Ethiopia, Africa’s oldest independent nation will this August 16 hold competitive national elections for the first time in 30 years. But the country’s fragmented opposition is casting aspersions on the putative exercise leading close Addis Ababa watchers to question whether this former Marxist leaning nation is ready to embrace plural democracy.
And further emboldening an impression the polls may flounder is the existence of an inextricable and pervasive ethno-nationalist fervor that eternally threatens to unravel the relative peace being experienced within this East Africa nation.
Beginning in 1991 – when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a left-wing ethnic federalist political coalition, took over the reins of leadership after mounting a 17-year guerrilla warfare ending 17 years of totalitarian rule- Ethiopia has held regular parliamentary elections but, with one exception, none were competitive.
On December 2019, the EPRDF, once Africa’s largest, and arguably most powerful, political party and richest, thanks to its business interests, was dissolved, courtesy of a brazen initiative led by the country’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, 43, – heralding, according to its supporters, an entirely new mode of politics.
Prime Minister Abiy – who, in April 2018, became the first Oromo to hold the post – has introduced a number of reforms since assuming office, as well as overseen the release of jailed dissidents, the unblocking of websites and moves to liberalize the economy.
The Oromo are the country’s largest ethnic group, accounting for 34.5% of Ethiopia’s 105 million strong population in a state that has 80 disparate ethnic groups.
In its stead, the Prosperity Party (PP) emerged, doing away with a four-party ethnic coalition structure that drew in the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (later Amhara Democratic Party), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (later Oromo Democratic Party), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement.
To its supporters, the PP offers an escape from the divisive and increasingly deadly ethnic politics which characterized three decades of EPRDF rule. To its critics, it is the thin end of the wedge towards abandonment of the 1995 constitution and the principle of ethnic self-rule – ethnic federalism – which it enshrines. And there are fears that it could also tear an already desperately polarized country even further apart.
Already, the country’s Minister of Defence Lemma Megerssa, a close ally of the Prime Minister, has gone public to oppose the folding up of EPRDF.
Megerssa, a former president of the Oromia regional state – Abiy’s home region – told the VOA Afaan Oromo service last week that he opposed the new party and that the ruling party in Oromia – the Oromo Democratic Party, ODP, had issues to resolve before entering such an arrangement.
Ethiopia is a federation subdivided into 10 ethno-linguistically based regional states. Apparently, the ninth regional state, Tigray, was not present when the EPRDF was done away with because it was opposed to the merger and subsequent dissolution of the EPRDF, calling it an illegality.
Also, violence in the regions has forced 2.4 million people out of their homes, according to the United Nations, and delayed both a national census and local elections. Opposition politicians have repeatedly warned that election delays could fuel unrest and dent the democratic credentials of Abiy.
William Davison, Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, said the opposition could pose a real challenge to the ruling party.
“An overall majority for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s party is by no means guaranteed, especially if the opposition is allowed to freely campaign,” Davison said.
Security and seasonal considerations came up as major concerns expressed by leaders of political parties vying for seats in the coming elections.
“Ethiopia as a nation is not ready to hold general parliamentary elections,” said outspoken opposition politician Lidetu Ayalew of the Ethiopian Democratic Party.
Further, a splinter faction of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) called Shane is reportedly waging war in a southwestern area of Kelem Wollega in the Oromia region.
“The current security situation in Ethiopia does not allow for the conduct of a credible election,” Lidetu said.
One opposition political party said Aug. 16 was unsuitable because it is a fasting day for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and falls during the rainy season.
“There are concerns that need to be resolved and addressed specifically on the schedule,” Desalegn Chane, president of the opposition National Movement of Amhara, told Reuters.
While the OLF leader Dawud Ibsa -whose party was previously considered a terrorist movement by the Ethiopian government until July 2018 when the ban was lifted together with two other groups, as part of the Prime Minister’s efforts to bring various opposition groups back into Ethiopian politics, has opposed the electoral date.
“August is a rainy season when rivers will bulge, making it difficult for people of the countryside to move about,” he said, preferring the elections be held in or before June – prior to the onset of the main rainy season.
According to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), 50 million Ethiopians are expected to cast their votes with 80 political parties expected to tussle over the coveted prize. The NEBE chairperson Birtukan Mideksa said her organization is seeking $129 million from government for purposes of running the polls.
Jawar Mohammed, an influential political activist widely thought to be harboring ambitions of challenging Abiy, suspects the ruling party sought the August 16 date so as to leverage on incumbency with the intentions of “locking out” opposition parties especially from reaching rural areas.
In one of his tweets he wrote: “August is a No Go for election. By the way many suspect planning to hold the election in August is meant to favor the ruling party that controls state’s transportation resources and hinder poorly resourced opposition from accessing rural areas.And ironically as early as 6 months ago, ruling party leaders were saying election will be held in August. Coincidence?”
Jawar, who played a central role in having Abiy elected as Prime Minister, has since joined the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) based in the Oromia Regional State, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous one.
It is also the home region of Prime Minister Abiy and Jawar who incidentally broke ranks with the former after the PM told parliament that media-owning personalities who were fomenting unrest with their outlets.
Jawar said the claims were an attack on him understandably because he is the owner of Oromia Media Network, an influential ethnic television station based in Minnesota, US.
Last year, Jawar’s claims of a security breach on his person stirred widespread protests across the region with young people denouncing Abiy and pledging support for Jawar.
While the NEBE has downplayed the concerns raised by the opposition saying it was going to liaise with federal and regional governments to deploy logistics, the world will be watching how Sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest growing economy the election date conundrum.