Ethiopia: COVID-19 triggers an authoritarian relapse

The pandemic appears to be closing a political space that had only just started opening

The shared COVID-19 crisis has united the world in many ways, not least in terms of restrictions on human and democratic rights, in authoritarian and democratic countries alike.Faced by the threat posed by the pandemic, and to enhance the fight against what U.S. President Donald Trump calls the “Invisible Enemy,”, many countries have taken strict measures to “flatten the curve”.  They have closed borders, declared states of emergency, put citizens on lockdown, and promulgated regulations on social distancing.

Police, military and law enforcement personnel have been given extraordinary powers in China, Italy, Turkey, Hungary, Spain, and many other places. Religious services, sports, festivals, theaters and public gatherings have been banned, harming social relations, and contributing to major economic problems.

In Africa, although the tide of the pandemic is slow, and the impact hasn’t yet been severel, the predominance of informal economies, intimate communal ties, and relatively weak state institutions, have meant even relatively minor restrictions have had a major effect. Exacerbating the challenge in Africa is the level of authoritarianism already present in many countries which are using the COVID-19 phenomenon to open doors for corruption, embolden governments in suppressing dissident voices, and worsening already deteriorating human rights conditions.

The pandemic undoubtedly poses practical and technical challenges to countries with upcoming elections, but it has also offered incumbent regimes in democratic transition leverage to maneuver existing laws or create new laws for their own advantage. Ethiopia is one such country. It was heading towards a critical transitional general election in August. Now, the election has been postponed it; and critics fear it may descend into political turmoil, as the government exploits the pandemic to subvert human rights.

Creeping transition

When Abiy Ahmed took power as Prime Minister on 2 April 2018, he promised fundamental reforms, vowing to widen the political space, release political prisoners, ensure freedom of expression, and to fight relentlessly against corruption in his apparent quest to provide the country with a prosperous economy and a real democratic system. His initiatives in ending the two decades’ long stalemate with Eritrea, fostering regional cooperation, and opening up of democratic space at home brought him international recognition, climaxing with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

All this, however, as critical observers of Ethiopian politics and detractors of the Prime Minister noted, ignored the country’s internal crises. Inter-ethnic conflicts led to over three million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs); there was a military crackdown on opposition parties; the political space narrowed; and there have been increased restrictions on media freedom. Indeed, critics have argued that the country is on the brink of collapse.

In Oromia region, ostensibly the Prime Minister’s own constituency, some fifteen million people in seven zones have been under the control of a military-controlled command post since February 2019. These zones were even deprived of essential services, including telecommunications, until March 2020. International pressure led to restrictions being lifted, but people had no means of getting information during the early stages of COVID-19.

In contrast to Abiy’s rhetoric about ending conflict, poverty, repression and displacement, critics argue the crises began almost immediately after he took office.

There have been continuous tensions between regional states over the last two years, with Amhara and Tigray at times seemingly almost at the brink of war. The government itself launched a protracted war in western and southern Oromia against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and imposed restrictions that severely affected civilian life and livelihoods in those regions; over 30 percent of Oromia has been under the authority of the command post. Elsewhere, increased clandestine arms trade and movement of firearms across  porous borders has meant security threats have become major concerns to ordinary citizens.

With increasingly polarized and antagonistic inter-ethnic and inter-religious relationships, even minor disputes have the potential to trigger significant violence. Individuals are armed as never before. One result has been decreased federal authority, even the emergence of quasi-independent states. For instance, it is becoming clear that Tigray is almost out of the control of the federal government, and Amhara may eventually follow in its footsteps. The government of the Southern Nations, facing demands for statehood from a dozen or so different ethnic groups, has also lost control.

Most importantly, perhaps, for advocates of a multinational federal system, Abiy’s new party, the Prosperity Party (PP), is posing an additional threat to the current arrangements.

In November 2019, Abiy dissolved the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party ethnic coalition. He rebranded it Prosperity Party, a party without any link to ethnic markers, either in membership or in representation. Given the nearly three decades of political emphasis on ethno-linguistic identities with political, cultural and economic leverage tied to nations and nationalities, the move was widely seen as a u-turn towards the unitary system that many had fought against for over a century and half. According to some critics, PP is covertly promoting the dissolution of ethno-linguistic federal arrangements.

In pursuit of this, and weakening  the increasingly fragile political system, Abiy’s government has continued to constrain opposition parties. At the same time, the parties, media activists and civil society organizations (CSOs) have hardly been playing a visible part in any transition or reform. Indeed, they have polarized inter-group relations and dichotomies, sparking animosities and tensions between rival groups, raising contentious historical narratives, symbols and political issues, rather than working on values of tolerance and coexistence.

CSOs, although hardly to be blamed for triggering conflicts, have played an insignificant role in peace building. Despite the threat of COVID-19, the government, opposition parties, activists and the media could have worked together, at least on that common agenda, saving the lives of citizens, and ensuring stability, by sidelining their political differences. They did not.

It is against the background of these troubling conditions that the election was scheduled. However, the National Electoral Board postponed August elections due to the pandemic. As the current parliament’s term ends in early October, the postponement has raised many constitutional and legitimacy questions about the incumbent leadership, and about how the federal government could or should handle both the pandemic and election.

Emergency state

Ethiopia’s current State of Emergency (SOE), its third since 2016, was declared on 10 April, shortly after the postponement.  Authorized to last five months and to enhance the fight against COVID-19. it has major political and economic consequences, placng restrictions on public gatherings, movement of people, transportation, and dissemination of information. It also has adverse effects on the already troubled transition. Opposition candidates are unable to meet supporters due to restrictions on assembly, while, using the existing bureaucracy and party channels, PP is still able to mobilize. This will offer the incumbent a major advantage in the run-up to the election, whenever it is held.

Most importantly, an SOE also creates opportunities for the incumbent to suppress dissent. Many agree with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ warning: “…the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic.” The Secretary-General further noted that “authoritarians are weaponizing the pandemic to subvert human rights” by designing repressive rules in favor of their ideological foci.  In Ethiopia, alongside opposition complaints, human rights organizations have raised concerns over unwarranted civilian arrests in most parts of Oromia.

It is clear, in fact, that the restrictions being imposed in the name of fighting COVID-19 can obstruct Ethiopia’s transition to democracy and lead to an unprecedented state crisis:

  • They give the incumbent regime leverage to weaponize the pandemic phenomenon and subvert human and democratic rights,
  • The restrictions already imposed limit opposition parties’ access to their constituents and the ability to mobilize resources or educate voters,
  • The effects of the restrictions imposed by the State of Emergency, couple with pre-election political problems and concerns and polarized inter-group relations, threaten to violence unless cautiously handled.

The pandemic has become another litmus test for Prime Minister Abiy, who was already  grappling with the challenges of what has been a rough and sloppy transition since 2018, much of it of his own making. That said, some of the problems are deeply entrenched in a century-long inter-ethnic group divisions, a polarized political culture, and the imbalanced economy that the Prime Minister inherited from his predecessors.

But the new ruling party’s leanings towards unitarist sentiments is cutting him off from the Oromo and other groups with strong adherence to multinational federalism; and the lack of any clear transition roadmap over the last two years has created uncertainties about the democratization that most would like to see. The result is serious questions about the legitimacy of the government and its leadership.

In sum, the health and economic impacts of the pandemic, the restrictions imposed by the government through the SOE, and the tensions over the postponement of the election, threaten to push the country into political turmoil.

To mitigate this, the government must use the restrictions to fight the pandemic, and only the pandemic. Meanwhile, all stakeholders, including opposition parties, citizens, activists, and journalists, must make a concerted effort to prioritize public safety and the stability of the country ahead of their own agendas.

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