Horn of Africa instability stifles region’s electoral democracy

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Ethiopia’s June 5 elections were expected to be momentous.

Momentous because they were due at a time when the country is experiencing three conflicts that threaten internal and regional peace and stability.

The Tigray region is a battleground between the federal forces backed by Eritrean soldiers on one side and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on the other.

In April, the International Crisis Group said the war in the northern Tigray region risked dragging on for months and even years, with both sides eyeing a military “knockout blow”, which it said appeared unrealistic.

As a result, between 4.5 million and five million people are in need of humanitarian aid, according to WHO director general Tedros Adhanom, an Ethiopian. On Monday, he described the situation as “very horrific”.

It should be recalled the Tigray war was triggered by the postponement of the August 2020 elections by the federal government. TPLF, however, went on and held elections in September, saying Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was illegally extending his term.

Two months later, in November, TPLF soldiers were accused of attacking a federal forces camp in the north and the Tigray conflict broke out.

Still, Ethiopia is engaged in a border row with Sudan. The dispute is over al-Fashaqa in Sudan and Amhara in Ethiopia that both sides claim.  

The historic conflict often results in clashes between Ethiopian farmers and Sudanese animal keepers. Now, the military from either side has been involved, and casualties reported.

The third is the Grand Renaissance Dam involving Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. While Ethiopia says the project is key to its economic development and power generation, Egypt fears it will reduce its supplies of the Nile water, while Sudan is concerned about its safety and water flows through its dams and water stations.

Against this background, there were concerns over the quality of elections in Ethiopia, despite it being the country’s first genuinely competitive multiparty elections.

It was thus not a surprise when on Saturday, the country’s electoral agency postponed the elections but said it did not foresee a delay of more than three weeks.

National Electoral Board of Ethiopia chairperson Birtukan Mideksa cited delays in opening polling stations and voter registration.

Already, Ethiopia’s elections are late by nine months since August. While the electoral agency says the delay won’t be long, the situation on the ground is precarious. Despite efforts to reform NEBE. The EU has since withdrawn its observer mission, which Abiy said is “not essential or necessary”.

A journalist based in Addis Ababa told the Star that the electoral agency is “independent nowadays and I don’t have a reason to doubt their reason”.

He, however, said tension is all over the country, and “ethnic and political tensions are the problems these days”.

Somalia was set to hold elections on February 8, and when the stakeholders – the federal government, the opposition and the states of Jubaland and Puntland – couldn’t agree on the electoral model, the Lower House pushed the election by two years. This effectively extended President Mohamed Farmajo’s term by the same period.

That move almost triggered another war, with security agencies, including the military, taking sides and positions in Mogadishu. Farmaajo backed down.

Djibouti President Ishmail Guelleh, 73, was on May 15 sworn in for his fifth term, having won the April 9 elections by 97 per cent of the vote.

USN and Radde parties boycotted the elections.

Term limits were lifted in 2010, prior to Guelleh’s third term, even though he had said in 2005 he would only serve two terms as stipulated by the constitution.

There is less pressure on President Guelleh as he is an ally of global powers, among them the US and France,  given their interests in the country and its strategic location near the Bab al Mandeb.

Eritrea remains a one-party authoritarian state and has yet to hold national elections since independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

The only existing party is the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice headed by President Isaias Afwerki.

Security is closely tied to issues of legitimacy and electoral integrity, as the Africa Center for Strategic Studies notes in its January 2021 report.

The increasingly unstable security situation in Ethiopia and Somalia were among key highlights in the Politics and Governance of Horn of Africa report published by the Institute of International and European Affairs.

“In the context of the pandemic, the decision on whether to proceed with elections must navigate a complex web of political, legal, human rights and public health concern,”  Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, Special Representative of the UN secretary general for the Horn of Africa, said in the report.

Onanga-Anyanga pointed at the pervasiveness of identity and exclusive politics in the Horn of Africa.

“As a result of the emotional potency of these longstanding and deep-rooted divisions, identity politics creates political fragmentation and poses a formidable challenge to consensus-building, change, and social cohesion,” the report noted.

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