Suspending the EWLA: Is This The Road to Democracy?
By Beshir Gedda
Addis Tribune Sept 7, 2001
So we are told, the EPRDF is engaged in an exercise in soul searching and renewal that has preoccupied its leadership over the past year. We are told that the struggle within the party is between those who want a more open and democratic party and
government and those who do not want to open up in this way. This protracted exercise has been exhausting, not only for the
party but also for the nation, that is gripped with anxiety about the direction of the country. If the party leadership is travelling
down the road of democracy, as it claims, what are we to make of its arbitrary decision to suspend a respected civil society
organisation by the Ministry of Justice?
The Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association was established to struggle for the rights of women, as guaranteed in the
constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The organisation has displayed faith in the laws of the land and in
the provisions of the constitution that guarantee its rights of association and expression, to use solely lawful means to help realize the rights of the 50% of Ethiopia’s citizens who are women. The EWLA was providing legal advice to women whose rights had been violated either in incidents of domestic violence or through discrimination in employment, divorce, inheritance and a range of issues that affect the daily lives of women. Everyone knows that Ethiopian society practices discrimination, and that government departments themselves do not always fulfil their obligations to citizens. Any senior government official will openly admit as much.
In some other cases, the government has accused human rights organisations of acting as partisan political organisations, as
cover for opposition activities, and for being concerned solely with the Addis Ababa elite. These accusations cannot be leveled
against the EWLA. The Association is concerned with the everyday concerns of women from all walks of life. It took the big
step forward of opening branch offices in the regions, strengthening its links to the majority of Ethiopians who live in rural areas. The EWLA is exactly the kind of organisation that should be receiving encouragement and assistance from the government. Its aims and methods are closely in accord with the stated aims of the government. And even if the EWLA was in sharp disagreement with government policies, its constitutional rights give it an unchallengable right to conduct its activities in a lawful manner.
Ethiopian law provides legal avenues for the government to pursue if it had evidence that the EWLA was acting unlawfully.
There is a voluntary code of conduct adopted by Ethiopian NGOs. For any organisation that steps beyond the bounds of
propriety, there is a due process of law that can be followed.
But instead we have the spectacle of an immediate and arbitrary suspension order. All the procedures, regulations, codes of
conduct, and laws, established over the last ten years, seem to count as nothing in the face of an executive decision. This is a
mockery of the constitution. We cannot even discover how this decision was made. Who was responsible? On whose
authority? In accordance with which law?
Another alarming thing about the suspension order was the callous manner with which the authorities announced it on television
without giving notice to the organisation’s staff and members in writing. This is typical of high-handed governmental method,
which we naively hoped was consigned to history. Did they really believe that this group of civilian women lawyers, many of
them volunteers, whose activities were open to public scrutiny at all times, was a security threat to the state?
All those who have given the benefit of the doubt to the current process of supposed democratisation were deeply shocked by
the pronouncement that the EWLA is to be suspended. Their faith in the EPRDF leadership, already strained, is further
weakened. Meanwhile, all those sceptics who have been arguing all along that the EPRDF leadership is merely engaged an
exercise in power struggle and nothing more, appear to be vindicated.
Unfortunately, the decision to suspend the EWLA is part of a pattern. In recent months there has been a distinct tendency for
the authorities to act first and ask questions later. Citizens have been detained, and only afterwards have the authorities sought
for a legal justification for their act. If the first attempt at legalising their action doesn’t work, they try another one—or even
enact a new law. The signs are ominous.
We don’t yet know if the suspension of the EWLA is part of this pattern. Perhaps it is just the arbitrary act of a single
bureaucrat who felt embarrassed or threatened by the way in which the EWLA was exposing the weaknesses of the Ministry of Justice. A particularly thorn in the Ministry’s side was the EWLA’s advocacy of the case of the Ethiopian lady who was abused by her boyfriend, and who brought a case against him, which has been pending for seven years. While the party leaders are tied up in their internal politicking, middle-ranking bureaucrats may feel able to take these sorts of vindictive arbitrary actions, confident that they will get away with them.
If the suspension order is indeed the unauthorised act of a bureaucrat, the government must remedy its error at once. Upholding the constitution is far more important than protecting the reputation or career of some minor civil servants.
If the government fails to take this obvious and constitutionally-necessary action, we can only draw one conclusion.
The arbitrary closing of one of the most promising and effective civil society organisations is having a chilling effect in the fragile
but emerging civil society community of Ethiopia. Civil society organisations in Ethiopia are at their earliest stage of organising.
Their initial impetus is partly thanks to the guarantees enshrined in the constitution. Following decades of military rule and
repression, it will take many years for citizens to have enough confidence to exercise their full rights of association. Civil society
activities and effectiveness are just beginning to be registered in areas of human rights, civil liberties, development, and a range
of community activities. The results so far are mixed, but promising. If the trend continues, Ethiopia’s civil society will make a
major contribution to our country’s development and governance.
After ten years of governing it should be very clear to those who claim they are pursuing a democratic reformist agenda that
pluralism and democratic order require a vibrant civil society. The task of any government and responsible political authorities is to provide the enabling environment that fosters the growth of civil society organisations. Civil society grows by trial and error; making mistakes and overstepping the mark is part of the learning process. The government has to learn to tolerate criticism and legal activism that forces it to reform its institutions. Civil society has many tasks, and one is to keep the government on its toes. Much still needs to be done to develop civil society organisations in this country, including providing all the appropriate legislation. But the fundamentals are in place in the constitution, which after all incorporates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We need to see a cultural change among our bureaucrats. Their primary function vis-à-vis civil society is to leave it alone. They
should not be obsessed with controlling civil society organisations or being jealous of their successes. If a civil society
organization embarrasses a government institution, the problem lies with that government institution, not the civil society
Why would the government want to intimidate civil society? Is it a sign of insecurity about independent voices? Is it an
indication of an in-built tendency to authoritarianism? If the government is genuinely committed to renewal and democratisation,
it has only one possible course of action.
As it stands today, the government is sending the opposite signal by either ordering or condoning this unconstitutional act. We
hear that the EPRDF leadership is entering its final phase of protracted meetings, and that the reform agenda will soon become
the main item of government work. This is an opportunity for them to speak and act on this case. If this suspension order is the
work of a bureaucrat who is infringing the basic freedoms of association and expression, then the individual responsible should
pay the price for his transgression. If it is a decision from on high, then it is simply wrong and should be reversed at once. The
struggle for the rights of the EWLA to continue its lawful activities will become a symbol for civil liberties in Ethiopia—or their
absence. Confidence in Ethiopian democracy needs to be restored by allowing the EWLA to resume its lawful activities without delay.
The Ethiopian people are anxiously awaiting the promised openness and democratisation. The events of the past week do not