The elections in Ethiopia today should have become the freest in the history of the centuries-old state. But the war in the northern state of Tigray and violence in other areas of the country show that the Ethiopians are trying to resolve their disputes, as before, not democratically, but by force.
The gun or ballot box. The history of the Ethiopian empires is about war and conflict. Rulers always came to power through violence. Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister who sway the scepter in 2018 after an internal party revolt, promised to break that cycle. “This is the first ever attempt in Ethiopia to hold fair and free elections,” he recently tweeted.
But such enthusiasm was not noticeable in the lukewarm election campaigns. In the context of war and ethnic violence, inflation above twenty percent, corona and opposition repression, few Ethiopians still believe that ballot box gait can solve their problems.
More freedom, more tensions
No Ethiopian leader was presumably as popular as Abiy Ahmed when he took over power three years ago. The prison doors opened to tens of thousands of political prisoners, journalists were given freedom and the economy would be liberalized.
An end to autocracy and the tightly state-led economy was ahead. Abiy Ahmed was also a peacemaker in the region and made peace with archenemy Eritrea. Like the majority of Ethiopians, the international community celebrated and in 2019 the Prime Minister was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But under increased freedom, ethnic tensions in the country of 110 million inhabitants exploded. Ethnic populists are increasingly populating conflicts. More than one million Ethiopians were displaced in ethnic groups fighting over land ownership.
New Armed Rebellion
Under the Oromo, the largest population group, radical politicians received followers. A new armed uprising began. That‘s why Abiy Ahmed decided last year to imprison political opponents. Two prominent opposition parties, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), are now boycotting the elections.
“It’s becoming a sham election,” said OFC President Merera Gudina earlier this month. That means that Abiy Ahmed‘s Prosperity Party will have little competition and will almost certainly be the winner of the election.
Under the previous reign of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia was divided into federal states, composed on an ethnic basis. Nowhere in Africa exists such ethnic federalism. So most political parties were ethnic parties, outside their states they had no influence.
The Prosperity Party founded by Abiy Ahmed is the only multi-ethnic. At national level, his only competitor is Berhanu Nega’s Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema). There are forty parties in total. Violence cannot vote in three regions, and it is too unsafe in constituencies elsewhere. That is where the Electoral Commission hopes to hold elections in three months.
Hunger as a gun
What Abiy Ahmed will do with his electoral victory will determine whether Ethiopia will fall further into violence or whether the euphoria about him flourishes again and a new start can be worked on. The war in Tigray is a bad omen. The military intervention to dethrone the rebellious Tigrean leaders has led to a humanitarian disaster.
Both the government army and the Eritrean forces that Abiy Ahmed allowed within borders are accused by the United Nations of using hunger as a weapon. The military operation is all about a punitive expedition against all Tigreans. Tolerance and dialogue, the promises of Abiy Ahmed three years ago, have undergone ethnic polarization in Tigray.