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Dealing with Criminality in Ethiopia

Ethiopia Criminality
Image credit : HRW

By Samuel Wolde-Yohannes

Since the word criminality embraces by its very definition all criminal activity, it is best to restrict its meaning here to avoid all unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding. Accordingly, let me postulate that by criminality, I do not intend to include state corruption, white-collar crimes, and similar violations of the law since these, in general, require different explanation for their emergence and expansion, and therefore a different treatment. Here, by criminality, I will be referring almost exclusively to acts that involve some form of violence towards a person, e.g. robbery, assault, rape, murder, etc…perpetrated by an individual or organized group. Defined in this manner, urban criminality has never been a major societal and political problem in Ethiopia until recently. Even today, by our African standard, our Ethiopian urban centers, including Addis Ababa, are relatively safer than most cities on the continent. However, this is small consolation since it is a low bar to clear. 

Both during the imperial and Derg regimes, although crime documentation and statistics were spotty at best, the general impression was that Ethiopia’s capital had fewer violent crimes than say Lagos or Kinshasa. With the advent of the EPRDF’s regime and continuing to this day, we have been observing, with great concern, the growth of criminality that threatens the very fabric or urban living. If this trend continues, Addis Ababa and other major cities in Ethiopia will go the way many African cities have gone in the past few decades: practically unsafe and dangerous enclaves one chooses more out of necessity than convenience. Added to the ever-expanding senseless upheavals all over Ethiopia, we have now a recipe for complete chaos and state failure.

The causes of urban criminality are many and varied. By its very nature, the urban environment is the obvious habitat for individuals intent at using their wits and physical strength to engage in criminal activity. As it were, the city is an irresistible magnet for them. We must concede also that there are people who have no moral qualms to engage in criminality. For them, the question is not one of right or wrong, but maximum profit with minimum effort. These are the persons that modern psychology calls sociopaths. Ethiopia, unfortunately, like all the countries of the world, has a share of them, and they must be dealt with all the modern successful methods available to law enforcement. 

More to the point, the vast majority of criminal acts in Ethiopia, as in elsewhere, are opportunistic in nature; that is, they are occasioned by given situations and circumstances, especially as it pertains to stealing and robbery. Very often sociologists are wont to link this kind of criminality to poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunities. This is true in general as it is in Ethiopia. However, underpinning all this is the demographic explosion that has taken place in the past few decades. In 1970, Ethiopia ranked 72nd in population size, in 2020 she is the 12th most populated country! This indicates clearly that there has been an uncontrolled population growth not corresponded with growth and expansion of institutions of security and safety. The other big factor is of course the economy. Despite the more recent multi-year double-digit economic growth, the economy itself has not kept up with population growth to outpace poverty. Thus with population increase and insufficient economic growth criminality found a fertile ground to grow in Ethiopia.  

Though it is virtually impossible to eliminate all criminality completely, it remains however one of the most fundamental tasks of government to curb it as much as is humanly possible, without, however, infringing on human and civil rights of ordinary citizens. What human beings desire most after securing food and shelter is security from random and gratuitous acts of violence. To echo the great English philosopher Hobbes, it is through our desire for peace and the preservation of it that we are led to form government and submit to an authority of our designation. If there is no security in the state, as it has happened many times in history and is happening this very day in Haiti, what we will witness is a nation run by armed thugs without any scruple, terrorizing, killing and extorting ordinary citizens. I am not in any way suggesting that this is what is going on in Ethiopia, or that it will in the near future. However, not taking decisive measures against common violent criminality may eventually lead us to a place of no return. Most of all, it will lead to a situation where Addis Ababa and all other urban areas will be virtually unlivable. 

Naturally, as multifaceted is criminality, its containment and drastic reduction cannot depend on a single tool alone. Rather, it requires the use of several instruments. First, as everyone who has dealt with the issue knows, one cannot reduce criminality while corruption runs rampant in the administration, especially in the judiciary. Only when corruption is severely contained and dealt with can one expect to see real results in the reduction of criminality. Today, too many officials are willing to see the other way for the right price. If one is rich enough to get away with murder while ordinary poor citizens suffer the full brunt of the law, there will not be any respect for the law nor for those claiming to enforce it. Some may argue convincingly that this is no different from what happens even in the U.S., since one can argue by a roundabout way that justice in the U.S. is as good as your lawyer, and your lawyer is as good as your money! Therefore, it all boils down to money! However one sees it, the first place to begin fighting criminality is to drastically contain corruption in the state. 

As stated above, when analyzing the causes of criminality, most social scientists agree that at its root lie poverty and unemployment. The assumption being that as long as a country remains undeveloped, it is condemned to pervasive criminality. I am inclined to think that unemployment and poverty are not in se the ultimate causes of criminality. The true reason has to be the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots. In Ethiopia, this phenomenon has been worsening since the demise of the Derg regime, and it will continue unabated if certain economic, political and social programs are not instituted  in time to mitigate it. One has only to see the countries that have a constant battle to curb criminality without ever succeeding truly. These are the ones, like the U.S., China and Brazil, that despite astounding wealth, rather than controlling criminality they have only succeeded in turning themselves into police states. More than 75% of the world prisoners are in these three countries! The common thread that binds them is their desire to maintain the status quo by any coercive tool available.

What distinguishes most social democratic nations, on the other hand, is their ability not only to curb criminality, but also to prevent it in the first place. Through well-designed economic and social programs, by a much fairer distribution of wealth, they are not only able to blunt class resentment, but are able to create real opportunities for their underclasses. 

The alternative should be clear at this point. If Ethiopia goes all-out for capitalism, as exemplified by the above-mentioned countries, she needs to consider whether creating a police state, and by this I mean a state that fields on a permanent basis armies of law enforcement agents and a very strict penal system to provide a semblance of peace and stability. Alternatively, on the other hand, the social democratic model which relies to a very high degree on fairer distribution of wealth through taxation to provide services and benefits to the disadvantaged. 

The irony should not be lost on anyone: the countries that have been investing prodigally on their law enforcement have only been able to maintain a questionable status quo, while those who have invested in their lowliest citizens continue to benefit from their peace dividends. 

What we generally observe is that capitalist countries are profoundly invested in the idea of deterrence and punitive justice. There is little to no inclination for rehabilitative or restorative justice. The moving idea in capitalist states is to punish the offender harshly and mercilessly as to deter him or her from repeating the offence. However, often the outcome of such an approach has been the opposite, and in fact, it has often worsened criminality. If one is harshly and mercilessly dealt with for a small infraction, one may most likely be led to think that one might as well commit a bigger crime if the punishment that follows is not substantially different. The U.S. provides interminable examples of such instances [ https://eji.org/ ]. Even though the objective is to contain maximally the rampant criminality, what is achieved is to create a permanent class of people that are made unable, by so many restrictions imposed on their status as felons, to re-integrate themselves back into society. Thus an epidemic of recidivism, i.e. a large population that cannot function normally in society and therefore violates willfully the law to be re-incarcerated.   In the U.S. and Brazil, the clear majority of this class of incarcerated, paroled or probationer prisoners are black and brown persons. As Michelle Alexander’s epoch making book The New Jim Crow has clearly shown, this has been by design, at least in the U.S.A. 

In the short run, the current government of Ethiopia may not have the necessary financial wherewithal nor the required infrastructure to immediately put in place the ideals of rehabilitative and restorative justice as implemented in the social-democratic countries. However, it should remain the ultimate goal. Meantime, the objective should be to develop a system of safety and security intended to prevent and pre-empt widespread criminality through community programs. 

Obviously, habitual and hardened criminals cannot be let to roam around until the mentioned programs are in put in place. Again, the models should not come from avowedly capitalist systems, but from countries that believe in more humane and rehabilitative approach. Rather than enclosing criminals in fortresses of steel and concrete to idle to the point of insanity in little cells, it might be a better idea to house them in penal colonies where they not only spend their days in fruitful occupation, but will also contribute for their own sustenance, pay amends to those whom they have violated, and prepare themselves, in the process, to re-integrate themselves back into society.

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