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Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal-Tigray Feud
Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal-Tigray Feud
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Members of a Taliban delegation, led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C, front), walk before a meeting with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow, on 30 May 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Briefing 160 / Africa

Toward an End to Ethiopia’s Federal-Tigray Feud

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and his rivals in Tigray are on a collision course over the latter’s plan to hold regional elections in defiance of federal authority. If Tigray proceeds, Abiy’s government is ready to consider any new regional administration illegitimate.

What’s new? Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and his rivals in Tigray are on a collision course over the latter’s plan to hold regional elections in defiance of federal authority. If Tigray proceeds, Abiy’s government is ready to consider any new regional administration illegitimate.

Why does it matter? Although Abiy has ruled out military intervention, federal officials threaten other punitive measures that could lead the parties to blows. Ongoing tensions also could push Tigray to trigger constitutional secession procedures, further raising the stakes and intensifying conflict risks with Addis Ababa and Amhara region.

What should be done? To defuse the situation, Tigray should pause its election plans and Addis Ababa should embrace talks over potential compromises. Given the acrimony, mediation by continental heavyweights may be needed. Abiy should also consider backing a national dialogue to reset Ethiopia’s vexed transition.

I. Overview

    Delaying polls due to the pandemic was arguably a necessary step, but deadly unrest in Oromia in early July demonstrates the potential dangers in Abiy’s doing so without consulting his rivals. The violence was triggered by the murder of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo musician.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Defusing Ethiopia’s Latest Perilous Crisis”, 3 July 2020.Hide Footnote But even before his killing, two main Oromo opposition parties had warned that the situation in the region was combustible, largely as a result of the Abiy government’s unilateral decision to extend its term.[fn]Ibid. A top ruling-party official told Crisis Group in a July telephone interview that an “axis of evil” comprising the TPLF, Oromo nationalist rebels and Egypt was behind the destabilisation. “Shimilis Abdisa: TPLF and OLA Shane behind assassination of Hachalu Hundessa”, Halgan Media, 2 July 2020. Hide Footnote Despite the TPLF and other opponents urging the federal government to adopt a more inclusive approach in managing the election delay, the administration moved against opponents in response to the July turbulence, arresting 7,000 people, including much of the Oromo nationalist opposition leadership.[fn]
footnote testHide Footnote

Addis Ababa’s rhetoric has at times been belligerent. Federal officials in June claimed that the government would stop the vote and would consider any newly elected Tigray government illegitimate.[1] Some officials asserted that they would reassess financial grants to Tigray, which amount to half the region’s budget, if it were to go ahead with its election.[2] In late 2019, a federal official told Crisis Group that the government had a case then for interrupting transfers to Tigray because the region was allegedly using the money to fund a regional security apparatus hostile to federal rule.[3] Other officials went so far as to hint at military action. According to one interviewed in July: "If they [the TPLF] continue to undermine the existing constitution and government structure, then we will do whatever it takes to stop them doing that. The federal government will take all necessary measures”.[4] In May, Abiy himself said:

Unconstitutional attempts to undertake illegal elections will result in harm to the country and the people. Therefore, the government will be forced to take any measures to assure the safety of the people and the country.[5]

In late July, the prime minister issued a helpful and forceful clarification, characterising the idea of military action against the region as “insane talk” and stressing that he would not punish Tigray with budget cuts.[6] This clarification has not assuaged the concerns of Tigrayan leaders, however.

 

[1] On 13 June, the prime minister’s spokesman Nigusu Tilahun said the federal government would enforce its election postponement decision, implying action to prevent Tigray’s poll. "Since the decision of the Tigray Regional Council to hold elections is unconstitutional, the government will respect the decision of the Electoral Board”, Fana Broadcasting Corporation, 13 June 2020. 

[2] Crisis Group interviews, senior Tigray officials, July 2020. Tigray received 50 per cent of its budget from the federal government in the fiscal year ending 7 July 2020. “Analysis of the 2019/20 Federal Budget Proclamation”, UNICEF, November 2019; “Tigray regional state approves annual budget of 16.7 billion birr”, Zehabesha, 7 July 2019.

[3] Crisis Group interview, federal official, Addis Ababa, December 2019.

[4] Crisis Group telephone interview, federal official, July 2020. In response to a question about whether “all necessary measures” could lead to civil war, the official said: “Could be civil war. Premature to give it a name. Maybe internal resistance will surface in TPLF”.

[5] “Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: ‘We are building a constitutional democracy’”, Ethiopia Insight, 14 May 2020.

[6] Abiy said, “What could possibly make the federal government wage war on Tigray region? This is insane talk”. Regarding the Tigray budget cut issue, he added, “We've never done that, nor will we ever do that”. “Interview with PM Dr Abiy Ahmed conducted in Tigrigna language”, Fana Broadcasting Corporation, 27 July 2020. Tigrigna is an alternate spelling of Tigrinya, the name of the Tigray language.

The most vociferous objections to the House of Federation’s vote delay came from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Contributor

Senior Consulting Analyst, Sahel