Joint statement

Statement from the Ethiopia Working Group

The United States has a vital role to play in making sure Ethiopia's upcoming election is free, fair, and democratic. 

* The Ethiopia Working Group is a nonpartisan group of experts, scholars, and practitioners who come together with a focus on US policy toward Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has announced a provisional date for its general elections, and the United States government has a vital role to play in helping ensure that they are truly free, fair, and democratic. As Ethiopia continues its unprecedented transition, successful elections will help lay the foundation for political pluralism, stability, prosperity, and regional peace.

Ethiopia is a strategically located state in the Horn of Africa, and the United States has a national interest in the success of its transition. It is therefore critical that the Trump administration engage robustly and provide sufficient financial and technical support to Ethiopia’s institutions and civil society actors in a timely manner. Doing so will go a long way toward ensuring that the elections, as well as the preelection period, constitute a definitive break with Ethiopia’s past and clear the way to legitimate and inclusive political change. The Secretary of State’s upcoming travel to Ethiopia provides an excellent opportunity to emphasize the importance the United States attaches to the elections and to Ethiopia’s transition.

Unfortunately, severe strains on Ethiopia’s institutions and mounting challenges to state cohesion, including ongoing political violence, are presenting significant hurdles to the country’s reform efforts and increasing the risk of reversals and spiraling conflict. As campaigns for the August 2020 elections get under way, mobilization of the electorate should not solely be based on ethnic identities or rivalries but instead on meaningful political platforms. Furthermore, incendiary language or hate speech, intimidation of opponents, intentional marginalization, and threats of violence need to be addressed, as these will further polarize Ethiopia’s many ethnic and minority communities. They will also perpetuate conditions that have enabled entrenched authoritarian rule and impunity for decades.

Now more than ever, there is a pivotal role for the United States and like-minded partners to play. Senior officials in Addis Ababa and Washington, DC, should focus on these elections to ensure that the campaigning period and election day—which fall during the rainy reason, further complicating logistics—are rooted in the commitment to genuine democratic reform and conflict resolution that inspired Prime Minister Abiy’s Nobel Peace Prize award in December 2019.

First, the United States should work closely with key allies—Ethiopian, regional, and international—to deter violence in the months before and after the elections, as well as on election day. To do this, the United States and other key donors should encourage the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), working closely with key public institutions and election experts, to develop a comprehensive code of conduct, as called for in the new electoral law, that includes robust conflict prevention measures throughout the country. (If necessary, the United States should provide technical support to this process.) The United States and other key donors should also provide support for an independent Ethiopian media and civil society campaign that can raise awareness of the code of conduct and increase pressure on politicians at all levels to adhere to the code. The United States should encourage the NEBE to engage in participatory dialogue with as many stakeholders as possible—including civil society, community leaders, youth, women, and religious and thought leaders—to gain maximum buy-in before publishing the final electoral calendar. In addition, the United States should encourage the NEBE to coordinate closely with other governmental institutions, including the Human Rights Commission, the judiciary, and the attorney general’s office, to take all necessary steps to mitigate potential election-related conflicts.

Second, while the US government has already committed some funding to the upcoming elections, the administration should increase its financial support to Ethiopian civil society efforts to ensure transparent and peaceful elections, while also ensuring a timely allocation of resources. This includes support to domestic and international election observation initiatives and to voter education efforts, given that so many Ethiopians have never participated in a truly open election.

Third, the administration should demonstrate sustained high-level attention to what will be one of the most consequential elections in 2020, with tremendous implications for peace and security in a volatile and geopolitically important region at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East. Public, timely, and clear statements from the United States should highlight notable benchmarks toward holding elections, call out significant violations of laws or of the electoral code of conduct by the government or political parties, and reinforce the critical role of civil society in the election process. The United States should make clear that US support for Ethiopia’s transition requires a free and fair election process, not just on election day but in the months before and after. The administration should also encourage robust congressional engagement, and support a congressional delegation visit focused specifically on assessing electoral preparations.

The upcoming elections represent Ethiopia’s best opportunity to turn the page on decades of autocratic rule and exclusionary politics. Even as the United States addresses its own domestic challenges, it should capitalize on this moment and support Ethiopia’s reformers, institutions, and general public in their efforts to transform their country.

Yoseph Badwaza, Freedom House

Amb. Mark Bellamy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, former US Ambassador to Kenya

Amb. Johnnie Carson, former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs

Lauren Carruth, American University

Judd Devermont, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ethiopia Working Group Co-Chair

John Harbeson, City University of New York

Sarah Margon, Open Society Foundations, Ethiopia Working Group Co-Chair

Amb. David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia

Lahra Smith, Georgetown University

Jon Temin, Freedom House, Ethiopia Working Group Co-Chair

Beza Tesfaye, Mercy Corps

Colin Thomas-Jensen, Senior Advisor, WestExec