New ID for Ethiopians: Worrisome implications of info in the hands of lawless officials

29 Oct

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

This article is in reaction to Mahlet Mesfin’s informative reportage “Big-Brother” Comes to Ethiopia for Nearly One Billion Birr, appearing on Addis Fortune of Oct 21, 2012.

The article speaks of enthusiasm by Ethiopian officials to put their hands on the new ultra modern equipment to start a new national ID card system. From this expression of interest it is possible to innocently assume that the Ethiopian government aims to modernize itself. Given the behavior of state officials to date, however, it can also be presumed the purpose is to electronically sharpen the quality of the relations between the state and individual citizens.

In a normal interface, i. e., in what it ought to be, the state, as part of its social contract with citizens, is theoretically required to provide public services to enable individuals and communities to go through their daily lives with a sense of security, dignity, availability of goods and services and their freedoms assured to engage in activities of their choosing.

In return, citizens are expected to lead their lives in accordance with the law, among others, paying their taxes, something that the Ethiopian state’s extractive configuration unfortunately views a matter of its entitlement — in most instances, without even fulfilling its obligations under that contract.

When we return to Mahlet’s piece, for obvious reasons, immigration and the finance ministry have shown enormous interests in the new ID system. It is automatically assumed that the ministry of finance would need it to do better job of national planning. The interest of immigration is to keep its eyes open to see who enters the country, why and for how long. Much as the registration of citizens is also afforded by this system, law enforcement officials, especially the police could rely on it to fight or prevent crimes.

Most concerning, however, is the huge interest of the shadowy and notorious National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). To date, if anything, NISS has barely been known for its protection of citizens and the nation. As a state institution, not free from politics, it has more concentrated on the upkeep of power in few hands. This article would not reiterate here the years of criticisms NISS received for its functions and objectives not being the consistent with the constitution, especially in ensuring in its implementation to ensure the well-being of all citizens, not some.

NISS has rather attained dubious reputation for its unmistakably long arms, extra legal activities and lawlessness, whose monstrous power derives from imposing fear and insecurity on citizens. If that has done anything, it is to make Ethiopia one of the top refugee producing nations in the world.

Inevitably, therefore, the introduction of the new ID system is expected to facilitate more effectively NISS’s repressive activities against citizens. This may be dismissed as unfounded fear. The hitherto Ethiopian experience would not.

I am at pains to make it clear that this article is not politically-motivated; nor is it intended to criticize because it is a habit. It only aims to catalyze the much-needed change in terms of keeping away fears of citizens at bay and respect for fundamental human rights a reality. This call for reasonable change is still within the reach of the authorities, as they prepare to install the million ETB electronic ID system.

Not surprisingly, a local IT manager surprised Addis Fortune’s writer, when he said, “It’s rare to see bid committee people come to you making you feel that they have done their homework.”


Why worry about Ethiopia moving to new ID system?

When the state suddenly comes now with such immense interest in identifying and knowing each citizen ‘better’ with the help of modern technological registry, it certainly is unstoppable and would soon become a reality. At the same time, if citizens feel a sense of unease, even as the title of Addis Fortune’s article with reference to ‘Big Brother’ also seems to hint, there is good reason for the cringe and uncertainty.

No doubt, these have been countenanced by the experiences of people under the constantly above the law state and the behavior of its powerful officials. That is why it becomes imperative for citizens to prepare themselves for it, including by organizing in civil societies.

In other countries, including in the developed world, there are civil society organizations, side by side with governance bodies to follow up how the state is behaving in every respect the information in its custody — whether it uses them to blackmail citizens or extract concession in something or force support for activities they do not believe in, etc.

On the other hand, if this newly-sought intimacy and new acquaintanceship between the state and its citizens is intended for the state to improve its planning, provide its services efficiently, we should all support it. It is in use in well-regulated, law-abiding states. There, the privacy of citizens is appropriately firewalled. They have legal and technical safeguards to ensure that the state respects its inviolability. Thus this is not only a matter of technology and sophisticated societies. But also it is whether the state is willing to submit to the rule of law.

Therefore, in those societies, there is no fuss about this; citizens do what is possible, recognizing that it is merely a human endeavor within the limits of our weaknesses.

For instance, India is currently engaged in the mammoth task of biometrically registering 1.2 billion of its citizens. In a country where democracy has safely imbued the sense of independence of each citizen and right of the defense of the single member or the collective, India in a given week goes through all sorts of protests on every conceivable issue, as if these were a vocation. That is in defense of legally defined rights. Not surprisingly, however, biomertic registration has hardly ruffled Indian hairs.

This is because, as in the case of the developed countries, India is a democratic country and citizens have little to worry about violation by the state of their rights of privacy.

The corollary of this is that, in Ethiopia’s political and legal environment, it is extremely difficult to believe that the availability of such important data on individuals and operation of such a powerful tool could be safe and sane in the hands of above the law officials. They have always shown enormous capacities to circumvent prohibitions. Therefore, the new system is being realized without the necessary safeguards, i.e., the state reforming itself from its 21 years of domineering posture and a past equally unsavory.

At the heart of this concern is the fact that the availability of all information about every citizen in one place would make easier its abuse, especially inducing officials into seeking unearned or forced loyalty in support of this or that. Citizens already know how much false information and senseless propaganda are being used to do the same. The system could also be exploited to harm the interests of the state’s political opponents.

Moreover, it already is within the experiences of Ethiopian entrepreneurs and businesses persons that either do not cooperate with the regime or openly criticize it to have received all sorts of tramped up charges, for some reason only to lose their properties end spend their years in prison. This is not being said those that do not respect the countries commercial, environmental or fiscal laws.

Who would claim ignorance about pretexts of tax non-payments, true or false, resulting in the liquidation of businesses whose political loyalty is suspect, or sympathy with the opposition. Rumors have it and the media have also thrown hints at it that people whose businesses are lucrative and have attracted the interests of powerful eyes, but refused associating others into the business are allegedly subjected to this treatment. A name frequently mentioned in these allegations is that of the late prime minister’s widow. I might add here, for instance, it is not without reason that the World Bank in its 2013 Doing Business report downgrades Ethiopia to 127th ranking, among others, for its failing protection of investors in the past year.


Privacy rights and data protection

The desired or planned closeness or intimacy by the state with citizens is not only too close for comfort. But also, as stated above, the fears and uncertainties in Ethiopia today arise from the dominance of the state, as he put it in his chapter for a book, titled States and Markets: Neoliberal Limitations, the late Prime Minister argues that what matters for the forward journey is development. For this the easy shortcut is by building the supremacy and autonomy of the state.

We saw from the autonomy and supremacy of the developmental state that these on one hand became tools to ensure the submission of the entire society, with utter disrespect of laws. On the other, with its lack of integrity and rationality, the developmental state has forced into submission the private sector, as if the state could single-handedly bring about national development. Only recall the earful Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn received from the private sector (check out The Reporter of 27 October 2012. More worryingly Instead, praising mediocre growth, our country could not still emplace itself on a sustainable path of development.

The sum of these two factors together resulted in utter repressions that since 2005 have increased astronomically, an action difficult to contemplate from a government that claims to be building democracy and ensure the betterment of the lives of all citizens. It has also become a government that no longer is concerned about its initial creed of fighting for the right of citizens to live in their country in peace, dignity and their human rights and social activities respected.

Inevitably, that not being the case, this situation has become frightening no less than the Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 Spillberg movie). Worse, in the case of our country is its being more earthly and mundane, but effective in its disabling and destructive powers.

These are very serious charges. But what are the evidences for such concerns? To date, in spite of the existence of laws in the country, the Meles regime, and now his successor, has considered it their ‘sacred duty’ in the name of development to throw citizens out of their homes, demolish their residences, as the well connected end up being holders of prime lands and properties. The same has happened to farmlands and grazing lands seized by the state by force and handed over to international investors and allies of the regime.

This represents a coup against the constitution and rural and urban land laws that since 1975 have been in practice, until Meles Zenawi, the different ministers of agriculture and those of urban and capacity development invalidated them. Examples of abound about such illegal activities by the state. Suffice it to mention those against teachers that are thrown out of their schools for demanding their rights, journalists separated from their pens and thrown to jails because they do not support the ruling party.

At the same time, if modernity is the attraction for the regime’s choice of these new sophisticated tools for issuance of citizens’ ID cards, it should be warned that these tools does not come with a magic wand to create non-existing abstract values of trust and confidence of citizens in the state. The state has to work harder to earn them. Nor does the use of such technological tools bring the desired efficiency. The state has to take initial measures to remove and, if possible, to stamp out altogether, all the already known causes of poor governance or the obstacles to good governance.

The question to be asked in this situation is who would ensure the safety and integrity of the private information of citizens? Who in Ethiopia would take action, when that integrity is violated, or information is lost for any reason? Who would take responsibility to expose and bring the culprit before the law, especially it is this dominant state, whose capacity for for arrogant actions and underhanded activities are no secret to citizens.

Perhaps citizens may be told that the state is responsible for the protection of their information. Nonetheless, if the past 21 years should have taught Ethiopians something it is the fact that the state has always been both judge and jury, its judgment often resulting in favor of its lawless actions.

Similarly, no matter how many laws are promulgated, in a state that considers submission to the laws and the will of citizens no differently from defeat, what follows the new ID system is concerning.


Reforms that need consideration

I should reiterate here that the issues addressed here are not mediated by a political motive. The objective of this piece is to help improve the Ethiopian political environment. Therefore, having analysed the sufferings of Ethiopians with the unbridled authority of the state, there are a few points that should be considered for a better outcome from implementation of the new ID system – before actual implementation begins. These include:

    ◙     No one should be considered above the law. It is imperative that not even Meles Zenawi, whose memory is now being deified to help strengthen TPLF’s weakening control over the nation. Even when we look into that the whole purpose of the exercise is to use Meles’s name to return as spirit to give them cohesion and strength to continue the uncertain journey he has started. Instead, if the government is interested in Ethiopia’s progress, as has been argued by many well-meaning individuals, the officials have no better recourse than correcting many of his mistakes especially, in governance and the equality of citizens. These have undermined our country’s progress and would increasingly challenge it through generational rifts going forward;

    ◙     At no point should anyone be considered guilty until a “competent” court of law, operated by a judge serving the interests of the law with honesty and professionalism, and pronounces himself or herself on the matter;

    ◙     No official should be allowed to exercise excessive discretionary powers. For instance, leaving abroad in democratic countries, what we see and learn in day-to-day life is that excessive discretionary powers are restricted by law. They are few in the hands of politicians. This is because the countries have learned from human behavior and the powers of self-interest (“ለራስ ሲቆርሱ አያሳንሱ”) in politicians. In other words, they believe that such authority would not only undermine the rule of law. But also it could create confusion, discrimination and injustices, allowing infringement of rights, if officials are free to do whatever they want.

Let us ask ourselves what is the use of such tamper proof ID card, when officials are reposed with discretionary powers to allow charges to be fabricated or ignored, when it touches one of their own. Such is the discretionary powers of Ethiopian officials that they even have powers over life and death. Courts can be ordered by politicians to take decision one way or the other. Law enforcement can ignore the decisions of courts, with no consequences. This disastrous path has only undermined the government and its authority.

In countries governed by the rule of law, the reason why they needed to curb discretionary powers is because it is the mother of all corruption, favoring one over the other, injustice, mainly discrimination between one group of citizens and the other ordinary mortals. A country with such possibilities cannot have good governance.

That much we also know about our Ethiopia too. It does not matter how much the state propagates about its commitment to the rule of law, its practices and behavior have remained unlawful in many instances and anathema to good governance.

Consequently, in countries with such practices, for example Ethiopia, citizens do not know their rights, particularly because the law says one thing and officials do something else. It has long been realized that, in a nation where discretionary powers of officials are in excess of what is needed to exercise authority with flexibility, it only becomes the source of tensions, resentments and conflicts between individual citizens and the state.



The objective of this article is to underline the importance for the Ethiopian state of adequately transforming itself to shoulder the responsibilities that come with its new venture. In other words, the state should be ready to allow its ferocious claws to be clipped by the rule of law.

If there are doubters that the state, after having developed taste for unbridled power that have now become instinctively and excessively political, its powers cannot be bound by law or even human decency, in general terms their preoccupation is may be reasonable as a preoccupation. This does not mean that we should not address the issue or send notice to the state to impress upon the authorities that all unlawful actions cannot last, no matter what.

A state resistant to the democratic impulses of its people should realize that its choice is between voluntary submission or facing the anger of long deceived and repressed people. This precisely is what happened to the mighty former President Hosni Mubarak, a darling of the West, who now is in jail sentenced by a Cairo court of law for his decades of abuses of the powers of his office, election stealing, massacre of protesters and years of mistreatment of Egyptians. No one raised a finger to say his sentencing was unlawful.

Ethiopian officials also need to ask what the use of transitioning from hand scribbled Kebele paper to electronically linked IDs with lots of data behind the system, without the state changing its behavior. It is imperative that the institutions of government and law enforcement change their perception and recognize and respect the rights and dignities of citizens. Ethiopia’s sovereignty resides in its people, not land and water that now being thrown to foreign investors and political allies cheaply. Recognizing this would help improve governance, the well-being of citizens and nation’s progress and security in time.

The first step toward this is inducing change in the perception of the police, intelligence operators and military of their role in protecting citizens. The existing attitude that he or she is the enemy simply because he or she criticized the government and thus they could easily be clubbed, or shot at or dragged in the streets by security people is wrong and needs to end. Crimes could be seen and litigated in a court of law citizens respect its authority. Such change can take root, if there is change from the top, i.e., attitudes, public speeches, cabinet decisions, statements to the media and orders the higher ups give.

After all, the best security system a nation could have is its citizens standing guard in unison to defend the nation in every sense from internal enemies and foreign. For citizens to make it their duty to defend the nation, they need to have the confidence that the nation is also protected from those in power and are free to abuse it on a daily basis.

* Updated with additional material and slight editing.

TE – Transforming Ethiopia

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