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Spotlight on Conflict: Potential Threats to Ethiopia’s 2020 National Election

Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan
Downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopia, with 110 million people, is scheduled to hold a national election in 2020. This follows a pivotal year for Ethiopia, which in 2018 began a political transition marked by new dynamics in the relationship between the government and the people, including the opposition, private sector, and civil society. With the opening of the political space and the return of several opposition political parties and armed groups, the Ethiopian political landscape has witnessed dramatic changes over the last one-and-a-half years.

The government has insisted on holding the polls in 2020 because of a constitutional mandate, despite logistical concerns and the country's ongoing humanitarian and security crisis. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has announced an election date of August 29, 2020. Some opposition politicians are happy as they had previously warned against any delay in the election, arguing that postponing the vote could cause an adverse social reaction, fuel regional conflicts, and damage Prime Minister Abiy's democratic credentials. However, some other opposition groups claim August 29 is unsuitable for elections because it falls during the rainy season across the country tough NEBE pushed by 13 days from the previous tentative date (August 16).

An even larger concern is that Ethiopia is engulfed by an increasing number of serious peace and security challenges ahead of the scheduled elections. These include political unrest and a variety of ethnic and religious conflicts. Due to these security concerns, Parliament voted last June to postpone an already overdue but highly contentious national census, despite the importance of the exercise ahead of the 2020 elections.

Many observers doubt the ruling party's ability to ensure the country's political security as Ethiopia's politics grow increasingly volatile. Two incidents that particularly stand out are the June 2019 assassinations of several high-level government and military officials, which the government-linked to an alleged coup attempt; and the October 2019 political unrest and communal violence in the capital, Addis Ababa, and Oromia State following an incident of trying to orchestrate an attack by government security forces against a popular Oromo activist and media owner, Jawar Mohammed, that resulted in 86 deaths.

Another incident that calls into question the country's readiness to hold elections this year was the federal government's inability to organize a vote in 2019 in the Sidama Zone of the Southern Nations and Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) within the constitutionally stipulated one-year limit. The resulting unrest resulted in the deaths of 53 people, the displacement of hundreds, and significant property damage. The government then placed many parts of the region under federal security control.

An additional worrying sign was Amnesty International Director for East and Southern Africa Deprose Muchena's January 27 statement that the government had arrested 75 supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). He cautioned that "The return of mass arrests of opposition activists and supporters is a worrying signal in Ethiopia. These sweeping arrests risk undermining the rights to freedom of expression and association ahead of the 2020 elections." Furthermore, since late 2019 the federal government has shut off some parts of Western Oromia Region from internet and phone services.

Of further concern for elections preparation is violence at Ethiopia's universities. Since the second half of 2019, clashes on university campuses have killed 12 students, and more than 35,000 students have dropped out of university due to the protracted violence occurring at their schools. Armed men abducted some students from Dembi Dollo University in the Oromia Region in early December. The government reports the army has rescued 21 of the students, but at least 12 others are still missing. The director for the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia said Ethiopian authorities have failed to protect the victims of the abduction and called for the government to take necessary measures to bring them back.

Lastly, Ethiopia is experiencing a marked rise in religious-based violence and an election campaign crisis. On December 24, Al Jazeera reported that several thousand Muslims across Ethiopia protested the burning of four mosques in the Amhara region. Moreover, in August 2018, in the Somali Region, several churches were burned, with many civilians killed, including priests. Besides, NEBE declared election campaigns to be between May 28, 2020 and August 24, 2020. However, some political parties like Oromo Federalist Congress and Prosperity Party have already started the election campaigns. The later is led by Prime Mister Abiy Ahmed. This is against rule of law, which some of them resulted in causalities. For instance, on February 23, 2020, there was a bomb attack on a rally for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ambo town, which injured 29 people. This is a sign of insecurities that may follow other election campaigns in the future.

For Ethiopia's upcoming election to be democratic and peaceful, a multitude of stakeholders must play a role. The government needs to address the aforementioned security concerns as soon as possible. The country's political parties must also play a central role in assuring peace and stability. Moreover, capable, independent and trusted national institutions — including the NEBE — are essential to work its duties before, during and after election times, which have positive repercussions on the conduct of credible, inclusive and peaceful elections in Ethiopia

Getachew Zeru is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of African Governance and Development at Ethiopian Civil Service University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was a former Southern Voices Scholar Network for Peacebuilding in spring 2015. 


About the Author

Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan

Getachew Zeru Gebrekidan

Former Southern Voices Network Scholar;
Lecturer, Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University
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