Ethiopia: Tigray Elections and Calming the Political Turmoil

On September 9, 2020, Ethiopia’s northernmost region, Tigray, conducted its elections in defiance of the order by the federal government to postpone national and regional elections until the threat of Coronavirus subsides. Underlying Tigray’s decision is what they regarded as the federal government’s encroachment of the regional government’s autonomy and constitutional right to run sub-national elections. According to Tigray State Council, the federal government’s decision to extend the term of all regional governments without elections violates the constitution and breaches self-rule rights granted under Article 39 of the federal constitution. On the contrary, the federal government asserted its constitutional mandate to enforce all political rights including the conduct of elections under Article 55 and thus dismissed the elections as illegal.

The elections depict a low point in the escalating acrimony between the Tigray region and the federal government and represents the latest challenge to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as he struggles to push through an extremely complex political transition fraught with deep political fragmentation and ethnic rivalry.  With Tigray holding onto its stance for autonomy and self-rule, and the federal government claiming exclusive authority over electoral matters and seeking to centralize governance in Addis Ababa, it is important that both parties consider initiating a dialogue to help break the standoff and reduce the growing political turmoil in the country. Third-party intervention is necessary at this time to bolster the parties’ willingness to negotiate and ensure that the issues causing the dispute, beyond the recent elections, are amicably resolved. The African Union, through it its current Chairperson, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, together with other regional bodies like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are better placed to intervene.

‘Shanty’ Elections?

Before the pandemic, Ethiopia was gearing towards a historic vote which was expected to usher in the process of democratization and political renewal. However, as the pandemic struck, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced the postponement of its activities citing disruptions occasioned by the pandemic. On June 10, the Ethiopia’sHouse of Federation (HoF), passed a vote to extend the tenure of the current government pending national elections and transfer of power. The decision to delay elections was rejected by the Tigray State Council, which instead, announced its intentions to proceed with planning for its own regional polls, defying the federal government’s ruling. The result has been a flair-up of tensions between the federal government and Tigray, creating a serious standoff fuelled by incendiary threats and political brinkmanship.

Although Tigray proceeded with elections in which the region’s ruling party, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) won 80 per cent of the seats, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has denounced the polls, dismissing it as a ‘shanty’ election. Previously, the HoF declared the elections null and void, a signal that it would not recognize it. In response to Tigray’s defiance, the HoF, on October 7, voted to cut ties with the Tigray State Council and ‘sever any kind of relationship with Tigray regional state assembly’. Although this appears to be a less grievous reaction by the federal government given the initial threats of military reaction, the decision might trigger further dissonance between the federal government and Tigray. TPLF’s landslide victory in the elections gives the party legitimacy in Tigray and could strengthen its hand in the ongoing confrontation with Abiy following the contested merger of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, into a central singular party; the new Ethiopian Prosperity Party (EPP). This might increase tensions between Addis Ababa and Mekelle and further escalate the political turmoil in Ethiopia. Any application of force on Tigray as a form of suppression and political ‘re-education’ of TPLF will trigger violence and possibly result in bloodbath.

Tigray Woes in the Federal Government

Underlying the election standoff is a festering power struggle between Abiy and Tigrayan elites that has been building since 2018 when Abiy took the reins of power. TPLF stayed at the helm of Ethiopian politics for nearly three decades, since the overthrow of the Derg Regime in 1991. Abiy’s premiership has seen the introduction of a flurry of political reforms that have had a destabilizing effect on TPLF’s dominance in the EPRDF coalition. This has agitated Tigray political leaders, who feel that the federal government is out to punish their ruling party. The refusal by TPLF to merge into the Ethiopian Prosperity Party – a new political vehicle engineered by Abiy in November 2019 – amplified the animosity between Abiy and TPLF. Officials in TPLF accuse Abiy of wanting to erode the ethnic federalist model that has kept Ethiopia together despite the fractious ethnic composition.

In recent months, the disagreement between the TPLF and the federal government has intensified, exemplified by federal probes into Tigray-linked companies and prosecutions of Tigray officials for corruption committed during the previous regime. More recently, the federal government accused TPLF of orchestrating the assassination of Hachalu Hundesa, an Oromo music pop-star, that sparked massive protests in Addis Ababa and Oromia region, and claimed over 239 lives.

Calming the Turmoil

The ongoing standoff between the federal government and Tigray puts Ethiopia in an extremely precarious position given the country’s elusive search for unity and national cohesion. It does not the only risk deepening the rift between Addis Ababa and Mekelle and further weaken federalism as a whole,  but also runs the risk of sparking complex ethnic strife and violence across Ethiopia; a situation that would dampen the prospects for peace, stabilization, and democratization in Ethiopia. As such, it is imperative that the federal government in Addis Ababa consider entering a dialogue with Tigray officials in a bid to mutually resolve the current stalemate. A deployment of power, either military or otherwise in punishing Tigray will only trigger more rejection and violence.

Given the volatility of the issues underlying the disagreement, a political dialogue needs to be brokered by a credible third-party mediator. Internal religious leaders can be useful in providing a conduit to peace by first negotiating with both sides independently and then bringing them together towards an agreement. A possible way out is to persuade Tigray officials to agree to conduct fresh elections when the national general elections will be scheduled sometime next year. This is likely to resonate with Abiy, as it would shorten the period under which the new government in Tigray stays in power. Also, Prime Minister Abiy should change his position regarding the autonomy of regional states. Particularly, Abiy should stop seeking to re-centralize the state as way of pacifying the country. Externally, the AU and other regional bodies such as IGAD should intervene to help break the stalemate. Particularly, the AU’s current chairperson, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa should deploy a special envoy to Ethiopia to support much-necessary dialogue and negotiation for peace.

Joel Otieno is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute.

Photo: A voter is screened before entering a polling station during Tigrays regional elections in the city of Mekele, Ethiopia, on September 9, 2020 (Photo Credit: AFP)

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