Ethiopia won its armed battle for Tigray, but it hasn’t won the political war just yet

Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed Nov. 30, 2020.
Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed Nov. 30, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
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Ethiopia’s political uncertainty may not end even after the defeat of Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) by federal forces.

Late last month the federal government forces finally took control of Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray, after 17 days of heavy fighting against the Special Forces and militia fighters of TPLF. Although the federal government now controls key towns in the region, the conflict still continues within its rural areas, with TPLF shifting to a guerrilla battle tactics.

The beginning of the end of the power and influence of TPLF started almost three years ago when a popular people power movement, championed by now prime minister Abiy Ahmed, came to the fore of Ethiopian politics, and abruptly forced the TPLF out of the federal government’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

After Abiy came to office in April 2018, TPLF, the party of former prime minister Meles Zenawi, soon decided to move its opposition to Mekelle and this year held its state election which the federal government refused to acknowledge. It later claimed to have won every electable seat and went on to attack a federal military base, killing federal soldiers which triggered off the recent conflict.

“The federal government did not start the problem, but it’s miscalculation of the magnitude of the problem and its utter reluctance to address it, has exacerbated the problem and encouraged the TPLF to go its way,” Ephrem Madebo, a former official of Patriotic Ginbot 7, a political opposition group tells Quartz Africa. “TPLF’s disobedience and its claim that “No one can tell us what to do” have emboldened the ethnic forces elsewhere in the country”.

Within the Amhara region, the second-biggest ethnic group in Ethiopia, in which it’s Special Forces and militiamen helped with the recent effort to end the TPLF, there is a popular uniform-like claim to parts of Tigray, such as Wolkayit and Humera, one of the most fertile areas of the northern part of the nation in which these areas are said to have been taken by force by forces of TPLF controlled the central government and decided to change the demography of these areas.

The federal government has since implemented a caretaker government for the region in lieu of the former TPLF government that the government no longer recognizes.

“Lingering identity and land claims from the Amhara region could hinder its activities in the region,” Mulu G. Egziabher, the leader of the interim government, told local media.

Many analysts and political watchers warn that defeating the leadership of TPLF will not be an end in itself. The nation still remains divided and no consensus has been reached between opposing sides over the political system of the country, resolving historical injustices or even the fate of the flag of the nation which was updated with a symbol marking ethnic federalism by the former TPLF-led  government seems to be a divisive and unsettled issue.

Ethiopia has been run on ethnic-based federalism since 1991, a time when forces of TPLF and others defeated the military government of Mengistu Hailemariam and brought the TPLF to federal politics in which it governed with an iron fist. This led to the formation of 10 regional states established along ethnic lines. Some hope that this system will be dismantled with the defeat of TPLF- the mastermind behind the implementation of ethnic-based federalism, whereas others fear that doing so would be another recipe for disaster.

However, there is a more tempered view among those who see the wisdom of the ethnic federalism system.

“Ethnic federalism can be good in regions where there are minorities that need proper representation for self-administration such as Oromos, Agew, and others. In the Amhara region for instance, there are special zones that assure their recognition and protection (as minorities)”, says Abel Asrat, an analyst and digital media consultant.

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