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Analysis: Envisioning post-war Tigray’s political landscape and prospects of political pluralism

Creative design: Matias Samuel/Addis Standard

By Million Beyene @MillionBeyene

Addis Abeba – Ethiopia’s Tigray region continues to grapple with the aftermath of the devastating war that broke out in November 2020, the Pretoria Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) that silenced the guns has brought a glimmer of hope for a peaceful resolution.

Under the agreement, an interim administration has been established in the Tigray region, with a mandate to govern for a minimum of six months and a maximum of one year, after which elections will be held.

However, the looming question on everyone’s mind is who will emerge as the winner of a future election and administer the region after the interim administration’s term ends. For over three decades, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been the sole ruling party in the region, prompting concerns that it may continue to cling onto power and perpetuate its history of dictatorship.

Despite the destruction wrought by the atrocious war that Tigrayans were subjected to, there are many who believe that the political landscape in Tigray has undergone a seismic shift. Dr. Tsagazeab Kahsu, President of the Baytona Tigray Party, who is included in the Tigray interim administration, is one such individual who believes in the possibility of change.

In a recent interview with Addis Standard, the president shared his party’s belief that the political climate in Tigray has undergone a significant transformation. He emphasized that the previous one-party system’s dictatorship is no longer viable, and a democratic process and multi-party political system are now essential for the future of the regional state.

According to Tsagazeab, the TPLF had maintained an authoritarian grip on Tigray for over three decades, silencing any opposition and quashing any competing voices. However, recent events have compelled the TPLF to cede power and permit political pluralism. Dr. Tsagazeab reiterated that the challenges and difficulties Tigray has faced in the past have created the necessary steps towards creating a more inclusive and democratic political environment.

According to the chairman, the TPLF has been practically sidelined by the interim administration, which was established as per the Pretoria agreement; a party that had a complete monopoly in the past was forced to share power when the interim administration was formed, and if utilized, this presents an opportunity to foster greater political participation among a wider range of voices.

However, not everyone is convinced that the political environment in Tigray will necessarily expand. Gebre Medhn G/Michael, a lecturer at Mekelle University’s political science and strategy department, believes that the absence of some opposition parties from the interim administration may hinder the development of a diverse and competitive political landscape. He suggests that greater participation from all competing parties could lead to a more pluralistic and democratic environment in Tigray, and potentially prevent a return to a single-party system.

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Tsagazeab Kassa, a historian and political analyst, offers a different perspective, criticizing both the TPLF and the competing political parties. He believes that the politics being promoted in the region has become shapeless, with no clear agenda from any of the parties. According to him, the parties are not acting based on their own interests but are instead focused on implementing the agenda of other parties and individuals (outside the region). He argues that the region requires parties that can clearly communicate the position of the community they represent.

End of Tigray’s Interim Admin and prospects of elections

During a recent discussion with the chairman of Baytona, Dr. Tsagazeab Kahsu, the possibility of the interim administration’s term of office being limited to one year was brought up. However, Dr. Tsagazeab expressed his doubts about the feasibility of completing all the necessary tasks within such a short time frame. He cited the collapse of the National Election Board in Tigray as one of the main reasons, noting that the Board has yet to resume its activities*. He went on to explain that it would be difficult to establish offices in every district and zone, recruit, and train personnel, conduct voter registration, and ultimately hand over power to the winning party within the specified time-frame.

Furthermore, Dr. Tsagazeab expressed concern that the political issues within the region will not be resolved and fair democratic elections will not be possible within a year’s time. He emphasized his doubt that the political landscape can be made ready for such an eventuality in such a short period.

In contrast to the chairman’s belief, lecturer G/Medhn G/ Michael and political analyst Tsagazeab Kassa hold the belief that conducting a fair and democratic election in Tigray within a year is a feasible objective.

G/Medhn pointed out that the interim administration’s primary objective is to facilitate the election and support the election board in organizing and conducting the election in Tigray. He expressed his firm belief that one year is sufficient time to create a situation where political parties can become well-organized, fill their legal gaps, and fully prepare for the election.

But he acknowledged that the preparations of political parties may not be complete, but he emphasized that even the TPLF could not finish its preparations, let alone oppositional parties. One year may be a short time for development and reconstruction, but if planned adequately, he is confident that holding an election is achievable within the given time-frame.

Tsagazeab Kassa, on his part, expressed confidence in the interim administration’s ability to conduct elections and facilitate a peaceful transfer of power within a year, contingent upon the successful implementation of the peace agreement.

Future trajectory of Tigray’s political struggle

The six months time since Ethiopia as a country and Tigray as a region decided to end the ravages of the two years war is short. During the onset of the seventeen-year-long armed struggle, tens of thousands of Tigrayan youths made the ultimate sacrifice. But over the past two years, the war between the federal government and Tigrayan forces has resulted in the death of anywhere north of north half a million people, most of whom civilians in the Tigray region. Tigray’s civilian infrastructure: from health to education, water, agriculture and the overall ecosystem, which were built over the past three decades, are destroyed beyond recognition. Tens of thousands of women survivors are subjected to live with the unspeakable sexual cruelty inflicted on them; and Tigray’s economy is reduced to none. These are distressing developments that not only highlight the fragility of a lasting peace but also raise pertinent questions about the future such as: What lies ahead for Tigray? What course will the region’s political struggle take to recover from such devastation?

Dr. Tsagazeab of the Baytona Tigray Party, highlights the importance of peaceful political struggle, committing to remain part of the administration and advocating for peaceful means to gain power by participating in the upcoming election and securing the majority of votes. To achieve this, he stresses the need to cooperate with all competing political parties and focus on significant issues affecting Tigray rather than minor differences. He’s ready to mobilize and lead the opposition parties towards a common goal in the next Tigray election, and has formed a front with some political parties.

Lecturer G/Medhn G/Michael at Mekelle University laments the near absence of peaceful political struggle in Ethiopia at both the national and regional levels, and notes that some opposition parties’ unwillingness to participate in the interim government is a consequence of this situation.

He also emphasizes that citizens tend to cast their votes in favor of opposition parties not primarily due to a genuine conviction in their potential to govern proficiently, but rather as a means to voice their dissatisfaction with the ruling party.

Consequently, the prevailing sentiment among the populace lacks confidence in the opposition’s capacity to assume power and shoulder responsibilities effectively. This prevailing skepticism has resulted in a lack of adequate preparedness among political parties at the local level, deterring them from actively participating in interim administration. Mr. G/Medhn posits that embracing such participation would have conferred invaluable opportunities for honing governance skills and enhancing preparedness for future roles of authority. AS


*Editor’s Note: After the production of this article, news reports indicated that the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) has opened its office in Mekelle and held consultations with various stakeholders. In a report to Parliament this week, the Board said that by next year it plans to hold election in Tigray and 96 constituencies in the rest of the country where the June 2021 general elections did not take place.

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