What has transpired in parliament late last week was unusual in its two-decade-long history. As much as 20pc of MPs have voted against an emergency decree, a law the state believes to be an indispensable legal tool to quell widespread protests across the country in recent years.
This was not a legislative house with which the Ethiopian public is familiar. Show of public dissent, in defiance of party discipline, has been rare. A former reporter for an Amharic weekly covering parliament for over a decade recalled only two incidents of MPs voting against the wishes of their parties' whips.
An MP from a constituency in the Somali Regional State had voted against the majority, when Parliament passed a motion in 2006 granting permission to the administration of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to send troops to Mogadishu, Somalia. In another incident, an MP from a constituency in Tigray Regional State had voted against a motion to move the accountability of the board of directors of public media outlets from Parliament to the then Ministry of Information.
Such was the political tradition that has led successive speakers to pronounce publicly that "the House of Peoples' Representatives is not a place of dispute."
Except for last week. MPs were recalled from recess in an emergency session to discuss and ratify the state of emergency the Council of Ministers had passed two weeks ago. First debated within the powerful Executive Committee meeting of the ruling EPRDF, Siraj Fegessa, minister of Defense and Secretary of the Command Centre, told journalists the following day that the decree was passed unanimously when presented to the cabinet, chaired by the outgoing Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn.
MPs were not unanimous in their votes on the decree.
No less than 88 MPs, mainly from the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organisation (OPDO) were registered as naysayers, while seven abstained from a total of 490 MPs in attendance on Friday, March 2, 2018. The most recent rebellion by MPs was reported back in January of this year when about 69 MPs had voted against a bill which reformed earlier legislation on the driver's license regime.
Girma Seifu, who was the lone MP and chairperson of the Budget & Finance Committee of Parliament between 2010 and 2015, was surprised to see these many no votes.
"I was the only one who used to vote in opposition," he told Fortune.
Conventionally, five staff members from the Secretariat of the Parliament only count MP votes when they are made in opposition and abstention. It is not in their practice to count hands raised in support of a bill, for they are the norm and are too many, according to a former member of parliament representing one of the parties in the ruling coalition. In as much as they are anomalies, it is votes made in opposition and abstention that are deducted from the total number of MPs in attendance, said this former MP.
After votes were counted last week, the Speaker of the House, Abadula Gemeda, quickly tallied before he reported "346 parliamentarians voted in favour," thus the decree passed the two-thirds majority that the constitution states is required for a state of emergency law to be ratified. He made an arithmetic error his office corrected later on. But it was too late. Most media outlets that attended the session, including this newspaper, had reported this initial figure from the Speaker, only to retract it later.
Abadula made a public apology for his mistake on a local television channel, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), on March 3, 2018.
"This is the first time we made a mistake in tallying," Yishak Woldesemayat, director of communication at the Parliament, stated. "And this is the first time that the parliament received a large number of votes in opposition."
Last week, 89.6pc of the 547 MPs were in attendance, while eight had passed away, leaving their seats vacant. Many MPs did not turn up, including the Prime Minister and Abiy Ahmed (PhD), chairman of the OPDO. Others, such as Sufian Ahmed (MP-OPDO) have reportedly been away for a long time.
Girma believes that the total number of attendees last week appears to have been exaggerated.
"As far as I can remember, the highest number of attendees hardly exceeded 440 MPs," he said.
However, the Speaker was on record saying, when he opened the floor, that 490 MPs were in attendance. There is an attendance sheet showing the signatures of all the MPs in attendance last week, many of whom were whipped to vote in favour of the decree during party meetings held on preceding days. Almost all the central committees of the four parties in the coalition had voted in favour of the proclamation before it was sent to parliament.
Another opposition figure, Lidetu Ayalew, of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) considers last week's session as "extraordinary", as MPs voiced their objections boldly and openly.
"The movement is great, but the timing is not right," he told Fortune, referring to his support of the passing of the state of emergency.
Million Assefa, a former member of parliament representing the OPDO, believes the error was merely arithmetical, and it cannot block the approval of the proclamation.
A seating MP appears to agree.
"We've reached a consensus over the necessity of the state of emergency, considering the prevailing situation," Tesfaye Daba (MP-OPDO) told Fortune. "Nonetheless, during recess, MPs have gathered information from their constituencies regarding the scarring experience the previous decree left behind in our communities."
It was such concerns regarding the excessive power of the Command Post that led MPs like Tesfaye to challenged the decree and its enforcement. Many of the MPs who pronounced their misgivings have urged the decree to allow the incorporation of regional state leaders to be members of the Command Post, chaired by the Prime Minister.
Attorney General Getachew Ambaye had defended the decree before parliament, stating that the emergency decree was prepared "with the highest effort to safeguard fundamental rights", and to arrest the violence across the country.
MPs have also approved the Board of State of Emergency Inquiry, comprising six members of which half are women.