BY AGGREY MUTAMBO | THE EAST AFRICAN
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s year-long tenure in office has been punctuated with reforms and a departure from the inward-looking policies of his predecessors Hailemariam Desalegn and Meles Zenawi.
But now the coming elections of 2020 could test his political staying power. Dr Abiy is the leader of the ruling coalition, Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, that incorporates the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Amhara Democratic Party, Oromo Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement.
In the 2015 elections, the ruling coalition won all 547 parliamentary seats. In fact, in the past two elections, opposition parties won only one seat. Yet that in itself was the problem.
Opposition parties complained of barriers to participation such as arrests, harassment and restrictions in the use of the public radio or TV stations to sell their policies.
Dr Abiy vowed to have credible and open elections in 2020.
Opposition figures, some of whom were released from jails by Abiy or allowed back home from exile, see an election in 2020 as a sure way of expanding free space and taming violence.
Last month, the ruling coalition confirmed elections in 2020, but did not state the exact dates. If that happens, it could sustain momentum on reforms which have included allowing registration of opposition parties, releasing government critics from jail and allowing exiles back home.
But Dr Abiy himself has been faced with internal squabbles in the coalition. In June, an attempted coup by a rogue militia in the Amhara region exposed a new security challenge.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has ruled the country since 1991. But in the wake of the attempted coup, factions emerged in the coalition, taking on ethnic leanings.
Traditionally, the Tigray faction ran the affairs of the coalition, despite being the minority. Dr Abiy’s Oromo faction, represents a national population estimated at around 60 million.
“Much work remains to be done to create a situation conducive to a free vote,” says a situational report by the Human Rights Watch.
Ethiopia, with an estimated population of 100 million people, needs a census ahead of the elections, and proper legal structures to allow political parties to hold rallies without obstruction or threat of violence, HRW says in its report.
Dr Abiy’s other source of survival, argue analysts, is the growing rapprochement with neighbours. In an earlier press briefing in Nairobi, Ethiopia’s new ambassador to Nairobi, Meles Alem, had indicated that his country will rebuild relations with all neighbours to secure access to the sea.
Two months after he came to power, Dr Abiy signed a peace deal with Eritrea, a country they had been at war with for the past 30 years.
Most of Ethiopia’s rebel movements had been exiled in Eritrea. And the latter accused Ethiopia of hosting those targeting the regime in Asmara.
“The rapprochement is what I would call the Cushitic Alliance; Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia working together for a common cause,” said Prof Peter Kagwanja, chief executive of the Nairobi-based think-tank Africa Policy Institute.
“That means the survival of Abiy in Addis Ababa depends on the survival of the peace deal with Eritrea, and the support he gets from Asmara.”
It is now upon Dr Abiy to ensure that the thawing relations succeed.