The pandemic appears to be closing a political space that had only just started opening

The shared COVID-19 crisis has united the world in many ways, not least in terms of restrictions on human and democratic rights, in authoritarian and democratic countries alike.

Faced by the threat posed by the pandemic, and to enhance the fight against what U.S. President Donald Trump calls the “Invisible Enemy,”, many countries have taken strict measures to “flatten the curve”.  They have closed borders, declared states of emergency, put citizens on lockdown, and promulgated regulations on social distancing.

Police, military and law enforcement personnel have been given extraordinary powers in China, Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Spain, and many other places. Religious services, sports, festivals, theaters and public gatherings have been banned, harming social relations, and contributing to major economic problems.

In Africa, although the tide of the pandemic is slow, and the impact hasn’t yet been severel, the predominance of informal economies, intimate communal ties, and relatively weak state institutions, have meant even relatively minor restrictions have had a major effect. Exacerbating the challenge in Africa is the level of authoritarianism already present in many countries which are using the COVID-19 phenomenon to open doors for corruption, embolden governments in suppressing dissident voices, and worsening already deteriorating human rights conditions.

The pandemic undoubtedly poses practical and technical challenges to countries with upcoming elections, but it has also offered incumbent regimes in democratic transition leverage to maneuver existing laws or create new laws for their own advantage. Ethiopia is one such country. It was heading towards a critical transitional general election in August. Now, the election has been postponed it; and critics fear it may descend into political turmoil, as the government exploits the pandemic to subvert human rights. 

Creeping transition

When Abiy Ahmed took power as Prime Minister on 2 April 2018, he promised fundamental reforms, vowing to widen the political space, release political prisoners, ensure freedom of expression, and to fight relentlessly against corruption in his apparent quest to provide the country with a prosperous economy and a real democratic system. His initiatives in ending the two decades’ long stalemate with Eritrea, fostering regional cooperation, and opening up of democratic space at home brought him international recognition, climaxing with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize

All this, however, as critical observers of Ethiopian politics and detractors of the Prime Minister noted, ignored the country’s internal crises. Inter-ethnic conflicts led to over three million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); there was a military crackdown on opposition parties; the political space narrowed; and there have been increased restrictions on media freedom. Indeed, critics have argued that the country is on the brink of collapse

In Oromia region, ostensibly the Prime Minister’s own constituency, some fifteen million people in seven zones have been under the control of a military-controlled command post since February 2019. These zones were even deprived of essential services, including telecommunications, until March 2020. International pressure led to restrictions being lifted, but people had no means of getting information during the early stages of COVID-19. 

In contrast to Abiy’s rhetoric about ending conflict, poverty, repression and displacement, critics argue the crises began almost immediately after he took office.

There have been continuous tensions between regional states over the last two years, with Amhara and Tigray at times seemingly almost at the brink of war. The government itself launched a protracted war in western and southern Oromia against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and imposed restrictions that severely affected civilian life and livelihoods in those regions; over 30 percent of Oromia has been under the authority of the command post. Elsewhere, increased clandestine arms trade and movement of firearms across  porous borders has meant security threats have become major concerns to ordinary citizens.

With increasingly polarized and antagonistic inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationships, even minor disputes have the potential to trigger significant violence. Individuals are armed as never before. One result has been decreased federal authority, even the emergence of quasi-independent states. For instance, it is becoming clear that Tigray is almost out of the control of the federal government, and Amhara may eventually follow in its footsteps. The government of the Southern Nations, facing demands for statehood from a dozen or so different ethnic groups, has also lost control.

Most importantly, perhaps, for advocates of a multinational federal system, Abiy’s new party, the Prosperity Party (PP), is posing an additional threat to the current arrangements.

In November 2019, Abiy dissolved the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party ethnic coalition. He rebranded it Prosperity Party, a party without any link to ethnic markers, either in membership or in representation. Given the nearly three decades of political emphasis on ethno-linguistic identities with political, cultural and economic leverage tied to nations and nationalities, the move was widely seen as a u-turn towards the unitary system that many had fought against for over a century and half. According to some critics, PP is covertly promoting the dissolution of ethno-linguistic federal arrangements. 

In pursuit of this, and weakening  the increasingly fragile political system, Abiy’s government has continued to constrain opposition parties. At the same time, the parties, media activists and civil society organizations (CSOs) have hardly been playing a visible part in any transition or reform. Indeed, they have polarized inter-group relations and dichotomies, sparking animosities and tensions between rival groups, raising contentious historical narratives, symbols and political issues, rather than working on values of tolerance and coexistence. 

CSOs, although hardly to be blamed for triggering conflicts, have played an insignificant role in peace building. Despite the threat of COVID-19, the government, opposition parties, activists and the media could have worked together, at least on that common agenda, saving the lives of citizens, and ensuring stability, by sidelining their political differences. They did not. 

It is against the background of these troubling conditions that the election was scheduled. However, the National Electoral Board postponed August elections due to the pandemic. As the current parliament’s term ends in early October, the postponement has raised many constitutional and legitimacy questions about the incumbent leadership, and about how the federal government could or should handle both the pandemic and election.

Emergency state

Ethiopia’s current State of Emergency (SOE), its third since 2016, was declared on 10 April, shortly after the postponement.  Authorized to last five months and to enhance the fight against COVID-19. it has major political and economic consequences, placng restrictions on public gatherings, movement of people, transportation, and dissemination of information. It also has adverse effects on the already troubled transition. Opposition candidates are unable to meet supporters due to restrictions on assembly, while, using the existing bureaucracy and party channels, PP is still able to mobilize. This will offer the incumbent a major advantage in the run-up to the election, whenever it is held. 

Most importantly, an SOE also creates opportunities for the incumbent to suppress dissent. Many agree with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ warning: “…the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic.” The Secretary-General further noted that “authoritarians are weaponizing the pandemic to subvert human rights” by designing repressive rules in favor of their ideological foci.  In Ethiopia, alongside opposition complaints, human rights organizations have raised concerns over unwarranted civilian arrests in most parts of Oromia. 

It is clear, in fact, that the restrictions being imposed in the name of fighting COVID-19 can obstruct Ethiopia’s transition to democracy and lead to an unprecedented state crisis:

  • They give the incumbent regime leverage to weaponize the pandemic phenomenon and subvert human and democratic rights,
  • The restrictions already imposed limit opposition parties’ access to their constituents and the ability to mobilize resources or educate voters,
  • The effects of the restrictions imposed by the State of Emergency, couple with pre-election political problems and concerns and polarized inter-group relations, threaten to violence unless cautiously handled. 

The pandemic has become another litmus test for Prime Minister Abiy, who was already  grappling with the challenges of what has been a rough and sloppy transition since 2018, much of it of his own making. That said, some of the problems are deeply entrenched in a century-long inter-ethnic group divisions, a polarized political culture, and the imbalanced economy that the Prime Minister inherited from his predecessors.

But the new ruling party’s leanings towards unitarist sentiments is cutting him off from the Oromo and other groups with strong adherence to multinational federalism; and the lack of any clear transition roadmap over the last two years has created uncertainties about the democratization that most would like to see. The result is serious questions about the legitimacy of the government and its leadership.

In sum, the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, the restrictions imposed by the government through the SOE, and the tensions over the postponement of the election, threaten to push the country into political turmoil.

To mitigate this, the government must use the restrictions to fight the pandemic, and only the pandemic. Meanwhile, all stakeholders, including opposition parties, citizens, activists, and journalists, must make a concerted effort to prioritize public safety and the stability of the country ahead of their own agendas.

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Editor: Patrick Gilkes, William Davison

Main photo: Elite soldiers in the streets of Addis Ababa during unrest in September 2018

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About the author

Asebe Regassa

Asebe (PhD.) is an Associate Professor of Development Studies at Dilla University. His research interests include peace building and indigenous peoples’ rights. Contact him at asebe2011@gmail.com

11 Comments

  • Ethnic federialism is a foundation that will bear no fruit. How on earth can all 80 tribes and language groups get their own kilil? And how earth you are going to have 4 working federial languages? The world is getting smaller and here we are creating a narrow minded society. You can preserve cultures without the boundaries. What positive and what negative has this experimentation given us the past 30 years other than hatred and more hatred? The country could use all these wasted energy to build its wealth

  • Unfortunately or I may say for the learned mind, fortunately, It is this kind of misleading and misguided ethno centered argument which the whud Ethiopians (multiple or more identities) are not included or the issues is not addressed. Shame on you to hide behind your poisonous rhetoric or argument which you are entitled and I hope you and the likes of you can read more world history, including how nations are created and built. History teaches us that people get together for a common cause. Did you witness how many people come out for a demonstration in the US due to the current situation? I suppose your engrained mindset will not see beyond your neighborhood/ethnicity. I know someone is laughing in his grave that he succeeded in brainwashing you and your likes, even though you claim that you attended higher education it is a Shame!

  • Please Asebe (PhD.) is an Associate Professor I know you when I was a student at Dilla…and If the power invested by “Abiy” (your saying..without Dr…is this by intention or you forget not to say Dr) was applied to the people we also have institutions like sparking animosities (as you said) to cry for the people stating Dr Abiy did this and that and you argued that “In Ethiopia, alongside opposition complaints, human rights organizations have raised concerns over unwarranted civilian arrests in most parts of Oromia. ” could you ask before stating this “why? to whom? when” it is by intention you raised this idea since you are the supporter of OLF and Shene… shame on You. I didn’t expect this type of article from a person like you.

  • A very interesting timely issue.

    Dr Abiy is running without giving an attention to what the majority demands (true Federalism). I also think that this is not a political transformation, but to increase an independent sovereign states in the horn Africa after Eritrea, S/Sudan,…

  • Interesting read and even more interesting insight to your political thinking. But there are several — oft times confusing — gaps. Two of the biggest are where you stated “He rebranded it Prosperity Party, a party without any link to ethnic markers, either in membership or in representation” and “But the new ruling party’s leanings towards unitarist sentiments is cutting him off from the Oromo and other groups with strong adherence to multinational federalism”. While I’m not a supporter of the PP, the fact that you states it as a party without any link to ethnic markers either in membership or in representation is categorically False. Be it bylaws, parliament, executive office or policy the PP has worked towards the unity of the country, harmonizing ethnic relations, reinvigorating the federal arrangement and the constituting regions, bringing the previously excluded parties, by extension the citizens they represent, into the fold so they can equally participate in the issues of their regions as well as their country and implementing a policy that mandated in adding 4 more languages to the already existing federal working language. Just because it’s not screaming “my ethnicity is oppressed and needs to be liberated” from the top of its voice or calling itself a liberation movement that usurps people’s genuine question for freedom from oppression and equality into a confused Marxist-lennist dogma or an even dumber aspirations for secession doesn’t mean the PP is against ethnic representation/participation.
    As for the “leanings towards unitarist sentiments” that’s cutting it off from “groups with strong adherence to multinational federalism” part, let’s get one thing straight, during the reign of EPRDF ethiopia was not a federal state, either multinational or ethnically. It was a dangerous mix of ethnic antigonization and resentment being the driving ideology for everything (political, economical, educational, employment, social, etc), a party systematically cleaving the country according to ethnics to divide and rule, corrupting the people (socially, economically and politically) in order to build up its sociopolitical base, instilling its — oft times contradictory — ideology of revolutionary democracy by force, robbing the country blind, and committing numerous unspeakable atrocities against humans rights guaranteed by the constitution to stay in power. It was a federal state only on paper, in reality it was a party-state that corrupted and destroyed the country as well as its ethnics. I believe you’re confusing unity with unitary (highly unexpected and extremely disturbing coming from an associate professor of development studies). If all the current poltical parties are to be measured by what they have written down as as their manifestos and by their bylaws, I would argue that only the PP can be considered as ardent supporter of multinational federalism. All the rest are either paying lip service/bullshiting or confused as you are.
    I’ll leave the rest as is and concede to agree to what you have stated as mitigation solutions and I would add that even more emphasis to those regards should be made on the other competing poltical parties. With almost all of them, especially the ones that are organized according to ethnicity, politics is a zero sum game that has to be won at all costs. Most don’t even have a well defined ideology or plan that can clearly state their objectives and how they’ll go about obtaining them, they just want to shout and scream about opperession. Some on the other hand are enslaved to their previous members and their dogmatic ideologies. And some seem more like they want to see/participate in buring the country down instead of participating constructively.

    • The Derg collapsed, and thus it became the duty of TPLF/EPRDF to revive the state and hold the nation together. Being Ethiopian is a political identity. Being Oromo, Tigre, Somali, etc. is a natural, sociological identity. This idea of identity became a new phenomenon in Ethiopian politics. It is irrational to resent this being-ness, this identity awareness. The federal system in place was a pragmatic idea to provide a balance between the political and the sociological awareness, with Ethiopia as a shared national identity. Accusations of atrocities (aka 27 years of darkness), and robbing the country blind (aka daytime hyenas) has all the fervor of tribal animosity and political resentment.

      • First off it amazes me how you redefined what was written with akas…it would have been funny if it didn’t have such toxic connotations…perhaps I might get lucky and do the same on this reply.
        2nd it’s not accusations, it’s what has been done. Just because you deny it by calling it 27 years of darkness (aka playing the victim) doesn’t make them false or accusations.
        3rd they did rob the country blind, I won’t even brother with posting links to credible reports because it’s such an easy thing to prove and if you actually wanted to you can actually do a simple google search (aka being a responsible citizen instead of an internet troll). You can even find videos of the same political people that you’re trying to defend admitting atrocities have been committed, mal-administrastion of the nation and rampant corruption running wild before they were pushed out (just b/c they’re denying it now doesn’t mean it didn’t happen)
        4th it has always been the strategy and methodology of TPLF, and other ethnic liberation fronts for that matter, to paint every criticism, every opposition, everything they don’t like as fervor of tribal animosity and political resentment (aka as Meles used to say narrow ethnic-nationalism, if he could see his party now)…its a strategy as old as the party itself…so I call bullshit, it’s just a way of deflection.
        And lastly, the Crème de la crème of your argument, Ethiopia is a political identity and ethnicity is a natural, sociological identity…while I’ll admit that I’m not Francis Fukuyama thus don’t have the the knowledge or the authority to speak about political/social identities and how they form, I find it surprising whenever I find people that say what you said and then complain about children from ethnics born & raised in Addis “losing” this so called natural identity…I thought it was natural how can you lose what you gained by nature? And if it is so natural why have multicultural and multinational countries (Singapore, Argentina etc) say they have multiple identities primary of which is the country? Why has a claim been made of forging a new “southern” identity by the former SEPDM by merging the ethnics found in that region? If it’s so natural why have the raya (a tribe from the Barentu branch of Oromo) whilst keeping the life style, dress code, tradition and behavior of Barentu Oromo don’t speak the language and identify themselves as tigre or amhara? Why does an ethnic amhara born and raised in the south identify himself/herself as Wolayita, Gamo, Gofa etc instead of his/hers “natural” identity of amhara? It seems more like a politicization of ethnicity and raising it specter to that of “nation” in accordance with Marxism and Stalin’s, by extension the USSR’s, definition & implementation of that politicized ethnicism rather than something the occurs naturally. But then again if constructively debating poltical understandings and theories was the way we conducted our business, there would have been a need for the article above.
        I chose the above not b/c the rest of your arguments were accurate but b/c these were the ones I considered to be in dire need of a response. Your argument stating The federal system in place was a pragmatic idea to provide a balance between the political and the sociological awareness is highly debatable with a 3rd of the ethiopian population stating it was forced upon (unless they’re argument is disqualified by labeling it fervor of tribal animosity and political resentment)

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