In a blatant challenge to the federal Ethiopian government, the Tigray government held general and municipal elections on 9 September to elect the members of the regional Legislative Council and the representatives of the Tigray region in the Federal Legislative Council, despite Addis Ababa’s opposition of the move. However, the federal government didn’t have the authority to stop the elections.
The Tigray government, controlled by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), considers the elections constitutional, especially after the TPLF refused, among many other opposing parties, to extend the mandate of Abiy Ahmed that was approved by the House of Federation last June allegedly due to the difficulty of holding the elections as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The authorities in Tigray held the elections in its cities and villages, where there are 2.7 million eligible voters, distributed over 2,672 polling stations to facilitate voting. According to preliminary statements announced by the TPLF, 85 percent of voters cast their ballots and there were no records of violations or security breaches.
Ahmed criticized the elections in Tigray, saying the Tigray people were “building hits on land they do not own,” considering the elections “useless and worthless,” and “not a source of concern for the federal government that will not recognize the results.” In an interview with Ethiopian state TV, Ahmed threatened to resolve the crisis militarily as soon as possible, but he said later on he didn’t prefer this course out of concern for the Tigray people’s interests.
The critical importance of Tigray
Although Ahmed’s government is facing fierce opposition in several Ethiopian regions, prime among which is Oromia, developments in Tigray, including the 9 September elections, have had a stronger impact on Ethiopia’s political system. This is because the Tigray region is of crucial significance for the following reasons:
1- The TPLF is experienced in spearheading the Ethiopian political system directly during the rule of Meles Zenawi from 1991 to 2012, and indirectly when Hailemariam Desalegn was at the helm from 2012 to 2018. This added to the TPLF members belonging to the political and military elite great experiences in managing the complex political process in Ethiopia. It soon appeared Ahmed lacks such experience.
2- Tigray holds much of Ethiopia’s material assets, primarily sources of wealth, development revenues, and large foreign investments, especially those of China. In addition, an influential part of the military might mobilized in the Tigray region during the years-long war between Eritrean and Ethiopian is still present in Tigray.
3- Tigray is of a geographical importance. It is located in the far north on the borders with Eritrea and is connected with Sudan through a narrow strip in the east. This remote location allowed Tigray to be “practically separated” from the Ethiopian state. Mekele city, the capital of Tigray, is 900 km away from Addis Ababa. Tigray’s location may pave the groundwork for its official secession in case relations with the state deteriorate.
4- The TPLF-controlled Tigray government refuses to join the new Prosperity Party, established by Ahmed, that aims at eliminate the ethnic-based federalism applied in Ethiopia since 1995. This position drew supporters from different regions and ethnic affiliations closer to the TPLF. This was manifested in the recent rare-occurring understandings between the TPLF and Ahmed’s Oromo opponents.
Mutual escalation between the federal and regional governments
The 9 September elections in Tigray did not come as a surprise. The move was preceded by other events, especially during the recent months, that affirmed the serious rift in the relationship between the TPLF and the federal government led by Ahmed and his newly-formed Prosperity Party.
The TPLF was among the first groups to oppose Ahmed’s efforts to extend his mandate without elections, alleging that it would be difficult to hold elections due to the coronavirus pandemic. This was followed by the TPLF announcing the elections were to be held in their due time before the end of September. The TPLF considered the extension the House of Federation gave Ahmed unconstitutional.
On 17 June, the Tigray government formed an electoral commission to supervise the organization and procedures of the awaited elections, which was the first executive step to hold the elections despite the opposition of the central government. On 4 August, the House of Federation called on the TPLF to immediately call off the election process. The TPLF refused and announced the continuation of the election process.
These developments are taking place despite Ahmed’s latest attempts to slow down the escalation, after he had said in late July that the TPLF played a leading role in Ethiopian politics since the establishment of the state following the fall of Mengistu. Ahmed pointed out that the dispute between the Prosperity Party and the TPLF was exacerbated by “foreign powers” that he did not name. He also announced that the government will not go into war with the TPLF because of the latter’s unilateral decision to hold elections. Ahmed added the federal government will not resort to force against Tigray government members responsible for holding the elections.
However, with the advent of the elections, the two sides were engaged in another dispute. The TPLF issued a statement on 4 September announcing that any attempt by the federal government to hinder the election process in Tigray shall be considered a “declaration of war”. The federal government, on the other hand, sought to hinder journalists and media anchors from traveling to Mekele to cover the elections with the target of obscuring this important event that was anticipated on the regional and international levels.
The role of the TPLF’s strong military
Abiy Ahmed’s relationship with many leading Ethiopian parties is mired in tensions, especially with his efforts to eliminate the ethnic-based federalism that was stated by the 1995 constitution and to reestablish a ruling central system that gives him more control over the country without competing with strong regional governments. Despite the fact that there are many opposing parties to Ahmed, including the Oromo, the largest among them, the strongest reaction of all was that of the Tigray region, which held elections despite the opposition of the federal authorities. This is a direct result of Tigray’s many powerful factors, including enjoying leverage on the political and military fronts.
On the military level, Mekele and other Tigray cities witnessed on 2 August a number of military parades and marches that were performed by Tigray’s security and special forces, dressed in military uniforms and carrying their light and heavy weapons, before they converged on Mekele Stadium.
The government of Tigray did not comment on the incident, instead “warning the people about the importance of fighting the coronavirus.” The Tigray region’s security bureau issued a statement announcing that: “We are ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of peace… The peace given to people relies not on external protection but on internal abilities.”
The last military parade was part of a rising trend in the past few months. It was preceded with another large parade in Mekele on 11 February. According to the Ethiopian constitution, Ethiopian regional governments have the right to establish police forces and armed groups entitled “special forces”. However, on the ground, the military capabilities of the regional governments are not on an equal footing. There are many incidents that prove that the forces of the Tigray government are the strongest in Ethiopia, to the extent that the Tigray forces can be considered a true rival to the Ethiopian Armed Forces led by the prime minister. This is due to the following factors:
1- The military might of the Tigray Liberation Army that was able to access Addis Ababa, the capital, in May 1991, which made the TPLF have a central position in the new political system in the framework of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and the military establishment after it was reorganized, which greatly promoted the military capabilities of the Tigray region over the years.
2- The infiltration of Tigrayans in the structure of the Ethiopian Armed Forces and the federal security institutions for three decades until Ahmed came to power in 2018. Ahmed gradually reduced the influence of Tigrayans in federal security and military establishments, either by removing them from leadership positions or by excluding them from working in these institutions. Ever since then, the forces of the Tigray government started attracting many of those who were excluded from the work of the federal security and military establishments to their regional security institutions.
3- The repercussions of the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict since 1998, in which the Tigray Region represented the main Ethiopian front. This gave the region the justification for its continuous mobilization of all kinds of weapons and fighters from Ethiopian army camps on its land.
4- The TPLF made good use of the regional and internal developments to “militarize” the special issues of Tigrayans. This was clearly embodied in its opposing position to the withdrawal of the Ethiopian forces from the borders in the disputed Badme Triangle with Eritrea in the wake of the peace agreement between the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments in 2018. As a result, the disputed area continues to be under the control of the Tigray.
Ethiopia and future courses
In light of the recent developments, further compounded by the Tigray elections, it is expected Ethiopia’s future will proceed in three main directions:
1- The retreat of Ahmed’s project to eliminate the ethnic-based federalism as a regulating rule for politics and governance in force since 1995. This might threaten his personal political future and give way to the loss in his emerging political party of its original ethnic elements.
2- The federal government will have to strike a difficult political deal with TPLF, in which the front will be reintegrated in the structure of the government after the state’s general elections. It is expected this political deal will cost Ahmed dearly since he will have to assign TPLF members in a number of important political and security positions, which might pave the way for the front’s control of the Armed Forces, the General Intelligence and the state-owned business sector. Ahmed will also have to reformulate his alliances with ethnic groups. This way, he would not exclusively be the Amhara’s strong ally. This deal will allow Ahmed to evade an explosive situation, but will not guarantee his regime will not fall apart.
3- Many Ethiopian regional governments might simulate the Tigray model, either by holding regional elections without the approval of the federal government, or by bargaining with Ahmed for more economic and political gains in exchange for supporting him. The previous threats by some groups to activate Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution might be revived. Article 39 gives constitutionally recognized regions the right to secede and establish independent states, especially in light of the long period of time that separates the initiation of the separation procedures and their actual implementation, which may exceed three years, which means that the secession card may be used to pressure the federal government into granting them their demands in return for not seeking secession.
Regardless of the direct political impact, the successful organization of the Tigray elections resulted in a symbolic loss for Ahmed on the domestic and foreign fronts. Ahmed appeared as a leader with no control over sovereign matters, such as organizing elections. He constantly resorted to the use of violence and threats in the face of growing opposition in different regions, and he appeared unable to draw a clear picture of the country’s political future after the repeated postponement of general elections. Together, these political and symbolic factors cast serious doubts over the political future of Abiy Ahmed, the Prosperity Party, and the Ethiopian state.