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Towards the clash of no return between Ethiopia and Tigray?

Ethiopia Federal Gouvernment and Tigray region are getting closer to confrontation on a controversial regional electoral plan. The country is already rocked by unrest and social violence that have bordered on civil war, following the June 29 murder of musician Hachalu Hundessa considered a national hero in the Oromia region, the epicenter of the protests that began in 2014 that eventually led Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. After putting down the Oromo rebellion with difficulty, Federal Government has proceeded to arrest 9,000 people accused of subversive acts. Among them, many Oromo policemen suspected of having handed over weapons and ammunition to demonstrators.

At the same time, the conflict between the federal government and the Tigray authorities has intensified due to the elimination, skilfully piloted by Prime Minister Abiy Hamed, of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from the government and state institutions it had controlled since 1991. The TPLF was in fact forced out of the ruling coalition last January. Since then, a sense of revenge has been brewing among Tigrayans that led to the decision last June taken by the Tigray State Council to hold regional elections on 9 September, challenging the Federal Government authority that had canceled the general elections scheduled for 29 August due to of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic offered the Prime Minister the opportunity to postpone general elections, approving a five-month state of emergency, adding complexity and tension to Ethiopia’s already fragile democratic transition. In March, following the pandemic, Ethiopia’s National Electoral Council abandoned preparations for the general elections that had been set for 29 August. In April, the Parliament (controlled by the Prime Minister) approved a five-month state of emergency officially to contain the pandemic, in reality to postpone the elections.

On 10th June, the Chamber of the Federation, the upper house of parliament in charge of constitutional interpretation and populated by delegates from regional councils, almost all controlled by the Prosperity Party (the party founded by Prime Minister Abiy in December 2019), decided that the elections would be held nine to twelve months after health authorities will declare the end of the pandemic. Two days later, the Tigray State Council, the only council of its kind in which the Prosperity Party does not dominate, announced that it would proceed to regional elections anyway.

The controversy over electoral calendars comes after opposition voices expressed frustration at what they see as a unilateral act by the Prime Minister to bring about an “indefinite” suspension of national elections. Opposition parties, particularly the Oromo ones, also resented being excluded from the decision-making process of postponing the elections which resulted in an extension of Abiy Ahmed’s mandate.

Note that the Prosperity Party won a majority in the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) coalition government thanks to the (de facto) expulsion of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the co-opting, for political opportunities, of various MPs of the other coalition parties: Oromo Democratic Parti, Amhara Democratic Party and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement into Abiy’s new party

In fact, the Prosperity Party does not yet have a strong popular and electoral base. The postponement of the elections from 9to 12 months serves the Ethiopian Premier to create thesebasis. Since the other parties, including the TPLF, are exclusively ethnic, Abiy’s political project is to transform the Liberty Party into the first national inter-ethnic and inter-religious party.

In theory, it makes little or no substantial difference to the balance of power within Tigray whether these regional elections happen or not. The ruling party of the Tigray region would continue to govern even if the elections were postponed. But the question of whether Tigray can legally hold elections has taken on existential significance for Ethiopia. Tigray officials insist it is their constitutional right to conduct the elections, saying the federal decision to extend the terms of all regional governments is illegal. Federal officials, meanwhile, reject Tigray’s constitutional interpretation and thus classify its actions as illegal. ” The NGO Crisis Group explains.

Despite the correct observation of Crisis Group, the dispute between the federal government of the Prime Minister and the regional government of the TPLF is based on a power struggle between the elites of Abiy and Tigray and on mutual hatred. To Abiy’s “political betrayal” (according to Tigrinya vision) followed by federal investigations into various companies connected to the TPLF which during these long decades of power had benefited from economic benefits thanks to their political affiliation. From the exemption of import taxes to the assignment of public works through non-transparent tenders.

During the clashes with the Oromo, the Prime Minister accused the TPLF of having allied with the Oromo Liberation Front armed movement during the recent popular protests to overthrow the government. An accusation not based on concrete evidence but on two political objectives: discrediting the TPLF and hiding Abjy’s political failure to carry out peace negotiations with the Oromo militias at war for over 30 years.

Despite Abiy’s recent statement pledging to avoid military confrontation or cutting federal funds in Tigray over the election standoff, senior federal officials indicate that elections in Tigray could justify a series of punitive measures against the region, which could lead to armed confrontation. Such measures could also lead Tigray leaders to activate constitutional secession clauses in response to what they see as a steady erosion of their self-government rights within the Ethiopian federation.

If Tigray chooses the path of secession, it could create a chain reaction that is difficult to control which could lead to the balkanization of Ethiopia. The Amhara and Oromo oppositions could come to the conclusion that the Federal Government prevents a real democratic confrontation and prefer the choice of completely independent states. Ethiopia risks an outbreak of civil war with the same dynamics and atrocities as the Yugoslav conflict of the 1990s.

In this dangerous phase, political dialogue is needed, capable of restoring the troubled democratic transition of Ethiopia and of smoothing the bitter religious and ethnic divisions. A national dialogue that should be facilitated by the super partismediation of the African Union. Unfortunately, these two conditions seem difficult to implement. The Prime Minister and his collaborators are showing little enthusiasm to open a dialogue with the TPLF and Amhara Oromo opposition parties as they are convinced that these parties have already had unprecedented opportunities to voice their grievances since 2018.

Historically, Ethiopian governments have never tolerated any external intervention and mediation. Prime Minister Abiy is no exception. In fact, it considers any mediation by foreign countries as a direct external interference in the country’s internal affairs. The current president of the African Union (South African president Cyril Ramaphosa) may will have in the near future the difficult task to bring the warring parties to reason and open a national dialogue before events degenerate into a series of secessions and civil wars.

Increasingly tense relations between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, thus color the electoral dispute. By itself, if the Tigray government canceled elections for its council of state, it would not matter to the regional balance of power, as the TPLF would continue to control the regional administration. Nor would Addis lose materially if it allowed the elections to go ahead: the TPLF would win and continue to govern.

The fact that both sides maintained their positions on the elections has less to do with the polls themselves than with broader issues of power. For the leaders of Tigray, it is a question of resisting the erosion of regional autonomy granted by the constitution. They are determined to stop any such changes because they, and other advocates of ethnic federalism, suspect Abiy is trying to centralize power in Addis over time. For the federal government and opponents of the TPLF, this is Tigray’s brazen challenge to federal authority. Giving up would mean eroding the authority of the Federal Government to manage the country without any possibility of remedy.

The specter of conflict?

The prospect of an impending armed conflict, looming as a potential reaction to a Tigray vote, remains uncertain. Abiy’srecent statement ruling out military intervention has certainly helped calm the waters. There are also good reasons why the federal government would hesitate before sending troops to Tigray. The army is in trouble, facing major internal challenges, particularly in Oromia, where an insurrection is simmering, and in the multi-ethnic region of the Southern Nations where groups are demanding their own regional autonomy. In addition, tensions with Egypt and Sudan have increased due to the dispute over the Nile. With all these other concerns, it is difficult to imagine that the federal army could take lightly on the security Tigray forces – which Mekelle has significantly strengthened over the past year, alarming federal officials.

For her part, Mekelle appears confident in her military capabilities, stating that her security measures are defensive. On July 20, TPLF President Debretsion Gebremichael said:“The territorial defense preparations aim to put our people on maximum alert. The political conflict has reached its extreme limit becoming in effect a war without bullets. The Tigrinya people must be ready to face any eventuality, including a war with bullets ”.

At the present time the federal government seems willing to use “soft” legal and administrative measures in the hope of controlling the Tigers by avoiding armed confrontation. In late July, federal security forces arrested two TPLF officials accused of aiding terrorism. The Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority also tried to take Tigray state television off the airwaves for alleged riots. Some Tigray officials fear federal authorities may also shut down power and telecommunication services in the region. While any such action would certainly be preferable to armed intervention, it would nevertheless fuel the anger of the Tigrinians and deepen the gap between Addis Ababa and Mekelle.

The federal and Tigray governments are playing Russian roulette. They are trapped in their own political and ethnic divisions and the depth of the malaise prevents them from opening a dialogue. We are on the verge of a conflict that will aggravate the chronic crisis that the country must face if both sides across the board do not take a step back. For example, if Tigray were to trigger constitutional provisions on secession at some point, it would not only further fuel tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle, but could also quickly escalate into a conflict with the neighboring Amhara region, as many Amhara claim a part of the territory that is now part of the Tigray. The federal government may want to avoid military intervention, but a Tigray-Amhara showdown would likely drag it in, ”a regional observer told Crisis Group.

A conflict in the conflict between Amhara and Tigray becomes more and more likely. TPLF leaders believe Abiy asked Temesgen Tiruneh, Amhara’s president and Abiy’s former national security advisor, to “literally declare war” on Tigray. An accusation without evidence. Temesgen has labeled rumors that his region intends to recover the lands annexed to the Tigray as a “political conspiracy”. Yet Amhara anti-Tigrinya militias that have sprung up out of nowhere in the last two months are putting in place roadblocks on the main roads between Addis Abnaba and Mekelle without federal authorities having vigorously intervened to ensure the free movement of people and goods.

It goes without saying that a military confrontation would be catastrophic. So far, the military has remained united, but a sudden outbreak of fighting involving Tigray and federal authorities, or Tigray and Amhara, could nullify military cohesion. Tigray officers occupy positions in all armed forces in different parts of the country. Some may prove more loyal to their region than to federal authorities. The elements of Tigray are also present in their home state in the north, where they may be more likely to break apart and join the regional forces of Tigray.

Hostility between the federal government and Tigray could also have regional implications. It is already compromising Ethiopia’s peace agreement with Eritrea. The majority of the Tigrinya people are convinced that peace is equivalent to an alliance between Addis Ababa and Asmara against the TPLF. After initially welcoming the 2018 thaw with their neighbor, TPLF leaders have harshly criticized the terms of the peace, arguing that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is motivated by anti-TPLF enmity stemming in part from the devastating war between Ethiopia. and Eritrea from 1998-2000, when the TPLF was at the helm of Ethiopia’s EPRDF coalition.

The international border of Eritrea, which borders mainly with the Tigray on the Ethiopian side, remains heavily militarized. Some TPLF sympathizers fear that Ethiopian federal authorities may, under certain circumstances, ally with Eritrean forces to invade the Tigray region on two fronts in the event of secession. In turn, the federal government suspects that the TPLF is seeking the support of Egypt and Sudan simultaneously with an alleged political and military alliance with the Oromo. All these suspicions reinforce the palace intrigues and mutual distrust. If the situation is not blocked now, the risks of a “Yugoslav War ”in Ethiopia become more and more real in the coming months.


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