Can Ethiopia’s election help overcome age-old structural divisions?

After being postponed twice, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then for logistical reasons, Ethiopia’s national and regional elections were held on 21 June 2021.

Ethiopians stood in long lines at polling stations and voted in the first electoral test of Abiy Ahmed’s administration since his rise to power in 2018. Abiy and his Prosperity Party went on to secure a landslide victory and will form a government in October.

However, Ethiopia’s political landscape is still highly polarised. Ideological fault lines and heightened ethnic sensitivities are fuelling tensions. The confrontation between the federal government and armed forces in the northern part of the country is essentially an extension of the conflicting ideological orientations embedded in the country’s deep structural divisions.

The government signalled that it was willing to commit to an inclusive dialogue after the election. Now that the election season is over, the African Union (AU) and the international community at large should partner with and encourage the government to resolve these challenges and build much-needed social cohesion and inter-communal harmony.

Abiy’s rise to power

Abiy’s administration came to power on the back of prolonged widespread protests across the country, mainly in the populous Oromia and Amhara regions. These protests were driven by deep-seated grievances with the-then ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). People were vocal in their dissatisfaction with the party’s authoritarian developmentalism and hegemonic ‘dominant party-ism’ and accused it of land grabbing and marginalising the masses. 

Ideological fault lines and heightened ethnic sensitivities are fuelling tensions

Discontented youth voiced their resentment in the language of ethno-nationalism and framed their demands in ethnic terms against what they perceived as the hegemony of a minority political elite. These mass protests made the status quo unsustainable and forced the ruling party to negotiate within itself and with its rivals. This led the EPRDF to nominate Abiy, from Oromia, as its chair – hence his premiership.

Critical junctures leading up to the election

Abiy was quick to liberalise the political space and signal his administration’s commitment to democratise Ethiopia through institutional reform. Stifling laws were revised, political prisoners released and exiled opposition leaders invited to return. Thus, for perhaps the first time in the post-1991 Ethiopian state, the first year of his administration saw no organised armed resistance against the state. However, his ‘unionist’ political projects started to encounter resistance from both within his party and the ethno-nationalist opposition camp.

Abiy persisted and merged three of the four ethno-regional political organisations – the EPRDF, Oromo Democratic Party, Amhara Democratic Party, and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement – with five regional allies to form the Prosperity Party. This was a critical juncture that would shape the trajectory of his administration and reconfigure the ideological line-up in the 2021 election.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had founded the EPRDF and held the reins in both the party and the Ethiopian state for over 25 years, rejected the merger and later withdrew entirely. This made it the only opposition party with state resources, as it was the ruling party in the Tigray region. Abiy’s move to merge the party also led to his watchful ethno-nationalist supporters and opposition forces to form an alliance against him, particularly in Oromia.

Meanwhile, the ‘unionist’ opposition camp, e.g. Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema), was also reconstituting itself and tacitly lending ideological and political support to Abiy’s political project.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front rejected the merger and later withdrew entirely

At the same time, some critical multinational federalist political actors were navigating the political space with a view to countering what they perceived as the resurging encroachment by ethno-nationalist political forces. National elections would have taken place against the backdrop in June 2020 were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic and the postponement of the polls.

Later in the year, opposition politicians such as Jawar Mohamed and Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress and Eskinder Nega of Baldaras for Genuine Democracy were arrested. This followed the killing of prominent Oromo artist and pro-rights activist Hacalu Hundensa. The armed conflict between the federal government and the TPLF also had a serious impact on the competitiveness of the elections.

Yearning for electoral legitimacy

Abiy and his party often frame the election as a matter of earning electoral legitimacy and, at times, as a popular referendum on his administration’s political projects.

In contrast with its predecessors, the government has reformed legislation regarding the national electoral board and the rules governing election processes. This, coupled with the relative opening up of the political space, has epitomised the government’s political will to hold free and fair elections. This is not, however, to say that it has fully exorcised its authoritarian instincts.

Nonetheless, the withdrawal of opposition forces such as the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, citing the arrest of their members and alleged intimidation, meant the election lacked true representivity. The boycotting of the election by these parties, which were supposed to compete in Oromia, made these regional polls uncompetitive, leading some to deem the event more of a ‘coronation than an election’. 

The ruling party might present its victory as a popular mandate and revise some of the foundational principles of the ethno-regional federal arrangement. However, the assumption that the election mediated historical social differences and competing ideologies is problematic and could worsen the political divides in the country.

Structural gaps and competing nationalisms

The much anticipated 2018 political reforms were expected, by both the Ethiopian opposition and the international community, to lead to a negotiated political mechanism that transcended fundamental inherited social and political divisions. Yet, apart from some important institutional reforms, Abiy’s administration has thus far fallen short in this regard.

Abiy’s administration inherited a state exhausted by years of mass protests. The legitimacy of institutions was contested and their efficacy compromised. This, coupled with a polarised political discourse, rendered the state fragile, hence the mushrooming of conflicts across the country.

The political fault line is the contradictory interpretation of the past and contested political memories

The revival of the quest for regional statehood in the Southern  region, for instance, was only one among a series of events symptomatic of the ideological incoherence within the ruling party. Abiy’s administration faces not only historical and inherited structural divisions but also one of its own making, as it has failed to portray itself a moderate arbiter.

Arguably, the critical structural fault line in the Ethiopian body politic is competing and contradictory interpretations of the past and contested political memories. Since the 1970s, political mobilisation has taken place along these fault lines. These contestations culminated in the triumph of the ethno-nationalist political camp with the EPRDF’s rise to power in 1991.

Nonetheless, the ideological basis of the ‘Ethiopianist’ camp has remained in place. Abiy’s ethno-nationalist rivals have interpreted events to mean that his administration, a hitherto ethno-nationalist party, is shifting to the ‘Ethiopianist’ camp.

The creation of the Prosperity Party and the administration’s political vernacular have also hardened the ethno-nationalist opposition camp and led Abiy’s party to be labelled ‘unitarist and assimilationist’, a very sensitive charge in the post-1991 Ethiopian political discourse.

The way forward

Abiy’s administration has achieved commendable political liberalisation and demonstrated a reformist zeal in its bid to unify, in its own way, a divided nation. Unfortunately, his uncompromising ‘unifying’ agenda has been met with equally formidable force in the ethno-nationalist political camp, at times tempting his administration to revert to authoritarian instincts.

Now that the elections are out of the way, it is time to give national dialogue a chance

From inter-communal conflicts in regional states to the war in Tigray, these competing nationalisms have been at the heart of the instability in Ethiopia. This has been a setback for the democratisation process and affected the quality of the elections.

Now that the elections are out of the way, it is time to give national dialogue a chance. Both the opposition and the government could look for a win-win solution and address the structural bottlenecks that frequently result in aborted political transitions.

National dialogue does not necessarily mean power sharing – it means identifying the salient historical social divisions, setting a course for a negotiated future, and striving for restorative justice and reconciliation.

The political class should aim for a scenario where contested social memories are negotiated through compromise, recognition, and selective forgetting and remembering. Past wounds can only be healed through dialogue and reconciliation.

Tegbaru Yared, Researcher, Horn of Africa Security and Analysis, ISS Addis Ababa

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