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In-depth: Tigray’s tug of war: The quest for recovery amidst power struggles

Tigray flags flown half-mast in October 2023 during a three-day mourning period to honor veterans lost in war (Photo: Tigrai Television)

By Million Beyene @MillionBeyene

Addis Abeba – Following a peace agreement aimed at halting two years of war, Ethiopia’s Tigray region is experiencing a simmering power struggle. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which once held sway in the region, now confronts an uncertain future as it contends with resistance from the interim administration—a body established to herald a new chapter of governance.

The Pretoria accord, though heralded as a harbinger of stability, has not gone unchallenged. The interim chair’s authority faces overt opposition, with reports indicating that some regional government entities are disregarding the administration’s orders. This emerging conflict risks dismantling the delicate peace in a region all too acquainted with the ravages of war.

Tensions between the Tigray Interim Administration and the TPLF have intensified, as evidenced by the recent ousting of key officials by the interim government. In early November 2023, the president’s office issued a statement announcing the dismissal of four influential individuals from their administrative positions.

The removed officials include Alem Gebrewahid, the communication adviser to the president; Amanuel Assefa, the chief cabinet secretary; Teklay Gebremedhin, the administrator of the Northwestern Zone; and Liya Kassa, the administrator of the Southeastern Zone.

These dismissals come on the heels of a similar action in late October 2023, where six senior officials were discharged from their roles. The administration cited a failure to fulfill their responsibilities to the satisfaction of the public and government, particularly following their attendance at a party meeting, as the reason for their removal.

Getachew Reda, head of the Tigray Interim Administration, stated that such neglect of duty resulted in the misallocation of public resources. Additionally, in September, President Getachew revealed that attempts to distinguish between government duties and party activities were perceived as hostile towards the TPLF. This perception has created significant challenges for his administration, with some districts and zones resisting the interim administration’s governance, thus impeding its efforts.

Experts suggest that the lack of clarity in the division of powers, combined with the lingering influence of the previously dominant party, is fueling internal strife within the interim structures. With the future of the interim arrangement still uncertain, they indicate that ongoing disputes threaten the stability and governance of Tigray during its critical post-war rebuilding phase.

The current power struggles among political groups could have disastrous effects.”

Dori Asgedom, chairman of the Asimba Party

Dori Asgedom, chairman of the Asimba Party active in Tigray, shared his apprehensions with Addis Standard about the persistent tensions between the Tigray Interim Administration and the TPLF. He underscored the need to urgently address these conflicts to prevent dire consequences.

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Dori noted that the people of Tigray are still reeling from the deep sorrow and devastation of the conflict, with recovery efforts only just beginning. He warned that the current power struggles among political groups could have disastrous effects, potentially hindering governance and essential recovery operations at this pivotal stage.

He further cautioned that if the conflicting parties do not reconcile their differences through joint political dialogue, the growing divisions could worsen, making it impossible to carry out routine government operations let alone respond to the humanitarian crisis effectively.

The current humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region is unparalleled, chiefly due to the cessation of aid, which has resulted in numerous fatalities, including infants and children. Despite recent announcements by the World Food Program (WFP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) regarding the resumption of humanitarian food assistance following a five-month hiatus, there has been no discernible improvement in the humanitarian conditions.

Emerging reports also indicate that the persistent drought has affected approximately 20% of Tigray’s agricultural land, covering 27 districts, thereby rendering the land barren and placing the majority of the population at considerable risk.

Gebrehiwot Gebregzabher, Commissioner of the Disaster Risk Management Commission of Tigray, has conveyed in a press briefing to the state media that in excess of two million individuals across 32 districts and 196 localities within five zones are presently confronted with food shortages. He also revealed that within a span of one month, an estimated 400 individuals, including 25 children, have perished due to starvation, with the majority of these deaths occurring in four districts.

The humanitarian crisis in Tigray is compounded by the plight of over a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) residing in camps throughout the region who are unable to return to their original domiciles. These IDPs are deprived of essential resources such as sustenance, potable water, shelter, and medical services, leading to the spread of diseases and heightened malnutrition rates.

“The current power struggles among political groups would severely compromise Tigray’s recovery efforts and the well-being of its citizens, especially as work to restore health, education, infrastructure, and other critical services is in progress,” Dori contended.

Despite the recent announcements from aid agencies concerning the resumption of food assistance after a five-month interruption, the humanitarian situation in Tigray remains unchanged (Photo: AP)

The opposition leader also highlighted ongoing restrictions on political freedoms in Tigray, reminiscent of the era under the extended rule of the TPLF. Dori pointed to instances of opposition protests being met with violent suppression, suggesting that this oppressive environment is a legacy of the TPLF’s authoritarian tendencies, an issue that persists despite the establishment of an interim government.

A few months ago, law enforcement in Tigray detained opposition party figures Kidane Amene and Tesfamichael Nigus, both leaders of the National Congress of Great Tigray (Baytona) and organizers of a scheduled protest on 07 September, 2023.

These arrests followed announcements by the Tigray Independent Party, Salsay Weyane, and Baytona of their plans to hold a demonstration in Mekelle, the regional capital, to draw attention to the local conditions and call for the full implementation of the Pretoria Peace Agreement following the peace accord between the federal government and Tigrayan forces.

However, the regional police force denied the permit for the protest, citing insufficient security personnel to ensure the safety of those involved.

Other political leaders, including Dejen Mezgebe of the Tigray Independent Party, Hayalu Godifay of Salsay Weyane, and Kibrom Berehe of Baytona, were also detained for three hours at the Kedamay Weyane police station as they attempted to secure the release of previously arrested opposition members.

Despite these tensions, some believe that the situation will not escalate into a more severe crisis. Getachew Argawi, a journalist with the publication Wrayna based in Tigray, views the current situation as primarily an internal power restructuring within the TPLF. “This shift is a result of the interim administration’s move towards a more decentralized and varied decision-making process,” he explained.

According to Getachew, the new system grants significant authority to both non-TPLF military officials and opposition parties. He notes that while the TPLF chairman once held unified control over the party and government, the recent shift towards a more dispersed power structure marks a challenging adjustment period.

Assefa Leake (PhD), a political science and strategic studies professor at Mekelle University, acknowledges that the concept of an inclusive political transition is theoretically sound. However, he notes that actualizing a genuinely representative system has been difficult due to entrenched political habits.

Assefa attributes the interim administration’s shortcomings to its inability to fully remove the former ruling party’s influence from government operations and establish clear lines of accountability. “This challenge is a longstanding issue in the region’s governance, traditionally dominated by a single-party system,” he stated.

The post-war conundrum

Dori, chairman of the Asimba political party, acknowledged that while the TPLF led the armed resistance during the war, various factions and individuals also played roles to varying degrees. In the war’s aftermath, Dori stated that all parties involved reasonably expected the creation of an inclusive political framework accommodating diverse interests and perspectives.

Dori underscored that the people of Tigray longed for a post-war period marked by improved conditions, including a more representative government and guaranteed freedom of expression. “However, the TPLF has not upheld the ethos of unity and collaboration during the reconstruction phase,” he noted.

Getachew, the journalist, argued that returning to the pre-war status quo was unrealistic after such a widespread and devastating conflict. He further asserted that the war created opportunities for non-TPLF groups to engage in the decision-making process. “Absent this shift, a single party would dominate the political discourse,” he reasoned.

The journalist noted that Tigray’s current situation is riddled with uncertainty, with Eritrean and Amharan forces occupying parts of the region, causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands.

“As long as external security threats persist and citizens are unable to return home safely, achieving genuine self-governance remains elusive,” he stated. “It is inappropriate for any single entity to dictate conditions in such a context.”

Since 2020, Eritrean troops have occupied strategic Tigrayan locations, including Irob, Zalambesa, Badme, and Adi Gushu. Amhara forces and militias also maintain a presence in western and southern Tigray.

The challenge is a longstanding issue in the region’s governance, traditionally dominated by a single-party system.”

Assefa Leake (PhD), professor of political science at Mekelle University

Despite calls from the Tigray interim administration and international community for the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces, in line with the Pretoria agreement, the occupation continues. The interim administration has also called for the swift return of displaced persons and immediate action to address the humanitarian crisis.

The path forward              

Dori recognizes that dismantling entrenched single-party systems within state governance requires persistent, concerted efforts. He noted that opposition parties accuse the TPLF of deliberately excluding them from interim leadership roles, hindering early progress. Despite these hurdles, Dori believes that with determination, incremental positive changes are possible.

Assefa argues against the notion that Tigray’s opposition parties are weak, labeling it as TPLF propaganda intended to undermine public support for alternative parties by portraying them as lacking vision and preoccupied with criticizing the TPLF.

Assefa also stresses that opposition groups should play a role beyond merely reinforcing the TPLF’s dominance. While acknowledging their flaws, he insists that a thriving political system cannot exist under the control of a single party. “Logically, opposition political parties should be given opportunities to participate,” he affirms.

Getachew suggests that opposition parties need better organization and collaboration to meet the region’s needs effectively. “For a sustainable multi-party system, enhancing decentralization and fostering inter-party cooperation is essential,” he concluded. AS

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