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Ethiopia heads to the polls against a backdrop of insecurity

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – Supporters of the Balderas Party, one of the major opposition parties, participate in an election campaign in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on June 16, 2021.

Michael Tewelde/Xinhua via Getty Images

Ethiopians head to the polls on Monday, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promoting a message of unity against a backdrop of conflict and impending famine in the north of the country.

The national elections, which will see 547 federal parliament members elected and the leader of the winning party become prime minister, were due to be held in August 2020 but were delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his work in ending a 20-year post-war territorial dispute with Eritrea, earlier this week called on Ethiopians to ensure “the first free and fair election in the country.”

Monday marks his first electoral test since taking office in 2018 on the back of mass protests against the former coalition government, which was dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

But despite setting out with a bold reformist agenda that included crackdowns on corruption and release of political prisoners, Abiy last year found himself waging military operations against the TPLF in the northern Tigray region after it seized military bases.

The subsequent conflict has led to mass casualties and displacement, though no formal death toll has been established, and put the region on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, allegations of human rights abuses have cast clouds over the federal government’s international reputation. The African Union this week launched an inquiry to investigate these allegations.

Troubled polls

The legitimacy of the election has also been called into question after parties in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region from whence Abiy hails, said they will boycott it on accusations of government oppression.

The Oromo Liberation Front announced in March that it would withdraw after the jailing of party leaders and alleged shuttering of its national offices. The Oromo Federalist Congress pulled out on similar grounds, as prominent figures were imprisoned on terror charges.

The withdrawals coincided with a spike in deadly attacks in Oromia and parts of the northwestern region of Amhara, which have been blamed on a militant offshoot of the OLF.

Amhara militia men, in combat alongside federal and regional forces against the northern region of Tigray, receive training in the outskirts of the village of Addis Zemen, north of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, on November 10, 2020.

EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile the TPLF is now formally designated as a terrorist organization, with its leaders either arrested, waging guerilla warfare in Tigray, or on the run.

“The main challenge to the elections is insecurity, notably in western and southern Oromia where the activities of ethnic-based militia are very much designed to undermine the election process itself,” Louw Nel, senior political analyst at NKC African Economics, said in a research note Thursday.

“Ethiopian security forces have struggled to create the conditions conducive to free and fair elections in the most troubled areas and have been implicated in abuses of their own.”

Insecurity is also a concern in the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz, fueled by competition over resources, Nel highlighted, along with long-standing ethnic animosities.

Though dozens of parties have fielded candidates, only the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice has a party leader with a substantial national profile — Berhanu Nega, who was elected mayor of the country’s capital Addis Ababa in 2005 before being ousted by the TPLF-led government and jailed.

The National Election Board of Ethiopia announced on June 10 that the elections would no longer proceed in the Harar and Somali regions, along with a referendum on the establishment of a new state from multiple districts in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State.

This in addition to the 40 constituencies and six regions where polls were postponed in May due to disruptions to voter registration. While these polls are now scheduled for September 6, elections in war-ravaged Tigray are postponed indefinitely, “effectively disenfranchising 5.7 million people who mostly oppose the federal government,” according to a recent report by political risk consultancy Pangea-Risk.

Reputational risk

Abiy claimed victory in Tigray in November 2020 and the region is now under an interim administration, after the government declared the TPLF premiership illegal. However, it is still contending with a low-level insurgency, which the Pangea-Risk report suggested increases the risk of disproportionate warfare tactics from rebel groups.

“Ongoing insecurity, delayed elections, and a seemingly bungled telecoms licensing round are all indicators for concern as Ethiopia struggles to recover from the pandemic and the economy slows to its lowest growth rate in almost 20 years,” the report said.

The conflict in Tigray has inflicted global reputational damage, which could have a knock-on effect on interest in the country as an investment destination, a key tenet of Abiy’s push toward privatization and economic liberation.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia – People listen as staff members of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) explain how to vote in the upcoming general election scheduled on June 21, 2021, under an overpass in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 17, 2021.

YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

“Companies, once buoyed by the prospect of investing in a country led by a Nobel Peace Prize winner set on opening it up to the world, now face reputational risk investing in a country associated with war crimes and famine,” said NKC’s Nel.

The government is currently looking to auction off a 40% stake in Ethio Telecom, which is still generating interest, with the ultimate ambition being to generate revenues through partial privatization and new license tenders, along with alleviating the debt burden generated in part by state-owned enterprises such as Ethio Telecom.

“A relatively peaceful election will go some way in rehabilitating Ethiopia, and Mr Abiy’s, image,” Nel said.

“Violence in the run-up to and following elections will do the opposite, exposing the country as fractured and accelerating its isolation.”


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