The Electoral Campaign in Ethiopia

As determined in the calendar published by the Ethiopian National Election Council, on 24 May Ethiopia will go to the polls to elect a new government. These will be the fifth elections since the fall of the Derg military regime and the adoption of a new constitution in 1995.

The shadow of a supporter of Ethiopia’s Unity for Democracy and Justice party (UDJ) is seen through an Ethiopian flag during a demonstration in the capital Addis Ababa. Photo from website

The winner looks set to be the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front led by the outgoing Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, winner of the past four elections. Since the election campaign kicked off on 14 February, the EPRDF has demonstrated its intention to continue to run the African State with minimal resistance or opposition.

In the 2005 elections, clashes between opposing groups resulted in around two hundred fatalities, while in 2010, European Observers alleged huge irregularities, in particular in rural areas where cases of intimidation were reported in addition to numerous cases of violence: the worst of these occurred in the regions of Ogaden and Tigrè and resulted in 13 deaths.

The current situation seems little different. As the 24 May date approaches, there has been an increase in repression by the Ethiopian government against any signs of dissent. The main victims have been the exponents of the Semayawi opposition party and the group of activists and bloggers of the "Zone 9" collective, who in recent months have been subjected to searches and arrests.

The Human Rights Watch report

The strict control of information has been the main tool of repression for the authoritarian regime. Human Rights Watch have highlighted as much in a report, published on January 20 that revealed how the Addis Ababa government has been curtailing independent journalism since 2010.

A report titled "Journalism Is Not a Crime: Violations of Media Freedoms in Ethiopia" revealed that, last year alone, six private publications closed following government intimidation; at least 22 journalists, bloggers, and publishers were imprisoned and more than 30 journalists left their country for fear of arrest in light of the country’s repressive laws.

According to Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division, "the Ethiopian media should play a crucial role in the May elections, but the majority of the press, TV and radio stations in the country are controlled by the government and the few voices of independent publishers often censor themselves when reporting on politically sensitive issues, as they fear reprisals or arrest".

The EPRDF also controls the radio thanks to the technique of jamming: a censorship tool used during the Cold War that enables the regime to target the frequencies of a specific radio programme and block its transmission.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Ethiopian government use this technique to disrupt the information transmitted by the radio stations of Ethiopian exiles, such as ESAT Radio, an independent broadcaster that transmits from Holland and provides airtime to voices that oppose the government.

Issues of political repression and press censorship in Ethiopia are reflected in the country’s standing in the Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit at the end of 2014 that classified Ethiopia as an authoritarian regime.

Economic growth and aspirations in Addis Ababa

Against the backdrop of this repression, however, it is worth noting that the long-term governance of the EPRDF, along with its tight grip on national politics, has enjoyed significant success in terms of economic development.

In a report on Ethiopia published in August in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the Ethiopian Minister for Industry, Sisay Gemechu Edu, boasted of the double figure growth in his country (with an average of 10.6% between 2004 and 2011) and the ambition to transform the nation into a "middle income country" by 2025.

The conditions to achieve Minister Edu’s dream seem to be present: Ethiopia is the fifth largest Sub-Saharan economy and is a focal point for the interest of emerging productive systems, a fact underlined by the various delegations of foreign investors looking for opportunities in the largest landlocked country on the continent.

According to the latest estimates of the Ethiopian Finance Minister, economic growth in the East African country is forecast at 11% per annum, thanks to the completion of a five-year economic, social and environmental plan, launched in Addis Ababa in 2010.

The government’s forecasts for growth in excess of 10% have been scaled down, however, by the World Bank, which has predicted growth of 6.9% for the current year, still higher than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa (estimated at 4.6% for 2015). Meanwhile, the Washington Institute’s estimates predict even lower GDP growth, 6.6% for 2016 and 6.7% for 2017.

Overall, however, the most significant macroeconomic data for the Ethiopian economy is clearly higher than the African average and the efforts of the country to achieve important goals in terms of modernization and growth have resulted in a significant reduction in the percentage of Ethiopians living below the poverty line (from 38.9% to 29.5%, despite significant population growth) and in the drastic reduction of child mortality for under fives (reduced from 70% in 2005 to 44% in 2014).

The famines of the eighties that killed more than a million people seem to be a distant memory and Ethiopia is becoming a land opportunity for investors in many sectors, especially infrastructure.

Plans to construct an airport as big as Heathrow

One sector that the Ethiopian economy is focussing on is manufacturing, especially the textile industry that has received huge investments including factories that the government has built in the industrial area of Bole Lami.

This area is also the location of Addis Ababa’s international airport, where extension work began in September thanks to a 300 million dollar contract between the China Communication Construction Company and the Ethiopian government.

The expansion of the main airport of the African nation has been made necessary by the increase in traffic, which, according to the Global Construction review (GCR), has increased from 950 thousand to seven million passengers per year in less than a decade.

The developments will allow an increase in the airport capacity to around 20 million passengers. Meanwhile, in order to meet the predicted rise in traffic of 18% annually, a project is being developed to build another international airport in Ethiopia that could serve up to seventy million passengers per year, a volume of traffic almost equivalent to that of Heathrow.

It is undeniable that Ethiopia has begun an important process of transformation, but to realize the ambitious aspirations for growth, the new government needs to signal a change of direction, through a programme of institutional and judicial reform supported by a significant change in the culture of governance. Most importantly, the government should review its position on the freedom of expression.


Translated by Nicholas Neiger

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