CIVICUS speaks to Mesud Gebeyehu about the political conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and the highly contested upcoming Ethiopian national election, scheduled to take place in June 2021 amidst an ongoing pandemic and a continuing state of emergency. Mesud is Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO) and vice-chair of the Executive Committee of CIVICUS’s Affinity Group of National Associations. Mesud is also Executive Committee member of the Ethiopian CSOs Council, a statutory body established to coordinate the self-regulation of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Ethiopia.
What are the main aspects of CEHRO’s work?
CEHRO is a national coalition of CSOs dedicated to human rights, democracy and peacebuilding in Ethiopia. It was established in 2018, before the introduction of reforms following the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. We have a strong focus on human rights, democracy and conflict resolution. Recently, we have been concentrating on capacity development and strategic advocacy for human rights organisations which had been weakened by the old civil society law. We work at the national level, engaging with relevant ministries and state agencies such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Attorney General.
What were the consequences of the postponement of the national election originally scheduled for August 2020?
The election that was initially expected to occur in August 2020 was postponed due to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia’s recommendation to the House of People’s representatives that it was not practically possible to have the election due to the response measures, including a nationwide state of emergency, declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The postponement of the election has been criticised by many people, especially those from political parties such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is strongly opposed to the ruling party. The party in power, the Prosperity Party, has been accused of using the state of emergency and various other instruments implemented to control and prevent the spread of COVID-19 to push forward its political programme and the agendas of its members at all levels.
There have been protests led by the main opposition leaders and groups, such as the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front, which have been blamed for violence, especially in the capital Addis Ababa on 29 June following the killing of the well-known artist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa.
The political space has further narrowed as a result, as many prominent opposition leaders from the Oromo Federalist Congress Party, the Balderas Party and the Oromo Liberation Front member parties have been arrested and they are still under charge. In the north, particularly in the Tigray Region, there has been severe conflict between the ruling party and the TPLF. To quash the uprising, local enforcement operations have been undertaken and members of the TPLF have been criminalised and killed. Under such operations, many innocent people have been displaced, with public infrastructure including bridges, social institutions and historically important sites, such the Islamic al-Nejashi mosque and the Axum ruins, a UNESCO world heritage site, suffering severe damage.
In short, the postponement of the election has resulted in civil unrest, the detention of opposition leaders and mass destruction of property. Underlying this has been a dispute regarding the interpretation of the Ethiopian Constitution, which does not contain any clause allowing for the extension of parliament´s term beyond the stipulated five years. When the proposal to extend terms due to the pandemic was suggested by the ruling party, it was not approved by many of the opposition leaders and parties, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, the National Movement of Amhara and the TPLF. These circumstances have contributed to the violence and human rights violations, especially in Tigray, where massacres and genocidal crimes have been reported.
The European Union and US embassy have issued critical statements on this and have frequently requested the federal government to allow access to humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. Irrespective of this, we are hopeful that the election will still be held in the first week of June 2021, as this election is a matter of democratic life and death for Ethiopia.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the work of CSOs, particularly in the run-up to the election?
As a CSO, our work has been greatly challenged as a result of the pandemic, especially regarding access to donor funding, as many international donor nations are shifting their focus towards their own national interests and affairs. Consequently, there has been a shrinking of support for global south civil society while many dictatorial governments are taking advantage of the pandemic to suppress civic space and democracy.
In terms of citizen engagement, much of our work needs to focus on organising face-to-face voter registration and social media campaigns; however, only 16 per cent of our population of 110 million has internet access, which is still very low. Additionally, there have been internet shutdowns. We would have liked to work with local government-affiliated media, but they have no credibility among local communities.
In addition, as a result of the recent political violence, many private or opposition-affiliated media outlets have either been shut down or lost financial support and are on the brink of closing. This means many opposition parties as well as civil society do not have the opportunity to engage with their audiences through the media. Prominent political party figures have stated that they may not participate in the election. If this happens, it will be quite destructive for a democracy that is pretty much a work in progress.
What is civil society doing to try to ensure the election is free and fair?
In terms of the contribution of civil society to the election, we have various guidelines under preparation. We have recently launched a Civil Society Council that will be represent civil society in Ethiopia. So far, this space is holding up as the political and media landscape are progressively changing and adapting.
At CEHRO we are planning to engage in voter education, organise national CSOs and open communication with political parties and media outlets as well as with prominent opinion, religious and transitional leaders, even if they are not affiliated to any party. As we speak, one of our main focus is on the inclusion of IDPs in the upcoming election. Between 2018 and 2020 there has been a peak in the number of IDPs, reaching almost three million, as a result of intercommunal violence, especially in the most populous regions of Ethiopia.
Research we have conducted on this issue shows that there are currently more than 1.8 million IDPs in Ethiopia, not counting the recent violence in the Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. In the Tigray Region specifically, more than two million people have been displaced, and more than 100,000 have been displaced in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. All this considered, we can estimate that current number of displaced people in Ethiopia at approximately four million.
We hope that the displacement will be resolved soon. However, there are only about four months left and we cannot ensure that people will have returned to their homes and have readily integrated back into their original communities by then. This may be a concern at polling stations, as according to the directive of the National Election Board of Ethiopia, the maximum amount of people allowed to vote at a polling station is 700. Considering the current number of IDPs, this means that several polling stations will need to be organised in sites for IDPs and still, many people may be rendered unable to vote.
There is much concern about the inclusion of IDPs as the election will have consequences for them so it is particularly important for those under conflict distress to be able to choose a genuine political alternative that will work to address the root causes of conflict and displacement. The challenge here is that local CSOs and international partners are not fully engaged in these issues, which the government considers to be a security concern rather than a human rights issue.
Regarding whether the election will be free and fair, we are anxious and have our doubts. Many opposition leaders have been imprisoned and the incumbent’s use of power has barred opposition rallies and campaigns and limited access to the media. These problems have been associated with the internal turmoil and they are all interlinked, and if anything, holding the election will be a glimmer of hope that we will be able to move in the right direction to resolve these conflicts.
Taking all these circumstances into consideration, we are worried and trying our best to hold consultations with political and civil society leaders as well as government officials to come up with macro-scale thinking on national interest issues, including the critical geopolitical state of affairs regarding relations with the Egyptian and Sudanese governments regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
From your perspective, what more needs to be done to ensure a free and fair election?
There have been calls for meaningful dialogue, which should incorporate the voices of civil society, academia, opposition parties, religious institutions and regional and international bodies, particularly in the transition process.
Since the beginning of the discussions about reform, there have been endless opportunities for such dialogue to occur, but the ruling party has not been open to it. In view of the current situation, some think it is impractical to continue trying to have this very complex dialogue right now. I however believe that democracy is a process and an election is only one of its many components, so holding the election while also building opportunities for dialogue to develop a common vision is definitely worth the effort. We are currently witnessing some of the worst human rights violations that we have seen as a country, and we desperately need to achieve reconciliation, meaningful participation, national dialogue and a common understanding amongst all the important players. The main issue that needs to be addressed ahead of the election is the willingness and preparation for a very comprehensive national dialogue with all relevant groups engaged and an opportunity to contribute for all political, academic, civil society and public institutions.
What role are international institutions such as the African Union playing in promoting peace and democracy?
The African Union has been trying to engage with the government; however, the federal government has categorised some of the most important human rights issues as ‘internal matters’ and has therefore not been willing to accept direct intervention by the African Union. My recommendation for the African Union and other international organisations is to support the federal government only when it is acting legitimately, particularly in terms of ensuring the safety of those engaging in human rights work. For instance, the European Union has suspended support to the federal government due to the lack of access for humanitarian assistance in conflict areas.
To promote peace and stability in the region, the African Union must put on pressure so that human rights violations are investigated. Most importantly, it should work closely with the federal government to provide assistance and give professional advice so the government refrains from undertaking actions that are not in compliance with the rules and procedures adopted by the African Union. Much support is needed for Ethiopian civil society to be much more proactive in liaising with the international civil society community to help us use the existing mechanisms of the African Union to lobby African governments so they behave in more democratic ways and prioritise the public interest.
Looking ahead, what are the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia?
When change first happened in Ethiopia back in 2018, we were very optimistic. We had never imagined that we could emerge out of statelessness. The commitment made by some prominent political party leaders to implement democratic change was however not welcomed by those who lost power and continued to advocate for divisive politics.
I am hopeful that now the world has borne witness to the religious and ethnic violence in Ethiopia and sees that as a country we are exhausted from this bloodshed. For 2021 and beyond, I anticipate citizen-based politics that should include, for example, education and economic policies benefiting the ethnic communities that have been marginalised over the years.
As much as the upcoming election may not fulfil the expectations and standards we all deserve, I still believe that it will be a turning point, given that it will give everyone the same opportunity at the ballot, irrespective of ethnic or religious community, therefore allowing us to elect a legitimate government. Politically, we would like to see the emergence of a strong multi-party system so that parliament is no longer controlled by an all-powerful ruling party, with a wide diversity of perspectives reflected in policymaking, and recognition of civil society as a key partner in setting national agendas.
Civic space in Ethiopia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.