Ethiopia is preparing to hold crucial and twice-delayed elections across the country on June 21, despite growing concern over the credibility of the vote as well as a famine in war-torn Tigray.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appointed in 2018 after years of anti-government unrest, craves a popular mandate through competitive elections to cement a promised democratic rebirth in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner is pushing ahead with the election despite ongoing fighting and a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, where voting will not proceed on Monday, along with some other restive parts of the country.
Opposition parties in other pivotal regions are boycotting the election, the sixth since the end of military rule in Ethiopia 30 years ago.
All previous ballots fell short of international standards for fairness, and Abiy — who won early praise for embarking on democratic and economic reforms — insists that June 21 will mark a departure from the authoritarian past.
“A week from today, Ethiopians we will cast our vote in the sixth national elections, which will be the nation’s first attempt at free and fair elections,” Abiy posted on Twitter on Monday.
“Go out and vote next Monday… let’s make it a positively historic day together!”
– Tigray –
But the war in Tigray — not Abiy’s much-vaunted vote — has been the focus of global concern, with appeals from the pope and world leaders at the G7 for the bloodshed to end.
UN agencies say 350,000 people in the northern region are barely surviving in famine conditions, including tens of thousands of malnourished children. Ethiopia disputes the figures and says aid groups have been granted unfettered access to the region.
Abiy’s reputation as a reformist and peacemaker has been seriously dented since he sent the army into Tigray in November to oust the ruling TPLF party there.
Eritrean soldiers and allied militias joined the fight, which Abiy promised would be short but has dragged on for seven months. The conflict has been characterised by terrible atrocities and alleged ethnic cleansing.
There will be no vote in the mountainous region of six million on June 21, with no future date set.
But Tigray — with 38 of the 547 seats in Ethiopia’s national parliament — is just one place where no ballots will be cast Monday.
Ethnic violence and logistical setbacks forced the National Election Board of Ethiopia to postpone voting in numerous locations until September 6. The board has not specified the exact number of constituencies affected, but there are dozens in addition to Tigray.
– ‘Obstacles’ –
The United States, historically an ally of Ethiopia but an increasingly vocal critic as the Tigray conflict drags on, has expressed alarm at the conditions under which the vote will occur.
The detention of prominent opposition leaders and ethnic conflict roiling swathes of the country pose “obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week.
“The exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling,” he added.
The European Union said in May it would not send observers to the polls, citing a failure to reach an agreement with the government on basic issues like communications and the observers’ independence.
Staging nationwide elections is a logistical feat at the best of times in the enormous nation of 110 million where poor infrastructure barely reaches into remoter parts of savannah, mountain and desert terrain.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the first postponement in August 2020, then the vote was pushed back to June 21 because of technical problems, including a massive shortage of election officials and slow voter registration.
In early June, with the vote just weeks away, the board said ballot paper irregularities and fake polling stations had hindered preparations, but that about 37 million voters had registered.
Abiy’s Prosperity Party is fielding the most candidates for national parliamentary races and is the firm favourite to win, with a broad reach unmatched by other political parties.
The campaign has been muted in the capital Addis Ababa, while south of the capital in Hawassa, an AFP journalist this week noted a near-total absence of opposition posters.
Benin’s opposition goes into hiding
Silence has fallen around the political opposition in Benin, once a beacon of multi-party democracy, where arrests have proliferated since presidential elections less than four months ago.
“It’s better not to say anything, not to see anything, and most of all, to support the president,” said an opposition leader who asked to remain anonymous.
“It’s simple — we are scared of getting arrested like the others.”
Critics say the West African country has veered into authoritarian rule under President Patrice Talon, a former cotton magnate first elected in 2016.
After that victory, major opposition figures were targeted for investigation by a special court and went into exile.
Since the last elections on April 11, which Talon won with 86 percent of votes, “the situation has worsened and the fear of speaking out, of ending up in a jail, has never been stronger,” said Benin-based analyst Expedit Ologou.
Press contact with opposition leaders and civil society figures, in what was once a vibrant political forum, has shrivelled.
“I would rather not speak to the press”, “can I speak off the record?”, “let’s wait and see” were frequent responses to AFP for interview requests this month.
– Arrests –
The trigger for this self-imposed blackout has been the arrest of two key opposition leaders, Joel Aivo and Reckya Madougou, who were disqualified from running in this year’s election.
Aivo was arrested just days after the vote, and stands accused of undermining state security.
A few weeks before the vote, Madougou was arrested, for plotting terrorist acts to undermine the ballot.
Both say the charges are politically motivated.
“If the regime is capable of imprisoning personalities as respected and important, then no-one is safe,” said the leader of a France-based organisation supporting Benin’s opposition.
“Aivo and Madougou are the most emblematic cases but there are many more young opposition members who have ended up in jail before and after the election.”
Critics of the government say at least one hundred opposition members are currently detained.
Authorities in Benin did not respond to AFP’s request for comment on their claim.
“After these arrests, many of us have fled to neighbouring countries,” said a source close to Aivo, who in mid-April moved to Togo.
There, and in Nigeria, “about a hundred young people have arrived” recently, many with little resources but too scared to go back home, he said.
One is 33-year-old Bill Souleymane Kingninohou, a local representative of the Democrats opposition party.
He left Cotonou on April 7 and headed to Togo, where he has since asked for asylum.
“A police officer threatened me by phone, and people close to me were arrested, so I left,” he said, adding that his family stayed behind.
“It’s better than ending up in prison,” he added.
Many of those who fled are from the centre of the country, said the source close to Aivo, where violence erupted during the campaign.
– Tensions –
In the lead-up to the vote, two people were killed when troops opened fire to clear opposition protesters blockading a major highway.
Government officials say security forces responded after they came under fire.
For his second term in office, hopes were that Talon would attempt to ease tensions. But three months after the vote, “there is no sign of any political dialogue,” said Ologou.
Presidential spokesman Wilfried Houngbedji told AFP that the country had a “chief opposition leader in accordance with the law.”
“Nobody is stopping anyone from speaking out, from criticising. You simply have to take responsibility for your words,” he said.
The opposition gained no seats in the National Assembly in the 2019 legislative elections.
In such a scenario, under a law passed that year, the title of chief opposition leader goes to the opposition candidate who garnered most signatures of support from elected local officials.
That title thus fell to Paul Hounkpe, leader of the Cowry Forces for an Emerging Benin (FCBE) — a party criticised by its founder ex-president Thomas Boni Yayi, a Talon rival, as having become too close to the government.
“After the press, the unions, it’s now political parties which are under pressure,” said journalist Vincent Foly, director of a pro-opposition paper, La Nouvelle Tribune, banned three years ago.
Even parties seen as radical, such as the Democrats and the Social Liberal Union, are in a “state of lethargy,” he said.
“There are no more meetings, protests or even strong statements from their leaders,” said Foly.
“And the regime has no interest in sitting down with the opposition if they don’t have to.”
Nigeria: National Assembly legislators are saboteurs — Catholic bishops
The National Assembly legislators are saboteurs, say Catholic bishops in Nigeria, accusing them of having “perfected the art of sabotaging” Nigerians’ progress.
Under the Ibadan Ecclesiastical Province, the Catholic clerics advised the federal legislators to prioritise Nigerians’ interests above party and selfish interests.
“With the National Assembly at various occasions prioritising party and privileges over people’s rights and interest, relief and progress continue to elude Nigerians,” said the bishops. “Simply put, those who claim to represent the people seem to have perfected the art of sabotaging the progress of their (sic) same people.”
They urged Nigerians to challenge their representatives “by all legitimate means,” asserting that they must not accept the parliament’s “non-representative decisions.”
“Indeed, the time may have come for Nigerians to no longer simply roll over and accept non-representative decisions of the assembly, but to challenge them by all legitimate means,” stated the bishops.
The bishops from Ibadan Archdiocese, Ilorin, Ondo, Oyo, Ekiti, and Osogbo Dioceses, said this in a communique after their meeting at the Domus Pacis Pastoral Institute, Igoba, Akure, on Wednesday evening.
The clerics condemned the passage of the amended Electoral Act and the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and urged Nigerians to challenge the Senate and the House of Representatives’ decisions.
They appealed to Nigerians not to lose hope in the possibility of a peaceful, united, and prosperous country, urging the media and civil society groups to sustain the momentum on increased public awareness and education on the importance of political participation at all levels of governance.
“We say stand firm and never lose hope for God cannot be defeated. We call on Nigerians to continue to pray and work for a better nation, for we have no other country than this.
“If we do not give up doing good and believing in God’s promise, we shall see better days…. We also urge our people to register and obtain their voters’ cards; only this grants them the power to exercise their rights to determine who governs them from time to time.
“Our country will greatly benefit from this,” added the Catholic bishops.
Somaliland opposition joins forces to grab control of parliament
Two opposition parties in the self-declared republic of Somaliland said Sunday they had formed a coalition giving them a majority in parliament following long-delayed local and legislative elections.
The territory in the north of Somalia declared independence 30 years ago but has never achieved international recognition.
But it has a functioning government and institutions, its own currency, passport and armed forces.
In the May 31 elections, more than a million voters were eligible to cast ballots to elect 82 lawmakers and 220 local councillors in a political system limited to three parties.
According to official results, the leading opposition party, Wadani, won 31 seats in parliament, followed by the ruling party Kulmiye with 30 seats and the opposition UCID with 21.
Wadani and the UCID announced their alliance shortly after the results were announced on Sunday.
Hargeisa Ismail Adan Isman, spokesman of the new coalition, told reporters that the move was “in the interest of the unity of the people of Somaliland”.
With a combined 52 seats, the alliance will enjoy an absolute majority in parliament.
The two parties together also won 127 local councillors — 79 for Wadani and 48 for the UCID — against 93 for the outgoing ruling party.
The new balance of power is expected to reduce President Muse Bihi’s room for manoeuvre. The next presidential election is set for late 2022.
Somaliland’s last legistative elections were in 2005, and the May 31 vote had been postponed several times.
Somaliland, formerly British Somalia, fused with the former Italian Somalia at independence in 1960. It seceded unilaterally in 1991 after the fall of the dictator Siad Barre, which plunged the country into clan-based fighting.
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