July 26, 2021

Ethiopia votes amid concern and violence

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Distribution of electoral materials on June 21 in Addis Ababa.

In this ghost town riddled with ruins, the smoke has given way to desolation. In Ataye, a town of 70,000 inhabitants 270 kilometers north of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the fighting in mid-April devastated half of the homes, businesses and banks. In the almost empty streets, you still have to make your way between the carcasses of charred vehicles. Here, members of the country’s two largest communities, Amhara and Oromo, clashed for three days over a territorial dispute, leaving the city bloodless.

Paralyzed for two months and just beginning its reconstruction, the town will not vote on June 21, the date of the Ethiopian legislative elections. Ataye will not be an exception. Several million Ethiopians will miss the poll on Monday, yet presented as “The first attempt at free and democratic elections” by the prime minister and favorite, Abiy Ahmed.

Out of 547 constituencies, 110 are deprived of a vote due to growing insecurity in the country. The Ethiopian electoral commission, unable to complete voter registration in these districts, announced that the poll would finally be held there on September 6. As for the province of Tigray, devastated by the war between the government forces and supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray since November, it has been excluded from the electoral process.

Fear of violent protests

In this increasingly unstable context, Abiy Ahmed needs a strong mandate to establish his legitimacy. Brought to power in 2018 thanks to a compromise between the parties of the former coalition, the head of government for the first time submitted to the test of the ballot box. Sign of a certain eagerness, the vote count will be announced in early July, without 20% of Ethiopians being able to speak.

As for the outcome of the ballot, it seems a foregone conclusion for many observers. “The only thing we are sure of in Ethiopia today is that the Prosperity Party [du premier ministre Abiy Ahmed] will win the election hands down, summarizes a Western diplomat. The rest is the unknown! “ More than the wait for the results, it is the fear of violent protests that dominates in Addis Ababa, like those that paralyzed the country in July 2020.

Read also In Ethiopia, economic transformation put to the test of instability

“The whole world predicts that we are going to tear each other apart, but we are going to show them that we behave differently”, thundered Abiy Ahmed during his only campaign rally, held near his hometown, in Jimma, in the Oromia region. The Ethiopian leader’s optimism is however far from being contagious, both among his opponents and abroad.

Withdrawal from the EU mission

The United States, engaged in a diplomatic standoff with Addis Ababa over the humanitarian drama and the risk of famine in Tigray, has officially expressed concern about the deleterious environment in which the vote is taking place. According to the State Department, “The detention of opposition figures, the harassment of the independent media, the partisan activities of local and regional governments and the numerous inter-ethnic and inter-community conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process.”

A blow to Abiy Ahmed, the European Union, initially mobilized to monitor the election, withdrew its observation mission in May. Brussels blames Addis Ababa’s lack of cooperation to carry out independent observation. A sign of the current mistrust, the embassies having requested access to the polling stations are still awaiting validation from the electoral commission. In the absence of Western observers, the election will be monitored by the African Union and by a Russian delegation from Moscow.

The strong man of Addis Ababa and Nobel Peace Prize 2019 enjoyed, until recently, the blessing of the West. The amnesty granted to 40,000 political prisoners in 2018, as well as a clever communication combining human rights and economic liberalism had seduced the Nobel committee and heads of state, like Emmanuel Macron. The honeymoon ended in 2020, when nationalist opposition was cracked down.

“Arbitrary detentions”

Today, the Prime Minister has to contend with a very fragmented political landscape. While the Tigrayans express desire for independence, the Amhara nationalists are increasingly overshadowing the Prosperity Party. An armed insurrection also springs up in the Oromia region, the largest province of the country, in which the opposition formations have decided to boycott the election after the imprisonment of their leaders.

While tens of thousands of political prisoners have been pardoned, thousands more have recently gone the other way. Among them, the charismatic Jawar Mohammed, spokesperson for part of the Oromo youth, on hunger strike behind bars throughout the month of February. Former journalist Eskinder Nega is desperately awaiting the start of his trial from his cell. His candidacy having been registered at the last moment, he will be authorized to take part in the ballot from his prison.

Seven parties denounced in a joint statement the methods of the ruling majority. They evoke “Harassment, murder and arbitrary detention”, as well as “Direct pressure on candidates to withdraw their candidacy, demolition of campaign signs to replace them with those of the Prosperity Party. “ Wassihun Gebreegizaber, academic and observer of the last ballot, admits that he “Sees no difference with the 2015 election”, at the time publicly criticized for its authoritarian character.

Read also Ethiopia: in Oromia, the legislative elections of June 21 are preparing in a climate of strong mistrust

The head of the list of one of the national parties, which wishes to remain anonymous, ensures in an interview with the World “do not even believe in the legitimacy of the ballot” in which he takes part. Opponent of the Prime Minister, he fears a new wave of repression after the election. “If so, I will end up in prison, I have no doubts about that”, he blurted out.

However, the good conduct of the election represents one of the last hopes for Abiy Ahmed to restore confidence with his international partners. European pressures and American financial sanctions have provoked a frontal reaction in Addis Ababa, which says it is ready to “Review the nature of its bilateral ties with the United States”. But, at the head of a country on the verge of over-indebtedness, Abiy Ahmed could hardly do without the benevolence of financial institutions if he wanted his prosperity project to remain credible.