ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Berhe Gebremariam, sitting quietly on the edge of the bed of his one-room home in Addis Ababa’s sprawling Gulele neighborhood, talked about hope for an end to his country’s political crisis.
Africa’s second most populous country is preparing to hold general elections June 21, but many people are questioning whether they will be free and fair. The civil war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region continues, ethnic violence is mounting, a nasty fight with Egypt and Sudan over access to the Nile grinds on, and major logistical hurdles to educating electoral staff and printing and allocating ballot papers remain.
“I will not actually participate in upcoming elections if the political violence escalates,” said Mr. Gebremariam, 48, who owns an electronics shop. “Our leaders should first pursue peace with all people before taking us to elections.”
The elections could have major consequences for the Biden administration, which has devoted major diplomatic resources in hopes of keeping this strategic nation stable. Mr. Biden recently called for a cease-fire in the Tigray fighting, but Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government brushed aside the proposal, saying Ethiopian forces would soon wind down fighting against the Tigrayan “outlawed operatives.”
Mr. Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his early efforts to settle a violent border clash with Eritrea, expand civil liberties and reduce ethnic tensions at home. His country was hailed as an anchor of stability in a troubled region.
Since then, however, U.S. and other Western officials have increasingly seen Ethiopia as a problem to be contained.
Mr. Abiy ordered a military crackdown in November after he accused the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a political party that dominated the Tigray region, of attacking a military base and attempting to steal military equipment. Mr. Gebremariam, who hails from Tigray, said he was disappointed with the federal government for killing members of his tribe.
“I believe there will be no elections in Tigray because soldiers are still killing and raping civilians,” he said. “We are not going to allow Abiy to conduct shoddy elections to cement his legitimacy at the expense of the lives of people.”
Mr. Gebremariam’s emotional statement resonated with many Ethiopians.
Mr. Abiy won office in 2018 after years of protests against Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. After taking power, he launched reforms that included releasing thousands of political prisoners, allowing the free press to operate, eliminating repressive laws to protect civil rights, and fostering peace with neighboring Eritrea, all cited in his Nobel Prize win. But fighting in the Tigray region has tarnished his administration.
Tigray is not the only hot spot. Voters in Mr. Abiy’s native Oromia region have also vowed to boycott elections unless the federal government releases Oromia opposition leaders arrested on charges of terrorism and treason related to protests that erupted after the killing of Oromian musician Hachalu Hundessa last year.
Mr. Abiy’s critics say he promised to foster peace but has presided over a war in Tigray that the patriarch of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church, Abune Matthias, has described as a genocide. Thousands are reported to have died or fled their homes to neighboring Sudan, citing indiscriminate killings, widespread hunger and campaigns of sexual violence.
“It’s like Abiy wants to completely eliminate this community,” said Genet Tsegay, a Tigrayan who now lives in Sudan.
Mr. Abiy has rejected those allegations. His supporters, meanwhile, lauded him for cracking down on dissent. In a country with scores of ethnic groups, they say, strong centralized leadership has long been needed to bring discipline and order.
“Abiy tried to be a good man to everyone by championing reforms, but they wanted to kill him,” said Abdii Hegeree, referring to several assassination attempts against the prime minister, including a grenade attack in 2018. “Those people who wanted to kill him are now crying after Abiy realized he cannot govern this country by pleasing everyone. Abiy should continue to push for reforms as he also cracks down on people who want to bring down his administration. We suffered when Tigrayans were in power. It’s now their time.”
Analysts fear that the simmering ethnic tensions will escalate, yet Mr. Abiy badly needs credible elections to shore up his authority and reunite the nation of nearly 120 million people.
“Abiy needs to ensure that the elections are free and fair to redeem his image,” said Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi. “Incidents of electoral malpractice and intimidation should be avoided because this will escalate the ethnic conflict being witnessed in the country, and people might rise up.”
For peace to prevail in Ethiopia, Mr. Munene said, Mr. Abiy needs to rethink his efforts to centralize power, which runs against ethnic parties that want more autonomy for their regions.
Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced visa restrictions on Ethiopian and Tigrayan officials responsible for the conflict and restrictions on economic and security assistance.
The U.S. “is gravely concerned by the increasing number of confirmed cases of military forces blocking humanitarian access to parts of the Tigray region,” Mr. Blinken said in a May 15 statement.
“This unacceptable behavior places the 5.2 million people in the region in immediate need of humanitarian assistance at even greater risk,” Mr. Blinken said. “The United States unequivocally calls upon the governments of Eritrea and Ethiopia to take all necessary steps to ensure that their forces in Tigray cease and desist this reprehensible conduct.”
The administration is getting some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill over its concerns with the record of the Abiy government.
On Monday, four senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, including Chairman Gregory Meeks, New York Democrat, and Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the panel’s ranking Republican, introduced a joint resolution expressing alarm over violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia and warning that “millions of lives are at risk.”
“We are deeply concerned that the political and security environment in Ethiopia calls into question whether upcoming elections can be conducted in a manner that is free, fair and credible,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “Urgent attention is needed to ensure that upcoming elections do not exacerbate violence and instability, and further disenfranchise marginalized populations. Seven months into this conflict, the status quo cannot continue, and a peaceful resolution is urgently needed.”
Mr. Munene said the sanctions would put pressure on Mr. Abiy’s administration to find solutions to the crisis, though they would hurt the country’s economy. Ethiopians marched in Addis Ababa to condemn the sanctions.
Mr. Gebremariam didn’t think the sanctions would directly affect Mr. Abiy’s administration. Instead, there are increasing cries here for regime change.
“Abiy needs to go for the sake of peace,” the shopkeeper said. “Sanctions will only affect poor citizens who are already to get food.”