The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a dominant political force and founding member of Ethiopia’s ruling party, says a recent corruption and security clampdown in the country is ethnically motivated.
Party chair Debretsion Gebremichael said a recent wave of arrests by the government was “being used to attack Tigrayans.” The ethnic group comprises 6% of Ethiopia’s population of 100 million.
Last week, police arrested dozens of security officers and business people, many from the Tigray community. The nation’s attorney general, Berhanu Tsegaye, said evidence indicated senior members of the country’s security branches orchestrated an attack against new prime minister Abiy Ahmed at a rally in June. Two people were killed in the attack, and scores injured. As many as 26 officials, including the head of the military-run Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), were also arrested and appeared in court. METEC was once responsible for constructing the $4 billion dam project on the River Nile, expected to be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric project; Abiy’s administration canceled that contract in August, citing alleged corruption.
Amnesty welcomed the arrests of the security officials, saying many of them were at the helm of government agencies “infamous for perpetrating gross human rights violations,” including torture. But Debretsion contested the detentions, accusing “foreign involvement” of having a hand in the arrests, without naming any state or party.
Tigrayans have had outsized influence and representation in government since leading the overthrow of Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in 1991. As part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition, the TPLF oversaw constitutional changes that vested the right to overall land ownership in the government on the pretext that it protected farmers against capitalist land-grabbers. The move over time fostered suspicion and antagonism towards the government amongst the population.
In 2014, the Tigrayan-dominated ruling alliance designated a plan to increase the size of the capital Addis Ababa twenty-fold. That led to years of Oromo-led anti-government protests and killings—in which ordinary Tigrayans also suffered—that ended with the resignation of premier Hailemariam Desalegn in February.
Observers say the arrival of Abiy, a member of Ethiopia’s majority Oromo group, is sure to face resistance from the nation’s establishment. But as he widens his reform agenda, both domestically and externally, the reaction from the TPLF illustrates the tension brewing in the Horn of Africa nation. The prime minister’s office has yet to respond to Debretsion’s remarks.