Tense Elections Will Shape the Horn of Africa’s Future, Experts Say

May 20, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp
U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen 1st Class Corinne Landis, 21, left, and Midshipmen 1st Class Neha Athavale, 22, read with children in Ali Shabieh, Djibouti, May 30, at a library newly renovated by a U.S. Civil Affairs team. Children at the library read to U.S. military members in English, French and Somali.

Ethiopia and Somalia will see tense elections this year which experts suggest will play a significant role in shaping the future of the Horn of Africa.

On Thursday, director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and senior fellow at Brookings Institution, Vanda Felbab-Brown, said that both countries face profound questions about state formation in the upcoming elections, which have suffered delays and setbacks.

The Horn of Africa, the region in East Africa where both these countries are located, has increased in global strategic significance as countries like China and the United Arab Emirates have become involved in regional and local issues in these countries, she said.

International attention has also focused on the humanitarian crises that have racked the region. 

U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, completed his first visit to the region earlier this month, which included a visit to Ethiopia, in part due to rising concerns over the violence in the Tigray region

Feltman’s visit was intended to “address the interlinked political, security and humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa, and [to] coordinate U.S. policy across the region to advance that goal,” a written comment from the U.S. Department of State said.

The future of the region is uncertain, but observers have said that the hope for democratic transitions that characterized it only a few years ago has been replaced by concerns over the backsliding and conflict.

Three years ago, popular protests in the region successfully triggered changes, including new leadership in Sudan and Ethiopia, causing a “euphoric” anticipation of democratic transitions, according to managing director of Hatèta Policy Research, Goitom Gebreluel. 

The intense rivalry that fueled the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict also quieted down, leading to a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

In contrast to the lofty expectations that came with that change, the region now stares down “creeping anarchy,” according to Gebreluel.

In Ethiopia, although the federal government is committed to holding timely national elections, the prospects of credible polls are endangered by the violent situation in Tigray as well as precarious borders in Oromia and a number of other regions, according to the policy institute Chatham House. There are also questions about the inclusivity of the polls since several major opposition parties are not participating, they explain.

A 2021 Freedom House report says that the delay to the long-awaited August 2020 general elections, which was attributed to COVID-19, represented an obstacle to the reform that the Nobel-winning Abiy was supposed to bring, especially since the ruling party has “partly reverted” to authoritarian tactics such as jailing the opposition and suppressing the media.

The main questions for Ethiopians about this election are will it be peaceful and will whoever comes to power be able to stabilize the country, Lidet Tadesse, a policy officer in the Security and Resilience Program at the European Center for Development Policy Management, said.

“One of the implications of this election is that right now, when you look at the political fissures of the country, one of the big trends that you see, or one of the big fissures, is what are the visions that we have for the country,” Tadesse said.

Ethiopia’s current federal system is largely organized around ethnic identity based on the principle that ethnic groups should have self-determination, Tadesse said.

Some groups are determined to preserve that system, and others are pushing for its end, arguing that it hasn’t led the country anywhere constructive, she said. Those opponents propose a citizen-based system, but this isn’t without its controversies.

Winning the election means claiming some legitimacy, she said.

The situation in Somalia is also complicated.

The upcoming national election will be one of nearly a half-dozen to take place since the Somali government was revived about twenty years ago, said Abdirahman Aynte, managing director of the Laasfort Consulting Group.

Somalia was unique in the Horn because, while the elections were not “free and fair,” they were “broadly acceptable” to the key stakeholders as they had been negotiated in good faith, he said.

Recently, the situation leapt into “unchartered territory,” he said.

On February 8, 2020, Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term ended. Somalia’s House of the People then passed measures that allowed him to retain power, a move that has been heavily criticized as an undemocratic extension of his mandate. There was fighting in the streets of Mogadishu and split allegiances.

“Somalia’s elections have been delayed not because I wish to cling to power, as some have falsely argued, but because of a political impasse that has led to a division between Somalia’s federal government and some of its member states on the way forward,” wrote the president in an opinion piece in Foreign Policy magazine.

The president had come to view the federal structure of the country as an entrenched elite that worked against him, explained Aynte, who said that he formed his opinion from first-person experience of the president.

The president wanted to dismantle the federal architecture of the country, and he had never seriously prepared for an election with universal suffrage, Aynte said. 

The concern over disintegration of the state and authoritarian backsliding has been noted by scholars for Africa in general, fueled by both elections like the one in Ethiopia and also by COVID-19-related restrictions.

Last Saturday, Ethiopia announced delays in its parliamentary elections, which were set for June 5, although the electoral body has said that it does not foresee the delays lasting more than three weeks, as Reuters has reported.

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