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Op-ed: A hobbled transition: The intractable task of Tigray Interim Administration

PM Abiy and TPLF representatives in Halela Kella Resort, in Dawro Zone of the SNNP regional state in February this year. Picture: Redwan Hussien

By Kjetil Tronvoll @KjetilTronvoll &

Mehari Tadelle Maru @DrMehari

In office since March 2023, the Tigray Interim Regional Administration – tasked to oversee the political transition integrating Tigray into the constitutional order of Ethiopia – is facing increasing criticism and challenges from within Tigray, in Ethiopia, and from international actors. The multiple pressure they are put under undermines the fragile political order and may derail the transition and the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Agreement.

Addis Abeba -After two years of devastating civil war killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and combatants, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal Ethiopian government signed in November 2022 the Agreement for Lasting Peace through the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities (CoHA) in Pretoria, South Africa. The agreement stated that “the establishment of an inclusive Tigray Interim Regional Administration (TIRA) will be settled through political dialogue between the Parties,” however without specifying the necessary modalities or the composition of an interim administration.

The Controversial Interim Administrative Set-up

Establishing an interim administration in Tigray proved to be a cumbersome process, taking place amidst enormous challenges of post-war humanitarian, security, and governance demands. The immediate causes of the disagreements among Tigray’s stakeholders centered on the nature, mandate, structure, and allocation of powers for the TIRA.

After months of deliberations, where opposition parties voiced their frustration over the lack of consultation and the undue haste of the process leading to a partial boycott of the process, a TPLF appointed preparatory committee headed by Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) commander Lt. Gen. Tadesse Werede, suggested a model of ‘inclusive representation’ in the TIRA, allocating 30% for TPLF, 15% for other political parties, 25% for TDF and 30% for civil society. Due to pull-out of two opposition parties and other factors, however the TPLF ended with obtaining a majority of 16 seats out of 27 in the TIRA.

The decision to veto Debretsion’s continued regional presidency raised suspicion among Tigrayan factions and contributed to the deepening schism between the party’s ‘hardliners’ and ‘reformers’

The Pretoria agreement only catered for the establishment of a top-level administration, ignoring the need of a more comprehensive interim governance structure to cater for constituents’ interests and provide checks-and-balances to executive power, thus a regional legislative assembly and local administrative councils are not re-established. Oblivious to many Tigrayans was the fact that the legal anchoring of the TIRA was not based on the Pretoria agreement, but followed constitutional procedures as outlined in the Proclamation for the Intervention of the Federal Government in the Regions. This proclamation annuls the constitutional autonomy of Tigray and makes the TIRA accountable to Addis Abeba and not its constituents.

The federal government was not actively involved in the public discussions on the format of the TIRA, and observers believed that Addis communicated its interests and demands in confidentiality with Mekelle. It came thus as a surprise when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rejected TPLF’s initial suggestion of the continuation in office of former Tigray President Dr Debretsion Gebremichael, as head of the interim administration. The decision to veto Debretsion’s continued regional presidency raised suspicion among Tigrayan factions and contributed to the deepening schism between the party’s ‘hardliners’ and ‘reformers.’ A highly contested selection for a new presidential candidate within the TPLF central committee followed, in which Getachew Reda, nominated by the younger generations, won by only one vote over the TPLF Executive Committee’s candidate Dr Fisseha Haftetsion. When Getachew’s name was forwarded to Addis Abeba for approval, the Prime Minister quickly accepted the nomination and appointed him as President of the TIRA. More importantly, Abiy’s decision to reject the TPLF’s resolution, which sought to retain Debretsion as Interim President, has intensified the strain between the Federal Government and the core of the TPLF leadership. This tension is stirring up a storm of unease, potentially clouding prospects for future peace in Tigray.

The challenges of a divided Tigrayan base

Getachew Reda represents the new generation of TPLF leaders, without experience from the ‘17-years of struggle’ TPLF conducted from 1974-1991, before assuming state power. He has a law degree from the US, is well-articulated and has an active presence on social media, which all speaks well to the new generations of educated youth in Tigray. Getachew’s political inclinations is far from TPLF’s original roots of Marxist-Leninism, and he appears less of a champion of the revamped “revolutionary democracy” ideology the party presented as an answer to the Ethiopian peoples’ demand for liberalization and change when they were in power in Addis Abeba.

It is important to note that although Getachew Reda has been appointed President of TIRA, Debretsion Gebremichael is still Chairperson of the TPLF. Despite Getachew’s prominent position within the party’s Executive Committee, the most powerful body of TPLF, he was not the chosen candidate for Interim presidency. In defeating the core TPLF leadership’s candidate, albeit by narrow margin, this vote broke with three decades of past practice and signaled a rift within the TLPF that is impacting the TIRA and the transition. Recently, the party chair Debretsion Gebremichael, together with hardliner and former Ethiopian spy chief Getacehw Assefa, allegedly cast doubt about the process whereby TIRA was established. The TPLF reportedly also demands that TIRA should be dissolved after an election which should be conducted within six months, assumingly then for the party to resume full control of government affairs. The proclamation of the establishment of the TIRA, however, prescribes a timeline of six months to two years, before fresh elections for regional government must be conducted. As such, the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) recently announced new elections in Tigray (and other areas in Ethiopia which did not conduct national elections in 2021 due to security concerns) to be organised in 2024.

No doubt tensions within the TPLF and between TPLF and TIRA are increasing, something which also the TDF commander Lt. Gen Tadesse Werede confirmed in a public interview. Concomitantly, Tigrayan opposition parties and the public at large are also increasingly critical towards the apparent hamstrung authority TIRA holds to assume administrative control over all Tigrayan territories to assure restoration of a livelihood for its citizens, as enshrined in the Pretoria agreement. West Tigray is still under control and administration by Amhara regional state, who reportedly continues to expel tens of thousands of remaining Tigrayans from their homes and transfer people from other parts of Amhara to Western Tigray; while Eritrean forces are harassing citizens and blocking humanitarian aid and AU monitors in northern parts of Tigray.

Despite being signatories to the Pretoria peace agreement, the federal government structure does apparently not work in concert to secure its full implementation

The responsibilities for many of the challenges faced by TIRA, and the ensuing criticism directed towards their impotence of handling it, however, rest with federal authorities. Despite being signatories to the Pretoria peace agreement, the federal government structure does apparently not work in concert to secure its full implementation.

Ethiopian government – partner or spoiler?

How intimate and constructive the relationship between TIRA and federal authorities really is, is challenging to discern. On the one hand, the technical implementation of the Tigrayan DDR process (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration) appears to be reliable and the communication between the military leadership of TDF and ENDF seems sound. While on other security issues, as ensuring full federal authority and ENDF military control of Tigrayan territories, the follow-up seems lackluster at best, or explicitly counterproductive at worst.

For many Tigrayans it is hard to understand the federal authorities’ disinterest to protect the life and well-being of Ethiopian citizens from foreign and domestic aggression and harassment. The continued presence of Eritrean troops in northern Tigray, and Amhara militia in Western Tigray, are cases in point. It thus appears that the technical aspects of DDR, which emasculates the military capabilities and capacities of TDF, are fully endorsed by the ENDF leadership and federal authorities, while they appear indecisive or divided on the more politically sensitive issues of confronting their allies in the political leaderships of Eritrea and Amhara to secure territorial control of all of Tigray.

An even stronger indication of a divided federal stand on the Tigray transition, is the recent decision by the National Election Board to deny lifting the deregistration of TPLF as a political party. The election board outlawed TPLF in January 2021 due to the party’s “involvement in violent acts of revolt” (as to Proclamation 1162/2011), prohibited its leaders from engaging in party-related activities, and seized all party assets. A key clause in the Pretoria agreement was the deregistration of TPLF as a ‘terrorist organization’ by the federal government and restoring their constitutional rights of political agency. It came thus as a surprise to many that NEBE’s legalistic interpretation of sustaining the deregistration of TPLF was allowed to be floated by the federal government. The TPLF has rejected NEBE’s decision and reasoning, arguing that the Pretoria Agreement and the decisions passed by other federal institutions, should overrule the clauses in the election law. In a press statement of May 16, 2023, the TPLF warns that NEBE’s decision “puts the peace process in jeopardy” and calls upon the Federal government to “ensure that legal decisions and agreements are respected by all government institutions and bodies.”

Concurrently, TIRA also issued a statement on May 16 naming the TPLF as the “main owner of the peace agreement”, hence calling out NEBE’s decision to maintain the deregistration of the party: “unacceptable in both law and politics. This decision renders the peace agreement without an owner, endangers the existence of the interim administration by denying recognition to the senior leaders of the TPLF, who are participating in the inclusive interim administration on behalf of the TPLF, and challenges the entirety of the peace agreement.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems to have trouble to get the Amhara political constituency onboard with the Tigray peace process, although positive steps to reconcile Amhara and Tigray leaderships are in the making

The Prosperity Party government in Ethiopia is deeply divided on several issues, and regional party branches are challenging the authority of federal government’s decisions. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems to have trouble to get the Amhara political constituency onboard with the Tigray peace process, although positive steps to reconcile Amhara and Tigray leaderships are in the making. Concomitantly, the tension between the Oromia and Amhara branch of the Prosperity Party in increasing. Instead of demanding an immediate Amhara pull-back from West-Tigray, the federal government has adopted an incremental process of disarming and reintegrating regional special forces and militia under the control of federal authorities. By first assuming control over the Amhara military capacities, it is believed that the subsequent transfer of administrative control of the territories of Tigray to Mekelle will not re-ignite the civil war, a point which remains to be seen.

A divided Prosperity Party, increased regional tensions between Amhara and Oromia, continued armed OLA-Oromo insurgency, and rising suspicions between Ethiopian and Eritrean governments, in addition to a host of other ethnic conflicts in the country, divert federal resources and attention from the imperative of enabling and assuring the Tigray transition process. In the midst of such a complex and fragile process, some actions of the international community are also to the disadvantage of consolidating the transition.

The sanctimonious international community

The international community at large, from the UN and AU to EU, US, and other bilateral partners, severely failed to prevent the outbreak of an announced war to start with, and contributed little to alleviate the enormous sufferings and atrocities committed on the Tigrayan people during the onslaught of the civil war.

The rhetoric of “accountability for atrocities” are heard, but little or no action are seen from the international community to demand a transparent and rigorous accountability mechanism. The efforts to end the mandate of the UN investigation body for the atrocities committed in Ethiopia, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICREE), are also gaining traction in the international community.

After the signing of the Pretoria agreement, the response from the international community to provide humanitarian assistance to the starving Tigrayan people has been sluggish at best, and condemnation of continued Eritrean destabilization of the transition are lacking.

USAID and WFP could just as well have launched a comprehensive investigation into the diversion of aid in conjunction with federal and regional authorities, without suspending the humanitarian assistance

It is becoming increasingly clear that that the key donors to Ethiopia want to normalize relations and resume development aid as quick and smooth as possible.

It is thus a paradox mounting to hypocrisy that the USAID and WFP jointly suspend desperately needed humanitarian aid to Tigray, and subsequently to all Ethiopia, due to alleged corruptive elements in the federal and regional governments have diverted aid for personal profit. To collectively punish over six million Tigrayans for a crime committed by some very few individuals appears sanctimonious, after seemingly condoning impunity for senior Ethiopian and Eritrean military and political leaders for mass atrocities against Tigrayan civilian population.

By initially suspending humanitarian assistance to Tigray alone, the international community has struck a blow at the legitimacy of the TIRA, hurting their international reputation and feeding into the anti-Tigrayan rhetoric still peddled by certain actors in Ethiopia and the Eritrean government. More worrying, however, beyond the immense humanitarian suffering it creates in Tigray, is how it undermines Tigrayans’ trust in TIRA’s capability and capacity to govern and administer the transition. USAID and WFP could just as well have launched a comprehensive investigation into the diversion of aid in conjunction with federal and regional authorities, without suspending the humanitarian assistance.

Securing a hobbled transition

The consolidated stand of all Tigrayans and their unison support for the TDF during the combined onslaught by Ethiopian, Amhara, and Eritrean forces, appears to wither, as the lived reality of a hobbled political transition transpires. With a divided Ethiopian government party, and an indecisive international community, the work of the Tigray interim administration to successfully enable a stable transition seems to be a tall order.

With increased anti-government violence in Amhara and Oromia regional states, the federal authorities and ENDF have more imminent battles to fight than to assure the political transition in a ‘pacified’ Tigray. The international media has put the Tigray war of yesterday and its post-war transition on the back-burner and has shifted its attention to Sudan, which is tearing itself apart in a ‘fresh news-attractive’ civil war. With little international media attention, diplomatic actors have few incentives to proactively engage to prop up a contested transition in Tigray.

The Tigrayan transition will thus hobble on, as Getachew Reda and TIRA attempts to navigate Tigrayan divisions and Ethiopian antagonists. The best we can hope for, is to avoid a return to civil war in Tigray. AS


Editor’s Note: Kjetil Tronvoll is a Professor in Oslo New University College. Mehari Tadelle Maru is a Professor in European University Institute.

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