By Zecharias Zelalem @ZekuZelalem
Addis Abeba, June 03/2020 – Residents of some towns in Ethiopia’s Tigray continued taking part in an on and off streets protests over the past two weeks accused the regional government of refusing to address a host of grievances. The protests rallies are taking place despite a COVID-19 related state of emergency the regional state declared in the last week of March this year.
The protests were initially triggered by opposition against administrative re-arrangements but protesters have since listed a host of other grievances including lack of good governance, land grab and inadequate efforts to lesson unemployment problems among the youth.
The cause and the magnitude of the protests have created yet another tension between the regional and federal governments. The former accused the later of fanning the protests and using state owned media to distribute lies and conspiracy theories.
However protesters did not lose sight of the reason behind their grievances as some areas in the region continued to experience protests rallies intermittently. The latest protest rally was held in Welkayte Wereda of the western province of the region where protesters blocked roads and a checkpoint leading to the city of Korarit. “It’s a matter of government efficiency,” one protester told Addis Standard. “We have issues that we want addressed. They can’t just keep ignoring us.”
Earlier, pictures from Shire Endeselassie and over 200km away in the Hintalo Wajirat district have made the rounds on social media and show hundreds of youths marching in orderly fashion. Others showed protest leaders bellowing into microphones. Opposition activists claim the protests are part of a collective civil disobedience movement, led by protesters dubbed “Fenkil.”
The protests were first recorded on or around May 16th and have since been taking place on and off. While it’s difficult to independently verify if the protests are indeed as coordinated as the region’s opposition politicians claim they are, these are by far the region’s largest spontaneous public expression of dissent.
In Hintalo Wajirat wereda, one of the protest areas, protesters accuse the regional government of neglecting the cultural needs of the communities. The communities in the area have a distinct culture and language encompassed as part of their Wajirat identity, a heritage that members of the community say needs preservation. Requests for autonomous district status are yet to be properly addressed.
“We are out here protesting due to the regional government’s stalling and refusal to accommodate the people’s demands,” a member of the community told Addis Standard. “People are frustrated.”
Tigray regional government officials in the region’s capital Mekele have attempted to downplay the protests, and accused the federal government and its affiliate media houses of attempting to aggrandize a non existent movement, while the regional communications affairs office went as far as denying the existence of the protests. It accused media outlets of “fabricating,” the stories about protests.
But opposition party leaders disagree. “These protests are real, and they are about accountability and justice,” said Amdom Gebreslasie, personal relations chief at the Arena opposition political party. “People have had enough of the institutional corruption.”
Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party governing the region, is increasingly at odds with the federal government on a number of issues, including bilateral relations with neighboring Eritrea and national elections. On Sunday May 31, the Central Committee of TPLF announced that the regional government would go ahead with planned elections for the regional council.
With no love lost between Mekele and Addis Abeba, federal government controlled media outlets have been especially eager to report on protests in Tigray region, a act that drew anger among regional officials. In a response to Addis Standard’s question for explanations on reported protests, TPLF’s senior official Getachew Reda slammed the heightened frequency of state media reports about the protests as reports on an “imaginary movement.”
“In the town of May Hanse, town representatives accosted a zonal official, protesting a decision to select nearby Kisad Gaba as the center of the district,” Getachew said. “That’s it.”
Activists have highlighted frustration with what they call the questionable allocation to certain towns of district administrative status. However, footage from May Hanse appears to show the central road dissecting the town, blocked with giant boulders, which would serve to prevent vehicle movements as well as prevent security forces from converging on the town to disperse protesters. State media report that the road has been closed for over a week.
Nebiyu Sihul Mikael, leader of Prosperity Party of Tigray dismisses Getachew’s claim and states that the protests are fueled by a desire to see the TPLF’s rule of the region come to an end.
“The ongoing protests can be encompassed with a desire for greater freedoms,” the former Mekele University lecturer told the Ethiopian Press Agency. He added that widespread nepotism was commonplace in the formation of the region’s district level leaderships.
The BBC reported that regional security officials had ordered a local militia in the area to forcefully disperse protesters who are holed up in the town and believed to number at least 200. Perhaps a sign that momentum in the area is with the protesters, the militia defied the order.
“The zone’s police commission warned us that if we didn’t put an end to the protest, they’d come and disarm us,” Gebrekristos Gebrearegawi, a member of the militia said. “We told them that there’s no working relationship between us. It’s the people who armed and equipped us. Only they can give us the order to disarm. We told them that we wouldn’t be disarming for them.”
Such protests in Tigray region are rarely heard of, but opposition party members often complain of being targets of harassment and intimidation by regional party supporters and its security apparatus. A year ago, around a dozen members of the opposition Arena Tigray were detained in what the party referred to as a campaign to muzzle regional dissent.
Federal government officials have refrained from openly endorsing the protests thus far, but members of the ruling Prosperity Party aggressively use public media to denounce the regional state, a move that would likely exacerbate the tension between Mekele and Addis Abeba while it remains to be seen how the regional government will approach protester and their demands. AS