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21 June 2021updated 25 Aug 2021 11:46am

Ethiopia’s troubled election won’t restore Abiy Ahmed’s reputation

The prime minister's lustre has disappeared under the shadow of a war in the northern region of Tigray.

By Ido Vock

Ethiopia held a general election on Monday 21 June, amid a brutal war in the northern region of Tigray and accusations of a government crackdown against the opposition. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has claimed that the vote was Ethiopia’s “first attempt at free and fair elections” in the east African country’s history. 

The vote was the first time Abiy faces voters since he came to power in 2018 at a time of anti-government protests. He took office promising reforms and liberalisation, and freed tens of thousands of political prisoners, legalised opposition parties and opened the largely state-owned economy up to foreign investors early in his term, winning the admiration of the international community. Most significantly, he ended the 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. 

Even as he undertook reforms in what was long one of Africa’s most authoritarian states, violence between Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups occasionally bubbled up, resulting in up to two million people fleeing their homes. After a spate of assassinations of prominent politicians, Abiy reverted to the authoritarian measures of previous governments, including shutting down the internet and detaining people suspected of being linked to the killings.   

Yet it was Abiy’s decision to disband his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which had ruled Ethiopia for close to three decades, to form the Prosperity Party, that would damn his leadership and reputation abroad. The ruling party in Tigray, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had long dominated the EPRDF. Believing that its influence in the Prosperity Party would be reduced, it refused to join the new alliance, a stand-off which eventually resulted in Abiy’s federal government waging war on the TPLF in November 2020.

The war in Tigray has resulted in accusations of human rights abuses, such as a massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in the town of Axum, allegedly by Eritrean troops allied to Ethiopian forces. Some sources inside the region have claimed rape is being used as a weapon of war. Tigrayan forces are also accused of atrocities. Thousands have died, though precise statistics are unavailable.  

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Information coming out of the region is scarce as the Ethiopian government has largely banned access by journalists and persecuted some of the few who do get in. Amnesty International has also claimed humanitarian workers are prevented from entering the region, despite millions being in need of urgent aid. Aid agencies fear that hundreds of thousands are at risk of famine. 

The vote will not be held in Tigray, nor in some other regions of the country, due to insecurity and other problems, reducing the credibility of the process, William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, told me. “It seems to be around a fifth of constituencies where there’ll be no election on 21 June.” Most importantly, the war in Tigray, and a growing armed insurgency Oromia, has already demonstrated that ultimately Abiy has failed to prevent violence being used to try and resolve political problems, he added. 

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When he came to power, Abiy was feted by the international community as an ambitious reformer. That lustre has disappeared under the shadow of the war in Tigray. It is unlikely to return.