Ethiopia should reschedule the June election. Here is why.
The poll will bring neither peace in Ethiopia nor legitimacy for the Abiy regime. It is high time to return to the drawing board and salvage the stalled transition through comprehensive national dialogue.
(awashpost)–Ethiopia is set to hold general elections on June 5, 2021. It would be the sixth election since the establishment of the current constitutional framework in 1995. None of the previous five polls met the constitutional standard of ‘free and fair,’ let alone international best practices. The upcoming vote won’t be different.
Far from ushering in a new era of peace, democracy, and stability, the poll will heighten rising tensions, contribute to the hardening of positions and deepen societal polarization. There is clear voter apathy, as evidenced by the dismal registration turnout, which last week forced authorities to extend the deadline. Voters have far more pressing concerns, including the spikes in COVID-19 infection and deaths, the rising cost of living, and the general sense of insecurity across the country. It is high time to postpone the vote and return to the drawing board with the view to salvaging the stalled transition through an all-inclusive national dialogue.
Despite its claim to a long history of statehood, Ethiopia never had a democratic election. For nearly three decades, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) pursued periodic elections that were neither free, fair, or competitive. The May 2005 election was relatively better in terms of pre-election campaigning and the outcome. The opposition operated in a relatively less challenging environment and won significant seats. But that meager progress was reversed in short order due to characteristically zero-sum Ethiopian politics. A combination of EPRDF paranoia and the opposition’s maximalist zeal brought about a violent post-election atmosphere. In the last two symbolic elections in 2010 and 2015, the ruling party did away with all pretensions and claimed 99 percent and 100 percent, respectively.
A defining transition
Fast forward, in 2018, barely three years after its “100 percent victory,” the EPRDF regime was removed from power by sustained popular protests led by Oromo youth and later joined by Amhara and pro-democracy activists in the South. Abiy Ahmed, a little-known intelligence officer, was selected to lead the country through a tumultuous yet defining transition period.
One of the obvious tasks of a transition leader is to facilitate and prepare the ground for holding a free, fair, and democratic election and usher in democratic consolidation. Abiy initially appeared to be on cue, pledging to ensure a democratic election and step aside if his party loses at the ballot box.
His lofty rhetoric and liberal promises generated hope that the sixth general elections, initially scheduled for August 2020, would be far better than all previous electoral exercises. But in March 2020, the Abiy administration indefinitely postponed the polls on constitutionally dubious grounds citing challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Few people were convinced or confused by the official excuses or the theatre put on by the Council of Constitutional Inquiry. It was clear that politics, not the pandemic, was the real reason for the postponement.
The election deadline loomed as Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) was still being constituted. Abiy set up PP by hastily dissolving the much-despised EPRDF to boost his electoral prospects. The rushed merger of three of the four members of the EPRDF set off stiff resistance, primarily from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant party in the hitherto ruling coalition.
Abiy needed a ‘breathing space’ to consolidate power, strengthen his new party, and concomitantly cut to size formidable opposition parties, especially in Oromia, before gambling on an uncertain electoral contest. Evidently, there were more legitimate and credible oppositions in Oromia that could knock out PP if free and fair elections were held by then. The list includes the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the first pan-Oromo political organization established in 1976 to fight to realize the Oromo people’s right to national self-determination. The party commands near saint-like reverence and popularity among the Oromo mass.
“Despite its organizational flaws and divisions, many ordinary Oromos retain an almost messianic belief in the OLF as the major nationalist organization,” the International Crisis Group rightly noted in a 2009 report. “The first modern party to articulate national self-awareness and self-determination, it shaped Oromo political consciousness and, in collaboration with diaspora intellectuals, created a nationalist narrative that influences the discourse of all Oromo opposition parties.”
Similarly, the Oromo Federalist Congress or OFC enjoys popular support up and down in the Oromia state and would dwarf PP in a fair and free electoral contest. Notably, the joining of Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo activist-turned-politician turbocharged OFC’s popularity and prospects. In fact, the two parties were in the process of aligning and harmonizing their electoral strategy.
In short, the PP, as an offshoot of the hated Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), was not in any shape to go up against the OLF and OFC. Furthermore, Abiy’s acceptance and popularity among the Oromo was evaporating after his very public fallout with Lamma Magarsa, the former president of Oromia, and Jawar Mohammed. Abiy rarely toured in Oromia or attended Oromo gatherings without Lamma by his side.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]Lamma and Jawar enjoyed widespread popularity and public trust. So much so that people joked: We know Jawar, he knows Lamma, and Lamma knows Abiy.[/perfectpullquote]
As its electoral prospects slimmed, PP went on forum shopping to find an acceptable excuse to postpone the election and eliminate the opposition. Using the tragic assassination in June 2020 of the legendary Oromo artist Haacaaluu Hundeessa as a convenient pretext, the Abiy regime embarked on a crackdown on the leadership of OLF, OFC, and Oromo youth activists (Qeerroo and Qarree). Tens of thousands of opposition leaders, members, and supporters were arbitrarily arrested across Oromia. PP violently suppressed statehood demands in the Wolaita zone and across the South region and ratcheted up pressure on the TPLF for defying Abiy’s order and holding regional elections in September. In November, Abiy enlisted Eritrea’s help and launched an all-out war on Tigray.
Even as Abiy sought to eliminate the TPLF, PP continued to arrest, intimidate, and co-opt opposition in Oromia and other parts of the country. Unsurprisingly, PP also began to beat the drums about elections. The state media continues to frame the June election as critical in laying a democratic foundation. But the poll could not come at a worse time. Ethiopia is facing a deadly COVID-19 wave. The economy is struggling under the weight of high inflation and forex shortage. Security is deteriorating, and petty crimes are rising even in urban areas, ethnic tension is on the rise, political repression and polarization have intensified.
In a word, Ethiopia is literally on fire. Tigray is effectively in a quagmire amid intensifying civil war and growing violence and human rights abuses. Oromia, the largest regional state, is witnessing unprecedented Oromo Liberation Army ( OLA) resurgence and government counter-insurgency operations.
In the Benishangul Gumuz state, insurgency and communal fights have been on the rise resulting in tit-for-tat killings, displacement, and the burning and looting of private and public property. An armed group has recently taken complete control of a district home to 25,000 residents. It is worth noting that this region is home to the flagship hydroelectric project that is the subject of a protracted tussle between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
The Amhara region is engaged in an active hostility with three neighboring regional states and Sudan. In the north, Amhara militia and special forces are fighting in western Tigray alongside the Federal military and adjacent Eritrean troops. The U.S. government has accused Amhara forces of committing ethnic cleansing in western Tigray and called for their immediate withdrawal. In the west, Amhara militia and farmers have been fighting with Sudanese security forces on border flashpoints. In the southwest, Amhara forces are accused of crossing the border and raiding the Benishangul Gumuz region.
Lately, activists and residents in western Oromia report that Amhara special forces have crossed the border and are perpetrating crimes. This is on top of the ongoing conflict with Oromo farmers and pastoralists in the Oromo special zone and North Shawa.
The Afar and Somali regions have been intermittently fighting on the border areas. Afar activists and regional leaders have blamed neighboring Djibouti for involvement in the latest flare-up.
The Southern regional state has also witnessed multiple security crises emanating from statehood demands and communal conflict. The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has admitted that voter registration could not be held in some districts in the southern state due to security challenges. In short, the security atmosphere is not conducive to hold a free and fair election.
The political opening witnessed during the early period of Abiy ascendence has been reversed, and the republic of fear has once more returned. Currently, dissenting voices and criticism of those in power are muzzled. In Oromia, only the word ‘hell’ could describe the unabating crackdown on real or perceived dissent and political opponents.
Extrajudicial killings have become a routine modus Operandi. Hundreds of innocent civilians have been executed by security forces. Mass arrests have also intensified so much that schools and storages have been turned into makeshift prisons to host political prisoners. The rank and files of the Oromo opposition are not spared. Potential candidates for election have been preeminently incarcerated across Oromia without having their day in court. Security forces have shuttered more than 100 OFC and OLF field offices. Hence, OFC and OLF were pushed out of the election through an unrelenting crackdown on their leaders and members and the closure of the political space.
Since peaceful space has progressively dwindled in Oromia, armed resistance is gaining unprecedented momentum. OLA’s ranks are swelling as youth fleeing security crackdowns join en masse. As per the ruling party’s account of the election security assessment leaked to social media, PP could not conduct party training in 51 districts in Oromia due to security problems. NEBE has also indicated that it could not hold an election in at least seven districts in Western Oromia.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]The repression in Oromia is not an exception. It is the rule.[/perfectpullquote]
The Somali Regional State, which is often held up as the success story of the transition period, is not out of the woods. For example, voter registration did not commence until one week before the original deadline for registration. When voter registration started, it was marred by irregularity. Three opposition parties competing in the Somali state have suspended electoral activities, citing intimidation and massive fraud in voter registration.
Opposition parties have reported that their candidates have been killed in different parts of the country. Even the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema), a party often accused of being a PP-in-opposition due to personal and ideological proximity with the ruling party and its leader, has announced that two of its candidates in Bishoftu (Oromia) and Ataye (Amhara) were killed. Similarly, two National Movement of Amhara or NaMA candidates were killed in Gonder in the Amhara state and Asosa in Benishangul Gumuz. NEBE board chair Birtukan Mideksa has said that the detention of candidates has slowed down voter registration.
Meanwhile, protesters in the Amhara region and Amhara activists in the diaspora are agitating for the cancellation of the election. The Amhara opposition and elites have previously supported both the postponement of the August 2020 election and the rescheduled June 2021 date. Now in an apparent U-turn, they are calling for Abiy to face justice before the election for aiding and abetting the killings and displacement of the Amhara people. This is a significant blow to Abiy, who has been counting on Amhara’s support to crackdown on Oromo opposition and prosecute a deadly civil war in Tigray.
But Abiy Ahmed, on his part, vowed to crush the protests and instigators. So far, no major security crackdown has been reported partly due to the regional security apparatus’s sympathy with protesters even as they destroyed Oromo-owned businesses and carried banners denouncing Oromumma, the Oromo national identity. Whether Abiy forces regional security to turn against the protesters or send in federal forces to quell the protests is unclear. What is indisputably clear is that Abiy has lost his last social and political base.
In Ethiopia, now, as in the past, there is no agreement on the diagnosis and solution to the foundational political conundrums. While those who subscribe to the notion of centralized unitary state blame ‘ethnic federalism’ as the extension of identity politics, supporters of the current multinational constitutional settlement fault the deferred federal promises and failure to rectify past historical injustices. Unitarians wrongly blame TPLF as the mother of all evils and seek the repeal and replacement of the federal arrangement; federalists, on the other hand, seek the genuine implementation of federalism and a clean break from imperial legacy. Sadly, these ideological faultlines follow specific ethnic geography.
While the bulk of the ethnic communities in the Greater South, including Oromo, Somali, Sidama, and so forth, support a federalist path, Amhara and urban elites are nostalgic for the assimilationist and exclusionist unitary state model. Even competitive and democratic elections won’t resolve these sharp ideological divides, let alone the current sham exercise with a predetermined outcome. Only a difficult, painful, and good faith give and take dialogue would bring about an amicable solution.
Abiy Ahmed and his party have chosen a unitarian diagnosis and solution over other competing ideologies, thereby antagonizing a significant portion of the electorate. Over the last three decades, various nations, nationalities, and peoples have enjoyed cultural self-expression and partial political autonomy on local matters. They were demanding full autonomy and commensurate participation in national political and economic power arrangements. But the regressive approach of PP deals a significant blow to their aspiration and expectation.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]The PP is not at peace even within its various regional chapters. It is an open secret that members of different regional branches do not see eye-to-eye on several issues.[/perfectpullquote]
Earlier this month, the Oromia and Amhara branch offices traded blame on the cause and course of the conflict in Ataye in the Amhara region. Similarly, the Benishangul Gumuz and Amhara branch offices exchanged a war of words over the territorial dispute in the Metekel zone.
Somali and Afar branches are also not getting along due to contentious border disputes. The Harari regional administration, run by the Harari branch of PP, has threatened to boycott the election if NEBE does not reverse a decision that curbed Harari’s unique voting system in an apparent objection to the policy position of some PP members and leadership. In a nutshell, no ideological or institutional glue holds the PP branches together. It is a house divided against itself, standing together only due to incumbency benefits and privileges.
This election will further deepen their differences and complicate the already polarized political ecology. Conducting the elections amidst these mounting and ever-complex challenges is much ado about nothing. It neither brings legitimacy for the Abiy administration nor restores peace and security.
The way forward
The Abiy regime needs this election not to secure popular mandate or legitimacy from the Ethiopian people but to regain lost international legitimacy and deflect blame and solicit much-needed foreign aid and loans. If the experience of the last three years is any guide, international legitimacy and resources will be used not to benefit people but build vanity projects, intimidate and co-opt critics. Even worse, there is a well-founded fear that PP, alongside like-minded loyal opposition parties, may embark on reversing the multinational federal arrangement and replace it with territorial federalism or a unitary system.
One thing is certain: Ethiopia won’t be different the morning after June 5. Instead, things will get worse. If Ethiopia is to hold together, the Abiy regime should be pressured to hit pause on the electoral rush and lay the ground for a viable and meaningful dialogue. Before heading to the polls, Ethiopia needs to fix security crises, end political repression, and manage ideological polarization through a comprehensive national dialogue that is nationally owned but facilitated by neutral third parties. The international community should play a positive and proactive role in this regard than rush to legitimize meaningless and conflictual electoral maneuvers.
The chance of mounting a unified domestic countervailing force that would bring Abiy to kneel and reconsider his disastrous move is slim. The international community should exert maximum diplomatic pressure to force him to change course and sit for dialogue. They must do much more than watch in indifference and indecisiveness. The U.S. and EU must speak in one voice and follow through with punitive actions. As a starting point, they should decline to send in observers and make it clear to Abiy that they won’t recognize the results.
Still, to have a meaningful dialogue, the guns must first be silenced. Political prisoners must be released unconditionally. And an illegal and unconstitutional military Command Post in Oromia should be lifted, and civilian security control should be restored. Ethiopia’s future depends on it.