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Ethiopia -- Challenges on Multiple Fronts

The Ethiopian government’s imposition of a state of emergency following weeks of violent demonstrations further complicates an already complex risk environment.  As the situation in the country evolves, those organizations and companies operating there must ensure their risk management plans, procedures and resources keep pace.

So what are the risks?  Broadly the challenges fall into three categories:

  1. Civil unrest related to political grievances and socio-economic issues. The Ethiopian government is the primary target of these protests, however anti-international sentiment has crept into recent demonstrations and foreign owned factories were attacked. As tragically illustrated by the death of an American during recent protests on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, for most in the international community — including local national employees of international firms — exposure largely comes from being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time when violence flares.
  2. Regional and ethnic tensions, which can be interwoven with the politically motivated civil unrest or involve armed insurgent groups in various parts of the country.  Risk is especially acute in border regions. While these are largely conflicts between various groups and the central government, internationals have been directly impacted:  five Western tourists were killed and two kidnapped in the Danakil desert region in 2012.
  3. Government imposed restrictions and challenges, long a factor in Ethiopia, have increased with an escalation of tension and the state of emergency. Recent disruptions of internet and mobile phone connectivity and the reported arrest of over 1,000 people suggest that the already intrusive government in Addis Ababa is likely to increase pressure on citizens and internationals alike. The US Embassy has released an unofficial translation of the state of emergency decree, though details of implementation and interpretation are likely to evolve.

Managing the first two risks includes systems and resources that are familiar to those operating in many locations around the world:

  • Heightened risk awareness to understand where protests or regional violence are occurring. Timely, accurate (as accurate as possible) information is essential for decision making around activities big and small — from setting up a new office to a short trip to the market. Awareness reduces the likelihood of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • Road travel/journey management systems that include pre-trip risk assessment, tracking of travelers, well maintained vehicles and trained drivers.
  • Communication procedures and tools that enable passage of routine and emergency information.  Redundancy in communications is a best practice hampered by the Ethiopian government’s limitations on satellite phone and recent disruption of mobile & internet service.
  • Emergency response procedures and pre-identified resources are essential.

Mitigating risks associated with government actions like the state of emergency are tricky.  In part that’s due to the broad powers and resources of the government. And some challenges come from the potential range of interpretations of the regulations such as  Article 16 of the state of emergency decree which specifically references international NGOs, prohibiting “contact by any individual with foreign governments or nongovernmental organizations in a manner that undermines national sovereignty and security.”  Mitigation measures include:

  • Awareness of regulations and restrictions, recognizing these will evolve and may be different in various parts of the country (curfews, etc). Communicate with peers to understand how the elements of the decree are being interpreted and implemented.
  • Compliance with rules & regulations (associated with the state of emergency and more generally) including those that may see unrelated such as around banking or other administrative areas.
  • Being aware of any changes in government interactions that may signal an increased level of scrutiny — contacts suddenly unavailable or new delays in processing visas, etc.
  • Limiting non-essential travel or activities to reduce direct risk to personnel and help lower the organization’s profile.
  • Encouraging staff (int’l & local national) to inform management of any interactions with security forces or government officials and to report issues/incidents as soon as possible, even where they seem minor.
  • Using discretion in communication, recognizing that phone and internet may be monitored.

One potential “game changer:” Should the government routinely disrupt communication, the ability of organizations to manage risk and respond to emergencies could be severely compromised.  Other potential “trip wires” may include increased limits on the ability to hold meetings or restrictions on movement more generally.

The situation in Ethiopia will continue to evolve in the coming weeks and months.  The state of emergency adds another challenge to operations in the country that organizations must incorporate into their risk management plans to meet duty of care obligations to staff and travelers.