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Postponing the Ethiopian Election could derail Hitherto Accomplished Achievements and Paralyzing Future Worthwhile Democratic Institutions

Ghelawdewos Araia                                                                          May 9, 2020

It seems to me the title of this article is good enough to depict or insinuate the present political landscape in Ethiopia that is complicated and chaotic to say the least. In this short essay, I like to critically examine the legality or illegality of the Ethiopian electoral system in light of the Ethiopian constitution that is currently almost trampled over. The reason why I say the constitution is trampled over is quite obvious to me: the executive branch of the present Ethiopian government that has been in  power for slightly over two years has been operating outside the parameters of the law of the land; and ironically the Ethiopian parliament, conceptually the law-making legislature has become a good-for-nothing House of Representatives. Incredibly, contrary to the power nexus, authority and responsibilities defined in the constitution, the accountabilities are now reversed; instead of the Executive being accountable to the legislative as stated in Article 72 sub-Article 2, it is the latter that became accountable to the former.

In most instances, when the Prime Minster (PM) shows up in the Ethiopian Parliament, members of the House forward their questions to Abiy Ahmed and he answers some questions as he deems it necessary and without being challenged by the members of the House. Apparently, the questions of the parliamentarians (MPs) are selected, edited, and presented by the Speaker of the House; some very challenging questions, including demanding the Prime Minster to step down from power or any other questions pertaining to the illegal personality of the new Prosperity Party led by the PM may not see the light for a discussion platform or open debate. But to be fair to some courageous members of the Ethiopian parliament, I myself have witnessed (via ETV) once a couple of MPs challenging the PM by telling him on his face that “the Prosperity Party is not a legal party and that they [the MPs] are members of the EPRDF.”

Although now practically the Ethiopian constitution is transgressed by the powers that be, paradoxically the same people who violated the essence of the law of the land have now become advocates of the constitution in order to realize their short-term plans of postponing the election and their long-term strategy to install a dictatorship and by design seal off the future democratic culture in Ethiopia.

In spite of the fact that the Ethiopian constitution has been made null and void or practically made invalid, it is still important to discuss some relevant articles in relation to the present political mess in Ethiopia. For example, Article 9, sub-Article 2 states, “All citizens, organs of state, political organizations, other associations, as well as officials, have the duty to ensure observance of the constitution and to obey it.” The present authorities, however, do not observe the constitution, let alone obey it.

Similarly, if one examines Article 14 of the constitution, which explicitly states that “Every person has the inviolable and inalienable right to life, the security of person and liberty.” What we have witnessed on the ground in the last three years, however, is the exact opposite: the displacement of millions of Ethiopians from their homes and their encounters to insecure shelters where their persons and lives were violated.

Article 39 of the constitution that unconditionally guarantees and reaffirms the self-determination of nationalities, including enjoying the full measure of government by the regional states, is now threatened. A good example of the violation of self-determination is what happened in the Somali regional state, the former Somali president, who was in favor of the federal system and supporter of the EPRDF (he himself was member of the EPRDF) was incarcerated and put behind bars, and was replaced by another president of the regional state, who is in favor of the current centrist trend that is aimed at dismantling the Federal structure, and by extension destroying the very existence of the regional states. A similar phenomenon is to be observed in the Benishagul-Gumuz and other regional states.

According to Article 51, sub-Article 1, the powers and functions of the federal Government is to “protect and defend the constitution” but what is happening now is the exact opposite. Article 52 of the constitution further reinforces Article 39 because “All powers not given expressly to the Federal Government alone, or concurrently to the Federal Government and the States are reserved to the States.” Apparently, this Article is a copycat of the United States Amendment 10 of the Constitution, but what is important is that it fully guarantees the regional states to enact their local laws/constitutions; formulate and execute economic and social development policies; administer land and other natural resources; levy and collect taxes; enforce on the State civil service; and establish a state police force.”

If the current political trend continues, the right of the regional states guaranteed by Article 52 of the constitution could be lost forever, unless the federalist forces pressure and compel the Abiy regime to reconsider or rethink its demonstrably wrong policies or style of governance, or in extreme measures remove the Government by civil unrest. But if the federalist forces and the Abiy government could not come to terms, and if the government resorts to a full-fledged assault of the regional states,  a terrible civil war could engulf Ethiopia; and if the civil war could not be avoided and is inevitable rather, Ethiopia would lose its accomplished achievements and will slide into medieval-type backwardness.

On September 2019, I contributed an article entitled “Is Ethiopia heading Toward a One-Man Show Politics or One Party Dictatorship?” I strongly believe that this article by no means was a prophecy, but I have no doubt that it was by all means a political forecast. I want to encourage readers, researchers, and scholars interested in present Ethiopian politics to read the article by opening this link: www.africanidea.org/Is_Ethiopia_headning.html

The above recommended article, as its title also clearly proposes, analyzed what exactly is happening now pertaining to Ethiopian politics, but since the present article is focused on elections in the context of the constitution, I have pulled out relevant Articles and sub-Articles for further discussion and elaboration.

Article 38 on “The right to vote and to be elected” stipulates that 1) every Ethiopian irrespective of his/her  nationality, language, color, sex, and political opinion, shall enjoy several rights including the following: a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly and through freely chosen representatives; b) on the attainment of 18 years of age, to vote in accordance with law; c) to vote and to be elected in periodic elections; 2) the right of everyone to be a member of his own will in a political organization, labor union, trade organizations etc; 3) Elections to positions of responsibility with any of the organizations referred to under sub-Article 2 of this Article shall be conducted in a free and democratic manner; 4) the provisions of sub-Article 2 and 3 of this Article shall apply to civic organizations which significantly affect the public interest.         

If the current continues unabated in Ethiopia, the rights embedded in Article 38 will be seriously damaged or even completely eradicated. But if one reads Artilce 38 between lines, s/he would logically conclude that the ultimate power resides in the Ethiopian people, who vote for and elect members of the House of Representatives, and indirectly the Prime Minster who emerges from among MPs. Admittedly, however, this is a difficult thing to maintain practically, because the people’s rights and wishes, in most instances, are relegated to the backburner, once the officials assume power and begin to distance themselves from the people. at any rate, my interest here the systematic erosion of the rights to vote and the be elected by the present regime.

The newly constituted Election Board, which has become a subject of controversy due to its operations outside the parameters of the constitution, has no powers whatsoever to determine whether citizens and/or the regional states conduct elections or not. According to Article 102 of the Ethiopian constitution, the Election Board “shall be established independent of any influence, to conduct in an impartial manner free and fair election in Federal and state constituents” and “members of the board shall be appointed by the House of Peoples’ Representatives upon recommendation of the Prime Minister”. This means that the Election is accountable to the House of Representatives, but in actual fact, the Election Board seems to be reporting to the Executive or the PM, and willingly or inadvertently may have lost its independence.

By all measure thus, the Election Board cannot and should not tell Ethiopians how to vote and who to vote for; the Board’s main function is to facilitate the conduct of elections and provide provisions to election polls throughout Ethiopia every five years. Unfortunately, however, beyond its constitutional mandate, the present Board decided the fate of the Sidama people self-determination, when in fact the case of the Sidama should have gone to the House of Federation.

According to Article 48, “All State border disputes shall be settled by agreement of concerned states… the House of Federation shall decide such disputes…and within a period of two years render a final decision on a dispute submitted to it.” Moreover, according to Article 83, the interpretation of the constitutional falls within the jurisdiction of the House of Federation. In fact, according to this same Article, “All constitutional disputes shall be decided by the House of Federation” and additionally the latter “shall, within thirty days of receipt, decide a constitutional dispute submitted to it by the Council of Constitutional Inquiry.”

On top of the above constitutional mandate, it is the House of Federation, and not the Election Board or even the House of Representatives, that have the power and functions (see Article 62) to interpret the constitution, organize the council of the Constitutional Inquiry; shall decide on issues relating to rights of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples to self-determination, including the right secession, and also shall order Federal intervention if any state, in violation of this constitution, endangers the constitutional order.

Finally, it is important to resolve the most important vexed problem and monster encounter that Ethiopia have ever had; this monster is called corona or COVID-19 and it has not only negatively affected the larger Ethiopian society, but also impacted the entire globe, and even devastated the most powerful European nations and the United State, the superpower and the number economy in the world. This monster is a killer monster, but in spite of its ferocity and killing powers, can the corona be mitigated and kept at bay while Ethiopia conducts its 2020 election, or should the latter be postponed indefinitely? This is the big question that remains and that must be answered. Can Ethiopia conduct the election under the present corona omen and peril? COVID-19 can even pose a commination or divine threat against sinners according to some Christian believers, although I personally do not believe in divine retribution against humanity.

Now, the bottom line is whether the election can be realized in spite of the corona threat or crisis. Some Ethiopian intellectuals, elites, and opposition party leaders are in favor of holding the election, and the rationale behind their arguments is the current regime is using corona threat as a cover up to postpone the election and extend its power grip, if possible indefinitely. Other Ethiopians, especially elites who support the present regime, and common ordinary people that were interviewed by ETV on the streets of major cities like Addis Ababa unequivocally endorse the idea of postponing the election, and their rationale is ‘health comes first’ or ‘priority should be given to health’.           

 I am of the opinion that elections must be held and must not be postponed, not simply to observe the constitution, but also in order to maintain peace and stability in Ethiopia and to ward off potential civil war and unnecessary chaos and disturbances. Having said this, I suggest two ways to conduct the election:

1.      The traditional and familiar way of going to the polls and Ethiopian citizens casting their votes; that is voting for the party or individual candidate that they support at federal, state, and district levels. Quite obviously, given the COVID-19 threat voters should take necessary precautions by social distancing, by employing scarf and face masks, and also by washing their hands. To this effect, the Government via its media must educate and guide the voters. If people can travel by mini-buses, go out to grocery stores, and walk in market places, they can also vote by going to the polls.

2.      If traditional voting polls are rendered unviable or not feasible due to fear of corona, one other option is to use electronic voting systems in lieu of the old paper works. Given the relatively poor Ethiopian economy, the country may not be in a position to provide electronic voting machines fr voters, but if is possible to d so and if the Election Board can monitor and control the electoral process, systems such as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) and/or Optical Scan Voting System (OSVS) should be introduced. These voting machines are programmed to display choices to the voters. They are also speedy and accurate, but they are vulnerable to glitch and hacker sabotage. 

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