorney General Adanech Abebe announcing SOE directive; 11 April 2020; ENA

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About the author

Kebadu Mekonnen Gebremariam

Kebadu is Assistant Professor of philosophy at Addis Ababa University, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Chair of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.


  • Ethiopian State is known long time for its omnipotent militaristic posture and has long history of indulgence of power excesses and disregard for human rights violence for generations since the days of the Menilik era. As matter of fact, it is the only modus operandi its national institutions can relate and are well versed with it . Its too much to expect that such deep-rooted adminstrative and flawed institutional culture flaws to disappear overnight like magic without sweeping reforms and institutional rehabilitation.

  • Kebadu a raison d’insister sur la vigilance à avoir concernant les libertés fondamentales surtout en période de covid19.

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