On 24 May, Ethiopia went to the polls – a fact that might have escaped your attention. Hardly surprising since there was next to no coverage in the British press. Even the BBC no longer has a correspondent in Addis Ababa.
But perhaps there is another reason why the election in what is one of Africa’s most important countries received so little attention: it was a foregone conclusion.
The last time Ethiopians were given the opportunity to vote, the ruling party and its allies won hands down. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its affiliated parties took 545 of 547 seats. The opposition was reduced to just two MPs.
There was, apparently, some concern among those close to Prime Minister Meles that an election could be quite so blatantly rigged. The US State Department reported that the few international election observers allowed to monitor the process had concluded: “An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place prior to election day.”
This was clearly unsatisfactory. Something had to change. And change it did. For the 2015 election there were precisely no international observers. The EU said its previous recommendations had been ignored, so there was little point in repeating the process.
The African Union did send observers but its preliminary report will give the Ethiopian government few sleepless nights. The 2015 election, it concluded, was: “calm, peaceful, and credible as it provided an opportunity for the Ethiopian people to express their choices at the polls.”
The result was certainly an improvement. While Prime Minister Meles was only able to win 99 per cent of the seats, his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, has gone one better. Of the 442 results announced so far the ruling party has a 100 per cent success rate.
There is no official explanation of why the remaining 105 seats have not been announced more than three weeks after the election. A final tally is expected on 22 June.
The opposition Blue Party described the outcome as a “disgrace”. Its spokesman, Yonatan Tesfaye, said the election could not be considered free and fair, since 200 party candidates were denied the right to stand and 52 members had been arrested in the run up to the polls.
Growth under a steely hand
If Ethiopia was yet another African dictatorship staggering from one economic crisis to another there would be little more to say about it. But Ethiopia is different.
In the last decade the country has registered truly stellar growth. The World Bank reports that, in the decade leading up to 2012/13, it registered an annual GDP increase of 10.8 per cent, compared to a regional average of 5.3 per cent.
On a host of other measures Ethiopia is doing extremely well. School enrolment has reached 87 per cent. Life expectancy has increased to 64 years, well above the African average. Where nearly half the population lived in poverty 20 years ago, that figure has now fallen to 29.6 per cent.
These are striking statistics.
They have been achieved through a two-pronged strategy: to back major infrastructure projects and to allow unfettered access to international investors.
The infrastructure schemes have seen the building of giant dams – including the $4.8bn Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which will provide hydro-electricity for Ethiopia and the wider region. A Chinese-backed railway upgrading the critical link to the sea in Djibouti is expected to be completed in October.
The capital, Addis Ababa, has been transformed from a sleepy backwater into a high-rise metropolis, complete with its own metro – again courtesy of the Chinese. Completed earlier this year, its 32km will link 39 stations: a vital addition to the city’s transport network.
Investors are pouring in, with a Chinese firm planning a $400m shoe-manufacturing park. Bob Geldof, who raised millions for Ethiopians during the 1984-85 famine, is now an investor in the country, through the company he chairs called 8 Miles.
“They don’t have to die in vast numbers before we pay attention,” Geldof told the Wall Street Journal.
As Bloomberg’s catchy headline put it: “Ethiopia’s hot, Nigeria’s not, for investors eyeing Africa.”
Economic success is not in sufficient profusion in Africa for Western governments to turn their noses up at the Ethiopian achievement. But there is another reason why criticism of the 2015 election has been so muted: Ethiopia is a key regional ally.
With Ethiopian troops in Somalia confronting al-Shabaab, Prime Minister Hailemariam’s ministers are guaranteed a warm reception in Washington, London or Paris. American drones fly from an Ethiopian base. Whether it is fighting militant Islam or reducing the exodus of migrants from the Horn of Africa, Addis Ababa is too important a place to sideline over a small matter like democracy.
So while the EU statement on the 2015 election pointed out its flaws, it goes on to say that Europe: “looks forward to continuing and deepening that partnership with the new government and the people of Ethiopia in a spirit of honesty and cooperation”.
No cuts in Ethiopia’s $4bn annual aid budget are likely to take place following the election, no matter how blatantly it was rigged or how brutally the opposition is treated. From Beijing to Washington, politicians have other priorities when it comes to Addis Ababa and its rulers.