What’s at stake when Ethiopians vote on May 24th

Hailemariam Desalegn, Prime Minister of Ethiopia

The tragic but fleeting headlines about the plight of Ethiopian migrants in Libya, Yemen and South Africa have shadowed another more consequential event: Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections, slated to take place in less than a month on May 24.

This will be Ethiopia’s first vote without Meles Zenawi, the country’s leader of two decades, who died in 2012. Zenawi’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), “won” the last four elections, including a whopping 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats in the 2010 polls.

This year’s election comes at a crucial juncture for the Horn of Africa nation of 94 million people. Touting the country’s improved economic fortunes, the ruling party is all but certain to continue with its “winning” streak. To the party’s credit, once a country with extreme famine, poverty and underdevelopment and a subject of Bob Geldof’s live-aid concerts, under EPRDF’s rule Ethiopia has seen relative economic gains and improved access to basic education and basic health care in rural areas.

Hailed as one of Africa’s fastest growing non-oil economies by neoliberal organizations and western “experts,” Ethiopia has emerged as an attractive destination for investment capital. Global agribusinesses, garment industry moguls and retail chain operators looking for greener pastures have begun to eye the country, thanks to its cheap raw materials, an abundant workforce, a growing consumer class and lax labor laws and the government’s ability to seize land in southern Ethiopia to “gift” to big agribusiness.

Western countries are also increasingly looking to Ethiopia to help tackle key regional issues, including U.S. counterterrorism efforts against Somali militants, civil war in neighboring South Sudan and most recently the Ebola pandemic in West Africa. Ethiopia sent 187 health workers to West Africa as part of the AU mission to help combat the deadly Ebola outbreak.

This picture of Ethiopia gives a portrait of a nation emerging out of the doldrums and taking its rightful place as a regional powerhouse. That is certainly the thinking in Addis Ababa. Even as Ethiopian leaders look east — to emulate the success of state-led development in East Asia — some in the West view Ethiopia as a model for donor-funded development and neoliberal economic reforms. Ethiopian government operatives have been feeding this feel-good, “Ethiopia rising” story to foreign diplomats and the western media, with notable success.

This is however an incomplete, not to mention a clichéd, picture of Ethiopia. Even if one acknowledges modest economic gains, the beneficiaries have not crossed the narrow circle of the well-connected upper business class and associates of the ruling party. Beneath the headlines about massive investment in infrastructure and mega hydroelectric dams financed by the government and rosy forecasts by multinational financial institutions lies a burgeoning and increasingly repressive police state.

That’s not all. Unemployment among urban youth hovers above 50 percent. In a country where 60 percent of the population is aged 30 and below, it is no wonder that the regime is intolerant of any form of dissent, imprisoning journalists and bloggers, including for comments on social media. One of the top ten worst jailers of journalists in the world, along with China, Iran and North Korea, Ethiopia has locked up, forced into exile, or cowed nearly all of the country’s independent journalists into silence using a sweeping anti-terrorism law widely being used to muzzle the press.

Media watchdog groups, international human rights organizations, and the U.S. State Department’s annual country report have all documented pervasive and ongoing human rights abuses. As authorities in Addis Ababa prepare for yet another sham election, the fifth such circus since the EPRDF took power in 1991, a lot of questions remain unanswered.

Even by Ethiopia’s own standard, the 2015 elections appear to be far less competitive than the last two polls. The country’s one-time vocal opposition is all but decimated, in part because of their own undoing but largely due to the ever-tightening political space and the lack of freedom to organize.

The upcoming polls are crucial for other reasons as well. Ethiopia has witnessed some interesting, if unsurprising, developments in the intervening years since the last election. For example, from late 2011 to early 2013 the country’s restive Muslim population held sustained, peaceful and highly disciplined protests opposing the government’s interference in religious affairs. In response, the government jailed the 17-member committee, which was elected to represent protesters in talks with the government, using its draconian anti-terrorism law. There are reports that the sit-ins and Friday protests at mosques around the country that distinguished the Let Our Voices be Heard movement, which organized Muslim protests, are likely to return as the campaign season heats up.

Within the shaky ruling EPRDF coalition itself, reports of internal discontent abound. Competing groups and rival centers of power battle for influence exposing the country’s enduring ethnic fault lines. The EPRDF is made up of four major parties representing ethnic Tigrean, Amhara, Oromo, and Southern nations and nationalities. Zenawi’s untimely death elevated Hailemariam Desalegn, an unlikely choice from one of the mishmash of southern nations and nationalities, to prime minister, the highest office in the land. But other coalition partners, including some from among the southern nations and nationalities, have not always viewed his elevation favorably.

A few months into his stormy term of office, Desalegn appointed three deputies. While to some this was meant to project a semblance of ethnic balance, to many others it raised the specter of collective leadership, a euphemism for a state within a state. Despite what was then billed as a major shakeup, the reins of power still rest with the dominant Tigrean elites who control the country’s expansive military and behemoth security apparatus.

Tension between the motley of urban-based opposition groups, mainly hailing from the Amhara ethnic group, Ethiopia’s previous rulers, and the Tigrean oligarchy have been ratcheted up in the prelude to the May elections. The electoral board, accused rightly as an extension of the ruling party, has disqualified on flimsy grounds the participation of Andinet – the only opposition party represented in the outgoing parliament.

Ethnic Oromos, who constitute half of the country — both in terms of landmass and population — loathe their continued marginal status. A convergence of recent events is now testing this long-held patience.

A generation of Oromo has come of age under the current regime, learning in their native Oromo language, for the first time as per the dictates of the country’s ethnic federalism. Incensed by the feebleness of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, the Oromo coalition partner in the ruling EPRDF, to press for a meaningful participation of the Oromo in the federal government, young people are increasingly vocal about its call for a robust and meaningful regional autonomy. The advent of social media and the Internet has helped bridge communication gaps between local activists and the vocal Oromo diaspora. This is giving way to resurgent and assertive narratives that utilize social media to agitate for the advancement of democracy and human rights and an end to one-party rule. In April and May 2014, student protests opposing Addis Ababa’s expansion into surrounding Oromia towns touched off a deadly standoff with security forces, leaving scores dead and many wounded and imprisoned.

In October 2014, the London-based Amnesty International released a damning report on rampant human rights violations in Ethiopia targeting the Oromo. According to the report, upwards of 5,000 Oromo nationals languish in detention since 2011 on the bases of real and imagined opposition to the central government — sometimes for simply wearing traditional clothes adorned with Oromo nationalist symbols. Amnesty’s report, which Oromo activists say underestimates the actual number of those incarcerated, offers a rare insight into the overreach characteristic of paranoid police states.

The unaddressed Oromo question and Addis Ababa’s reluctance to fully implement the country’s constitution raise series questions about Ethiopia’s future. The absence of competitive, free, and fair elections does not offer the public a venue to vent its frustrations, let alone a means to find durable solutions for the countries mounting problems. While the urban-based opposition blame ethnic polarization as the mother of Ethiopia’s growing political ills, the ruling party casts ethnic federalism as the only glue holding the country together. Others, like the Oromo, who in principle support the ethnic federal formula, lament the ruling party’s practice of instituting a highly centralized and repressive polity in the guise of federalism and democracy.

Ethiopia’s current political dispensation was the result of a violent reaction to the same highly centralized and repressive rule, that of the previous communist military junta known as the Dergue. The Dergue’s strongman leader of 17 years, Col. Mengistu Hailemariam, was finally forced to flee the country after he was squeezed from all directions by a loosely aligned group of ethnic guerrilla fighters, including the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the kingmakers in EPRDF, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (today’s rulers of the breakaway state of Eritrea), and the Oromo Liberation Front. Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, where he still lives under Mugabe’s protection.

The 1991 transitional government, set up following Mengistu’s demise, drafted the current constitution as a compromise solution among the victorious hodgepodge of ethnic liberation fronts. That consensus has since melted away under 23 years of rule by the TPLF-dominated EPRDF coalition.

By all measures, the current status quo in Ethiopia is unsustainable. The May 2015 elections will do little to help subside rising tensions. In fact, many Ethiopia watchers fear that it may lead to the kind of instability that erupted in the aftermath of the 2005 elections, after the opposition scored a smashing victory in the polls only to be snatched away at the barrel of the gun. Tensions are already starting to show. On April 22, thousands of people marched through Addis Ababa condemning the killings of nearly 30 Ethiopian Christians by the Libyan branch of Islamic State. The protesters also voiced their frustrations over the lack of economic opportunities and political freedom, which pushes many a youth to make perilous journeys to Europe or the Middle East. Authorities responded as they always do: By beating and arresting protesters.

Touting the improved economic outlook and various infrastructure projects as a mandate, the EPRDF openly vows to rule the country indefinitely. The opposition has no chance to organize a protest, let alone emerge as a credible alternative to the regime. Learning from its debacle of 2005, the ruling party has considerably narrowed the political space as to preclude any such surprises. By so doing, it might have raised the specter of instability that has marred Ethiopia throughout its history putting the country’s recent modest economic gains in grave jeopardy. Ethiopia’s Western allies, particularly the U.S., continue to ignore the writing on the wall and look the other way in the face of entrenching authoritarianism, in large part thanks to the country’s outward projection of stability in the deeply troubled Horn of Africa.

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