The Changing Face of Ethiopia`s Police Force


18 June 2008: The Changing Face of Ethiopia’s Police Force


Bringing good governance to Ethiopia’s police directly involves reviewing and reforming the decision-making process in the force. It also means ensuring that the implementation of decisions reflect the principles of good governance. The process should be participatory, it should aim to be consensus-oriented, transparent, inclusive, and follow the rule of law. It needs to ensure that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It should also be responsive to the present and future needs of the society.

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This is easy to say but very hard to do, particularly in a country with a history of authoritarianism and little, if any, meaningful participation of citizens in the way they are governed. Over the past fifty years, Ethiopia has gone from one extreme to the other – from feudalism to socialism before settling in the 1990s for a significantly more open political system. This blends federalism and decentralization with strong state structures that are required to serve what national leaders call ‘the developmental State.’


The police have not been exempt from the political winds that have blown in different directions in Ethiopia. The force as a modern institution was established in 1942. As a law enforcement body, it has continued its tradition of serving the government of the day, yet the political changes have had an impact. For one, when the country adopted the federal system, the structure of the police force changed substantially. Each regional state got a police force of its own, answerable to elected regional bodies, while the Federal Government gained the services of the Federal Police.


Structural change is one thing. What is critical is effecting change in the way normal business is done at every level. Although decentralizing the police structure could be seen as a step in the right direction towards good governance, the question is whether the police are relating better to the public and if the change of structure has brought about a change of behavior?


The impartial enforcement of laws requires the operation of fair legal frameworks that are enforced impartially, as well as the existence of an independent judiciary. It also requires the full protection of human rights, particularly those of minorities and an impartial and incorruptible police force.


The issue of minorities is of particular relevance to Ethiopia, as it is made up of some eighty ethnic groups, all of them minorities at national level. There is no ethnic group that is a majority in Ethiopia. However, at the level of a number of regional states, there are majority ethnic groups, and it is important that those who find themselves in the minority really feel that their interests are being taken into account.


There are signs that the police forces in Ethiopia are trying to deal with the requirements of good governance. One example is the effort to introduce and implement community policing. From the way in which the police manage to get information from communities, it would seem that the launch of the practice of community policing has strengthened the effectiveness of the police through the improvement of relations between the force and the community at large.


There is also growing coordination within the justice system as the police, prosecutors, courts and other related institutions interact more purposefully while maintaining their independent mandates. It is hoped that this beginning will speed up the delivery of justice, for long a worrying feature in the Ethiopian judicial landscape.


More recently, the police have started something more far-reaching; implementing what is known as “Business Process Reengineering (BPR).” Speaking in general terms, BPR represents a management approach that aims at institutional improvement and better service delivery by means of increasing effectiveness of the processes that exist within organizations – in this case the police force.


The very fact that the police consider their work as ‘service delivery’ is in itself a departure from the past. The force has pledged to upgrade its education and training system, as well as its administration, and plans to revamp its crime prevention and investigation work.


This is an encouraging beginning, but we need to acknowledge that it is just that – a beginning. To start with, transforming good intentions into new initiatives of implementation is a big task. But the real test is to see the reforms really take hold and impact on the life of the institution and the professionals that staff it. The response of the public represents the biggest test of all. Many are watching and waiting.


Abebe Muluneh, ICPAT/ISS, Addis Ababa     


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