As Ethiopia gears up to the much anticipated national elections slated for later this year, the horn of Africa’s nation is struggling with multiple challenges.
Simmering ethnic tensions, rising violence in many parts of the country as well as the electoral board’s lack of preparation are some of the determinant factors creating serious concerns ahead of the forthcoming elections.
In recent months, there have been growing ethnic-based clashes in a number of regions. Some universities have also become epicentres of inter-group conflicts leading to the killing of a number of students.
Recently, there was a shocking incident when dozens of female university students were kidnapped in the country’s south-west by an undisclosed group.
The fate of some of the kidnapped students is still unknown. As a result, the government led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed remains under pressure for doing little to rescue them and its failure to contain violence in many parts of the country.
Furthermore, Shane, a breakaway faction of the armed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), has reportedly waged war against the government, leading to fierce fighting with government forces in the Oromia region.
As these potential setbacks remain unresolved, uncertainties are swelling on whether the country is ready to conduct the upcoming general elections.
“Given the simmering turmoil, I doubt whether Ethiopia can hold the election as planned and in a credible and democratic way,” Metta-Alem Sinishaw, a political specialist on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa told the Nation.
“The ongoing instability and lack of security undercut the magnitude of participation in certain areas and potential cancellation particularly in Oromo region,” he added.
Since Prime Minister Ahmed assumed office in 2018, Ethiopia has seen major developments including a series of political and economic reforms.
But his reforms have also attracted a conflict of interests among different groups, triggering ethnic rivalries that have resulted in violence across many parts of the country.
Although ethnic-induced conflicts are not new to Ethiopia, those seen after PM Ahmed came to power are alarming.
There are already unresolved inter and intra-ethnic conflicts that could exacerbate the already difficult environment for holding a fair and free election in Africa’s second most populace nation.
Since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in 1991, the country used to hold regular parliamentary elections in May.
However, the election had to be postponed this time after the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (Nebe) said that “neither authorities nor parties would be ready” for the polls.
Last month, Nebe had announced that it had cancelled the self-proposed initial tentative election date, August 16, and announced a new timetable for August 29.
Last year, security concerns forced the Ethiopian government to postpone the national census, a move is seen then as an early sign that the upcoming election will similarly encounter the same fate.
Failure to create a much-needed environment to conduct peaceful elections will adversely affect the upcoming national polls and might further lead to post-election violence.
During the past two years, continued ethnic clashes and extended violence in most of the regions in Ethiopia have displaced over 2.5 million people, making it a country with the largest number of IDPs globally by June 2018.
Argawi Berhe, leader of the opposition Tigray Democratic Party (TDP) says there are a couple of issues that require closer attention for there to be free and fair elections in Ethiopia.
“Many ethnic groups whose population is in a few hundred are being represented by their elite who form a political party that claim regional status,” Mr Berhe said.
He added, “This entails regional identity and boundary formation which, in many cases, lead to the provocation of unfounded conflicts with their neighbours.”
The lack of opportunity for opposition parties to bring their policies and programmes to the public is also seen as a major concern that the election may not be peaceful, free and democratic.
Free And Fair Election
“It is very difficult to consider [the possibility of] a free and fair election where contending parties cannot freely move around to mobilise their people and organise their supporters and [where] people cannot peacefully cast their vote,” Mr Berhe stresses.
“Both the election board and the government of Ethiopia need to set the stage for an amicable free and fair election. In my view, a lot remains to be done on the part of the electoral board and the government of Ethiopia,” said the opposition leader who returned home after over two decades in exile.
Besides implementing an automated system, the Ethiopian government has pledged to conduct a fair, free and democratic election.
But the electoral board’s lack of institutional capability to properly administer the election as well as its neutrality is being questioned.
“Lack of institutional capability will only provide the dysfunctional opposition with political ammunition to disqualify the process further and question the possible outcomes,” says Metta-Alem.