Elections first!

“We Ethiopians need democracy and freedom, we deserve them too…We believe that building democracy is now an existential matter for us” — Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed, April 2, 2018.

Many Ethiopians are inspired that there is now the political will to build a democratic system for all citizens so that they can overcome past divisions between winners and losers.

Under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership, the majority of those who felt excluded from socio-economic, cultural, and political power and participation are now beginning to feel included and respected.

But Ethiopians need more representation, regardless of membership of a political party or ethnicity, by establishing a democracy that ensures the participation of political and civil communities that can move from our divided past to a shared future.

Building democracy is a means to this end. It offers non-violent resolution of controversial political issues such as multinational federalism through dialogue and compromise. This is vitally important for Ethiopia, which must find durable solutions for the reconstruction of the state and society.

Cognizant of this, Abiy promised to deepen the democratic system during his inaugural address to parliament in April, stating that building democracy is an existential matter for Ethiopia. Since then, the country has experienced tectonic changes, making progress in reforms to strengthen democratic institutions, liberalize the economy, and fight corruption.

Ethiopia now dreams of competitive national elections in 15 months’ time. However, it remains to be seen whether the reforms, combined with likely fierce competition between federalist and pan-Ethiopian forces, will create security and the basis for sound public policy.

Changing violence

Ethiopia’s transitions have always been violent. The change of 1916 was carried out by a palace coup, the transition of 1974 by a people’s revolution, and 1991 by the victory of guerrilla forces. Although there were hopes that 1991 would bring peace to the second largest nation in Africa, these hopes have been shattered.

The trajectory of the last five elections from 1995 to 2015 also confirms a rugged political path. Although the 1995 elections represent a crossroads after two decades of military dictatorship and civil war, in practice it was a “one-party affair”, according to political scientist and opposition veteran Merera Gudina. In the 2000 elections, even though the opposition won 13 of 547 seats in parliament, the process was as vicious as before. The lack of a level playing field remained the major problem.

The stakes are sky high

In the run-up to national polls in May 2005, for the first time the democratic space was significantly opened to create fair electoral competition. When the momentum moved toward the opposition, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi overreacted, using special forces to raid campuses, imprisoning opposition leaders and their supporters, arresting activists, shutting down media outlets, and killing over 200 demonstrators. Infamously, 2005 ended in acrimony and resurgent authoritarianism.

For the 2010 elections, the democratic space narrowed even more after the introduction of several draconian laws impacting the media, political parties and civil society. The stifling statutes restricted citizens’ ability to participate in the political process. Meles’ passing in August 2012—after he had led the country for more than 20 years—brought Hailemariam Desalegn to power. Yet the EPRDF’s 100 percent victory in 2015 showed nothing but the flaws in the system. The rise in anti-government protests and violence since 2015 underscore the public’s frustration over the lack of a political process to pursue change.

Tangible hope

Under the leadership of Abiy, Ethiopia is on the verge of a significant step forward by holding credible democratic elections in 2020. The stakes are sky high for all. Either Abiy will pass the test, earning himself a high place in history and making Ethiopia a member of the democratic family of nations, or the hopes of the Ethiopian people for a democratic transition will suffer a serious blow, bringing back authoritarianism, or leaving the scene for an unpredictable fall out.

The elections could lead to the first democratic transition in the modern history of the country, and this is the right time. Ethiopia needs peaceful and credible elections so that all parties, no matter who wins, accept the result. This will help restore national unity and allow Ethiopia to keep pace with its aspirations for development.

Oromia President Lemma Megersa with Ginbot 7 leader Berhanu Nega; Nov. 27, 2018; Office of PM

Failure to succeed could mean disaster. Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria, still suffers from famine and is so divided politically and ethnically that it may again fall into chaos. And unlike in the past, the country’s youth will not allow the holding of pseudo-elections.

For a divided country, free elections will be cathartic, and they will start the process of dissolving the quagmire of the EPRDF system. They will allow a popularly elected government to begin responding to the demands of the people, successively presenting various options.

However, the tragedy of this transition is that there are no dynamic opposition groups that look like they can bear the responsibility of the people’s aspirations and breathe life into the political system.

Postponing debate

Recently, debates have flared up among Ethiopians about whether to postpone the elections. The debates show that the next polls in Ethiopia will either herald a new democratic nation, lead to a political crisis that disrupts the transition, or, worse, result in state collapse.

Critics are also warning about the transition process. Since his red-carpet return, activist Jawar Mohammed, the lead organizer of popular protests that brought Abiy Ahmed to power, warns: “the preparation for the elections is very small. I am very concerned that the dialogue between the government and the opposition has stalled, and both sides have yet to begin negotiations on the road map for the transition.”

These concerns are valid. If time runs out and no plan is agreed between the government and the opposition, Ethiopia will face all sorts of social, economic and political calamities. Unfortunately, now they are leaving themselves little time, as Abiy signaled at the House of People’s Representatives on Feb. 1.

Ethiopia is not ready for elections

“Ethiopia no longer needs to conduct ritual elections to meet the periodic requirements of the constitution, since such elections can lead to disastrous consequences,” warns Bahar Oumer, a former law lecturer at Ambo University. The concern is valid as a badly held election may be worse than no elections, since the possibility of creating a shared future will be lost and is unlikely to reoccur soon.

Concern over the tight schedule is also raised by Bizuneh Getachew, a doctoral student at the University of Kent in the U.K., who argues that “Ethiopia is not ready for elections. We need time to do the basic work of building democratic institutions and building consensus among the main political forces before we go to the polls.” He reasons that hasty elections could be a recipe for violence, so it is necessary to take sufficient time to prepare so that the parties involved do not dispute the results.

However, commentators are concerned that postponement means the government will continue to rule and develop policies beyond the mandated period. Bahar says postponement could lead to a “constitutional crisis and legitimacy crisis” for the reform group headed by the Prime Minister, as “anti-reform” elements will eventually exploit the borrowed time to shape the transition to their advantage. Such a scenario could return the country to violence, even before it goes to the polls.

Defeat or delay

Those who oppose postponement also claim that it will send a message that Ethiopia is closed for business. This concern seems legitimate, since uncertainty may prompt investors to hold back. Those who propose a delay also say circumstances do not allow for free and fair elections, referencing the mass displacement from drought and communal conflict.

However, despite the validity of some of these arguments, postponement is largely defended by political forces that oppose multinational federalism, which has held Ethiopia together for almost three decades. The idea therefore seems to come from political groups under pressure.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with Arena leader Abraha Desta; Nov. 27, 2018; Office of PM

The prospect of the opposition winning the next elections is not as likely as during the 2005 elections. After the liberalization of the political sphere, it is no longer easy for the opposition to gather public support with mere criticism of government ills. Thus it must overcome its fragility by forming a viable coalition to provide alternative policy options, but this is not yet happening. In fact, before them there is a choice between possible defeat, if they remain fragile and continue to denigrate Ethiopia’s cultural communities, or an uncertain opportunity to break the deadlock that may arise if there’s a delay.

For now, it seems that some opposition are inclined towards swapping a possible defeat for unpredictable consequences of postponement. With a delay, these groups may buy themselves time, but it is risky. These forces must open their eyes to see what Samuel Huntington noticed in 1993 during his one-week visit to Ethiopia: the complement of the inevitable and undesirable in the current structure,. Just as the revered political scientist weighed up the inevitability yet divisiveness of ethnic parties, the opposition must decide between which is the lesser evil: risking defeat or the risks of delay.

Federal reservations

The timing of the election is not the only fraught debating point. “The problem with federalism in Ethiopia is not in its ethnic character, but in its practice. As a result of the hegemonic interests of the TPLF, it was devoid of democracy,” said Merera Gudina early this month at a conference of political parties.

As part of the ongoing political reform, everything seems open to negotiation, but that should not go for the federal structure itself, at least for the next two decades. The democratic transition the country is striving for must also continue to protect the political representation of the cultural communities.

Those who choose to postpone elections in anticipation of saving their political ambitions risk pushing the country into the precipice. These future calamities cannot be avoided until these groups have the courage to allow a bitter pill to pass down their throats: accepting current federal arrangements.

Outlawing policies that consider ethnic representation in the government is undesirable and unlikely to succeed over the next decades until a solid foundation is established for an inclusive political community.

Democratization of the federation is needed

Obviously, that community does not mean erasing or ignoring differences between people. Instead, it means that all people, groups and communities, despite their differences, should participate in rebuilding the state and society. Creating such an inclusive community is the cornerstone of a peaceful future.

This, however, depends on societal relations, and attitudes to the authorities, as well as on whether people can reinvest their trust in the state. Holding credible elections are therefore the means by which individuals express their free will as to how national political agendas should be managed, and so regain trust in the system.

Similarly, the inability to build such an inclusive process could eventually spark renewed violence. One of the disputes over previous settlements was the creation of a political community based on conquests and dispossession that only corresponded to the imagination of the incumbents. It is time for Ethiopian society to move from a divided past to a shared future, which needs to be shaped by consent.

Abiy’s government is trying to introduce this new tradition, laying the foundation today so that yesterday’s conquerors can see the light and be reborn as political equals. What is needed now is the democratization of the federation, which is the only way forward to ensure that the building blocks that hold the country together do not collapse. This can only be achieved through civic discourse and compromise between all concerned parties.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: Abiy Ahmed with, on his left, National Electoral Board of Ethiopia chairperson Birtukan Mideksa and Supreme Court President Meaza Ashenafi; Nov. 22, 2018; Office of Prime Minister

This is the author’s Viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

Related Insight

Feb. 12, Ethiopia uncorked

Jan. 9, TPLF hegemony has ended, but EPRDF power struggle is just beginning

Dec. 16, Violent Qemant dispute fueling explosive Amhara-Tigray divide

Nov. 28, As Southern Nations break free, pressure mounts on EPRDF

Oct. 21, Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty

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About the author

Mebratu Kelecha

Mebratu is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @MebratuDugda


  • Nice piece. Thank you, Mebratu.
    For the reasons the author adumbrated, postponement of the next general election in Ethiopia is a catch-22 situation. It is damn you do it, damn you don’t. To make matters worse, all stake holders in general and political parties in particular don’t seem to understand the speed of the ticking clock for the next election. It is worrisome to see the innumerably many political parties not communicating among themselves and not trying to address their constituents in preparation for the election should it happen next year.

    The political parties’ leaders get together like a pack of wild dogs when they think there is some political or financial benefit. For instance, recently, the prime minister called them for a dialog and the meeting looked feeding time in a zoo.
    The majority of the political leaders are annoyingly stubborn and have been holding chairmanship of their political parties for over two decades. These hypocrites blame the EPRDF leaders for holding official positions for so many years while they themselves have been doing the same thing within their own party. Given the circumstances, there is no doubt that these rats would have done what Meles Zenawi did had they had the opportunity to hold power.

    I would like to state my disclaimer first. I hate discrimination based on age, race, color, sexual orientation or what not. My comments specifically focus on those aged (bald and gray-haired) individuals who have been actively involved in Ethiopian politics for the last 40 years AND are still actively muddying the waters in the Ethiopian politics. These are politicians who sucked socialism like a sponge in their twenties and became intoxicated with it. They lost their political navigation aid in the middle of the political ocean when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. As a result, they got lost and they don’t know where they are heading to this day. Their typical identities are know-all, all or nothing, blatant arrogance and enormous hanger for power. Anyone with half a brain knows nearly all of them since they swarmed the Ethiopian Politics for the last two decades.

    As long as these sexagenarian and septuagenarian selfish politicians remain in the leadership position of their corresponding political parties, the postponement of the next election will not change anything. The current political quagmire will stay the way it is. Part of the reason we have these many political parties is because these old brats don’t get along with each other and because they enjoy to be called leaders of such and such political party.

    EPRDF is a monster and no one doubts this. However, the opposition groups also share the blame because of their failure to work together. If the opposition groups want to prevail in the next election, they must clean their houses first. The house cleaning starts by removing the old ex-socialists from all leadership positions and replacing them with young politicians. This mechanism has been proven to be effective when OPDO and ANDM replaced their leaderships with leaders in their thirties and forties. The current change primarily happened because of the young leaders in then OPDO and ANDM. The opposition should learn this lesson and implement it. Once the political parties get new and young leaders, they can work with their counter parts in the EPRDF to make the decision as to whether to postpone the next election. Until after the opposition groups get new leadership free of the current old ex-socialist leaders, whether the next election is postponed or not, the EPRDF or it constituent parties shall continue governing the country since they have and continue to have a well-organized political structure in all woredas of the country. Then, all the risks the author listed shall stay the way they are regardless of when the election happens. Worrisome!

  • All parties in Ethiopia are underpinned by ethnic identity. John Markakis, an authority on Ethiopian political history, once wrote that ethnic identity relation lies behind every core policy in Ethiopia. The rightist parties labelling themselves Ethiopianist clearly are underpinned by Amhara values (assimilation project fans).

    I think it is time for the parties to regroup themselves. The unionist parties have already started. Their ambition is to divide the country so that Amharic remains the only working language at all levels. The identity based federalist parties also need to regroup. The federlist paries want to see the current identity based federalism to be reconfigured and remain effective.

    The parties should have strong positions and communicate the same to the public on the following questions: i) what kind of administration and how identity groups can use their language in administration and schools, ii) how do they resolve territorial and boundary disputes (Walkait, Raya. Finfine, and boundaries several places), iii) Clash of history (a hero for some is a criminal for others, flags, etc. you cannot ignore history as you have to teach your children). Menelik is a hero for Amharas but a criminal for Oromos, Somalis, Wolaitas, Sidamas and Tigrayans. Where is the middle ground? Are Amharas ready to listen crimes he committed? Are others ready to accept him as nation builder?

    • All languages should be made official languages in their respective regions just like in South Africa. The feds should keep only English as their official language.
      There is a broad nationwide sentiment against Amharic legally forced upon the linguistically and culturally diverse distinct groups of Ethiopia. It should scrapped. It came into legal status by whimsical pen, it should die by it.

      • Ahmedeen, it looks that you are under the influence of a hallucinating substance. Do you realize the actual implication of your comment? Trying to replace Amharic with English as an official language in Ethiopia is insanity. The African Union is in the process of making Amharic an official language and you should have known this unless you are living in your own secluded world.

        Just for your enlightenment, Amharic is the only developed African Language with its own alphabets. As such, Amharic is the pride of Africa much less Ethiopia. For this reason alone it deserves a lot more promotion for its expansion in Africa let alone dethroning it from its official language status in Ethiopia. Mr. Saeed, if this makes you feel unhappy, too bad. Get used to it in time and live with it because Amharic is going to expand even more in the coming decades in your watch.

        • It can’t be true. It rejected the request by some grandeur-seeking group some years ago. Again this statement! How many of you petitioned AU to allow this?

        • Woredewold Ferede, I have no problem Amharic being African Union official language but where did you get “Amharic is the only developed African Language with its own alphabets”? The alphabet that Amharic use is from Geez/Tigrigna, so please have some respect to the owners. If African Union is in the process of making Amharic an official language then I am fine with that, as an Ethiopian its a pride, however to say “Amharic is the only developed African Language with its own alphabets” is just stupidity. Get your facts straight, you can’t steal other society civilization and claim as if you are the the owner of it. Just because Amharic has been using the Geez/Tigrigna alphabet for long time it doesn’t mean they are the owners, this kind of distorted narrative is one of the fundamental problems in Ethiopia.
          Have some respect to the owners but you are welcome to promote it. Just my two cents.


          • There is no research probing the age of Tigrinya(I guess to claim its very, very old and ageless) but we know the age of Amharic. Born in the 10th century at Axumite garrison of Amara Sayint in Wello. That is why Welloyes, people from Wello, say they are the ‘true’ Amaras. It evolved as was a creole. Axumites developed and spoke in Geez later, not in Tigrinya nore Tigre.

            Don’t put Tigrinya at par with Geez? They are not equal. Tigrinya is a product of Geez. The Tigre in Eritrea spoken around Keren is closest to Geez than Tigrinya. In fact Guraginya has more Geez root words than Amharic or Tigrinya, both having been diluted by Kushitic and Omotic words of groups they have assimilated such as the Agew.

  • Existing regions do not follow linguistic national states nor are they the description of self-determination of nations. These regions, though named Amara, Oromo Tigray, SNNPR, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, etc, they are however multi-ethnic states. The ethnic groups forcibly positioned in these regional multiethnic states want to establish their own autonomous state by the principle of self-determination enshrined in the present constitution. The main purpose of self-determination is not land, which is the corner stone for violence along the borders with Oromo and other tribes. The central purpose of self-determination is Freedom. Independence of the linguistic and cultural community to govern itself. To use and develop its language. To write and re-write its history so far buried by domination. To develop and enjoy its culture in performing arts , food and crafts. Identity politics is now universal. No idea who invented it. Perhaps the Roman provinces who rebelled for independence when they Rome began declining. Its everywhere in Europe and North America. Long oppressed native Americans are rewriting their history and writing and teaching their languages to their children. The Welsh in UK are allowed to use their language in school. The UN supports against linguistic and cultural genocide.
    While continuing to legalize the linguistic and cultural rights of ethnic groups, haphazardly established existong multiethnic states that do not fit the true description of lingo-cultural states, bearing the name of Amara, Oromo, Tigray SNNPR, which actually hold diverse lingo-cultural groups, should be dissolved as the former provinces of Haile Sellasie and Mengisu were scrapped very easily.

  • Well, the main problem with the upcoming elections, is that almost every party running for power is ethnic based. This means that most people will be voting for parties based on their ethnicity, not on their policies.

    There is not much difference between that and EPRDF. For the elections to work, there need to be multiple coalition parties formed with people from across all ethnic groups. Otherwise it is a recipe for disaster.

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