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East Africa goes to the polls in 2020

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 9 January 2020 13:40, updated on Friday, 10 January 2020 12:02

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is firefighting on domestic and regional fronts. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

East Africa and the Horn entered the 2020s with mixed economic prospects and heightened political temperatures.

Four countries – Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania – are scheduled to hold elections in 2020. In all of them, the main challenge this year is whether the looming elections will be free, fair, and peaceful, as the incumbent governments navigate multiple challenges at home, in the region, and globally.


Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country, is scheduled for its first democratic elections in more than a decade this year. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s far-reaching reforms may resonate with the electorate, and opening up the political space may serve to weaken the opposition’s prospects in the July elections.

  • In its annual report, the National Bank of Ethiopia forecast that the country has returned to double-digit growth. 
  • Abiy has also received global support for his reform programme, winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his peace efforts with Ethiopia’s former foe, Eritrea, debt repayment concessions from China, and signing multiple deals with other countries and investors.

His main challenges remains at home, where tensions have flared up in several regions under the country’s ethnic governance structure.

  • This year, Abiy has to navigate internal Oromo politics, the Tigray dilemma, calls by several ethnic groups for their own federal state and attacks on religious buildings, among other problems.
  • He has to do all this while campaigning for a democratic mandate – his rise to power in mid-2018 was more a negotiated succession than an election, even by the standards of the ruling party –, managing economic reform which includes liberalising telecoms and the financial sector this year, and other internal interests.
  • He also has to navigate regional interests, such as Ethiopia’s long-running, and recently escalated, dispute with Egypt over the former’s GERD dam.


In December 2019, Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza said he would not run for re-election in the country’s poll this year. Five years ago, the long-serving president changed constitutional term limits to run again; despite his statement that he would not run again, opposition groups in the country are understandably sceptical.

  • “This ceremony is my last. Next year, at this time, it will not be me who will speak. The ceremony will be for a new head of state,” President Nkurunziza told a gathering of security forces in the country’s new capital, Gitega, late last year.
  • Nkurunziza’s party, the CNDD-FDD is yet to nominate a candidate to replace the incumbent, with just months to go before the election, scheduled for 20 May. A 2018 referendum changed Burundi’s laws to allow for seven-year terms, and provides an easy way for Nkurunziza to stay in office for another decade and a half.
  • Opposition groups such as the Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie (MSD) are doubtful about Nkurunziza’s promise to finally retire – he has been in power since 2005 –, partly because of the violence and human rights violations that followed the last elections in 2015.

A 54-page report by Human Rights Watch [in French] released in December 2019 reported multiple threats and harassment by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party.

A previous report by the UN Human Rights Council stated: “Serious human rights violations have continued to be committed in Burundi since May 2018, in a general climate of impunity. Some of these violations constitute international crimes. Members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, are the main perpetrators. Officers of the National Intelligence Service and the police, along with local administrative officials, are also frequently identified as perpetrators of such violations.”

Whether Nkurunziza changes his mind or not, whoever is President of Burundi in 2020 will have to grapple with many internal and regional issues. Events in eastern DRC in late 2019 increased the risk of Burundi’s internal security, as well as the number of refugees fleeing into the country.

  • At the moment, Burundi’s prosecutors are seeking a 15-year jail term for a media team that was covering “an incursion of rebels” from the DRC, alleging that it endangered state security.
  • The country also has to find a solution to its own refugees, who have been moving back into the country from Tanzania. “Since September 2017, UNHCR has assisted both the Governments of Tanzania and Burundi in the voluntary return of more than 78,000 refugees,” global humanitarian organisation ReliefWeb wrote last November. 


In Tanzania, President John Magufuli’s government reforms, abrasive leadership, and dictatorial moves initially won him support at home and abroad. A 2018 opinion poll by Twaweza, a Tanzanian pollster, found that the Tanzanian president’s popularity had declined sharply in two years, from 96% when he was elected in 2016, to 71% in 2017 and 55% in 2018.

The Tanzanian government, predictably in the Magufuli-era, threatened to take “appropriate action” against the pollster.

Tanzania and Zanzibar’s presidential, parliamentary and local elections are due on 4 October.

READ: Analysis on Tanzania by Kurt Davis Jr. in Top African elections to watch and predictions for 2020


Somalia’s 2020 elections, due in December, are probably the most important in East Africa and the Horn in 2020.

Not only is Somalia holding its first universal suffrage elections in five decades, but it is also the epicentre of Islamic militant activity in the region, regional and Gulf State competition, and a primary target of US Africa Command (Africom) anti-terror operations. In 2019, Africom conducted at least 60 airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia militants.

In 2019, Al-Shabaab militants repeatedly attacked targets in the capital, Mogadishu, killing hundreds and maiming thousands more. The Al-Qaeda group has carried on the attacks in 2020 –at some point during the writing of this article, for example, a car bomb exploded near the country’s parliament, killing at least four people and wounding at least 10. 

One suicide truck attack at a police checkpoint on 28 December, 2019, left more than 85 people dead and 140 injured. The militant group said the target was “an enemy Turkish convoy and the militias who were guarding them”. Only two of the casualties were Turkish citizens.

Somalia’s intelligence agency said that a “foreign country” was behind the attack targeting Turkish interests. While it did not name the suspect country, it is clear that Somalia’s 2020 elections will be subject to multiple, competing interests of other states, both in the region and in the Middle East especially.

  • The UAE-Saudi Arabia versus Turkey-Qatar cold war has played out in Somalia’s fractured political and economic systems, with each side investing, and actively sabotaging, the other’s plans.
  • President Mohamed Farmajo’s non-aligned stance might have made it easier to navigate the ongoing blockade of Qatar, but it has also raised the risk that the rising political temperatures due to the election could play out as proxy wars by Gulf countries, and Somalia’s neighbours.
  • Farmajo’s government is also engaged in a long-running maritime border dispute with neighbouring Kenya, which has troops in the Horn of Africa nation and is the second most-attacked country by Al-Shabaab militants after Somalia.

At home, President Farmajo’s long-running attempt to centralise the government has not won him many allies. Ahmed Madobe’s re-election in Jubaland last August, epitomised the divide between (some) federal states and Mogadishu, as well as the competing external interests in Somalia’s political leadership.

A land border dispute between Somaliland and Puntland, both self-governing regions of Somalia, also remains unsolved. The dispute led to armed conflict in early 2018, and the risk of it flaring up again in an election year is not far-fetched.

For Farmajo, the next few months will be crucial because he has a lot to do to break Somalia’s one-term presidency jinx. While he has many friends, he also has enemies both at home and abroad, who view his presence as destabilising the region, Mogadishu’s uneasy peace with federal states, and the progress in the war against Al-Shabaab.

For the United States and Kenya, stability in Mogadishu is crucial to the war against the militants, who struck the former’s ‘Camp Simba’ in the latter’s southern region of Lamu earlier this month.

There’s also a real risk that the ongoing conflict between the US and Iran in Iraq may play out in East Africa via the Horn, where they both have interests as well as proxy partners. In October 2018, Reuters reported that UN investigators had traced illicit Somali charcoal exports, which are one of Al-Shabaab’s most crucial sources of revenue, to routes through Iran.

The comprehensive UN report traced similar threads of arms trafficking, this time involving Yemen, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.

In brief:

Election years tend to raise political temperatures anywhere in the world, but in East African countries scheduled to hold elections this year, there are many, competing interests and issues that may play defining roles. Underneath, and perhaps playing a large part of the current political climates, the four countries are struggling with the same socio-economic challenge: majority young, unemployed populations.

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