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The Second Sex: Women’s Liberation and Media in Post-Independence Tanzania

6 min read.

Fatma Alloo (of the Tanzania Media Women’s Association) on how women used the media and cultural spaces to organize and challenge gender norms.



The Second Sex: Women’s Liberation and Media in Post-Independence Tanzania

Fatma Alloo’s activism grew in the decades following Tanzania’s independence in 1961, when she worked as a journalist under Julius Nyerere, or Mwalimu, the first president of Tanzania; co-founded the feminist advocacy group Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA) in 1987; and co-founded the vibrant Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) in 1997. Here, she unpacks how women used the media and cultural spaces for social mobilization and shifting patriarchal norms, particularly in periods where they were marginalized from state power. In the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series, and the Post-Colonialisms Today project more broadly, we’re learning from African activists and policy makers from the early post-independence era, to understand how their experience of a unique period of economic, societal, cultural, and regional transformation can aid us in the present day, when questions of decolonization and liberation are more pressing than ever.

Heba M. Khalil: You have lived through so many changes in so many different political systems, from the Sultanate, colonialism, the Nyerere years; you’ve seen the dawning of liberalism and neoliberalism.

Fatma Alloo: As you say, I’ve been through a lot of “-isms” in Tanzania. The other day I was reflecting that although I grew up under colonialism in Zanzibar, as a child I was not aware that it was colonialism, I was not aware there was a Sultanate. We used to run and wave to the Sultan because he was the only one with a shiny, red car and we used to love that car, a red Rolls Royce. But as I reflect now, I realized that these were the years Mwalimu was struggling for independence in Tanganyika.

Then, of course, as you grow, life takes you on a journey, and I ended up at the University of Dar es Salaam in the 1970s, where the Dar es Salaam debates were taking place. Tanzania hosted liberation movements, and that is where socialism, communism, Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and feminism were being debated, and that’s where my consciousness grew, because I was in the midst of it. As the progressive, international community at the university was ideologically fired up by Mwalimu’s socialism, I began to understand that even my feminism had come from the West. Nobody had taught me that women lived feminism on the continent. This realization came when, as a student, I participated in an adult literacy program launched by Mwalimu. As students, we were sent to a rural and urban factory to teach literacy, but I emerged from those communities having been taught instead!

Heba M. Khalil: What do you think the role of women was in Tanzania in particular, but also on the continent, in defining the parameters, the choices and the imagination of post-independence Africa?

Fatma Alloo: Women had always been part and parcel of the independence movement in Africa. In Southern Africa and Tanzania they stood side-by-side with the men to fight, so they were very much part of it. The unique thing about Tanzania was that Mwalimu established a party called the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), which had five wings with women being one of them. The others were youth, peasants, and workers, so as to mobilize society as a whole.

Post-independence is another story, one that very often has been narrated by men in power. There was a struggle for the visibility of women. I remember the debates in South Africa, where the African National Congress was arguing about the women’s wing wanting to discuss power relations. And there was resistance to this, the party leaders would argue first let’s just get independence, let’s not waste our time, women’s liberation will come later. It was a very bitter struggle, and of course after independence, women lost out quite a bit.

Heba M. Khalil: Why were post-independence power structures and ideologies defeated and replaced at some point by new ideologies of liberalism and, eventually, neoliberalism?

Fatma Alloo: The western media portrays Mwalimu as a failure. He has not failed, from my point of view. The whole issue of national unity is important. Tanzania has been a relatively peaceful country. Why? It did not happen by accident, it had to do with Mwalimu’s policies—he realized he had to deal with profound divisions, and he understood the role of education. Administratively, the nation had been inherited after decades of divide and rule policies. It was divided on racial and religious bases, as Tanzania is half Christian and half Muslim. We could have had a civil war, like in Lebanon, or a tribal-oriented conflict, like in Kenya or Libya. Mwalimu really understood this from the very beginning. I remember when we started TAMWA, when the women came together, we had no idea who belonged to what tribe. He was that successful.

We had free medicine, free education, but of course, all that went away with neoliberalism. My generation remembers this, and I think we have to make sure that the younger generation knows the history of the country, knows the literature that emerged from the continent. In my opinion, of all the contributions of Mwalimu, the most important was the peace and unity—amani, in Kiswahili.

Because Mwalimu was so successful, the West, especially Scandinavian countries, made him their darling. As you know, Scandinavian countries had not colonized Africa much, so people also trusted them and accepted their development aid. Very sadly, it did eat away at the success of Mwalimu with his people, and eventually made us dependent on that development aid, which continues to date. Without development aid we don’t seem to be able to move on anything. We have stopped relying on ourselves.

Heba M. Khalil: What was your experience of organizing during the rapid growth of the mass media sector in Tanzania?

Fatma Alloo: I was very active, first as a journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it was extremely different. We were very influenced by Mwalimu’s ideology and ready to play our role to change the world. Mwalimu had refused to introduce television because, he argued at that time, we did not have our own images to portray, to empower our younger generations. He said if we introduce television the images shown will be of the West and the imperialist ideology will continue. In Zanzibar, however, we already had the oldest television on the continent, and it was in color. When Abeid Karume attained power in Zanzibar in 1964, after a bloody overthrow of the sultanate in power, the first thing he did was to introduce not only television, but community media, so every village in Zanzibar already had these images. But television didn’t come to Tanganyika until 1992 (Mwalimu stepped down in 1986), when it was introduced by a local businessman who established his own station. Until then the state had controlled the media, so history began to change as businesses were allowed to establish media.

I remember I was then in TAMWA and we had to encourage a lot of production of plays and other visuals, for which there was no market before. The radio had been powerful; when the peasants went to the countryside, they would take the radio and listen as they ploughed the land. So, the radio was the main tool that was used to mobilize society during Mwalimu’s era.

The press gave women journalists little chance to cover issues of importance to women. We were given health or children to cover as our issues. Before, Tanzania had one English paper, one Kiswahili, Uhuru, and one party paper. By 1986, there were 21 newspapers, and it became easier for us to really influence the press, and TAMWA began talking about issues like sexual harassment at work. But it was a double-edged sword, because the television stations recruited pretty girls to do the news reading, and the girls also wanted to be seen on television as it was a novelty. So, while we were expanding the conversation on the portrayal of women, here was television, where women were used as sex objects. The struggle continues, a luta continua.

Heba M. Khalil: How are movements trying to achieve change on the continent, particularly youth movements or younger generations, by utilizing media and cultural spaces?

Fatma Alloo: The youth need to develop tools of empowerment at an educational level and at an organizational level. Africa is a young continent, and our hope is the youth. Many youth are very active at a cultural level, they may not be in universities but at a cultural level they are extremely visible, in music, dance, and street theater.

At the moment, you see the pan-African dream has sort of lost the luster it had during independence. Even if you look at the literature of that time, it was a collective dream for Africa to unite—Bob Marley had a song “Africa Unite,” we used to dance to it and we used to really identify with it, and the literature—Franz Fanon, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Sembène Ousmane, Miriam Ba, Nawal al Saadawi—and also the films that came out. In fact, Egypt was the first country to produce amazing films; when we established the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), in our first year we showed a film from Egypt, The Destiny by Youssef Chahine.

Zanzibar International Film Festival was born because we asked the question, “If we in Africa do not tell our stories, who will?” We ask that question particularly to train and stimulate the production of films on the continent, including in Kiswahili, because while West Africa has many films, East Africa lags behind. The festival has been in existence for 21 years. This part of the world has more than 120 million people who speak Kiswahili, so the market is there. We also encourage a lot of young producers and we encourage putting a camera in children’s hands, because from my own experience, children get so excited when they can create their own images. Twenty-one years later, these children are now adults, and they are the directors and the producers in this region. So, one has to play a role in impacting change and liberating consciousness on our vibrant and rich continent.

This article is part of the series “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” from Post-Colonialisms Today (PCT), a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent working to recapture progressive thought and policies from post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. Sign up for updates here.

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Heba M. Khalil is part of Post- Colonialisms Today Working Group.


The Bear Is Back: Russian Re-Engagement With Africa Is Picking up With Putin in the Driving Seat

Plans for the 2022 Russia-Africa summit are well under way, again causing a stir around growing Russian presence on the continent. Rumored to be taking place in either Cairo, Dakar or Addis Ababa, the summit will bring together hundreds of representatives from business and government.



The Bear Is Back: Russian Re-Engagement With Africa Is Picking up With Putin in the Driving Seat

Vladimir Putin has placed a high premium on rebuilding Russia’s stature as a global power, and these efforts extend to Africa. He first visited the continent in 2006, promising $1bn in investments and making a clear declaration of Russian interest.

If you google “Russia-Africa relations”, some of the first results include news articles about Russia and its “return” to the African continent. What does Russia want from Africa, many ask, and what’s behind Moscow’s recent push into the continent?

You may also see mention of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, the first of its kind, held in Sochi and attended by 43 African heads of state. Several memoranda of understanding were signed at the summit, including between the Russian government and the African Union.

“We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa. We have a lot to offer our African friends,” President Vladimir Putin said at the summit. This too sparked debate about Russia’s growing influence on the continent.

Did Russia ever really leave Africa? That depends on who you ask.

In March 2021, building on previous work, the SA Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) launched a two-year research programme seeking to understand Russia’s strategic engagement and policy impact in Africa. A series of online scoping workshops showed there are vast and varying opinions on the topic.

Sanctions Trigger Renewed Engagement

It’s well known that the Soviet Union provided support to a number of African countries during their anti-colonial struggles. Most scholars agree that in the early 1990s, at the height of the USSR’s transition to a multi- (or one-) party system, and preoccupied with domestic challenges, Russia’s presence in Africa reached an all-time low.

In 1991, the then president, Boris Yeltsin, announced that Russia’s foreign aid policy would come to an end. By 1992, nine embassies and four consular offices were closed, while many cultural centres disappeared.

Since then, Putin has placed a high premium on rebuilding Russia’s stature as a global power, and these efforts extend to Africa too. He first visited the continent in 2006, promising $1-billion in investments and making a clear declaration of Russian interest. By the following year, Russia had written off approximately $20-billion of debt incurred by African countries during the Cold War.

But some argue that it wasn’t until 2013 that material engagements emerged. Putin again visited South Africa, often seen as the gateway to Africa, for a Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) summit. Russia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with South Africa, with provision for cooperation in the political, economic, and defence spheres.

Diplomatic links between Russia and Africa have also increased, with several heads of state visiting Moscow since 2015. Through the UN, Russia has actively participated in aid programmes, providing food and medical assistance to African countries in need. It has also courted African votes on the UN Security Council and UN General Assembly. It’s widely speculated that renewed engagement is linked to economic sanctions placed on Russia in 2014 by the West, due to the Ukraine conflict and the “annexation” of Crimea. Here, two distinct interests stand out.

Military and Natural Resource Interests

Russia is a major supplier of arms to Africa. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Africa accounted for 18% of all Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020, with Algeria being the largest recipient. Defence relationships between Russia and Africa are also growing.

Since 2014, Rosoboronexport – a Russian state-owned agency that exports military products and services – has signed bilateral agreements with multiple African countries, including Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Sudan. Apart from military equipment, the agreements contain provisions for countering terrorism and the joint training of troops.

Russia also has clear economic motives when it comes to natural resources. Although it boasts some of its own mineral wealth, Russia’s natural resources are difficult to extract, making it easier to import them instead. Notable developments are taking place in Zimbabwe (platinum group metals), Angola (diamonds), and Namibia (uranium).

Several Russian state-owned energy companies such as Gazprom, Rustec and Rosatom are also active in Africa, with key investments in the oil, gas and nuclear sectors in Algeria, Egypt, Uganda and Angola. It’s worth noting that state-led investments are often linked to military or diplomatic initiatives. For example, while an agreement is in place to construct two nuclear power plants in Nigeria, Russia has at the same time committed to countering terrorism there.

Incremental Growth

Events since 2014 have led to concerns from other countries about the return of the “bear” (in a 2018 speech, the then US national security adviser, John Bolton, singled out the expansionist efforts of Russia and its “influence across Africa”).

And while much attention is paid to Russian movements on the continent, it’s difficult to compare Russian engagement with Africa’s traditional partners like the US, UK and France, or with emerging powers like China, whose involvement dwarfs that of Russia. Interest from Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and others also means African countries can now pick and choose who they would like to partner with. These decisions are informed by a complex web of priorities.

Conversely, while Putin has named Africa a foreign policy priority, it is not number one on the list. “In terms of overall economic ties, Russia still does much more trade with Europe and Asia than with Africa,” Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies, told SAIIA. This was due to its geographic location, she said.

Plans for the 2022 Russia-Africa summit are well under way, again causing a stir around growing Russian presence on the continent. Rumored to be taking place in either Cairo, Dakar or Addis Ababa, the summit will bring together hundreds of representatives from business and government.

Is this part of Russia’s new Africa strategy or a continuation of its prior involvement? Either way, we should expect incremental growth in levels of engagement.

This article was initially published in the Daily Maverick.

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The African Research Assistant as Hunter-Gatherer: An Insider’s View

Research assistants are merely the “hunters and gatherers” of knowledge, relegated to the periphery as “brokers”, doing the bidding of those who pull the purse strings, argues Wanjiru Gichohi.



The African Research Assistant as Hunter-Gatherer: An Insider’s View

The so-called research industry in Africa is a fast growing sector that is dominated by for-profit firms, state agencies and academia, among a litany of players who are trying to understand society and make nuanced policy on critical societal issues. At the heart of this industry is the research assistant who is part fixer, part liaison, part translator, part moderator, part research broker, part administrator, part baby-sitter.

Perhaps that last one sounds a little exaggerated when it comes to the many hats that the RA—as the research assistant is referred to in local research circles—has to wear, but on the ground it is nonetheless an apt description; research respondents have been known to show up for a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) with toddlers or babies in tow.

Recruitment of RAs

An RA’s journey typically begins with an induction session offered by the research team. Typically, these are foreign nationals, senior consultants operating locally, or development organizations that have received research funding. In the course of their training, RAs familiarize themselves with the data collection tools and methods that will be used in the project. Where possible, a pilot session is organized.

The RAs are then sent out on research missions; they may be tasked with recruiting study respondents, moderating group discussion sessions, conducting interviews and taking notes and it is not uncommon to find an RA playing any two of these roles. The level of remuneration that RAs receive is usually determined by the top management of the hiring organization. Given the high unemployment rate and low bargaining power of many potential research assistants, more often than not, they accept less than they are worth.

Recruiting respondents and the politics of compensation

Of the tasks typically assigned to the RA, the recruitment of potential respondents is perhaps the most challenging. Most people will need to know what they stand to gain by participating; “kuna chai? which is Kenyan for “am I getting a little money out of this?” This question can be justified depending on how you look at it; one, these people are leaving their productive spaces for approximately half a day, and two, they are spending money on transport. It is not unusual to oversee a research project in a remote community where respondents are coming in from villages that are as far as 40 km away from the venue of the Focus Group Discussion (FDG).

The common practice is to recruit respondents in excess to cover for potential no-shows but in some cases, all the recruited persons turn up leaving the RA to deal with those that have to be sent away who may become aggressive as they demand reimbursement of their costs. This is a situation that calls on the RA’s negotiating skills, as money for such reimbursements is often not included in the study budget. Fixed budgets mean that the respondent who brought along his wife and child can leave the RA out-of-pocket as s/he provides the extra meals and the cost of transport back home. Husbands have been known to pocket the incentive and immediately disappear, leaving their families stranded and forcing the RA to provide money for transport from personal funds.

You may wonder why, but NGOs have made it a practice to offer incentives to research participants. International NGOs can afford to give large amounts of money as incentives, and sometimes include foodstuffs. Research participants have come to expect the same level of incentives from all other research bodies and will complain if that standard is not met.

Meet the serial respondent

Then there are the “serial respondents” who are all too familiar with research studies. This is common when a recruiting agency uses the same database of respondents for several projects. Serial respondents come with expectations regarding the type or amount of compensation they should receive based on previous experience.

Serial respondents will often have participated in studies undertaken by various (international) NGOs and as such, they usually have an idea of the “going rate”. This is why they sometimes bring along friends who have not been invited to participate by the RA so that they too can “get on the gravy train”. Participants can make up to KSh2,500 (US$25) for taking part in an FGD, a reasonable amount to make for a 2-hour engagement in many parts of the country.

Of critical concern, however, “is whether serial respondents” lend credibility to the research process. Given that they participate in many discussion groups, interviews and surveys, is it possible that they have “learned” how to respond to questions? Have they devised ways of manipulating recruitment agencies in order to remain on the recruitment databases? Also, how do local researchers without huge research budgets, compete in a situation where foreign researchers have tipped the “market” in their favour?

The black market of knowledge

The above narration reflects the everyday administrative experiences of a research assistant that are often discounted by the contracting researchers. However, beyond administrative duties, RAs usually also make epistemic contributions to the research process. First, prior to recruitment, the RA is issued with a respondent profile that gives the general characteristics of the individuals who will participate in the study.

The RA is then left to make quick judgements, from a 10-15 minute face-to-face or telephone conversation, on the capacity of the selected persons to effectively contribute to the research exercise. During interviews and focus group discussions, the moderator or interviewer is tasked with bringing the data collection instrument to life, through translation and probing for responses that will drive the discussion towards the research objectives.

In the data collection phase, the moderators and note-takers play the critical role of providing data that will later be transcribed and analysed to generate research findings. Overlooking this crucial role played by the local research assistant is tantamount to choking the knowledge production machinery.

Of critical concern, however, “is whether serial respondents” lend credibility to the research process.

After the fieldwork, the RAs are not acknowledged as having been part of the research projects they have contributed to, but are merely relegated to the periphery as “research brokers”. In the black market of knowledge production, research assistants, such as myself, do not even have a say in the amount of remuneration.

Given the crucial role that research assistants play as research brokers, where then are they positioned on the research spectrum? How then do we begin to recognize them as critical drivers of the research process and treat them as such in deed and in compensation? As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni notes, “The silencing of ‘local’ and ‘African’ voices in research is largely to blame for the epistemic divide between the Global North and South where the research assistants have remained hunter-gatherers’ of raw data and ‘native informants’.”

These locals collect data on behalf of researchers from the Global North who then develop theories and publish that data. The theories and concepts are consumed and, at times, even tested in Africa.

Faceless ants of the research colony

Research assistants have long been at the periphery of the knowledge production continuum. Western researchers swoop in with the funding, armed with the research design and methodology but with little or no knowledge of the local context. They are forced to rely on local researchers to “fix”, “broker”, and facilitate interviews and discussions with respondents as well as for other types of research activities.

At the end of it all, the research assistants walk off with their pay, sometimes meagre, with no recognition whatsoever in the research outputs. So what contribution do local research assistants make to knowledge production in Africa? Are they merely a means to an end? How can local researchers rid the epistemological space of the extant racial hierarchization and asymmetrical power relations to claim their space as “research collaborators” rather than merely being viewed as “assistants”.

In his article, Decoloniality as the Future of Africa, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni mentions that despite Africa having attained independence, spheres such as culture, religion, language, aesthetics, the mind and psyche have remained colonized. He alludes to the fact that African knowledge systems still remain subject to the Euro-North American-centric systems. As such, decoloniality is imperative to dismantle the power relations and conceptions of knowledge that propagate the reproduction of gender, racial and geo-political hierarchies birthed or energized by the colonial world.

RAs are not acknowledged as having been part of the research projects they have contributed to, but are merely relegated to the periphery as “research brokers”.

It is unfortunate that we find these hierarchies and dichotomies replicated in the research and knowledge production space where Westerners have positioned themselves as the “controllers” of the research agendas and initiatives. These “perceived” or “implied” privileges are probably because one, funding follows along a North-South channel and two, seemingly sophisticated and progressive knowledge systems are prevalent in the West. The consequence of this positioning is that researchers and knowledge systems situated in the Global South are relegated to the bottom of the research food chain.

Owning our research stories

Local researchers, mostly research assistants, then become more or less the “hunters and gatherers” of knowledge, doing the bidding of those who pull the purse strings. We are now caught up in a situation where foreigners use African experts to study Africa and African phenomena but totally erase or sideline the locals that facilitate their research. As African scholar Chinua Achebe has said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

This is not to romanticize indigenous and vernacular approaches, or to imply that they should be taken as they are without a commensurate level of scrutiny and analysis. We still need to create and open up spaces for narratives and knowledge from the Global South to interact with and confront or bolster those from the Global North. It is time that African researchers are centred in African narratives, especially where intellectual contributions have been made.

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Elections? What elections? Abiy is Counting on a Military Victory

Abiy Ahmed’s legitimacy hangs on conjuring up an improbable military victory in the total war he has declared on the people of Tigray.



Elections? What elections? Abiy is Counting on a Military Victory

Selected by the ruling party and later appointed by the Ethiopian parliament in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was expected to deliver the long hoped for post-EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) era. For some of his domestic and international backers, the post-EPRDF era meant the ushering in of political democratization, further economic liberalization, and “post-ethnic” Ethiopian politics. He has failed to deliver on all three counts.

More than ever, Ethiopian politics is bitterly polarized along ethnic lines. Ethnic divisions have split the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). Now, Ethiopia has two armies: the Tigrayan Defence Force (TDF) and the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF). Nor is economic liberalization faring any better. In 2020, foreign direct investment (FDI) dropped significantly to US$2.4 billion from US$ 7.1 billion in 2016. Creditors are not more optimistic. The birr has become the worst performer among 20 African currencies following a slump of 11 per cent against the dollar.

After a decade of double-digit GDP growth, Ethiopia is now growing at only two per cent, an economic slowdown Kevin Daly describes as “the shine [having] come off the star in a big way”. Ethiopia’s democratization, which is the focus of this piece, has also stalled, as illustrated by the uncompetitive and non-participatory elections of 21 June 2021.

False start 

Ethiopia’s new leadership was widely expected to spearhead a democratic dispensation in which elections would be freely and fairly contested by all the major political forces in the country. The June 21 election was expected to be both participatory and competitive. It was neither and its outcome was predictable, if not preordained. As everyone expected, the ruling party won overwhelmingly, with some leftover seats going to other parties.

Against the hopes of many, Abiy Ahmed found ways to effectively exclude the real contenders with any chance of defeating the incumbent.

Liquidating the former ruling party and extending the term of office

The first step was to liquidate the former ruling party, the EPRDF, and place the new Prosperity Party in power. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, one of the core parties forming the EPRDF and currently ruling Tigray, vehemently opposed the formation of the new party, and decided not to join it.

The second step was to postpone the much-anticipated 2020 elections on the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. The legality and legitimacy of this decision was fiercely contested, especially by opposition leaders from Oromia and Tigray. Inevitably, those opposition leaders from Oromia with a large following and constituency were jailed or placed under house arrest.  By opting to postpone the election and arresting opposition leaders, Abiy extended his own tenure by using a controversial constitutional interpretation.

Waging war

The third step was waging war on Tigray. The postponement of the election qualifies as one of the triggers of this war. The ruling party in Tigray rejected the postponement, asserting that regular elections are a necessary tool for the exercise of a people’s right to self-determination. Accordingly, Tigray conducted its regional election on 4 September 2020. The election was considered illegal by the incumbent and the federal government cut ties with the Tigray government and suspended the transfer of the regional budget, a move viewed by Tigray as a declaration of war. On 4 November 2020, Tigray was invaded by the combined Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces.

Subverting the will of the people

These early steps to subvert the will of the people call into question the incumbent’s commitment to a fair and democratic process. Providing a detailed contextual analysis on the state of Ethiopia before the polls, US Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Gregory Meeks said:

Against this grim backdrop, few believe Ethiopia’s upcoming national elections stand a real chance of being free or fair. . . . Prime Minister Abiy and his ruling Prosperity Party have made it clear they intend to continue working from the same authoritarian playbook as their predecessors, squandering Ethiopians’ hopes for the country’s first-ever genuinely democratic elections.

The EU withdrew its earlier decision to send election observers. Though it fell short of denouncing the election, the US government in its statement provided precise reasons why the election would not meet the requisite democratic standards:

The United States is gravely concerned about the environment under which these upcoming elections are to be held. The detention of opposition politicians, harassment of independent media, partisan activities by local and regional governments, and the many inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts across Ethiopia are obstacles to a free and fair electoral process and whether Ethiopians would perceive them as credible. In addition, the exclusion of large segments of the electorate from this contest due to security issues and internal displacement is particularly troubling.

The US statement added, “these elections [are conducted] at a time when so many Ethiopians are suffering and dying from violence and acute food insecurity caused by conflict”.

Elections without credibility

The credibility of elections is assessed based on international standards such as those set by the United Nations. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s recent election does not meet the minimum international threshold of being free, fair, participatory and competitive.

First, this election was conducted during a period of violent conflict that effectively denied the citizens their fundamental democratic rights and the opportunity to participate on an equal basis. Over 100 constituencies in Tigray, Somali, Harari, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz, representing well over 18 per cent of parliamentary seats, did not vote. For close to 4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), this election was a luxury. In Tigray, constituencies in Oromia, Amhara (Oromo special zone and parts of north Shewa), and the border areas of the Amhara, Oromia, Somali and Afar regions face violent conflict. With 7 per cent and 1.7 per cent of the total constituency in Tigray and Benishangul-Gumuz respectively, wars for survival still rage. In parts of Oromia, the region with the largest population and 33 per cent of the total constituency, armed conflict continues. Furthermore, the election was conducted under conditions of pervasive discrimination and profiling based on ethnicity that targeted Tigrayans, Oromos and Gumuz.

The postponement of the election qualifies as one of the triggers of this war.

Second, at the subnational levels and in some urban areas such as Amhara regional state, a few “opposition” parties did manage to win seats. However, in terms of presenting alternative policy options for Ethiopia, these parties failed, as their electoral manifestos were just versions of that of the ruling party. In addition, such results at the subnational level are anomalies, not trends. The trend is the incumbent attempting to re-establish a durable authoritarian regime, this time with a centralizing vision at its core that is diametrically opposed to the federalist vision set out in the current constitution.

Third, this election – like the previous one – was marred by claims of killings, assault, detention, intimidation and harassment of opposition candidates and supporters. In addition, the cancellation of political parties’ registration, litigation, anomalies in voter and candidate registrations, and ballot printing problems have damaged the credibility of the electoral bodies. Moreover, the deferral in holding referenda on requests for state formation in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region has stoked discontent. And nor did the media environment allow competitive elections; local media was rigorously censured, and journalists were killed, arrested, and intimidated. International media outlets were not spared either, with the permits of many foreign correspondents cancelled.

It thus came as no surprise when five parties criticised the ruling Prosperity Party for allegedly influencing the electoral process to favour its candidates. The National Movement of Amhara, Ethiopian Social Democratic Party, Afar People’s Party, Balderas for Genuine Democracy and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice complained of heavy security and cited a failure to meet minimum standards.

Legitimacy hanging on military victory

Abiy has clipped the wings of democracy. A day after the country went to the polls, and as Addis Ababa enjoyed the fanfare surrounding its “first democratic election”, the Ethiopian army continued its indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Tigray.

Abiy has plunged the country into a civil war that is now spreading from Tigray to other parts of Ethiopia. The war has been manipulated with a view to bolstering Abiy’s popularity and serves as the glue holding his internally fractured support base together. Military victory in Tigray has replaced an electoral win as the litmus test for the legitimacy of his rule.

Yet following the defeat and withdrawal of the Ethiopian army from Tigray, Abiy’s popular base is fast eroding. Now his legitimacy hangs on conjuring up an improbable military victory in the total war he has declared on the people of Tigray. The recent military advances made by the Tigray Defence Forces show that it is not just Abiy who is losing the unwinnable war in Tigray. Ethiopia is also losing its army.

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