Otago Daily Times

Decision to postpone Ethiopia poll bad mistake

- Gwynne Dyer is an independen­t London journalist.

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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