In-depth Analysis: As Electoral Board reckons with delays and voters’ registration malfunction riddle the process, EU’s final decision is to send no mission at all

By Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan

Addis Abeba, May18/2021 – The 6th national elections that was scheduled to take place on June 5, 2021 was postponed with the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) citing that the postponement was due to logistics difficulties. Prior to the postponement, the voter registration process which had been extended two times before ending on Friday May, 14, 2021 was tainted by a series of controversies that highlighted irregularities in the voters’  registration process and put under question the entire process.

The case of the Somali Region 

The Somali region has been hit with its fair share of controversies surrounding the electoral process that began when NEBE called off registration at 30 polling stations located in 8 contested Kebeles between Afar and Somali regional states. Not long after, a consortium of opposition parties operating in the region and the regional issued a letter which was cosigned by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Freedom and Equality Party (FEP), Ethiopian Citizen for Social Justice (EZEMA), and Somali State Independent Candidate Representatives. In the letter, the opposition parties and independent candidates asked for the voter registration process to be suspended until credible and independent NEBE officers were brought in, opposition parties’ agents are allowed into stations with minimum bureaucratic hurdles and a transparent voter registration process is out in place. The opposing parties said they suspended all election activities until their demands were met. 

Abdi Mahdi, the Chairman of the opposition Ogaden National Liberation Front who spoke to Addis Standard at the time threatened that, “If the demands are not met the general atmosphere within the ONLF points to withdrawal from the upcoming elections.” while adding, “  However, the party’s final decision will be decided when there is a response from the NEBE.”  

Despite the consortium setting a five day deadline for the NEBE response, the Electoral Board response came weeks after the joint letter. The electoral board in its response announced that it will temporarily suspend voters’ registration in 7 constituencies of the Somali region while at the same time acknowledging shortcomings on its part in making the registration process fair and secure. The statement read, “The Board acknowledges that some of the trends observed in the process may be due to malpractices and concludes that this might raise serious doubts about the entire process.”  The seven constituency where voters’ registration was suspended were: 

–  Constituency Arabi (Including Constituencies for Regional Council to  and Denbel City Constituencies)

–  Constituency Deghamedo

– Constituency Gode (Including Adadle, Berano, Danan, East Imi, Elweine, Gode, Gode city Constituencies)

– Constituency Jijiga 1 (for Regional Council Jijiga, Jijiga city, Tulu Gudle constituencies)

–  Constituency of Kebri Dehar (Including Regional Council Debewain, Kebri Dahar, Kebri Dahar City, Mersin, Shekosh and Shilolo Constituencies)

–  Constituency of Qelafo (for Regional Council Firfir and Qelafo)

– Constituency Warder (Including Regional Council Deratele and Warder constituencies)

Despite the board’s acknowledgment of irregularities in said constituencies, the calling off of 30 polling stations in 8 kebeles and complaints by opposition parties operating in the region, the board reported that 3,844,129 voters were registered in the region. 

The regional deputy president, Mustefe Omer defended the board numbers matter through his official facebook page. The deputy president stated that the increase in numbers of registered voters could be credited to what he described as ‘abnormal demographic changes’. He said, “With the release of the number of people that registered to vote in the upcoming elections, we noted that some analysts have raised questions on the number of voters in the Somali Region, saying that 3.8 million registered voters for a population of 6.7 million is too high (and that the maximum should have been 3.4 million) based on the projected estimate from 2007 G.C. “ He further explained, “The problem is that this analysis does not account for abnormal demographic changes that usual census projections do not anticipate. Such as 600,000 internally displaced people that came to the region due to the politically motivated conflicts with neighboring regions in the last 3-4 years,” he continued, “There are also an estimated 700,000 returnee refugees that came back to the region from Kenyan refugee camps, Somaliland, Puntland and Southern Somalia in the last 3 years. This puts the current population of the region at 8 million.” 

According to the deputy president about 51% of the population are above the age of 18 and the current projected voters stand at 4 million people. The deputy president criticized observers and media alike for applying stereotypes on the Somali people and not collecting all facts before casting doubt on the voters’ registration process in the region.  He concluded by acknowledging what he described as ‘possible malpractices’, he said, “No one is ruling out possible malpractices (including double registrations here and there) or is making an assumption that every eligible voter registers to vote, but sharing facts on population size helps in making informed analysis.”

The case of Addis Abeba and Oromia region. 

Oromia regional state had its share of election controversies, the region’s major opposition parties Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) competing for election announced withdrawal from the upcoming elections citing intimidation by both the government and the ruling party and the absence of consensus as reasons for their withdrawal.

The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) called for ‘immediate and unconditional’ cessation of hostilities as well as an indefinite postponement of what it described as an ‘illegal Sham elections’.  The OLa also proposed the formation of a  transitional government in which its mandates  among others will be reforming the electoral system. OLF on its part voiced its concerns about the electoral process in a statement it released on its official Facebook page. The party whose chairman is currently under house arrest questioned the entire electoral process and demanded among many of its key demands that the independence and impartiality of key institutions including the NEBE be ensured. 

The NEBE previously postponed voters’ registration in all four zones of Wollega in Oromia regional state. Human rights activists took to social media to voice their concerns about the electoral process in the region where reports indicated that cases where underage school children were registered as voters, adults who did not possess a voting card were denied public service and polling stations were destroyed. 

Addis Standard spoke to Aman (requested to go by first name), a resident of  the West Arsi zone of the Oromia regional state who said, “I went for official paperwork to the nearby kebele and when I presented my ID card and my paperwork, I was asked to present my voters’ registration card or be denied service.” When asked if he encountered cases where underage school children were forced to register, he said, “Honestly,  I did not witness such a thing but this is Oromia, anything can happen here.” 

But despite the worsening security situation in the region and complaints by residents and opposition parties, the electoral board announced that it has registered 14,301,833 voters in the region.  

In Addis Abeba, reports of irregularities in the voters registration process were strengthened when  Balderas for Genuine Democracy expressed doubts about the electoral process by describing it as ‘unfair and troubled with many problems’. The party accused the NEBE of an unfair voter registration process where it claimed in a 12 page survey that voters registration cards were being handed out on the basis of religious and ethnic identity in some polling stations in Addis Abeba. According to the survey, people from outside of the city were presenting false documents to get voter registration cards. The party also accused the board of giving ‘several’ voter registration cards for an individual and handing out cards to people from Finfinee surrounding towns.  

Inconsistent numbers, Local and International reaction 

Ambassador Redwan Hussein, State minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said during a briefing where he briefed Ambassadors of UN security council members as well as South American countries on the current development in the country, that 34 million people have been registered to vote in the upcoming elections 

Oromia Prosperity Party (OPP), the ruling party in the Oromia regional state on its part said that ‘100%’ of eligible voters have registered. The NEBE however, in a post on its official Facebook page announced that only 31,724,947 voters have been registered and only 14,301,833 of eligible voters have been registered in Oromia regional state. 

But these numbers are contested as data sheets shared on social media platforms and prepared by election observers. In one sheet, observers compared the electoral board numbers against numbers of registered voters based on the last census held in 2007. 

In light of the worsening security situation as well as the human rights situation in the country the European Union (EU) canceled its electoral observation mission and raised questions concerning the electoral process including voters’ registration. The statement read, “The integrity of an electoral observation mission is a cornerstone of the EUs support for democracy. The EU regrets the refusal of the fulfilment of standard requirements for the deployment of any Electoral Observation Mission, namely the independence of the Mission and the import of mission communication systems, something that is key for the security of EU observers, in particular in the context of a challenging security environment. This situation also impacts election preparations, including voter registration.”  

The MoFA spokesperson, Ambassador Dina Mufti said in a briefing to international and local media that, “Although the EU has announced the cancellation of its plan to deploy election observers, he said the Union has decided to send observers at experts’ level,” he added,”The election observers, are expected to follow guidelines to carry out their duties as laid out by proper institutions in Ethiopia.” However, Addis Standard was able to learn through diplomatic sources close to the matter that there will be no EU electoral expert mission to Ethiopia. 

The NEBE said that it held discussions with representatives of competing political parties and discussed a range of issues related to the electoral process. Accordion to a statement on the board official Facebook page, the board disclosed in the meeting the reasons behind the delayment of payments to board officials, discussed issues concerning the voter registration process in Addis Abeba and other parts of the country and disclosed details about the referendum scheduled to take place to decide on the formation of a new regional state called South West.The Chairwoman of the NEBE, Birtukan Medeksa said in relations to complaints raised by opposition parties as well as independent candidates on the voters’ registration process, “We received complaints, including from the ruling party  and the Board responds immediately to those backed by evidence while investigating those that are not backed by evidence.” According to the statement, the issue of Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa was raised by the Joint Council of Political Parties and has been addressed by agreeing to hold elections in the two chartered cities on the same day as the rest of the country’s regions. 

Until the publishing of this report, Addis Standard’s attempts to contact the NEBE to secure comments on the issue of voters’ registration in Addis Abeba city, Oromia and Somali regions were to not successful. AS

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