Law enforcement in Ethiopia

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Law enforcement in Ethiopia has been since a reorganization in October 2000, the responsibility of the national police which is overseen by the Federal Police Commission. This commission reports to the Ministry of Federal Affairs, which in turn is responsible to the parliament; however, this subordination is loose in practice. In previous years, the police reported to the Security, Immigration, and Refugees Affairs Authority, a unit of the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice.[1] However, local militias also provide local security largely independent of the police and the Ethiopian military. Corruption is a perennial problem, particularly among traffic police who solicited bribes.[2]

The U.S. Department of State states that its contacts within the Ethiopian government report that the findings of investigations into abuses by local security forces, such as arbitrary detentions and beatings of civilians, are rarely made public. However, the Ethiopian government continued its efforts to train police and army recruits in human rights. During 2008 the government is seeking assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the local non-governmental organization Prison Fellowship Ethiopia (JFA-PFE), and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission to improve and professionalize its human rights training and curriculum. The JFA-PFE provided human rights training for police commissioners and members of the militia in 2008.[2]

History of law enforcement in Ethiopia[edit]

In traditional Ethiopian society, customary procedures resolved conflicts. One example of these customary procedures was the tradition of parties in civil, and even minor criminal disputes, to call upon a passing stranger to decide the issue. As Margary Perham notes, "These informal roadside courts might last for hours to the deep interest of the spectators, and many travellers have described this characteristic Ethiopian scene."[3] Families usually avenged wrongs committed against their members, and the armed retainers of the nobility enforced law in the countryside according to the will of their leaders. In 1916 the imperial government formed a civilian municipal guard in Addis Ababa to ensure obedience to legal proclamations. The general public despised the municipal guard, nearly all of whose members were inefficient at preserving public order or investigating criminal activities.[4]

As part of his efforts to modernize the country, Emperor Haile Selassie undertook several reforms to improve law enforcement. The first was the drafting of a criminal code in 1930, but was not distributed until 1932.[5] This was followed in 1935 by the establishment of formal, British-trained police forces in Addis Ababa and four other cities.[4] This replaced a police force of about 3,000 men who operated in and around Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and along the route of the railway, and had been reorganized by Belgian advisors.[6] These promising beginnings were snuffed out with Ethiopia's defeat in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War.

After his restoration to power in 1942, the Emperor promulgated the founding of the Imperial Ethiopian Police in Proclamation 4/1942.[7] This was organized under British tutelage as a centralized national force with paramilitary and constabulary units. Then in 1946 the authorities opened the Ethiopian Police College at Sendafa.[4]

Further developments was the promulgation of a new penal code, written by the jurist J. Graven of Switzerland in 1957, which was part of a series of legal codifications which included the promulgation of a criminal procedure code in 1961, written by jurist Sir C. Matthew of the United Kingdom.[8] In 1956 the imperial government amalgamated the separate city police forces with the national police force. Initially administered as a department of the Ministry of Interior, the national police had evolved, by the early 1970s, into an independent agency commanded by a police commissioner responsible to the emperor.[4]

Local control over police was minimal, despite imperial proclamations that granted police authority to governors general of the provinces. Assistant police commissioners in each of the fourteen provinces worked in conjunction with the governors general, but for the most part Addis Ababa directed administration. The Territorial Army's provincial units, commanded by the governor general and consisting of an unpaid civilian auxiliary, assisted the national police force in areas where police were scarce. Police posts were found in all cities and larger towns and at strategic points along the main roads in the countryside. The police usually recruited local men who were familiar with the social values of the areas in which they served; however, the populace rarely looked upon such individuals with affection. Police operations generally emphasized punishment rather than prevention.[4]

By 1974 the national police numbered approximately 28,000 in all branches, including 6,000 in the Mobile Emergency Police Force; 1,200 frontier guards; and a 3,200-member commando unit with rapid reaction capability. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) supplied the paramilitary police with weapons and vehicles and installed a nationwide teleprinter system, while Israeli counterinsurgency specialists trained commandos and frontier guards. About 5,000 constabulary police, mostly recruited locally, served in Eritrea, as did 2,500 commandos.[4]

After the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, the Derg severely circumscribed the authority of the national police, which had been identified with the old regime and regional interests. The authorities accused constables of protecting landowners against peasants in the countryside, of arresting supporters of the military regime in Addis Ababa, and of being members of the "rightist opposition." In Eritrea, however, the army already had taken over police functions in January 1975 from local police units suspected of being sympathetic to the secessionists. The Asmera police voluntarily stayed at their posts for some time after their dismissal to protect civilians from attack by unruly soldiers.[4]

In 1977 the national police were re-organized, and a politically reliable commissioner put in command. A security committee formulated policy, which then was implemented by the Ministry of Interior. The army assumed a larger role in criminal investigation and in maintaining public order. People's Protection Brigades took over local law enforcement duties previously assigned to the constabulary. As a result of these changes, by 1982 the strength of the national police had declined to about 17,000. Mengistu also created the army's new Eighth Division from police commando units. Other special units joined the augmented 9,000-member paramilitary Mobile Emergency Police Force for employment in counterinsurgency operations.[4]

The Directorate of Police, which reported to the commissioner, included the special Criminal Investigation Branch, which had the role in directing police counterinsurgency activities through regional branch offices. Another branch of the directorate investigated economic crimes, particularly smuggling and other forms of illicit commerce. The Revolutionary Operations Coordinating Committee, organized at the subregion level, cooperated with the police in battling smuggling and economic sabotage.[4]

The Marxist regime stressed that the mission of the national police was essentially political--more involved with suppressing political dissent as the local law enforcement role shifted to People's Protection Brigades. Mengistu described the police mission as contributing to the "intensification of the class struggle."[4]

The government adopted a policy whereby police constables were recruited at an early age and trained in their native regions. Training was designed to allow police stationed in remote areas to be self-sufficient in building and maintaining their posts. Training standards were not uniform, and, unless it took place in Addis Ababa, inservice or specialized training was limited. In politically stable rural areas where duty requirements and supervision were less exacting, the police were less efficient than their urban counterparts. A high percentage of rural constables could neither read nor write and therefore did not keep records of their activities. Many crimes were considered to be matters concerning only the persons involved and were often ignored by the police unless one of the interested parties filed a complaint.[4]

The Addis Ababa police, by contrast, were organized into uniformed, detective, and traffic units; a riot squad, or "flying column"; and a police laboratory--organizational refinements not found in regional police units. A small number of women served in police units in large cities. Generally, they were employed in administrative positions or as guards for female prisoners. National police officers were paid according to the same standardized wage scale that applied to members of the armed forces.[4]

As a rule, police in constabulary units were armed only with batons. Small arms usually were kept in designated armories and were issued for specific duties. Matériel used by paramilitary units included heavy machine guns, submachine guns, automatic rifles, side arms, mortars, grenades, tear gas, light armored vehicles, and other equipment adaptable to riot control and counterinsurgency operations. Larger police units, such as the one in Addis Ababa, were also equipped with modern military vehicles, which were used as patrol cars and police vans. In many rural areas, however, horses and mules were often the sole means of transportation for constables.[4]


Ethiopia's prison system consists of three federal prisons, 117 regional prisons, and many unofficial prisons. Prison and pretrial detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening. Severe overcrowding was a problem. In September 2007 it was reported that there were 52,000 persons in prison. Earlier that year, prison populations decreased by 10,000 due to pardons but reportedly again increased due to increases in ethnic conflict and economic crimes.[2]

Prison conditions have been reported as unsanitary and there was no budget for prison maintenance. Medical care was unreliable in federal prisons and almost nonexistent in regional prisons. The daily meal budget was approximately 5 Birr (50 cents) per prisoner, and many prisoners supplemented this with daily food deliveries from their family or by purchasing food from local vendors. Prisoners often had less than 22 square feet (2.0 m2) of sleeping space in a room that could contain up to 200 persons; sleeping in rotations was not uncommon in regional prisons.[2]

Secret police organizations[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ethiopia: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices", Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, US State Department (accessed 9 July 2009)
  2. ^ a b c d "2008 Human Rights Reports: Ethiopia", Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, US State Department (accessed 8 July 2009)
  3. ^ Perham, The Government of Ethiopia, second edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), pp. 143f
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Public Order and Internal Security: The National Police", Library of Congress Country Studies: Ethiopia (Data from 1991; accessed 26 April 2011)
  5. ^ Perham, Government of Ethiopia, p. 140
  6. ^ Perham, Government of Ethiopia, p. 196f
  7. ^ Perham, Government of Ethiopia, p. 156
  8. ^ Perham, Government of Ethiopia, second edition, p. 415

Further reading[edit]

  • Dilip K. Das and Michael Palmiotto (eds.), World Police Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis, 2004.
  • World Encyclopedia of Police Forces and Correctional Systems, second edition, Gale, 2006
  • Sullivan, Larry E. Encyclopedia of Law Enforcement. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2005.

External links[edit]