Dismantling the Regional Special Forces in Ethiopia: Assessing Its Constitutionality
The Ethiopian federal government's April 6, 2023, decision to dismantle the special forces (paramilitary forces) of all the country's regions and reintegrate them into either the national defense force, the federal police, or the respective regional police led to wide public protests in Amhara Region. The incident resulted in human rights violations such as killing individuals by security forces, destruction, and interruption of basic services. Additionally, the internet shutdown continued throughout many parts of the region. The main goal of the decision, according to the federal government, was to strengthen the Ethiopian National Defense Force and enhance its ability to maintain peace and security in the country. On April 15/2015, the government announced its completion of the integration process.
The special force was brought in for the first time in Ethiopian history by the Somali Region in the early 2010s with the support of the federal government and foreign assistance. Its main purpose was to counter insurgencies by armed groups declared terrorists by the federal government. Over time, the trend was replicated by the rest of the regions, and most organized their own special forces. In this article, I argue that the federal government's dissolution of the special forces is unconstitutional.
The Sources of Objections
The federal constitution, the supreme law of the country, in apportioning powers between the federal government and regions, has entrusted power to the latter to maintain peace and order in the state by establishing a state police force (Article 52(2)(g)). There is no clear understanding of whether this allows regions to establish a security apparatus like the special force under consideration, with special training and equipped with advanced military weapons not used by the regular police.
The recent protests in the Amhara Region were not mainly related to the constitutionality of the decision to dismantle the special forces. It grew out of the skepticism of many inhabitants and political elites in the region, who believed they would be more vulnerable to attacks, particularly from forces in the regions of Tigray and Oromia, if the special forces were dissolved. There was also suspicion among such groups that the process would target the Amhara forces and leave others intact. The federal government's poor effort to clarify the confusion, its apparent unwillingness to address the concerns expressed, and its adamant determination to implement the plan regardless of the consequences caused further complications surrounding the process.
What Ought to Have Been Done?
It appears that the federal government proceeded with its plan with the conviction that its decision was constitutional, given that regions lack constitutional authority to establish special forces other than the regular police. But the federal government cannot step into the affairs of states under the guise of ensuring observance of the constitution, save in exceptional cases provided for in it.
The constitution has specified that any decision of a government organ that contravenes its provisions shall have no effect (Article 9(1)). The House of the Federation (HOF), the upper house of the federal parliament, which comprises representatives of ethnic groups in the regions, is an organ that has the power to determine the constitutionality of decisions or practices through constitutional interpretation. Until it is decided in this way, the region's action will be deemed constitutional. The region's right to autonomy, which the constitution gives profound emphasis and protection, requires that the federal government refrains from taking actions concerning regions, including the special forces created by them, without the HOF deciding the latter's act to be unconstitutional (Articles 39(3) and 50(8)).
The federal government's actions will not also be acceptable, although states have consented to it. The region's right to autonomy is grounded in the right of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-administration, which cannot be limited by the will of the incumbent government administering the regions. Therefore, the only option available to the federal government was to request that the HOF determine the constitutionality of establishing special regional forces before passing a decision to dissolve them. Even though the HOF is deeply criticized for being impartial in favor of the ruling government, its significance in mitigating the problem should not be entirely discounted. Consideration of the matter by the HOF means that the public in the regions it represents gets a role in determining the fate of the special forces.
It should also be recalled that unconstitutional decisions of the federal government that ignored the public have had disastrous consequences in Ethiopia. For example, the masterplan the federal government developed in 2015 to expand the capital city, Addis Ababa, was the source of serious problems, mainly because the public in the Oromia Region surrounding the city was not engaged in the preparation of the plan, contrary to the constitution. The measures the security forces took to crack down on the protest, as it is well documented, caused serious human rights violations, such as the killings of several individuals. The way the federal government handled the present case casts doubt as to whether it is prepared to learn lessons from the prior unconstitutional actions that had dire consequences.
Failure by the federal government to abide by the constitution may entail a loss of public confidence in its ability to resolve other controversial aspects of the constitution that are increasingly causing conflicts in the country, such as those relating to the boundaries of regions, that may be settled through constitutional revision. To uphold the rule of law and address the intricate challenges facing the country, it is imperative that the government comply with the constitution.
Zelalem Shiferaw Woldemichael is currently a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Law School.
The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.
About the Author
Zelalem Shiferaw Woldemichael
The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations. Read more