Kjetil Tronvoll @KjetilTronvoll
Addis Abeba, May 14/2020 – The postponement of the elections and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s proposal on how to solve the upcoming constitutional crisis in Ethiopia, has accentuated Tigrayan nationalism and the process of ensuring de facto Tigray statehood. The current political dynamics in the country, if continued unchecked, may push the Tigrayan discourse even further, as voices advocating for secession and Tigrayan independence are increasingly heard. How come Tigray, the cradle of Ethiopian civilization and the ‘country’s engine’, according to Abiy Ahmed, entertain ideas of statehood and secession? What developments have compelled both the people and some political elites to argue that the perceived best solution may possibly be to leave Ethiopia?
An axiom in conflict resolution is to understand your adversary’s positioning and context, and from that basis interpret her/his argument. What may appear irrational and illegitimate from your point of view, may actually resonance quite well among the followers of your opponent. Knowledge about each other’s positioning and contexts may thus contribute to creating a common frame of communication; i.e. that both sides are equally informed about each other’s views about the issue of contestation at hand they seek to address. This article aims to present how various Tigrayan actors are engaging in the discourse on statehood, to contribute to mitigating continued escalation of the discord.
The people of Tigray have for many years been critical towards the regional government over maladministration, corruption, and abuse; and accused TPLF of forgetting Tigray while concentrating on developing Ethiopia. Hence, demands for reforms of TPLF were heard in Tigray already in early 2000s, but were later overtaken by events with the advent of the Oromo, and subsequent Amhara, protest movements. During this period of turmoil, Tigrayans increasingly became the target of hate speech and ethnic slurs in Ethiopia, as they often were collectively blamed for the authoritarian rule and maladministration exhibited by TPLF/EPRDF over the past 27 years. Fear and frustrations about the turn of events led to mixed sentiments among large share of the population in Tigray, as the key slogan for the Oromo protest movement in its initial phase was “Down, down Woyane”.
Conflating the TPLF and the Tigrayan population has been a common, although flawed, assumption exhibited by many Ethiopians throughout the rule of TPLF/EPRDF. Consequently, Tigrayans were collectively blamed and persecuted for the wrongdoings of TPLF, although they themselves had equally suffered under its suppressive politics. A mixed set of feelings were thus prevalent among Tigrayans during the protests:
- a feeling of loss, as a consequence of the obvious decline of TPLF’s influence at the center;
- a feeling of betrayal, as the Tigrayan sacrifices during the 17-years struggle against the Derg and their collective effort to develop Ethiopia after 1991 were not given credit or appreciated by rest-Ethiopia;
- a feeling of anger, against the federal government and EPRDF for not protecting civilian Tigrayans during the Amhara uprising in Gondar and individual attacks throughout Ethiopia;
- a feeling of anxiety and fear, as they understood the potential devastating consequences against Tigrayans individually and collectively, if the federal government’s security control continued to unravel (as was seen during the protests and after).
The change of leadership in TPLF in 2017 brought hope for reforms to many in Tigray, as their grievances were finally heard and a new reform-friendly leader in Debretsion Gebremichael was elected. The political opening also saw the establishment of new political parties critical to TPLF, as Salsay Weyane and Baitona, advocating a more explicit Tigrayan nationalistic agenda. At the time when the EPRDF crisis peaked with the resignation of chair Hailemariam Dessalegn, most Tigrayans were demanding that TPLF should refocus their efforts to develop Tigray, and leave the control of the center and Ethiopian developments to the Oromo and Amhara fractions. Thus, nation-wide reforms accelerated by PM Abiy and the opening of democratic space and acceptance of pluralism of opinion, were initially equally warmly welcomed in Tigray as elsewhere in Ethiopia.
Before long, however, the feeling of victimhood once again escalated, as the Tigrayans increasingly felt encircled by enemies as PM Abiy engaged in mopping up of ancien règime representatives which happened mostly to be Tigrayans, simultaneously as he befriended their arch enemy President Isaias Afwerki and commenced the Eritrea peace process without consulting Mekelle. Tigrayans felt ‘encircled by enemies’ with their back against the wall with a vengeful and gloating Eritrean Commander in Chief threatening them on their northern border, as Amhara political entrepreneurs on their southern border also turned against Tigray and advocated to forcefully reclaim what they perceived to be their lost territories of Welkeit and Raya, simultaneously as they blocked the main thoroughfares in and out of Tigray regional state to rest-Ethiopia and the capital Addis Ababa. As a consequence of these events, a siege mentality started to fester, influencing Tigrayan interpretations and perceptions of political dynamics in Ethiopia and beyond.
Claiming de facto Statehood
The aspiration of Tigray statehood, de facto or de jure, has been nurtured by segments of the political strata for decades. The first material evidence of this is the infamous first manifesto of TPLF, which defined an Independent Republic of Tigray as the ultimate objective of their nascent struggle. Although this objective was quickly discarded in favor of political autonomy for Tigray within a democratic Ethiopia in the subsequent revised manifesto, their ‘hidden’ intent of secession and independence for Tigray has been used by the Ethiopianist camp to delegitimize TPLF/EPRDF rule in Ethiopia ever since they took power in 1991.
The current process of claiming de facto statehood in Tigray, however, is a result of both internal grievances and aspirations and external threats and opportunities, and as such ticks all the boxes on how nationalism is one of the most potent tools in politics.
Inception: Harnessing political consciousness
The inception of the specific discourse on ‘de facto statehood’ may perhaps be traced to a group of internationally-based Tigrayan scholars offering their academic capacities to assist the development endeavors in Tigray. The first conference of ‘The Global Society of Tigrean Scholars’ (GSTS) was conducted in Mekelle in July 2018, under the heading “Quo Vadis Tigray? Building Knowledge-based Economy and Society in Tigray”, focusing on enhancing Tigray’s economic, political, social, and security advantages. This was followed by second grand conference the following year, drawing more than 2,000 Tigrayan diaspora scholars to Mekelle. During these deliberations, an explicit concern about the political directions Ethiopia was heading under PM Abiy Ahmed underpinned how one should frame and conceive Tigrayan options of development, to secure the protection of hard-won political autonomy, language rights, resource extraction and allocation, cultural traditions, etc.. An increasing concern about the possibility unrest and conflicts in other regions of Ethiopia which could have a spill-over effect to Tigray, as well as the potential emergence of a federal government with hostile intentions towards Tigray, also informed the discussions.
Although Debretsion publicly has appreciated the work and advise from the Tigrayan scholars, TPLF is wary to buy into the full nationalist agenda due to their ideological anchoring. The emergence of the nationalist’s parties of Salsasy Woyane and Baitona, and more recently Tigray Independence Party, has, however, forced TPLF to gravitate towards such an agenda.
Economy: Releasing their potential
A more prominently factor pushing Tigray towards de facto statehood is the actual experiences of administering the regional state under the government of Abiy Ahmed. With the rejection of joining the PP, TPLF is an opposition party to the federal government, and all TPLF members of the cabinet where relieved of their duties in early 2020. This of course also influence how the Tigray regional government is perceived and handled by the federal government. Over the last couple of years, Tigray regional government have experienced increasing challenges related to general administration of regional affairs and the transfer of the federal grant. As commented by Dr Abraham Tekeste, vice president of Tigray responsible for administrative affairs and economic development: “The politics have also influenced the administrative relationship, unfortunately in a negative and counterproductive way. I see that the Federal Government use various means to achieve some political gains over us. Not by conviction, but by pressure and intimidation.”[i]
Abraham Tekeste, who served as Ethiopia’s Minister of Finance between 2016 and 2018, knows well how the federal administrative and economic arrangement work. He pointed out several areas where Tigray experienced obstructions either put in place by the federal government, or if undertaken by other political actors, silently consented by PM Abiy. Of these measures negatively impacting Tigray, he listed:
- The blockage of main road infrastructure south and west through Amhara regional state, which impedes the trade in/out of Tigray. All trade has to be routed through Afar road, which incurs a higher cost to Tigray producers and consumers. As pointed out by Abraham: “This is a federal highway, and the federal government accepts the blockage. The federal government thus de facto accepts that a partial embargo is put on us.”
- The opening of the border to Eritrea greatly benefited the Tigrayan economy in addition to people-to-people reconciliation, and Abraham states: “As this was not in the two governments’ interests, they closed the border again. It hurts us socially and economically.”
- Abraham Tekeste was particularly concerned about the impediment put by the federal government on private investments to Tigray. He claimed that:
“Tigrayan, non-Tigrayan, and foreign companies are all intimidated. If they want to do investments in Tigray, they will hear that this is not acceptable. If they are foreigners, they first try by persuasion to convince them to invest in other regions instead. If not heeded to, they will use measures that are more explicit. Like denying the Chinese business delegation to travel to Tigray, for instance.[i] Local Ethiopian investors are directly threatened and intimidated to drop their plans. … So if it continues like this we will suffer economically.”
4. The final impediment raised by Addis Abeba, according to Abraham, was the direct threat uttered by PM Abiy to hold back the federal grant to Tigray regional state. Abraham underlines: “He has not done it yet. But he has threatened us many times. He wants TPLF to join PP and submit to the new politics, stop criticizing his performances.”
This latter point, if effectuated, is clearly the most serious peril, not only to Tigray’s economy, but also to the stability of the Ethiopian federation as such. Abraham Tekeste, known for his calm and thoughtful demeanor, became disconcerted when elaborating on this issue:
It is a prescribed constitutional procedure to dispense federal grants, approved by the House of Representatives. If PM Abiy effectuates a fiscal retaliation on Tigray, he not only breaches the constitution, but he sabotages health, education, water supplies, and service delivery to a segment of the Ethiopian population. That will be equivalent of declaring war on us. I do not know what will happen. However, we have to prepare for any eventuality.
In order to prepare for increased autonomy and economic self-reliance, Tigray regional government is looking into the potential of additional tax and sources of revenue that can be impose regionally under the current constitutional framework. The tax prerogatives of regional governments are personal income tax and taxation of small business enterprises. Additionally, municipal revenue sources are also under the authority of regional governments, and Tigray has recently updated such tariffs.
Security: Building deterrence capacity
All Tigrayan actors stress the need for the regional government to build sufficient capacity to deter any attack on their region, as articulated by Abraham Tekeste: “Peace, stability, and security are our no 1 priority. We do not want to be dragged into any confrontation. We do not want Tigray to destabilize. Any conflict is very costly. So the first thing we do is to avoid any conflict.”
As per constitutional mandate, all regional states have their police force and militia, in addition to so-called Special Forces. The regional security forces’ size, training, equipment, and experiences vary greatly. Historically it has been the Tigray militia that has been the strongest in numbers and battle-hardened as they constituted a large part of the troops in the war against Eritrea; and is still conducting border patrol. Recent years, however, have seen the recruitment of tens of thousands of recruits to particularly Oromia and Amhara regional states’ security forces, so in terms of number they may outmatch Tigray. In terms of experience and capacity, on the other hand, it may tilt in Tigray’s favor. And, the new Tigrayan recruits to the re-organised special forces are of a different caliber than earlier, as explained by Alula Hailu of Salsay Woyane party: “The new generation of soldiers are not brainwashed. Therefore, they are nationalists, not TPLF’ites. You do not have to be a party member to be recruited. They are not joining to save the TPLF, but to defend and save Tigray.” But more than the quality of the training and personnel, Alula stressed: “Tigray has now the best military capacity and capability in the region, because we will fight as one with a mission and dedication if we are attacked. Even I.“[iii]
Armed forces are essential for providing security and deterrence if under threat, but is also the most potent manifestation of nationalism. Lekatit 11 (February 18) is the date of establishment of TPLF and hence the start of the Tigrayan revolution. This year’s Lekatit 11 marked the 45th anniversary of TPLF, and due to the particular political context, it was celebrated in a manner never seen before. Thousands of people flocked to the streets all over Tigray, waving flags and banners, commemorating martyrs and exhibiting solidarity and national cohesion. As observed by a Tigrayan intellectual:
“The Yekatit 11 celebrations this year differed very much from earlier years. This time all people were mobilized. We are feeling that we are under attack, from both Eritrea and Abiy. Everyone was interested to participate in the celebrations to show that we are standing together. It was not perceived as a TPLF anniversary, as before; it was understood as a Tigrayan event. A great display of solidarity and collectiveness. The second reason they differed was the display of military forces and might. Militia, police, and Special Forces were showing off at every tabia and woreda throughout Tigray. It was a surprise to see. We have never seen his before, may be only during the struggle. I guess the reason why they needed to display these forces now is a deterrence against the alliance between Abiy and Isaias. It is clear to see that they are collaborating to crush us. So for the TPLF it was needed to show a strong military force to reassure us that TPLF can defend Tigray against this threat. It is a deterrence strategy towards Eritrea, Amhara, and Abiy.”[iv]
De facto Statehood fulfilled
As there are no clear definition of what de facto statehood entails, its attributes are thus in the eye of the beholder. Late last year, the official organ of TPLF, the Woyen magazine, had a special issue out on the “6th National Election, the survival of our country and our regional state.” All its 48 pages were dedicated to discussing the 2020 election process, and the outlooks and dangers associated with it as seen from Tigray. In particular, it warned about the realignment of political forces in the country, and argued strongly against a possible postponement of the elections originally scheduled to be conducted in end of May 2020. In its concluding sections, the question on “what shall be done” in maintaining lasting peace and development in Tigray; the following paragraph summed up the regional government’s strategy in such concern:
“To ensure the security of our people and to fiercely protect the relative freedom of Tigray and thereby strengthen our capacity to accomplish all kinds of tasks we started to work on and to further strengthen our capability of defending ourselves and to show to our enemies and friends that we are capable of doing that even when it comes to using force. Specifically, to accomplish our development endeavors and ensure our people all round safety and security, and to continue our efforts in providing equitable benefits, we need to maintain the stability of Tigray and make it an enduring exemplary of peace by having full-fledged government structures (de facto status).”[v]
De facto statehood is here interpreted as a set of technical capacities and capabilities affixed to an administrative entity, in this case the Tigray regional state. The regional government, in collusion with Tigrayan academics and business investors at home and in diaspora, civil society, and the people at large, seems all to pull in the same direction to secure these capacities and capabilities. As summed up by the vice president of Tigray, Abraham Tekeste: “Right now Tigray has all attributes of statehood: law and order, security, social services. So we are a de facto state.”[vi]
Beyond de facto Statehood – Secession?
The technical process of constructing de facto statehood, to unite a distinct people to a defined territory through common and standardized administrative procedures, is basically completed in Tigray. Will the nationalists’ needs and wants hence be fulfilled? Or will more profound aspirations and desires drive the process further towards independence? History is fraught with nationalist movements running its full course: either the successful establishment of the coveted nation-state, or its annihilation in the pursuit of it in face of an overpowering adversary force.
Tigray has all the fundamentals needed for a robust nationalist movement to take root with the ultimate objective to seek independence and sovereignty:
- A commonly shared historical narrative and myth of origin stretching back two millennia or more;
- A cohesive identity, common language and culture; and a homogenous population;[vii]
- A historical homeland saturated with blood by sacrifices made to defend it from foreign aggression throughout centuries;
- A political consciousness shaped by internal aspirations and external marginalization;
- An economy and livelihood with great potential, but perceived to be held back by outsiders;
- A deep-rooted warrior culture and military capacity, in the face of felt victimhood and external security threats.
Nationalism is not an ideology anchored in rational calculations or bound by administrative procedures and institutions of checks-and-balances; whence created it often appears unstoppable. If so, the next step for the nationalist movement beyond the demand for de facto statehood would thus be for secession and sovereignty. Whether this will be the case in Tigray, remains to be seen. The argument for secession is existing however – and appears swelling – something also acknowledge by the TPLF chair and regional head Debretsion Gebremichael when he was asked by the newspaper The Reporter whether the people of Tigray wanted to secede from Ethiopia:
“Yes, there is a growing feeling among the public. It is only us [TPLF] who are saying that we shouldn’t resort to such feelings. We, as the regional government, are telling our people that those problems will be solved and we are telling them to be patient. However, the pressure from the public is different. … All those things pushed the people to the edge. They feel hopeless and are saying that we should secede from Ethiopia.”
It seems however that TPLF is split on the issue of secession, although the dominant fraction still remains loyal to a federal Ethiopia. The political opposition in Tigray is also split on the issue of independence, with only one party arguing outright for secession, namely Tigray Independence Party. However, the two opposition parties with the assumed strongest popularity in the region, Salsay Woyane and Baitona, both have secession as an optional strategy B. As explained by the Baitona chair Kidane Amane: “Most Tigrayans are not separatists. The majority want to remain in Ethiopia. But they may be pushed into separatism if the instability and persecution continues.”[viii]
The strength of the nationalist cum secessionist movement will thus react to and reflect the political developments in Ethiopia at large in the near future. Unfortunately, however, finding solace in Ethiopian politics these days may be a stretch too sanguine even for die-hard optimists. Most people in Tigray, be that party leaders, intellectuals, or the common ‘man in the street’, fear a negative development. In particular the election was identified as a triggering event for ensuing chaos. If PP wins, it will be understood as a continued centralization of the Ethiopian state, fueling the nationalist demand for secession. However, most respondents predicted an election process collapsing into violence and instability. ‘Aboy’ Sebhat Nega, the ‘father’ of TPLF, outlined a dramatic scenario for Ethiopia in the near future:
“What will come? Civil war. Civil war is inevitable. 100%. Either before election or for sure after. The consequences will be terrible. The civil war will be all-embracing; between regional states over territory, intra-region between various elites, and between religions. It will be all-encompassing. The triggering factor will be a cancelled or rigged election.”[ix]
A similar prediction was echoed by Baitona chair Kidane Amane:
“The tensions are increasing. The government institutions are paralyzed or hijacked by certain groups. The Arabs are fueling the chaos with money. You will likely have a civil war, maybe even prior to the elections. War seems inevitable. This may very well be the war leading to Ethiopia’s disintegration. We are going back to the Era of Princes,[x] where we had no center.”[xi]
It seems that most Tigrayan observers and analysts predict in best case a much weakened federal authority and a transition to a confederal type of arrangement, possibly with ‘split sovereignty’ between the center and regional states; or in the worst case an implosion of power and the disintegration of Ethiopia. These two scenarios, and everything in-between, are possibly all too pessimistic; but as stated optimists are hard to find in Ethiopia these days, let alone in Tigray. The most recent development is pushing towards a political confrontation between TPLF and PP; between the regional state government and the federal authority, as stated in TPLF’s Executive Committee statement from May 4, 2020:
“Even though TPLF is ready to play its role in good faith as part of various national efforts aimed at counteracting the destabilizing consequences of this phenomenon, it will never accept the casual jettisoning of the right of self-administration made possible by the constitutional system that the people of Tigray erected through tremendous sacrifices. To that end, together with the people of Tigray as well as other political actors that fully recognize the Tigrean people’s right of self-administration, we will make region-wide preparations, including the holding of regional elections, to fend against conditions that might imperil the rights of our people.”[xii]
The TPLF decision to move forward with conducting regional elections, was not well received by PM Abiy Ahmed, who threatened that: “we will be forced to take action against those who attempt to hold fake elections”.
History is ripe with cases on how nationalistic sentiments are enhanced in the face of external threats; a clear and present danger to their collective safety and security is exactly the optimal tool for nationalists to prove that the only way to salvation is independence. It rests thus upon the federal government to reassure the Tigrayan constituency that they belong in Ethiopia and that their rights and privileges according to the Constitution are protected. A law lecturer at Mekelle University perhaps said it the best:
“Ethiopia is a choice to us. It is like an elective course. We select it and stay if we are comfortable with it. If not, we leave. This is the general perception among the youth. We can be in a partnership with other groups on equal terms. If not, we disconnect the partnership.”[xiii] AS
Editor’s Note: Kjetil Tronvoll is Professor of peace and conflict studies, Bjorknes University College, Norway.
He can be reached at Kjetil.Tronvoll@bhioslo.no
[i] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 27.02.20, Mekelle, Tigray.
[ii] Late 2019 a Chinese official business delegation èn route to Mekelle was stopped at Bole by NISS and denied to enter the flight. No specific reason was given. Subsequently Ethiopian MFA issued a statement denying their involvement in preventing the delegation to travel to Tigray.
[iii] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 26.02.20, Mekelle, Tigray.
[iv] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 25.02.20, Mekelle, Tigray.
[v] Woyen Magazine, September-December 2019, Page 40, paragraph three (unofficial translation).
[vi] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 27.02.20, Mekelle, Tigray.
[vii] This is with certain modifications, of course. You have Irob, Kunama and other minorities within Tigray; in addition to border populations in certain areas (Raya for instance) which may have a more fluid identity. However, these groups taken together constitute a very small minority of the total Tigrayan population.
[viii] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 26.02.20, Mekelle, Tigray.
[ix] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 26.02.20, Mekelle, Tigray.
[x] Era of Princes (Zemene Mesafint) was the period between 1769 to 1855 where there was no Negus Negast (Emperor) and the country was split between various warring provinces trying to claim the throne.
[xi] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 26.02.20, Mekelle, Tigray.
[xiii] Interviewed by K. Tronvoll, 01.03.20, Mekelle, Tigray.