An unusual constellation of events is shaping 2020 into the year in which the wider eastern Africa region will witness a number of elections. Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania are all slated to hold elections this year.
Two of these, Ethiopia and Somalia, are of particular interest because they represent the biggest opportunity and risk for both countries and the region as a whole. In Ethiopia, transformative Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, will be betting on a free and fair election to unite a fractured and restive country around the promise of a more democratic and inclusive society.
Though coming on cue, a bitter aftertaste still lingers, following the disastrous elections of May 2015 that saw the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front win all 547 seats in parliament. Dr Abiy has tried to placate the opposition which lost its minority of two seats back then in a poll that was discredited by an atmosphere of fear and intimidation as well as the detention of several opposition leaders.
To his credit, Dr Abiy has tried to chart a new course, freeing from jail opposition politicians, journalists and human rights activists. In some sense, the Ethiopian election will be a referendum on Dr Abiy’s reformist agenda and the big question is how all this is going to play out.
Will it open wide the Pandora's box of the ethnic rivalry that has been seething just below the surface, provide conservative elements across the political divide to pushback against reform; or yield a positive social and political reawakening?
Since independence in 1960, Somalia held its last election by universal suffrage half a century ago. The fall in January 1991 of Mohamed Siad Barre’s dictatorship which had run the country since 1969, saw Somalia descend into internecine violence as rival clans jostled for control.
This year’s election will be an attempt to return to democracy in which universal suffrage replaces the consensus and tyranny of the clans that have run the show until now.
Closer home, Burundi and its bosom buddy Tanzania will also hold elections in May and October respectively. Depending on who comes out of the woodwork as the country’s new ruler, Burundi’s election and President Pierre Nkurunziza’s pledge not to seek re-election could potentially reset the volatile internal and regional politics.
A successful election in Burundi could moderate the toxic internal politics and create the conditions for Bujumbura’s re-engagement with neighbours and partners in the East African Community.
Ordinarily, an election in Tanzania should not cause much anxiety because the country is supposed to be the most mature democracy in the region. Yet the polls slated for October have put the antennae of regional election watchers in active mode.
This year’s election can be billed as the most unpredictable because it comes against a backdrop of repression unseen since the country opened up to pluralism just over 30 years ago.
Although it swept local elections last November, the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi does not appear content and continues to tighten the screws on the opposition, media, civil society and even human rights activists, shrinking the democratic space.
With the stakes so high, this year’s polls will be a pointer to the region’s likely democracy and economic trajectory into the new decade.