He pledged unity. But now PM hopes to tighten grip on war-torn Ethiopia

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Tens of millions of Ethiopians are expected to vote on Monday in crucial elections that could provide a launchpad for controversial prime minister Abiy Ahmed to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian rule.

Abiy, who won the Nobel peace prize two years ago after concluding a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, will face voters at the ballot box for the first time in Africa’s second most populous nation.

Just over a fifth of more than 500 parliamentary constituencies are not voting due to logistical problems, violence or the war in Tigray.

The conflict in the northern region broke out in November after fighters loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s then-ruling party, attacked government military bases.

Federal troops forced the TPLF to abandon its stronghold of Mekelle, Tigray’s capital, after six weeks of fighting but have struggled to end an ongoing insurgency.

The conflict has roots in a struggle for power at a national level. The TPLF dominated the government for decades until Abiy’s appointment by the ruling coalition in 2018. It was unclear if the war would boost Abiy in the polls, analysts said.

“At the beginning, the war was good for Abiy. The TPLF had been in power for a long time and had done a lot of crimes. They were very unpopular. But now there is a very costly stalemate, it is much more of a problem for [Abiy],” said Yohannes Woldemariam, a US-based independent analyst.

Supporters of the prime minister are hoping the elections will strengthen his new Prosperity party. The election was originally scheduled for August 2020 but was delayed, with officials blaming the Covid-19 pandemic. It will involve candidates from more than 40 parties.

Campaigning has been short. Abiy, a 44-year-old former military intelligence specialist, told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters last week at his only rally that Ethiopia would show a sceptical world that he could unite his fractious country.

“The whole world is saying we will fight [each other] but we will show them differently,” Abiy told a packed stadium in the western city of Jimma. “The forces that saved Ethiopia from collapsing will turn the horn of Africa into Africa’s power hub.”

Violence in Ethiopia, a patchwork of ethnic and linguistic groups theoretically united by a federal system, has surged since Abiy took power and implemented a series of wide-ranging reforms.

In his first 18 months in power, Abiy freed more than 40,000 political prisoners, brought many more women into high office, lifted a ban on political parties, allowed more media freedom and opened up sectors of the economy. But jails are filling up again, with thousands reportedly held in military camps and more than 20 journalists imprisoned in the past year.

“The situation now is as dire as it used to be before, if not more,” said Fisseha Tekle of Amnesty International.

Many parties in Oromiya, the nation’s most populous region and site of last week’s rally, are boycotting the polls, alleging government intimidation.

Whatever the results of this week’s poll – and Abiy is not expected to lose – he will have to deal with a looming economic crisis. The country of 110 million faces an acute lack of foreign currency and has sought unsuccessfully to defer debt repayments.

Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokeswoman, has described the election as a chance for citizens to “exercise their democratic rights” and accused the international media of mounting a “character assassination of the prime minister”.

Western diplomats and humanitarian agencies say that 350,000 people in Tigray are now suffering famine, with many millions more threatened by acute lack of food.

Diplomats warned that if the promised changes did not follow the polls, further collective international pressure would be applied, insisting “if nothing is done, this is going to be an entirely man-made famine”. They said they had received private assurances from senior Ethiopian ministers that restrictions on humanitarian access to famine areas could be eased once the elections were over.

The UK ambassador at the UN, Barbara Woodward, has already warned: “It’s not a drought or locusts that are causing this hunger, but the decisions of those in power.”

map of ethiopia

So far Ethiopia has ignored traditional diplomatic levers. These include two successive G7 statements, withdrawal of EU funding from the Ethiopian government, and the imposition by the US of visa sanctions on some Ethiopian officials.

The Observer, Guardian and other media have reported a series of massacres over the last six months, with the most recent just weeks ago. Both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops – who entered Tigray to support the government – appear responsible. At least one massacre has been blamed on the TPLF.

Related: ‘Don’t betray women of Tigray’: calls grow for international action against rape in war

Eritrea spent months denying its troops were in Tigray, but since acknowledging their presence has repeatedly denied any accusations of atrocities. Ethiopian officials have repeatedly said that Eritrean troops would withdraw, but there has been little movement on the ground.

In one revealing recent incident, a UN truck carrying Eritrean refugees who had lived for many years in Tigray to a camp for displaced people was stopped at a checkpoint approximately 100 miles from the Eritrean border by Eritrean troops, who then forcibly repatriated 38 of them. Only after strong protests from the UN were the refugees returned from Eritrea.

Analysts say it is unclear whether Abiy wants the Eritrean troops to remain to fight the TPLF, or has been unable to convince Isaias Afwerki, the veteran dictator who has led Eritrea since its independence in 1993, to pull his forces out. “It has become a survival game for all of them and they all see their survival as being at the expense of the others. It is very sad,” said Woldemariam.

Abiy’s rhetoric has been uncompromising. While inaugurating a sugar factory in the northern Amhara region on 6 June, he told supporters that Ethiopians face two challenges - “traitors and outsiders”.

“Everyone is expected to first purge traitors and next to stop outsiders,” he said.

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