Ethiopians headed to the polls Monday for a controversial election being carried out amid an ongoing conflict and a raging humanitarian crisis in the country’s northern Tigray region.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing his first real test at the ballot in what is Ethiopia’s first multi-party election in 16 years, albeit one riven with conflict, jailed opposition figures and parts of the country unable to vote.
Abiy said he expected the poll to be peaceful, tweeting ahead of the vote that it would be Ethiopia’s “first attempt at free and fair elections.”
But some Ethiopians and political analysts disagreed with the prime minister.
An Ethiopian, Gual Adwa, wrote on Twitter: “This is actually the worst attempt at free and fair elections in Ethiopian history. Election observers won’t even entertain it & most opposition is in jail..not to mention a whole region can’t vote bc it’s a war zone.”
A veteran journalist, Martin Plaut, described the June 21 poll as “a dubious process.”
“Correction: some Ethiopians will cast their vote. The election has been canceled in several regions - including Tigray. It’s such a dubious process that most international observers have refused to monitor it,” Plaut tweeted.
The atmosphere was peaceful at one Addis Ababa polling station visited by CNN on Monday morning. Several Ethiopians waiting patiently in line said they were voting because they hoped it would help move the country in a more democratic direction.
The European Union has long withdrawn its election observation mission to Ethiopia, citing the government’s uncooperative stance in fulfilling “standard requirements” relating to security and the independence of the observer group.
The EU’s special envoy to Ethiopia, Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, said Monday he hoped the election would help facilitate dialogue on the “poor human rights” situation in Tigray.
Last Tuesday, Haavisto told a special European Parliament committee that during a February visit to Ethiopia, senior leaders told him they were going to “wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.” The Ethiopian foreign ministry called Haavisto’s allegation “a complete fabrication.”
With the polls initially planned for August last year, the race to elect a new parliament has been postponed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic and logistical constraints, as opposition movements raise concerns about the integrity of the June 21 ballot.
Ethiopia has long been divided along ethnic and political lines, and the growing mistrust between its warring ethnic groups places the forthcoming election on shaky ground in the East African powerhouse, which has a population of more than 100 million people.
Abiy, the 44-year-old prime minister, who is a recipient of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, is expected to be reelected if his ruling Prosperity Party (PP) garners the highest votes in the federal parliament.
Abiy’s chances at the ballot have grown seemingly brighter following recent moves by some leading opposition figures to boycott the election, citing government crackdown on prominent rivals.
Merera Gudina, the leader of Oromo Federalist Congress, a party representing the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, described the election as “political theatre,” and urged observers not “take the election very seriously,” in a statement.
“It cannot deliver the three greatest needs of the country: durable peace and stability, ensure the birth of Democratic Ethiopia even after three thousand years and meaningful economic development,” Merera added.
Many opposition figures in Oromo have been held in government custody since the killing of a popular Oromo singer by unknown gunmen last year sparked massive unrest in the region.
The US State Department said in a statement last week it “is gravely concerned about the environment” under which Ethiopia’s elections will be held.
“The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media…and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process…,” the statement said.
Among 47 parties participating in the general and regional elections, Abiy’s Prosperity Party leads the chart on the number of registered candidates contesting for seats at the parliament with a total of 2,432 aspirants. This is closely followed by a rival party, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice, which has fielded 1,385 candidates in the election, where around 37 million of Ethiopia’s 109 million people are registered to vote.
However, many Ethiopians in conflict-ridden areas will have to wait until September to cast their ballots when the second round of voting will be held.
How has Abiy fared?
Abiy took over the reins as Ethiopia’s prime minister in April 2018 following the resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, who renounced his chairmanship of the then ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
The head of Ethiopia’s ruling party is empowered by the country’s constitution to emerge as prime minister.
The EPRDF coalition, which consisted of four political parties, dominated Ethiopia’s politics from 1991 to 2019. Abiy, who succeeded Desalegn as chairman of the EPRDF, would later introduce sweeping reforms, with his party factored into the policy shake-up.
He was the first Oromo to lead his country. The Oromo had never been in prominent positions of power. Grievances of their economic and political exclusion drove anti-government protests across the country.
In 2019, Abiy directed the dissolution and merger of the four-member EPRDF into the Prosperity Party he created – a move perceived as a plot to whittle down regional powers and centralize power in the federal government.
The merger was rejected by one of the coalition’s dominant parties, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), culminating in a conflict that would kill thousands of people and displace more than 1 million.
Abiy rode to power on the back of lofty goals to reform Ethiopian politics and unite warring ethnic and political factions. He started his tenure with heroics, such as mending broken ties with Eritrea, 18 years after the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, a largely pointless war over disputed border territory that came at a huge financial and human cost to both countries.
The early months of his premiership were marked with bold and progressive decision making; he released the country’s political prisoners, denouncing their torture and also freeing jailed journalists, and shut down a notorious maximum-security prison.
He also won plaudits for his role in helping to broker a power-sharing deal in neighboring Sudan, after a political crisis that led to the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the country’s ruler for almost three decades.
The style of leadership was different from anything seen before in Ethiopia’s ruling party. There were “listening rallies” attended by tens of thousands, town hall meetings in which the vision of true democracy and unity were re-emphasized.
The changes were part of a new agenda, which he pledged would respect freedom of expression. “In a democratic system, the government allows citizens to express their ideas freely without fear,” he said in April 2018.
Fame to infamy
However, Abiy’s glowing reputation took a sharp turn into national infamy following the controversial cancellation of the August 2020 general election.
His government had hinged the deferred poll on the raging Covid-19 pandemic, but the opposition movement accused the prime minister of consolidating his hold on power by delaying the country’s transition from an authoritarian system to a purely democratic one.
Officials of the TPLF, in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray region, railed against the postponement of the poll to mid-2021, vowing to hold its own election, the outcome of which was not recognized by the national government.
The tension between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government led to intra-ethnic violence with dozens of casualties recorded and opposition politicians arrested last year.
In early 2020, the National Election Board of Ethiopia deregistered the TPLF as a political party, accusing the movement of violence.
Months later, the TPLF was designated a terror group by Ethiopian authorities. Earlier in November, Abiy had imposed a state of emergency in Tigray for six months, paving the way for the Ethiopian military to launch an offensive in the region with internet and telephone services cut off.
There have been previous nationwide internet shutdowns early on in his administration, which raised eyebrows and dented his reformist image.
The military incursion into Tigray was a fallout of an attack on a federal military base in the region by TPFL forces, the prime minister’s office said in a statement.
Later in November, scores of citizens including children were killed and dozens injured when Ethiopian security forces “carried out apparently indiscriminate shelling of urban areas in the Tigray region,” Human Rights Watch reported.
Abiy’s military action in Tigray is believed to have caused the death of thousands of civilians. This has been aided by troops from neighboring Eritrea, who have committed many of the extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses in the region.
A CNN investigation in March revealed a massacre that took place in Tigray’s Dengelat district late last year.
Eyewitnesses told CNN that a group of Eritrean soldiers opened fire at a church whilst mass was underway, claiming the lives of priests, women, entire families, and a group of more than 20 Sunday school children.
A U.N. high commissioner for human rights has called for an independent investigation into the human rights violations in Tigray that may amount to war crimes.
Abiy’s office says said it would “continue bringing all perpetrators to justice following thorough investigations into alleged crimes in the region.”
In the early stages of his administration, Abiy touted plans to strengthen Ethiopia’s economy by embracing foreign direct investment.
Three years down the line, foreign inflows in the war-torn country have significantly declined under Abiy, dropping from a sterling $4.17 billion in 2017 to $2.41 billion in 2020, Bloomberg reports.
Compounding the woes of a shrinking national currency, Ethiopia grapples with the threat of famine in its northernmost parts. According to a recent report by the United Nations and other aid groups, more than five million people in the country’s conflict-ravaged Tigray region and neighboring zones of Amhara and Afar are facing “high levels of acute food insecurity.”
At least 6% of that number is faced with catastrophic levels, and the situation is expected to worsen before the end of the year.
Correction: This story has been updated to replace a statement that was incorrectly attributed to the Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress.
Nimi Princewill wrote from Abuja, Nigeria and Bethlehem Feleke reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Stephanie Busari contributed to this report.