Ethiopia’s 2021 elections: To hold or not to hold?
(awashpost)—Amid a range of political crises, the June 2021 elections in Ethiopia could not have come at a worse time. The COVID-19 pandemic, which authorities used as a pretext to postpone the polls scheduled for August 29, 2020, remains unabated. On the contrary, things have gotten worse in every way possible.
Today, there are more political prisoners in Ethiopia than when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched sweeping reforms in April 2018. Add to these the undue weight of the drying coffers and the dwindling foreign aid for budget support. There is also the brewing geopolitical crisis engulfing Sudan and tensions with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, giving rise to an Ethiopia that is considerably less stable than two years ago.
Clouds of war
Worse still, the war in Tigray has resulted in a colossal humanitarian disaster; famine is devouring 4.5 million, mainly children and poor households. More than a million people have been displaced due to the war. The conditions of vulnerable groups in Tigray is so dire that four retired U.S. Ambassadors who served in Ethiopia expressed their grave concerns in a letter to Abiy.
Moreover, disturbing rape allegations sent a new wave of shock and outrage to all well-meaning people worldwide. Unfathomable human rights abuses including, but not limited to, the killing of civilians by military squads, destruction of houses of worship, and pillaging of church artifacts of historical and cultural significance, mainly by the Eritrean soldiers and Amhara militia, are only the tip of the iceberg in the mayhem and destruction meted against Tigray. The Abiy administration continues to refuse any outside fact-finding mission to visit the war zone.
Away from the media spotlight, a ruinous war is also raging in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, where, according to The Economist, “arrests and summary executions have become commonplace.” Abiy has erroneously likened the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to the al-Shabab terrorist group and called for eliminating the OLF. This pronouncement led to more massacres and mayhem throughout Oromia. Teenagers are imprisoned, tortured, and killed by law enforcement with impunity. According to an exiled Oromo leader, “while the world attention is focused on the north, the Oromo people face an undeclared genocide.”
In Benishangul, historic grievances by the indigenous Gumuz population, including longstanding questions for equitable use of land, cultural justice, and respect for identity, culminated into violence, leading to the wanton killings and dislocation of civilians. The indigenous groups in the restive region suffered racialized abuse by highlanders who settled in the area and treated the local population with contempt, calling them “shanqilas,” or “darkies,” an unsolicited racialized identity assigned to the people of Beni Shangul due to their relatively darker skin. Since Abiy ordered the deployment of federal forces into the region at the end of December, there have been reports of the military and Amhara militias targeting all Gumuz people “because they can’t identify terrorists from civilians.”
This is not all. In the face of paralyzed federal forces, the Afar militia is intermittently ambushing Somalis, destroying communities regularly. While Oromo-Amhara relations are deteriorating fast in the North, the fragile Somali-Oromo peace in the southern half of the country is the only respite the federal government could show off.
There is also the risk that the delicate peace in the Somali region will soon hit rock bottom. As election campaigning gets into high gear, the unsustainable relationship between Prosperity Party (PP) leaders in the Somali state and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is deteriorating. If left unchecked, the Somali region could explode and open a new front, raising the specter of total anarchy in the East.
Pains of past elections
Electoral history in Ethiopia offers painful lessons as we approach the June elections. Enough has been written about the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) as one of the most autocratic regimes in sub-Saharan Africa. EPRDF leaders, particularly the late Meles Zenawi, ran Ethiopia with an iron fist for nearly three decades. Abiy cut his political and military teeth under the former’s direct and indirect tutelage inside the EPRDF.
As far back as 1995, the one-time pervasive EPRDF conducted farcical elections, which it always “won” with huge margins. As time passed, the margin of victory for EPRDF increased, purportedly winning 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats in 2010 and 100 percent of the seats in the May 2015 election.
As Leonardo Arriola and Terrence Lyons correctly observed in “Ethiopia’s 100% Election,” the skewed 2015 vote did not “lead to political liberalization.” On the contrary, such a blatant but manipulated outcome led to a more autocratic rule that ultimately culminated with a countrywide resistance and the demise of EPRDF.
Contrary to claims advanced by EPRDF’s autocratic rulers and their ideologues, elections do not enhance legitimacy, but they help authoritarian regimes consolidate power. Abiy understands this, and there is a cloud of illegitimacy that currently hangs over his head. In a word, he expects only one outcome from the upcoming elections: To legitimize his tight grip on power.
So why hold elections in June 2021 and not in August 2020? Why rush to elections while the country is in tatters, and when the legitimacy of the ruling PP has almost vanished?
The June 2021 elections will be a total disappointment to those who expect the polls to inch the country toward democracy. Here are four reasons why Abiy and his party is bent on holding the election after manipulating the constitutional process to delay it: (1) Abiy feels that the transitioning of the ruling party from EPRDF to his PP has now completed; (2) He planned and executed the mollification of any potential Oromo challengers hence the arrest of key contenders such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, and other activists who captured the imaginations of the Oromo masses; (3) He completed the process of installing his men at all regional offices in violation of the federal constitution which empowers regional residents to choose their leaders; and (4) He sought to weaken, if not eliminate, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a significant hurdle to his ambitions, from the political space.
“Mission accomplished” is the tunes to which Abiy dances as he marches to elections, notwithstanding these issues that have endangered Ethiopia’s transition to democracy. Abiy is moving the country toward a centralized rule where he is the sole kingmaker.
Abiy’s PP remains oblivious to the concrete dangers facing Ethiopia. Without any national discourse or consultation with opposition parties, the party unilaterally decided now is the right time to hold the elections. There is a reasonable belief that PP will at minimum “sweep votes” in Oromia and the PP-inducted regions such as Somali, Sidama, Afar, Benishangul, Gambella and the autonomous administrative region of Harar. The latter are regions hitherto known as the “backward,” or “haleqer,” where the political elite enjoys less autonomy than the ruling coalition’s influential members.
Most Amhara and urban elites appear happy with the direction Abiy is taking the country: weakening, if not destroying, federalism. Still, political parties representing these communities will work hard to win seats to exert more pressure on Abiy and eventually steer the country away from multinational federalism towards a more rigid centralist state. Besides, in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, and some Amhara state zones, Amhara nationalist groups are expected to give PP a run for its money.
PP already has the incumbency advantage and experience overseeing farcical elections. To garner “victory,” PP will misuse government resources, including communication infrastructure, transportation facilities, and government bureaucracy. In the regional states, where PP handpicks leaders, projects such as schools, hospitals, water, irrigation, and electric facilities are predicated on how communities vote. In this calculus, communities are expected to vote for the ruling PP in exchange for development projects and services. That is how EPRDF did it for 27 years, and there is no indication that PP will do it differently.
Another potent tool PP has inherited from the now-defunct EPRDF is the roaster of more than 10 million cadres, government employees, village, and kebele organizations, all of which will be marshaled for election campaigns. Besides, the PP office has recently reported mobilizing millions from businesses, and it has enough funds to distribute rent and buy votes. And such government behavior could make the June elections untenable and less free and fair.
Abiy’s early days of reforms, which eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, have entirely disappeared. He failed to divorce his actions from the autocratic machine and political culture of EPRDF. As conflicts and abuses of human rights besiege the country, the premier has reneged on his pledged reforms and promises to transition Ethiopia to democracy. If elections go forward as planned, all they would do is help him consolidate his autocratic power, a condition of governance that is the antithesis to democracy.
Is there any hope the upcoming post-EPRDF election would meet the minimum threshold for a free and fair election? Here are some suggestions and steps that should be taken to ensure that the poll meets at least the minimum standards:
- Immediately halt the war in Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions and start reconciliation and dialogue with the opposition in those states.
- Find a solution to the issue of Benishangul that suits not only the settlers but also the marginalized indigenous group.
- Release all political prisoners, particularly Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Gerba, OLF leaders, Eskinder Nega, and all those arrested since Abiy took office.
- Flatten access to public resources, including but not limited to media, transportation to election districts, and assembling in public buildings.
- Ban the use of government bureaucracy by the ruling party.
- Curtail the harassment of non-PP groups, a common phenomenon in all the regions, but more pronounced in the so-called “backward” regions.
The reform is now completely reversed, and it is impossible to imagine how Ethiopia returns to the hopeful democratic openings of Abiy’s early tenure. After the war in Tigray, Abiy has less incentive to seek a return to democratic legitimacy and more likely to rule as his predecessors did. The international community should remain circumspect not to enable another authoritarian regime in Ethiopia or bankroll farcical elections as it did in the past two and a half decades. It is better to hold off rather than legitimize rushed, non-transparent elections whose contested results will lead to further strife within Ethiopia, the spillover of which can negatively impact the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region.