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The Ethiopian Unexpected War in Tigray

Ethiopia’s governing coalition appointed Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in 2018 to help calm months of anti-government protests. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated politics in the country until he came to office, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, took office two years ago and reorganised the coalition into a single party.

The origin of the dispute and crisis is the decision by the federal government to postpone national elections without consensus on the legality of continuing in power beyond the date on which its constitutional mandate expires in October, 2020.

The Ethiopian House of Peoples Representatives decided to postpone federal and regional elections until such a time that the WHO declares the end of the global pandemic and its health risks. The upper chamber the House of Federation (HoF) then decided that the current government would remain in power until the undetermined date for elections.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and several other opposition groups accepted the delay of the election but called for dialogue to agree on how to transition into an elected government when the current term expires by the end of September 2020. They argued that a unilateral extension was unconstitutional and illegitimate.

For many Tigraians, the election was about safeguarding their collective democratic rights and regional autonomy rather than competition for seats as such. The voting was a demonstration of Tigrai’s constitutionally enshrined right for self-determination. Many also considered it as a way of defying the federal government for what they believed to be its authoritarian nature. Success is measured by the credible conduct of the process.

However, the fact that the TPLF dominated the results also says a lot about the playground for the elections. The TPLF had all the advantages of an incumbent. The hostility of the federal government targeted towards the Tigraians contributed to a sense of solidarity that translated into support for the demonstrated resolve of the TPLF.

People also felt the need for an experienced and resourced ruling party at a time of stress. In addition, opposition parties have reported irregularities including a smear campaign against them, and voters’ education that focused on guiding the electorate on whom to elect rather than how to cast their votes. Despite these concerns, all the five contending parties concurred that Tigrai and Tigraians won the election in the sense that the exercise allowed the people of Tigrai to elect its own legitimate government.

The elections were peaceful and credible. The result is two governments, one in the Tigraian capital Mekelle and one in the federal capital Addis Ababa, that do not recognize each other’s legitimacy. It is the most serious political crisis in recent Ethiopian history.

In its regular session, the House of Federation (HoF), deliberated on the implementation of resolutions it had previously passed focusing on constitutional interpretations.

Despite the discontinuation of communications, the federal government has to work only with other administrative echelons such as Woreda, City and Kebele administrations as well as other legal entities of the State centering on peace, development and other basic demands of the people of Tigray, according to HoF’s resolution.

It was to be recalled that HoF passed resolution stating that the election code the State of Tigray issued, the ensued establishment of State’s Election Commission as well as resolutions it passes and other activities it executes contravene the FDRE Constitution; hence, are considered null and void.

The House indicated that the proclamation 351/2012 which the state has issued stands in contradiction to the Constitution’s Art. 55 (15) and 55 (2) (d), according to a statement the House posted on its Facebook page earlier in September.

The Election Board established per 351/2012 also overrides the Constitution’s Art. 102 which mandates the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia to organize elections.

Hence, it said, per the Constitution’s Art. 9 (1), the State’s proclamation, the Commission, and other activities it undertakes are invalid.

Ethiopia mobilised for war in the northern Tigray region, dashing international hopes of averting a conflict between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the powerful ethnic faction that led the ruling coalition for decades.

The TPLF was the dominant political force in Ethiopia’s multiethnic ruling coalition for decades, but quit after Abiy, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, took office two years ago and reorganised the coalition into a single party.

Countries in the region fear that the crisis could escalate into an all-out war under Abiy, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending a decades-old conflict with neighbouring Eritrea but has had to contend with outbreaks of ethnic unrest.

Few regions are more vulnerable than the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s neighbours include Somalia Ethiopian forces have reportedly begun withdrawing from that country to return home and Sudan, facing its own huge political transition.

Neighbouring Eritrea has shown little sign of opening up after making peace with Ethiopia in 2018, and its government and the one in Tigray do not get along. A region in which Abiy has played high-profile peacemaker is now at risk.

Observers warn a conflict could suck in these countries and others not far from the most strategic military outpost in Africa, tiny Djibouti, where several global powers including the US and China have their only bases.

The Horn of Africa is also a short water crossing away from Yemen and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. In Sudan, the acting governor of Kassala province said its border with northern Ethiopia has closed “until further notice” due to the tensions, report noted.

The northern Tigray region is increasingly cut off as Ethiopia’s civil aviation authority said airports in Mekelle and the regional cities of Shire, Axum and Humera were “closed for any services”.

Ethiopia first round of operation

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in a televised Ahmedaddress on 4 November, said he had ordered the military to take action against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party in the country’s northernmost region, in retaliation for what he described as a TPLF attack on a federal military base earlier that day. The region is increasingly boxed in by movement restrictions and a six-month state of emergency imposed by the federal government.

Abiy added that federal forces had made substantial gains in the first round of clashes, although whether that is the case remains unclear. He said the army, fighting alongside Amhara regional forces, had “fought a historical battle” against what he described as “traitors” from the TPLF, adding that more operations were planned in the coming days.

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Internet, phone communications remains restricted

Information access rights group, Access Now, indicated the region had been closed to the world after Addis Ababa imposed a six-month State of Emergency, accusing Tigray of threatening the sovereignty of Ethiopia. Thereby making it difficult to verify what is happening in Tigray.

“The government of Ethiopia has again shut down the internet,” Access Now said. “Mobile network, fixed-line internet and landline telephony have been cut in Tigray, as PM declares a state of emergency and orders military intervention against Tigray People’s Liberation Front.”

A prolonged conflict, which at this point looks plausible, would test the integrity of the Ethiopian state and armed forces, already shaken by numerous outbreaks of violence across the federation. It could well draw neighbouring Eritrea whose President Isaias Afwerki is close to Abiy into confrontation with the TPLF, a sworn enemy of Asmara. The TPLF dominated the former ruling coalition of Ethiopia when it fought a war with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.

Given the strength of Tigray’s security forces, the conflict could well be protracted. Tigray has a large paramilitary force and a well-drilled local militia, thought to number perhaps 250,000 troops combined. The region’s leadership also appears to enjoy significant support from Tigray’s approximately six million people, again suggesting that war could be lengthy and bloody.

Tigray would prevail in the conflict – TPLF

For its part, a statement issued by the local administration also warned against any military movement near its borders, after Addis Ababa ordered troops to launch attacks on the TPLF. The Tigray administration threatened to take action against any forces that attempt to cross the regional borders.

Tigray regional president, Debretsion Gebremichael, said: “I stated that they have decided to go to war and we should all prepare to foil it. This is our proclamation, so let it be clear.

“There is no reason for this because the people of Tigray held an election. There was nothing new that happened. This is the action of a self-loving government that is trying to resolve, albeit though not possible, political differences through force, weapons, and war. That is why they have declared war on the people of Tigray.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed alarm over the reported armed clashes in the Tigray region. He has called for immediate measures to deescalate tensions and ensure a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

Sources said efforts were under way behind the scenes to encourage talks, pushed by the African Union. But the initiative was being resisted by the authorities in Addis Ababa who insist they have to eliminate a threat posed by the TPLF.

Eminent Ethiopian statesmen, African leaders and the country’s international partners need to urgently press Addis Ababa and the TPLF to cease fire and enter unconditional discussions on sustaining a truce. As soon as the shooting stops, all sides should embrace a comprehensive national dialogue that many within and outside Ethiopia view as the surest way of steadying its troubled transition.


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