Signal Risk on Ethiopia – Pyrrhic prosperity

PUBLISHED: Tue, 13 Jul 2021 15:12:05 GMT
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*This analysis was produced by the team at Signal Risk 

On 10 July, the NEBE electoral body announced the results of the first round of general elections which occurred on 21 June.

In a widely expected turn of events, the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) won 410 parliamentary constituencies, out of a possible 436. The opposition NAMA party claimed five seats and the EZEMA coalition won four. The remaining seats were shared by smaller parties and independent candidates. Results for the country’s state councils have not been released; however, local reports indicate that the PP is also on track to claim a significant majority.

NEBE confirmed that voter turnout stood at more than 90 percent of the 37 million people who were registered to vote. This, according to the body, was an unprecedented turnout and an indication of Ethiopians’ “thirst for democracy” despite the many concerns leading up to the election.

The responses

Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been the most vocal, after his party swept to an overwhelming victory. In a statement on 10 July, Ahmed hailed the conduct and inclusivity of the election, along with the fact that the PP has been chosen “by the will of the people to administer the country”.

At the time of writing, the opposition had yet to formally comment on the outcome; however, local reports indicate that the EZEMA party has filed as many as 200 complaints after local officials and militiamen allegedly blocked observers in several regions, including Amhara and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). NEBE has acknowledged receipt of these complaints and is currently investigating them.

Externally, the responses – which came before the 10 July announcement – have been mixed. In its preliminary assessment on 23 June, the African Union (AU) observer mission, which was led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, noted that: “Overall the election and election day processes were conducted in an orderly, peaceful and credible manner”.

The AU’s position differs quite significantly from that of the United States. In a statement on 24 June, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, labelled the election as neither free nor fair. Blinken cited the opposition boycott, the detention of political rivals, and violence in multiple parts of the country as factors that undermined the credibility of the polls. To address these issues and to ensure the long-term stability of the Ethiopian state, Blinken called for the initiation of political dialogue.

The evolving context

The announcement of results comes amid an evolving conflict landscape in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

This follows the launch of Operation Alula by the TDF (the militant arm of the dissident TPLF party) around 18 June. After capturing as many as six towns between 18 and 24 June, the TDF secured the regional capital of Mekele on 28 June. Details of the battle for Mekele have not been disclosed; however, international media outlets have shown thousands of captured federal, Amharan and Eritrean soldiers.

The federal account

On 29 June, the prime minister formally acknowledged that the federal army had withdrawn from Mekele. According to Ahmed, this was a strategic withdrawal based on the fact that the city has “lost its centre of gravity in the current context”. His spokesman, Redwan Hussein, elaborated on this on 30 June. According to Hussein, the government’s withdrawal came after it “weighed the costs of humanitarian and reconstruction expenses, immense, though unfair, pressures by the international organizations and NGOs and the threat building up on the country’s western border”. According to Hussein, joint military drills between Sudan and Egypt are “indicative of the need to get prepared for any eventualities along the western border”. Hussein also echoed Ahmed’s call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Tigray.

The dispute

The comments by Ahmed were immediately disputed by the spokesman of the TPLF, Getachew Reda, who suggested on 30 June that federal troops were forced out of Mekele. Reda also noted that the TPLF would not stop its campaign until it has recaptured the whole of Tigray region.

Nevertheless, Reda did stipulate the TPLF’s conditions for a ceasefire. These include the legitimisation of TPLF rule in Tigray region; the immediate withdrawal of Amharan and Eritrean forces; procedures to hold Prime Minister Ahmed and Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, to account for the damage caused in Tigray; an independent probe by the United Nations; and the distribution of aid and safe return of displaced Tigray people.

Assessment

The outcome of the first round of general elections means that the ruling PP already has an unassailable absolute majority in the 547-member parliament going into the September round of elections. The present outcome also means that Abiy Ahmed will be reappointed as prime minister when parliament is constituted after the September ballots. At this juncture, voting in 73 constituencies that was deferred due to security-related concerns is scheduled to take place. This includes constituencies in the Somali, Oromia, SNNPR, Benishangul-Gumuz and Harari regions. A new timeline for elections in Tigray region – which has 38 parliamentary constituencies – has yet to be provided. Nevertheless, the ruling party is expected to claim the majority of votes in the constituencies outside Tigray come September.

The PP’s effective victory was largely expected. Apart from the fact that the PP was intent to win at all costs – including by utilising undemocratic means – several factors worked to its advantage and ultimately guaranteed the party an electoral majority. The first is cross-sectional appeal. Unlike the majority of its rivals which count on support from singular ethnic groupings, the PP draws significant support from a plurality of regions. Second, despite being maligned by ethno-nationalist figures, the PP’s brand of pan-Ethiopianism does have some broad appeal; Abiy Ahmed also carries an unparalleled appeal in Ethiopia. This is particularly the case among urban and educated youths and middle-aged individuals whose ethnic allegiances are not as rigid as their elderly and rural counterparts. Third, the fragmentation of the political opposition (including the apparent unwillingness by the likes of the OFC and OLF to encourage their supporters to back other opposition candidates) minimised the opposition’s electoral support.

Concerns around the conduct of the election are seemingly legitimate; however, they are unlikely to fuel any anti-government protests in the immediate term. The complaints by EZEMA and the remarks by the United States underscore broad consensus that the election was neither free nor fair. However, EZEMA has not demonstrated any intent to arrange demonstrations in support of its electoral contestations; nor has any other party signalled any intent to initiate any anti-government unrest following the elections. Nonetheless, sentiments that the election was neither free nor fair will sour general perceptions towards the government, especially in Oromia, where two of the region’s largest parties did not participate. This will increase the baseline risk of anti-government demonstrations in Oromia, with potential catalysts being the ongoing trial of key Oromo leaders, such as Jawar Mohamed.

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With his stay in power effectively secure, Ahmed is expected to continue his economic, diplomatic, and political agenda. No new major policy announcements are expected until parliament is constituted in September/October; however, Ahmed may expedite ongoing developments surrounding the telecommunications sector. Diplomatically, he will continue to engage with Egypt and Sudan with regard to an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In this case, Ahmed will avoid any concrete agreement that halts the ongoing second-stage filling of the dam until after the second round of elections. Despite talk of potential conflict with Sudan and Egypt, this is highly unlikely as it is not in the interests of either party to engage in war. Sudan also has a vested interest in the dam, due to the fact that it intends to acquire affordable electricity generated from the reservoir. Politically, there is an outside chance that Ahmed may pursue measures aimed at stabilising the landscape, especially in Oromia. Here, he may pursue dialogue with parties like the OFC and OLF, and possibly extend clemency to figures such as Jawar Mohammed and others who have been arrested for subversive activity, in exchange for their compliance with the PP’s political programme.

Conflict in Tigray region is likely to continue in the immediate term; however, there is an increasing likelihood that the federal government may seek to negotiate a more concrete ceasefire with the TPLF. On 12 July, the TPLF confirmed that its forces were continuing their advance in the hopes of ousting federal, Amharan and Eritrean forces and restoring the pre-war borders of the region. It also confirmed on the day that its forces seized the town of Korem, 170 kilometres south of the regional capital of Mekele, and are pushing to seize control of the town of Alamata, 20 kilometres south of Korem. More importantly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the government is struggling to maintain the current invasion of Tigray, given security issues in other regions, the TPLF’s combat capabilities, and a relatively hostile Tigray population. Each of these factors and their capacity to impair the federal government’s operations in Tigray were severely understated. Going forward, these factors may prompt the federal government to soften its position on the TPLF and agree to a negotiated ceasefire. Any formal ceasefire could lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive political agreement and an election in Tigray, or some arrangement that could see the inclusion of Tigray stakeholders in federal structures.