Protests, Terrorism, and Development: On Ethiopia's Perpetual State of Emergency.

Author:Allo, Awol
 
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On October 8, 2026, the Ethiopian government officially declared a nationwide state of emergency in response to a year-long protest by members of Ethiopia's two largest ethnic groups, the Oromo and the Amhara. The Directive issued to implement the state of emergency institutes a new normative regime, astonishing in scope and scale, in which the de jure reversal of the relationship between the rule and the exception has culminated in a new legal reality. Tins Article argues that Ethiopia's de jure emergency is merely the latest manifestation of the de facto state of emergency in operation since the new Constitutional order was set in motion. Drawing on Giorgio Agamben and Carl Schmitt, I argue that the state of emergency, the defining feature of which is the temporary suspension of the norm, where the rule of man replaces the rule of law and the Leviathan reigns supreme, has been the central paradigm of government in Ethiopia since the Constitution came into force. Although this Article considers theoretical and jurisprudential questions around states of emergency, the main thrust of the analysis is to demonstrate the structural relationship between protest, terrorism, development, and the state of emergency in Ethiopia. In particular, this Article reflects on how national narratives of counterterrorism and development have provided the discursive and normative background for the blurring of the boundary between the rule and the exception, enabling the government to exercise power in increasingly violent ways.

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. STATE OF EMERGENCY IN THEORY AND LAW A. Conceptual Background B. States of Emergency in Law II. THE STATE OF EMERGENCY UNDER THE ETHIOPIAN CONSTITUTION III. ETHIOPIA'S MARCH TOWARD DE JURE EMERGENCY IV. TWO GOVERNING NARRATIVES: "ETHIOPIA RISING" AND "NATIONAL SECURITY" A. The "Ethiopia Rising" Narrative B. The "National Security" Narrative V. THE RECENT PROTESTS: A CRISIS OF SOVEREIGNTY, RESULTING IN A DE JURE STATE OF EMERGENCY VI. CONCLUSION INTRODUCTION

On October 8, 2016, the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency (1) in response to a nationwide protest by Ethiopia's two largest ethnic groups: the Oromo (2) and the Amhara. (3) The directive, (4) which took effect amidst a crisis of legitimacy for the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), provided the military and security forces with sweeping new powers (5) to counter what the government described as the threat posed by "anti-peace groups" working "in close collaboration with foreign elements." (6) As soon as the emergency was formally imposed, the government officially restricted access to the internet (7) and some media outlets, (8) banned protests, (9) and detained more than 26,000 protestors (10) in "rehabilitation camps." (11)

Faced with the government's mass arrests and overwhelming use of force (12) which resulted in the deaths of close to 700 protestors, (13) the unrest subsided, giving way to an uneasy calm. (14) Despite the apparent restoration of order and stability, the Ethiopian Parliament extended the state of emergency by another four months in March 2017, (15) with it finally expiring in early August 2017. (16)

The preceding year had seen the boiling over of separate, long-simmering conflicts between the government and the various ethnic groups that make up the Ethiopian state. (17) The protests in the regional state of Oromia that ultimately led to the formal declaration of a state of emergency started in response to the Addis Ababa Integrated Development Master Plan ("the Master Plan"), which called for the expansion of the capital city into neighboring Oromo towns and villages. (18) In response to this expansion and the threat the Master Plan posed to the cultural and economic wellbeing of the community, people throughout Oromia took to the streets. (19) Ethiopian security forces met the protesters with violence, (20) branding them as terrorists and anti-development forces bent on destabilizing the country. (21) This cycle of government violence and escalating protests continued over the next eleven months. (22)

As the government scrambled to contain the protests gripping Oromia, which is the largest region in the country, members of Ethiopia's second largest ethnic group, the Amhara, took to the streets on July 12, 2016. (23) As was the case in Oromia, there have been long simmering tensions between the Amhara and their Tigrayan neighbors to the north. (24) The Amhara, whose elite dominated Ethiopia's political and cultural life until the EPRDF reconfigured the country's ideological and institutional structure along ethnolinguistic lines, have long accused the EPRDF of marginalizing them politically and economically. (25) The Ethiopian government's arbitrary arrest of the Welkait Amhara Identity Committee ("Welkait Committee"), a steering group established by ethnic Amharas to coordinate longstanding disputes over land, (26) proved to be the final straw. (27) When the government arrested the Welkait Committee's leadership and local residents, thousands of Amhara protested, (28) further intensifying the threat to the regime and its governing ideologies.

By August of 2016, observers had already begun to note the unique scale and scope of protests. (29) While unrest and violence had been common fixtures of Ethiopian political life over the previous twenty-five years of EPRDF rule, the simultaneous Oromo and Amhara protests represented a unique crisis of legitimacy and demonstrated the failure of the government's divide-and-rule strategy. This failure was particularly apparent when Amhara protestors began to declare solidarity with the Oromo, their historic adversaries, (30) using such rallying cries as: "we are all Oromos," "I am not Oromo but I stand with my Oromo brothers," and "the blood that flows in Oromia is our blood too." (31)

As it had done with previous protest movements, the EPRDF branded the Amhara protests as the work of terrorists and anti-peace forces (32) and authorized the military and security forces to use all means necessary to bring them to an end. (33) These tactics did not work, however. After clashes between protestors and security forces set off a deadly stampede at the October 2016 Irreecha festival in Oromia, (34) movement leaders called for "five days of rage" (35) and, in a shift of tactics, began attacking government buildings and corporate investments throughout the region. (36)

On October 8, 2016, the Council of Ministers declared a state of emergency (37) to restore "peace and order" (38) and to preserve "the integrity of the country." (39) On October 20, 2016, the Ethiopian House of Peoples' Representatives approved the October 8th Proclamation of a State of Emergency. (40)

The framing of opposition as a national security threat or as a threat to the country's developmental ambitions has been--and continues to be--a common tactic used by the Ethiopian government (41) to silence and intimidate their opposition, while also legitimizing the violent responses of the government. (42) Protests, particularly by Oromos, have long been viewed by the government through the prism of security. As I will demonstrate in this Article, many of the measures that the Ethiopian government implemented under this state of emergency represent long-standing government policies and practices.

This Article unfolds in five stages. In Part I, I provide a theoretical and jurisprudential overview of the state of emergency and its distinguishing elements. This analysis takes as its starting point Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben's exploration of the state of emergency and its ambiguous relationship with law and sovereignty. In Part II, I briefly discuss the state of emergency provisions of the Ethiopian Constitution and argue that the Constitution and its commendable provisions have been coopted and used as a normative instrument to achieve malign outcomes. Instead of constraining executive power, the Constitution has served as a weapon used to camouflage the ruling party's ploy to build a highly authoritarian system that thrives on patronage, rent-seeking, divide-and-rule tactics, and violence, rendering the state of emergency provision a conceptual anomaly. In Part III, I elucidate the ways in which the Ethiopian government has weaponized the 1995 Constitution to conceal its increasingly authoritarian and violent exercise of power, culminating in the obliteration of the distinction between the rule and the exception, the temporary and the indefinite. By tracing this pathology to the asymmetries of power and structural instabilities at the heart of the post-Derg state building project, I argue that the state of emergency, the defining feature of which is the temporary suspension of the normative order, has been the central paradigm of government in Ethiopia since the Constitution came into force. In Part IV I focus on two governing narratives--the "Ethiopia Rising" narrative and the "National Security" narrative--critical to the framing, structuring, and legitimation of this de facto state of emergency both at home and abroad. Finally, in Part V, I turn to the mass protests that have gripped the country and the violent response of the government, arguing that the de jure state of emergency is driven less by the need to safeguard the vital interests of the state than by a desire to protect the political and economic hegemony of the ruling elite.

  1. STATE OF EMERGENCY IN THEORY AND LAW

    1. Conceptual Background

      A state of emergency, variously known as a "state of exception," a "state of siege," or "martial law," (43) is a juridico-political regime that comprises "governmental action taken during an extraordinary national crisis that usually entails broad restrictions of human rights." (44) When confronted by a national crisis that threatens the life of the nation, such as war or other forms of social upheaval, (45) governments can limit or suspend the...

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