Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing his first real test at the ballot in what is Ethiopia’s first multi-party election in 16 years, albeit one riven with conflict, jailed opposition figures and parts of the country unable to vote.
But some Ethiopians and political analysts disagreed with the prime minister.
A veteran journalist, Martin Plaut, described the June 21 poll as “a dubious process.”
The atmosphere was peaceful at one Addis Ababa polling station visited by CNN on Monday morning. Several Ethiopians waiting patiently in line said they were voting because they hoped it would help move the country in a more democratic direction.
The EU’s special envoy to Ethiopia, Finnish foreign minister Pekka Haavisto, said Monday he hoped the election would help facilitate dialogue on the “poor human rights” situation in Tigray.
Last Tuesday, Haavisto told a special European Parliament committee that during a February visit to Ethiopia, senior leaders told him they were going to “wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.” The Ethiopian foreign ministry called Haavisto’s allegation “a complete fabrication.”
Ethiopia has long been divided along ethnic and political lines, and the growing mistrust between its warring ethnic groups places the forthcoming election on shaky ground in the East African powerhouse, which has a population of more than 100 million people.
Abiy, the 44-year-old prime minister, who is a recipient of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, is expected to be reelected if his ruling Prosperity Party (PP) garners the highest votes in the federal parliament.
Abiy’s chances at the ballot have grown seemingly brighter following recent moves by some leading opposition figures to boycott the election, citing government crackdown on prominent rivals.
Merera Gudina, the leader of Oromo Federalist Congress, a party representing the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, described the election as “political theatre,” and urged observers not “take the election very seriously,” in a statement.
“It cannot deliver the three greatest needs of the country: durable peace and stability, ensure the birth of Democratic Ethiopia even after three thousand years and meaningful economic development,” Merera added.
“The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media…and the many interethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process…,” the statement said.
However, many Ethiopians in conflict-ridden areas will have to wait until September to cast their ballots when the second round of voting will be held.
How has Abiy fared?
Abiy took over the reins as Ethiopia’s prime minister in April 2018 following the resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, who renounced his chairmanship of the then ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
The head of Ethiopia’s ruling party is empowered by the country’s constitution to emerge as prime minister.
The EPRDF coalition, which consisted of four political parties, dominated Ethiopia’s politics from 1991 to 2019. Abiy, who succeeded Desalegn as chairman of the EPRDF, would later introduce sweeping reforms, with his party factored into the policy shake-up.
The early months of his premiership were marked with bold and progressive decision making; he released the country’s political prisoners, denouncing their torture and also freeing jailed journalists, and shut down a notorious maximum-security prison.
He also won plaudits for his role in helping to broker a power-sharing deal in neighboring Sudan, after a political crisis that led to the arrest of Omar al-Bashir, the country’s ruler for almost three decades.
The style of leadership was different from anything seen before in Ethiopia’s ruling party. There were “listening rallies” attended by tens of thousands, town hall meetings in which the vision of true democracy and unity were re-emphasized.
Fame to infamy
However, Abiy’s glowing reputation took a sharp turn into national infamy following the controversial cancellation of the August 2020 general election.
There have been previous nationwide internet shutdowns early on in his administration, which raised eyebrows and dented his reformist image.
Abiy’s military action in Tigray is believed to have caused the death of thousands of civilians. This has been aided by troops from neighboring Eritrea, who have committed many of the extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses in the region.
Eyewitnesses told CNN that a group of Eritrean soldiers opened fire at a church whilst mass was underway, claiming the lives of priests, women, entire families, and a group of more than 20 Sunday school children.
Abiy’s office says said it would “continue bringing all perpetrators to justice following thorough investigations into alleged crimes in the region.”
At least 6% of that number is faced with catastrophic levels, and the situation is expected to worsen before the end of the year.
Correction: This story has been updated to replace a statement that was incorrectly attributed to the Merera Gudina, leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress.
Nimi Princewill wrote from Abuja, Nigeria and Bethlehem Feleke reported from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Stephanie Busari contributed to this report.
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