Jul 27, 2021

UNPO, Ethiopian Communities Hold Dialogue

On June 21, Ethiopia held its general elections for 547 members of the federal parliament and local councils in ten regional states.

Despite being the first multi-party election in Ethiopia since 2005, this was not an event to celebrate. The vote occurred has been postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it is occurring in the midst of violence, human rights violations, political tensions, harassment of media, a recent telecommunications blackout and detention of opposition members. Our members report that these elections have hardly been free or fair.

As a result, according to most recent press, 110 out of 547 constituencies could not hold elections due to “security and logistical challenges”. Elections for those constituencies are expected to be held in September of this year.

According to the EU High Representative Josep Borrell, the deployment of an EU Election Observation Mission was cancelled, because “it was not possible to reach an agreement with Ethiopian authorities on key parameters for the deployment of an EU Election Observation, namely the independence of the Mission and the import of Mission communication systems, something that is key for the security of EU observers, in particular in the context of a challenging security environment.”

The Greens/European Free Alliance of the European Parliament and the UNPO hosted a webinar on 1 July 2021 to discuss the meaning of the Ethiopian elections for its ethnic minorities. Titled “Electoral Debrief: A dialogue with civil societies on the Ethiopian elections”. This event was put together with close coordination with the Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association, which served as the primary interface with the community members alongside the UNPO.

The event brought together European Parliamentarians with a panel combining leaders of civil societies who represented the following communities: Agew, Amhara, Benishangul, Oromo, Kemant, Sidama, Somali and Tigrayian. Speakers were asked to discuss best practices, challenges, and possible election-related irregularities that they might have witnessed. The event proceeded in three core sections: (1) opening statements of European Parliamentarians; (2) testimony from Ethiopian civil society representing different ethnic groups; and (3) a discussion on the ability of different communities to work together. 

The meeting report consolidates the speeches made and findings from that event. The meeting itself can be watched here:

Ultimately, the session was notable for bringing together such a diverse range of ethnic community representatives to discuss this sensitive topic and the high-quality of the debate that ensued. Becuause of this representatives of the nine communities agreed on participating at close door civil society dialogue hosted by the UNPO. The meeting is scheduled to be held online on 19-20 August 2021. The meeting will be among the first post-election dialogues among civil society representing such a diverse range of Ethiopia's communities and aims at finding constructive solutions for a democratic, inclusive and peaceful Ethiopia. It is hoped that the meeting will act as a springboard for a political-level dialogue in the near future.

Summary of Key Interventions

Member of the European Parliament Jordi Sole stated that, “Today’s session is a great opportunity to get first-hand information that we are lacking. We want to hear people and nations who too often are not given the chance to express themselves. I hope that we can have an informative and constructive debate that contributes to understanding of the complex situation on the ground and to a better future that involves communities, here today, with democracy and equality for all.”

Member of the European Parliament Ignazio Corrao added, “We know that Ethiopia is a key partner for the EU in the region,” and that Ethiopia should be a beacon of stability and peace in East Africa. He also spoke of European investment in Ethiopia, and about trying to remedy “blind areas” that aid workers cannot reach. He said this is especially important given the ongoing food crisis that has placed 90% of the Tigrayian population at risk of starving. He ended by noting that, “we want to know more from your side and try to understand what we can do.”

Vice President of the European Parliament Fabio Massimo Castaldo spoke next, saying, “Ethiopia is one of the most prominent countries in Africa and should be a pillar of stability. It is very positive that representatives from all Ethiopian communities have made it here today with us, and this could be an important exercise of mutual dialogue. When speaking of democracy, we should be reminded that it should give spaces to minorities and the most fragile parts of society that are often not heard or not heard enough. Holding elections has been an immense task, and those elections are in the middle of a serious conflict.” As well, “Integrity of our missions is a cornerstone. If critical participants are excluded, [then elections are undermined]. We hope that dialogue and inclusion and representation of all people happen so that all feel included and represented. I have hope that this is a good starting place, so I am eager to listen to your testimony and what you can do to help your voice rise and what we can do.”

Member of the European Parliament Jan-Christoph Oetjen couldn’t attend, but he made a video message that was played during the opening remarks. He expressed his concern over the elections in Ethiopia, and acknowledged the disenfranchisement of the Ethiopian people. He said that, “Democracy means inclusiveness and fairness and having agency over your own life”, and he said the “EU guarantees that it stands ready to work with Ethiopia and its people to make sure human rights are protected. Important to this process is your role and your opinion. Today is an opportunity for your voice to be heard.”

Mr Admassu Tsegaye Tessema, the Leader of the Agew Human Rights Advocacy Group, gave background information on the Agew people. There are about ten million in Ethiopia, and the majority of them are Christian who live in the Amhara region. Most have been undercounted because they haven’t disclosed their identity due to fear imprisonment and displacement from land. Mr Admassu made five major points. First, he said that the pre-election restrictions made the election inaccessible for the party representing Agews. Second, farmers were told to only elect the ruling party, the Prosperity Party, or they would not get land or fertilizer. Third, the party, its leader and supporters have been targeted. Notably, the party’s leader and other candidates disappeared, and nine of the fifteen party’s executed members were in detention for six months. On election day, the government tried to restrict polling stations. As well, the town was stormed on May 15 with an M14, and the party’s office was hit and partially destroyed. Fourth, the government has started a strategic takeover of the region by settling almost 100,000 people, which displaced the Agew people who are now homeless and jobless. Fifth and finally, the Agews have lost trust in the political system and feel excluded and marginalized post elections. Mr Tessema concluded his remarks by emphasizing the urgent need for the Agew people to get the attention of the international community.

Mr Tewodrose Tirfe, the Director of the Amhara Association of America, shared the adversity the Amhara ethnic community has faced, which includes the government undercounting Amharas in the 2007 census and forcing them to flee areas in Tigray when the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) invaded during civil war.  In response to disenfranchisement, the Amhara created its own opposition party in 2008. However, the government took numerous steps to limit organization and campaigning like using violence and threats of violence. Mr Tirfe concluded that the elections of June 2021 would not be fully free nor fair as a result. The voter fraud that Mr Tirfe referenced strengthened this conclusion, as did the arrest of Amhara’s party’s leader on a “ludicrous terrorist charge”. He dispelled the notion that the Amhara region feels the government represents them, and expressed the need to “get past false narratives and scapegoating of entire ethnic groups.”

Mr Okok Okok, the Representative of the Southwest Indigenous People Humanitarian Organization, explained that his organization represents 20 minority groups in the Southwest of Ethiopia. He has also noticed voting irregularities and thinks the election was a sham. One of these irregularities include more ballots than there were registered voters. This hurt the political party that was made to represent the Southwestern indigenous people that has been struggling for 25 years. Given the circumstances, he recommends negotiations with a multilateral organization rather than elections. He said, “People are fighting for self-determination, but the ruling party is fighting to centralize power.” He calls upon the international community to make this election void.

Mr Ibrahim Alkhanagy, the Chairman of the Benishangul Human Rights Foundation, spoke of the two million people who live along the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. This area is rich with natural resources, and the British handed out their land, enslaved , genocided, and “replaced them with the Agews from the highland”. He also stated that, “from 1898 to now, rulers have never treated them as humans,” but rather, as a subhuman class. He said that there never has been, and there still is not, free and fair elections in Ethiopia. According to Mr Alkhanagy, the army is killing his people, and Ethiopia doesn’t have CNN or other major media outlets to report what is happening to the world.

Mr Zakariye Abdulaahi Hassan, a journalist, activist, and human rights advocate from the Somali Region, explained that the Ogaden region is located in the East of Ethiopia and adjacent to Somalia, and the people who live there are exclusively Muslim Somalis. This region is the second largest in Ethiopia and the most resource rich, and it has been “marred with devastating conflict for the past several decades.” He mentioned how the Somalis who live there feel voiceless, and how Somali people have not experienced free and fair elections. In spite of this, the “political parties in the Ogaden region are more than willing to take part in elections this upcoming September as long as the space is set for free and fair elections”. Further, the Ogaden people fear that the peace they have secured in the region will not last.

Ms Seenaa Jimjimo, Executive Director of the Oromo Legacy Leadership & Advocacy Association, was representing Oromo, the largest community in Ethiopia, though she noted that the ruling party has tried to decrease its size. She recalled how torture and famine have been used against the opposition, and she criticized how the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was crowned leader even though he took part in abuses and killed thousands. The capital city is located in the heart of Oromia and indigenous people have been displaced from their land there. She stated, “it took Abiy only six months to declare a state of emergency when he started bombing Oromia” and carrying out torture, burning, and rapes. A fifty-page document shows “how he was eliminating Oromo to consolidate power.” Oromo community members on the ground have reported prisoners with clear signs of torture. There were no Oromo candidates in the past election, and there were many voting irregularities.

Ms Abeba Teferi, the President of the Kemant Advocacy Group, spoke of how people have lived in the Amhara region of Ethiopia for 6,000 years, and now have been tortured, maimed, and killed systematically. “Every group has a right to promote its culture and to preserve its history. Every nationality has the right to self government.” She condemned the national government as “corrupt and oppressive” with many secrets about the atrocities it has committed.

Mr Samuel Sijuarie Sakkuma, an Executive Council Member of the Sidama Diaspora Community, talked about the Sidama people and how they have lost self-rule since 1890 and have since been struggling since to regain it. Notably, the Sidama people led a peaceful ‘Ejjeettoo’ movement, which is a series of peaceful demonstrations and stay-at-home protests. This was met with the government killing 100 Sidama civilians in a 13-month period. During the most recent election, the opposition parties weren’t given equal opportunity because, in Mr. Sakkuma’s words, the “government controls everything”. Mr. Sakkuma presented a series of recommendations ending with suggesting that the European Union and the international community assist Ethiopia to enact them.

Ms Meaza Gidey, the leader of the Omna Tigray, reported how the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has postponed elections twice and blamed the Covid-19 pandemic and logistical constraints. “Meanwhile, the Tigrayan Council conducted its constitutionally mandated elections and Abiy condemned it.” At this regional election, over 2.8 million voters were registered and there was a 97% turnout. “Tigrays decision to proceed with elections led Abiy to lead war against government and people of Tigray on November 1st. There were several irregularities.” As well, Tigray was left out of the national elections this year. War crimes, arbitrary arrests, starvation, rape, displacement, and genocide are high. She stated that, “Elections… need to ensure representation of all groups. Election results were premeditated. 2021 elections have only weakened trust in public systems.” Further, “national elections… need to be null and voice and peace and national consensus needs to be reached through dialogue.” She urged the international community to push for viable and immediate withdrawal or Eritrean soldiers from Tigray, the cessation of violence in Tigray, and access given to intentional aid agencies so that the people there can get assistance. She also called for better infrastructure, as the Tigrayans are cut off through poor internet and a destroyed bridge.