Next year’s national elections will be the first since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018. Abiy’s reforms are hopeful steps forward for Ethiopia. Despite this initial burst, however, there are reasons for grave doubt about the prospects for a free and fair election in 2020.
Most significantly, Ethiopia has not had a truly competitive election since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power. 2005 came close but was spoiled by the violent aftermath, as key parts of the opposition rejected the result and the government cracked down and closed up. Although I believe Prime Minister Abiy is sincere in his desire to transform Ethiopia, he is contending with a deeply entrenched one-party system, of which he is both a product and a potential beneficiary.
The ruling party has held regular elections over the past 28 years, but those exercises have never been fully free or fair. Through well-documented and carefully calibrated mechanisms of manipulation and repression, the EPRDF controlled all but one of 547 parliamentary seats in the 2010 election and went one better in 2015. Prime Minister Abiy has repeatedly promised to ensure fair and credible elections in 2020. Sadly, however, that is a promise that he probably cannot keep.
Controlled by ruling party cadres
As an example of how deeply entrenched EPRDF control of the country’s politics is, I will share my personal experience of running as an opposition candidate for parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections. I represented the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC, now known as the Oromo Federalist Congress – OFC) which was a member of a larger coalition called Medrek. I ran in a constituency in Oromia region called Negelle, which is made up of four woredas (districts) containing 105 voting stations. At national level, 32 million voters registered for the 2010 elections out of approximately 37 million eligible citizens.
The largest stumbling block for opposition candidates was the electoral structure itself. Despite the fact that the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) was established in 1993 as an independent and autonomous organ responsible for administering all elections and referenda in the country, in practice, the board and its lower-level positions at the woreda and kebele (sub-districts of woredas) levels, as well as at polling stations, were all controlled by ruling party cadres. This conflict of interest should be immediately apparent; the deck was stacked from the beginning.
The first instance of election fraud I noticed took place during voter registration. The election officials at polling stations would not register opposition supporters, particularly students and other young people. Most eligible young voters were prohibited from registering and acquiring their voting cards under the assumption that they would not vote for the ruling party. Students filed complaints, but in vain. Moreover, the registration was carried out in just six weeks, which is a very short period.
Also, the ruling party systematically interfered with opposition campaign activities. My attempts to organize campaign events were repeatedly blocked. Electoral law specified that a candidate must submit a written notice of planned events to local authorities. That gave these officials, all ruling party members, the power to invoke various pretexts to make opposition campaigning practically impossible. They had no statutory authority to stop me from campaigning. All I was supposed to do was give them written notice and conduct my campaign within the bounds of the law. But the notice I was required to give in fact telegraphed to the ruling party my every move, and sometimes resulted in things like an order forbidding the use of a loudspeaker or megaphone.
I was unable to campaign that day
At other times, the militia would chase people away from campaign posters I had just put up. On two different days in March 2010, I was blocked from campaigning in the towns of Haraqallo and Jidola. The ruling party mayors of both towns said campaigning was not allowed on market days. The law does not prevent campaigning at all on market days, just in the actual marketplace, which I understood. I had no intention of campaigning in the marketplace itself.
The administration in Jidola warned me not to use a megaphone or any kind of loudspeaker. I knew that if I did, security forces could stop me. So I quietly informed people in public areas that I would be speaking under a nearby tree. Some interested people followed me. However, the kebele officials sent armed militia and dispersed the gathering. Needless to say, I was unable to campaign that day.
Likewise, I was prohibited from campaigning in four additional towns for similarly dubious reasons. Local officials claimed I needed to show them a campaign permit from the woreda administration or other governing body, all of which are controlled by the ruling party. I pointed out that the law says anybody who has a candidate ID from the election board, which I had, can legally campaign without additional documentation.
On another day, I was confronted by local militia while traveling to a campaign event. My supporters were already gathered and awaiting my arrival. As I approached on my motorbike, the militia threatened to shoot me if I did not stop. Since my activities were perfectly legal I did not stop. They then followed through on their threat, firing two shots in my direction and endangering my life.
Opposition candidates in Ethiopia have been routinely subjected to arbitrary arrest, search and seizure, and other forms of harassment. I was no exception, nor were other people who campaigned for me. In May 2010, police searched my father’s home where I shared a room with my brother. Although the search warrant had my father’s name and not mine or my brother’s, they searched our room anyway. They arrested my brother and one other boy, holding them for three days.