The novel coronavirus Covid-19 may be a blessing in disguise for the Abiy Ahmed-led government in Ethiopia. Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the incumbent prime minister was facing the hardest of his times since assuming power two years ago. He was in a dire need to buy more time to make sure that his Medemer philosophy (“To be together” or “Synergy” in Amharic) was popularised in the nation; and second to ensure the basis for his new-born Prosperity Party was consolidated via “regional” offices nationwide. Before the pandemic, Abiy’s popularity was bottoming out every other day, and it was seemingly evident that his road to a popular mandate for imperial-like competencies he wanted to secure through the ballot box was bumpy enough.
Growing dissidence, particularly in Oromia, his own region, peaked out with a grenade attack, believed to be orchestrated by the Oromo Liberation Army, the armed wing of the once branded terrorist-turned-political party Oromo Liberation Front, on an election rally for the incumbent prime minister in Ambo, the epicentre of the Oromo revolution against the former Ethiopian government. Now, the only active player, given the status quo, is the incumbent government which rushed to seize the opportunity handed to it on a silver platter. General elections, which were previously postponed twice and later rescheduled to take place at the end of August this year, have been postponed once again: this time indefinitely. The National Election Board of Ethiopia has decided to delay the process citing its “inability to follow through” on its own timetable, on conducting the needed preparations for elections in different regions in the country.
The postponement was met with “reservation” by two major political parties in Oromia, namely the Oromo Federalist Congress, to which prominent activist Jawar Mohamed belongs, and the Oromo Liberation Front. The two parties wanted “more consultations” with the stakeholders but not a “unilateral” decision in that department. In a joint statement, the two parties explicitly voiced their fears that any directives aimed at stemming the pandemic should not be used as “a pretext to further narrow the fragile political space” in the country.
A crackdown on rival opposition officials, jamming TV stations affiliated to the Oromo opposition and blocking the Internet in some zones in Oromia, have shaken confidence in the incumbent government and raised doubts whether it is working on a transition to democracy. These policies have also reminded Ethiopians of the same tactics employed by the now-defunct Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, now in practice by the “legitimate heir” of the front: the newly formed Prosperity Party. In effect, a delay of elections means that the “mandate” of the incumbent government has expired, because based on the constitution of the country, the term of the House of People’s Representatives (the parliament) is five years, which will officially come to a close very soon. In the absence of a constitutionally installed government, especially when there is no clear date set for the end of the pandemic, decrees and directives may be challenged as unconstitutional and may even trigger political unrest in the nation.
That is why the two major Oromo parties, which serve as a real threat to Abiy’s political future in terms of voters they can coax in Oromia, called for getting all political stakeholders engaged in the process of decision-making in the period to come, a dream which seems far from reach.
Though the spread of the virus is happening on a very limited scale in Ethiopia, the Abiy-led government has taken another step that sparked controversy, at least among active political stakeholders, as the country declared a “state of emergency” nationwide for five months. At the same time, and in another show of a more autonomous inclination, Tigray declared its “own” state of emergency for three months, “political distancing” from Addis Ababa.
It is now a high probability that elections may not take place this year at all. By the time the state of emergency is over, Abiy would have accomplished many goals. Though primarily imposed to contain the spread of the pandemic, the state of emergency may help Abiy’s government break the back of armed insurgencies in West Oromia frequented by the Oromo Liberation Army, where the authority of the federal government is forcefully resisted. Another blessing is the halt of “ethnic” violence that was threatening the very fabric of the nation, sending shockwaves that the country may be “Balkanised” should not the election’s results appeal to some ethnicities. Most importantly, the federal government’s presence will be heavily felt in such restive regions as Amhara and the Southern Nations Region, stemming a threatening “pandemic” to the competencies of the government: lax security.
At a regional level, the Ethiopian government may code its own “win-win” either by striking a deal with Egypt on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), or by starting to unilaterally fill GERD’s reservoir by the next fall, and making use of it as “another” achievement to propagandise before elections. So, for Abiy, the situation may be “Heads I win, tails you lose.” A balanced deal with Egypt may “flatten the curve” of heightened tension between the two nations that had almost reached the point of talking war. In case not, unilateral filling of GERD’s reservoir means the dream of finalising the colossal project is coming true, a step which would surely get the incumbent premier closer to regaining the confidence of voters, given intensive campaigns made to publicise the project as a “symbol” of national pride, dignity and sovereignty.
While the whole world will sustain huge losses, mainly financial and economic, amid the aftereffects of the coronavirus, Abiy’s legendary “phoenix” could arise from the ashes. When the spread of coronavirus slows in the nation, it will be a clear sailing for the government before elections which now only Abiy knows when to hold.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly