The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been keeping busy under its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has virtually become one of the most powerful ... leaders of the Arab world, especially in the fight for influence in East Africa against its former foe Qatar. Is it any wonder that Riyadh is now making a foray into the arts to also highlight a more tolerant and open country?
This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight.
After three months of exile in Addis Ababa, he was returning to his family in Assosa town. He was going back without a job, and his salary at Assosa University had not been paid for many months. But he was free, which meant that he had been luckier than many.
Days before, he had gotten word that some of his fellow party members had been released from jail. Detained without due process, his Benishangul Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM) comrades spent months making appeals to the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to intervene. Finally, local NEBE representatives convinced officers affiliated with the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) to charge or let go of the tens of imprisoned political opposition members.
Still, many were left languishing, unable to even make their defence in court. “We are easily arrested and stay in prison for months without formal charges,” the BPLM politician told Ethiopia Insight.
In Assosa, a public prosecutor who spoke with Ethiopia Insight in June said that unknown numbers of opposition party members had been arrested over the last six months. These included not just BPLM members, but also prominent leaders of the Boro-Democratic Party (BDP) and the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). The prosecutor told Ethiopia Insight that regional law enforcement officers commonly arrest party agents and their supporters under accusations that they are aggravating conflict in the region.
Perpetrated by local officials linked directly to the regional PP wing, the repressive tactics in Benishangul-Gumuz weakened opposition parties in the lead-up to the elections. Many opposition members, as with the BPLM individual, fled rather than face persecution. The feeling of powerlessness against PP’s institutional weight is terrifying. According to the BPLM politician: “Justice institutions themselves have become part of the Prosperity Party’s political machine.”
Making matters worse, he said, is the lack of awareness about what has been going on in Benishangul-Gumuz. As elsewhere in Ethiopia, political intrigue occurs almost without account in a region where reporters rarely go, and whose problems few understand in depth.
For those familiar with the tactics used by PP’s predecessor, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), PP’s methods of control are depressingly predictable.
During its long rule as an elected government from 1995 to 2019, when it was dissolved, the EPRDF and its officials used all manners of suppressive tactics to tilt the playing field towards the incumbent, including the rampant use of state resources for party advantage and the criminalisation of opponents by a politicized justice system.
Now, in 2021, as in the preceding EPRDF-dominated decades, glaring problems with electoral politics were seen across the country. Corruption and repression were especially strong in places where government and civil society institutions are weak, media access is low, safety concerns are high, and the ability to monitor events is difficult.
Repression far and wide
In Gambella, another long-neglected region, for example, the incumbent PP used plenty of the tricks from the authoritarian party-state playbook.
During the campaign period, which began in February, district officials threatened kebele leaders with dismissal if they allowed opposition parties to canvass in their kebeles. As a result, opposition parties found it difficult to campaign freely, even if they had authorising letters from wereda officials. In Gog district, the Thatha Kebele chairperson was dismissed, allegedly for insufficient fealty to PP.
Opposition wings were clipped further due to administrative failings; for example, state money for opposition campaigning came too late and was insufficient. On polling day, some parties’ observers were told to leave voting stations, as in the case of Itang Wereda. Reportedly, opposition members who resisted were physically assaulted, and two election observers were detained by local authorities.
Motorcycles, which were the main means of transport for opposition parties, were banned from operating specifically in Abobo. Meanwhile, government vehicles were moving from polling station to polling station while voting was ongoing.
Propaganda was also influential. When PP officials went to parts of Gambella where highlanders are the majority, they accused regional opposition parties of being anti-highlander and “narrow nationalists” – part of the EPRDF lexicon as the coalition tried for years to be both in favour of national development and local autonomy.
At the same time, opposition members themselves used familiar indictments to discredit the PP while campaigning in the region. They accused the incumbent of corruption and financial unaccountability and said that the party was unquestioningly accepting all federal policies as they had done in the past during EPRDF. Such claims from the opposition packed a relatively weak punch since they offered little alternatives in terms of new policies and increased transparency.
PP’s allegations that the opposition was ill-equipped to lead the region may be considered a fair comment. Their more defamatory allegations, however, were not.
Campaigning in Gambella, ruling officials accused Gambella People Liberation Movement (GPLM) and Ezema members of being rebels who did not like highlanders. Ezema was also accused of wanting to take the country back to a unitary system (in actuality, the party proposes non-ethnic federalism). PP cadres claimed that, if Ezema won, the party would downgrade Gambella into a zone under another region, in the same way that it used to be part of Illubabor.
In back-handed references to leaders like former Gambella Regional President Mr Okello – who was exiled and imprisoned under the EPRDF and set free under Abiy – PP candidates also said that Gambella’s opposition figures had fled when times were hard.
These types of messages were spread on social media by pro-PP accounts, along with even more sinister ones. Just as the EPRDF had classified Ginbot 7 (Ezema’s predecessor), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as terrorist organisations in 2011, this year the PP, too, wielded the term “terrorist” in order to eliminate opposition: on 6 May, a PP-monopolised parliament designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and “OLF-Shane” as such.
In PP’s most ardent displays of cynicism, Gambella’s opposition party members were accused of being TPLF-collaborators, working to destabilise Ethiopia. Equally as pointedly, PP candidates in Gambella told would-be voters that if the opposition wins, they would deny supporters land, jobs, or make their lives difficult in other ways.
And, indeed, even after the PP landslide, people associated with opposition parties are being dismissed from their jobs. One candidate who ran on the GPLM ticket in Jor district is now jobless, which he says is because of his political activity. The security, communications, and militia head in Jor were all sacked as well.
In Gambella’s Abobo district – where in some kebeles GPLM did well, although overall PP won the regional council seats – voters told Ethiopia Insight that they regretted their decision not to vote for PP.
After results were announced in favour of GPLM in those particular kebeles, a district leader representing the incumbent was reported to have told residents that “from now on, if you need an ambulance here don’t call us, instead call GPLM.” The EPRDF’s control also relied on politicising service delivery.
In parts of Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNP) such as Dawro Zone, where a paucity of decent roads is a major problem, opposition party activity was conspicuously low. Residents across the region’s southwest told Ethiopia Insight that opposition party offices had been shuttered as a result of tactics ranging from straightforward repression to veiled intimidation and a lack of ability to campaign fairly.
With a fairly free field for the incumbent to play in, policy debates took a back-burner to flashy displays of government largesse. In the months leading up to the vote, officials in the south, as elsewhere in the country, oversaw the initiation of new infrastructure projects to associate the PP with developments that make a difference in people’s lives.
Development, it seemed, was easier for PP to sell than a clear position on the statehood debate – the core concern expressed by many citizens across SNNP during Abiy’s rule. His ruling party is both in favour of and against creating more regional states.
It has produced at least one pre-election policy on the matter, however: the southwest referendum. Yet, even this was somewhat EPRDF-like, as a top-down solution was promoted. Local officials eventually backed a multi-zone state rather than have each zone pursue their own regional state, a compromise that does at least show PP acting with less rigidity than the EPRDF.
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At any rate, the process was sadly too much for NEBE, which punted the plebiscite to September, to the chagrin of local representatives. That may have been due to NEBE’s lack of capacity, but also partly due to the chronic violence around Tepi between Sheka and Mezenger groups battling for local political power.
Meanwhile, in Wolayta Zone, requests for statehood have been as constrained as opposition activity, in general, has been. There, statehood campaigners complained not just of double standards by the authorities who eventually allowed the Sidama referendum to proceed, but also of deadly repression.
Leaders from popular opposition parties, including the Tussa Party, Wolayta National Movement, and Wolayta People’s Democratic Front reported that they had been harassed throughout the election period by local officials and ruling party affiliates.
The latter two parties, in a joint report on 12 June, stated that that seven of their members had been jailed, along with two musicians who had composed songs in support of them; two party candidates had been fired from their jobs for unknown reasons; youth supporters had been beaten and arrested by police; and some party members had been denied their civil service salaries.
This was the type of politics that took place in the zones that Ethiopia Insight journalists had access to. The region, however, is both notoriously diverse and notoriously underdeveloped. Election observers can only imagine what went on elsewhere.
In Sidama, Ethiopia’s newest regional state, other methods that PP used to eradicate competition need scrutiny. While in advance of EPRDF elections, opposition parties were crushed, this year, PP also co-opted some.
PP’s major competitor in the region would have been the long-standing Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM) – a party that, for years, had fought for regional independence. A former SLM-party member told Ethiopia Insight that the party struggled against government sabotage since its founding.
Even up until recently, regional officials restricted SLM members from renting offices and meeting venues, surveilled their activities, and used all methods to weaken the party. Then, this March, the party signed an agreement to merge under the national PP.
It was the latest merger following the dissolution of the EPRDF – which, until 2019, comprised of a four-member coalition from the Tigray, Oromia, Amhara, and SNNP regions, and five satellite parties from Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, Harari and Somali regions. Now, in all regions but Tigray, ruling parties have been united under Abiy’s PP.
By agreeing to become part of PP, SLM put an end to its abuse, at the cost of losing its hard-won autonomy. Some former members oppose the end of SLM and allege that the merger was facilitated through bribes, lies, and threats.
More bad signs can be seen from Sidama. Even though journalism is often cited as one of the spaces where the PP government has opened up unprecedented space ahead of the elections, a return to repression in the media is yet another indication that old EPRDF habits die hard.
Founding member of the Sidama Media Network (SMN), Getahun Daguye, spent almost one year in jail between 2019 and 2020. He was among approximately 150 others who fought for Sidama statehood that were imprisoned, in spite of Abiy’s policies that promote freer speech.
“The same government officials who were communicating with us throughout the [statehood] process the last couple of years threw us in jail on charges of inciting violence,” Getahun Deguye told Ethiopia Insight in an April interview.
Upon his release, Getahun and his deputy were denied from getting back their posts by the media network’s board of directors. They contested the decision before receiving a letter from the SMN board stating that they could not be reinstated on “grounds that media heads cannot be politically affiliated.”
SMN was a powerful tool in mobilising the community and promoting issues relevant in the region. Before its existence, the regional broadcaster dedicated only two hours a week to discussing Sidama’s affairs.
The broadcaster, like most media outlets in the country according to Getahun, “[was] just channelled to convey what the government wants to address.”
SMN, on the other hand, is community-funded, and therefore free from state influence. Nevertheless, Getahun said that the network “is being pushed to the sidelines”.
With its founders incapacitated, SMN has lost most of its funding and, Getahun believes, will soon be taken under government ownership.
It was to this type of backdrop that on the first round of elections on 21 June the incumbent party won 410 seats out of 425 in the federal parliament, and nearly 98% of seats in regional and city councils (1,625 of 1,664).
Joining PP in the House of People’s Representatives (HoPR) are five candidates from NaMA, four from Ezema, two from Gedeo People’s Democratic Party, and four independents (though it seems reasonable to query how ‘independent’ new MP and Abiy advisor Daniel Kibret is).
When compared with 2010, where no opposition candidates were represented in the HoPR – or to 2015, where just one opposition MP served in parliament – 15 seems pretty good.
When compared with any advanced democracy, and after considering the methods used to win, it looks pretty bad. When held up to Abiy’s promise of competitive, genuine elections, it still looks really bad. In Ethiopian politics, it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
While some election observers were impressed by long queues at polling stations in the capital and elsewhere, seeing them as a sign of “democracy in action”, the reality is that the PP, the reincarnation of EPRDF, systematically undermined and marginalised opposition parties and candidates across the country.
As well as an array of old-school tactics, social media was another key tool of incumbent dominance. With more than six million users domestically, Facebook was especially significant for sharing information and news leading up to the elections.
Social media was a valuable tool for opposition parties, who often lacked financial resources, organisational capacity, and people power to travel widely and rally voters across constituencies. Nevertheless, none manage to wield Facebook’s power like PP.
The PP’s official account was by far the most high-profile party page in Ethiopia, and, with nearly 3.5 million followers, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s page is the most popular political page in the country. Ezema was the only party that came even close to PP on Facebook.
NEBE, who itself used Facebook as a primary platform for communicating with voters, was tasked to work with the company to verify accounts, reduce hate speech, and address false information during the pre-election period. The organisation flagged social media posts shared by representatives from NaMA, Ezema, the OLF, OFC, Freedom and Equality, and Balderas for True Democracy, as well as the incumbent PP, and scolded the parties for violating election codes by using hate speech to incite violence.
Between March 2020 and March 2021, Facebook removed a total of 87,000 pieces of hate speech from accounts in Ethiopia. In the months leading up to the vote, election observers also monitored social media platforms, including hundreds of Telegram channels, Twitter accounts, and Facebook pages hosted by political parties and candidates, public and media institutions, CSOs, and influencers.
Researchers from IRI and NDI found that many popular accounts were unverified and frequently shared false information. According to their election report, activity on social media “complicated [party] identification for voters, given that fake political party sites were common.”
According to Facebook, this network accelerated its activities between 2020 and 2021. Accounts posted primarily about domestic politics in Amharic, and mainly shared news related to the PP and to Abiy, which highlighted the government’s development programmes and projected a positive image of the prime minister.
Accounts also posted critical commentary against opposition movements and their leaders, including most frequently the OLF and TPLF, the two classed as “terrorist” organisations.
Posts from May and June commented negatively on US sanctions against Ethiopia, and amplified hashtags such as #EthiopiaFirst and #EthiopiaPrevails.
Around 1.1 million users followed one or more of the network’s pages, and around 766,000 users had joined one or more of its groups. No more than $6,000 was spent on advertising across the accounts.
Throughout the campaign period, many third-party pages ran Facebook ads promoting both the prime minister and the PP. Marketing was paid for in US dollars, and some accounts are believed to be connected to diaspora Ethiopians abroad. After the vote in June, election monitors noted that some of the pages that ran ads had been deleted, adding further suspicions about the authenticity of accounts.
Facebook’s investigation linked many accounts directly to members of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA). INSA was founded under the EPRDF with the mission to build cyber capabilities that protect Ethiopia’s national security interests.
The agency monitors telecommunications and the internet and collects large amounts of user data to support “actions of the government”. Between 2007 and 2010, Abiy served as the agency’s deputy director and then acting director.
On 23 August, Shumete Gizaw, current director of INSA via Abiy’s appointment, criticised Facebook for deleting accounts that he claimed were “preaching national unity and peace” and “disseminating the true reality about Ethiopia.”
He announced plans to develop a social media platform that would “replace” Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp in Ethiopia. Though the agency said it did not intend to block other social media platforms, Shumete said: “The rationale behind developing technology with local capacity is clear … Why do you think China is using WeChat?”
WeChat is the largest social media and messaging app in China, and is considered to be a key instrument that the Chinese Community Party government uses to surveil the activities of its citizens.
All is “fair” in law and war
As these examples demonstrate, the election can be summarised as one in which recent legal reforms met realities on the ground. In spite of some improvements, regressive political tactics were pervasive.
The story can also be told from the perspective of the media, for example; after a celebrated series of changes to the law, it was a quick return to politics-as-usual.
In 2017, after nearly three decades of repressive rule under the EPRDF, Ethiopia had earned the ignoble reputation as one of the world’s worst states for the free press. Its ill-defined yet all-encompassing anti-terrorism laws and restrictive media directives offered justification for the detainment of tens of thousands of people. Victims ranged from professional journalists to activist bloggers.
Of 180 countries listed in Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF)’s Press Freedom Index, Ethiopia landed low at 150. By 2019, just over one year into Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s transitional leadership, Ethiopia leapt 40 places up in the Index.
Partly in honour of the remarkable advancement, that May UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Day was hosted at the African Union Commission headquarters in Addis Ababa. The theme that year was the relationship between the press and democracy, and speakers were invited to spotlight the role of the media during elections. A fitting program to prelude to what would be Ethiopia’s first-ever ‘free and fair’ election, then scheduled for May 2020. Fitting, too, as Abiy’s government had undertaken some momentous reforms.
In his first year, 250 banned websites were unblocked, tens of journalists were released from jail, thousands of political prisoners were pardoned, and dozens of opposition leaders were invited back into the country. The new leadership also initiated the revision of Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terrorism law, aimed at discouraging political dissent, and laws that restricted Civil Society Organisations’ (CSOs) abilities to do rights work.
Elections did not, of course, take place as planned. Three delays gave the reformed NEBE more time to prepare and, in theory, establish a suitable environment for democracy. It also gave time for further reforms.
In February this year, in another stride forward, Abiy’s parliament passed a revised Media Proclamation, which, among other things, decriminalised defamation. New laws also re-shaped Ethiopia’s broadcasting authority which certifies media outlets, issues and revokes media licenses, and is tasked to provide safeguards for the media against influence and interference.
The newly branded Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA) was recomposed with independent, politically unaffiliated, board members. Unlike the former broadcasting authority, which was accountable only to the office of the prime minister, EMA’s board is accountable to parliament.
Licensing schemes set up in the past to impede independent media were also eased so that more outlets could acquire registrations to report on the news.
Still, many have pointed to serious limitations in the revisions. The Collaboration for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA), an organisation that focuses on policies for good governance, criticised various articles, including articles related to hate speech and disinformation, for being overly general in their definitions. And, in practice, the EMA still has broad discretionary power and ample space for arbitrary decision making.
Legal limitations to media laws were proven after two history-defining events took place during the period of election delays. The first was the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa in June 2020, and the second was the outbreak of war with Tigray in November 2020.
The last year has seen a spike in arbitrary arrests and abuse against journalists in the country. Many trace the crackdown to the murder of Hachalu, the beloved Oromo singer, which was followed by a three-week media blackout, several hundred arrests, including the detainment of tens of journalists, and the closure of multiple media outlets. One of those outlets was the Oromia Media Network (OMN), which the government blamed for inciting violence by airing live coverage of Hachalu’s funeral procession.
In July last year, thousands of Oromo opposition leaders and activists were arrested in the deadly violence that followed Hachalu’s death. As a result, this year, the two most formidable challengers to the ruling Prosperity Party in the region, the Oromo Federalist Congress and Oromo Liberation Front, withdrew from the election, citing unfair competition due to the repression they faced.
For long-term opponents, it was a re-run of previous polls, making a mockery of claims that this was a new democratic dawn for Ethiopia or that PP was any different to EPRDF.
Two days after voting took place in June, OFC leader Merera Gudina tweeted: “An election that is not fair and not inclusive cannot deliver democracy.”
In late 2019, the TPLF refused to join PP’s alliance, and then the Tigray region held its own election in September 2020. After the federal government ruled the vote illegal, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) intervened to remove the TPLF government, with the help of Amhara regional forces and Eritrea national forces.
First called a “law and order operation,” full-blown war with the region has acted as a catalyst for regressing press freedoms, including a long communications blackout.
For example, reporter Lucy Kassa fled the country after being assaulted by armed men in her home after reporting on the war in Tigray, and Yayesew Shimeles was arrested on terrorism charges in March along with several other Ethio-Forum and Awlo Media staff members.
The deputy director of EMA, Yonatan Tesfaye, is also a former jailed EPRDF opponent and vocal supporter of Abiy. Soon after his appointment, the EMA pursued Addis Standard magazine for allegedly biased reporting, stating that the publication was advancing the agenda of the TPLF.
Addis Standard, by spelling out the acronym of the Tigray popular resistance movement, was accused of supporting a group that the Ethiopian government had labeled as a “terrorist organization.” After it appealed, the EMA’s punitive action was reversed.
Major international media outlets, including The Intercept, Reuters, and BBC, have expressed grave concerns about the government’s spread of fake news since the beginning of the war. In August, for example, reporters from the BBC offered evidence that local authorities in Afar had orchestrated fake interviews with them after Tigrayan forces entered the region. The report also showed that pro-government social media accounts had amplified misinformation about attacks and numbers dead.
Two Ethiopian journalists were murdered by state security forces in 2021. Tigray state TV journalist Dawit Kebede Araya was shot dead in Mekelle in January. In Wollega zone, Oromia Broadcasting Network journalist Sisay Fida was killed this May.
In the days following the 21 June election, a dozen journalists were arrested in Addis Ababa and detained without official charges, while Melese Diribsa, an OMN journalist arrested the day after Hachalu’s assassination, remains in prison.
The people’s court
“Discussion is the solution for all problems,” the BPLM politician told Ethiopia Insight at Bole Airport. “Unfortunately, the ruling party is still using the same old system, the same methods, for approaching political opposition.”
In Benishangul-Gumuz, like in Gambella, local PP officials accused top opposition leaders in the BLPM and BPD who they had imprisoned of having ties to the TPLF, with the mission to spread conflict to the region. The accusation was confirmed on regional state media, and the narrative was subsequently amplified through sharing on social media over the last few months.
Without credible evidence, the allegations could not hold up in court. In the court of public opinion, though, the associations have stuck. Leaders in both parties have made moves to file defamation suits. It’s clear, though, that the law is not on their side.
Exchange of ideas and healthy debate are the vital signs of a functioning democracy. Free, honest, and unbiased media, too, plays a crucial role in ensuring that exchange is balanced and information is accurate.
Responding to recent allegations that Ethiopia’s media freedom had diminished over time under Abiy, his spokesperson Billene Seyoum stated: “There is no perfect environment; however, it cannot be said that a nascent democracy like Ethiopia is regressing.”
Indeed, democracy in Ethiopia is nascent and imperfect. As these elections proved, significant reforms have not yet been realised, though important efforts have been initiated. Whether the country will regress or not is largely up to the incumbent party that has once again gained political control through any means which it considered necessary.
The 2021 elections have therefore mostly been a missed opportunity. What Ethiopia really needed was experimentation in power-sharing, not a slightly modified version of the EPRDF’s party-state with national policies now geared towards displays of modernity rather than rural development. Without real pluralism, and without achieving any renewed momentum towards poverty alleviation, the electoral process contributed little to improving the lives of Ethiopian people.
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