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Ethiopia at a democracy crossroads ahead of elections in June

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Abdi Ismail Samatar is a research Fellow at the University of Pretoria and Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota.

Ethiopia’s Covid-delayed elections take place on 5 June 2021. But the country has a fraught history when it comes to democratic elections. A free and fair election will transform Ethiopia’s ossified authoritarian political culture, regardless of whether Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed loses or wins. For the Nobel peace laureate, an honourable loss is better than a fraudulent win.

Ethiopia has a mythical image as an African country not colonised by a European power, except for a brief few years in the late 1930s when it was invaded by Italy. Like all myths, the Ethiopian version is partly valid but conceals much else.

Ethiopia had a feudal society in which the majority of the population was treated as serfs and subjected to indignities comparable to those characteristic of colonialism. The Ethiopian empire was led by Amhara or Tigray Christian monarchs who treated other cultural groups as savages. Among those subjugated were the Oromos, who constituted the largest cultural group. However, the old order was supplanted when Abiy Ahmed became the country’s first Oromo Prime Minister in 2018.

Abiy’s Cabinet promised democratic reforms the likes of which Ethiopia had never seen. It allowed all opposition parties to return home and participate in the democratic transformation. In addition, the prime minister signed a peace treaty that ended the bloody frontier war with Eritrea. Abiy was awarded the Nobel peace prize for these remarkable achievements. The challenge now faced by Ethiopia is whether the prime minister and the opposition will be able to maintain the new democracy.

The challenges

The progressive changes were accompanied by divisive political tendencies that fed sectarian ideologies and deepened communal fragmentation. First, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had dominated Ethiopia since 1991, realised that Abiy would not suffer their manipulation. Consequently, the TPLF retreated to its province, mobilised the population, and held a provincial election not sanctioned by the federal government as the national election had been delayed for a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The election held in Tigray was subsequently annulled by the federal government.

The tension between the government and the TPLF escalated and the Ethiopian Defence Force’s main garrison in Tigray was taken over. This caused alarm in Addis Ababa, where it was feared that other provincial elites might follow the example of the TPLF and plunge the country into an existential crisis. The prime minister immediately ordered the defence force to quell the insurrection. Federal forces based in the neighbouring Amhara region mounted a counterattack, which gave the struggle a cultural twist as the Amhara elite had a grudge against the TPLF, which had dominated the country for two decades.

The war escalated and the TPLF used the population as human shields while in some areas the Ethiopian forces engaged in a scorched earth policy. Meanwhile, the TPLF forces fired missiles into Eritrea, claiming that its forces had already entered Tigray. Prime Minister Abiy initially denied all the allegations, but others confirmed the massacre of civilians and Eritrea’s intervention.

While Tigray was burning, another crisis was brewing in Oromia and other regions. The Oromo political establishment began to fracture shortly after Abiy had become prime minister and the oldest political front, the Oromo Liberation Front, began to challenge his legitimacy and accuse him of hijacking the struggle of the Oromo people. Another major Oromo political activist, Jawar Mohammed, initially endorsed Abiy’s leadership, but broke ranks with him and formed an opposition party called the Oromo Federal Congress, while other activists established the Oromo National Congress. Similar centrifugal forces have been at play in other regions, while ethnic-political and regional fragmentation has intensified the mistrust among rival elite factions and increased instability.

A tipping point or a tragedy

The regime claims that it has not stymied the opposition parties from registering their supporters for the vote or to campaign freely, but other sources contest this and critics have registered several concerns. First, they point out that Abiy’s party, which controls the regions, is using government resources for the campaign while other parties have to rely on their own means. This gives the governing party an unfair advantage. Second, the opposition claims that, like the old regime, the government is buying votes, particularly in the countryside, as the old regime did. Third, it is believed that the ruling party will rig the election if it feels that it might lose the poll.

Finally, there is growing concern about the effect of the increasingly close relationship between Abiy and Isaias Afwerki, the autocratic Eritrean leader. This bond has led to reasonable speculation that Abiy might be considering the autocrat’s three decades tenure rule as a model worthy of adopting. 

Since Ethiopia never had a democratic political culture, the idea of compromise is not part of the elite’s political imagination. Ethiopian politics is therefore a zero-sum game and trust in the constitution and the justice system is very low. Given this tradition, the political fragmentation of regions and communities, and the close association between Abiy and the provincial leaders, the opposition is unlikely to accept defeat in any election.

To assuage the opposition’s fears and enhance the credibility of the election, Abiy must seriously engage the African Union and the international community by bringing in as many neutral monitors as possible. Monitors should be present in every region from now until the election is held on 5 June 2021. Their presence will boost public confidence in the poll and ensure that every party has a fair chance of winning.

A free and fair election will transform Ethiopia’s ossified authoritarian political culture, regardless of whether Abiy loses or wins. A loss will bring him an enduring historical credit among his people, which is worth more than any Nobel Prize, and historians will count him among Africa’s transformational leaders. Such an honourable loss is better than a fraudulent win.

By contrast, a sham win may flatter the egos of aspirant politicians but could be a cataclysmic historical benchmark for Ethiopia. A deceitful win will deepen mistrust among the already fragmented elite and could lead to the country’s breakup. A discredited win will require the imposition of authoritarian rule, which will keep Ethiopia in the position which it has been for the past two centuries. The final challenge is the opposition’s perverse claim that Abiy’s party cannot fairly win the poll, thus pre-empting the will of the people.  

Whatever the outcome, challenging times lie ahead. DM

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