Ethiopia’s Nobel Prize-Winning Leader Faces Election as War Rages in Tigray

Ethiopia’s election was meant to be the crowning moment for Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister

Abiy Ahmed,

a popular recognition of his efforts to break open one of Africa’s most entrenched one-party states and liberalize its tightly controlled economy.

Instead, the country of 110 million people headed to the polls Monday in turmoil, fighting a bloody civil war in the northern province of Tigray and escalating ethnic uprisings elsewhere that are reverberating across the strategic Horn of Africa region.

Voting in the election, already delayed by a year due the coronavirus pandemic, won’t take place in one-fifth of Ethiopia’s 547 electoral districts, due to violence or logistical problems. While some regional votes have been scheduled for September, there is no prospect for ballots being cast in Tigray, where Ethiopian forces are fighting alongside troops from neighboring Eritrea against separatist militias resisting more centralized control. International observers, including U.S. officials, have reported atrocities and an expanding famine. In the Oromia region that surrounds the capital, Addis Ababa, opposition parties are boycotting the vote, citing repression of its candidates and supporters by Mr. Ahmed’s new Prosperity Party.

Prosperity, which Mr. Ahmed formed from the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that ruled the country for three decades, will almost certainly come first once results are announced over the next month—although it might fall short of the 100% of parliamentary seats the EPRDF won in 2015. The prime minister, who won international plaudits for releasing thousands of political prisoners after rising to power in 2018 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, has described the vote as Ethiopia’s “first attempt at free and fair elections” that will help create a more unitary state to replace ethnic federalism.

But many observers fear that the election has unleashed the opposite: deepening violent conflicts within Ethiopia and generating volatility across a fragile geography perched next to some of the world’s most vital shipping lanes. Long an anchor of stability in the Horn of Africa, Addis Ababa is also now in an increasingly tense standoff with Egypt over a dam it is building on the Nile River and Sudan over a disputed border section.

A staff member of Ethiopia’s electoral board delivered papers showing the political parties running in the election on June 17.


yasuyoshi chiba/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“This election has already led to significant armed confrontation among various actors in the country and has been one of the main contributors of the war in Tigray,” said Awol Allo, a senior lecturer of law at Keele University in England who says he was among those who nominated Mr. Ahmed for the Nobel but has since become a critic. “If Ethiopia itself is to descend into chaos and instability, the region most likely will descend into chaos and instability.”

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front had been the dominant force within the EPRDF until Mr. Ahmed took over, but in 2019 refused to join the Prosperity Party and last year held its own provincial election, despite the federal mandate to delay the vote. That decision escalated tensions with Mr. Ahmed’s government, which has declared the TPLF a terrorist group and in November started a war to regain control of the Tigray region.

The seven-month war in Tigray has displaced more than two million people and led to what U.S. and other international observers say are ethnically motivated killings, rapes and other human-rights violations. The European Union’s special envoy on Ethiopia, Finnish Foreign Minister

Pekka Haavisto,

last week testified at the European Parliament that senior officials told him “they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years” and that such an aim “looks for us like ethnic cleansing.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a campaign event on June 16 ahead of the election.


tiksa negeri/Reuters

A 71-year-old displaced woman who lost her daughter during the conflict in Tigray sits on a mattress in a classroom in Mekelle, Ethiopia.


yasuyoshi chiba/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said Mr. Haavisto’s testimony was “a complete fabrication” and an attempt to undermine Mr. Ahmed’s government.

United Nations agencies say at least 350,000 Tigrayans are already living in famine conditions, while some 90% of the region’s inhabitants—as many as 5.2 million people—are in urgent need of food aid. The U.N.’s Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, has said the current situation already carries echoes of the 1984 famine that killed as many as one million Ethiopians.

The Ethiopian government has denied that there is a hunger crisis in Tigray and says it is providing relief to those in need.

In Tigray, Ethiopian forces have been fighting side by side with soldiers from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s archenemy until the 2018 peace deal. Rights groups have blamed Eritrean troops, along with local Ethiopian militias, for many of the alleged atrocities in Tigray. The U.S. last month imposed visa restrictions on senior Ethiopian and Eritrean officials implicated in the war in Tigray.

At the heart of many of the tensions roiling Ethiopia is a clash between two fundamentally different visions for the country’s future: Mr. Ahmed says his aim is to unify Ethiopia and forge a stronger national identity—a strategy that his critics say ignores the country’s history as a federation of different ethnic groups. Regional parties that initially hoped that the prime minister’s liberalization agenda would give them more autonomy are rebelling against the government.

“If the current government needs to heal Ethiopia as a nation, it should initiate an all-inclusive national dialogue,” said Merera Gudina, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, one of the parties boycotting the election. “This holds the way out for the country.”

Yemiserach Tewodros, a lecturer in political science at Bahir Dar University in northwestern Ethiopia, said she worries that voting in the election won’t resolve the problems her country is facing. But, she said, “I have to cast my vote at least to see a changed dynamics in the federal parliament, where opposition parties have a meaningful number of seats.”

A man carries a sack of wheat during a food distribution effort in Ataye, Ethiopia.


eduardo soteras/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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