A bumpy road to Ethiopia’s elections

Mostafa Ahmady
Tuesday 20 Jul 2021

The upcoming elections in Ethiopia are taking place against a backdrop of a tragic conflict in the country’s northern Tigray region and the exclusion of dozens of key constituencies

In the midst of a highly strained political situation at home and friction with neighbours Sudan and Egypt over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, Ethiopia will be heading to the polls on 21 June this year. 

This is the sixth set of general elections since the current regime in Ethiopia took over more than three decades ago. The elections are clouded by one of the most disastrous and tragic events that this country of 110 million people has experienced in recent years: a fierce and unsettled conflict in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia that has left thousands killed, injured or displaced and has drawn international attention over the atrocities being committed there. 

Above all, the conflict has inflicted deep wounds, probably ones that will not be healed, on a nation that once believed in real change as a result of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed coming to power in 2018.  

At that time, the young prime minister, who rose to power against the backdrop of the wide discontent and mass protests engulfing the whole of Ethiopia against the malpractices of the EPRDF, the coalition that had been in charge of the country’s political affairs since 1991, promised to lead the multi-ethnic nation into a real democratic transition. 

The early days of his rule showed that Ethiopia’s quest for democracy could be a reality in the near future, particularly when he embarked on wide-ranging political reforms, ensured the freedom of the press and opened up political space for dissidents, once labelled terrorists, to return to the country and join the political process. 

But Ahmed also came up with an idea that would later turn things upside down in a nation highly polarised along ethnic lines, namely his Medemer (synergy) philosophy. For him, and for those who believe in it, this is the best means to rid the country once and for all of narrow-minded ethnic practices and get all its citizens to rally not behind their ethnicities, but rather behind their country. 

It has not been all bad, but this new philosophy has nevertheless failed to deduce lessons from the country’s recent history. The Ethiopian ethnicities have only managed to live together in relative peace since the demise of the country’s communist regime (the Derg) that ran Ethiopia’s affairs with an iron fist through a ruthless centralised government. As a result, the major ethnicities closed ranks and worked together to uproot the Derg regime, ushering in a multi-ethnic system that has survived for three decades.  

In a country where people’s allegiance to their ethnicity is far greater than to their nation, there was a need to test the waters first before putting the theory into practice. Those who opposed Medemer, not only among the Tigrayans, but also among the two major regions of Oromia and Amhara, feared that their gains, particularly self-rule, would be washed away and that it might be only a matter of time before the new approach would draw the curtain on their cultural particularities, identities, languages and long-held traditions.     

Today, Medemer is apparently seen as a quest for a powerful and centralised form of governance designed to suit the incumbent prime minister. Furthermore, the popular mandate that Ahmed has wanted to secure through the ballot box looks more like a dream than ever. Roughly 32 million voters have registered for the upcoming elections, in other words less than a third of the total population. The elections will also not take place in 40 constituencies spanning six major regions. 

A lengthy statement issued by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has detailed “security concerns” and the “disruption” of voter registration and related irregularities in regions that include Oromia, Amhara, the Somali region, Beni Shangul Gumuz (the seat of the GERD) and the Southern Nations and Nationalities. Unfortunately, the people of Tigray will also not have a say in the elections, as they will not be held in the restive region given the deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions.    

Another killer blow was levelled at the elections when the European Union called off the deployment of its observation mission, citing the refusal of the Ethiopian authorities to observe “key parameters” necessary for the “integrity” of the mission. As the EU put it, it has not received “the assurances necessary to extend to the Ethiopian people one of its most visible signs of support for their quest for democracy.” 

The EU, one of the biggest financiers of Ethiopia, had built hopes on Ahmed’s leading the country’s transition to real democracy and wishing that it could serve as a model for a continent that is yet to take baby steps towards that end. 

Regionally speaking, the Ethiopian elections will set the stage for either a relatively stable Horn of Africa region over the next few years or its becoming a disruptive and chaotic region. Ahmed’s alliance with Eritrea has alienated Ethiopia’s economic lifeline of Djibouti, given its old enmity with Asmara. 

If Ahmed is to form the next government in Ethiopia, he will have to revisit that “infamous” alliance with Eritrea or risk a further decline in the relationship with Djibouti. Moreover, the refugees pouring from Tigray into Sudan and South Sudan have exacerbated the already ailing economies of these two impoverished nations. If the Ethiopian elections are marred by violence or rigging, as is widely expected, it will be difficult to avoid a hemorrhage of refugees on the borders with Ethiopia’s neighbours.

With Ahmed’s prominent political opponents, the likes of Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba, standing trial for crimes that could lead to their spending long periods in jail, and with the main dissident figures in Tigray silenced, at least for the near future, Ahmed’s Prosperity Party is likely to be the frontrunner in elections that, if won, would allow Ahmed to form the next Ethiopian government. 

But this government will not be an inclusive one, and it will have to surf dangerous waters, particularly as there is no looming termination of the Tigray conflict or overall settlement for the inter-ethnic fighting in the country.  

*The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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