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September 9, 2020


ETHIOPIA: Tigray – another battlefront for Abiy

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 5 mins)
  • The regional authorities’ insistence on carrying out elections for Tigray’s State Council on 9 September risks a volatile standoff between the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal government.
  • It will be almost impossible for the federal government to accept Tigray’s move, triggering another domestic crisis that will test Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration shortly after mass protests shook his Oromia home base.
  • Abiy’s fragile transition project is increasingly at risk of being derailed by regional divisions and political violence, including mass unrest and even latent coup threats.

Tigray standoff

Technically, the outcome of the regional ballot will be inconsequential because it is a foregone conclusion that the TPLF will win the elections to the 152-member State Council. The once dominant force within the ruling EPRDF coalition that refused to join Abiy’s Prosperity Party (PP) merger remains the dominant political force in Tigray, though the ballot also features more stridently nationalist outfits like the Tigray Independence Party. The TPLF’s widely expected victory begs the question of why the regional administration is so insistent on carrying out the vote in the first place. Above all, the move seems driven by deepening mistrust between Addis Ababa and the once dominant TPLF elite, which has been the biggest loser of the prime minister’s transition project, with Tigray’s political, commercial and military interests increasingly sidelined. For its part, the Abiy administration fears that the sore losers of Ethiopia’s political transition are deliberately sowing instability; for example, some Addis Ababa officials have accused Tigray elements of engineering the recent Oromia unrest.

The immediate trigger for the standoff is the postponement of the federal elections into 2021 on account of the Covid-19 pandemic. A ruling making the national elections (which were due in August) contingent on health authorities deeming the pandemic under control and then allowing for a 9-12-month window within which to hold the ballot gives the Abiy administration serious leeway over the timing of the vote. This “indefinite” delay has roiled the opposition, not only in Tigray but also in regions like Oromia. The federal parliament’s and state councils’ five-year terms would normally have expired on 10 October, and the opposition considers the extension illegitimate. This indicates that Abiy’s authority will become increasingly contested, especially the longer the electoral timetable remains unclear and the less consultative the process is perceived to be.

What next?

It will be virtually impossible for Abiy’s federal government to accept the outcome of the Tigray vote after the House of Federation (Ethiopia’s upper house) had declared the plan unconstitutional. While Tigrayan authorities insist that the self-rule clauses enshrined in the constitution give them the right to hold the ballot, Addis cites the constitution to insist that only the National Electoral Board may carry out elections and that Tigray’s regional election commission set up in July has no authority.

The prime minister has ruled out a military intervention in response to the vote and the military is already overstretched, but hardliners in his administration may push for a tougher stance. Other punitive measures that could quickly escalate tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle include arrests of TPLF officials, interference in Tigray state TV by the national broadcasting authority, and investigations into TPLF-linked companies. Some of this has already been happening on a smaller scale, reinforcing the Tigrayan authority’s deep distrust of Addis.

Even more explosive measures would be any decision to withhold federal grants from the Tigrayan authorities (which account for 50% of the region’s budget). TPLF authorities also seem to fear that Addis could interrupt power and telecommunication connections to Tigray. If the standoff were to escalate further, the most incendiary decision that the TPLF administration could take would be to trigger constitutional secession procedures. The Abiy administration would have to adopt a tough stance in this event, given growing demands for regional autonomy across Ethiopia. In such a scenario, avoiding a military conflict could become harder as the neighboring Amhara region would likely try to assert its claims over what it claims to be Amhara territory within Tigray boundaries. It would also test the cohesion of the Ethiopian military because many mid-ranking officers are Tigrayan, even though at the top-level many Tigrayans have been weeded out since Abiy assumed office in April 2018.

To cool tensions, a suggestion touted in diplomatic circles is that Addis ‘overlook’ the 9 September ballot, while the Tigray authorities could repeat the vote whenever the national elections are eventually held. However, the potential for miscalculation and accidents is enormous amid the deepening rift. The African Union (AU), currently chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and which has already been mediating in Ethiopia’s conflict with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), may struggle to placate both sides. Even if the Tigray standoff simmers on rather than erupts into full-blown conflict, it raises serious questions over Ethiopia’s fragile transition and Abiy’s ability to prevent the splintering of the state.

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