What led to the state of emergency?
Ethiopia had witnessed months of often violent protests, but the week of demonstrations leading up to the state of emergency declaration saw increasingly violent protests spreading, raising security concerns among humanitarian organisations. This blog takes a closer look at what is currently happening in Ethiopia and the impact the state of emergency is having on aid worker security.
Ethiopia is a country composed of many ethnic groups. The biggest ethnic group is the Oromo, which represents 34.4% of the population. Following the Oromos are the Amhara who make up 27% of the population. These two ethnic groups represent around 60% of the population in Ethiopia. The governing elite comes from the Tigre ethnic group, only representing 6.1% of the population.
Many problems in the country come from interactions between these ethnic groups. It is purported that the government only looks out for its peers, a fraction of the population, while politically and economically marginalising the rest of the population for the last twenty-five years. Added to this is the loss of hope that marginalised voices will be heard by a government intensifying oppression and land grabs, and better organisation and mobilisation of activists through social media.
Protests grow, they also become more violent, and the government responds with unnecessary force. This was the case on 2 October 2016 during Irreecha, the Oromo ethnic group’s cultural festival. The Oromos described how the festival was heavily guarded by armed security forces and how this made the crowd tense. As the crowd grew more agitated, chanting anti-government slogans, security forces fired tear gas and people heard gunshots. The crowd panicked and at least 55 people died in what was described as a stampede by the government. This official account is strongly contested by protesters who say that at least 200 people died that day in an orchestrated attack against the Oromos. This tragic event led to protesters targeting foreign-owned companies they saw as the government’s allies. Roads were blocked by protesters and violence became widespread. Hailemariam Desalegn, the Prime Minister, said that ‘the recent developments in Ethiopia have put the integrity of the nation at risk’, and consequently the six-month long state of emergency was declared on 9 October 2016.
These tweets show how Ethiopian activists who studied at Addis Ababa University and are now based in the United Kingdom reacted to the news, similarly to many others. The criticism in these tweets was only possible to voice because the activists are outside Ethiopia. By the time the news got out social media had been shut down, as well as the entire Internet, in most parts of the country.
What does the state of emergency mean in practice?
There are two important things here: what the government can do thanks to the state of emergency that it could not do before, and what the rest of the population, including aid workers, cannot do because of the state of emergency.
The government has now more legal authority to shut down protesters and to impose its rule on the country. Weapons and other gear reserved for military operations can now be employed in cities and other areas where civilians live. As powerfully explained by Dr Awol Allo the state of emergency ‘provides a legal and institutional framework for war on the people’.
The state of emergency restrictions include:
Posting on social media: before the state of emergency was declared this was sometimes possible and was used by protesters.
Crossing wrists above one’s head: this gesture represents being handcuffed and became globally known during the 2016 Olympics as a gesture of solidarity with protesters in Ethiopia thanks to Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa.
Diplomatic travel without authorisation.
Watching ‘terrorist media’ and making contact with groups labelled as ‘terrorists’: the Ethiopian government has used the terrorist terminology to shut down groups such as the Oromia Media Network.
Movement during curfew.
People who do not respect the state of emergency might face a jail sentence of up to five years.
What is the impact on aid workers’ security?
It has always been difficult to operate in Ethiopia. National and international aid workers have been tolerated by the government and accepted as long as they respect the Proclamation to Provide for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies (CSP) adopted in 2009. The aim of the CSP is to control organisations working in Ethiopia, particularly those engaged in human rights and advocacy activities. The risk of aid workers getting caught up in the violent unrest in Ethiopia is a primary concern. However, the government’s declaration of a state of emergency has additional impacts on aid workers’ security:
Lack of communication:
This is the biggest challenge for humanitarian organisations working in Ethiopia since the state of emergency was declared. In some parts of the country, staff have access to emails only during office hours while others do not have any access. Access to the Internet is highly restricted and this is a potentially serious security concern. Staff in Ethiopia might not be able to contact security advisors in headquarters to report an issue or ask for guidance if they do not have access to their emails. Furthermore, traditional media is now the only source of information and it is controlled by the government. Therefore, getting information from outside this channel to understand what is happening in the country and what could become a security concern is near unachievable. This lack of communication results in keeping aid workers on the ground in the dark, which is far from ideal.
Travel restrictions have been imposed by the government as part of the state of emergency. Humanitarian organisations had also implemented travel restrictions to protect staff during the violent protests before the state of emergency was declared. This double restriction is an obvious hurdle for humanitarian programmes to continue as before. Staff cannot easily travel to visit and implement programmes. There is a risk of extortion and of greater collateral damage due to the instability in certain parts of the country. Areas that have seen the majority of protests and violence, such as in the west of the Amhara region and most parts of Oromia, are particularly affected. At the beginning of the state of emergency aid workers also faced goods scarcity, such as lack of fuel, which added to the issue of travel restriction. Fortunately, fuel is now available again.
Meetings and trainings cannot be held under the state of emergency due to restrictions on group gatherings. Therefore, any security training for staff cannot take place in country, with possible implications on the ability of staff to respond to potential future security threats developing in the country during the state of emergency.
These limitations faced by aid workers have an obvious negative impact on their work and security. The principal consequence is a delay in implementing activities, and a generally slower pace of work in some cases. It seems that logistical challenges represent the main impact of the state of emergency on aid workers. Logistics can play a key role in safeguarding aid workers and the negative impact on logistics in Ethiopia should not be played down.
What are organisations doing differently since the state of emergency was declared?
Organisations have not taken drastic steps to protect their staff. However, as mentioned above, travel restrictions have been imposed. Staff are asked to stay away from areas where protests are likely to be held, near governmental or commercial buildings for example. Security planning should have resulted in offices not being near these buildings.
Other adjustments have been made, like allowing staff to stay at the office overnight if necessary. This allows staff to avoid commuting, which is when employees are most at risk of robbery and collateral damage in the current situation. Staff do not have access to the Internet at home and this arrangement of spending long periods of time in the office could result in increased stress. Staff might have to take into account family obligations for example, and because this situation is not concretely hibernation, they are unlikely to follow the security advice of staying in the office overnight.
Organisations have also re-asserted the importance of staff not getting involved in protests and in political discussions online to safeguard the organisation’s independence, reputation and ability to operate in Ethiopia.
What future developments should be expected?
What happens next during the six-month long state of emergency is difficult to predict. What is certain is that it all depends on how the government and protesters react to each other’s actions. The state of emergency should be powerful enough to restrain some of the protests’ force and reach. At the time of writing, more than 1,600 people have been reportedly arrested but activists say that this number is far from the reality, with suspected arrests being much higher than those officially reported. This development does not indicate that the government is prepared to hear protesters’ call for change, and this may result in more protests and a stronger, more repressive government. Staff responsible for the security of their colleagues are paying close attention to how the situation develops in Ethiopia, and aid workers there will likely continue to face restrictions due to the state of emergency and their organisations’ safeguarding mechanisms.