Ethiopia: Federation or secession?

Mostafa Ahmady
Saturday 18 Jan 2020

Ethiopia’s young prime minister upturned a near monopoly on power by Tigrayans, but can he and Ethiopia survive the backlash

It is hard to read the history of modern Tigray without due reference to the man who brought the small-sized Ethiopian region into the fore in Ethiopia’s modern politics, namely late prime minister Meles Zenawi. Zenawi, a Tigrayan, was a visionary leader who built modern Ethiopia and introduced sweeping economic reforms that made the country one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Nothing surely comes without a cost because the late prime minister showed zero tolerance to dissent and silenced almost all political opponents, pushing them either into exile or to jail. The ethno-federal system he introduced, though preventing the disintegration of Ethiopia, has left the nation in a fix. 

Under Zenawi, the Tigrayans swept all political, military, intelligence, media and economic structures of the country. It is a well-established fact, though, that the Tigrayan-led government did change once and for all that infamous image connected with Ethiopia that the latter was merely a land of abject poverty and famine. 

Economically speaking, in 1995 the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT) was established to refurbish the economy of the region after the guerrilla warfare that terminated the reign of the Marxist government of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. Through the $3 billion fund, the Tigrayans boast economic independence as the fund, run by Zenawi’s powerful widow, Azeb Mesfin, has swept almost all structures of the Ethiopian economy, ranging from agriculture, banking, heavy industries and transportation into car assembly plants. 

Tigray is not only independent economically, but also politically. When the incumbent Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent into oblivion the three-decade-long ruling EPRDF with the Prosperity Party as its heir, the Tigrayans rejected the merger, defending what they love to call the “federal system”. Since the rise of Ahmed to the office of the prime minister, he has embarked on a purge campaign that saw Tigrayans removed from public posts at the highest level of the political, economic, military, intelligence and media hierarchy. This has appealed to many categories in Ethiopia outraged at the Tigrayan-led EPRDF, but it has turned Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray region, into the most powerful hub for dissidents who brag of their deep understanding of the complexities inherent in the Ethiopian polity versus the fly-by-night approach of the Oromo-led cabinet.

At the end of last year, the TPLF held in Mekelle its first executive assembly since the burial of the EPRDF. The most notable outcome of that meeting, in which more than 2,000 Tigrayans participated, led by TPLF leader Debratsion Gebramichael, is that the people of Tigray fully support their leaders in their adamant refusal of Abiy’s new Prosperity Party. They also explicitly denounced the dissolution of the EPRDF and spilled vitriol against the federal government under Abiy for continued attempts to destabilise the region. The Tigrayans also said they would cooperate with all federalist forces ready to preserve the constitution. 

Against all odds, the meeting sent a resounding message to Tigray’s neighbouring Eritrea that the Tigrayans, who share lots in common with Eritreans, including speaking the same language, Tigrinya, are ready to normalise ties with their neighbours and further people-to-people relationships. After Abiy declared he would give back Badme, the town once disputed between Ethiopia and Eritrea after the border war from 1998-2000 and which the United Nations recognised as Eritrean, Tigray was rumoured to block the deal because the people of Tigray believe they sacrificed the most, given geographical proximity, during the war and that Badme was Tigrayan land that could not be ceded. In practise, many Eritreans live in Tigray and the number of Eritreans fleeing the repressive regime of Isaias Afwerki into the small-sized region is on the rise every day. 

Right from the beginning, Abiy declined to embrace the once powerhouse of the country. On the contrary, he flew off the handle and called Tigrayan leaders, who rejected his political agenda, day-time hyenas, a term that was broadly circulated as a common curse against average Tigrayans. The Tigrayans have replied with a vehement criticism campaign and their media outlets have fired away at the incumbent prime minister, smearing almost everything he did, including the recent launch of the first Ethiopian satellite, portraying the move as propaganda. They even questioned the young leader’s eligibility for winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, as he did, striking a deal with Eritrea to make peace while failing to make peace at home. The war of words between the two sides went beyond control to the extent of airing fake news on a state-run quasi-official news agency (Walta Information Centre) that the powerful leader of Tigray, Debratsion Gebramichael, died! The latter once held senior government positions, including as board chairman of the National Council for the Coordination of Public Participation for the Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). But after Abiy’s rise to power, Gebramichael was demoted to just president of the TPLF. 

Now, influential Tigrayan leaders and academics, including former cabinet ministers and generals, broadly speak of an independent state of Tigray. Some have also flirted with the idea of the region’s merger with neighbouring Eritrea, inflaming the national passions of average Tigrayans and reminding them of the Kingdom of Axum that stretched from Tigray to nowadays Eritrea and formed one of the most powerful trading and naval centres for more than a thousand years. It is widely believed that Article 39, pertaining to the right of each nationality to secession, was enshrined in the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution so that it would be triggered if push comes to shove, particularly for small nationalities like the Tigrayans. 

So far, the Tigrayans have not seriously embraced the secessionist calls and perhaps this is due to the fading light they see at the end of the tunnel that federalist forces would win the general elections this May, and the status quo would be maintained. But what if Abiy’s Prosperity Party gets a convincing win and reforms the government with popular support? What if he amends the constitution and alters Article 39? Above all, what if the federal government interferes to foist off Tigrayans on the new unionist party? Will Ethiopian voters of different ethnic backgrounds follow Abiy’s lead, or nip in the bud the young leader’s dream of being the last emperor? 

Ethiopia is on the brink of a major change that would usher in a new political reality with an impact not only on Ethiopians at home, but on the whole Horn of Africa region and the continent at large. 

*The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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