Ethiopia: Numbers Talk?

By IndepthAfrica
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Feb 11th, 2013
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By Daniel Berhane, Addis Fortune

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A five-minute walk from Ehel Berenda, the central wholesale grain market of the city, leads to Woreda 8, Addis Ketema’s inner-city neighbourhood.

Small scale businesses like kiosks, hair salons and video rentals abound in the narrow stone paved streets in the neighbourhood that is a mix of narrow living quarters, mostly made from wood and mud; commercial space and several schools.

Its inhabitants are close-knit; familiar with their surroundings and each other. Most can easily locate the residence of a specific person if asked by a passerby, and can even venture to guess where that person will be at various times of the day.

Such was the case when Fortune talked to five young men, in their mid to late twenties, on Wednesday, February 6, 2013.

Since the topic of conversation was registration for the upcoming local and municipal election, most had a wary look in their eyes. They tried to pass questions on to each other and finally to people in the wereda who would be more outspoken.

Such wariness comes despite the fact that this is the wereda that elected Girma Seifu, the sole opposition member to the House of People’s Representatives in December 2010.

Finally, however, as the questions stuck only close to the registration process, the group relented and opened up.

One of them, Binyam Tesfaye, was born and raised in what once was Kebele 09 of Wereda 08. Like four of his friends standing together with him, he does odd-jobs, and does not have a stable paycheck.

Since he first became eligible to vote during the 2005 general elections, he has always made sure to get his voting card early.

In 2005, he was excited to register for his first elections and he was motivated by the discussions around him which mostly centred on the elections. In the next round of elections in 2010, he registered since he had a vested interest in who got elected in the local administration.

Back then, Benyam and 200 other people from the neighbourhood had formed an Association to establish parking fees near Ehel Berenda. The existence of a similar Association already claiming the area, however, led wereda officials to deny Binyam’s Association a permit to work there for the next four years.

“I was interested in voting in the local elections then, because I wanted an administration that could help our Association operate in the area,” he told Fortune. “It was a blow to us since we already had our uniforms made.”

After he registered he remembers telling several campaign candidates in his neighbourhood about the Association.

“Of course they stated that we deserved to operate near Ehel Berenda, because they were soliciting our votes,” he told Fortune.

But it did not end up that way after elections.

Three years later the Association is still not operating in the parking area that it sought.

“I am still running around doing odd jobs. Otherwise I just hang around on the streets with my friends like I am doing now,” he stated.

Of his four friends standing with him, two are also members of the Association.

Despite stating that he has nothing to look forward to in the coming election, he registered as soon as he heard the announcement in the media. So have his friends Yonas Mande, 28, and Mitiku Seyoum, 27.

They are part of the 1.06 million people registered in the 1, 523 polling stations of Addis Abeba, during the voter registration period between December 31, 2012 and January 29, 2012, as well as two additional days in the beginning of February.

These voters get to decide who represents them for the city, district and wereda councils. The city council has 138 seats available, and each wereda has 300.

The council size for each district depends on the number of wereda’s within it. For each wereda within a district 30 seats are available at the district council.

Political parties, local administration officials and the election board itself can all participate in mobilising voters.

In Binyam’s neighbourhood and in most districts in Addis, the voter registration drive was strong with different wereda forums and leagues canvassing door to door and asking passersby on the street whether they have registered yet.

Biniyam was asked by different wereda forums whether he had registered. He was rather surprised to hear a thank you from members of one such forum, when he showed them his registration card.

“I kept wondering whether they were having a hard time getting voters out,” he told Fortune.

No such problem had occurred. Out of the estimated 3.13 million people residing in Addis Abeba, 1.25 million are eligible to vote based on their age, according to data from the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE).

The Board had estimated that 1.03 million people would register, a target it has surpassed by 23,375.

When compared to previous elections however this number is lower.

Low candidate participation from opposition parties at the wereda and district level may have contributed to this, argues Yilma Workneh, head of election officers at Kebele 02, Wereda 08, in Addis Ketema district.

Yilma, who raised his four kids in this neighbourhood, has been an election official for all elections since the EPRDF came into power. Every time there is an election he asks for time off from the local wereda office where he works.

In each kebele polling station there are five election officers placed by the NEBE, after taking the nominations of people. These officers cannot be party members but they can vote for who they like.

In Yilma’s kebele there were 1,112 registrants, 54pc of which were women. Although this surpasses the target set at 1,000 registrants in a neighbourhood that has 550 households, Yilma remembers that in 2010, the number of people registering had been 1500. It was even higher in 2005, he claims.

“In 2005 and 2010, there was the general election as well, which drew the attention of people,” Yilma told Fortune.

Addis Abeba’s election has slowly been separated from the general election for parliamentary representatives since the controversial 2005 election season. Then, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), which won the majority of seats in the city council for Addis Abeba, refused to assume power claiming that elections in regions and the national elections were fraudulent.

A caretaker administration was instituted for three years, after which local elections were held separate from the general federal elections in Addis Abeba for the first time. Nearly all available seats were taken by the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), that year.

When the 2010 general elections rolled over, Addis Abeba only collected votes for a few vacant seats. Now far from the general elections, the capital’s local election is taking place at the same time as the regional elections.

In Kebele 02 polling station, where Yilma is in charge of the process, and Kebele 09 where Binyam got registered, it is only EPRDF members that put forward their candidacy, totaling 66 in both kebeles, for the Wereda Council.

Binyam and his friends say they do not yet know the candidates in the running. They have yet to be announced and campaign for votes, they state. But Biniyam does not even recognise any of the opposition party leaders currently on the scene. He is able to name Girma Seifu from Medrek, of course, and personalities within the CUD, but he does not know Asrat Tasse of the Unity Democracy and Justice’s (UDJ) or Ethiopian Democratic Party’s Mushe Semu. He knows however, Gorfeyelesh Mekonen the candidate in his kebele for the wereda elections.

Gorfeyelesh has served in the Wereda Council before and is up for reelection. She is involved in the women’s league and was active in getting voters to register. She is part member of a Small & Micro Enterprise that sells spices and injera; her association also sells Hidasse newspaper, which is published by the EPRDF.

“She lives nearby me,” said Binyam. “I know her.”

Gorfeyelesh is already a registered candidate, as the party has registered its entrants early.

At the Wereda 08 election office, it is the same thing. Opposition parties had not registered for seats in the district council by Thursday February 7, 2013, a day before the deadline.

EPRDF on the other hand forwarded 30 candidates for election at Addis Abeba district level. It has also put forward a candidate for every seat available at the wereda and district councils which total around 47,800. The number of candidates forwarded for the city council is yet unknown, however it has put forward 5 million candidates nationwide for regional local elections.

Most of the opposition parties on the other hand, have only registered candidates for the city council, according to Getaneh Gebrewold, from the Addis Abeba Election Board.

Although verified figures will only be released on Tuesday, preliminary results show the participation of around six parties including Ethiopian Raie Party (ERP); All Ethiopian National Movement (AENM); All Oromo People Democratic Party (AOPDP); Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) and Coalition for Unity & Democracy (CUDP).

None of these have put forward candidates for wereda elections, according to Getaneh.

Though not mentioned in the preliminary results when Fortune called to inquire about the registration process mid afternoon on Friday, the Ethiopian Justice and Democratic Forces Front (EJDFF), a coalition of four parties, have stated that they will participate at the wereda level elections in selected districts.

“We are putting candidates in Gulelle, Yeka, Addis Ketema, Arada, Lideta and Kolfe Keranio,” Girmay Hadera, the Front’s chairperson, and the Ethiopian Democratic Party Unity head told Fortune.

Opposition parties state that they face financial and political constraints which makes it harder for them to compete at the grassroots level.

“For general elections on the national level, there is some financial assistance from the election board” Girmay told Fortune. “We also get allocated some time for advertisements, and there are many platforms organised for debates.”

For local elections such support is not available, according to Girmay. It takes a lot of human resource to put forward 3,000 and 4,800 seats for each district and wereda seat respectively, in addition to putting election observers in each polling station.

“Logistically, it tests our resources” he stated.

Gorfeyelesh Mekonen, left, a resident of Wereda 08 in Addis Ketema who is up for reelection as EPRDF’s candidate for Wereda council, was actively participating in getting out people to vote to her Kebele poll where Tariku Woldesenebet, right, election officer, registered potential voters until the deadline on February 2.

The limit placed on foreign NGO’s to participate in the political sphere also cuts support.

In addition, it is very hard to gather grassroots support since there is political intimidation, allege members of opposition parties.

“People hesitate to openly acknowledge that they support us and are our members, because they are fearful that they will be an outcast and will not get appropriate services by their local administration,” Mushe Semu, chairman of the EDP Party told Fortune.

“This makes it hard to recruit many candidates or gather up a lot of visible support at the grassroots level.” he told Fortune.

With this belief, the EDP has only forwarded one candidate, Wondwossen Ashenafi, for the city council. Even for regional local elections, that will be taking place around the same time, it did not offer any candidates. This is in sharp contrast to the over 450 candidates they put forward for the House of People’s Representatives during the general election in 2010.

“We are only in this election in principle and think that the outcome has already been determined, ” the press release they issued on Friday stated.

Whatever, the constraints however, they need to be overcome if opposition parties want to present a viable alternative to what is available, according to a lawyer who works at Forum for Diplomacy.

The trend is to focus attention on National elections. However, since 2008 the number of seats at the wereda and district level have increased by almost tenfold to make these institutions more accessible to the people, according to the expert.

“Oppositon parties need to use this chance to put some of their people in this institutions and build from the ground up” he suggested.

“Parties can form coalitions, in order to merge resources, to overcome financial and human resource constraints.”

The EDP however does not see the increase of seats at the wereda and district level as a blessing.

While Redwan Hussein, Head of the party office in Addis Abeba, announced two weeks before the deadline to register candidates closed, that EPRDF had amply prepared and trained its candidates to participate in the election,through The Ethiopian Democratic Party, chaired by Mushe Semu, right, in contrast stated that it is only putting forward one candidate for the Addis Abeba city council in a press conference conducted two hours before the deadline.

“It is because they know we do not have resources to compete on that level,” the sole candidate Wondwossen Ashenafi told Fortune.

“The additional seats would benefit them and undermine us even if we manage to win at the National or City council level,” Wondwossen added.

With registration for candidacy over this week, it is now time for campaigning to start. Candidates have between February 9 and April 11, to convince people like Binyam to vote for them.

Binyam is waiting for this opportunity to acquaint himself with the current batch of politicians. However, he is not hopeful that he will find the right candidate or that he will even go out and vote.

“I do not think any change will come in my living status or with the Association, so I may skip it altogether,” he stated.

His friends nodded in agreement.
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