Collision in Tigray

Mostafa Ahmady
Tuesday 8 Sep 2020

A war of words has escalated between the state of Tigray and the federal government of Ethiopia, with a possible divorce looming between Tigray and the rest of the country

This week, the Regional State of Tigray in Ethiopia will hold its own elections in Mekele, the capital city of the founder of the modern “federal” system in the country. 

Ethiopia, the second-most populous nation in Africa, should have held its sixth general elections this month. But the incumbent government under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed decided that the Covid-19 pandemic had made it hard for the nation to “safely” carry on with the process. He masterminded a controversial plan to postpone the elections by enforcing a “self-extension” for a year, or maybe more, for the incumbent government and presidents of the regional states until the virus no longer poses a threat to the nation of roughly 110 million people. 

However, the pretext of Covid-19 has fallen on deaf ears in Tigray, whose leaders have asserted more than once that they will follow through with their schedule for their elections in a bid to “preserve” the “constitutional order” in the country. 

A war of words has escalated between the Regional State and the federal government in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. In a stormy meeting of the cabinet of Tigray earlier this month, the leaders “warned” the House of Federation, Ethiopia’s upper chamber of parliament, against “impeding” or trying to “sabotage” the electoral process in the region. They reached the extent of making it clear that if “the House of Federation passes a decision to suspend or put any other obstacle to the Tigray election, it is a declaration of war.”

 The region’s cabinet said the prime minister of Ethiopia, together with the House of Federation, would be held “accountable” for any “damage” that could follow any decision to obstruct the process. 

In response, the House of Federation, alone in charge of the “interpretation” of the country’s constitution, dubbed the process as “unconstitutional”. Aggravating the situation, the House said it would “work on avoiding any social, economic and political harms” that might be “inflicted” on the people of Tigray due to the reckless behaviour of its leaders. 

The statement implied putting into effect the threat of the Ahmed-led government to cut federal funds from the region and hinted at the possible dark scenario of a federal military intervention to topple the current cabinet in Tigray. For this reason, the latter called on the people of the region to be “prepared” to ensure their “imminent victory” by “blocking” any interventions by the federal government. 

In practice, the electoral process in Tigray is not a sign of “defiance” or a mere “rejection” of the Ahmed-led government’s authority because it is another serious form of “collision” with the current regime in Ethiopia. It is an exercise of a “constitutional” right, enshrined in the country’s 1994 Constitution, to self-autonomy, under which the country’s ten regions can not only administer their own affairs, but can also proceed with “secession” should they wish to do so. So, the argument that the electoral process in Tigray “contravenes” the constitution seems to be a “political” statement rather than a “defence” of law and order. 

Will Ahmed push the Tigrayan leaders to go ahead with that plan? Since Ahmed assumed office, he has been at loggerheads with the Tigrayans, particularly after he fired all their federal ministers and removed their senior leaders from the Ethiopian intelligence and military. Ahmed also turned a blind eye to a public campaign that “demonised” the Tigrayans, putting all the blame on them for their plight and for the current “split” in the nation over the ethno-federal system their “godfather,” the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, introduced in 1993. 

Personal and political ambition should not, however, be excluded as a reason for the escalating tension between Ahmed and the Region of Tigray. When the less political ambitious Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down as prime minister of Ethiopia two years ago, against the backdrop of wide protests that originated in the Oromia Region and later engulfed the whole nation, Ethiopia’s former deputy prime minister Debretsion Gebremichael, the current president of the Region of Tigray, was looking forward to assuming the vacant office. 

At a time when Tigrayans were sweeping up almost all the top and most-influential posts in the Ethiopian political system under Zenawi, it was believed that all the security apparatus in Ethiopia was “directly” reporting to Gebremichael, who was being either self-groomed or backed by his fellow Tigrayans to assume the office of prime minister. The reason was clear: to ensure that “Zenawi’s Ethiopia” continued to survive; that the Tigrayans’ political influence and financial and economic gains would not be depleted; and, most importantly, that the sense of Tigray’s “elitism” would remain unchallenged. 

These plans, to the dismay of the man himself and subsequently to his entourage, were just castles in the air, however, because the members of the now-defunct former-ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) voted for a lesser-known political figure instead, whose “ethnic affiliation” was the main reason he was picked as prime minister. This figure, Abiy Ahmed, hails from Oromia. 

The step was aimed to quell the protests and extinguish the “fire” that could have destroyed the very basis of the nation. Maybe on that occasion the Tigrayans thought they could continue to “steer” the course of Ethiopian politics from behind the scenes just as they had with the Desalegn-led cabinet. To their outrage, that plan did not work out either. 

Even though picking an Oromo did manage to quell the Oromia-based rebellion, at least temporarily, ensuing events showed things under Ahmed going from bad to worse. It is true that he did introduce sweeping democratic reforms, and he did free the press, though the situation now is cast in the same mould as under Zenawi with a continuing crackdown on journalists and the shutting down of “opposition” media outlets. 

Ahmed initiated a peace agreement with Eritrea after accepting the return of Badme, a border town adjacent to Tigray, to Eritrea, a step that infuriated some Tigrayan “ultranationalists” who believe in a “Greater Tigray” as they hold the view that their Region sustained the most damage during the two-year border war in 1998. 

But Abiy’s “tragic flaw” has been that he has not been able to solicit the needed support from the Ethiopian Regions, particularly from the politically seasoned Tigrayan leaders, at least willingly. The last straw was surely the “dissolving” of the ruling EPRDF’s coalition into a single party, the Ethiopian Prosperity Party. This heightened the fears of a small ethnicity” like the Tigrayans, who make up less than six per cent of the population, of being “devoured” by the larger ethnicities, particularly the Oromo and Amhara. 

No matter how the incumbent government under Abiy Ahmed responds to the Tigray elections, it is crystal clear that “divorce” is looming between the former hub of the modern Ethiopian polity, Tigray, and Ethiopia as a whole, triggering turmoil that could lead to domino effects elsewhere in the country.  

*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 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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