Why Ethiopia’s elections should be postponed

The country is not currently in a position to hold free, fair and credible elections.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed attends his last campaign event ahead of Ethiopia's parliamentary and regional elections scheduled for June 21, in Jimma, Ethiopia, June 16, 2021 [Tiksa Negeri/Reuters]

Ethiopia’s twice-deferred national elections are set to commence on June 21 despite the insurmountable challenges threatening to unravel not only the country but the region. Rather than rising to the myriad challenges destabilising the country and the Greater Horn, the government is pressing ahead with an election that does not meet the minimum standards to be considered free, fair or credible.

The melange of crises facing the country – burgeoning armed uprisings and grinding wars in the Tigray, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions; bitter disagreements over the future direction of the country; spiralling ethnic conflict; widespread atrocities committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops in Tigray and Oromia; intensifying border disputes with Sudan; escalating tensions with Egypt over the GERD; an economy in free fall with unsustainable public finances; and widespread repression and human rights abuses – make a free and fair election virtually impossible.

Opposition parties and critical stakeholders have been urging the government to postpone the election and instead focus its efforts on convening an inclusive national dialogue to build a national consensus on the future of the country. In doing so, the government and key stakeholders can first work to bridge the widening gap between competing visions for the future, after which conditions for a free and fair election can be established. However, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his administration have ignored those calls, opting instead to pursue elections that will bring neither legitimacy nor stability.

Abiy’s failure to foster peace and frame an effective response to the political and humanitarian crises facing the country has sparked international condemnation, prompting two of the country’s strategic partners, the United States and the European Union, to cut aid and impose sanctions. The US expressed “grave” concerns about “detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia”, and referred to the government’s conduct as an “obstacle to a free and fair electoral process”.

In a letter to the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, five US senators conveyed their cynicism in Ethiopia’s ability to hold fair elections during an ongoing conflict in Tigray. The EU cancelled its Electoral Observation Mission following Ethiopia’s refusal to fulfil “standard requirements” for a free and fair election.

The expectation for this election

When Abiy came to power in April 2018, following widespread pro-democracy protests spearheaded by Oromo youth, he promised a clean break from the repressive practices of the past. Abiy denounced the then ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for holding onto power “using terrorist methods”, promising a new and democratic beginning for Ethiopia. The trepidation Abiy expressed, coupled with the reforms and initiatives he promised in the early days of his tenure, led many to believe that the next election would mark a new chapter in Ethiopia’s democratic journey.

Despite the liberal undertones in his rhetoric of peace, reconciliation, and democratic elections, Abiy was also busy consolidating power and laying the groundwork to impose his individual vision for Ethiopia’s future. A key aspect of this consolidation was Abiy’s unilateral decision to dissolve the EPRDF and create the Prosperity Party. The replacement of the multiethnic EPRDF with a single unitary party made clear Abiy’s desire for a strong central state and the great lengths he would go to pursue his imperious project of “Making Ethiopia Great Again”.

Yet, shortly after Abiy unveiled his new political party, it became obvious that its unitary structure and underpinning “Ethiopia First” ideology had no political support in much of the country. The Prosperity Party was perceived by formerly marginalised groups as a significant threat to the limited gains made in the areas of self-government, pluralism, and respect for linguistic and cultural diversity over the last 30 years.

Abiy realised that the Prosperity Party, which does not reflect existing political fault lines and social cleavages, had no chance of winning a free and fair election in August 2020, and unilaterally postponed his first key electoral test citing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The unilateral move to postpone the election and extend his term in office was met with fierce criticism from his political opponents. In the Oromia regional state, the two main opposition parties, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), rejected the decision. In Tigray, the only region run by an opposition party at the time, the fallout over the postponement of the election escalated and complicated pre-existing ideological and political differences, eventually leading to an all-out military confrontation characterised by ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

A year and a half after the formation of the Prosperity Party, which was supposed to rid the country of ethnic divisions and unify all Ethiopians, long-simmering political and ethnic rifts have only been inflamed. Ethiopians across diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are in radical disagreements about the nature of the country and the identity of the state, and this is raising fears that Ethiopia is at risk of unravelling. Lacking the bare minimum consensus required to hold an election, it is implausible to expect that the upcoming elections will produce a legitimate government that can represent the will of the people.

Given the brutal war in Tigray, the armed uprisings in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz, and growing insecurity in other parts of the country, it is clear that Ethiopia currently lacks the political and security conditions to hold free and credible elections.

Deepening repression

The initial gains Abiy made in his first year in office towards a more inclusive democracy, including the release of thousands of political prisoners and the reversal of bans against opposition parties, have already been rolled back. Detention centres and military training camps have been filling up with dissenters and opposition supporters, and the country stands accused of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

In Oromia, the largest region and from where a third of federal MPs come, the government embarked on systematic and calculated acts of repression and crackdowns against its opposition. Following the assassination of prominent Oromo artist and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, Abiy’s administration has launched a campaign of mass arrests, extrajudicial killings, and widespread surveillance in Oromia.

The brutal crackdown against dissent, and underhanded tactics used by federal and regional authorities, has shrunk the political space to nonexistence. Abiy’s deliberate narrowing of the democratic sphere has forced the two main opposition parties in Oromia, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), to boycott the election. Prominent OFC leaders such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Garba, Hamza Borena, and several others, who represented a formidable electoral challenge to the PM and his Prosperity Party, were detained based on trumped-up charges designed to remove them from the electoral space. OFC members, supporters and sympathisers were rounded up and detained, and 203 OFC offices have been closed down by the government.

The OLF, which after years in exile returned to the country in September 2018 in response to Abiy’s promises of reform and democratic opening, has been subjected to harassment and intimidation by the government. The party has opposed the federal government’s efforts to centralise power and infringe on the region’s fight for autonomy. As a result, several leading members of the OLF, including Gemechu Ayana, Michael Boran, and Batte Urgeessa, were detained by security forces in February 2020, and OLF leader, Daud Ibsa, has been under house arrest since April of this year.

The lawless military operation in western and southern Oromia that followed the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa has already left a trail of slain protesters at the hands of security forces. The brutal tactics deployed by the government have unleashed fear and terror among civilians. Credible reports of Eritrean troops conducting security operations in Oromia are raising fears of escalating atrocities in a region already marred by widespread state-sanctioned violence. The same region whose hope for renewed democracy willed Abiy into power is now fraught with hopelessness and despair.

In the Tigray region, meanwhile, voting for the governing party is no longer a choice. It is a matter of survival.

For more than seven months, Tigray has been enmeshed in a devastating civil war against the Ethiopian federal government and its allies – Eritrean and Amhara regional forces. Arguably, it was the Tigray government’s decision to continue with the constitutionally mandated regional elections, in opposition to Abiy’s initial deferment, that sparked the flames for the conflict.

However, as early as 2018, the party has accused Abiy of ethnically motivated attacks as a means of quelling disputes over the respective powers of the federal government and regional states. In response to the arrests of more than 60 predominately Tigrayan officials, TPLF president, Debretsion Gebremichael, argued that “the pretext of corruption and human rights are being used to attack Tigrayans”. The systematic sidelining of the TPLF from the federal government that then ensued left the region with no representation at the national level.

The war has morphed into a wide-scale humanitarian crisis. Evidence of mass shootings, massacres, looting, and ethnic cleansing is everywhere. Recent reports have outlined the use of weaponised starvation by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, with more than 5.2 million people, roughly 91 percent of Tigray’s population, in need of emergency food aid and 350,000 Tigrayans facing famine. Sexual and gender-based violence has become a weapon of war, as more than 500 women have reported being raped. While the number of civilian deaths is very much unknown, there are more than 2,500 well-documented cases of civilian casualties.

Yet rather than try to bring stability to the region by addressing the serious human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities in Tigray, the Ethiopian government is seeking to press forward with elections without the region. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) said a date for elections in Tigray would be set once the interim government – which took control of the region after parliament declared the Tigray administration illegal – opened election offices. Beyond the escalating carnage, more than six million Tigrayans will be stripped of their right to vote with the rest of the country in the national elections.

The Benishangul-Gumuz region, a strategically significant region host to Ethiopia’s $4bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), has also become a flashpoint for violence and insecurity, with the government and Amhara regional forces also conducting counterinsurgency operations there. Disputes over the Amhara State’s claim to the Metekel zone, opposition to Abiy’s Prosperity Party, and a series of longstanding grievances had led to conflicts and hundreds of civilian deaths. The region has been a hotbed of instability over the last two years, with inhabitants facing mass displacement, property destruction, and lack of humanitarian aid.

In an all too familiar pattern, the Ethiopian government excluded the Metekel Zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz region from the upcoming elections amid deadly conflicts. Without a resolution, it is unlikely legitimate elections can be held there in the near future.

The Somali region, the third-largest in the country, experienced a series of electoral setbacks involving the closure of multiple polling stations by NEBE, possible voter registration fraud, and reported defects in ballot papers. NEBE acknowledged “that some of the trends observed in the process may be due to malpractices and concludes that this might raise serious doubts about the entire process”. These doubts have been amplified by the NEBE’s decision to halt polling in several constituencies in the region, citing flaws in ballot papers.

Even in Addis Ababa, reports of irregularities in voter registration have surfaced, with allegations of discrimination at polling stations and the use of counterfeit documents to register voters not residing in the city.

In addition to the political and security crisis facing the country, NEBE itself is completely unprepared to organise polls for a country of an estimated 115 million people and lacks the institutional integrity and structural independence necessary to organise such an election. Although NEBE planned to register 50 million voters, the Board only managed to register about 36 million, 28 percent less than planned. In addition to the Tigray region, at least 54 other constituencies across six of Ethiopia’s nine regions will not participate in the election as scheduled.

Worse than previous elections

NEBE and government officials claim that these elections will be better than the previous five elections held under the EPRDF regime. In a recent appearance at Chatham House, NEBE Chairperson Birtukan Mideksa asserted that these elections will be held in an environment of much greater freedom, transparency, and pluralism. In a recent tweet, Prime Minister Abiy wrote, “I would like to assure all Ethiopians that we will do our very best to hold a better, free and fair election than previous years.”

However, compared with the five undemocratic and non-competitive elections held throughout EPRDF rule, where an amalgamation of repression, neopatrimonialism, patronage, and intimidation ran rampant, the forthcoming election seems markedly worse and politically ruinous for the country. The previous five elections, which the current leader and most of his cabinet were a part of, were nothing more than ritualistic exercises designed to secure periodic legitimation for the EPRDF.

However, the current election will be worse.

In addition to being undemocratic and non-competitive, it is also being held at a time where there is no consensus on the fundamental values that underpin the Ethiopian state and society, where the rules of the game itself are contested. Unlike the previous elections, in which the government retained total control over the population while maintaining stability, the current election is being held under the shadow of a menacing civil war and mass atrocities tearing the country apart. These elections are being held while the country is on the brink of implosion.

The trepidation Abiy expressed over the previous regime’s handling of elections sounds hollow when compared with the hypocritical approach the Ethiopian government has taken on the upcoming election.

Many believe the outcome of the election is already predetermined. Once the exercise is completed, and Abiy has been crowned as the prime minister again, with a few seats for opposition parties ideologically aligned with him, the government will insist that the current parliament marks progress. Additionally, the new government will call on the international community to give it the same benefit of the doubt it did to the EPRDF, at least until it is able to address issues of stability and security. In the meantime, Abiy would claim that he has a new mandate and would be less amenable to dialogue and pressure from domestic and international actors. He is also highly likely to impose a new constitutional settlement from above, foreclosing the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the country’s crisis.

At a time when the country needs inclusive national dialogue that will help build consensus and promote reconciliation and healing, the government is pushing ahead with an election that will sharpen up existing contradictions.

The way forward

Ethiopia is on the brink of explosion and going ahead with elections carries potentially ominous consequences for the country. Moving forward with these elections is not in the nation’s best interests, nor will it bring legitimacy or stability. These elections will exacerbate the crises plaguing the country, further antagonising the various groups who feel subordinated and disenfranchised and could plunge the country deeper into violence.

After the election, Abiy will be less agreeable to negotiations and pressures from home and abroad. The government has already declared the OLA and the TPLF as terrorist groups, sidelining both the parties and their supporters from all future elections and dialogues on the fate of the Ethiopian state.

Party officials and supporters are signalling that the government will impose a new constitution that would alter the existing constitutional settlement. However, unilateral imposition of a new constitution is sure to escalate the conflict and will certainly hasten the breakup of the Ethiopian state. There is a growing sense already that some form of disintegration is inevitable.

The government must postpone the election and agree to enter into an inclusive national dialogue to chart Ethiopia’s future. But dialogue does not occur in a vacuum, thus Ethiopia must first agree to an immediate cessation of all hostilities and a complete withdrawal of all invading forces from Tigray, Oromia, and other areas where Eritrean troops are operating. The presence of Eritrean troops acting independently of Addis Ababa on Ethiopian soil is complicating the political landscape. Eritrea’s President Isaias Afeworkie told the new US special envoy to the Horn of Africa that his forces are now “the key security actor in Ethiopia”. Furthermore, all political dissidents and opposition leaders must be released from jail.

Only after removing the barriers to inclusivity Ethiopia can seek to address and remedy the key issues facing the country and rebuild legitimacy. While not revolutionary, postponement of the elections and acceptance of national dialogue would be important first steps towards the progressive political objectives Abiy too claims he wants to achieve.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.