The situation in Ethiopia, with elections postponed again and a war waging in the Tigray region, is a tragedy not only for Ethiopia but all of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy must make peace at all costs, says New African editor Anver Versi.
Ethiopia’s national elections have been postponed from 5 June to 21 June. On May 15, the head of Ethiopia’s National Elections Board, Birtukan Mideksa, announced that the elections had been postponed, citing low registration, security concerns and ‘logistical challenges’, including printing ballot papers and training polling staff. A week later it was announced that the rescheduled elections would take place on 21 June.
We should keep in mind that the current civil war in Tigray Province was triggered by an earlier postponement of the same election, then scheduled for August 2020.
Before the 2020 election, in a bid to unite the country’s traditionally fractious political forces, Abiy had persuaded three of the ruling coalition’s most powerful ethnic-based parties to merge into a single party, the Prosperity Party.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in Tigray Province, one of the 12 ethnically based provinces in the country, declined to join.
Following the postponement of the 2020 election due to Covid-19 lockdowns, the TPLF went ahead with its own regional elections, pointedly snubbing the federal government.
The central government cut off funding to Tigray. The TPLF, which had ruled Ethiopia from 1991 with an iron fist before losing to Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 2018, said Abiy’s position had lapsed and attempted a takeover of national forces stationed in the region and their arms.
In response, the central government launched what it hoped would be a surgical strike to oust the TPLF leadership and bring the province under the control of the federal government. The government forces were met with well-organised resistance and the situation has spiralled into a full-scale civil war with all involved, including forces from the country’s northern neighbour, Eritrea, being accused of gross human rights violations and atrocities.
The UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission agreed to form a joint inquiry into atrocities and Abiy, pledging that those found guilty would be punished, also slammed the activities of Eritrean forces, whose conduct he said had been unacceptable.
Given this background, it is to be hoped that the general election will be held on 21 June as promised by the electoral commission and that it will be fair and free…
A successful, free and fair election – even if regretfully without the participation of Tigray and some of the opposition parties who have said they will boycott them – will signal a measure of normality that the country craves at this moment.
A tragedy for Africa
What is happening in Ethiopia is a tragedy not only for the country but for the whole of Africa. Ethiopia is not only geographically at the heart of the continent, it is in many ways its soul.
It is one of the oldest nation-states in the world; it had a flourishing civilisation that was a marvel of organisation and innovation during Biblical times and before; it has deep symbolic meaning for Christianity, Judaism and Islam; it was the central link between all the ancient African civilisations and continued to be so, even leading up to and after independence. It was one of the founder members of the OAU and today it hosts the AU and UNECA headquarters.
Ethiopia, with economic growth projected at almost 9% this year, continues to be one of the fastest, if not the fastest-growing countries in the world. This growth is now under threat.
With the election of Abiy Ahmed as the first Prime Minister from the majority Oromo ethnic group in 2018 and his subsequent policy of inclusion – offering olive branches to former foes, releasing all political prisoners, creating a diverse government and bringing the decades-old simmering state of war with Eritrea to an end – it had seemed that at last, Ethiopia would free itself from its centuries-old chains of ethnic rivalry and hatred and embark on a glorious new era.
It was not to be. It proves again that there are no silver bullets; that change cannot always come about overnight. It is a gradual process with many wrong turns. But during the ‘honeymoon’ period, we could see what is possible.
Abiy Ahmed has weight, authority and power behind him and he must make peace with Tigray at any cost. It will not be easy – there has been too much pain and anguish – but it is possible. He has no other choice.
It is said that in Ethiopia, to compromise is to lose face – a fate worse than death, according to some. But only the very strong and munificent have the courage to compromise, because they are bigger than themselves. Nobel Prizes are awarded to such people. Abiy must make peace at all costs – Ethiopia and Africa demand and expect it from him.