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Ethiopia’s election: the stakes are high amid fear, mistrust and violence

Workers mount a billboard of Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed on the eve of his campaign visit in Jimma. Photo by Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Barely three years ago, little-known Abiy Ahmed burst onto the Ethiopian political scene at the height of another tumultuous period in the country’s history. He quickly won national admiration and international attention. He was a fresh breath of air – he spoke different and acted different.

Abiy also brought calm to a nation that was on the edge. Unity, harmony, love and forgiveness became the hallmark of his political narrative in the following months.

This helped Abiy, who recently turned 44, to amass support across the nation as never seen before in the Ethiopian political scene. His international standing also soared after he mended relations with Eritrea for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A lot has changed since then. Instances of communal violence, some of them bordering on ethnic cleansing, have taken place. High profile political assassinations have stunned the nation time and again. Internal displacements have become common.

Worse still, the disputed regional election in Tigray has led to the current war with the Tigrayan Liberation Front, now rebranding itself as the Tigrayan Defence Force. The conflict has dented the Prime Minister’s reputation domestically as well as internationally.

In the meantime, Ethiopia is gearing for a general election in one of the most precarious times in nations history. These are due to be held on June 21.

There is one major question being asked: will the election bring any meaningful change?

Same problem, same wrong remedies

The crux of the challenge facing Abiy is not his own making. The problem of ethnic diversity and the question of fair share of power and resources is as old as medieval Ethiopia.

It’s a challenge that’s prompted a series of wrong remedies over the decades, or even centuries. The old political paradigm – from Solomonic dynasty to Mengistu Hailemariam’s Marxist regime – opted for a blanket unionism. They did not sufficiently articulate the grievances of those who felt they were in the margins and provide solution based on dialogue.

The regime that followed – the Tigrayan Liberation Front-led ethno-federalist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)– went to the opposite to extreme. It granted the right for self-governing including the right to cessation to those they described as “nations, nationalities and people groups”. Instead of solving the problem, this arrangement became a breeding ground for conflict entrepreneurs.

Regardless of the response the issue is receiving from the two seemingly polarised political approaches, the same principle operated behind the two of them – ethnic domination.

Abiy came in a time when, on the one hand, some pockets of the society are deeply disenchanted with ethno-nationalist system. Others, on the other hand, were demanding even more enhanced federal states in which ethnic communities form political parties which bear their names and promote their interests.

Abiy, however, has remained an enigma. At times he personified rhetorical unionism, at others practical ethno-federalism. While the Tigrayan Liberation Front and other ethno-nationalist group feel that Abiy is going to undo the system they put in place in the last three decades, the unionist groups are uneasy that he is not moving fast enough to dismantle the ethno-federalist system. This provided another recipe for the conflict in Tigray.

Winning this election could give Abiy a popular mandate to clearly define his position on the thorny issue.

The politics of elimination

Ethiopia is one of those countries that struggle to embrace the idea of winning by way of dialogue and moderation. Political competitors perceive each other as arch enemies. The typical tactic for winning has been eliminating the competitor. Dialogue and compromises remain alien concepts.

The war in Tigray is emblematic of this culture. It’s mainly fuelled by undue heroism rather than cool headed political manoeuvring. The Tigrayan Liberation Front could not accept the loss of power and privilege when Abiy came to power. Then mutual suspicion and enmity ensued.

In this scenario, ordinary people bear the brunt of war including unlawful killings, rape and now starvation.

The credibility of this election is already dented by the fact that some of the opposition members have either withdrawn or they have been jailed. Prominent examples include Jawar Mohammed of Oromo Federalist Congress and Eskinder Nega of Baldaras for True Democracy.

It is hard to imagine any election taking place in Tigray because of the ongoing conflict.

Ethiopian politicians, oppositions and incumbents, have found it difficult to undo the political culture of winning by elimination. It remains a big threat for the process of democratisation in Ethiopia.

What next after the election?

It is very likely that the prime minister’s Prosperity Party will win this election. This will be partly because most Ethiopians might think that a dramatic leadership change at this time would be risky. The other factor is that there’s no political opposition that can mount a meaningful challenge.

Some have suggested that Abiy has made sure that the opposition is weak. The reality, however, is that the cultural division applies for intra-party politics as well. The Oromo elites, for example, are deeply divided. Not only that, there is a crippling division within the Oromo Liberation Front – one of the oldest parties to stand for the cause of Oromo people.

If Abiy wins, there are two possible trajectories that he could follow. The first is that he begins nation building. The other is that he takes a more authoritarian course.

If he takes the nation building route he would do well to listen more and – contrary to his preferred style – lecture less. This listening and dialoguing process needs to start with his own constituency – Oromia – and to extend to war-torn Tigray.

But he may in fact choose the authoritarian path. There will be no shortage of pretexts if this is deemed politically profitable. Abiy can project himself as the leader of law and order. There is already widespread lawlessness and the loss of a sense of security and safety among the masses. Ethiopia is at a stage where democracy can be seen as a luxury.

This, needless to say, is less a desirable direction. It is a real possibility nevertheless.

This election, if Abiy wins, is a huge opportunity for him to correct his past missteps. He needs to worry less about the optics such as delivering big signature projects and striking unexpected peace deals with neighbours. These are all important. But he needs to go down to address the roots of fear, mistrust and violence that is threatening to tear down the social fabric of the nation.

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