Determined yet uncertain
As politicians are divided over the timetable of the upcoming National Election, at the helm of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopian (NEBE), Birtukan Mideksa appears to be determined to meet the constitutionally protected election timetable; working under the assumption that 2020 is still the due date. Uncertain if the current context would allow peaceful conclusion of a national election, the Federal Government of Ethiopia, on its part looks to be more focused on the frequently flaring up conflicts around the country and attempting to redirect attention to such immediate national priorities than election timetable. True to form, the government which has already postponed the National Census, mostly for security concerns, is indeed struggling to bring about law and order in most parts of the country. Some experts, however,are of the view that political commitment and nothing else is required to hold the election as scheduled.
Just last week, The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) said that it is speeding up its preparations to conduct the upcoming election, while on the other hand, political groups are still divided on whether the election should be held as scheduled in 2020.
Birtukan Mideksa, an exiled politician turned independent scholar, recently appointed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) as chairperson of the Board of NEBE,was assertive in saying that the Board is working under the assumption that the upcoming National Election would proceed as scheduled and that her team continues to make preparation for the election.
Birtukan, who was in a self-imposed political exile in the US since 2010, began her political carrier back in 2005 where she joined the then opposition party – Coalition for Democracy (CUD). In the aftermath of the post 2005 elections, after which the country was hit by protests following the results of the election,which led to the killings of hundreds of protestors, Birtukan was arrested along with many opposition figures.
Before she joined politics, she was a judge in different courts. However, she came to the limelight following her controversial court verdict involving the former Minister of Defense, Seye Abreha, who was charged for corruption. At the time, she granted Seye right to bail and released him from custody.
After almost a nine year hiatus abroad, Birtukan came to Ethiopia after she was appointed by Prime Minister Abiy to chair NEBE.
Months after her appointment, Birtukan, who met with Jeremy Hunt, UK’s Foreign Secretary,stressed on the importance of conducting the election next year.
“We are preparing in an accelerated manner and the Board is working to conduct the election as scheduled. But, the preparation involves different tasks. We are beginning now and the Board is not yet complete in terms of membership. Four board members are expected to be named before the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) in the coming weeks,” she said.
It can be recalled that during his visit to Ethiopia, Jeremy Hunt has also announced his government’s support of EUR 15.5 million to the upcoming Ethiopian election.
Sharing her concerns over the timetable of the election, Birtukan said that, “If the preparation faces challenges and hindrances, we will revaluate them and decide [whether we should proceed with the election or extend it].”
Unlike previous times, the upcoming election, which its timetable is still uncertain, will be conducted while the country is suffering from a breakdown of law and order, ethnic tensions, conflicts and displacements of millions of Ethiopians.
The latest report released last week by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) ranks Ethiopia top,in terms of the largest number of conflict induced internal displacements.
According to the report, 2.9 million new displacements associated with conflict were recorded in Ethiopia, the highest figure in the world and four times as many as in 2017.
“Old conflicts became more entrenched and new conflicts escalated along various regional state borders, prompting the government to establish a new Ministry of Peace in response to the increasing violence,” the report added.Moreover, conflicts in many parts of the country are still rampant with people still being displaced and killed.
Just a couple of weeks ago, an ethnic conflict in Beinshangul-Gumuz and Amhara Regional States claimed the lives of many civilians.
It can further be recalled that the government was forced to postpone the fourth Housing and National Census just days after it was said that distribution of the census materials has begun.It was back in March, 2019, that the government decided to postpone the Census. At that time, one of the issues attributed to the postponement was security reasons. In this regard, the Southern Regional State which is still suffering from security problems leading to the displacement of people.
Following this and similar concerns, the government has ordered the Central Statistics Agency to halt the distribution of all the required census materials to the regions.
The original timetable for the census, as it can be remembered was November, 2017. However, a number of factors such as displacement of people as well as a lengthy procurement process have hindered the government from conducting the census as per the initial timetable.The government was forced to reconsider the time frame given the aforementioned factors; it was then that it was decided that it would take place in April, 2019.
The postponement of the census has also resulted in wastage of census materials where 180,000 tablets and 126,000 pieces of power banks purchased at a total cost of 665 million birr, back in 2016, are stored in warehouses. Furthermore, the postponing of the census has pushed many to speculate that the government at the same time might use the same justification to postpone the upcoming elections.
“For me, I don’t think it is a wise decision for the government to hold the election in the given timetable,” Chane Kebede (PhD), former president of the now defunct Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), told The Reporter. His party has merged with four other parties to form the Ethiopian Citizens Party for Social Justice (ECPSJ) which was made official as of last week.
The new party, which said will advocate mainstreaming of citizenship and social justice politics in Ethiopia, has also elected Berhanu Nega, former leader of Ginbot 7, as its new leader.
Chane, who is now the deputy chairperson of the new party, argues that, in any way, it would be impossible to conduct the election. “Our goal is to see a fair and free election and hold power using democratic election as the only means,” he said adding,“And I don’t think the current context of the country would allow the conducting of the upcoming national election.”
“One reason could be that the security status of the country is still uncertain,” said Chane. “In addition, all the structural, legal reforms as well as amendments of the necessary regulations by NEBE are still pending, and it is highly unlikely that these processes would be finalized in a short period of time.”
Chane even goes further in accusing groups and political parties, which advocate for ethnic politics,as the ones who want conflict in the country to continue even after the election.
“We see them saying, the election must be held in the time frame which is allotted to it wanting to profit from post-election conflicts, ”Chane continues to argue, “those groups know that conducting election at the given schedule would definitely lead to problems because of the current status of the country.It will be impossible to hold a fair and free election.”
On the other hand, political groups like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which is now under a registration process by NEBE, would like to see how things are going to unfold before deciding the election should proceed as planned or not.
“For us, once we finish the registration process, we have no problem to prepare ourselves for the upcoming election; whether the election is to be held on time or not, ”Tolera Addaba, spokesperson of the party, told The Reporter.
“It is up to the government to address its limitations,” he added.
OLF, which is one of the mainstream political groups in Ethiopia for more than four decades, is said to have a popular support base in Oromia. The party leaders, who were in exile for more than a decade, came to Ethiopia following the political reforms led by the incumbent EPRDF invited all opposition parties to come to their country and advocate for a peaceful struggle.
Newly established political parties such as National Movement of Amhara (NAMA) however, would like to see the election held on time.
“Our party is in a better shape to be competitive and we are ready for the upcoming election, ”Belete Molla, vice president of the party, told The Reporter.
NAMA which is a national party and a recently registered party has opened its office in many places in Amhara region as well as outside.
“The government, however,does not look to be committed to addressing its problem and lay a stable groundwork to conduct the election on time, ”Belete maintains adding, “I don’t think the government has both the political will and the capacity to solve those security problems across the country.”
“The government seems reluctant to solve those security problems in order to justify its plan to postpone the election,” he said. He further accused the electoral board for not going with the preparations as it is expected.
Experts observing the political happenings and who are close to the electoral process argue that the government should conduct the election on time.
“If the government decide to postpone the election its political commitment would be in question,” says a political commentator whose name was withheld upon request.
“This is a government with a constitution, so if the election is postponed, it will also create a constitutional debacle,” he said adding that,“No matter what the case is, technical issues should not be used as a justification to postpone an election instead the government should focus on solving the technical limitations having the political commitment to hold the election on time.”