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Vol 62 No 13

Published 24th June 2021


War casts shadow over Abiy's election plan

Communal clashes in five regions and all-out conflict in Tigray will undermine the legitimacy of the new government

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2021

It was meant to be a landmark election, a critical stage in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's proclaimed agenda for democratic transition after decades of authoritarian rule. Ahead of voting on 21 June for federal and state assemblies, Abiy assured 'all Ethiopians that we will do our very best to hold a better, free and fair election than previous years' (AC Vol 62 No 1, Abiy’s search for legitimacy).

In the event, the elections met few of the minimum standards for a credible vote, with armed conflict and communal violence in parts of Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, Amhara and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region – as well as outright war in Tigray with the continuing presence of Eritrean troops (AC Vol 62 No 9, Issayas in for the long haul).

Pre-election complaints included harassment, intimidation and arrest of candidates and of opposition party supporters, intimidation of voters trying to register and breaking up or refusing to allow opposition rallies.

Chairwoman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), Birtukan Mideksa cautiously called the election 'an imperfect step in the right direction'. She claimed that 'for the first time in history, diverse and multiple political parties from across the political spectrum will take their seats in Ethiopia's national and regional parliaments'.

She admitted to several problems, including a political party withdrawing 'citing intimidation' and spoke of the 'insecurity, malfeasance, and logistical challenges' with ballot papers. That meant the elections in the Somali and Harari regions were postponed until September.

The NEBE struggled with staff training, logistics and shortages of ballot papers. Voting had to be extended in some areas; it was stopped in Sidama region because of a shortage of ballot papers but restarted on Tuesday. A powerful security presence largely prevented violence, though there were attacks on a couple of polling stations.

Blind eye
The NEBE largely ignored the arrest of opposition party leaders and other repressive moves. It failed to prevent the misuse of state resources and vehicles by the ruling Prosperity Party (PP), or to respond to claims that fertiliser was being distributed to win support for the government.

Its target for voter registration was 50 million; it managed just over 36 million. The elections body delayed a planned referendum on creation of a new South West region, much to the annoyance of the parties involved and to the referendum organising committee.

The United States State Department, which has led international criticism of the government's war in Tigray, condemned the detention of opposition politicians and harassment of independent media, and argued the ethnic and communal conflicts were obstacles to a free and fair, or even credible, electoral process.

There was no election in the Tigray region, where the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) have been prosecuting their war against the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and its supporters, for the last six months (see Box, In full denial).

Pre-election conflict and insecurity, in Benishangul-Gumuz and the Southern Region as well as other areas, coupled with the NEBE's logistical and administrative failures meant nearly a fifth of the country was unable to vote this week. In two regions (Somali and Harar) polling had to be postponed until 6 September. In all, 102 out of the 547 parliamentary seats – 18% of the total – didn't hold elections.

Abiy's ruling PP faced no opposition in Oromo region, the country's largest, providing 178 out of the 547 federal parliamentary seats, as the opposition parties boycotted the election. The PP's takeover of the membership and structures of the old ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) meant it was the only party with any real national capacity.

Over 9,300 candidates were registered for seats in regional councils and the House of People's Representatives. Of these, the PP had 2,799. The only other party to field a significant number of candidates, the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice party (EZEMA), with 1,540 seats in all, represented similar pro-unitary state policies to the PP.

EZEMA is a coalition of Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7), the Ethiopian Democratic Party, All Ethiopian Democratic Party, the Semayawi Party (Blue), the Gambella Regional Movement and former leaders of Unity for Democracy and Justice, organised by Berhanu Nega and PG7. 

Addis dispute
PP militants expected to face serious opposition in Addis Ababa, where the central issue relates to the boundaries of the city administration, and the relationship between the city and the surrounding Oromo Finfinne Special Zone. For Oromos, Addis Ababa is Finfinne, the capital of Oromia state, and they want it formally recognised as such.

For now, the boundary between Addis Ababa and Oromia is ill-defined; both administrations claim the other is steadily pushing into their territory. Complicating matters is Adanech Abebe, who as deputy mayor has been heading the Addis Ababa City Administration since August 2020. She is also a top politician in the Oromo branch of the PP.

Three of the opposition parties standing in Addis Ababa campaigned mainly on boundary demarcation, which affects planning and urban development. EZEMA and Balderas for True Democracy, led by Eskinder Nega (who was allowed to participate in the election despite being in jail) argued Oromo domination threatened Addis Ababa. The Freedom and Equality Party, led by Abdulkadir Adem, was more sympathetic to Oromo farmers who have lost their land due to the expanding city.

Some fear there could be post-election fighting between supporters of the PP, EZEMA and Balderas in and around Addis Ababa. Early reports suggest Nega, EZEMA's firebrand leader, who returned from exile in Eritrea in 2018, was defeated.

In the Amhara region, the Amhara Prosperity Party was opposed by the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA), which fielded nearly 500 candidates (AC Vol 62 No 2, Abiy risks more war). First reports suggested NaMA did well in the Amhara regional capital, Bahir Dar, and in Debre Berhane, north of Addis Ababa. The region elects 138 national MPs. If the reports of NaMA's successes are confirmed, it should have several opposition MPs in the national parliament.

Other opposition MPs may come from the Afar region, where the Afar People's Party might win seats and the Somali region where the Ogaden National Liberation Front could offer a serious challenge if it could hold together. But the election there has been postponed until September and the ONLF has split into three, even four factions.

Oromo tensions
After Abiy set up the PP in December 2019, moving from support for a federal structure to a more unitary government, his relations with leading Oromo political figures, including Jawar Mohammed, the owner of the influential Oromo Media Network that helped bring Abiy to power, deteriorated.

After the killing of the popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020, Abiy used the chaos to arrest the region's leaders such as Jawar Mohammed, Bekele Garba, and Hamza Borena, from the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC); and Gemechu Ayana, Michael Boran and Dawud Ibsa, under house arrest since April this year, from the OLF.

This crackdown included the detention of hundreds of members of the OFC and its supporters and the closure of over 200 OFC offices. After that, the two main Oromo opposition parties, the OLF and the OFC, boycotted the election, scuppering its credibility. Voting was largely peaceful in Oromia, although the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA-Shane), now classified as a terrorist organisation by Addis, was accused of attacking a couple of polling stations near Ambo, 120 kilometres west of Addis Ababa.

Security concerns meant no voting in most of Benishangul-Gumuz. Even in the areas where elections were held, there were delays in delivering ballot papers and voting continued the following day. The region is strategically significant as the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, where there have been extensive government and Amhara regional counter-insurgency operations. Clashes in the region have forced 100,000 people from their homes. Amhara region has been threatening to take over Metekel zone to safeguard its Amhara population.

Large swathes of Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, Somali, Oromia, Amhara and the Southern Region are under 'Command Posts', in effect military rule. That applies to all of Tigray region, although many of the soldiers there are Eritrean. There is no sign that the elections will help resolve these regional and local disputes.

There is little doubt that the PP will secure victory at the federal level, and will win in most regions, especially Oromia. Addis Ababa and Amhara should see some opposition MPs. Abiy has made it clear he sees it all as support for his policies. He will claim a new mandate for his policies, including increased centralisation of authority. We are likely to hear less of the dialogue and synergy he claims to espouse, and his plans for constitutional change will reinforce the government's authoritarian style.

State survival
Yet there are signs that Abiy's ambitions – associated with the Eritrean alliance, the war in Tigray and efforts to consolidate the ruling PP – have been causing concern about state survival at senior levels of government as well as among Ethiopia's international partners.

The deepening humanitarian and political crisis in Tigray, with the communal violence between Oromo and Amhara in Ataye in the Amhara region, between Gumuz and Amhara in Benishangul-Gumuz, and the mismanagement of cross-border relations between Afar and Somali regions, are identified with the prime minister's policies.

The chorus of international criticism over the devastation in Tigray, and the role of Eritrea, may not worry Eritrean President Issayas Afeworki, but it does concern many in Addis and beyond (AC Vol 62 No 7, Abiy gives first ground). Abiy will come under increasing pressure, from the country's partners and from his own advisors, to concentrate more on efforts to resolve outstanding problems and less on photo opportunities and platitudes.


In full denial

In the run-up to national elections on 21 June, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched another 'final' offensive in Tigray, his third so far. Some of his generals may have been hoping for victory to coincide with the election. If so, they were disappointed, as fighters from the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) blunted the attacks and responded with their own, more successful advance, claiming to capture many Ethiopian and Eritrean troops.

On 22 June, reports of an air strike killing at least 43 people in Togoga in the north-west of Mekelle in Tigray region in turn suggests a response from the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments to the latest TPLF advances.

Elsewhere, Federal Government operations in Tigray have become highly dependent on Eritrean troops and armour. Prime Minister Abiy, although concerned by the Eritreans' behaviour in Tigray and how it might affect Ethiopian support for the war, cannot afford to demand their withdrawal. President Issayas Afewerki shows no signs of listening to international demands for Eritrea's withdrawal.

The military situation in Tigray is in stalemate, with Federal Government and Eritrean forces holding the main towns and roads, and the TPLF controlling much of the countryside, getting strong support from local residents, not least because of the abuses committed by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) and the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF). 

The fighting has worsened conditions sharply this year. More than 350,000 Tigrayans are now at Stage 5, the official UN designation of 'extreme famine'.  It is the highest number in any country since the Somalia famine in 2011. More than five million more, in Tigray and in surrounding areas, are at 'emergency' and 'crisis' levels.

The UN's outgoing humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, has told the UN Security Council that there is now famine in Tigray and blamed Eritrean forces: 'Eritrean soldiers are using starvation as a weapon of war,' adding that 'rape is being used systematically to terrorize and brutalize women and girls. Aid workers have been killed, interrogated, beaten, blocked from taking aid to the starving and suffering and told not to come back.'

The interim administration in Tigray, imposed by Addis Ababa after the war started, has reported deaths from starvation. Without a ceasefire and a decisive humanitarian intervention, the positon may worsen in the coming months, in Tigray, and in neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.

Lowcock said there were now over 100 humanitarian agencies in the area; 10 times as many aid workers in Tigray today than in November. But he added the region urgently needed more supplies to meet growing needs. More than 90% of Tigray's last crop harvest and 80% of its livestock have been looted or destroyed, according to the FAO; and planting for the next harvest seriously reduced.

The UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported that high rates of violence against women are continuing, and humanitarian workers continue to face denial of access, intimidation and the looting and confiscation of supplies, trucks, and equipment by ENDF and EDF.

When BBC correspondent Catherine Byaruhanga asked Prime Minister Abiy on 21 June about the emergency in Tigray, he replied: 'There is no hunger in Tigray… there is a problem and the government is capable of fixing that.' He added that after successive promises to send Eritrean troops home his government but was working with Asmara to 'finalise… issues peacefully'.

It appears the wave of criticism by Western leaders, United States' travel sanctions against Ethiopian officials, and suspension of European Union budget funding have had no effect on the Prime Minister's determination to press ahead with his Tigray campaign, at whatever cost.

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