Ethiopia won’t hold peaceful elections due to Tigray conflict

Voting won’t take place in the Tigray region, which is still mired in a grinding conflict and humanitarian catastrophe.


Ethiopia won’t hold peaceful elections due to Tigray conflict

Ethiopia is preparing to vote in long-delayed national and regional parliamentary elections Monday—at least, part of it is. Voting won’t take place in the Tigray region, which is still mired in a grinding conflict and humanitarian catastrophe. With other constituencies facing logistical delays and some of the opposition calling for a boycott, at least a fifth of the country will not be casting a ballot.

With the outcome tipped in his favor, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is hoping to secure a popular mandate with the poll. It will be the first time he has faced voters since he came to power in 2018 following the abrupt resignation of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn.

It has been a tumultuous term for Abiy—and Ethiopia. Abiy received early plaudits for welcoming home exiled dissidents and freeing political prisoners, and he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve Ethiopia’s frozen conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

At the same time, he was busy consolidating power, causing friction with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, a regional party that had long dominated national politics. An anti-corruption drive Abiy launched in late 2018 “seemed like a witch hunt directed against Abiy’s political opponents, particularly the TPLF,” as Tom Gardner reported for WPR from Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, in November. The relationship deteriorated from there.

Abiy moved to merge the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front—a coalition of ethnic and regional parties, including the TPLF, reflecting Ethiopia’s federal character—into a new pan-Ethiopian formation, the Prosperity Party, in December 2019. But the TPLF refused to follow along. And when the government postponed national elections scheduled for August 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tigray’s leaders pushed ahead with their own regional vote in September. Two months later, Abiy launched an attack on the region.

Thousands of people have been killed and 2 million displaced since the conflict began, with evidence mounting of widespread atrocities committed by federal troops and their allies—including Eritrean forces—against civilians, including gang rapes and mass expulsions. U.S. officials have alleged that ethnic cleansing is taking place in parts of Tigray. And Mark Lowcock, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief, told an informal meeting of the Security Council this week that areas of the region have already descended into famine after troops deliberately destroyed crops and killed livestock. As Alex de Waal wrote for WPR in April, “there is no drought and no harvest failure. Tigrayans are hungry today because starvation is being used as a weapon of war—relentlessly and systematically.”

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights announced plans this week to conduct an independent investigation into the alleged atrocities, drawing a rebuke from Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, which called the effort “misguided.” U.N. human rights officials are already conducting a similar investigation.

The regional and international pressure is likely to have little effect on Monday’s vote, where the Prosperity Party is the clear front-runner. Opposition groups have accused Abiy of a political crackdown in the runup to the election, including shuttering their party offices and detaining political opponents on trumped up charges. Even as Abiy pledged on Twitter this week to conduct “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections,” many of the major opposition parties called for a boycott.

Meanwhile, despite postponing Election Day a second time from June 5 to Monday, officials were unable to finalize voter rolls in the Harari and Somali regions, forcing them to delay voting there until September. No date has been set for a vote in Tigray.

Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire.

Here’s a rundown of news from elsewhere on the continent:

North Africa

Algeria: President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s National Liberation Front, or FLN, long the country’s largest political party, won the most seats in Saturday’s parliamentary elections amid dismal turnout. With 105 seats, the FLN fell well short of the 204 needed to form a parliamentary majority, but Tebboune is likely to draw support for his agenda from other nationalist parties and allied politicians. The elections were overshadowed by calls from pro-democracy Hirak protesters for a boycott after the regime escalated a crackdown on the movement in recent months, including the arrest of seven Hirak leaders last week. The country’s traditional opposition parties also joined in the boycott. Electoral officials did not reveal turnout numbers in announcing the provisional results Tuesday, but media outlets put the figure at 23 percent of the eligible 24 million voters.

While Tebboune had heralded Saturday’s elections as a path to a “new Algeria,” Yasmina Abouzzohour explained in a WPR briefing last week that “the elections should not be mistaken for a genuine concession by the regime, as they will not bring about substantial change,” including much-needed economic reforms.

West Africa

Cote d’Ivoire: Former President Laurent Gbagbo returned to the country Thursday, a decade after his ouster triggered widespread violence that led to his trial on charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. He was acquitted by the ICC in 2019 and a subsequent appeal was rejected in March, officially ending his confinement in Belgium. President Alassane Ouattara facilitated the return of his former political rival, including issuing him a diplomatic passport, in an effort to ease lingering political tensions.

Ouattara defeated Gbagbo in the 2010 presidential election, but the incumbent refused to concede, triggering months of violence that left at least 3,000 people dead. Gbagbo was extradited to The Hague in 2011 and stood trial alongside former Youth Minister Charles Ble Goude on charges that included ordering murders and gang rapes during the unrest. They were acquitted after a judge ruled that prosecutors had not proved their case. Gbagbo maintained his domestic support throughout the trial, and observers said that in allowing the former president to return, Ouattara may be hoping to ease his own political troubles. The president won a controversial third term last year, running even as the opposition warned he was “jeopardizing his country’s fragile peace over the past decade,” as Clair MacDougall explained in a November WPR briefing.

East Africa

Tanzania: The government has dropped terrorism-related charges against leaders of an Islamist group that had been advocating for the independence of the semiautonomous Zanzibar archipelago. The two top leaders of the Association for Islamic Mobilization and Propaganda were released Tuesday after being held for eight years in prison without trial. Officials did not offer an explanation for their release, but both Christian and Islamic leaders had been lobbying President Samia Suluhu Hassan to either prosecute or release them since she came into office in March.

Southern Africa

Zambia: Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s first president and a supporter of movements to end colonialism and apartheid in Southern Africa, died of pneumonia Thursday at 97 years old. Trained as a teacher, Kaunda was drawn into politics by the effort to end British and white minority rule of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which stretched across what is now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. He founded the United National Independence Party and led civil disobedience protests that saw him repeatedly arrested, even as he gained widespread popularity. When Zambia achieved full independence in 1964, Kaunda became the country’s first president. He faced economic and military retaliation for his support of freedom fighters in what is now Zimbabwe and South Africa, which—along with a drop in the global price of copper, then Zambia’s primary export—contributed to the country’s economic freefall in the 1970s. As popular resentment mounted, Kaunda clamped down, maintaining a single-party system until 1991, when growing political pressure forced him to allow other parties to compete in national elections. Voted out of office, he settled into the roles of Zambian elder statesman and global advocate for efforts to end the AIDS pandemic.

Central Africa

Democratic Republic of Congo: The Senate narrowly voted down a motion to lift Sen. Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon’s legal immunity, which would have allowed prosecutors to indict him over his role in the disappearance of $200 million from a failed agricultural project. Mapon previously served as prime minister under former President Joseph Kabila from 2012 to 2016. Prosecutors were planning to charge him with fraud, misappropriation of funds and dereliction of duty in connection with the failed Bukanga Lonzo project, which was supposed to ease food shortages in the country, but collapsed quickly under allegations of embezzlement, corruption and human rights abuses. Investigators have not shown evidence that Mapon personally benefitted from the project, and he has denied any personal or professional wrongdoing.

Top Reads From Around the Web

Western Films About Africa Are Neocolonial Even When They’re Trying Not to Be: Joris Postema’s latest movie, “Stop Filming Us,” is meant to be a self-examination of the white, Dutch filmmaker’s attempt to capture “Congolese reality.” Instead, as Yasmina Price argues in her review for Hyperallergic, the film serves as a “neocolonial endeavor” that attempts to collapse Congo’s rich history into a singular reality. While Price writes that the film does contain important insights from Postema’s Congolese contributors, “the documentary, as a container for their intellectual contributions, falls short.” While she ultimately suggests ignoring the film, she acknowledges that it “does expose the dangerous entrenched colonial tics in such a way that some white Western audience members might perhaps see them and glean a modicum of self-awareness.”

“Zambians Want Change… We Don’t Count How Many Times We Run”: Zambians have essentially two choices in the country’s August presidential election: incumbent Edgar Lungu, who has overseen an economic collapse, or perennial opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema, who is running for a sixth time. In an interview with African Arguments’ James Wan, Hichilema said his two main goals are reuniting the country and addressing the current economic crisis, including restructuring Zambia’s crippling debt. Hichilema acknowledges the significant hurdles to finally scoring a victory, including the uneven enforcement of restrictions on campaigning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “What drives us is the suffering of the people,” he told Wan. “I don’t think anyone who feels affected by the welfare of other people will stay at home and enjoy themselves.”


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