Managing the Politics of Ethiopia’s COVID-19 Crisis
The arrival of COVID-19 could not have come at a more sensitive time for Ethiopia, which was due to hold pivotal elections in August after five years of political turmoil. On 31 March, some two weeks after authorities announced the first coronavirus case in Africa’s second-most populous country, the electoral board suspended preparations for the vote due to the public health risk. Then, on 10 April, parliament approved a five-month state of emergency, giving authorities sweeping powers to battle the disease. As elections will not occur before parliament’s term ends in early October, an interim governing arrangement will likely be necessary. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed now faces the daunting task of stopping the virus from spreading while limiting economic harm to a vulnerable population that relies mostly on subsistence work. Key opposition parties have broadly accepted the emergency decree so long as the government does not use it as a tool for political repression. They have also signalled that they wish to be closely consulted in devising an interim arrangement for governing the country when parliament’s term ends. Abiy should heed their calls, and then work with them to tackle longer-term threats to the country’s democratic transition.
Addis Ababa’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been uneven. Authorities first confirmed the disease’s presence in Ethiopia on 13 March, two days after the World Health Organization categorised it as a global pandemic. Since then, confirmed infections have climbed steadily to 82, with three deaths announced. Testing, so far, has been limited by a lack of capacity, adding to uncertainty about the extent of the virus’s spread among a mostly rural population of around 110 million people. In the meantime, bucking policies elsewhere in East Africa, state carrier Ethiopian Airlines, whose hard currency earnings help fund essential imports, has continued flying wherever possible, including to Chinese and European destinations. While the federal and regional governments announced measures such as suspending large gatherings and inter-city public transport, authorities have not introduced a comprehensive lockdown to try to contain COVID-19. The disinclination to impose such measures probably reflects an effort to avoid what analysts predict could be at least one million job losses at a time when around two million young Ethiopians annually enter the labour market and the urban unemployment rate is approximately 20 per cent.
Allowing economic activity to continue unchecked could lead to millions of infections within months.
The coronavirus has the potential to sow chaos in Ethiopia due to the country’s already formidable economic and social challenges. On one hand, the public health risks presented by COVID-19 are vast. Living and working conditions are highly conducive for transmission, as people live in crowded inter-generational households that often lack running water. Allowing economic activity to continue unchecked could lead to millions of infections within months, with serious cases quickly overwhelming an already weak health system that has only a few hundred ventilators and fewer than 500 intensive care units. In 2016, only around 2 per cent of Ethiopia’s clinics had oxygen delivery devices .
On the other hand, a lockdown would deprive millions of Ethiopians of their livelihoods, including many who subsist on daily earnings from the informal service economy. It could also squeeze domestic food supply at a time when annual inflation is at more than 20 per cent. Vital imports such as fuel, medicine and fertiliser may become scarce if dwindling hard currency reserves are depleted further because of reduced sales for top earners such as Ethiopian Airlines (which, although it continues to operate, has seen a dramatic decline in business ) and flower exporters, combined with slowing remittances and other inflows. Given these economic frailties, the country’s leaders have sought a middle path between measures to slow the disease’s spread and a more draconian approach that they rightly or wrongly fear would, because of its economic consequences, be even more harmful than the virus itself.
Either scenario (or some combination of the two) could lead to serious unrest. If the virus grabs hold and many Ethiopians find themselves without sufficient resources to care for their families, they could turn against authorities whom they perceive to be incompetent. Alternatively, if the state takes public health measures that make it impossible for people to provide for themselves, it could provoke a similar reaction. The possibility of disturbances makes it all the more important for the government to bend over backwards to foster unity among diverse constituencies in support of the political path it chooses through the crisis, even as it arrogates to itself extraordinary unilateral powers.
State of Emergency
The declaration of a nationwide state of emergency – which, according to Ethiopia’s constitution , can be invoked to deal with epidemics – gives the federal government sweeping authority to address the crisis. A federal minister told Crisis Group that the emergency will be managed by Abiy’s cabinet rather than a committee of civilian, military and other security officials as in the past. In principle, the state of emergency could allow greater federal control over regional security operations, including an enhanced role for the military, although it is not yet known whether the government intends to use this power.
The Attorney General’s Office said it will publicise regulations ordered and actions taken under the decree, adding that violations could result in fines of up to 200,000 Ethiopian birr ($6,033). It is not clear, however, exactly what those government instructions will be, with the Prime Minister’s Office stressing the need for flexibility because of the pandemic’s uncertain trajectory in Ethiopia. The Attorney General’s Office has announced initial measures including banning meetings of more than four people and making it mandatory to cover mouths in public places. They also prohibit companies from laying off workers unless in keeping with government guidelines. For now, senior officials have suggested that they will not issue a stay-at-home order due to the severe impact it would have on the poor.
Concerns are brewing among some opposition parties about whether Abiy will use the decree and election postponement to grab more power and consolidate tactical advantages ahead of future polls.
Although many opposition parties have said they are ready to put politics aside to allow the government to focus on the immediate priority of tackling COVID-19, concerns are brewing among some of them about whether Abiy will use the decree and election postponement to grab more power and consolidate tactical advantages ahead of future polls. Some opposition leaders note that, under the constitution, elections must be held no less than a month prior to the end of a parliamentary term, which in this case would be 5 September at the latest. They argue that because the election delay will run past that date, the administration is on a path to outstay its legal authority. They say a national unity government must therefore be formed to take the reins when that authority lapses.
Still, key actors have given Abiy some room for manoeuvre. The Oromo Liberation Front and the Oromo Federalist Congress, two allied opposition parties from Oromia (the country’s most populous region, with almost 40 million people, and the epicentre of protests between 2014 and 2018) stated that they would not “hinder the collective fight against the pandemic”, while also making clear that the government must use the state of emergency only to manage the health crisis and not to restrict political space.
How Abiy manages this situation will be critical to the success of Ethiopia’s rollercoaster transition. Though COVID-19 represents a stark threat to Ethiopia, it also presents an opportunity for Abiy’s government to use this moment of national solidarity to reboot a troubled journey toward multi-party democracy. Since the prime minister took office, intercommunal violence has escalated and recently there has been renewed political repression, with tensions increasing as parties started mobilising for elections. Additionally, electoral board preparations were behind schedule, raising the destabilising prospect of a delay beyond the constitutional deadline even before the pandemic arrived. While the board now has additional time to finalise election rules and recruit poll workers, the government’s management of the state of emergency and its ability to build consensus around the shape of an interim government will be critical. Failure by the incumbent and opposition to reach a common understanding on these issues, and how the elections are handled going forward, may well lead Ethiopia into yet more turmoil.
A Period of Hope and Struggle
The hopes of Ethiopians were boosted by Abiy’s rise to power in April 2018 after sustained anti-government protests forced the then ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition of four regional parties to open political space. Building on the work of his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in February 2018, Abiy continued prisoner releases and invited exiled movements, including armed groups, to return to compete democratically. He also struck a deal with Eritrea’s leader, Isaias Afwerki, leading the two countries to re-establish bilateral relations that had been frozen for two decades. It was this rapprochement in particular that impressed the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which honoured Abiy with its Peace Prize in October 2019. Amid the optimism, Ethiopians and the country’s international partners looked toward this year’s planned elections for federal and regional parliaments and two autonomous city administrations as the acid test of Abiy’s pledge to oversee enhanced democratisation.
Rival regional, ethnic and political factions clashed over ideology, power and resources.
Yet, at the same time, the prime minister has struggled to maintain order as a divided and discredited ruling coalition increasingly lost its grip on the systems it had used for decades to maintain control over a diverse and sometimes restive population. Rival regional, ethnic and political factions clashed over ideology, power and resources, killing thousands of people and displacing more than three million. In an effort to revitalise the transition, Abiy created a new ruling party in late 2019 from the EPRDF’s ashes. The prime minister and his allies sought to gather all the regional ruling parties into a single organisation, the Prosperity Party, although the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), refused to join.
Aside from replacing the broken coalition, Abiy’s other primary motivation in taking this step was to bolster national unity in a country where ethno-regional elites were pulling apart from each other. Tensions were escalating, for instance, between Tigray and Amhara, and between Amhara and Oromo, as Crisis Group has documented . In practice, however, the dissolution of regional ruling parties served to further enflame ethno-nationalist concerns, with some regional and opposition leaders fearing that Abiy’s ultimate intention was to undermine their regions’ hard-won autonomy.
Particularly aggrieved was the TPLF, the founder and longstanding pre-eminent member of the EPRDF, which, in refusing to join the new party, cited ideological differences and tensions with the other EPRDF parties that chose to be subsumed into the Prosperity Party. Subsequently, Abiy dismissed the TPLF’s remaining representatives from the cabinet, and the northern region’s distance from the rest of the federation has only grown since. Tigray’s leaders have continued to beef up regional security forces and criticise the federal government, as youthful Tigrayan activists promote secession from the federation.
The central government’s problems extend far beyond Tigray. This year, it has come under fire from opposition parties for failing to create conditions for fair elections, which it had promised would be in place before polls took place on the constitutionally prescribed schedule. Diverse political actors from across much of Ethiopia have complained that the incumbent is using tactics that were supposed to belong to an authoritarian past, including the arrest and harassment of activists, and denial of permission for meetings and rallies. Opposition parties also gripe that the Prosperity Party has routinely used government resources to its own advantage, just as the ruling coalition did in preparation for landslide victories in 2010 and 2015. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, some of the more combative opponents were already stating in private that mass protests were likely if the electoral playing field was once more tilted heavily in favour of the ruling party.
Encouraging Signs and Looming Challenges
Against this backdrop, it is especially important that Abiy’s government adopt an inclusive, consultative approach both to managing the health emergency and to shaping the interim governing arrangements that will be necessary to shepherd the country through elections when they are eventually held. There have already been encouraging signs that the government is open to working with the opposition in managing the coronavirus threat. In the first week of April, before his cabinet declared the state of emergency, Abiy gathered party leaders in his office to discuss the COVID-19 response.
It is especially important that Abiy’s government adopt an inclusive, consultative approach both to managing the health emergency and to shaping the interim governing arrangements.
The more significant question, however, is what kind of arrangements the prime minister’s government will enter into in order to afford it legitimacy in the period after its legal mandate runs out. The precise date when that might happen is unclear. As noted, it could be as soon as 5 October, though if the cabinet and parliament prolong the state of emergency well into the fall, Abiy might argue that his legal mandate extends past that date. Whatever the merits of that argument, some opposition factions are almost certain to question the Abiy administration’s legitimacy in that scenario, and the resulting friction could be a source of unrest.
Against this backdrop, some commentators have suggested that Abiy may prefer instead to invoke a constitutional clause that allows him to dissolve parliament with its consent. Under that scenario, he and his party would form a caretaker administration that could govern for six months pending national elections. Yet even if this approach is legally possible, it would carry risks. Although the electoral board has discussed both 28 December 2020 and 28 February 2021 as possible new poll dates, it has reached no decision; and after all, a six-month period may prove too short for COVID-19 to run its course and allow timely electoral preparations. A caretaker government might also lack the legislative authority needed to manage the pandemic’s fallout.
The better course for both Abiy and the opposition would be to forge a political deal that in some fashion splits the difference between their respective positions. One possibility might be for Abiy to work with opposition leaders to create an interim government, granting the opposition a formal consultative role. Such an arrangement could kick in as parliament’s scheduled term ends, even if the emergency decree to tackle COVID-19 is still in place by then. Under this possible approach, while opposition leaders would not necessarily be invited into Abiy’s cabinet, the government could be required to seek consensus in consultation with an opposition committee for any election-related decision.
The dispute between Tigray and the central government is such that there could be destabilising repercussions if there is no agreement.
To lay the groundwork for such an interim arrangement, the prime minister should seek a national dialogue among the main political actors, which, in light of the public health crisis, initially would have to involve an exchange of position papers and remote discussions. As an immediate priority, talks should focus on enhancing the consensus behind the state of emergency and how the interim period following the 5 October scheduled end of parliament’s term will be managed. Either on the margins of those discussions or separately, federal authorities should hold talks with Tigray’s leaders about coordinating the federal state of emergency with the version that they imposed regionally on 26 March. The dispute between Tigray and the central government is such that there could be destabilising repercussions if there is no agreement on how federal and regional security forces will interact under emergency conditions. Any attempt by Abiy’s security forces to increase their presence or role in Tigray without prior agreement risks being forcefully resisted by regional leaders.
Once key issues relating to the state of emergency and interim period have been addressed, the parties ought to seize the moment to talk about other issues with implications for Ethiopia’s democratic transition. Election-related topics should have top billing. Discussions should seek to develop common expectations with respect to a roadmap for electoral preparations and how to achieve conditions for a fair election, including how to address opposition grievances about the campaigning restrictions they face. Other broader topics that the group could begin to broach include how best to manage law and order without closing political space; demands for constitutional reform; and stabilising key fault lines, such as Amhara-Oromo and Amhara-Tigray tensions, the debate over control of Addis Ababa, and Southern Nations autonomy demands .
External partners can help Ethiopia manage these challenges. In addition to supporting the government’s efforts to tackle the pandemic, as the World Bank has already begun to do with an $83 million emergency package , these partners should use the upcoming period to press the authorities to minimise unilateral actions and do more to create conditions for a fair election. Donors should avoid suggesting that any party (including Abiy) has their unqualified support. Instead, they should underscore that their primary objective is to support the type of credible electoral process that will be the bedrock of Ethiopia’s move to multi-party democracy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken an enormous toll across the globe and the worst may be yet to come. Ethiopia’s vulnerabilities mean that it could yet experience social and economic destabilisation if the disease spreads throughout its population. Yet the crisis has also created some potential opportunities. The pandemic has significantly altered political dynamics and provided the justification for pausing an electoral schedule that was threatening to spiral into violence. It has also given Ethiopia’s politicians a reason and a need to come together. They should do so to face the immediate health crisis and develop a broadly supported plan for governing the country in the interim period that will follow the state of emergency’s removal. Then, they should harness the same collective spirit to begin tackling the issues that have hobbled the country’s transition.