Tigray region’s defiance puts strains on Ethiopia’s unity

(VOA) The Tigray region is scheduled to vote Wednesday — in defiance of Ethiopia’s federal government. National officials are nervous, but their counterparts in Tigray say they are safeguarding democratic rights and autonomy.

On Monday, about a dozen people, including four journalists and a senior analyst, were barred from boarding a flight to Mekelle, the capital of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray Region. Three more journalists reported that they had received calls warning them not to attempt to travel to cover the elections.

Led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the federal government  postponed the general election in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The decision was supported by his Prosperity Party and major opposition parties.

The government of the Tigray region refused to abide by the decision, seeing the postponement as an attempt by Abiy, the 2019 Nobel Peace laureate, to prolong his hold on power and curtail the region’s autonomy.

“[Tigrayans] forget that there is a real pandemic going on,” said Jan Abbink, a professor of politics and governance at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University.

On Saturday, the House of Federation, the upper chamber of Ethiopia’s legislature, unanimously declared elections for the regional parliament “unconstitutional” and the results “therefore void.” But the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the region, is expected to press ahead with the vote for a new administration.

Officials for both the federal and regional governments see themselves as following Ethiopia’s constitution and the rule of law. The Tigrayan political scientist Yemane Zerai told DW that there was little point to legalistic theorizing. “The political relations will determine the relationship,” he said, “which can lead us into a peaceful coexistence or it can take us to total disengagement, which can lead to the disintegration of the Ethiopian state — or at least to the separation of the Tigrayan state.”

Domino effect

Relations between the TPLF and the federal government have deteriorated markedly since the former refused to join the prime minister’s Prosperity Party when it was formed in 2019. “We know there is an open threat by Abiy to militarily intervene against Tigray and to cut funds, but we will still go ahead with the vote,” said Getachew Reda, the TPLF spokesman and a former federal information minister.

According to an analysis by the International Crisis Group think tank, Abiy told a local media outlet that talk of a military intervention in the Tigray region was “insane” and said there were no plans for one under any circumstances. But he has repeatedly said there would be consequences, without going into details.

Since taking power in 2018, Abiy has liberalized the politics and economy of Ethiopia. But ethnic tension and outbreaks of violence have followed his changes as politicians in the provinces try to assert their authority against that of the federal government.

The TPLF has cast the election as a question of safeguarding democratic rights and autonomy. On the streets of Mekelle, opinions are divided. “This is a way to show the world and Ethiopia that we are helping to secure our self-administration rights,” resident Leake Zegeye told DW.

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But Merha Selam Meressa told DW that he was afraid of what might result from this act of defiance. “The situation is not good,” he said. “It could lead us to a conflict.”

Though he acknowledged the potential for violence, Abbink said he did not think it would come in the form of a military intervention by the central government. “Knowing the leadership’s aims and the style of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, it is unlikely that he will do it,” he said. “He will try to keep the dialogue going, in the hope that some modus vivendi will be worked out.”

Many analysts believe that the sides could find a compromise in which the TPLF would agree to hold a second election as soon as the pandemic is under control and the federal government would work with the election winners in the meantime.

The TPLF’s struggle

There is a real danger stemming from this situation. “It may well be that other regions, like the Somali Region, the Oromia Region, the Amhara Region, will be inclined to say, ‘Well, if the Tigray holds elections, I can do the same,'” Abbink said.

“This doesn’t apply to most of Abiy’s allies in the government,” he said, “but as far as what we might call ethnonationalism goes, there are a few in the Oromia and Amhara regions who really want to increase autonomy and they may put pressure on the government.”

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This is particularly true for the TPLF. “It is obvious that Tigray has a real problem and it’s struggling to reinvent itself in terms of its role within the Ethiopian federation,” Abbink said. Despite representing an ethnic minority, The TPLF dominated Ethiopia’s ruling coalition for nearly three decades before anti-government protests led to Abiy’s appointment as prime minister in 2018. Having lost its national prominence, the TPLF turned inward.

“They have been disengaging themselves from the federal level,” Abbink said. “If you talk about Tigray members of the government being sacked, the problem was that they never came to meetings. They didn’t do their jobs. They had no willingness of being a part of the federal government.”

Soldiers sitting in a stadium for a military parade (DW/M. Hailesilassie)Military parades have been held in various cities of Tigray in recent weeks

In the past six months, Zerai said, the government of the Tigray region has instituted what he considers ade facto state. “The institutional establishments that we have seen, the laws that are being enacted in Tigray and the actions which are being taken in mobilizing the people show that it is separating from the federal government,” he said. He pointed out, however, that — contrary to other regions of Ethiopia — Tigray has experienced peace.

VOA – Miilion Haileselassie contributed to this article.


  1. FCA condemns? Say it again? Condemns? ‘Objects’ could have been the proper use of a better term that attests to the true journalistic job description. Condemns? I just can’t believe it!!! My goodness precious!!! The days when journalism was a profession of news reporting and investigating from neutral position are becoming rarer and rarer. Condemns? I just gave up!!!!

    But watch it now. Unrepentant commies from that region will try to provoke and drag our Eritrean brothers and sisters into this so they will cry foul and play victim as always. I don’t think they will be successful in such hideous scheme. Let them hold their fake referendum and Chairman Debre declare the establishment a new People’s Republic of Tigray and its Central People’s Government. Then what will they do with it? These demonic commie leaders at the top don’t care about the fact that they will be exposing the noble people of that region to senseless and unnecessary hardship just for the sake of sham election.
    Meanwhile, I am calling on level head groups of elders both from within and outside the country to intervene and try to bring both parties to their senses. Shame on Debre and his cabals for parading the gullible youth toting deadly tools of barbarism. They should have shown them holding implements of progress; hammers, shovels, pliers wrenches and in factories operating equipments and on forklifts. Shame on you sir!!!! Shame on you!!!

  2. Tigray owns the Amara and Benishangul Gumuz regions . For 100+ years the Tigray people were colonized pushed out of Benishangul Gumuz and Amara regions . We will soon make it a reality to own what is our ancestorall lands.

  3. Subject: Tigray region’s defiance puts strains on Ethiopia’s unity by ZeHabesha, September 8,

    Commentary, 9 Sept 2020
    People can be manipulated to destroy themselves by themselves.

    It has always been so

    And so, it goes with what we see today.

    We see people being manipulated according to the whims of individuals.

    It is the history of mankind and so the disturbance in the ‘Horn of Africa’ is NOT unique

    I bet my last penny if Ethiopia were to be heading in another direction today Tigrai would be heading in the EXACT opposite direction — regardless of the subject matter. We are talking bout individual “drivers”

    We are NOT talking about PEOPLE. We are talking about INDIVIDUAL manipulators who have the propensity of manipulating ordinary people for their own personal pleasure..They can’t help it; it is in their nature to disturb!!! Ask the ghost of Hitler !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    In the end, it is the innocent people who pay the price. Look at military soldiers with their guns fully loaded at a sport stadium, occupying a section of the stadium, while the ordinary people were watching the sport activity seating on the available area. Of course, the people are terrified. But who is going to argue against loaded guns? What is so strange is the fact that the soldiers themselves are also victims of INDIVIDUAL DICTATORS !!!!!!!!! Take: Hitler !!!!!!!!!

    And so the entire nation of people are ruled, hypnotized, terrorized by an INDIVIDUAL DEVIL, through the most extraordinary phenomenon of EACH PERSON not trusting the NEXT PERSON. YES! Dictators are able to do that devilish phenomenon. They are CREATED that way.

    AMAZING!!! ONE INDIVIDUAL manipulating and terrorizing an entire nation to liquidate each other at the order of ONE — and only ONE — diabolical creature, which happens to be a simple mortal human creature. I don’t understand Nature; and so I am in PEACE with myself until the dictated DAY. As the French say: “c’est la vie”

    I wish the very best of luck for the ordinary, law-abiding, innocent people of Ethiopia, which, at this moment, includes the people of Tigrai . That is al I can say. As the famous Doris Day of Hollywood sang: “the future is not ours to say” THE END

  4. Having failed to gain attention through other nefarious means, this is just one of TPLF’s antics to gain the spotlight.

    Let them cling to their guns. As for the rest of the country focus for the new year and beyond should be a reinvigorated effort by every Ethiopian towards peace, justice, equality, prosperity and unity through diversity. This is how we defeat TPLF’s ~30 years divisive agenda that has been sewn across the land.

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