One of the promises Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration made is holding free and fair elections that won’t repeat past mistakes. This, he hoped, would set the path for the country’s transition to a more democratic and prosperous future. Hence, he appointed one of the prominent opposition figures to lead the country’s election authority. Birtukan Mideksa, a former politician and lawyer by profession who also served as a judge at a federal court, made a similar promise to hold an election that would take the process a step ahead and restore the public’s trust in voting.
Uplifted by these promises, hopes ran high and political parties proliferated in the country. 107 parties signed a code of conduct in March 2019 for the elections ahead of them. Since then, the number of regional and national political parties had grown to be more than 160. But, out of these parties, only 53 were able to complete the registration process by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) because of failure to fulfill requirements like getting authentic signatures of 10,000 founding members for national parties and 4,000 for regional parties. Among these, 47 have registered 8,209 candidates to run for the upcoming general elections both for regional councils and the House of Peoples’ Representative. In addition, 125 private candidates run for membership in different houses.
Scheduled for June 5, 2021, the road to the elections has been rather bumpy both for the political parties and the entity tasked with conducting elections. And, agreeably, some of these challenges are going to haunt the process even past the D-day. Security challenges stand out of all these challenges, which also seem to have been at the government’s center of attention.
In a recent continuation of the series of dialogues organized by the Prime Minister’s Office dubbed Addis Wog, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) stressed that he is concerned that some paid people could inflict attacks on the electorate as well as election officials. As these forces are not in uniforms, making it difficult to identify them from the rest of the public, they could attack civilians causing a sense of insecurity in the electorate. Although he did not call out any names, he said these forces do not want Ethiopia to prevail and its territorial integrity kept intact. This is the first time for an official at the apex of governmental authority to admit the level of insecurity in the country and it shows that things could get out of hand at some point. Abiy said he is more concerned about these unnamed forces than urban protests.
Such concerns are also shared by many political parties and analysts who have been insisting from the outset that the country is not yet ready to conduct elections. Those with this view have been calling on the government to address immediate problems which are compromising the existence of the nation itself. For instance, a prominent politician who recently saw the license for his party revoked by the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), Lidetu Ayalew has been consistently calling for national dialogue ahead of the elections.
His fear was that the elections would add insult to the wound as the country was already fragile. “First things first,” he was saying.
The same concerns have been voiced by the notable scholar and politician Merera Gudina (Prof.). Merera has been repeatedly saying that the country should first pursue the path to national consensus through an inclusive national dialogue. However, efforts to launch such kind of national dialogues that would eventually lead to national consensus have been marred with controversies. For instance, at one of such events held at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) meeting hall where Merera presented a paper on the controversial historical narratives in the country, he was denounced for raising such matters rather than looking for ways of reconciling his narratives with others that have different views. Government officials were party to this denouncement.
Hence, the political change that Abiy Ahmed and co. sponsored has carried with it the challenges its predecessor faced before the change in leadership. But the intensity has increased. Ethnically charged conflicts and attacks on civilians, armed forces roaming in various parts of the country, as well as the incoherent party discipline within the ruling party exacerbated the situation.
The killings of civilians seem to have no end in sight. A week never passes without lethal attacks in every corner of the country. From West Wolega to Amaro Special Zone in the South, from Benshangul Gumuz region’s Metekel zone to the Oromo Nationality Zone of the Amhara regional state, the death of civilians has become common. Apart from denouncing the killings of hundreds of civilians and deploying federal security forces, the federal government seems to have lost hold of the matter. After the killing of scores of civilians in Ataye town of the Amhara region, the country witnessed another mass killing of civilians in West Wolega zone of the Oromia regional state.
The government’s security analysis of potential attacks, conflicts and incidents is now well communicated to the NEBE pressuring the Board to engage in the extra task of doing security analysis. In her interview with The Reporter last week, Birtukan Midekssa said that the Board is not getting the required support from the government, especially concerning security matters. She said that this is frustrating to the Board.
“We are not getting the proper information we require from federal entities, especially concerning security issues,” she said.
Hence, security remains one of the main challenges of the Board. Another hot potato is the precarious situation in the Metekel zone of Benshangul Gumuz region has also put psychological strain on the population, the majority of whom now live in shelters for the internally displaced. Amente Geshe, head of Boru Democratic Party (a regional opposition party participating in the elections, argues that the people are traumatized by what they went through and are not ready to return to their villages let alone register for elections and vote. He says the people need to be given time to heal by postponing the planned elections in those specific places.
Another security glitch is the boundary contention between the Afar and Somali regional states. Although the contested boundary line between the two regional states had been there for long and sometimes resulted in skirmishes between the security forces from both sides, the electoral Board’s announcement of the nullification of polling stations in the contested local governments resurrected the boundary linked complications between the two regional states. Out of the almost 50,000 polling stations across the nation, 30 stations lie in the borderlines.
Despite the Board’s announcement that it has not changed the electoral map used in the previous elections six years ago, the Afar region protested the location of some kebeles and polling stations in the Somali region. Afar region claims these places were illegally transferred to Somali region in the first place. After looking into the complaints from the region, the Board decided to not establish the planned polling stations in these areas prompting Somali region to protest the decision and threaten withdrawal from the elections.
But the board rebutted the argument from the Somali region saying that as a government, the region has a legal mandate of cooperation to electoral activities and cannot threaten to withdraw from the elections as it is parties that can do so.
Even though the Somali region did not give any official statement following the decision by the Board, this remains to be a sloppy spot for the Board to deal with.
With these challenges ahead, candidate registration has been completed and voter registration began last week. With the limited support the Board has been receiving from government entities both at the federal and regional levels, it is required to find its way through these challenges to realize the elections.