Tens of millions of Ethiopians are expected to vote on Monday in crucial elections that could provide a launching pad for controversial Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian rule.
Abiy, who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years ago after concluding a peace deal with neighboring Eritrea, will face voters at the polls for the first time in Africa’s second most populous nation.
Just over a fifth of more than 500 parliamentary constituencies do not vote due to logistical problems, violence or the war in Tigray.
The conflict in the northern region erupted in November after fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s ruling party at the time, attacked government military bases.
Federal troops forced the TPLF to leave their stronghold in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, after six weeks of fighting, but they have fought to end an ongoing insurgency.
The conflict has its roots in a struggle for power at the national level. The TPLF dominated the government for decades until Abiy was appointed by the ruling coalition in 2018. It was unclear whether the war would boost Abiy in polls, analysts said.
“At first, the war was good for Abiy. The TPLF had been in power for a long time and had committed many crimes. They were very unpopular. But now there is a very costly deadlock, it is a much bigger problem for [Abiy]”Said Yohannes Woldemariam, a US-based independent analyst.
Supporters of the prime minister hope the elections will strengthen his new Prosperity party. The elections were originally scheduled for August 2020, but were delayed and officials blamed the Covid-19 pandemic. It will involve candidates from more than 40 parties.
The campaign has been short. Abiy, a 44-year-old former military intelligence specialist, told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters last week in his one rally that Ethiopia would show a skeptical world that he could unite his troubled country.
“The whole world says we will fight [each other] but we will show them differently, ”Abiy said at a crowded stadium in the western city of Jimma. “The forces that saved Ethiopia from collapse will turn the Horn of Africa into Africa’s center of power.”
Violence in Ethiopia, a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups theoretically united by a federal system, has increased since Abiy took power and implemented a series of far-reaching reforms.
In his first 18 months in power, Abiy released more than 40,000 political prisoners, brought many more women to high office, lifted the ban on political parties, allowed more freedom of the press, and opened up sectors of the economy. But prisons are filling up again, with thousands of people detained in military camps and more than 20 journalists jailed last year.
“The situation is now as dire as it used to be, if not more so,” said Fisseha Tekle of Amnesty International.
Many parties in Oromiya, the most populous region in the country and the site of last week’s demonstration, are boycotting the polls, alleging government intimidation.
Regardless of the results of this week’s poll, and Abiy is not expected to lose, he will have to deal with a looming economic crisis. The country of 110 million faces a serious shortage of foreign exchange and has tried, without success, to postpone the payment of the debt.
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokesman, described the elections as an opportunity for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights” and accused the international media of mounting a “murder of the prime minister’s character.”
Western diplomats and humanitarian agencies say 350,000 people in Tigray are starving and many millions more are threatened by a severe lack of food.
Diplomats warned that if the promised changes did not follow the ballot box, more collective international pressure would be applied, insisting that “if nothing is done, this will be a totally man-made famine.” They said they had received private assurances from senior Ethiopian ministers that restrictions on humanitarian access to famine areas could be eased once the elections were over.
The UK ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, has already warned: “It is not a drought or locusts that are causing this famine, but the decisions of those in power.”
Until now, Ethiopia has ignored traditional diplomatic levers. These include two successive G7 statements, the withdrawal of EU funding from the Ethiopian government and the imposition by the United States of visa sanctions on some Ethiopian officials.
The Observer, guardian and other outlets have reported a series of massacres over the past six months, the most recent just a few weeks ago. Both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, who entered Tigray to support the government, appear responsible. The TPLF has been attributed at least one massacre.
Eritrea spent months denying that its troops were in Tigray, but since acknowledging their presence, it has repeatedly denied any accusations of atrocities. Ethiopian officials have repeatedly said that Eritrean troops would withdraw, but there has been little movement on the ground.
In a recent and revealing incident, a UN truck transporting Eritrean refugees who had lived for many years in Tigray to a camp for displaced persons was detained at a checkpoint approximately 100 miles from the border with Eritrea by Eritrean troops, who later forcibly repatriated 38 of them. Only after strong protests from the UN did the refugees return from Eritrea.
Analysts say it is unclear whether Abiy wants Eritrean troops to stay to fight the TPLF, or has failed to convince Isaias Afwerki, the veteran dictator who has led Eritrea since independence in 1993, to withdraw his forces. . “It has become a survival game for everyone and everyone sees their survival at the expense of others. It’s very sad, ”said Woldemariam.
Abiy’s rhetoric has been adamant. Opening a sugar factory in the northern Amhara region on June 6, he told his supporters that Ethiopians face two challenges: “traitors and outsiders.”
“Everyone is expected to purge traitors first and then detain outsiders,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism