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Institution building in Ethiopia: Hopes and threat of NEBE’s Restructuring

Avatar: Naol Getachew
Naol GetachewJuly 8, 2021
Institution building in Ethiopia: Hopes and threat of NEBE’s Restructuring
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(Image: DW television)

One of the landmark decisions made by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power following the revolutionary uprising in Ethiopia, was nominating former judge, opposition leader, and political prisoner Birtukan Mideksa, to chair the election board. Birtukan replaced Samiya Zakari, who had been chairing the Board of the National Election of Ethiopia for a few months. 

"We believe that the next election will be a democratic election in which there will be no fraud, and believe that we must stand together to lay foundations for a democratic Ethiopia where all of us can be proud, and institution building is part of this." said the Prime Minister to the parliament during the nomination of the chairperson on November 22, 2018. 

The electoral board, which had been operating for over a quarter of a century before the reformed one, has been facing many criticisms on the election of board members, in its neutrality, unamended of the law particularly in the establishment of the board and the administration of political parties, and lack of transparency in the election process. And the institution started to reform itself by nominating its new chairperson and board members.

The Board is nearly three decades old and was formed as an independent organization in accordance with Article 102 of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

It has been two years and eight months since the new chairperson took over the post and started restructuring the institution.

Addis Zeybe has analyzed the restructuring of the institution and tried to address basic questions such as; is the prime minister's belief over the organization meeting the goal?  What are the major works the NEBE undertook over this period? How do different parties see the institution-building? 

After the board was restructured,  its first assignment was amending the election law dubbed the National Election Board of Ethiopia Establishment Proclamation 1133/2019. It then amended The Ethiopian Electoral, Political Parties Registration and Elections Code of Conduct Proclamation 1162/2019. The board explained the need to assure the right of citizens to self-govern should be governed by an independent electoral body; to clarify the recruitment and appointment of members of the Board and to increase the credibility and enforcement capacity of competing organizations and voters, as reasons to amend the laws. 

(Image: FBC)

In addition, it also aims to ensure that elections are inclusive, free, fair, and peaceful, that they incorporate international electoral principles, that citizens exercise their right to self-government through their elected representatives, and that political parties pursue their party programs and objectives; and to determine the institutions and procedures for administering administrative and judicial disputes in the electoral process.

The board has also approved other directives including Candidate Registration; Collection of Endorsement Signatures and Selection of symbols; Meeting Procedures of the Management Board of NEBE; Recruitment of NEBE’s Regional Branch Office Heads; Obligations of Registered National and Regional Political Parties; Local Election Observers Accreditation; Working Procedure and Code of Conduct Directive; and Voter Education Accreditation and Code of Conduct Directive.

In addition to this, it is known that the Board held a  referendum in the Sidama region holding national elections alongside it. A few weeks ago it held elections in 440 constituencies out of the 547. It is also expected to hold the second round elections at the remaining constituencies, excluding the Tigray region, in September. 

"We are working to build a better institution, even in challenging national circumstances," according to the Board chairperson during a radio interview. 

Tesfa Belayneh, Hibir Ethiopia Party candidate puts his argument as "While the board members were elected, the election proclamation was renewed, reforming the months-long dispute between the parties was all good steps, since as an independent institution it tried to respond more and improve its public relations," he said. 

However, the board was not fair in the dispute over the establishment of EZEMA and the cancellation of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), according to Tesfa, adding that the credibility of the board brings into question its reliability, and it is the greatest value.

On the other hand, Binyam Abate, election coordinator at Coalition of Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations for Election (CECOE), which observed the election process, disagrees with this.

"It’s known that a lot of work is done by the institution in improving the law, working closely with civil society organizations, disseminating information unequivocally, dissociating itself from the government and other bodies, recruiting competent executives, and deploying more observers," said Binyam. "But it's not perfect; There are issues that need to be improved as the time goes. ” 

The political analyst Eyasped Tesfaye also disagrees on this. He believes the appointment of the board members, which he said was done by the ruling party, is an illegal act.  "

"It is questionable since the chairperson of the board was appointed by the decision of the ruling party with the non-participation of those who should have participated in the decision according to the law. Since its inception, the board has made unconstitutional and unpopular decisions for the ruling party. For example, firstly The ruling party being the only party that has been allowed to continue as a party without holding a founding general assembly, contrary to the proclamation of party formation. Secondly, the ruling party is the only party that is led by an unelected leadership in the general assembly and so on could be listed.”

Abel Gebrekidan,  a journalist at Ethiopian Press Agency, who has previously participated as a voter and reporter in three national elections, tends to say that the institution is in the process of being built. 

"It is determined to make itself free and independent. Even if many institutions are given such rights, they will not stop bending to the government. But the Election  Board is trying not to waste the opportunity," he said. Regarding the weaknesses of the Board, Abel said, "Even if it is not a weakness, I fear that the institution's independence will not be limited to the personality of its leader Birtukan."

Eyasped again disagrees with the journalist. “Beyond transparency and partisanship, there is a serious poor performance. For example, it was decided not to hold the election due to the fact that Negele Borena's personal ballot was not printed on the ballot paper, but the regional government could not stop it by force. Finally, the fact that the board members tried to negotiate with the party candidates by saying the re-election will require a lot of labor and expense shows the weakness of the board and concluded by saying “In general, the Board, as before, is only the executor of the ruling party's vision and mission.”

Addis Zeybe has also gathered the opinions of people via a social media public voting poll, on Twitter and Telegram. The poll was created to approach the opinions of the public regarding the credibility of the Electoral Board before and after the 6th general election. 

Accordingly, four options were presented. The alternatives were, "I believed in it before and after the election, I did not believe it before the election but believed after, I believed it before but not believe after the election, and I did not believe it both before and after the election." 

About 66 % of the 381 people who voted on Twitter said they believed the board before and after the election. On the other hand, 22 % responded saying they do not trust the institution at all. The remaining 12 % changed their minds and started trusting the board after the election, while 6 % of them lost their trust in the board after the election. The remaining 6 % of them lost their trust after they saw the general election.

On Telegram, 325 people voted and 57% of them said they believe in the institution. 26% do not trust the Board both before and after the election. Like Twitter, Telegram voters saw the election and changed their minds where  8% gained trust towards the Board after the election, while 9% lost their trust.

As we can see from the poles, most people trust the Board. Yet, from the interviews, we come to understand that the national electoral board also faces different complements and critics from different perspectives.

In general, it is known that there is a problem with institution building in Ethiopia. In particular, the issue of institution-building has been a concern during a political transition, where a culture of dismantling and re-establishing is adopted.

Our trial to include the NEBE’s comment on its institution-building process was not successful.

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A PIECE BYNaol Getachew

Naol is a Journalist, who works as a fact-checker at HaqCheck, Addis Zeybe & its CSO partner Inform Africa. He is a graduate of French Literature and International Skills from Addis Ababa University.