Some of Abiy Ahmed’s political decisions and practical measures in the early days, weeks, and months of his time in office as prime minister inspired millions of Ethiopians to hope for their country’s future. His decision to release thousands of people who were jailed for political reasons and allow tens of thousands who fled their country due to politically motivated persecution to return home earned him big respect. Many thought the right political atmosphere to exercise their freedom of speech and do business peacefully was created.
But the hopes did not mean that there have been no problems from the get go. In parallel with the hopes, there has been also a fear that the country may go back to where it was decades ago.
Under Abiy Ahmed’s watch, millions have been displaced and hundreds have been killed due to ethnic-based conflicts in Amhara, Oromia, and the Nations and Nationalities’ regions. High military officers and government officials were killed in Addis Ababa and Bahirdar respectively. Simegnew Bekele, a man who was in charge of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, was murdered. Lately, the country is being churned by the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer and activist.
The biggest challenge to stability in Ethiopia and beyond may come from the ongoing conflict between the federal government and Tigray, a small but strong federal state. Among other things, the issue of national elections is a bone of contention between Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF) which is the ruling party of Tigray. TPLF had a major role both in overthrowing the Dergue regime of Mengistu Hailemariam and ruling the country thereafter for 27 years.
Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party had said it would hold elections per the schedule outlined by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). It changed its mind following NEBE’s announcement which said it will not be able to hold elections while the country is under the state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many political observers believe that the Prosperity Party had wanted to postpone the elections, although it kept saying otherwise, regardless of NEBE’s announcement as it did not have confidence of winning the elections in many parts of the country especially Oromia, the largest regional state in the country.
TPLF and almost all opposition political parties were open to the idea of postponing the election but differed with the government on how to do so without violating the constitutional provision that rigidly limits government’s term of office to five years. They sought to find a way to work around the Constitution and reach agreement by engaging in honest negotiations among all stakeholders.
However, the government was adamant saying the Constitution allows for amendment to postpone the election. Against all the opposition, it sent a draft resolution to the parliament. And as expected, the lawmakers ratified it to extend the power of the incumbent government indefinitely with an overwhelming majority.
Despite the decision by the parliament, Tigray regional government insisted on its plan to hold the elections in a month. It formed regional election commission which overseas the elections. A few days ago, the Election Commission announced that it started registering political parties and private candidates who want to run for office.
Tigray government’s insistence on conducting the elections become a headache for Abiy Ahmed. On the one hand, allowing TPLF to conduct the elections by defying a decision by the country’s parliament will make him appear a weak leader who cannot uphold the law. On the other hand, trying to stop them by using force will risk an all out war that may destabilize the whole region of the Horn of Africa.
There have been salvos of threats thrown against TPLF from government officials and some opposition parties particularly the National Movement of Amhara and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice. Some private media are also asking the government to put economic sanctions on Tigray if it goes ahead with the plan.
Abiy Ahmed himself used many of his public speeches to discourage TPLF from holding elections with an implicit threat to take actions. The House of Federation also wrote an official letter to the government of Tigray Region asking it to stop holding the elections or face “legal” consequences.
Tigray is now the first region in Ethiopia which is not ruled by a party that leads the federal government in the modern history of the country. This gave TPLF the chance to strengthen its power to challenge the central government. Sources indicate that it’s using many retired military officers who had experience in fighting both conventional and gorilla wars and former intelligence people to recruit and train militias and special police force comparable to Ethiopian military.
Now the question is: Will Abiy allow Tigray to hold elections and take the risk of appearing a weak leader, or will he use force to stop it but risk an all out war that he may not control how it ends?