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Coronavirus: Ethiopia’s opportunity to reboot its troubled transition

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 13 April – 17 April
William Davison
By William Davison
Senior analyst for Ethiopia, International Crisis Group

Posted on Thursday, 16 April 2020 13:25

South Africa Ethiopia
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a joint media conference with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa after their talks at the Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Ethiopia has postponed elections scheduled for August and declared a five-month state of emergency to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. If managed well, this time could be used to put the country’s democratic transition back on track.

The COVID-19 pandemic could hardly have come at a more perilous time for Africa’s second-most populous country.

End of the honeymoon

Long gone is the euphoria that followed Abiy Ahmed’s appointment as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in April 2018. After releasing political prisoners, inviting exiled movements home, and striking a deal with long-time foe Eritrea, earning him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy has struggled to maintain order and unity in the country.

Over the last two years, rival regional, ethnic and political factions have clashed over ideology, power and resources, killing thousands and displacing millions.

As the crisis has deepened, the authorities have resorted to tactics reminiscent of an authoritarian past Abiy had vowed to abandon, including the arrest and harassment of activists and opponents. In such a divisive ethno-political landscape, this year’s planned elections, which were supposed to be the culmination of Ethiopia’s transition to multi-party democracy, were always going to be a tricky affair.

READ MORE: Abiy Ahmed paddles Ethiopia’s Prosperity Party towards elections

Arrival of COVID19

The arrival of COVID-19 in Ethiopia made it next to impossible for the polls to take place on the scheduled date of 29 August. On 31 March, less than two weeks after the government confirmed the first COVID-19 case, the electoral board suspended preparations for the vote due to the risk to public health.

Eleven days later, parliament approved a five-month state of emergency, giving authorities sweeping powers to battle the disease.

The Prime Minister now faces a daunting challenge. Ethiopia’s weak health system, combined with living conditions favourable to the disease’s transmission, could lead to a massive outbreak if the appropriate measures are not taken. But a full lockdown, like those instituted in China, Italy and elsewhere, would deprive millions of their livelihoods, especially those depending on daily wages.

His administration has so far chosen a middle path: no lockdown has been declared, but meetings of more than four people are prohibited, mouths have to be covered in public and some inter-city public transport has been suspended. If both these variables are not managed carefully during the next few weeks, the risk of unrest will increase, as citizens turn to their government for answers.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 5 economies to watch as the impact spreads

Encouraging signs

The picture is not all bleak. While the risks of COVID-19 should not be underestimated, the pandemic also offers a valuable lifeline for Ethiopia’s democratic transition; a lifeline that requires inclusive dialogue.

Not only will the elections not take place in August, but they will also not occur before parliament’s term ends on 5 October, which means some form of interim governing arrangement will likely be necessary after that date, or at least when the state of emergency is removed.

Against this backdrop, it is critical that the government reassures the opposition that it does not intend to use the state of emergency and the election postponement to grab more power and consolidate tactical advantages ahead of any future vote.

Encouragingly, both Abiy and opposition parties have shown signs they might be willing to work together to manage the COVID-19 crisis. Before the state of emergency was declared, the PM gathered party leaders from all sides to his office to discuss the COVID-19 response.

In addition, many opposition parties have stated their willingness to put politics aside to deal with the public health risk. Notable amongst them are the Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, parties representing Abiy’s Oromo community, the largest ethnic group. They embody the aspirations of the Oromo youth whose protests led to Abiy’s accession, but who are now largely disappointed with the character and pace of the Prime Minister’s reforms.

Despite those signs of goodwill, the question of how the country will be governed after parliament’s authority expires remains a looming challenge. Any unilateral effort by Abiy’s government to rule by emergency powers until elections can be held, even if constitutionally possible, will likely be met with opposition hostility.

Cultivate trust

To avoid this scenario unfolding, Abiy should start by sharing as much information as possible about the implementation of the state of emergency decree to ease suspicions and cultivate trust both with the opposition and regional authorities. Particular attention should be paid to the Tigray region, whose ruling elites were the backbone of the former national ruling coalition, and who are now disputing with the central government.

A political deal granting a formal consultative role for the opposition could be made, whereby the interim government led by Abiy would be required to seek consensus with an opposition committee for any election-related issue. As part of this dialogue, discussions could focus on opposition grievances about campaigning restrictions, and more generally on crafting a roadmap leading to free and fair elections.

Broader topics that the dialogue could then begin to broach include demands for constitutional reforms and stabilising key fault lines, such as the tensions between the Amhara and Oromo and the Amhara and Tigray ethnic groups. The Southern Nations autonomy demands highlighted by the Sidama group’s 2019 referendum vote to become a regional state, could also be discussed.

“This opportunity should not be wasted”

Ethiopia’s vulnerabilities mean it could yet experience serious social and economic destabilisation if COVID-19 spreads widely. Yet the crisis has also significantly altered political dynamics and provided the justification for pressing pause on and rebooting a transition to multi-party democracy that was threatening to spiral into violence.

The coronavirus pandemic has given Ethiopia’s politicians a real reason to come together. This opportunity should not be wasted.

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