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 Nation on edge

Nation on edge

The transition that many hoped would transform Ethiopia to a more democratic state has never been devoid of challenges from day one. Frequent protests have consumed the energy of both the government and the public. Attacks and killings of civilians, high-level government and military officials as well as prominent individuals, risked to derail the transition. Whatever adjectives one could use to explain how challenging the past two years were in Ethiopia, it is undeniable for many that the transition carried both hope and despair.

Nation on edge: the Oct, 5 deadline

 Nation on edge

 

The transition that many hoped would transform Ethiopia to a more democratic state has never been devoid of challenges from day one. Frequent protests have consumed the energy of both the government and the public. Attacks and killings of civilians, high-level government and military officials as well as prominent individuals, risked to derail the transition. Whatever adjectives one could use to explain how challenging the past two years were in Ethiopia, it is undeniable for many that the transition carried both hope and despair.

Many placed their expectations on the 2020 General Election to level the field and at least show a way for a positive political discourse. However, with the extension of the election, due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the political tension was reignited with the transition itself was put on trial.

The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the sole body entrusted to hold polls of any sort, said that it had to halt its preparation for the polls, originally slated for late August 2020, due to the restrictive measures put in place by the government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, first discovered in the country in March, 2020. Although the decision by the NEBE was made before the country announced a State of Emergency (SOE) meant to prevent the spread of the virus, the SOE came later. The overlap between the SOE and the election period, which the Board said should be postponed, triggered one of the most exhaustive constitutional debates in the country.

In May 2020, the government proposed four alternatives to overcome the quagmire. Presented to representatives from political parties in the country, in a meeting held within the premises of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the alternatives were amending the constitution to extend the government’s term, extending the state of emergency, dissolving the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) or interpreting the constitution to find a way to extend the election and the terms of the HPR and the Executive body.

The current Attorney General, then deputy, Gedeon Timoteos (PhD) presented the pros and cons of each alternative. Finally, the government announced it has chosen the constitutional interpretation alternative.

With this began the hottest constitutional debate and argument that showed the extreme facet of the Ethiopian politics. Some like the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) were recommending a transitional government to straighten the path to an inclusive transition. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was of the view that there is no legal ground for the government to continue if the elections are extended, since the constitution provides that state power which should only be assumed through elections. Others said the government should look for ways of holding the elections rather than postponing it, as they say, the country had held elections even during the Ethio-Eritrean War, two decades ago. On the other hand, there were political groups that called for an inclusive national dialogue before making any decision to postpone the elections and extend the terms of the government.

Despite all the debate, the HPR endorsed the constitutional interpretation route and referred the matter to the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI), a body under the House of the Federation (HoF) that is given the power to interpret the constitution and present its decisions to the House of Federation (HoF) for endorsement.

After three hearings from experts and members of the constitutional drafting committee members as well as reviewing documents from 34 experts that sent recommendations from across the world, the CCI decided that the spirit of the constitution allows to postpone elections at times of a pandemic or other public health or security matters and the existing executives and lawmakers should stay in power until elections are conducted.

Accordingly, the whole attention shifted to the prevention of the coronavirus pandemic which has kept on increasing within the five months since the announcement of the SOE. As of Thursday, October 1, 2020, 75,368 people were reported to have contracted the virus and 1,205 people have died because of it. Addis Ababa, Oromia and Tigray regions rank first to third in terms of having the highest number of infected people with 39,012, 10,707 and 5,683 infections.

But, especially after Tigray held its regional council elections on September 9, 2020, the narrative that the federal and the remaining regional governments would not have the legitimacy to stay in power after October 5, 2020 (Meskerem 25, 2013 in the Ethiopian Calendar) since the elections were not held on the fifth year since the last one in 2015 as stipulated by the constitution, has become an issue. In a televised discussion, for instance, prominent politicians Lidetu Ayalew of EDP and Jawar Mohammed of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), both detained now, boldly stated that the current government does not have the legitimacy to rule after October 10 indicating the military and other security institutions should not be accountable to the incumbent after that time.

Similarly, in a statement issued via the regional communications department, Tigray’s government said that the government should succumb to the calls by the Coalition of Federalist Forces that wanted for an all-inclusive discussion in the country before October 5 comes. But come that day, the government won’t be able to make any laws and its decisions won’t be respected.

According to Adane Tadesse, the President of EDP, the issue behind the October 5 or 10, 2020 is the fact that the terms of the executive as well as the HPR ends beyond that time. But, he says, the irony in this is that it is the government that insisted on holding the elections reasoning constitutional provisions, while EDP and others called for its postponement given the various ailments in the country.

“They argued for holding the elections when we said the country was not ready. Now, they are the ones who justified and are arguing for the postponement of the elections and hence, the terms of the government,” he told to The Reporter.

EDP wanted the establishment of a transitional government believing it will make the transition successful and inclusive of all political voices.

“As we believed that the government’s legitimacy ends if elections were not held, we have proposed the establishment of a transitional government,” Adane said, also adding that, “but this does not mean all things will crumble overnight come the day the government’s term ends.”

The reason for EDP to propose the establishment of a transitional government is because it believed the country has more burning issues that need to be resolved than hold elections, which need to be resolved through discussions and negotiations, Adane said. These include, according to him, finding a middle ground to the conflicting and divergent historical narratives, reverse the signs of danger posed because of divisions within the government and the ruling party as well as the TPLF, and maintain peace and security of the country which has reached a level where citizens cannot travel in peace from place to place.

“As the constitution itself is the source of our problem, we have to first amend it through discussions,” Adane said.

The path of interpreting the constitution that the government has pursued was opposed by EDP citing the interpreting body, HoF, is filled with party members who are prone to influence.

Musa Adem, chairperson of the Afar Democratic Party (ADP), told The Reporter that his party’s decision to postpone the election was a right decision given the pandemic. He even said that he told Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) that the government should stay in power until the pandemic is not a public health threat anymore.

“We are not concerned about any crisis because of the government’s term ending on October 5 because we had already decided for its postponement. We are concerned about the pandemic as the number of the infected is growing day to day,” he said.

Rather, the reluctance of the incumbent Prosperity Party, in preventing the spread of the pandemic is worrying as it still holds party trainings and crowded meetings, he complained.

Both Adane and Adem believe that the government’s reactions to the numbers are visible and the display of forces both by the federal government and the Tigray region is indicative of this frustration.

“The political tension between the TPLF and the Prosperity Party is presenting threats. They have entered into the politics of provocation and squabble. But, the country’s problems won’t be solved by the military and commandos. The two parties had made the country a field to irritate one another,” Adane said.

He criticized such military power displays because even the Derg did not benefit from it. But organizing discussions is a difficult task to accomplish, he stressed.

“Military shoulder brushing disintegrates a nation. A civilized politics calls for dialogue, not war,” he said.

Musa also agreed that the narrative related to October 5 or 10, 2020 (Meskerem 25 or 30, 2013 in the Ethiopian Calendar) have caused a visible frustration within the government. As the election in Tigray and the push for the federal government to proceed with the election despite the pandemic are meant to delegitimize the government, and obviously would frustrate the government.

“The military parades that we see are signs of frustration. But, I don’t think a special event would follow this specific date,” he opined.

But, he believes that the people, who are raising concerns relating to the end of the term of the government on the said dates, have solid grounds to say so.

The Reporter’s attempt to get a comment from the PMO Press Secretariat on this matter did not materialize.

While it is time that will tell what would follow the specific dates, the federal government is concerned about it given the fragile nature of the country. The NEBE has now been directed to proceed with the preparations of the election it had halted months back although the report by the Ministry of Health (MoH) did clearly say that the virus will stay to be a public health threat. However, the requirement to hold the election as required by the CCI was the announcement that the virus is no longer a public health threat.