Watch List 2020; Mitigating Risks Ahead of Ethiopia’s Pivotal Elections

Ethiopia’s federal and regional elections, now scheduled for August, will be a critical test for one of Africa’s most closely watched political transitions. Since taking office in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has brought rapid change: he has extended his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn’s policy of releasing political prisoners and welcoming back regime opponents from long exile, restored relations with Eritrea, boosted the number of women in the cabinet, accelerated modernisation of an indebted state-led economy, refreshed institutions like the electoral board and set the country on a path toward multiparty politics. Many at home and abroad have welcomed these reforms. On 10 December, Abiy collected the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet the changes have uncorked social tensions long bottled up by an authoritarian state. Intercommunal violence has proliferated, spurring the most conflict-related internal displacement in the world in 2018. Ascendant ethno-nationalist parties are jockeying for power in urban areas, including the federal capital Addis Ababa, and the countryside. Boundary disputes between ethnically defined regions that control autonomous security forces could tip into open inter-regional conflict. Moreover, Abiy’s transformation of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has aroused opponents’ suspicions that he intends to do away with the hard-won “ethnic federalist” system that guarantees those regions self-rule. The EPRDF, whose four core parties have controlled the central state, as well as the most politically powerful regions, for three decades, is being replaced by a single national party that also absorbs ruling parties from the five regions not governed by EPRDF parties. Ethnic federalism’s future could be a divisive issue in the forthcoming vote.

The challenges of managing a competitive election – chiefly, overcoming mistrust among rival elites and strengthening electoral institutions – are formidable in themselves. In parallel, however, authorities will also need to boost an economy that has struggled to generate sufficient jobs for the country’s ranks of unemployed and underemployed youth. Satisfying this constituency, whose protests between 2015 and 2018 set the stage for Abiy’s ascent to power, and which now demands a better future, will be essential to keeping the transition on the rails.

The EU and its member states can help by:

  • Urging authorities in Addis Ababa to convene a national conversation about how to manage the election schedule, pre-election tensions and security issues. This conversation should include politicians, activists, religious leaders and elders. All these actors should aim to set ground rules ahead of the vote and discuss ways to prevent violence, such as pledges by candidates and party leaders to avoid incendiary campaign rhetoric.
  • Encouraging Abiy to reach out to rivals who fear an end to ethnic federalism, making clear to them that review of Ethiopia’s constitution, if it occurs, will take place down the road and will include the opposition and civil society.
  • Intensifying financial and technical support for Ethiopia’s electoral board, which needs significant support to deliver a credible vote crucial to averting violence. The EU and member states should keep working with other partners to build up the board’s capacity while simultaneously supporting efforts to boost voter education and preparing to deploy an election observation mission.
  • Pressing Abiy to promote dialogue among political elites embroiled in territorial and power-sharing disputes.
  • Working with authorities to carry out macro-economic reforms, by way of increased supplemental funding for job creation programs, welfare schemes and other safety nets.

Fault Lines

Four flashpoints pose immediate threats to Ethiopia’s transition. First, in Abiy’s home state of Oromia, the prime minister’s rivals (and some of his erstwhile allies) accuse him of doing too little for the Oromo people and being too close to pan-Ethiopian nationalists whom they see as adversaries. Secondly, elites from the powerful northern highland regions of Amhara and Tigray are locked in a bitter dispute focused primarily on boundaries. That standoff has inflamed ethno-nationalist sentiment and could lead to widespread violence. Thirdly, Oromo nationalists are bidding for greater sway over Addis Ababa, which is both the federal and Oromia capital. Amhara factions and activists in Addis Ababa oppose this drive for more benefits for Oromos – greater political representation, more revenue shared with Oromia, enhanced Oromo rights in education, for example – from the city. The vote for the Addis Ababa council leadership will therefore be keenly contested, and disputed results could lead to intercommunal violence in the multi-ethnic city that is Ethiopia’s main commercial as well as political hub. Fourthly, the formerly dominant elites from Tigray resent their loss of power under Abiy and protest his prosecutions of Tigrayan officials for past abuses, which they see as politically driven.

Another important fault line, which Abiy’s ruling party reform plays into, pits supporters of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalist system against its opponents. The former camp includes Tigrayan leaders, Oromo opposition politicians and others, who view the reform as a first step toward dismantling that system, because it centralises power in Addis Ababa, so reducing the autonomy of regional party structures. They are committed to ethnic federalism because they view its provisions for self-rule as reversing decades of domination by an unaccountable centre. Proponents of the merger tend to dislike the existing federalist system, arguing that it weakens the nation by accentuating ethnic differences. Stakes in the debate are high. On 23 October, an ardent defender of ethnic federalism, the influential Oromo politician Jawar Mohammed, posted on Facebook accusing the government of endangering his personal safety. His post brought thousands of his supporters into the streets of Addis Ababa and Oromia’s multi-ethnic towns. At least 86 were killed in confrontations triggered by the protests.

Dialling Down the Tensions

Ethiopian authorities will need to take the lead in tamping down tensions, but the EU, member states and other external partners can also play a constructive role. Prime Minister Abiy has urged the country’s international partners to support his government’s efforts at far-reaching reforms. The EU and member state leaders who are in contact with Abiy and other key Ethiopian actors should remain engaged and urge them to prevent violence before, during and after the election, including by taking some of the steps below:

An urgent priority is fashioning a consensus on ground rules ahead of the vote including on the election date. Ethiopia’s electoral board announced on 15 January that the election would tentatively be held on 16 August, saying that neither the authorities nor the electoral board would have been ready for the earlier planned date of May. That new schedule is contentious, however. Opposition leaders have complained that the new date falls in the middle of the rainy season and so campaigning may be difficult in rural areas. These concerns are reasonable, and authorities and the electoral board should reach out to the various parties to craft agreement on the issue. Although the August date affords a bit more time to prepare, the schedule is still constrained given the challenges. The EU and its member states should urge the premier to immediately invite the main ruling party and opposition leaders from across the federation to talks aimed at ensuring that electoral campaigning does not spark conflict. This select group could discuss campaign rules and electoral procedures, including security provisions in contested districts and how complaints should be made and handled. Aggrieved parties should be told to direct their complaints through official channels before airing them in public. Abiy could also use this forum to assure rivals that, if he plans to propose any constitutional changes, he will do that down the line and in a consultative manner.

Separately, the EU and its member states should encourage Ethiopia’s electoral board to convene as soon as possible a national conversation with opposition parties and civil society, including activists, religious leaders and elders. That would be a venue for all players to express their views on issues related to election management, building on a code of conduct signed by over 100 parties in March 2019 in which all committed to peaceful campaigning. In particular, it could tackle questions such as how to ensure that state institutions and public officials do not tilt the scales in favour of the ruling party, as has occurred extensively in past elections. At this conclave, all political actors should promise to eschew inflammatory rhetoric.

A third strand of EU support should involve technical and financial backing for the electoral board. This institution won some praise for its management of a November 2019 referendum on whether to create a new Sidama federal state out of the Southern Nations region. The national vote will pose much greater difficulties, however. Initial signs of EU involvement are positive: the new European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, picked Addis Ababa as the site of her first official visit abroad, showing that she intends to make Ethiopia a top priority. She announced that the Commission would channel €10 million to Addis Ababa to support the election and noted that Germany would add another €10 million to the same basket of funds. The EU and member states should complement these initiatives with substantial support for voter education efforts. The EU, which has already deployed an exploratory team, should accept the government’s invitation to deploy a strong observation mission as early as feasible to monitor the process from campaigning to the certification of results. The EU should coordinate closely with the African Union if that body also observes the polls.

Meanwhile, the EU and its member states should also support Abiy’s continued encouragement of talks between leaders in the main hotspots of potential communal conflict: within Oromia; between Oromia and Amhara factions; and between Tigray and Amhara. The premier should urge the various leaders to signal to their constituents that negotiated settlements to disputes are the only acceptable way forward. Political actors should publicise the outcomes of their meetings and consider joint appeals for calm. All these measures are critical in light of chauvinistic appeals to ethnic sentiment, which contributed to the October unrest in Oromia and has led security forces to deploy to turbulent university campuses. The EU, through the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace, and European states are already supporting dialogue initiatives among political parties and other stakeholders. Some member states also back a separate civil society-led process to forge channels of communication across fault lines between and within ethnic groups and should encourage these non-governmental actors to step up these efforts in the run-up to the election.

In the long run, the economic front poses as great a danger to Ethiopia’s transition as do political tensions. After political grievances, concerns about the lack of economic opportunity were the second driver of the youth protests that rocked much of Oromia and, later, Amhara, between 2015 and 2018. The previous administration’s state-led economic model brought advances in infrastructure, primary health care and education, but could not deliver enough jobs to meet the aspirations of the large number of youth graduating from the expanded school system. Much of the country’s stability in the next few years will hinge on how many opportunities the government can foster to keep this segment of the population happy.

Abiy’s administration says it needs at least $9 billion to set the economy on a path to sustainable growth. On 11 December, the International Monetary Fund announced the outlines of an agreement to loan Ethiopia $2.9 billion over three years, primarily to support the central bank as the government moves toward a free-floating currency, which comes on the back of a $1.2 billion World Bank program primarily supporting economic reform that began in 2018. The administration also aims to ease businesses’ regulatory burden and increase private-sector participation as it pivots away from a public investment growth model. It plans to introduce a spate of privatisations and liberalisations in state-run sectors such as energy and telecommunications and to gradually open up the financial sector. The EU and member states could backstop these efforts by ensuring that adequate support for the poor and most vulnerable is in place, including drought victims, internally displaced people and those who have recently returned home. It could also look for ways to bolster rural and urban safety nets in case the cost of living rises further as state subsidies taper off and prices rise, while encouraging member states to continue supporting government spending on basic services such as health, education, water, agriculture and roads.