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Fighting in Tigray intensifies as Ethiopia organizes its first election since 2018

The outcome of the current elections and the worsening crisis in Tigray may destabilize the entire Horn of Africa.

by: Stephanie Iancu

On June 21st, the Ethiopian population participated in the country’s first elections since the rise to power of prime minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018.

The polling was initially set to take place in August 2020 but had to be pushed back due to the pandemic.

However, results — which were initially expected within five days — may take longer to come in as the vote was postponed in the Northern region of Tigray, where the ongoing conflict is making it impossible for citizens to safely access the polls.

The Tigray region has been reporting countless deaths, displacements, acts of ethnic cleansing, and sexual violence. To add to the ongoing horrific crisis, UN officials have warned that the region may also be facing the continent’s worst famine since the one devastating Somalia in 2010.

Millions of people are in urgent need of assistance or close to being forcefully displaced.

The current conflict began on the night of November 3rd, 2020, as forces pertaining to the former ruling coalition known as the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (T.P.L.F.) — angered by lawmakers’ decisions to cut funding to the region in response to their decision to hold regional elections despite the coronavirus pandemic — staged an attack in order to steal weapons from a federal military base in Tigray.

An offensive response by government forces ordered by Mr. Abiy rapidly followed, and a six-month state of emergency was declared in the region. The situation then became more complicated as several Tigrayan officers within the Ethiopian military began fighting rival governmental units in Tigray and Eritrean troops also crossed the border to fight alongside government forces.

Refugee camp in Eritrea. Photo courtesy of David Mark via Pixabay.

Mr. Abiy was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his achievement in brokering a peace deal with Eritrea, — a neighbouring state with whom Ethiopia has previously fought a border war — freeing thousands of previously incarcerated political prisoners and relaxing repressive security laws. Nevertheless, his recent alliance with autocratic Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki and his brutal offensive in Tigray seem to have durably tarnished his reputation. In November 2020, the Nobel Peace Prize committee issued a statement saying that it was deeply concerned by the developments in Ethiopia and was following them closely.

There are also ongoing concerns of voter intimidation in several regions of the country.

Head of the electoral commission, Birtukan Mideksa, declared that certain opposition party agents might try to deter people from going to the polls in certain areas.

On June 22nd, a killing of at least three people was reported at a polling station in the region of Oromia – the country’s most populous region – where the main opposition parties called on citizens to boycott the election. It was said that the attackers declared that their goal was to disrupt the voting process, as they believed the election was a sham.

Mideksa also went on the tell journalists that "if this issue is not resolved immediately, the outcome of the election might be compromised."

Furthermore, many regions and opposition parties have complained that government crackdowns on some of their officials have hindered them from effectively leading their campaigns and preparing for the election. Some of Mr. Abiy's biggest opponents on the national stage — such as his former ally and media company founder Jawar Mohammed — are currently in detention under accusations of trying to destabilize the nation. About a fifth of citizens have thus chosen to boycott elections due to accusations of government intimation towards the opposition and attempts of voter suppression.

Smaller-scale conflicts and ethnically driven altercations have also been erupting throughout the year in multiple regions of the country. Oromia has also been subject to its own insurgency issues since May, as a local armed group known as the Oromo Liberation Army vowed that it would wage « total war » against Mr. Abiy’s government.

Mr. Abiy’s mandate will be renewed if his party — the Prosperity Party — wins a majority of the 547 seats in the national assembly. But due to current unrest, there was no polling in at least 102 of these 547 constituencies and four of the country’s ten regions during this week’s vote. Despite these limitations, Mr. Abiy seems determined to go forth with these elections, the results of which he believes will be truly representative of the Ethiopian people’s will, affirming in a statement on Monday that

"Democracy is not built in a day. We are laying it brick by brick."

For now, no date has been set for elections in Tigray and many remain uncertain as to the regularity of nationwide polling and counting. With Ethiopia being formerly considered as a mainly stable nation and economic and political power within the region, recent events may lead to unrest and negative repercussions on the entire Horn of Africa.


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