The Oromo Liberation Front would have been among Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s fiercest competitors in Ethiopia’s election on Monday, but the opposition party is boycotting the 21 June vote.
“We believe this election will not bring anything for Ethiopia,” said Shigut Geleta, a member of the OLF who was twice detained in the last year.
“The conflict of Ethiopia will rather be fuelled and be aggravated after the election, whether Prime Minister Abiy will win by 100 percent or not.”
Ethiopia’s election takes place against the backdrop of the Tigray conflict which has raged for seven months. The conflict pitted the former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, against Ethiopian troops alongside old enemy Eritrea. It was a bloody sign that Ethiopia’s federal system was already cracking.
“This needs an all-inclusive dialogue of all stake-holders of Ethiopia,” said Shigut, a member of the party since 1989.
“Abiy Ahmed is losing control and leaving behind the federalist programme, being a deaf ear instead of solving it.”
Detained opposition leaders
Several members of the Oromo Liberation Front’s leadership are currently detained in Ethiopia. The party’s chairperson Dawud Ibsa has been under house arrest since last July, but the conditions of his detention worsened on 3 May, when security forces raided his home.
Members of his party have not been able to make contact with him since, said Shigut who is a close advisor to the chairperson.
Shigut too was recently detained for nearly three months in Addis Ababa. Now in Munich, Germany, he told News24 of the “hidden place” he was held without warrant or charge. The 58-year-old was then moved to a crowded cell, sharing a narrow room with 225 people, even as the coronavirus spread across the East African country.
A German citizen, weeks of international pressure helped secure a court date and eventually his release. His fellow party members were not as fortunate.
Shigut said: “[When] the prison freed them, the Oromia [provincial] police waited for them outside the prison and collected them again.”
While the central committee of the OLF has chosen to boycott the election, a faction within the party tried to defiantly join the ballot. This division, Shigut says is, “… an extension of Abiy”, pointing to the prime minister’s influence.
Abiy and the OLF were once politically aligned. In 2018, Abiy ushered in a new moment in Ethiopian politics, unbanning the OLF and the OFC, welcoming its leaders home from exile. Last year though, a rift over the delayed 2020 election and other political disputes led to the arrest of Jawar Mohammed, a media mogul turned leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, under terrorism charges.
The OLF and OFC planned to compete in these elections as a coalition. The parties represent the country’s largest ethnic group, and a restive region that has challenged the government in Addis Ababa for greater representation. When Abiy first came to power in 2018, he rode a wave of Oromo support and promised peace.
As Abiy and Oromo leaders fell out over the overhaul of the country’s federalist system, the prime minister cracked down on opposition leaders. The rift between Abiy’s Progressive Party and the Oromo coalition was made worse by the Oromo Liberation Army, blamed for continuing a violent secessionist campaign in the Oromia region. Shigut believes Abiy has willfully ignored the conflict.
The OLF, however, is still hoping for a peaceful national dialogue that will find a solution to the political impasse at the heart of Ethiopia’s challenges: an ethnically-based federal system.
“The OLF wants to see a very democratic ethnically based federal system of Ethiopia,” said Shigut.
Despite internal strife and international condemnation, Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy is pressing on with an election that will likely bring victory for his Progressive Party. A win will allow him to consolidate power, even as voting is postponed in several districts over unrest and improper balloting.
“The grave problems with the elections demonstrate that – more than ever – Ethiopia needs an inclusive process of political reconciliation. The authorities say they are already holding a ‘national dialogue’ among groups and citizens, but with so many disgruntled opposition elements, this initiative is unlikely to calm the waters,” wrote William Davison, senior analyst at International Crisis Group.
The other major parties competing in the election, Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party and the Balderas for True Democracy support an overhaul of the ethnically based system. The leader of the latter party, however, also faces terrorism charges.
Pressing ahead with the vote could lead to violence in the capital, which, while ethnically diverse, is encircled by the Oromia region, warns Davison.
He added: “The underlying dispute could exacerbate power-sharing tensions in Addis Ababa between the Oromia and Amhara branches of the Prosperity Party. If defeated, as looks almost certain, Oromo nationalists may object to losing control of the capital.”
Abiy has also rebuffed mediation efforts over the conflict in Tigray, including those from South Africa. His office has also publicly dismissed criticism over electoral processes, and the shrinking democratic space in the run-up to the vote.
Abiy’s office did not respond to request for comment. The Ministry of Peace as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also did not respond to requests for comment.