Rival histories, alternative facts: Can elections mend Ethiopia?

Rival histories, alternative facts: Can elections mend Ethiopia?

Mulugeta Ayene/AP

An Ethiopian voter casts his ballot in the general election, in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s home town of Beshasha, in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, June 21, 2021.

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July 1, 2021

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is heading toward a landslide election victory. But the pivotal moment he envisioned is being overshadowed by his government’s stunning defeats in its war in the Tigray region.

Set to preside over a country beset by famine and armed insurgencies, Mr. Abiy is armed with an electoral mandate that some view as absolute, but which large segments of the population consider illegitimate.

Why We Wrote This

Elections are seen as a peaceful way to resolve political disputes. As Ethiopia’s vote comes in, will the electoral mandate heal a polarized society – or deepen the conflict over national identity?

“The field was not fair and it was not free because not everyone participated,” says Tsedale Lemma, editor of the English daily Addis Standard. The election “polarized Ethiopia between those who absolutely celebrated the election and those who have been disenfranchised. … From this standpoint, this election has done more harm to the country than good.”

With a contested history, rival views of national identity, historic grievances, and alternative facts, Ethiopians are learning that elections cannot be a cure-all. Some say they need something more: a forum where they can be heard – and listen to one another.

“What is the golden balance between the domineering state and regional autonomy? What is our common view of history? Who are we as Ethiopians?” wonders Yonas Ashine, a political scientist at Addis Ababa University. “Elections are a limited tool that cannot answer these questions.”

AMMAN, JORDAN

The election in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous yet deeply polarized country, was billed as historic.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who had long made democratic elections a main goal of his administration, is heading toward a landslide victory.

But with the election results soon to be announced, the pivotal moment that Mr. Abiy had envisioned is being overshadowed by his government’s stunning defeats in its war in the Tigray region.

Why We Wrote This

Elections are seen as a peaceful way to resolve political disputes. As Ethiopia’s vote comes in, will the electoral mandate heal a polarized society – or deepen the conflict over national identity?

Set to preside over a losing war and a country beset by famine and armed insurgencies, Mr. Abiy is armed with an electoral mandate that some view as absolute, but which large segments of the population consider illegitimate.

With a contested history, rival views of national identity, historic grievances, and alternative facts, Ethiopians are learning that elections cannot be a cure-all for a divided nation.

As violence intensifies in both the north and south, some Ethiopians are finding they need something more than a ballot box to piece together their fraying social fabric: a forum where they can be heard – and listen to one another.

One election, two Ethiopias

At the heart of Ethiopia’s political divide are two different visions for the nation and its political system.


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Mr. Abiy’s Prosperity Party, supportive Addis Ababa elites, and many Amhara communities want to reform Ethiopia’s ethno-national federal system. They say the 11 regional states set in the 1992 constitution have too much devolved power and are stalling the nation’s ascendance to become a regional powerhouse.

Conversely, regional communities and political movements say power has not been devolved enough, and that successive governments have failed to respect or implement the regional autonomy set out in the constitution.

In light of these dueling narratives – and even facts – Ethiopian observers say the elections failed to find common ground.

“What is the golden balance between the domineering state and regional autonomy? What is our common view of history? Who are we as Ethiopians?” asks Yonas Ashine, an assistant professor of political science at Addis Ababa University.

Mulugeta Ayene/AP

Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at a final campaign rally at a stadium in the town of Jimma in the southwestern Oromia Region of Ethiopia, June 16, 2021.

“Elections are a limited tool that cannot answer these questions,” he says.

Mr. Abiy, a self-billed reformist who came to power in 2018 on the back of popular protests through a reshuffle within the then-ruling coalition, had long prioritized democratic elections.

The Nobel Prize-winner moved ahead with the elections last week even while his federal forces are at war with Tigray, one of the 11 regions that make up the country, a conflict that has pushed 900,000 people into what the United States has described as a “man-made famine.”

Election strengths and weaknesses

On paper, Ethiopia had many of the ingredients for historic democratic elections: the participation of 47 political parties, including several opposition groups; civil society observers at polling stations; and more than 37 million registered voters out of a population of 110 million.

The centerpiece of what was billed as the freest elections in Ethiopia’s history is the independent Ethiopia Electoral Board. It is chaired by Birtukan Mideksa, a democracy advocate and opposition leader who was jailed by the previous ruling party and was enticed back to Ethiopia from exile abroad by Mr. Abiy’s promises of a democratic transition, reform, and freedoms.

Last week the board carried out the vote in more than 400 of the country’s 550 districts across a land that is three times the size of Germany and home to dozens of languages and a diverse topography.

In towns and villages people lined up at polling stations before dawn and straight into the night.

Particularly energized were supporters of the Prosperity Party, which ran on a platform of “peace and unity.” They say the prime minister is the man to bring calm to the country and transform the nation.  

Residents say the vote in Addis Ababa, the capital of five million people, was the first open and competitive election in the city’s history.

But if the elections were largely free, international and Ethiopian observers warn that the playing field was far from fair. Federal authorities jailed several leaders of key opposition parties months before the delayed vote.

In Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region and home to protest and armed movements that fought years of marginalization, the two main political parties’ offices were shuttered and staff reportedly harassed by authorities, prompting them to boycott the polls.

Elections did not take place in war-torn and famine-hit Tigray as well as several other communities, leaving roughly 20% of eligible Ethiopians unable to take part in the polls.  

“The field was not fair and it was not free because not everyone participated,” says Tsedale Lemma, chief editor of the English daily Addis Standard.

“This has polarized Ethiopia between those who absolutely celebrated the election and those who have been disenfranchised from taking part in their constitutionally-guaranteed right to vote.”

“From this standpoint, this election has done more harm to the country than good.”

Ben Curtis/AP

The city of Mekele is seen through a bullet hole in a stairway window of the Ayder Referral Hospital, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, May 6, 2021.

Violence

With the political path closed to some disenfranchised groups, more are likely to resort to violence, observers warn.

Recent weeks have reportedly seen a spike in recruitment and activity by the Oromia Liberation Army, an armed insurgent group that rejects the political process and believes the only path to greater autonomy for their region is through armed conflict with the state. Violent attacks on federal forces forced some polling stations to close.

And in Tigray, as the ballots were still being counted Monday, federal forces were routed and the Tigrayans, who defend ethnic federalism and oppose Mr. Abiy’s reforms, seized back their regional capital Mekelle in the north.

Its stunning battlefield losses prompted the federal government to declare a unilateral cease-fire in Tigray Tuesday, citing humanitarian concerns and the farming season.

But Tigrayan fighters have rejected Mr. Abiy’s cease-fire, even threatening to march on to the neighboring Amhara state to the West and Eritrea to the north.  

“The rival views regarding the history, current structure, and future of the Ethiopian state are underpinning this chronic violence,” says William Davison, Ethiopia analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“The election did not settle these core disputes; indeed, in some important ways, they may well have exacerbated them.”

Search for common ground

Some Ethiopian observers argue that a national dialogue is the balm needed to heal Ethiopians historic wounds and current differences.

Rather than a majority-takes-all competition at the ballot box, they say Ethiopians need an inclusive forum where there are no winners or losers.

“We’re not saying, ‘Don’t have elections.’ We are saying ‘yes’ to elections,” says Mr. Ashine at Addis Ababa University, “but we also need dialogue and reconciliation alongside elections to bring disenfranchised groups to the table.”

As a model, some Ethiopians point to Tunisia, where civil society leaders and political figures gathered for dialogue following a 2011 revolution to find a common  vision of the country’s future, an arduous process that eventually produced a constitution.

Others look to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a potential path to acknowledging the crimes committed by the state in previous decades against various communities.

Such dialogue, they argue, could address historical grievances such as the territorial dispute between the Amhara and the Tigrayans, which this year erupted into violence and alleged ethnic cleansing.

“We need to experiment and try all these diverse political processes in Ethiopia beyond elections to address the complex, deeply-rooted problems in our society,” Mr. Ashine says.

The Oromo Liberation Front, one of two main Oromo political parties who boycotted the elections, called for an “all-inclusive political dialogue,” noting that the “aggressive move for the election cost the country a tremendous amount of resources and human life.”

“Dialogue means there is a give and take, historical compromises, and agreeing to a fair game for all, not a zero-sum game of domination imposed by one group or one party,” says Merera Gudina, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress party, which also boycotted the elections.

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“If there is political will, we can negotiate and draw a common road map. That is what Ethiopia needs today,” says professor Gudina. “If we do not come together and listen to understand one another, we may face disintegration.”

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Abiy, with the electoral mandate he so badly wants nearly within his grasp, will be in a mood to reach out.

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