Spotlight on Ethiopia: Elections, Tigray & GERD

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa in 2018. (Source: Government of Ethiopia/Flickr)

On June 21, Ethiopia held national elections in what will be a key test of democracy under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who entered office in 2018 and promised reform. In 2019, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to Ethiopia’s decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea. But two years later, Abiy has had to campaign against a backdrop of internal conflict, emerging famine, rising ethnic violence and a regional dispute over Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam project, all which have intensified under his leadership. Here’s a look at the latest developments surrounding these issues, the implications of Ethiopia’s vote, and the international community’s reactions.

Ethiopians go to the polls

Ballots are being counted from last week’s vote in Ethiopia, with results expected to solidify the ruling Prosperity Party’s hold on power in what Prime Minister Abiy promised would be “the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections.” The head of the African Union’s election observation team called the poll “orderly, peaceful, and credible,” though logistical challenges, an opposition boycott, and ongoing violence have called into question the election’s integrity.

Over 37 million of Ethiopia’s 110 million population were registered to vote in last week’s poll, with over 9,000 candidates and 46 parties represented — a record number. However, some opposition parties, including in the country’s largest region of Oromia, boycotted the election, citing intimidation and imprisonment of party leaders and supporters by the government. Other opposition parties said they had been prevented from campaigning in certain parts of the country.

Elections could not be held in four of Ethiopia’s 10 regions, with the government citing concerns including insecurity and improperly printed ballots. Most of the delayed votes have been rescheduled for September, but no election date has yet been announced for the Tigray region, which is still engulfed in violence. In total, 102 — nearly one-fifth — of the country’s 547 parliamentary seats are affected by the voting delays, most located in areas with high opposition support. In two of the regions that did vote, opposition observers were beaten and prevented from entering many polling locations. Delays, intimidation, and violence “will jeopardize the credibility of the election process,” election board head Birtukan Midekssa said.

Violence in Tigray — and beyond

Ethiopia’s vote comes amid a deteriorating security situation, with ethnic violence causing hundreds of deaths in the Amhara, Oromia, and Benishangul-Gumuz regions in recent months. Conflict has also continued to ravage the northern Tigray region, although a ceasefire announced yesterday has brought a tenuous calm to the region. On Friday, three aid workers associated with Doctors Without Borders were killed in the region, raising to 12 the total number of humanitarian workers killed in the region since the conflict began.

Last week, 64 people were killed and 180 injured by an airstrike on a crowded Tigrayan market. Ethiopia took responsibility for the attack, but claimed it was targeting rebel fighters. Despite residents and doctors attesting that women and children were among the casualties, military spokesman Col. Getnet Adane insisted that victims were combatants “in civilian clothes.” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused Ethiopian authorities of blocking ambulance access to the scene of the attack for more than 24 hours, preventing responders from attending to the wounded and causing additional deaths.

Credible reports have documented atrocities being committed by all parties in the conflict, including mass killings, rape, and destruction and theft of property. As recently as Sunday, CNN and Amnesty International verified that cell phone videos obtained in January documented Ethiopian soldiers executing nearly a dozen unarmed Tigrayans. Atrocities like these have caused more than 2 million people to flee Tigray for other regions of Ethiopia and neighboring countries like Sudan.

A looming famine

Earlier this month, European Union special envoy Pekka Haavisto said Ethiopian leaders told him in a private meeting they planned to “wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.” While deaths from violence in Tigray now number in the thousands, another humanitarian crisis now looms on the horizon: famine. The United States estimated Friday that more than 900,000 people face famine in the region, with millions more at risk. The US estimate is more than double the figure of 350,000 cited by the United Nations earlier this month.

Conditions are expected to worsen in the months to come as the dry season approaches, but the famine conditions in Tigray are more man-made than natural. Starvation is being used as a weapon of war, with reports emerging of Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers blocking and stealing food aid, preventing farmers from tending fields, killing livestock, looting seeds and equipment, and even contaminating grain silos with sand and dirt. Tigray is now facing the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade, having been classified a “catastrophe” — the highest level — by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a global food security index.

The GERD dispute goes regional

Ethiopia’s challenges are not just internal. The government’s recent plans to start a second filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile were vehemently rejected by Sudan and Egypt, which see the dam as a critical threat to their main water source. In May, Sudan and Egypt carried out joint war games in a show of strength towards Ethiopia. Talks between the three countries to arrive at an agreement governing water use stalled in April, and Ethiopia pushed forward with plans to complete and fill the dam unilaterally.

Cairo has responded by initiating an aggressive diplomatic campaign in Ethiopia’s backyard. In recent months, Egypt has signed military and economic cooperation agreements with Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Djibouti, Rwanda and Burundi. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is under increasing pressure to take on Ethiopia more aggressively, and may be forging new alliances in the Horn of Africa region in preparation for the possibility of war. In April, he warned, “I am telling our brothers in Ethiopia, let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open.”

International reactions and future implications

International pressure on Ethiopia, already intense over the crisis in Tigray, has been compounded by concerns surrounding last week’s election. On Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he viewed the vote as “not free or fair for all Ethiopians,” citing opposition boycotts, detentions, and insecurity in many parts of the country. He also called for a ceasefire in Tigray and the exit of all Eritrean troops in the region. In a separate statement made the same day, the European Union and 12 countries, including Britain and Japan, cited “problematic conditions” with the poll and urged a deescalation of conflict. The EU’s planned election observation mission was canceled in March after Ethiopian authorities did not agree to key parameters.

Pressure is also mounting on Ethiopia over the emerging famine. “We are witnessing a humanitarian nightmare. This is not the kind of disaster that can be reversed,” the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said earlier this month. While China and Russia have blocked the UN Security Council from addressing the Tigray famine, the US and EU recently held a high-level roundtable to draw attention to the crisis. The US also announced $181 million in aid for victims of the conflict, imposed sanctions against Ethiopian and Eritrean officials, and cut economic and military aid to Ethiopia.

In spite of heightened international pressure, the latest election may not have a significant impact on the Ethiopian government’s conduct in Tigray and other issues, like GERD. Much of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s base of support opposes the Tigrayan leadership, so he has little incentive to change course. A victory in the polls will strengthen his hand and allow him to claim a mandate for his actions, making it easier to ignore the calls from the international community to resolve the conflict. Whether yesterday’s ceasefire is the first step towards lasting peace in Ethiopia remains to be seen. In the meantime, the ongoing hunger emergency could continue to worsen, at immense human cost.

John Dashe,
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement