Otago Daily Times

De­ci­sion to post­pone Ethiopia poll bad mis­take

- Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent London jour­nal­ist. Politics · Elections · Ethiopia · United States of America · Donald Trump · Abiy Ahmed · Revolutionary Democratic Front · Africa · Henry Kissinger · Myanmar · Tigray · Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front · Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna · Tigrayan People's Liberation Front · Eritrea · Aung San Suu Kyi · Prosperity Party

AMER­I­CANS should con­grat­u­late them­selves. Their elec­tion sys­tem is def­i­nitely bet­ter than

Ethiopia’s. In fact, it works so well that there’s un­likely to be an­other Amer­i­can civil war.

The United States, a fed­eral coun­try with a com­plex and de­crepit vot­ing sys­tem, has nev­er­the­less just held a na­tional elec­tion de­spite about a quar­ter­mil­lion Covid­19 deaths. Pres­i­dent Don­ald

Trump is find­ing it hard to process his de­feat, but the sys­tem it­self worked fine, de­spite the pan­demic.

Ethiopia, an­other fed­eral coun­try with one­third of Amer­ica’s pop­u­la­tion but less than one­hun­dredth of the US Covid death rate, should have held its sched­uled elec­tion this au­tumn too, but Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed post­poned it ‘‘be­cause of Covid’’. That was a very se­ri­ous mis­take.

The gov­ern­ment of the Tigray re­gion of Ethiopia ac­cused Abiy of need­less de­lay, and when he re­fused to change his mind it went ahead and held the elec­tion in Tigray any­way.

Abiy said the newly elected gov­ern­ment of Tigray (same as the old gov­ern­ment) was il­le­gal be­cause he had post­poned the elec­tions, Tigray said the fed­eral gov­ern­ment was il­le­gal be­cause it had uni­lat­er­ally ex­tended its man­date in­stead of hold­ing the elec­tions, and they went to war. In only a week they’ve worked their way up from lo­cal clashes to air strikes.

This is so stupid and reck­less it makes Amer­i­can pol­i­tics look pos­i­tively de­mure by com­par­i­son. To be fair, though, Ethiopia has only re­cently emerged from 45 years of rev­o­lu­tion, white and red ter­ror, re­newed tyranny, more rev­o­lu­tion and prac­ti­cally non­stop civil and in­ter­na­tional war. Ethiopia is a re­ally hard place to gov­ern.

When Abiy Ahmed was ap­pointed prime min­is­ter two years ago by the rul­ing coali­tion, the Ethiopian Peo­ple’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Demo­cratic Front (EPRDF), he was the first Oromo ever to gov­ern the coun­try, even though the Oromo are the largest of Ethiopia’s many eth­nic groups (a third of the pop­u­la­tion). They have been unhappy for a long time, so that was a plus.

So was the fact that he was the son of a Chris­tian­Mus­lim mar­riage, use­ful in a coun­try that is two­thirds Chris­tian, onethird Mus­lim. And Abiy’s in­ten­tions were good: he im­me­di­ately set about to dis­man­tle the stran­gle­hold on power of the var­i­ous eth­nic mili­tias that had fought and won the long war against the Derg, the pre­vi­ous com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship.

The most pow­er­ful of those mili­tias is the Tigray Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Front. Tigray, the coun­try’s north­ern­most prov­ince, has only six mil­lion peo­ple, a mere 5% of Ethiopia’s pop­u­la­tion, but Tigrayan sol­diers and politi­cians have dom­i­nated the EPRDF coali­tion and gov­ern­ment for most of the past 30 years be­cause of their his­toric role in the war against the Derg.

The Tigrayan po­lit­i­cal elite’s priv­i­lege was widely re­sented, and it was time for it to end. Last year Abiy tried to do that by merg­ing all the eth­nic mili­tiabased par­ties into a sin­gle Pros­per­ity Party, but the TPLF lead­er­ship wouldn’t play. They had al­ways lived in the cas­tle, and no­body was go­ing to make them go and live with the com­mon­ers.

It is, alas, as sim­ple as that, and per­haps a more ac­com­plished civil­ian politi­cian could have fi­nessed it: cabi­net posts, am­bas­sador­ships and/or fat life­time pen­sions for the more flex­i­ble Tigrayan lead­ers, dis­creet but mas­sive bribes for the greed­ier ones and a cou­ple of fa­tal ‘‘ac­ci­dents’’ for the hard­est nuts.

Abiy Ahmed, de­spite a back­ground in in­tel­li­gence work that should have given him good po­lit­i­cal skills, is in­flex­i­ble and con­fronta­tional.

The cas­cade of threats, counter­threats and ul­ti­ma­tums be­tween him and the TPLF lead­er­ship is now cul­mi­nat­ing in what amounts to a Tigrayan war of se­ces­sion.

❛ Ethiopia is Africa’s se­cond­big­gest coun­try, very poor but with a fast­grow­ing econ­omy. The very last

thing it needs is yet an­other civil war . . .

It could be a long war, be­cause Tigrayans are over­rep­re­sented in the armed forces and much of the army’s heavy weapons and equip­ment, which were based in Tigray be­cause of the bor­der war with Eritrea, has fallen into the TPLF’s hands. The TPLF has no air force, but it can match the fed­eral army in ev­ery­thing up to and in­clud­ing mech­a­nised di­vi­sions.

Ethiopia is Africa’s sec­ond­biggest coun­try, very poor but with a fast­grow­ing econ­omy.

The very last thing it needs is yet an­other civil war, which in cur­rent cir­cum­stances could also lead to other re­gions try­ing to se­cede. Even if the TPLF was try­ing to pro­voke a war (which looks quite likely), Abiy Ahmed’s first duty was to avoid it at all costs.

They gave Abiy the No­bel Peace Prize last year for bring­ing Ethiopia’s 22­year bor­der war with Eritrea to a for­mal end, but that award has been go­ing down­hill ever since Henry Kissinger got one.

They even gave one to Myan­mar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who now goes around con­don­ing geno­cide.

Maybe we also need a No­bel Booby Prize.

 ?? PHOTO: REUTERS ?? Ethiopia’s Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed is con­sid­ered in­flex­i­ble and con­fronta­tional.
PHOTO: REUTERS Ethiopia’s Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed is con­sid­ered in­flex­i­ble and con­fronta­tional.
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