Researchers on Tigray conflict: establishing a democratic approach spares Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa turmoil

5 December 2020
The image caption is: From top left clockwise: Aziz Abdulhai, Mohammed al Arousi, Noureddine Abda, and Salah Eldin Elzein. [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies organized a webinar in collaboration with Al Jazeera Mubasher entitled, “The Domestic Effects and Regional Implications of Ethiopia’s Tigray Conflict,” on Monday, 30 November 2020. The webinar hosted Ethiopian researchers – Aziz Abdulhai, Mohammed al Arousi, Noureddine Abda – and a Sudanese researcher, Salah Eldin Elzein, and was moderated by Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter Mostafa Ashoor.

The speakers attributed the roots of the crisis the Tigray region is facing to old, but renewed, conflicts between the ethnic groups in Ethopia including the Tigrinya, the Oromo, and the Amhara, especially when the Tigrinya, which account for 6% of the population and amount to 100,000 people, managed to come to power in Ethiopia in the 1990s and marginalized other ethnicities including the Oromo, to which the current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, belongs.

They also pointed out that the current crisis started when Abiy Ahmed postponed the federal elections due to the implications of the coronavirus pandemic, thus extending his time in office. The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) considered this unconstitutional and insisted unilaterally on holding local elections, which Addis Ababa rejected and considered the election results illegal. This proved to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” as military activity erupted after the Ethiopian government gave Tigray an ultimatum to retract to no avail.

Furthermore, the speakers suggested that the Tigray conflict is similar to those of other regions in Ethiopia and different African countries that experience perpetual conflict between the center and the periphery, the center’s desire to control and monopolize power and wealth, and resentment from the periphery. This has caused the situation to worsen, and with the absence of a solution, everyone will have no choice but to resort to arms to settle the dispute

However, they also suggested that Ethiopia is experiencing a political transition started by Abiy Ahmed, which requires wisdom in dealing with chronic problems and issues, the establishment of a democratic approach, and the continuous unification of internal forces on the basis of participation in power and fair distribution of wealth as well as the maintenance of stability in order for development projects to bear fruit and benefit society which has long suffered from poor economic conditions and the lack of basic services. They added that if Abiy Ahmed does not uphold this approach and keep the country away from the authoritarian approach that was prominent during the rule of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia will be subject to turmoil and chaos whose effect will extend to the entire Horn of Africa.

Conflict background

The webinar was aired on Al Jazeera Mubasher and live-streamed on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies’ digital platforms. It was commenced by Mohammed al Arousi who discussed the roots and backgrounds of the conflict between the central government and TPLF. He said:

These disputes began to escalate one stage after the other until they became obvious after the elections in Tigray that the parliament declared as unconstitutional. This was followed by a number of procedures taken by the government to impose the law including ending financial support and eliminating immunity for a number of members of TPLF. All of this came in view of the severe discourses of TPLF leaders, which many observers consider provocative and challenging to the federal government.

As for the internal effects of the crisis, al Arousi explained, “Various segments of the society are affected by it, the most important of which being the displaced, especially women and children, as they are the ones paying a large part of the price.” He added that the central government was committed to rehabilitating and helping them until they return home after the declared objectives of military operations are achieved. He also pointed in this regard to what he calls “communal solidarity,” which was observed recently among the Ethiopian populace to ease the implications of the crisis.

The battles are not over yet

On his part, Aziz Abdulhai revealed in his presentation that the battles are not over yet and that military operations continue. He also explained that the federal government is enforcing media blackout by disrupting means of communication and asserted that the Tigray government’s forces will continue fighting even after the government captured the city of Mekelle. In addition, he said that the confrontation between the two forces happened on Sunday, 29 November 2020, in Abiy Addi, in central Tigray, and that the Tigray government announced that it had shot down a military plane and captured the pilot flying it, and that they have a video recording of it. It also liberated the historical city of Aksum and the areas surrounding it from federal forces and Eritrean soldiers fighting alongside them.

As for the humanitarian aspect resulting from the military operations, Abdulhai argued that it remains the same and that large numbers of people are internally displaced or seeking refuse in neighbouring Sudan and that humanitarian conditions in general are bad.

With regards to the reasons behind the eruption of the conflict in Tigray, Abdulhai said, “The real reason for postponing the aforementioned elections, is that Prime Minister Ahmed’s chances of winning are slim to none. Thus, opponents who pose a threat to his power were imprisoned.”

Moreover, Abdulhai maintained that the core of the issue is the disparity of political and ideological opinions between Abiy Ahmed and his opponents; the prime minister, he believes, wants to breach the current constitution that designates the rule as federal. Also, the constitution gives all of the regions the right to determine their fates and Ahmed wants to eliminate that without taking his citizens’ opinion into consideration and aims to replace with the federal system with a central system despite the fact that central systems have failed in the past.

On Tigray’s insistence on holding elections on time, Abdulhai believes that was because it sought to prove its independences and rejection of the mandates of Ahmed’s government as well as revoke its recognition of the central government, whose validity ended with the constitution.

The Eritrean role in the crisis

During his presentation, Noureddine Abda stated that military confrontation in northern Ethiopia between the TPLF and the Ethiopian government was surprising to many observers abroad. But to those following political developments in Ethiopia closely, especially after the change that happened in 2018 with Abiy Ahmed’s coming to office, it was expected because there were signs at the political level. He added that the International Crisis Group had issued a number of reports in this regard and that in its most recent report, it presented the scenario of a potential war and warned the international community of its repercussions.

The factors that bolstered the political confrontation in this region, according to Abda, “comprised of the TPLF’s loss of control of the political scene in Ethiopia after Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power. the TPLF sensed danger and headed towards the trenches to defend itself politically but that did not bear fruit. It now prepares for military defense based on its vision and reading of the Ethiopian state and the traditional competition between the Tigrinya and the Amhara over the rule of historical Ethiopia and the formation of modern Ethiopia.”

Abda allocated a portion of his presentation to the discussion of a number of factors to which he attributed the conflict between the TPLF and the federal government, including: the normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea and what followed the end of the war between them, in which the TPLF played the role of the spearhead; Eritrea’s repeated statements that the TPLF’s time is over and that the TPLF should pay the price; the dissolution of the ruling alliance of which the TPLF was a part; the TPLF’s establishment a vast alliance that includes federal trends and parties; and finally, the government’s postponement of the general elections, the holding of local elections by the TPLF, and then the exchange of accusations of illegitimacy.

Abda also revealed that the central government hopes to create dissent within the ranks of the TPLF through the political pressure it practices against it. But he does not believe that will happen due to “the tight revolutionary organization within the TPLF and its security control.” Perhaps the TPLF, he added, felt the impact and danger of these political pressures and resorted to escalating the situation and dragging everyone into war that it believed was inevitable.

Furthermore, Abda explained that Ethiopia’s current official statements still differentiate between the TPLF as an organization and a trend one on hand and its current leaders whom it holds responsible for what happened. This differentiation comes as an attempt to create cracks in its ranks and maintain the post-war balances because, he continued, it is not possible to eradicate the TPLF from the political scene like extremist Amharic trends suggest.

Abda predicts that if matters become more difficult for the TPLF, it could take different routes, including the shift to a long-term guerilla war, reaching some kind of agreement with the Prosperity Party led by Abiy Ahmed about remaining as an organization and removing war hawk leaders, or finding a middle ground in which the war hawks flee to the mountains and the appeasing organization remains part of the state’s political body until further notice.

He also presented the crisis’s regional implications and asserted in this regard that Eritrea does not hide its support for Abiy Ahmed, citing frequent reports of its military involvement in the conflict. In fact, it advanced into Ethiopia’s borders and captured several areas, according to him. “Despite the lack of verification, logic and all the political and field evidence confirm it,” he said.

Abda concluded his presentation by stating, “Eritrea will seek revenge from the TPLF,” clarifying that the collective mind of the Eritrean elite does not view itself as outside of the strategic depth that Ethiopia represents to Eritrea and therefore Eritrea cannot go on without a role in Ethiopia.

Getting through a transitional phase safely

On his part, Salah Eldin Elzein argued that the Tigray conflict is an example of poor management of the relationship between the centre and the periphery, one that many find repeatedly in a number of different countries, as the centre seeks to monopolize the greatest portion of power and wealth thus provoking the grudge and resentment of the periphery; and when peaceful means of managing conflict fail, the periphery resorts to arms to settle disputes.

Elzein confirmed that Ethiopia’s stability is in the interest of all the countries of east Africa because if chaos spreads in the country, its implications will affect neighbouring countries.

He also stressed that the ideal way to spare Ethiopia this scenario is for Prime Minister Ahmed to maintain the reformist approach he began since coming to office by expanding the circle of participants in rule and through fair distribution of wealth, dedicating time and effort to the economic aspect in order to raise the population’s standard of living and lower unemployment among the youth as well as learning from the lessons of Ethiopian history about the center’s monopoly of power and tyranny, continuing the path to democracy in order for the country to get through its current political transition safely, and working towards solving the problem of the Renaissance Dam with Egypt and Sudan to facilitate stability in Ethiopia. Through these means, Elzein concluded, the Tigray conflict and other similar conflicts can be overcome safely.