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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. Photo by www.kremlin.ru via commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY 4.0

After the Postponed Elections: Ethiopia’s Fragile Transition Hangs in the Balance

As the coronavirus pandemic extends its reach, Ethiopia has delayed a national ballot slated for August, fanning uncertainty and doubts about its tentative path to reform under Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed Ali. What’s next for the country’s fragile transition? 

Prime Minister Abby Ahmed Ali’s arrival to his new post in April 2018 was greeted with a collective sigh of relief, both by Ethiopians and those who follow Ethiopia’s tumultuous political trajectory of the past decades.

He was quickly branded as “a reformer” who would fix the monopoly of power held for decades by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front which turned the nation into an African economic powerhouse while also exerting growing authoritarianism.

After his election, hopes were high and the rest of the world sung the praises of the young “reformer”, awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, its arch enemy of more than two decades.

Among his other successes, reforms within the judiciary branch of the government took an encouraging leap forward. But many other reforms, including within the security sector, remained elusive. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2020 country report on Ethiopia, concluded: “The new political leadership changed its attitude towards civil society participation, but up to now there is no institutionalisation of state-civil society dialogues visible.”

Signalling a lack of change, a damning report was recently published by Amnesty International which indicted the Ethiopian army of committing gross human rights violation in its engagement with rebel groups in western and southern Oromia region.

But the situation in Ethiopia became politically combustive with the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed its highly anticipated general elections on March 31, 2020. The stakes for the ballot were running high: it was seen as a milestone for Ethiopia’s transition to a democratic state. Multiple previously sidelined political parties saw it as their first vote of confidence from constituencies which they had been denied access to for nearly three decades.

Election delay sparks fierce debate

But amid the rising threat of the coronavirus, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia has now postponed indefinitely the general elections which had been rescheduled for August 29. Its decision, albeit justifiably, brought in the elephant in the room: Ethiopia’s constitution stipulates legislative elections should take place every five years, meaning any ruling party which overstays its electoral mandate is automatically rendered illegal.

The postponement has set in motion a fierce constitutional debate on how exactly the ruling party and its opponents should navigate the impasse. Many Ethiopians, including some of the country’s top constitutional scholars, have pleaded with the ruling party to seize the moment and engage in a constitutionally based national dialogue with all the opposition parties and other stakeholders. Instead, the ruling party led by Abiy took the issue to the Parliament––which is completely controlled by its members–– seeking a constitutional interpretation among a slew of options, including dissolving parliament.

An electoral deadlock which required a collective effort through dialogue and negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition was effectively reduced to a mere legality when the Parliament referred the decision a Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI).

Next, in a text-book dictatorship move, the CCI’s constitutional interpretation verdict approved extending the term limit of the federal legislative indefinitely, or until after COVID-19 was deemed no longer a threat to public health. Perhaps more dangerously, the CCI, led by Chief Justice Meaza Ashenafi, went above and beyond its constitutional mandate, ruling to extend the legislative term limits of regional states, which are independent of the federal legislative.

Tigray regional state, already at loggerheads with the federal government, was the first to reject this decision. In an unprecedented move, the regional state announced it would unilaterally hold its own election before the term limit of the regional legislative came to an end. Meanwhile prominent leaders of opposition political parties stepped up their criticism, accusing Abiy of using the judiciary to illegally extend his term in office. The political atmosphere rapidly deteriorated, leading Abiy to issue a stern warning and even floating the option of using force to safeguard the constitution and the country.

Political assassination sparks violence

Stoking the tensions, musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa, loved across the country but revered by the Oromo people, was killed in June. A political assassination by every stretch of imagination,  the killing unleashed violence which exposed how Ethiopia’s politics under the reformer Abiy has long since exhausted its options to become a stable political order. The night Hachalu was shot in the capital, the Oromia region went up in flames: first with protests against the killing, then attacks against minorities living in the regional state and a host of other civilians including Oromos. According to the government’s own account, more than 160 individuals were killed, both by security forces and mobs who attacked minorities. Cities like Shashemene, one of the business hubs in the region, were reduced to ashes.

Simultaneously, the government has waged a massive crackdown against prominent opposition figures, such as Jawar Mohammed, a man who helped Abiy consolidate his power but later emerged as a fierce critic. More than 7,000 people have been arrested in connection with the killing and the violence that ensued. Representatives of almost all major opposition political parties, journalists and activists ended up jailed accused of fomenting the violence; and at least four media houses critical of the government have been shut down. The internet was halted for 23 consecutive days, during which the Attorney General’s office overwhelmed the state media to broadcast its findings of the assassination: it blamed the killing of artist Hachalu on the Oromo Liberation Army, a group the government forces are at war with, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

What is next? And how, if at all, will Abiy be able to steer the country toward a stable political order without meaningful dialogue to resolve the impasse? Where is the troubled relationship between Tigray state and the federal government headed? How does the Prime Minister envision stabilizing the most troubled and agitated state, Oromia, after jailing almost all opposition political leaders and their members, politicians who command a massive following in the region?

Through its unhinged propaganda, excessive use of state media, and the full force of the law enforcement, Abiy’s government seems comfortable at swaying public opinion; it has sedated urbanite Ethiopians and its foreign backers into a wilful paralysis from asking questions whose answers will determine the fate of Ethiopia. Just like that, and under the watches of a reformer Prime Minister, Ethiopia’s fragile transition has been sucked into a vortex of the unknown, leaving more questions than answers.

 

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