Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ethiopian home truths

Voters in this week’s Ethiopian elections are likely to vote for the government’s record of sustained development and economic prosperity, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The results of this week’s elections in Ethiopia will not accelerate the rhythm of political life in the country. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is widely expected to emerge as the winner and not to be seen as someone willing to fritter away the gains of liberal reforms.

Yet, while entrepreneurial swagger can be an attractive asset in politics, it does not always make for a truly democratic leader. Whatever the outcome of this week’s elections, Desalegn is unlikely to fall flat on his face.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has upped the political game in the country. Among the main challengers are candidates Debretsion Debramikael and Tewodros Adhanom, together with 57 political groups. While there is certainly room for improvement in contemporary Ethiopia, the country has made big strides in improving public welfare compared to its neighbours, and Ethiopia’s 100 million people are primed for further economic growth regardless of the results of the elections.

One school of thought holds that political authoritarianism is a deeply rooted cultural phenomenon in Ethiopia, and there are no signs that public outrage at the government’s authoritarian style will build up in the country in the next few years to come.

On the face of it, Ethiopian politics is banal and is mostly about economic development and prosperity. Ethiopia is among the fastest-growing economies in Africa, and over the past three decades the Ethiopian economy has become increasingly mixed and less agricultural.

Officials, bureaucrats and party cadres exploit the lack of enthusiasm for political activism to the fullest. Authoritarianism has also infected law-enforcement and the legal system. Yet, Ethiopians seem to be satisfied with their lot, even though every aspect of Ethiopian society feels the effects of the pervasive authoritarianism.

The UK newspaper The Guardian recently called the Ethiopian elections “Africa’s largest exercise of political theatre.” The “elections should be a wake-up call for the international community. With each successive election that does not allow genuine choice, both apathy and resentment grow,” the paper observed. 

Yet, the EPRDF has been in power for over two decades, and there are no signs that its grip on the country is slipping. There seem to be no alternatives, and the country’s various ethnic groups seem to be happy with the federal system.

An undercurrent of paternalism and prejudice against historically subjugated ethnic and religious groups does not seem excessive under EPRDF rule. There is no official racism as there was under previous regimes. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), for example, has an operating budget of $400,000 and some 60 employees, and the Amhara, the traditionally dominant ethnic group, is no longer so dominant. Other ethnic groups, and in particular southerners, are increasingly in the ascendant.

Desalegn himself is a southerner and a member of the economically dynamic Gugarinya ethnic group. A Semitic-language speaking people, the Gugarinya inhabit the area south of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, one of the fastest-developing regions of the country.

Once upon a time, an official form of Amhara racism was a way to justify quasi-colonial rule in the country’s rural backwaters, especially in the south and east of the country. Today, non-Amhara Ethiopians are no longer portrayed as backward people in need of civilising, however.

The EPRDF has also shifted attention away from the party’s political domination, but even so the vast majority of the 37 million Ethiopians who have registered to vote are likely to cast their votes for the ruling party.

Meanwhile, the Western powers are not particularly interested in provoking the wrath of one of their most important partners in the war against terrorism in East Africa.

This is the first election since the death of former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012. No truth and reconciliation process has apparently been needed for religiously and ethnically marginalised groups to air their grievances regarding the shortcomings of his rule, and the Ethiopian state has officially acknowledged the abuses of the past.

Ethiopian Muslims, for instance, are no longer regarded as incapable of managing their own affairs, and there are now numerous Muslims in high-profile and senior positions within both the ruling party and the state.

However, despite the air of contentment there are officials in the EPRDF and state structures who recognise the need for change. The European Union and the Atlanta-based Carter Centre monitored the 2005 and 2010 elections, but they are not present for the current round.

“Creating conflict and unlawful revolution and disturbing the people and the country is not expected from any party or deputy who thinks to lead the country. If any party or deputy does that, it is a shameful act and not a sign of civilisation,” warned the Ethiopian National Electoral Board, the national watchdog, in its comment on the elections.

“Parties and deputies should keep their political ethics and civilisation on the day of voting, counting and the announcement of results. The Board strictly recommends the people of Ethiopia to struggle against any illegal movement which disturbs the people’s peace and security. Every person should work to respect the law and to make others respect the law,” it said.

The opposition won 172 seats in the 2005 vote, but only one in 2010. Today, the 547 members of the Ethiopian parliament are expected to vote overwhelmingly for the EPRDF.

“The political space has been closed,” commented Yilekal Getinet, leader of the opposition Semayawi, or Sky Blue, Party.

However, his thoughts were not shared by government supporter Samira Abdel-Razzak who told the BBC that “as a woman, this moment is very important for me because I have seen so many changes during this regime, especially roads and bridges and development in villages. Long ago, women had to walk many kilometres to get water, but now they can get water easily,” thanks to the EPRDF government’s actions, she said.

It is not simply social and economic issues that will dominate the elections. Diplomatic matters, too, predominate. Ethiopia has emerged as a key country in stabilising the region, and it is the key to stability in Somalia and is also instrumental in the Sudan and South Sudan quagmires.

Desalegn was adept at picking up where Zenawi left off. And it seems that he is just as eager to carry on.

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