War and Famine Are Overshadowing Ethiopia's Crucial Elections

"The old conflicts that divide us are back," one voter told VICE World News.
June 21, 2021, 12:08pm
A man holds a portrait of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a stadium in Jimma on June 16, 2021 for an electoral campaign rally.
A man holds a portrait of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in a stadium in Jimma on June 16, 2021 for an electoral campaign rally. Photo: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

GONDAR, Ethiopia – On the outskirts of the historic city of Gondar, in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, election officials mingle with the militias fighting in neighbouring Tigray

In elections taking place today, Ethiopians will choose national and regional representatives, with nationally-elected MPs then selecting the Prime Minister. The elections were originally due to be held last August but were delayed, officially because of COVID. 

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But in Tigray the local ruling party the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) accused Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of using the pandemic as a means to postpone the election until it could be held during a more favourable political climate. This led to the TPLF – which dominated a political coalition that ruled Ethiopia for decades – holding regional elections that the federal government deemed illegal, and ultimately a war in November that is still ongoing. Thousands are thought to have died in the conflict, and the United Nations has warned hundreds of thousands of people in Tigray are at risk due to famine, something the Ethiopian government denies.

Aid agencies and international media have been restricted from entering Tigray, so it is extremely difficult to assess the true picture on the ground in the region. But in Gondar, signs of the conflict are everywhere. At the general hospital, casualties are arriving by the dozen, eight months after Abiy declared a military victory over the TPLF. Weapons enter the surgical ward, next to the labour ward of the obstetrics department. The wounded arrive in minibuses, rarely on stretchers. 

In the surrounding countryside, the militiamen are everywhere. They have taken over schools, transforming them into bases. Children still attend classes, but weapons and ammunition are stored next to tins for chalk. 

In town, those returning from the front unscathed shared words of encouragement with those about to leave. "This time, we are going to finish off these TPLF devils who have pillaged the country instead of developing it," Mulatu, a 20-year-old student who does not regret leaving university for the battlefield, says defiantly. "This is a chance for the Amhara people to regain their pride.” A van passes by with a little girl waving a placard for Abiy’s Prosperity Party at the window. Like everyone VICE World News spoke with, Mulatu spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak openly.

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More than 37 million Ethiopians are expected to vote, but no voting is taking place in Tigray, or dozens of other constituencies where security concerns have made voter registration impossible. And in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous region, the main opposition party has boycotted the vote. Ethiopia’s election officials have promised voters in these areas that they will be able to vote before the new parliamentary session begins in October. But even then this will be complicated by the rainy season in the south of the country.

Abiy has described the poll as Ethiopia’s “first attempt at free and fair elections,” and his party is likely to increase its hold on power, but he may not get the political legitimacy he seeks from polls that appear to lack credibility. 

It’s a far cry from the optimism, at home and abroad, when Abiy came to power via appointment in April 2018. Aged 41 at the time – very young compared to other heads of government of African countries – the dynamic technocrat with an atypical profile was chosen to lead the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, had been forced out by intense anti-government protests that were led by the 35-million strong Oromia region, Ethiopia’s most populous region and home to the country’s largest ethnic group who have long considered themselves discriminated against by the TPLF-dominated federal government.

Abiy seemed perfectly cast in his new leadership role. With a Muslim Oromo father and an Orthodox Amhara mother, he was perceived by the Oromos as one of them, without frightening the Amharas. In 2019 he became the first Ethiopian to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, principally for his efforts to end a frozen conflict with Eritrea. At the same time he was ending the TPLF’s grip on power that had lasted decades: in late 2019 the EPRDF was dissolved and Abiy merged most of the coalition’s political parties into the newly created Prosperity Party – except the TPLF.

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Though an EPRDF insider, Abiy pledged to reshape politics. He released thousands of dissidents from prison and allowed members of groups labelled "terrorists" by his predecessors to return from exile – a signal of openness that appealed to the West. Even more pleasing to Western financial institutions were moves to liberalise Ethiopia’s economy, in order to help pay off a staggering debt of nearly $28 billion.

“We nicknamed him the African Macron,” an American diplomat who worked in Addis Ababa in the early stages of his presidency, and asked to remain anonymous to speak openly, told VICE World News. “He seemed charismatic, pro-business, a possible regional ally, on the doorstep of Omar al-Bashir's Sudan, and [Isaias] Afwerki’s Eritrea.”

The honeymoon lasted well into 2020, although some criticised the true extent of the rapprochement with Eritrea – “A peace with no substance," says Roland Marchal, a French researcher specialising in the Horn of Africa.

But then came the delay to the elections in August 2020, the spark that ignited a conflict that had been brewing since Abiy’s appointment, and the reshuffling of the political deck caused by a reversal of alliances to the detriment of the Tigrayans, an ethno-linguistic community of nearly 6 million, out of a total population of nearly 112 million, according to World Bank assessments. A small minority who had been over-represented in terms of a distribution of power and wealth since 1991 when the TPLF’s victorious march on the capital put an end to the bloody dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemariam. 

The war in Tigray has isolated Abiy, the Nobel laureate. A new refugee crisis – 63,000 people have crossed to Sudan according to Crisis Group – and reports of massacres carried out by his new Eritrean allies or regional militias has led to international condemnation and US sanctions.

And in the wake of this war behind closed doors – all telecommunications were cut off in the early hours of the federal offensive last November and have never been fully restored – a popular movement to reclaim lost land is reawakening. 

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Wolkait, a fertile territory in western Tigray, was forcibly attached to the administrative province in 1991. In recent months, Tigrayans there have been systematically intimidated, some physically eliminated, others driven into exile. Hundreds of thousands have been forcibly put on buses to the centre of Tigray by Amhara militias, according to a TPLF spokesperson. A US diplomat put that number at tens of thousands. For the latter, it was simply about taking back territory that they believed was theirs by right. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not hesitate to speak of ethnic cleansing in a public statement on the 10th of March.

Some are now referring to an “Amhara power”; this is a relatively new development for Ethiopia’s second-largest ethnic group, which considers itself to be the owner of the Abyssinian culture that has shaped the country.

“People talk about ethnicities as if we were tribes frozen in history,” says Minnie from Addis Ababa, who westernised her name on her return from Lebanon after 11 years working in manicure salons there. "I am like him [Abiy], Oromo and Amhara, and I did not want to be classified. This is 2021, there are many of us like that! We expected a lot from him. But he is disappointing. The old conflicts that divide us are back."

In Oromia, a lot of money has been poured in by the central government in recent months to secure an electoral base despite rising frustrations. According to a French diplomatic source, the rate for barley there is three times the price on the world market, "a disguised subsidy to the farmers who constitute the main wealth of this region". 

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In Shashemane, where many kids took part in the violent protests in July 2020 following the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a singer from this community, Lemmi, a tuk-tuk driver, says that many of his friends were given expensive smartphones, sometimes even cash. “This time, whatever the results, they will keep quiet. Until they go underground, because they feel less and less Ethiopian, and think that guns are the only way to be heard.”

The only available data on the clashes between Oromos and Amhara are the scattered declarations of local officials. There reportedly have been more than 300 deaths per month since March, and the number of displaced persons due to this violence alone has reached 500,000. These are figures that have not been seen for two years.

The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) welcomes those young recruits in the hundreds every week, and benefits from the increasing polarisation of society, as do all armed groups that thrive on the demonstrated inability of political leaders to compromise. 

Even if Abiy’s party wins the elections, and he is reappointed as Prime Minister, the fragmentation of a country he claimed to reunify will be his major challenge, alongside a fragile economy that has failed to attract the needed foreign investment.