Yonas Biru, PhD
August 3, 2021
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Oromo Federalist Congresses’ (OFC) demand to establish a provisional government is a poison pill to repel the results of the 2021 elections that have been endorsed by the African Union as “orderly, peaceful, and credible.”
The constitutional basis of the authority to form a government in Ethiopia are national elections through a universal and equal suffrage by way of free voting procedures. An overwhelming majority of the voting age population has chosen its representatives to run the business of the government.
TPLF’s and OFC’s demand for national dialogue is to circumvent the results of the national elections that gave the Prosperity Party an overwhelming victory in what can only be described as an unequivocal referendum on the political and economic direction of the nation.
Subsection 1 of Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dictates: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”
Subsection 3 adds: “Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
In general, national dialogue for reconciliation is essential for peace. Indeed, the Prime Minister should encourage and lead a national dialogue on many issues. But one topic that is off limits to such a dialogue is for puffed-up and lethargic elites who want to use national dialogue to grab power in violation of the will and suffrage rights of the people.
Jawar Mohammed’s Perspective: The Genesis of the Demand for National Dialogue
The year 2020 was a referendum year on the tribal constitution. Proponents and opponents of the tribal Constitution were gearing up for a showdown during the national election that was scheduled to be held in August. The election was expected to give the people an opportunity to choose between those who wish to maintain the existing tribe-based federalism and those who call for reform.
Jawar Mohammed, the leading and most influential champion of the current tribal Constitution, understood that the only way the Constitution can be protected from reform is by uniting all Oromo parties to vote against constitutional reform as a unified block. On September 13, 2019, Jawar issued a bold ultimatum to the Prime Minister’s party, the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), not to tinker with using constitutional reform as its election strategy.
Jawar announced that the PM’s ODP cannot go to the election before it agrees on a power-sharing arrangement with other Oromo parties. “We will not allow competition within the various Oromo parties… We must build a consensus and have a united front behind the current ethnic federalist system.” He added: “We cannot allow ODP to behave like a ship that has lost its compass… They cannot tell us this is their party, and they can do what they choose to do. We will not allow that.”
He continued on: “If ODP joins the other Oromo parties we will have 180 block-votes from Oromia. We can then bring other ethnic federalist parties and win at least 350 seats. This will allow us to control the next Parliament and maintain ethnic federalism. We will make any changes we may desire.” He gave the PM an ultimatum: Do as I say, or I will hand you a calendar with Ethiopia’s expiration date.
On December 1, 2019, the PM announced the Prosperity Party (PP) that was perceived as Pan-Ethiopian “inching away from ethnic federalism toward a system based on territory but not identity.” All major Ethnic Parties barring TPLF (a small minority in terms of population) and OFC joined the PP.
Jawar knew that anti-constitutional reform parties such as TPLF and OFC had no chance of winning majority and was hell bent on stopping the election, choosing instead a national dialogue between the elites to establish a transitional government and determine the future direction of the nation. In their 3000-year history, “We the Ethiopian People” never had a chance to write, ratify and adopt their constitution. It has always been unelected elites dictating their wishes on them. TPLF and OFC wanted to keep it that way.
In March 2020, the Ethiopian National Election Board (ENEB) suspended the election due to the COVID-19 pandemic and announced that it will schedule a new timeline once the pandemic has subsided. This was not unique for Ethiopia. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), from February 21, 2020 until March 2021, at least 78 countries and territories across the globe have postponed their elections. In Europe 33.3 percent of national and sub-national elections were postponed. The corresponding figures for Africa and Asia are 23.2% and 21.8%.
The federal government and all regional governments complied with the ENEB decision except for TPLF and OFC. The two parties challenged the constitutional authority of ENEB to postpone the election. The very Constitution that TPLF and OFC support wholesale empowers the Council of Federation to settle constitutional debates. The Council of Federation ruled ENEB’s decision did not violate the Constitution.
Jawar Mohammed the most influential member of OFC and Debretsion the head of TPLF ignored the decisions of two constitutionally sanctioned authorities – the Council of Federation and ENBE – and rejected the postponement of the election. They upped the ante by issuing a warning that if the federal government complied with the ENEB and the Council of Federation, it would amount to a violation of the Constitution and the federal government would become illegitimate after its term expires on September 25, 2020.
Jawar insisted the people, the military and the police will not take orders from the PM. The outcome was far from Jawar’s assertion. The people are unified more than ever behind the Prime Minister and his administration. The election that they said will lead to a bloodshed proved peaceful.
Currently, Jawar is in prison, following Hachalu Hundessa’s assassination. Hachalu was one of the most popular figures in the Oromo ethnic land. Some say he was more popular than Jawar and PM Abiy. Whom he supported in the tug-of-war between the PM and Jawar was seen as a deal breaker.
While Jawar was aligning his strategy with TPLF, Hachalu went on the Oromo Media Network (OMN) to defend his strong opposition against top Oromo opposition leaders who sought alliance with TPLF. Hachalu also rejected “the PM is not an Oromo” narrative that was propagated by Jawar’s supporters. During the interview, Hachalu revealed that his life was threatened by extremist Oromo forces because of his pro pan Ethiopian position.
On June 29, 2020, Hachalu was assassinated in Addis Ababa. Immediately after, Jawar politicized it, writing on social media: “They did not just kill Hachalu. They shot at the heart of the Oromo nation, once again… You can kill us. You can never ever stop us!! Never!!”
As BBC reported, “Trouble started when Hachalu’s body was being transported to his native town of Ambo for burial, but Mr. Jawar and his supporters intercepted it and returned it to the capital” contrary to Hachalu’s parent’s wish not to politicize his funeral. Jawar’s intention was to organize a political funeral. According to the Economist, one officer was killed after a scuffle broke out between Jawar’s security detail and the police. This is acknowledged both by the federal police commissioner Endeshaw Tasew and Bekele Gerba’s son, Dawit Bekele. Jawar and Bekele were arrested. Being a famous politician does not come with legal immunity. The two were arrested for hijacking Hachalu’s body and causing the death of a police officer.
TPLF’s Perspective: The Genesis of the Demand for National Dialogue
For 27 years TPLF ruled Ethiopia under ethnic federalist system it constitutionalized. After it lost power by popular uprising, it refused to be governed by the very constitution it enacted, rejecting the constitutionally granted authorities of the ENEB and the Council of Federation.
France 24, a French state-owned international news television network, had it right when it stated the rapid reforms were “too much too fast for the political old guard.” It was plenty clear for TPLF old guards that there was no way to gain power through the democratic process.
TPLF ignored the decisions of two constitutionally empowered authorities – the Council of Federation and ENBE – and rejected the decision to postpone the 2020 election. It argued the only way out is through political negotiation and power sharing. TPLF leadership upped the ante by issuing warning that if the federal government complied with the ENEB and the Council of Federation it would amount to a violation of the Constitution and the federal government would become illegitimate after its term expires on September 25, 2020.
On November 3, TPLF launched a surprise attack against the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) that was stationed in Tigray. The former US Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo confirmed this, stating: “The United States is deeply concerned by reports that the TPLF carried out attacks on Ethiopian National Defense Force bases in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. We are saddened by the tragic loss of life.”
TPLF’s motive, according to the US government, was “to overthrow the Prime Minister and return to the type of privilege they had enjoyed within the Ethiopian State for the last 27 years.”
Negotiated Settlement of the Current Conflict is Essential, But…
The Ethiopia government is guided by two governing principles. The rule of law is a cardinal principle of democracy and economic development, and peaceful reconciliation within the tenets of the Constitution is a central pillar for building a foundation for long lasting peace and stability.
Any effort to reconcile a budding democracy with kleptocracy – whose legitimacy drives from instruments of violence – is tantamount to opening a Pandora’s box with dangerous consequences of letting the country spiral into Hobbesian lawlessness. The international community must appreciate the government’s position that any power sharing scheme outside of the democratic election process will incentivize other regional governments to use terror as an instrument of political strategy to extract concessions.
Negotiated settlement is necessary, but its objective must be to bring TPLF and OFC into the budding democratic experiment, not to push Ethiopia out of the grid lines of the democratic process to meet TPLF’s and OFC’s unconstitutional and anti-democratic demands.