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Corona hinders ethiopian elections and takes constitution as hostage

For Ethiopia the virus has been a genie let out of the bottle that has exacerbated an existent political crisis. Since 2014 enormous sacrifices in the forms of deadly riots and protests have been made in order to get to the starting line for democratic change – something that many are expecting will lead to more freedom and equality. The national elections were to be held in May 2020 but are now indefinitely postponed. Merga Yonas Bula, a journalist specialized in Africa and in particular in Ethiopia, describes a country similar to other African countries that also had planned elections this year, but where governments in various ways are using the pandemic as an excuse to either cancel the elections or to postpone them without setting any new dates.

Credits Text: Merga Yonas Bula July 07 2020

In Ethiopia, the first Corona virus (COVID-19) case was recorded on March 13 and until June 29, it has affected 5846 people and killed more than 100 people. As the pandemic attested, its mercilessness is not limited to razing lives, but also affecting the day to day livelihood of people and their civil manifestations including, but not only, assemblage and voting in election.

In Ethiopia, the Corona virus is apparently a genie released out of the bottle just to join the already existing political and constitutional crisis. Decades of demands to self-rule as per the constitution, to halt land misappropriation, and stop mass arrests, mainly in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest regional state, reached its point of no return in 2014. Government’s malfunction to respond to the demands finally took students, civil servants and other people to the streets in Oromia. Security forces exchanged the demands for bullets and stepped-up the arrest. After a year, the protests escalated in the region and in 2016 expanded into the second largest region of Amhara. Hundreds and thousands of people were killed and injured by security forces. Peace and security instability led to inter-ethnic conflict, which displaced close to three million people.

In 2018, after four years of deadly protests, the Ethiopian government gave in and the new faces who came to power, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who pledged reforms, which were aimed to respond to the public demands, and transit the country from autocratic system to democratic one. For such transition to be realized, voters aspired for May 2020 election, which was postponed for August 29 due to lack of preparation.Ethiopia’s Electoral Board, a body responsible holding the election, delayed August election for an indefinite time because of the Corona pandemic.

Critiques argue that the election had already missed its trajectory even before the influx of Corona. One among the critiques of PM Abiy’s administration has been Jawar Mohammed, the protesters’ frontman who returned from exile in 2018 and joined one of the largest opposition political parties in Oromia region – Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC).

I talked to him before his arrest along 34 people over the alleged dispute of laying to rest the body of Hachalu Hundessa, Oromos popular resistance singer and song writer who were gunned down by yet unidentified person on Monday June 29. The alleged dispute between them and security forces is whether Hachalu’s burial place should be in Addis Ababa or his birth place Ambo, located some 100 km west of the capital city.

During the interview, Jawar said huge sacrifices were paid to reach the starting line of transition – a transition that many anticipated would bring about freedom and democratic equality. He saw the current government as a custodian of the transition that was expected to lead the country towards fulfilling voters’ aspiration. However, in the last two years there has been a problem of sitting down with the incumbent Prosperity Party (PP) and lay down common approach in realizing the transition, he argues.

Experts who closely follow the country’s affairs assert that the postponement of August Election would not be solely attributed to the pandemic rather also to the Board’s “ill preparation”.

“The pandemic is a windfall for them [the Board] so they didn’t have to show once again that they are ill prepared. Now it’s a legitimate excuse to say that we cannot go on. Because without the pandemic, the election probably won’t have been held on August 29 anyway”, argues Kjetil Tronvoll, Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Bjorknes University in Oslo.

In the country, postponing the election due to the pandemic was unanimously accepted. Yet, some question remains and that is when will Ethiopia control the pandemic? This is the “ambiguity” the country is in, says Tronvoll.

Emergency Decree: The double edged sword

Eight days after the announcement of election rescheduling, Ethiopia declared the State of Emergency (SoE) on April 8 with an aim to fight the virus. The State-owned Ethiopian News Agency (ENA) reported that throughout the period which the proclamation remains in force there will be “a centralized communication system” in place.

This ‘centralized communication system’ taken humbly will do no harm had successive regimes records being positive.

During Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, underestimated, underreported and unreported number of people were affected by famine and cholera in the early 1970s, which later led to the death of about 200,000 people. Following the fall of the Emperor in 1974, the military junta tried to “conceal the fact that famine continued” and tried to silence the 1980s famine, which increased the vulnerability of people. The later famine killed up to a million people. The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), successor of the military junta and the ruled the country until last year, was often accused of underestimating the number of people affected due drought, hunger and other health crisis.

Thus, the ‘centralized communication system’, which makes the government the sole supplier of information regarding the pandemic, has been seeing with skepticism considering the above stated episodes. So far there are no such incidents when it comes to the pandemic. But again, looking back into action of past regimes leaves one to think that it is likely for the current regime too.

The SoE decree prohibits media outlets “to disseminate any information about Covid-19 and related issues which would cause terror and undue distress among the public.” The recent Human Rights Watch report critiqued the content of the provision as unclear and one that contain undefined language, which “[makes] it difficult for journalists, activists, and anyone posting on social media to know what speech or reporting would violate the law and increase the risk of misuse by authorities”.

Up until the current ruling party was forced to call for a reform in 2018, there were only state owned and a handful of private media who operated under the blessing of EPRDF. During quarter century rule of EPRDF, media houses that were not to the liking of the party were either forced to shut down or operated under occasional explicit censorship. Likewise, media professionals were either pressured to practice self-censorship or jailed and pushed into exile. However, since 2018 media houses and professionals are enjoying relative freedom to operate. Yet, considering that decades of trauma, it is naive to expect self-censorship practices in the State and private media to be over soon.

Reaching out to the public with credible information, particularly about the pandemic, calls for urgency. Mis/disinformation regarding its origin and unverified cure methods is getting hysterical, not only from ordinary citizen but including leaders. Some have been quoted advising their citizen from “inhaling a very hot steam”, to consuming alcohol to cure the pandemic. Therefore, the provision in the SoE that forbids dissemination of “false information as well as information from unknown sources” is unconditionally acceptable.

However, this also begs the question ‘are officials equipped to meet demands of access to information?’. Often officials are unwilling to face media and confirm information to reporters, and it is also of recent experience that the State was involved in shutting down the Internet and telephone lines on the ground of peace and security. Therefore, according to experts, placing such provision at the cost of lack of information would exacerbate the already existing self-censorship among journalists.

There are different politically motivated groups, both internally and externally, who want to use the loophole created by the pandemic and push to destabilize the country, said the Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies. However, at the same time, the provision in SoE can be used to “stifle the media atmosphere and make journalist more apprehensive”, Tronvoll asserted.

Beyond its obstruction on access to information, observers argue that the decree has been used in ways that further exacerbate human rights violations, including arrests and killings.

One demand of the protesters back then was to stop mass arrest and release political prisoners, activists and journalists, which one can say was relatively met. The government also claimed that it has carried out restructuring security apparatus, although critiques were not convinced about it. However, opposition politicians alleged the ruling party for rolling back to square one and for stepping up arrest and extrajudicial killings.

Before being the victim of the arrest, Jawar said, using the SoE as a shield, the security forces have been arresting members of opposition parties and “beating youngsters who have been in the resistance against government”.

Constitutional Catch-22: Legal or Political Solution?

The postponement of election for indefinite time due the Corona pandemic left the PP, opposition political parties and the general public in dilemma. The five year government’s term to be in office will come to an end in September 2020. This means that after September, the incumbent – who controls both the upper (House of Federation) and lower chamber (House of Peoples’ Representative) – will constitutionally be invalid. In order to come out of this problem, the government tabled four proposals: dissolving the current parliament, re-declaring the State of Emergency, or amending the constitution and constitutional interpretation.

Although the later one is favored by the ruling party, four of them were not to the liking of the opposition political parties. They refuted the first proposal on the basis that there wouldn’t be enough time to dissolve the parliament and hold a new election in six months. As for the second, they have argued extending the state of emergency until Corona is controlled will be an extension of power since no one knows for sure when the pandemic will be over. The last two proposals have been contested on the basis of legitimacy since the two chambers are controlled by the ruling party.

However, the fourth proposal – constitutional interpretation – was opted by the PP and the House of Federation approved the extension of both houses term limit until COVID-19 is declared not a threat to the public.

Opposition parties have been rather suggesting for political dialogue including leading the country under a care-taker to forming a transitional government.

Jawar, as a member of the OFC proposed that “if political players reach on a consensus on how to move forward, their consensus can be brought into the constitution; because, constitution means political consensus.”

At the start of the transition in 2018, there was enthusiasm from the ruling party side to conduct ‘genuine’ reform with the support of all stakeholders including the opposition political parties. However, since recently the tone of harmony appear to be fading into discord.

Not welcoming the opposition parties’ proposal is one showcase that tells a “dictatorial system” in its formation, says Jawar; “and dictatorial system does not believe in discussion rather to hold onto power.”

Ethiopia, with its more than 100 million populations, is ethnically diverse and polarized in their political view. The peace and security in the country has been performing on a tightrope. Current constitutional crisis being added to the already exisiting political instability could worsen the situation, argue critics.

Jawar feared “this constitutional crisis will branch off into political crisis.” When that happens “opposition political parties will not then remain seat, rather they might divert to using forces. And the political crisis will lead to security crisis, which the country cannot afford.”

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