Ethiopia’s historic election overshadowed by a cascade of crises and conflict

Ethiopia’s historic election overshadowed by a cascade of crises and conflict

By Max Bearak

(washingtonpost)–Ethiopia is set to hold a twice-delayed national election on Monday in what the government has heralded as a long-awaited emergence into multiparty democracy. But a cascade of major crises in Africa’s second-most populous country has thrown the vote into disarray, leaving millions unable to vote.

Foremost among them is a disastrous seven-month-old civil war in the northern region of Tigray, where a powerful regional political party is waging a guerilla-style conflict against Ethiopia’s military, which in turn has aligned with forces from neighboring Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Amhara region. All sides have been accused of war crimes, and humanitarian groups say hundreds of thousands in Tigray are experiencing famine conditions.

The election itself has been weakened by widespread insecurity, logistical issues and political disputes. Tigray will not take part in the vote at all, and about a fifth of polling stations in the rest of the country will not open on Monday because of security concerns or improperly printed ballots, according to the country’s election commission. The closed polling stations tend to be in areas where opposition parties claim support. Those closures as well as the jailing of numerous prominent government critics have led some of the country’s biggest opposition parties to boycott the election.

What’s at stake in the election?

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a campaign rally at a stadium in Jimma in Ethiopia’s Oromia region on June 16. (Mulugeta Ayene/AP)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018 on a wave of discontent against what many Ethiopians perceived as a system of ethnic favoritism entrenched by the authoritarian, Tigrayan-led regime that had ruled the country for decades. Abiy’s initial moves toward opening up political and media freedoms were widely lauded, and his peace overtures to Eritrea, which formally ended a long and brutal war, earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. While Abiy is widely expected to be reelected, his standing both within and outside Ethiopia has been greatly diminished since the war in Tigray began. The United States, once a close ally, has sanctioned top government officials for their alleged roles in serious human rights violations in Tigray, suspended all security assistance, and said it was “gravely concerned” about the election environment given multiple crises that “threaten the country’s unity and territorial integrity.” The European Union withdrew its election observers after failing to agree with the government on the mission’s ability to move and communicate independently.

“The prime minister need not be a darling of the west, east, south or north,” Abiy’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told reporters this past week. “It is sufficient that he stands for the people of Ethiopia and the development of the nation. And on June 21, the people of Ethiopia will decide.”

Are the elections expected to be fair?

Ethiopians look over a list of political parties running in the upcoming general election in Addis Ababa on June 17. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

The continued detention of some of Ethiopia’s most popular opposition leaders, particularly in Oromia, the country’s biggest and most populous region, has eliminated Abiy’s main challengers from the vote. The government claims jailed opposition leaders are accused of terrorism aimed at destabilizing the country. The disjointedness of the polls also raises questions of disenfranchisement. Two entire regions, Harari and Somali, will vote in September instead of Monday because of logistical issues. Abiy’s party may win a majority in parliament before those regions get a chance to vote.

“The fact that this election is being held during the rainy season only makes it more problematic,” said Abel Abate Demissie, an Ethiopia analyst at Chatham House. Much of the country lacks adequate transportation infrastructure, which makes getting to polling stations and transporting ballots tricky on muddy roads. He also questioned the government’s ability to secure polling stations as well as safely transport ballot boxes when the military, which has that task, is embroiled in a fierce war in Tigray.

What is the state of the conflict in Tigray?

A woman who fled the violence in Ethiopia’s Tigray region rests in the classroom in Mekele on June 18. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Fighting is ongoing, and aid agencies report having unfettered access only to a handful of cities where the government has reestablished control. Trips beyond those cities have resulted in numerous instances of aid workers being killed or assaulted, vehicles and their loads being confiscated, and an inability to reach those trapped behind rapidly shifting battle lines.

As of this past week, the United Nations estimates that more than 350,000 people in hard-to-reach parts of Tigray are already in famine, and aid officials and Western government representatives say those numbers will multiply without an abatement of fighting.

In the early stages of the conflict, government-aligned forces took control over western Tigray — an area that neighboring Amharas claim was violently annexed by Tigrayans under the previous regime. Widespread reports of Tigrayans being forced from the region prompted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to warn that an “ethnic cleansing” was underway. More than 60,000 people fled into neighboring Sudan, mostly from western Tigray, and a further 1.7 million have been rendered homeless in the region at large.

Investigations by human rights organizations, journalists and Ethiopia’s own human rights commission have described dozens of ethnically driven attacks against civilians, including door-to-door executions and the systematic rape of Tigrayans by Eritrean troops. While testimonies indicate one particularly gruesome massacre in November was carried out by Tigrayan forces, who killed more than 600 mostly Amhara people, subsequent months were marked mainly by allegations of atrocities committed against Tigrayans.

Has Ethiopia’s government owned up to its role — and Eritrea’s — in the crisis?

Residents line up at an aid operation run by USAID and the Relief Society of Tigray in Mekele on June 16. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Ethiopia’s government has steadfastly asserted that all blame for the fighting and ensuing suffering of people in Tigray lays at the feet of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which the government accuses of attacking a military command post last November and sparking the war.

For months, the government maintained that Eritrean troops were not present in Tigray, fighting alongside Ethiopian forces, despite mounting witness and satellite evidence of their movements. Only in April did the government acknowledge the presence of Eritreans and that they may be responsible for the killing of civilians.

If verified, many of the atrocities allegedly committed by both Ethiopian and Eritrean forces would be considered war crimes under international law, including the use of rape and starvation as weapons of war. The Ethiopian government, however, has heavily restricted access for media and rights groups, making verification difficult.

The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have rejected the findings of groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as fabricated, and this past week called on the African Union to “immediately cease” its own independent investigation.

“It is extremely regrettable to see that some within the international community have embarked on a mission to undermine the unity, territorial integrity and the cohesion of the Ethiopian state, under the guise of humanitarian concern,” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen said in a statement.

Nevertheless, three Ethiopian soldiers were convicted in May of rape and one of killing a civilian. Twenty-eight more soldiers are on trial for allegedly killing civilians and 25 for acts of sexual violence and rape, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

What does all this mean for Ethiopia’s political and economic future?

Ethiopia
Ahmed at a campaign event in Jimma on June 16. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

While Abiy hopes this election will cement his mandate, analysts said there is reason to worry that the election will further destabilize Ethiopia.

The war in Tigray shows no signs of ending and is likely to result in Ethiopia’s tenuous occupation of a region whose population feels besieged, and whose ground is strewn with rubble and unexploded ordnance. Despite government pledges that Eritrean troops would withdraw from Tigray, they have not done so.

Increasing levels of conflict around the country have already triggered a rollback of Abiy’s initial reforms — a trend that will likely be exacerbated by Ethiopia’s increasing alienation from the international community.

And the election itself may be the cause of further violence. Because of opposition boycotts, many newly elected legislators may be seen as illegitimate by their constituents, deepening existing tensions.

“There is a real risk of election-related violence, especially in Addis and Amhara regions, which would push the country further into uncharted waters,” said Abel. “It is very difficult to see the government restoring its legitimacy through these elections alone, both in the eyes of many of its citizens and its international partners.”

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