The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
The 2016 Mass Protests and the Responses of Security Forces in ANRS, Ethiopia: Awi and
West Gojjam Zones in Focus
Kidanu Atinafu
This study examined security forces’ abuse of power and their accountability in connection with
the 2016 mass protests that unfolded in the Amhara National Regional State (ANRS) in general
and Awi and West Gojjam Zones in particular. Specifically, the study assessed the nature of the
use of force and the consequent investigations to punish security forces who abused their power.
To address these objectives, the study employed a mixed methods research approach with a
concurrent parallel design. Data for this research was obtained both from primary and
secondary data sources. Interview, questionnaire and document analysis were used to collect
data. A sample of 384 respondents was selected randomly to complete the questionnaire,
whereas key informants were selected for the interview through snowball sampling technique.
Based on the data gathered from all these sources, the study revealed that security forces
committed arbitrary and extrajudicial killings and inflicted injuries against protesters who were
chiefly unarmed and non-violent. The measures taken were found excessive and arbitrary with
several civilians risking their lives and physical wellbeing. With few exceptions, the
administrations at different levels of the government failed to investigate these extrajudicial and
arbitrary killings and injuries inflicted in the process of punishing alleged perpetrators of the
protest using civil and criminal laws. It is finally recommended to undertake independent
investigations into the legitimacy of the murders, injuries, beatings and other forms of violence
committed by the security forces.
Keywords: Accountability, force, security officials, law
Kidanu Atinafu (Principal investigator), Debre Markos University, Department of Civic and
Ethical Studies; Email:, P. O. Box 269. Edmealem Mekuriyaw (Co-
investigator), Debre Markos University, Department of Civic and Ethical Studies; Email; Getachew Mihret (Co-investigator), Debre Markos University,
School of Law; Email:
1. Introduction
States have the prime responsibility to maintain law and order throughout their territories over
which they have effective control. Their national laws also oblige them to do so, given that
disorder can ultimately disrupt their very existence and continuity (UNODC, 2017; Osse, 2006).
In the furtherance of this vital interest, the law from domestic and international perspective
empowers states and their respective security forces to take a variety of measures, ranging from
arresting criminals to that of using regulated force under stringent conditions (ICRC, 2015;
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
UNODC, 2011; Osse, 2006). This right to use force is a well-established discretion in the United
Nations Charter, too. So, force remains one of the mechanisms to safeguard the territorial
integrity and endure internal stability of states across the world.
However, the application of force by a state and its security apparatus has its own legal limits.
Moreover, the laws governing the use of force are found both in domestic and international legal
frameworks. Domestically, the standards guiding state use of force are found within the domestic
legal and administrative framework related to security (e.g. laws, military and police manuals,
rules of engagement, standard operating procedures) (ICRC, 2015), whereas the general
international legal principles regulate the use of force related with the principle of
proportionality, legality, military necessity, discrimination, precaution, last resort and
accountability (UNODC, 2017; ICRC, 2015). In agreement with all these international norms,
the Criminal Code of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) also empowers
police officers to employ force when ‘necessary and reasonable’ during investigations, detecting
criminals or in ensuring public order (see Proclamation No.414/2004, p. 133). In case where
these fundamental principles are violated, it is the duty of the federal government to properly
investigate cases of excessive or arbitrary use of force and impose punishment both on
perpetrators of wrongful acts and armed forces (UNODC, 2017; ICRC, 2015).
The experience from the most developed democracies reveals that police and other military
personnel positively contribute to the realization of peoples’ rights through preventing crimes,
ensuring the rights of citizen to demonstrate peacefully, facilitating smooth political transitions,
investigating or otherwise exposing colleagues who commit crimes, and supporting politico-legal
reforms (Osse, 2006). To the contrary, in developing countries, like Ethiopia, security forces are
found as the major perpetrators of torture, murder and violators of human rights (Merera, 2003).
Most importantly, the government backed tortures, detentions and killings of civilians,
politicians, journalists and civil society leaders; this was evident in the 2005 election violence
and the mass popular protests of the last four years. According to Smith (2007), the 2005 election
violence ushered in the deaths of an estimated 193 people, injuries of several others at the
capital, Addis Ababa, and the arrest of nearly 30,000 people. The magnitude and intensity of
arrests, deaths, physical beatings and injuries with the use of force by the government affiliated
security forces were also dolorous since the unfolding of nationwide mass protests in Oromia,
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
ANRS and Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) since 2015. Generally, the
death toll from these overall mass protests reached more than 900 (Al Jazeera, 19 April 2017)
and thousands of others experienced physical injuries and arrests.
In this regard, previous studies conducted focused on analyzing the influences of politics on
policing in the post-1990s Ethiopia (Workeneh, 2016), whereas Namwase (2017) analyzed
tensions arising from criminalizing the use of lethal force against a ‘civilian population’ under
the Rome Statute. A related study conducted by Arriola (2013) investigated issues of protesting
and policing in a multiethnic-authoritarian Ethiopia while Bayenew (2012) explored the
enforcement of international and regional human rights obligations in Ethiopia where policing
contributes much in this regard. These and other related studies largely emphasized how
government intervention in the function of policing affects their effectiveness, problems of
policing in authoritarian and multicultural Ethiopia and enforcing human rights obligations in
Ethiopia. Furthermore, contradictory reports were also released both from the government-
sponsored EHRC and other non-governmental human rights advocacy organizations. The EHRC
reported that police used "proportionate force" in most areas during the unrest whereas the
human rights advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch (2015) and Amnesty
International (2017) reported excessive and lethal use of force against largely peaceful riots,
which makes this study worthwhile. The nature of use of force by the security officials during
the 2016 mass protest and subsequent accountability on the part of the armed forces seem
underreported, particularly taking the areas selected for this study. So, this study examines the
nature of security officials’ use of force and their accountability in the ANRS with particular
reference to Dembecha, Finoteselam, Burie, Enjibara and Dangila towns of Awi and West
Gojjam Zones. This inquiry specifically investigated the response of security forces, the nature
of the application of force and the consequent investigations to punish members of the armed
forces who abused power.
2. Research Methodology
The study employed mixed methods research approach. The selection of this method can be
justified by the merit of the method and the nature and purpose of the inquiry. In the first place,
the use of more than one method can enhance the findings of a study by providing a fuller and
more complete picture of the thing being studied. The approach calls for a clear appreciation of
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
triangulation, which ultimately enriches the conclusions of a study and makes them more
acceptable (Hesse-Biber, 2010). To adequately appraise and examine the nature of use of force
and the consequent accountability in the respective study areas, the study demanded the views,
opinions, ideas of local residents/dwellers experiencing the problem. Moreover, the use of mixed
methods research allows the researcher to reach and include more respondents through the use of
questionnaire within a short period of time.
In this study, both primary and secondary data sources were used to address the stated objectives
and answer the research questions. The primary data were collected from respective leaders of
Amhara youth associations, town police offices, peace and public security offices, mayor offices,
regional police commission, state council, local residents, and victims of excessive and arbitrary
force through in-depth interview and questionnaire. Key informants from youth association
leaders, government and security officials were selected through purposive sampling, whereas
victimized local residents were chosen employing the snowball sampling technique. On the other
hand, respondents for the questionnaire were selected through simple random sampling
technique. The number of key informants was 21, and the size of the respondents for the
questionnaire was determined through applying Cochran’s (1977) formula:
pq n= (1.96)
(0.5) (0.5) = 384
n= denotes the sample size required, z= confidence interval of 95% (1.96), q=1-p, e=margin of
error (0.05), p=the estimated proportion of an attribute present in the population (p =0.5).
In this research, a combination of data analysis techniques was used to analyze the qualitative
and quantitative data. The qualitative data obtained from interviews and documents had been
combined in the form of notes and was analyzed according to themes. On the other hand, the
quantitative data from questionnaires was analyzed employing simple descriptive statistics.
Finally, the two sets of data are displayed side by side and triangulated in the process of drawing
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
3. Results and Discussion
3.1 Security Forces Response to the Mass Protest
The mass protest in ANRS began in the town of Gondar when Tigray militias dressed in Amhara
regional police uniform attempted to arrest members of Wolqait Amhara Identity Committees on
12 July, 2016 (Achamyeleh, 2016). With the exception of Col. Demeke Zewde, several
committee members had been taken hostage. This incident made people in the Amhara region
conclude that TPLF was trying to stifle protests with regard to border issues with Tigray region
violently. Triggered by this unlawful move of the militias, anti-government riots and
demonstrations occurred in different zonal and woreda towns of the region with high degree and
intensity. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the street to hold peaceful protests against the
annexation of Amhara land and to demand an end to TPLF rule in Ethiopia. In the same token,
protests and anti-government movements also took place in zonal and woreda towns of Awi and
West Gojjam Zones, especially between August and September 2016.
According to Arriola (2013), the post-1991 Ethiopian government used two policing strategies
regional and federal policing – to suppress protests and public political meetings. Deployment of
these two security apparatuses was evident over the mass protests held in the country since 2015.
Almost all of the key informants from the selected study areas revealed the deployment of
federal police and the military during the conduct of the protests besides the regional security
forces, which constitute the regional police, Adma bitena and militia members. Even though
General Samora Yenus (2020) explained that the deployment of national defense forces was in
response to the request of the regional states, interviewees from the respective town
administrations and security offices said that they did not have clear information about the
deployment of the defense forces and federal police. Given that the protests were nationwide and
strong, decisions to deploy these forces might be left to the top political figures and security
personnel (KI7, 9 March 2020, KI10, 10 March 2020; KI3, 26 February 2020) at the zonal and
regional levels of administration (KI5, 27 February 2020). The general conclusion by Arriola
(2013) revealed that the deployment of these two forces was done based on the will of the federal
executive body, despite the official rhetoric which stated that the intervention was carried out at
the request of the region and because it was beyond the region’s capacity to quell the protests.
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
Table 1: Responses to measures taken by security forces
Recognizing the widespread of unauthorized protests and presenting anti-peace ‘ideography
the government (both the federal and regional governments) did not have the will to allow the
conduct of these movements and manage them peacefully. Moreover, the security forces from
various levels had been commanded to stop any planned protests, and actually stopped
demonstrations and movements in violent and ruthless manner (Pinaud and Raleigh, 2017). The
order was passed by the head of government as well, hence security forces employed both lethal
and less lethal means in the towns selected for this inquiry. Instead of using ‘negotiated
managements’, the armed forces coerced and silenced the protestors with force believing that the
protest is illegal and lacking government authorization (KI7, 9 March 2020; KI11, 10 March
2020; KI2, 26 February 2020; KI9, 10 March 2020; Carothers and Youngs, 2015; Tsega, 2016).
To this end, the security forces repeatedly fired tear gas at the demonstrators both before and
after the actual commencement of the protest (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI1, 27 February 2020), a
measure intended to disperse protestors who attempted to perpetrate attacks against institutions
and properties as some interviewees posited (KI3, 26 February 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020). It
was also common to hear the sound of live bullets and smoking bombs at every stage of the
protests (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI3, 26 February 2020; KI5, 27 Februry 2020; KI7, 9 March
The Ethiopian government consistently characterized the protests as ‘anti-peace, anti-development, anti-
democracy, anti-constitution’, all of which warrants the use of power to suppress dissents. The government also
maintained that the protests were backed by foreign based opposition fronts like Ginbot -7, OLF and ONLF (Arriola,
Alternatives Frequency Percentage
Which security forces were
deployed to manage the
conduct of the mass protests?
Regional police, Adma
Bitena and militia members
87 22.7
Federal Police and National
Defense Forces
19 4.9
All 278 72.4
Total 384 100.0
What types of forcible
measures were taken by the
security forces?
Muffling, beating and
58 15.1
Firing live bullets 18 4.7
Throwing chemical irritants 18 4.7
All 290 75.5
Total 384 100.0
What type of weapons did the
security forces use during the
Chemical irritants, police
batons and other sticks
77 20.1
All 307 79.9
Total 384 100.0
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
2020). The armed forces of the time also used sticks or police batons to disperse (KI2, 26
February 2020) and control and prevent unlawful acts of the demonstrators (KI5, 27 February
2020; KI7, 9 March 2020; KI3, 26 February 2020).
Similarly, the majority of the respondents
(79.9%) underscored that the security forces used firearms, chemical irritants and police batons
during the conduct of the demonstration (see Table 1).
Emphasizing the wide applications of the above mentioned weapons during the protests, the
interviewees also said that many protestors were taken into custody, both in official and
unofficial places of detention, for the alleged violence and damage to properties. The Ethiopian
Human Rights Project (2018) disclosed the mass detention of protestors in police stations and
other places, whereas Amnesty International (14 October 2016) reported the imprisonment of
many others in military and police training camps without adequate food, water and toilet
services. In the same token, protestors from Enjibara, Dangila, Burie, Dembecha and
Finoteselam towns were detained at Birshelko military training base (KI3, 26 February 2020;
KI2, 26 February 2020; KI1, 27 February 2020; KI5, 27 February and 2020; KI7, 9 March
2020;KI8, 9 March 2020; The Ethiopian Human Rights Project, 2018) where other protestors
from Dangila town were detained at Agew Midir town hall as well (KI11, 10 March 2020; KI9,
10 March 2020; KI10 10 March 2020). KI7 (9 March 2020) from Enjibara town revealed that
close to 111 individuals were arrested, of whom 40 of them were detained at the prison and the
rest at Birshelko camp. Furthermore, close to 122 individuals were detained from Dangila (KI11,
10 March 2020), and another 40 people from Burie were also imprisoned. Undisclosed number
of people from Finoteselam and Dembecha towns was also in detention.
Part of the measures carried out by the security forces were linked with physical assaults against
detainees and protestors. Several protestors and arbitrarily arrested people experienced physical
beatings and other ill-treatments pervasively (KI9, 10 March 2020; KI2, 26 February 2020; KI1,
KI1-an anonymous interviewees from Dembecha Amhara Youth Association; KI2-anonymous interviewees from
Finoteselam town Amhara Youth Association; KI3-an anonymous interviewee from Finoteselam town police office,
Finoteselam; KI4- an anonymous interviewee from Finoteselam Town peace and public security office; KI5-an
anonymous interviewee from Burie town police office; KI6-anonymous interviewee from Enjibara town police
office; ,KI7-anonymous interviewee from Enjibara town mayor office; KI8- anonymous interviewees from Enjibara
peace and public security office; KI9-represents anonymous interviewees from Dangila town Amhara Youth
Association; KI10- anonymous interviewee from Dangila town mayor office; KI11-anonymous interviewee from
Dangila town police office; KI12-an anonymous interviewee from Amhara police commission; KI13-an anonymous
interviewee from law, justice and administration affairs committee members of Amhara region state council.
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
27 February 2020; Amnesty International, 14 October 2016; The Ethiopian Human Rights
Project, 2018; HRC, 2017). Furthermore, sanitary services were inadequately available and the
nightly beatings ended in the physical injuries and bodily scars (KI9, 10 March 2020; KI2, 26
February 2020; KI1, 27 February 2020; HRC, 2017). This is against the minimum standards set
thereof by international human rights laws.
3.2 Nature of Uses of Force
Part of the concern of this study is the examination of whether the force used during the protests
and public demonstrations qualify as legal procedures recognized both by national and
international legal frameworks. The most commonly identified principles from these sources are
necessity, proportionality, legality, discrimination, precaution, last resort, accountability and the
This principle on the use of force and firearms constitutes three important elements together. The
first aspect determines the application of force for realizing legitimate/lawful objectives, as in the
case of preventing violence or crime that imperil the right to life or the right to personal security.
The application of force here shall be to the minimum extent necessary to bring the threats under
control. Furthermore, the principle dictates the application of force when other means remain
ineffective or unpromising to achieve the intended result, thereby prohibit its application against
individuals who offer no resistance or direct dangers to the life and integrity of the person or
situation. Security officials, therefore, are obliged to arrest potentially violent suspects before
resorting to extrajudicial killings (See BPUFF, 1990; United Nations Code of Conduct for Law
Enforcement Officials, 17 December 1979). Article 75 of the 2004 Ethiopia’s Criminal Code
also legitimizes the application of force when it is used to protect the self and others from an
imminent and serious danger which could not be averted by other means.
Measuring in the light of this parameter, the data generated from government and security
offices, youth association leaders and respondents were different. Acknowledging the illegality
of the protests and the absence of protest organizers, KI5 (27 February 2020), KI6 (9 March
2020) and KI11 (10 March 2020) found security officials’ uses of force as necessary and
legitimate. They justified it with the expected damages to properties and anticipated insecurity to
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
the wellbeing of the community. Most commonly, the protestors tried to block roads, burn tires,
damage properties both under public and private possession and perpetrate attacks against
security forces and targeted government officials (KI5, 27 February 2020; KI6, 19 March 2020;
KI11, 10 March 2020, see also table 2). These and other unlawful moves hence should be tamed
with the employment of force thereof (KI5, 27 February 2020; KI6, 9 March 2020; KI11, 10
March 2020). The justification provided by these interviewees for the application of force is tied
with the staging of unauthorized protests, road closures, burning of tires, damages to properties
and the likelihood attacks on security forces and government officials.
A major departure from this perspective was made by other interviewees. These interviewees
underlined that force was applied to protesters who were largely peaceful and non-violent,
particularly during its initial phases. The demonstrators came to the street demanding solutions to
multitudes of problems rather than demolishing or robbing properties (KI2, 26 February 2020).
They asked for more freedom, good governance, justice, equality and release of political
prisoners, journalists and members of Wolqait Amhara Identity Committee (KI3, 26 February
2020; KI1, 27 February 2020; KI9, 10 March 2020; KI2, 26 February 2020), the source of all of
these problems was tied to the presence of wicked and inefficient government institutions and
political leaderships. Some respondents on their part associated the motive behind the protest as
a call for democracy and end of government backed tortures and repression against citizens.
Furthermore, with the exception of the infrequent throwing of stones as counter measure from
the perceived violent attacks by the security forces, the protestors were largely unarmed and did
not take life threatening measures (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI7, 9 March 2020; KI1, 27 February
Similarly, 91.9% of the respondents also explained that the protestors were chiefly unarmed,
which by definition did not invite the employment of weapons which caused deaths and physical
injuries on participants (see table 2). Hence, the coercive measures taken by the incumbent
government geared towards dispersing the protesters from airing their genuine grievances to the
respective administrations (KI2, 26 February 2020), a measure found as unnecessary and
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
Table 2, Responses to the nature of uses of force
Alternatives Frequency Percentage
Were there compelling/necessitating
circumstances for taking these forcible
Yes 120 31.3
No 264 68.8
Total 384 100.0
Did the protestors hold firearms and other
objects like stone, stick during the conduct
of the protest?
Yes 31 8.1
No 353 91.9
Total 384 100.0
Do you think that the measures taken by the
security forces were proportionate to the
anticipated advantages and the recorded
Yes 77 20.1
No 307 79.9
Total 384 100.0
Do you think that the security officials used
force only out of demand to ensure law and
order, prevent crimes and protect the
Yes 70 18.2
No 314 81.8
Total 384 100.0
Do you think that the forcible measures
taken by security forces solely targeted
criminals and offenders? Or was there a
distinction between criminals and civilians?
Yes 86 22.4
No 298 77.6
Total 384 100.0
Did they use peaceful mechanisms before
resorting to force and firearms?
Yes 115 29.9
No 269 70.1
Total 384 100.0
Do you think that force and firearms were
used as a last resort/option?
Yes 96 25.0
No 288 75.0
Total 384 100.0
Accordingly, these respondents and participants examined the deaths and injuries of protesters
with live bullets fired from the security forces as unwarranted. Here is also the story of a victim
of a live bullet from Burie town:
I get injured in the leg with a bullet fired from security forces when going home. I
was not directly involved in the protest but observed it from nearby. When security
forces attempted to disperse the protestors with the use of coercive techniques, I
decided to return to my home. I saw security forces on my way home, get frightened
and decided to retreat. While retreating, they fired bullets and injured me in the leg.
It was done to me without necessary warnings/commands like “Stop! Hands up!”
(Burie, 27 February, 2020).
The measure against this individual was taken in violation of Regulation No. 268/2012, which
specifies the conditions under which the use of firearms is probably necessary and legitimate.
Article 45(2a) and 45(2b) of this Regulation empowers federal police officers to employ
firearms, to protect the life and physical wellbeing of the ‘self’ and ‘others’ from imminent
attacks, and to arrest or restrain a dangerous criminal or convicted prisoner from escaping (see
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
also Article 78 of the 2004 criminal code). All these circumstances were unseen in the case
specified above. But the raison d'être for this and other forcible measures and extrajudicial
killings were damaging properties, road closures, undertaking illegal protests, exercising rights to
demonstrations and even seeking answers to long lasting governance related problems under the
ERPDF administration (KI3, 26 February 2020; KI1, 27 February 2020; KI2, 26 February 2020;
Amnesty international, 4 October 2016). The joint letter written by a group of civil society
organizations to UN Human Rights Council on Ethiopia uncovers the application of excessive
and unnecessary live ammunition to disperse and suppress largely peaceful protesters in Amhara
and Oromia Regions.
Though some of the interviewees accepted the necessity of using force to control further losses
of property and potential attack on targeted individuals, they strongly opposed the application of
lethal weapons one that ended up in the death and injuries of several individuals and found it
unnecessary (KI5, 27 February 2020; KI6, 9 March 2020; KI10, 10 March 2020; KI11, 10 March
2020). The situation did not invite the taking of bloody measures with lethal means, and
opportunities to control the protests without using live ammunition were not totally absent (KI11,
10 March 2020; KI6, 9 March 2020; KI10, 10 March 2020). All the damages and illegal moves
could be well managed through employing measures like firing bullets in the air, use of water
cannon, tear gas and other less-lethal means (KI10, 10 March 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020; KI3,
26 February 2020) and through careful pre-preparation, efficient collaboration and cooperation
(KI11, 10 March 2020). Similarly, substantial number of respondents underlined that property
related damages, road closures and other form of violence could be controlled without resorting
to the bloodiest measures. From all these viewpoints, it can be inferred that the deaths and
physical injuries of protesters with lethal force for the reasons of damaging properties, closing
road, burning of tires and/or with the absence of imminent threats to the life or physical
wellbeing of the self and others were unjustifiable and unnecessary.
This principle comes into play when the principle of necessity is met. However, acting in
accordance with the principle of necessity may render necessary force unlawful. So, law
enforcing officials are obliged to apply force in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and
the legitimate objectives to be achieved (BPUFF, 1990). Careful decisions shall be made
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
between the intensity and degree of threats and the levels of force to be used for the partial and
complete control of events. The principle takes into account the moderation of the actions of
security forces with the overriding goals of reducing losses, injuries and harms to the lives of
humans. The 1990 BPUFF under Article 5(b) emphasizes the importance of respecting and
preserving human life during the employment of force and firearms. Especially, the application
of force, i.e. lethal force, to situations that do not pose imminent threats to life and physical
wellbeing of the self and others could be disproportional. In a similar manner, the regulation on
the administration of Ethiopia’s federal police officers (Regulation No. 268/2012) under Article
45(1) permits police officers to use firearms when faced with clear resistance in discharging
duties and where other options are not available.
KI5 (27 February 2020) from Burie town noted that, with the exception of the death of one
individual and physical injuries of five to six others, all the forceful measures taken by the
security forces were proportional. Despite the frequent firing of live bullets and stun grenades,
the fatalities from these measures were not excessive (KI5, 27 February 2020). Other
interviewees from Enjibara town opined that force was used to the minimum as compared with
the gravity of the problems and the anticipated losses induced by the protests. Furthermore, all
the unfolded losses and damages could be reduced once the security officials applied force
during the immediate commencement of the demonstration (KI6, 9 March 2020). Denouncing
the loss of a life of an individual, KI3 (26 February 2020) and KI4 (26 February 2020) from
Finoteselam town found all the measures taken by the security forces as proportional and the
arrests were done through identifying individuals playing key roles in facilitating, heading and
organizing the protests.
In contrast, KI7 (9 March 2020), KI9 (10 March 2020), KI2 (26 February 2020) and KI1 (27
February 2020) described the balance between the forcible measures and the consequences as
disproportionate. Gun fires were frequent and deaths and physical injuries of civilians were
grave. Sources from city administrations and town police officers indicated the death of five to
six individuals in Enjibara, six to eight in Dangila, one in Finotesslam and one in Burie. The
physical injuries due to the forcible measures by the security forces were also significant.
Five to six injuries happened at Burie town (KI5, 27 February 2020), six (KI10, 10 March 2020; KI11, 10 March
2020) to twenty two injuries from Dangila KI9 (10 March 2020) and close to 12 individuals also experienced light
physical injury from Enjibara (KI7, 9 March 2020).
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
deadliest measures were taken on unarmed protesters, who held or even did not hold either
stones or sticks which by definition was unnecessary and excessive (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI7,
9 March 2020). Though the application of force (less lethal one) was necessary to protect
properties and manage the protests, the deaths and consequent physical injuries with lethal force
were found excessive as seen in th the spirit and nature of the protests (KI7, 9 March 2020; KI11,
10 March 2020; KI10, 10 March 2020). An informant from Dangila town explained the response
as follows:
a sort of mass murder, where the security forces fired live bullets and and threw stun
grenades at the demonstrators largely unarmed… and no doubt that they used
disproportionate force both during the conduct of the protests and against detainees
imprisoned at Agew Midir Town Hall and other unofficial detention centers
(Dangila, 10 March 2020).
Correspondingly, the majority of the respondents (79.9%) said that there was use of
disproportionate force that brought deaths and injuries to several civilians (see table 2). The
extrajudicial killings and injuries with lethal means were carried out against protesters who could
not pose life threatening actions. Out of their fear that the protests would degenerate into social
unrest and that high ranking officials in the government would be targeted for attacks, the armed
forces took lethal actions. The deaths and injuries from these measures were excessive and
Regarding the type of weapons, KI9 (10 March 2020) from Dangila town maintained that the
federal police and national defense forces used very lethal weapons like snipers. The measures
taken with these weapons were destructive, and the EHRC found the forcible measures at
Dangila town as disproportionate, thereby calling those responsible for the fatalities to be
brought before the court to be prosecuted (Liyat, 2017). The mistaken attempt to silence dissents
by the security forces ended up in the systematic application of excessive force on protesters
largely peaceful (Amnesty International, 8 August 2016). Findings from Abdelhalim (2016) also
disclosed the application of excessive force against peaceful protesters in Amhara, Oromia and
other regional states. The government tended to justify the actions taken by the security forces by
arguing that the protests were backed by foreign elements like Eritrea, Egypt and domestic and
foreign based opposition forces.
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Recognizing the arbitrary arrests of several individuals at Agew Midir town hall, security forces
committed inhuman and humiliating attacks against detainees before proven guilty (KI9, 10
March 2020), an event contested by KI11(2020), and here is the lived experience of a detainee:
I was arrested through a door to door raid by the security forces. They detained me
at Agew Midir town hall and the condition at this unofficial detention center was
degrading. It was dusty and there were no beds or mattresses. During our stay at this
hall, the security forces forced us to roll in the mud and after that they beat us with
stick and their shoes degradingly. And the purpose of getting us roll in the mud was
to avoid the creation of scars on our bodies (Dangila, 10 March 2020).
An interview conducted with KI13 (12 March 2020) also confirmed the conduct of grave
inhuman acts on those detained both in official and unofficial detention places. Hot water was
poured on the bodies of detainees besides the physical attacks with sticks, shoes and other
projectiles (KI13, 12 March 2020). Some respondents also indicated that several detainees were
forced to walk on their bare feet on a ground full of broken glasses. These measures could not be
justified by any legal means.
According to KI6 (9 March 2020) from Enjibara town, the application of force targeted protest
organizers, leaders and other actors who tried to generate chaos and disturbances. Coming to the
arrest of individuals, KI2 (26 February 2020) and KI3 (26 February 2020) from Finote Selam
town underlined that those who dispatched papers to call for protests, held placards, organized
and headed protests in the front were the prime target of the arbitrary arrest. Other informants
revealed that the arrests of some individuals were conducted out of revenge and personal
disagreements (KI10, 10 March 2020; KI7, 9 March 2020), which are by definition
indiscriminate practices.
Coming to the use of live bullets, batons and stun grenades, several other interviewees indicated
their indiscriminate application as well (KI5, 27 February 2020; KI9, 10 March 2020; KI7, 9
March 2020; KI2, 26 February 2020). According to these interviewees, security officials’ use of
force did not solely target those who were actors of all the recorded chaos and unlawful moves.
KI9 (10 March 2020) believed that the firing of tear gas, gunfire and physical beatings were
carried out on civilians who took to the street to criticize government backed tortures and
marginalization. The majority of the respondents (77.6%) also divulged the indiscriminate use of
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live bullets, batons and stun grenades (see table 2.). Moreover, individuals who were not
involved in the protests were exposed to arrests, attacks and injuries with the measures taken by
the security forces (KI11, 10 March 2020). As a result, a substantial number of civilians
encountered tear gas, deaths, physical beatings and injuries due to the arbitrary actions of
security forces. Respondents to this research work mentioned imposition of threats or
intimidations against family members of certain individuals who were wanted by the police. This
indiscriminate action was aimed at discouraging protesters from protesting again.
Evidence from Burie town shows the physical injuries sustained by two or three civilians for
simply walking on the road with bullets fired from security forces (KI5, 27 February 2020).
Other individuals also got injured for peacefully airing grievances (KI5, 27 February 2020) and
for participating in damaging properties (KI11, 10 March 2020). Another informant from
Enjibara disclosed that, with the exception of the death of an individual, other deaths occurred
with the arbitrary gunfire from the security forces (KI7, 9 March 2020). Losing life in this way
could not be acceptable by any means (KI7, 9 March 2020). A further illustration was also made
by a key informant from Dembecha town. Recognizing the indiscriminate use of force by the
security officials, KI1 (27 March 2020) mentioned the severe physical attack perpetrated against
an old man going to church and a young man going to buy Enjera (bread) from a nearby shop
after the conclusion of the protests.
Many others also suffered from the arbitrarily fired tear gas by security forces at the time of the
demonstrations (KI1, 27 March 2020). This idea was also supported by few respondents as well.
And here is the story of a man experiencing smoke from tear gas at Dembecha:
I was watching the protest from a distance of an estimated 50-70 meters. The
constraining measures taken by the security forces created disturbance which was
followed by firing of bullets, tear gas and physical beatings. The protesters then ran
and came close to me for relief. In the process, the stun grenades thrown by the
security forces dropped close to my feet while I retreated. The smoke from the
chemicals in the tear gas irritated my eyes and I couldn’t speak for nearly an hour
(Dembecha, 27 February 2020).
Hence, tear gas was fired arbitrarily at civilians and criminals. Protesters who were especially in
front of demonstrations sustained injuries. Moreover, some respondents and KI2 (26 February
2020) indicated that the smoke from the stun grenades got into the houses of residents thereby
inflicting household members. All these experiences enabled researchers to conclude that the
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problematic and indiscriminate use of force to control the protests held in the selected study
areas amounted to lack of responsibility. Here, KI3 (26 February 2020), KI11 (10 March 2020)
and KI12 (11 March 2020) associated the challenges to make distinction between the civilians
and criminals with the mob nature of the protests that involved a large number of participants
from the respective towns and the surrounding districts. In the meantime, civilians faced physical
attack and tear gas fired from security forces (KI3, 26 February 2020; KI12, 11 March 2020).
Few other respondents, on the other hand, associated the problem with the poor capacity of the
security forces in crime detection and identification of criminals in the mob.
Last resort
Pursuant to Article 45(1) under Regulation No. 268/2012of , in time of discharging duties, police
officers should employ proportionate force ‘where other options are not available’ and
inadequate. The provision, hence, obliges security officials to exhaustively search peaceful
mechanisms preceding the application of coercive and lethal techniques. In the light of such
provision, the researchers tried to ascertain how the security officials resorted to the application
of force and the use firearms during the conduct of protests in the selected study areas.
The interviewees here forwarded different ideas. For instance, KI6 (9 March 2020) and KI3 (26
February 2020) noted that the security forces attempted to control the protests non-forcefully and
non-violently, through such things as body gestures, patrolling, and warning and advising.
However, lethal force was used when the protesters started to break laws through blocking roads,
burning tires, destroying properties and throwing stones at security officials (KI6, 9 March
2020). Therefore, force was used as a last resort based on these interviewees.
Contrary to the above statements, a significant number of interviewees and respondents (70.1%)
maintained that the security forces did not exhaustively try peaceful management mechanisms
preceding the use of force (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI9, 10 March 2020; KI10, 10 March 2020;
see also table 2). With the recognition that the protests did not qualify as legal procedures and
that anti-peace elements were present during the protests, the regime was inclined to disperse the
protests through utilizing coercive and lethal means. In the process, the protesters encountered
physical attack, tear gas and gunfire beginning from the protests’ immediate commencement
(KI2, 26 February 2020. Bullets were fired not in the air but at the protesters (KI9, 10 March
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2020). As a result, KI2 (26 February 2020) assumed that victims of tear gas were fortunate
because several protesters were seriously threatened with live bullets.
In this connection, these interviewees and respondents strongly believed that there was the
possibility of managing the protests through the employment of peaceful and negotiated
management techniques (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI1, 27 March 2020, and KI10, 10 March
2020), which involves the use of advice, negotiations, warnings, effective guidance and
patrolling before applying police batons, stun grenades and gunfire. It could be managed well
with measures that did not use force and live ammunitions (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI1, 27
March 2020, and KI10, 10 March 2020), given that the motivation behind the demonstrations
was not damaging properties, perpetrating violence and even blocking roads. Even all the
damages and riots could be handled through proper use of tear gas, firing of bullets in the air, the
use of water cannons and other less-lethal means (KI10, 10 March 2020). Therefore, based on
the views of the majority of the respondents and interviewees, it can be deduced that force and
firearms were not used as a last resort.
These measures depict the regime’s culture of violence and ruthless measures to bring everything
under control (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI1, 27 March 2020). The regime was inclined to use
violence, and force remains the modus operandi in its years of political rule to totally suppress
anti-government movements (KI2, 26 February 2020; KI1, 27 March 2020; KI5, 27 February
2020), which deviates from the modern way of administration, i.e. democracy, where priority is
given to the peaceful settlement of disputes rather than suppressing protests at gunpoint. Given
this political culture and the anti-government nature of the protests (Down with Woyane), the
government suppressed them with force; hence expecting the employment of negotiated
management techniques might be unrealistic. As the mouth piece of the government, the security
forces terrorized the protesters through firing bullets, throwing irritant chemicals, and beatings
as soon as they were deployed.
3.3 Investigations of Abuses and Consequent Punishments
Pursuant to Article 7 of the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms (BPUFF) by law
enforcement officials, national governments are duty-bound to punish the police and other
security forces that used force and firearms arbitrarily or abusively. They are expected to
undertake systematic investigations and bring the perpetrators before the court for legal
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punishments or administrative measures. In the same token, the Criminal Code of Ethiopia
(2004) under Articles 68(a), 73 and 74 legalized the imposition of punishment on both high and
low ranking and law enforcement officials for the illegal application of force and firearms.
As opposed to the above general provisions of law, interviewees and respondents in this research
maintained that the government did not undertake investigations into the legitimacy and legality
of force used by the security officials during the 2016 protests in the region (KI5, 27 February
2020; KI1, 27 February 2020; KI7, 9 March 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020; Human Rights Watch,
12 January, 2017).
The issue of how, why and by whom the deadliest measures were taken were
largely absent (KI7, 9 March 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020). The administration did not show
commitment to determine cases where the security officials used excessive and arbitrary forces.
On most occasions, the perpetrators of murders and injuries hence remained unidentified and no
legal punishment was taken for using force and firearms abusively (KI5, 27 February 2020; KI7,
9 March 2020). Close to 70.1% of the respondents similarly mentioned the unavailability of
administrative and legal measures against security forces that arbitrarily injured and murdered
civilians (see Table 3).
The only exception from the selected study areas is the experience from Finote Selam town
administration, where a militia commander who killed an individual was sent to prison after
court hearings. The verdict of the court proved that the militia commander exceeded the limits of
legitimate defense by using disproportionate means or going beyond the acts necessary for
averting the danger. Consequently, the court found him guilty, and sentenced him to five years in
prison. In fact, the local community was not happy about the sentencing and appealed to higher
court so that the criminal could be convicted of aggravated homicide (Art. 539).
This assertion did not neglect the two investigations carried out by the government sponsored human rights
commission (EHRC) whose finding chiefly remained unimplemented and incredible due to limited outreach,
neutrality problems and heavy reliance on government sources.
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Table 3, Responses to the issue of investigations and punishments
Alternatives Frequency Percent
Were there legal and
administrative measures taken
against security forces that abused
power during the mass protests?
Yes 77 20.1
No 269 70.1
I do not know 38 9.9
Total 384 100.0
If your answer is 'Yes', what types
of measures were taken?
Lowering ranks 29 7.6
All 48 12.5
Total 77 20.1
If your answer is 'No', what do you
think is the reason/s behind the
unavailability of punishment?
Poor controlling system in
the security sector
19 4.9
Lack of strong and impartial
judicial bodies
19 4.9
All 231 60.15
Total 269 69.95
Instead of investigating the legality and legitimacy of the measures, all the post-protest
assessment sessions with top political and security officials primarily concentrated on the
question of why the respective security officials did not disperse the protesters, why they were
unable to control the protest, and why they did not limit the measures they took (KI5, 27
February 2020; KI3, 26 February 2020; KI4, 26 February 2020; KI6 , 9 March 2020; KI7, 9
March 2020; KI8, 9 March 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020). The general conclusion from these
assessment sessions was that policemen and militiamen showed support to the public in general
and protesters in particular, and were incapable of executing thier duties accordingly (KI5, 27
February 2020; KI3, 26 February 2020; KI4, 26 February 2020; KI7, 9 March 2020; KI6 , 9
March 2020). In light of this understanding, several policemen and militiamen were dismissed
from leadership positions, demoted and transferred to other work places as punishment for their
inaction and inability to execute their duties properly (KI5, 27 February 2020; KI7, 9 March
2020; KI6 , 9 March 2020; KI8, 9 March 2020; KI10, 10 March 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020).
Admitting the wide extrajudicial killings and tortures during the protests, several civil society
organizations called for independent international investigations into the nationwide killings,
injuries and violation of human rights by the Ethiopian security forces. However, all the call for
international investigations was ignored by the Ethiopian government, and the government
offered this mandate to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Accordingly, the
commission produced two separate reports on the response of security officials in three regions,
i.e. SNNP, Oromia and Amhara. The reports, in this regard, lacked credibility due to their limited
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
inclusion of local sources in the investigation, heavy reliance on government sources, limited
capacity and doubts about the neutrality and independence of EHRC from the influence of the
ruling party. Moreover, most of its recommendations for prosecuting security personnel who
committed extrajudicial killings and inhuman acts were highly contingent on the goodwill of the
regime governing the country. For instance, with the recognition that the security forces took
disproportionate measures at Dangila town, the Commission recommended that the authorities
take legal measures against security forces who abused their power (Liyat, 2017). Despite this
recommendation of the Commission, the regional government in general and local
administrations in particular did not take punitive measures against these forces. For example, a
police officer who killed one individual and injured two or three others when attempting to
remove a Dashen beer billboard from his restaurant renovated his restaurant in Bahir Dar (KI10,
10 March 2020; KI9, 10 March 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020), which was seen by the public as a
reward for the crime he committed (KI9, 10 March 2020). Instead of undertaking genuine
investigations into the actions of this police officer and punishing him, it seems that the local
government appreciated the action of this police officer and allowed him to work and live in
freedom (KI10, 10 March 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020; KI9, 10 March 2020).
Various justifications can be made about the unwillingness of the Ethiopian government and the
respective region administrations to investigate cases where the security forces used
excessive/arbitrary force. Recognizing the presence of security officials who abused their power,
an interviewee from Burie town underlined that investigations and convictions were absent and
accountability from low to high ranking security and political officials was lacking (KI5, 27
February 2020) including the former premier, Hailemariam Desalegn.
Though the FDRE Constitution under Article 55(7) empowers the House of People’s
Representatives to conduct investigations into the conduct of the “national defense force, public
security, and a national police force” and take necessary measures, their power is highly curtailed
by the party in power. According to the Constitution, the highest political power is entrusted to
the House of People’s Representatives. In actual practice, however, the highest political power
was entrusted to the ruling party (KI13, 12 March 2020; Aalen, 2006), which is not controlled by
the executive body and the parliament. A related finding by Adem (2012) also uncovered that the
parliament and the executive in Ethiopia are controlled by the ruling party, which is supreme
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
contrary to the provisions of the Constitution. As a result, the issue of bringing these security
forces to follow due process of law was highly contingent on the whim of the regime in power.
Furthermore, the Ethiopian parliament itself was wholly occupied by the ruling party, which
potentially prevented any serious parliamentary debate and investigations when power was
abused (Horne, 2016). This situation practically prevented investigations into the actions of the
security forces altogether.
The country also lacks strong institutions in place, and the ruling party dominates every affair of
the administration (KI13, 12 March 2020; KI12, 11 March 2020). Courts were not strong and
independent in making decisions on politically sensitive issues (Horne, 2016; Aalen, 2006;
Abbink, 2009). The respondents, as shown in the above table, associated the unavailability of
investigations and consequent punishment against these security forces with the absence of
strong and impartial judicial bodies to try cases autonomously (see Table 3). A government
funded Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also lacked impartiality and independence, crucial
elements to conduct credible and effective investigations into alleged offenses (Human Rights
Watch, 2017). The recently introduced repressive laws on terrorism, civil society organizations
and the media further weakened the roles and influences of political parties, NGOs, journalists
and other concerned bodies from meaningfully contributing to stability in the country. Numerous
restrictions on the independent media and non-governmental organizations resulted in little
scrutiny of abusive security forces (Horne, 2016).
Furthermore, in most developed democracies the security sector, importantly the defense and
police forces are made independent and free from the influences of politicians in the exercise of
their power. According to UNODC (2011) and Osse (2006), provisions of relative autonomy,
operational and professional independence to law enforcing officials enable national
governments to build strong accountability and responsiveness in the security sector. As opposed
to this experience, the security forces in Ethiopia are exposed to excessive political interventions
from the ruling party. The regime abused and consistently used security forces to harass
opposition figures and consolidate power thereof (Center for International Human Rights Law
&Advocacy, 2018:5). A large number of interviewees in the present study also emphasized that
the issue of independence and impartiality of police were pretentious (KI3, 26 February 2020;
KI2, 26 February 2020; KI7, 9 March 2020; KI5, 27 February 2020; KI11, 10 March 2020; KI6 ,
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
9 March 2020; KI12, 11 March 2020). Political leaders intervene in the affairs of the security
forces either through abusing their power or using the administration and security offices. The
intervention here ranges from giving commands to stop investigations into suspected offenses to
that of forcing to cancel charges filed against criminals. These situations practically marred the
undertaking of effective supervision and internal control systems in the security sector, which
partly affected the imposition of both disciplinary and criminal punishments against offenders.
The police force in Ethiopia did not have scientific control and evaluation standards (KI10, 10
March 2020; see table 3).
4 Conclusion
Deployment of forces ordered by the federal and regional governments was observed during the
conduct of the demonstrations. These security forces took a range of measures either to disperse
or prevent protesters form demonstrating or to bring illegal activities under control. They
muffled, beat, tortured and killed largely peaceful protesters through the employment of both
less-lethal and lethal means like live bullets. Part of the security forces’ measure was the conduct
of arbitrary and forceful arrests of individuals during the protests or through house to house
raids. As a result, several protesters lost their lives due to the deadliest measures by the security
forces, whereas significant others faced physical abuse and even death. These deaths and
physical injuries were mainly committed against civilians and unarmed individuals. Moreover,
detainees both in official and unofficial prisons experienced physical abuse in addition to the
worsening conditions due to the inadequate provisions of sanitary and life sustaining services.
All these unnecessary tragic measures were taken to stop unauthorized protests, road closures,
burning tires, damaging properties and to prevent attacks on targeted government officials,
individuals and security forces. Based on the data generated from respondents, interviewees and
document analysis, it is concluded that the security forces used arbitrary and excessive force
against the demonstrators and detainees.
Despite the substantial number of evidence that shows the disproportionate and arbitrary
application of force on protesters, who were chiefly unarmed and peaceful, the government at the
federal and regional levels did not undertake genuine investigations to make the security officers
responsible for their criminal actions. All the post-protest assessment sessions on the response of
regional security forces highly concentrated on their inability to disperse the protests, to take
The Ethiopian Journal of Social Sciences Volume 7, Number 1, May 2021
limited measures, to make limited arrests and to avoid deaths rather than investigating whether
the killings and injuries with live bullet were justifiable and legitimate. Therefore, the issue of
how, why and by whom civilians were injured and murdered left uninvestigated. With the
exception of Finote Selam town, no security forces were brought before a court of law for
murdering protesters with government provided firearms. However, policemen and militiamen
who were thought to be sympathetic to the protesters were demoted or transferred to other work
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