Birtukan Midekssa, Chairwoman of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE)
The sixth general elections are indeed historic in many aspects. Leaving aside the hopes that it would be a different election from the previous five elections the country conducted over the past 25 years, the budgetary aspect of the elections as well as the human resource involved in the process would make it historic. The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), led by a former opposition figure and a renowned judge Birtukan Mideksa, managed to get an approved 2.5-billion-birr budget from the (HoPR) before the Coronavirus pandemic hit the country in March 2020. It then requested a 1.1-billion-birr additional budget after the postponement of the elections by a year which is pending approval. It also received support under the United Nation’s Development Program’s (UNDP) Supporting Elections for Ethiopia’s Democratic Strengthening (SEEDS) initiative amounting to 1.8 billion birr in items. But the upcoming elections slated for early June 2021 are marred with controversies and challenges that span the time since the Board started its institutional and legal reforms a while back. The electoral process also saw challenges that tested the patience and relevance of the institution itself. Brook Abdu of The Reporter sat down with Birtukan Mideksa, the Chairwoman of the NEBE, to discuss some of the challenges in the election process as well as institutional principles. We would like to remind our readers that the last two questions were replied to via email because of time constraints during the interview; hence, there was no chance for follow-up questions. Excerpts:
The Reporter: The main objective you have set for the sixth general elections is to hold an election that is different from the previous five elections in the country and to restore the public’s trust in elections. But many from the opposition political camp as well as observers commenting on your social media sites doubt the attainability of these objectives given the detention of prominent political personalities and the security situation the country is in. Do you still believe that you can achieve this objective?
Birtukan: Since we began our election preparation, the challenges that stand on the way to our objective change from time to time. For instance, when we announced the previous electoral calendar last year, we did not observe hesitation on the part of political parties to participate in the elections. Of course, some challenges like security issues were constant at that time too. But now, a couple of parties have boycotted the elections. I say that their participation would have made the planned elections complete. We also encouraged them to come back into the playground. But this does not mean that there are no choices in the elections we are planning. As you are already aware, 47 political parties have registered many candidates in various parts of the country. I don’t think the conclusion that main politicians are out of the elections is right. As I said, their participation could have allowed us claim complete participation. But still, there is participation of parties. The electorate still have alternatives to choose from. Besides, parties that are participating in the elections, even those with a large number of candidates, did not yet pronounce what they plan to do for the communities they claim to represent both at the regional and federal levels. Therefore, it is not right to prematurely conclude that there are no alternatives. In every part of the country, party candidates and independents have been registered. Hence, people can choose whoever they want from the alternatives present. When ideas come to the fore and are debated in public, people will have the opportunity to identify candidates that best fit their interests.
Still, we uphold the goal that we set as an institution to hold a different, participatory and representative election that would take the public’s belief in elections a step ahead. As is the case everywhere else, however, improvements are incremental and we are not in an illusion that we can completely attain our institutional goals only by this round of elections. That is because some of the objectives depend not only on the things we do but also on the actions of other stakeholders both from the government and non-governmental actors as well as on the political environment and the awareness of the general public. However, taking the time we started institutional reform beginning with the amendment of the legal frameworks as the baseline, I can say that we have already created a difference. Institutional reform is an important aspect of both the process and the outcome. Election credibility and result acceptability do not depend just on the announcement of the results that tell who won and who lost.
The Reporter: But the point here is, as we can learn from our past political exercises, potential contenders in the election are known ahead of elections. Some even mention names that could have been strong candidates in the elections. Isn’t it contradicting to say that their absence in the elections wouldn’t mean much?
Birtukan: The flaw in this argument, in my opinion, is the assumption that we have a political system whereby the main contenders are drawn. Every political party claims to have public support and represents a certain group of people. But that partly is confirmed when the party or the leaders present their ideas to the public and win in open electoral contestations. In our collective memory as a society, we could define the positions parties have. But unfortunately, we have not tested that in the public arena through elections. Even if we can recall times where there were moments when we saw the spark, we also witnessed it receding. We also don’t have parties that built on what they had and became consistently present. Even the ruling party is not what it used to be years ago. Two years ago, it was the EPRDF [the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front] and now we have the Prosperity Party. The same applies to the opposition although some names lingered for a long time while others brought up newer faces. We have to look at the changes that happened in the past even in the political associations that we know for long.
It is not just 10 parties that are contending in the elections but 47, which, I believe, is quite a large number.
The Reporter: But that is among the more than 107 political parties that operate in the country.
Birtukan: From the 107 political parties, as many of them could not fulfill the requirements put in the law, only 53 political parties remained even before the election process started. Forty-seven out of the 53 expressed their interest to participate in the election. Therefore, this is not a small number. And some of them are members of coalitions. In this regard, parties that are not participating in the election are very small in number. But it does not mean that their absence does not have a meaning; I don’t want to say so and it won’t be right to say so. Hence, participation in this election is significant.
The participation by these political parties and their candidates could improve the political system, the discussions, and debates. They are expected to lead political movements that are clean from hate speech and they should focus on matters that could help the electorate. That is what we expect from them in the process as well as on Election Day. Of course, we have to support this process and facilitate the platform apart from ensuring that they have opportunities to do so. But I can say that the participation is satisfying and there are enough alternatives for the electorate. Therefore, the conclusion that the main political actors are left out of the election is not well tested.
The Reporter: Coming to the institutional reform pillars of the Board, the main point is ensuring its independence and building a dependable institution. But some say that the Board does not have a stance that would enable it exercise independence. Although the Board is accountable to the House of People’s Representatives and gets its budget approved by it, it is under huge influence from the executive. One of such instances is when PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) announced that he tried to pressure you to change your decision to postpone the general elections a year ago because of the global Coronavirus pandemic. Can you say that you have the institutional independence that would enable you effectively conduct your tasks?
Birtukan: To tell you the truth, what I believe we have achieved through the reform is ensuring institutional independence. In our every activity, like preparation of directives, the ruling party comes and expresses its impressions like any other party. There are many instances where their ideas did not get accepted. Apart from this, no one crossed the line and forced us to act in their interest. I have never experienced such a heavy hand, as you said.
But I can reflect a bit on the Prime Minister’s speech that you raised. I have been in this country’s political system for a long time and I am aware of the political as well as the institutional culture not only here but at the courts. An institution does not ensure its independence through proclamations that prohibit any interference in its affairs and that does not happen overnight. We all are learners in this process and we have accumulated a lot throughout our lifetime. Even those that are not in power try to push us towards their interest. Again, even if institutions are said to be independent, they have to engage with other institutions in various aspects. Discussion is inevitable and important. But if one tries to overstep and act beyond its mandate, that won’t be the end of the story. The institution maintains its independence by asserting its mandates. This is how we grow into independence and strength. We can’t learn such things and act accordingly overnight. In this process, we have had differences in viewpoints and they are going to be there. One day we might not come into terms with the ruling party and the other day with the opposition. We have also experienced this so far. For example, when we amended the legal frameworks, the opposition was saying a lot. But we proceeded with our plan by explaining what we believe is right based on international and legal standards. The same works with the ruling party. But independence should not be seen just from the ruling party’s perspective. Although the ruling party is believed to be powerful, influences could come from various directions including public opinions. In this regard, we have progressed a lot which you journalists can find out if you dig deeper.
For me, the COVID case is a good example that shows our independence, not the other way around. We had a big difference between us. The head of the federal government demanded to continue with the process while we were adamant to suspend the election; that was the tip of our biggest challenge. Because, somehow, we were aware that if they do not accept our decision given the legal and theoretical orientations they have while processing the decision, we would face a huge challenge. We realized that it won’t just stop at the Prime Minister but would eventually reach the Parliament. Fortunately, we had conducted studies and shared that with them; they finally accepted our terms fully or with reservations either out of respect to institutional independence or for other reason. The decision was accepted both by the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the executive. I think this is going to be an excellent institutional legacy after some years.
But this is not the only instance in which our institutional independence was challenged. We can take the party registration process in this regard. We know that the executive was not happy with the registration of some political groups, especially the OLF. They also tried to lobby us that these groups are not peaceful political parties. We told them to bring evidence to their claim so that we can take action accordingly. It is common to see officials from the ruling party appear on TV and claim that a certain political group is causing havoc. But we wouldn’t have let that group exist as a registered legal political party, had we learned that from evidence. But we don’t have evidence and the entity that claims to have evidence did not present it to us. However, it is in our mandate to delist any political party that is engaged in violence. I can give you a lot of instances in this regard including the preparation of directives. So far, we have been leading the institution according to our legal jurisdiction and according to information we had at hand. There is no external force that made us lean right or left. Maybe we might not see it today; people might not understand the difference that this Board brought. But I am already satisfied with what we are doing.
The Reporter: On the other side, there are views that the Board favors Prosperity Party, i.e., the incumbent. This is mostly linked to party registration where Prosperity Party was registered as a legal party even though it did not hold a congress meeting and did not pass its bylaws in such a meeting. Hence, the Board is said to have registered a party that should not have been registered. What’s your say on this?
Birtukan: We can’t be immune from criticisms; it happens always. Our job is to administer a highly politicized situation. And in its nature, politics is fluctuating as people change their stance from time to time. We are an institution that administers political parties in this fluctuating system where there are actors that propagate mutable views. Hence, our responsibility is to protect and insulate ourselves from that wave and changing situation so that it does not affect our decision-making processes. We can’t be free from criticism. This is because people have their views depending on their observations. We try to demonstrate that we are independent, fair, and follow the legal procedure in our decisions. But people could criticize us for different motives they might have.
In the long term, when our decisions and activities are studied after some time, I believe the decisions we made as well as the documents we place will be testimonies to our neutrality. They also show this today as well. Some people might also be pushed by the immediate political disputes to direct wrong criticisms towards us, which should be verified by investigators and journalists.
Specifically coming to the registration of Prosperity Party, PP had held an assembly, and it was not just one. The eight parties held their respective assembly meetings.
The Reporter: But these parties held their meetings separately.
Birtukan: Yes, of course, it was held independently. The main element we have to check in mergers and coalitions, according to the law, is whether these actions are taken according to the interests of the respective parties that are represented through their congress. This is done so that a certain party leadership does not decide such mergers or coalitions. We ensure whether the interest of the members is protected in such decisions. So that had been assured in every assembly of the parties in the merger. We can’t say that they should hold a new assembly as a coalition. We don’t have any legal ground to ask these parties to hold a different assembly while they already have held assemblies weeks ago and have approved their party documents.
The Reporter: But these member parties decided on the mergers rather than the party bylaws and the programs, didn’t they? Their bylaws have to be approved by their assembly which you use to resolve any disputes that arise among them.
Birtukan: I don’t understand why you assumed that the parties in the merger did not look into the bylaws and program document.
The Reporter: According to my information, it was not even presented to these separate party assemblies.
Birtukan: You can ask for the documents from the party affairs department and look into them. We have documents that indicate the decision by the parties regarding leadership during the transition as well as the long-term party leadership. How can we decide to register them without these files? Let alone other things, we have to know how the leadership was elected. There is a document that governed the election of not just the head and the deputy, but also the composition of the central committee, how it is different from the previous one, how many people are incorporated in the leadership from the parties that dissolve themselves and so on. They formed the party, elected the leadership, the central committee as well as the executive.
However, they needed to hold an assembly by now like any other party. I think it should have happened in early February. Many parties were expected to hold their assembly meetings to fulfill some remaining requirements. However, as there is election preparation, we could not force them to do both at a time. Some parties have requested in letters to skip their assemblies during the election preparation; we have given permission for all the parties to hold assemblies after the election. This includes the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC). However, we have to revisit our decision regarding these two as they are not participating in the elections. But earlier, the OFC had asked us to postpone assembly meetings reasoning the overlapping schedule of the election preparations and the assembly. When we extended the time for holding the assemblies, it also works for the Prosperity Party.
But, what reason do we have to favor the Prosperity Party? To be honest, what ground do we have to do so? Personally, if I am biased towards a certain party, I can go and join them; and I have done that in the past. So, anyone in such an institution who wants to be biased towards a certain political interest affects both the institution and the favored party as well. This argument is pointless for me. This might benefit the propagators for the time being but in the long term, it is the institution that is important for all of us – be it for the incumbent or the opposition. Why would we favor a certain party while we can equally serve all of them? In a situation where any other party with a chance to win could come to power, this creates a vicious circle. We have tried this in Ethiopia and the result is nothing. Ensuring our independence is a very important task for us.
The Reporter: Coming to the preparation underway for the sixth national election, although the Board is a legally independent entity, it also has to work with government institutions at different levels. But the huge gap we saw in the preparation for this round of general elections is the lack of proper cooperation offered to the Board from regional governments. This has led the Board to prepare two candidate registration schedules. The candidates’ registration in 673 constituencies was completed on March 9, 2021, with all the challenges observed. But the concern now is regarding voter registration which is happening soon in 50,000 polling stations across the nation. People doubt if the Board has the capacity to lead such a huge task. Do you really have the capacity to carry out the task ahead of you?
Birtukan: As you have said, we have seen gaps during candidate registration in observing duties to cooperate with the Election Board. But we have seen improvements here and there with varying degrees from region to region. Still, it is not complete. As the process gained traction, regions started to give it attention. When we prepared to establish the 50,000 polling stations, we first had to get access to centers where hundreds of electoral officers would get training in rounds. We had discussions with the Ministry of Education, regional education bureaus; but the challenges remained.
As we can see, everywhere we go, there is a huge limitation in capacity across the nation. The communication itself was challenging. There were times we did not receive replies to our letters. When we resorted to email communication, a small portion of the people checked their emails frequently. There are many hindrances to coordinate. For the candidate registration, we trained officers in 20 places. Now we plan to train officers in 670 locations for voter registration. You can see the difference here. But despite hiccups here and there as well as the fragility of the security situation in various areas, we are training officers in elementary schools, high schools, higher education preparatory schools as well as technical and vocational colleges. Of course, there are challenges.
Does the Board have the capacity to do it seamlessly? In a country that is huge like Ethiopia with limited infrastructure and a huge population, the Board cannot conduct general or regional elections by itself by establishing its training facilities, managing the logistics by buying vehicles. It would not be the right thing to do too. If you ask me today, I need a hundred something patrol vehicles to transport equipment to the regions. But this is just for voter registration. Then we need a lot of vehicles later including on the polling day. But after the results announcement, the traction of the Board’s activities recedes over time and it transitions to desk researches to identify lessons from the electoral process. Hence, we can’t accumulate such a capacity at this institution for a four-month task and put those resources idle for two and three years. This is what every country does. In this regard, when the Board starts its preparation, governments both at the federal and regional level need to begin preparation. Maybe that is the most important lesson we take from this election. Probably we might need to issue binding legal frameworks and establish a mandatory institutional structure. If you take the Census, it has a commission that has a legal force to direct regions to provide the necessary resources needed for its functions. Its leadership is determined and the political leadership mobilizes resources for them.
We can’t be fully part of the executive as we have to be independent. But we need to have a system that helps the institution conduct its activities seamlessly in a manner that maintains its independence. I think we have taken lessons so far and we believe we will reach the end of the road by overcoming the challenges we face.
The Reporter: You have mentioned that there are concerns that could hinder the electoral process. Although you have repeatedly mentioned that dealing with security matters is not in your mandate, you are also part of a task force that looks into the challenges linked to electoral security. One of the areas that have grave security concerns where daily attacks on civilians and displacements are witnessed is the Metekel Zone of Benshangul Gumuz Region. Given the current security situation there, do you think there would be an election in that specific area as well as others where security concerns are high?
Birtukan: Election requires a certain level of peace and security. So, when we started this process, we understood that a general assessment is not helpful to capture the level of peace and security in the country. For instance, it is senseless to say the country does not have peace or Oromia is not peaceful; or Amhara. We did not want to do it that way as it won’t give us the right impression. Some conflicts are dependent on place and time. These conflicts have to be mapped so that we can suspend our preparation for the time being in fragile areas and proceed with the elections in the wider areas. We observe that many parts of the country have a level of security where elections can be conducted. So, in this regard, we have been doing our conflict mapping and gathering information. But our role is just to organize and execute elections; we are not a law enforcement entity. Hence, we were expecting to get that kind of detailed assessment from all levels of government so that we can carry out both the operational and logistical functions. To tell you the truth, we did not get the level of support we needed. We have seen the detention of candidates in various parts of the country which we notified the security apparatus at every level. Detaining candidates is unacceptable in whatsoever way unless they are caught red-handed committing crimes. If they have information on the candidates, they can bring them to justice any other time. We faced challenges here and there including in Benshangul, South, Harari, etc. We wish it did not happen, but it did. We managed to get the problems resolved quickly, especially the release of candidates in cooperation with federal law enforcement entities with our role as part of the electoral peace and security task force. But still, there are other complaints. We will try our level best to get solutions to these complaints by corroborating them with tangible information.
We can’t say that such challenges won’t happen. This is because old habits die hard and this is true for individuals and institutions. This concerns not just the ruling party but also the opposition. The opposition is used to some bad habits like exaggerating complaints with no evidence. We have experienced the same in our process. This is because the politics of opposition is linked to detentions, exiles, and tortures. When something happens, they amplify it more than necessary. I can understand part of it as they might be nervous and feel that things are the same. As the saying goes, “a cat once bitten by a snake dreads even a rope.” Some also do so intentionally. This is a process where we improve ourselves, check and balance one another and learn from our engagements. In this regard, it will be very important when we deploy more than 130,000 election observers as promised by the civil society organizations. Positive actions do not come out of learning but also through check and balance and fear of being seen while doing wrong.
The Reporter: But do you think there is a conducive environment to hold elections in some places like Metekel, as I have people who told me that their families got displaced in the past week and there are still atrocities being committed?
Birtukan: To specifically address the Metekel issue, in the past week, we had discussions with the command post in the region. We asked the regional president, who is the coordinator of the command post, how many people were displaced and how many returned to their localities as it was said there are improvements in this regard. Although we requested comprehensive information from the regional government about the security situation in the region, we still did not get a reply. This is not right. Other institutions also do the same. They either don’t do it or if they do, they consider our institution as an alien entity. Although it maintains its independence, it has to be supported and they have the responsibility to provide the necessary support. It is not a matter of mere cooperation, but they are legally mandated to do so. However, we did not receive satisfying replies. Similarly, we are not getting the proper information we require from federal entities especially concerning security issues. The good thing here is, as our structure is extended deep down to the lower levels of administration, we can rely on information gathered by our election officers. For instance, we were not alerted by the government regarding the recent incident in the Kemise zone but we received the information from our officers in that area. Therefore, we managed to direct them to take precautionary measures and, in some cases, to get our offices protected. I can say that we don’t receive comprehensive security analyses both from the federal and regional governments. That has to change and we are informing the institutions. Unless they do so, any disruption in the process will be their responsibility.
The Reporter: So, could there be some places where votes might not be cast?
Birtukan: What we have to do first is identify how we can conduct voter registration in such situations so that the peoples’ rights to vote are not denied. If we have the proper information and support from the concerned bodies of the government, we can conduct voter registration in camps that host the displaced. I can tell you my frustration here: where do displaced people from Metekel live? What is their number? I don’t understand why the government does not give clear answers to these questions. This is the same in other shelters that host displaced people. We stick to our plan. Some shelters host internally displaced people in Gambella, Somalia, Oromia, and in the South. These people will be registered and they will vote. In the Metekel Zone, we might conduct the elections at the shelters that host them or prepare a separate calendar for them to vote after a short delay. Whatever the case, they will vote. There should not be a situation where they don’t participate.
The Reporter: One of the contentious issues in this round of elections is the case of about 30 polling stations located between the Afar and Somalia regions. Although the Board said that it did not change the previous election’s polling station map, many are protesting the change in constituencies for these polling stations. First of all, how did this happen in the event that your map is not changed, and what is the solution you have at hand to resolve the impasse?
Birtukan: This contention did not emerge out of the Board’s electoral map, polling station details, or polling stations’ delimitation. They have a long dispute regarding the administrative boundaries between them which everyone knows. Even the leaders of the two regions announced their agreement regarding these disputed places. The dispute has a different ground – it is political and linked to administrative boundaries, language, and clan system. Our institution is a technical entity. We said we won’t amend the electoral map now because we don’t have Census results. We understand that some sections of society are not satisfied with it and think this is not fair. But we can’t make changes now. So, we maintained the electoral constituencies of the 2015 elections.
One of the problems is, when we established the polling stations and decided on their organization, they assumed that we are deciding on their existing administrative disputes. This is wrong; because it is stipulated in the constitution which institution deals with boundary and identity disputes. The election should go its way and, in that process, it is immaterial for the administrative boundary even if a certain kebele votes in another constituency. However, I am not simplifying the issue in light of the election.
The Reporter: But people in that locality won’t elect their preferred representatives and some political parties won’t also have representations in those areas.
Birtukan: By the way, these disputed places do not even constitute one single constituency by themselves. These are kebeles that have 30 polling stations dispersed in different constituencies. They also do not significantly impact constituency results. Actually, if there is any difference this makes and any concern arises out of it, it should come from the voters. They might say they were listed in another area while they should have voted in a different place. But these questions are not coming from the voters but the politicians and the questions are about the boundary and the land. It is not about the voters’ ballot counting. But as this could disturb the electoral peace, we will take our measures soon. However, we have to understand that this dispute is not linked to the election. It has political complexity, border issues as well as security issues as both regions have Special Forces and use these forces to guard these areas. I don’t know if this could have been easily resolved in the absence of these forces. All these have their contributions to magnify the case. It might seem that this is linked to the election but it is not. The election should be treated separately. Of course, this should have been resolved so far and because of the failure to do so, it is affecting the election.
The Reporter: Another feature of the sixth general elections is the schedule for elections in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa city administrations. Voters in these city administrations will vote a week after the rest of the country does, according to your calendar. You have repeatedly explained the reason for this. But one of the concerns linked to this decision is that non-residents of these places could flock in and cast votes, which you also indicated in one of your press conferences. But the question is, do you have any mechanism in place to mitigate this mishap?
Birtukan: Let me directly put what I said during the press conference, and I am sure you wanted to mention that I said there might be people who want to vote more than once at any time. Right, there will be people that want to commit crimes in elections which is true to the previous elections, in the upcoming elections as well as in the future elections. There would inevitably be people who want to illegally participate in the elections even if we hold the elections in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa on the same day with the rest of the country. Therefore, it is better to look at mechanisms that prevent people from fraudulently electing more than once.
First, a person needs to register in order to be eligible to vote. During registration, he presents documents that attest his residence and shows his identity; he takes a voter identification card which is also stored at the Board’s office; every voter will be given a unique number which will be printed on the documents the Board maintains as well as on the voter identification card, and the type of the card is impossible to counterfeit. We have an audit system to ensure this is properly managed from our side.
In addition to this, parties and the electorate can observe the election through their candidates and representatives at the polling stations. The polling stations are open for local observers and the media. Also, after the completion of voter registration, the book will be availed to the general public to review for 10 days. Anyone can raise any concerns that might arise. Apart from these, the voter’s identity will be checked before he/she casts his/her vote. All these protections are meant to give the process maximum integrity. If a person wants to create two identities to pass through these all protections, that is a crime. And crimes could happen in any election. We advise parties that have such concerns to closely follow the process and dispatch their representatives. If we do wrong in the process, we are committed to correct it and be held accountable.
The Reporter: Along with the general elections, there is also a referendum in the southwestern part of the country in five zones and one special woreda that demanded to form a separate region together. But reports are reaching us that some people are campaigning to deceive the public by saying that they won’t be given the status of statehood unless they vote for Prosperity Party in the general elections. Don’t you think this is the result of the gap you created when you decided to hold the two elections at a time in the interest of saving resources?
Birtukan: Look, what does this question mean? Aren’t you saying that the people don’t know what they want and what is going to happen? This question does not have a correlation, let alone case and effect. This is not representative of the electorate’s behavior. The electorate know what they want. If the process is rightly carried out and they believe that their votes will be properly counted, I believe that they will transcend the indicated campaigns you mentioned, if any, and show their preferences through ballots. For instance, would the electorate believe, if they were told that the sun won’t rise unless they don’t vote for a certain group? Even if the referendum is held at another time, isn’t it unavoidable that political forces try to exploit the type of the referendum and the political landscape? In short, unless we don’t belittle the behavior of the electorate, I don’t think the gap and concern you mentioned could be from our part.