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Does Ethiopia’s New State of Emergency Dash Hopes for Reform?

Announcement Follows Prisoner Release, Prime Minister’s Resignation

Ethiopia's police officers watch over a foot bridge as they patrol the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia February 21, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

On February 17, Ethiopia’s Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa declared a six-month state of emergency, appearing to end, for the time being, hope the government would undertake further reforms to open up political space.

The announcement capped off a tumultuous week in Ethiopia – first, the largest release of political prisoners in years, followed by the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Many long-suffering political prisoners finally rejoined their families, including journalists Eskinder Nega and Woubshet Taye , and opposition politicians Bekele Gerba, Col. Demeke Zewdu, and Andualem Arage. After two years of protests and unrest, the releases could have paved the way for more comprehensive and lasting reforms. But the state of emergency – the second imposed in the last 18 months – dashed those hopes.

Ethiopia’s last state of emergency, announced in October 2016, lasted 10 months. During that time security forces arrested more than 20,000 people and committed widespread rights violations. The government did little to address protester grievances and the abuses only strengthened demands for meaningful reforms.

The United States government, historically a close ally of Ethiopia, issued an unusually critical statement to “strongly disagree” with the declaration of a state of emergency. Other allied governments should follow the US lead and strongly urge restoration of basic rights and the opening up of political space.

Ethiopia’s constitution requires that two-thirds of the members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives approve any state of emergency within 15 days. In the recent past, this would have been a rubber stamp vote, given that the legislative body has no opposition members. But the resurgence of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, the Oromia region party within the ruling coalition, means a two-thirds majority is not a certainty and that there could be a fierce and polarizing debate on who will be the next prime minister. Resolution of both questions will send an important signal as to whether the Ethiopian government will continue to rely on repression to stifle calls for change or embark on a meaningful process of reform.

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