Tigray turbulence

Ethiopia peace deal offers Tigrayans hope but dilemmas persist

By Abel Tesfaye

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Posted on May 22, 2023 09:04

Getachew Reda (L), leader of the new interim administration in Tigray, and former advisor and spokesman of the Tigray Region.
Getachew Reda (left), leader of the new interim administration in Tigray, and former advisor and spokesman of the Tigray Region. (All rights reserved)

Tigray’s political parties are determined to restore peace, rebuild the war-torn society, and strengthen democracy, but they don’t all share the same vision of how. 

A high-profile peace ceremony, held in Brotherhood Square in Addis Ababa on 23 April, again signified the rapprochement between former foes, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The event, like the November peace deal in South Africa, garnered a mixed reaction among Tigrayans who experienced the brunt of the most devastating war in Africa’s recent history, with several hundred thousand people killed on the battlefield, in massacres, and by the federal government’s siege.

Federal authorities allied with Eritrea and the Amhara region to fight the TPLF after the war broke out on 3 November 2020, but owing to international leveraging of much-needed donor support and a grinding war, finally agreed to make peace.

Pursuant to the Pretoria Agreement, Abiy facilitated the establishment of an Interim Regional Administration (IRA) and appointed Getachew Reda, a TPLF stalwart who was the voice of Tigray’s resistance during the war, as the region’s interim president on 23 March.

While some Tigrayan political actors see these moves as hopeful, others are disillusioned by slow progress and a lack of inclusivity.

Dividing lines

These frustrations have emerged partly due to still inadequate aid delivery, delays in restoring essential services, and a lack of accountability for atrocities.

The continued control of parts of northern, western, and southern Tigray by Eritrean and Amhara forces has caused public indignation amid persisting security concerns.

Though the immediate focus remains on rebuilding and restoring normalcy, the public fervently demands the return of those territories and the swift repatriation of hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Tigrayans.

Perceived TPLF corruption and mishandling of the war have also sparked calls for democratisation. Some parties believe that is only possible if TPLF is purged from Tigrayan politics.

Pretoria reception

Mehret Okubay, a Tigrayan journalist and human rights advocate, points out that much of the local public is sympathetic to TPLF’s concessions as they were “facing a humanitarian catastrophe and the implications of continued violence at such a massive scale.”

Many in the diaspora, however, do not share this sentiment. “They have devoted their time and energy to the resistance,” Mehret says. “Therefore, they are profoundly disappointed not only by the outcome but also by how they were excluded from the [Pretoria] process.”

Hailu Kebede, head of foreign affairs for Salsay Woyane Tigray, a Tigrayan nationalist party that advocates for radical reforms, believes the “politically conscious” are disillusioned as Tigray got so little after sacrificing so much.

According to him, in addition to battlefield miscalculations that forced them into painful concessions, a much better deal was available if the leadership had not rushed to “save themselves and the party [TPLF].”

Interim administration

Some opponents claim public sympathy for TPLF leaders dissipated amid recent internal wrangling.

“They took five months to establish an administration that would run for six months to a year. Many Tigrayans died because of it,” Hailu exclaims, referring to federal authorities tying budget allocation and service restoration to forming the IRA.

Conversely, Wondimu Asamnew, a former Ethiopian ambassador and member of Tigray’s negotiating team, believes elite competition is “natural” in such situations. “If they had rushed the process, they would have been accused of doing it to prevent public participation.”

Most opposition parties refused to participate in forming the IRA in protest of TPLF control, though a small number of seats went to the National Congress Party (abbreviated as Baytona).

Wondimu says the opposition was offered six out of the 27 available seats, even though they haven’t shown they have popular support. Given TPLF’s historic dominance, he believes this was a generous concession that represented a landmark in Tigray’s authoritarian politics.

Presidential appointment

According to journalist Mehret, the public generally see Getachew’s appointment positively. Wondimu claims the support for him, especially from neutrals, is a rejection of the conservative old guard. “It was more like a protest vote,” he says.

For some, the rise of Getachew and Tsadkan Gebretensae, a key military strategist during the war who is now an IRA deputy president, has forged greater harmony between Tigray’s centre and its marginalised south, where both figures hail from.

“Politics is representation. Political power has been dominated by a specific area. His coming to power changes that,” says Kibrom Zebib Sibhatleab, Baytona’s head of foreign affairs.

By circumscribing the TPLF’s power, there is hope that Pretoria and Getachew’s leadership may open a limited but feasible opportunity for democratisation.

Mehret argues it has provided an opening for other forms of civic engagement, while former Ethiopian ambassador Wondimu sees an increasing separation of party and government – something which the TPLF failed to do when it held sway for decades at the federal level, partly as, for the first time, the TPLF leader is no longer the region’s head.

“TPLF won’t be able to use government resources freely for its party agenda. This will level the playing field,” he says.

Reform doubts

Despite some positive signs, Weldeabraha Niguse, head of diplomatic affairs for the Tigray Independence Party, which wants an independence referendum, says Getachew is backed by the West as a reformer but is already facing resistance from TPLF’s conservative faction.

Moreover, he believes “self-proclaimed progressives” such as Getachew haven’t done enough to alter the party’s corrupt ways, which makes him sceptical of their claims.

Baytona’s head of foreign affairs Kibrom believes that even though he isn’t the ideal choice, Tigray has better chances of democratisation with Getachew at the helm. “If it is a must for a TPLF official to hold the position, it would be preferable for him to do so compared to others [TPLF leaders]”.

Hailu from Salsay Weyane doesn’t share the optimism. The party’s position is that for Tigray to democratise, TPLF has to go. He says tensions between so-called TPLF progressives and conservatives are merely “factional and parochial” and Getachew has been clear he will impose the same-old party policies.

Still, for now, and with elections set for next year, all parties in Tigray are open to working with Getachew’s administration in its proclaimed efforts to rebuild Tigray.

*produced in partnership with Ethiopia Insight

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