Tigray: Suspended Until Further Notice
On the second of November two years after the outbreak of war, the parties to Ethiopia’s genocidal conflict surprised their constituencies, and the global community, by signing a “Permanent” Cessation of Hostilities and delivering victor’s terms for the Prosperity regime. The complete capitulation of Tigrayan resistance came as a shock to observers; the dominant thinking assumed TPLF/TDF would fall back to the mountains should Mekelle fall once more into the prosperity regime’s brutal hands. Willingness to surrender on the part of certain elements of Tigray’s Central Command was signalled to the international community through a distress call issued in the form of a mass text shortly after the capture of Shire.
The prosperity regime too felt the rapid fall of Mekelle was inevitable. It initiated diplomatic processes to conjure rehabilitative headlines, pressuring the AU to push for talks that could serve as a gentleman’s victory lap. They’d hoped for rigidness on the side of the Tigrayan leadership. Instead, Tigray External Affairs Office officially echoed the mass text, agreeing to take part in talks without the preconditions they’d issued just several weeks earlier.
The mediation team from Ethiopia was, even while in Pretoria, dragging its feet in the hopes that Mekelle would fall before talks began. A sudden change in TDF performance, attributed to what Tadesse Werede termed ‘elastic defense’, prevented Abiy from moving beyond his initial push in Shire and Adwa. The belated deployment of a more dynamic approach to warfare proved a little too little to late; a visibly discombobulated Werede rubber-stamped Pretoria’s terms in a follow up agreement signed in Nairobi.
Many thought this Cessation of Hostilities, like so many unilateral ones declared over the course of the past two years was an opportunistic ploy that wouldn’t hold. That Isayas would never agree to withdraw and so war would resume after much needed respite. Isayas is, if only for the time being, doing the minimum required to be seen as ‘playing ball’ in a game where the rules don’t really apply to him.
Full Withdrawal and Concurrent Mobilization
Nairobi’s provision of ‘concurrent’ demobilization with ‘full withdrawal’ of unnamed forces is nebulous implicating PP affiliated Amhara militia and Eritrea only by omission. Ethiopia, exempted so fully as to be assigned a peacekeeping role, dumped crimes on her allies while shielding them from the terms of the agreements.
The terms of surrender initially inspired public uproar amongst the Tigrayan diaspora, particularly over stipulations for the dissolution of TDF. The Global Society of Tigrayan Scholars, set up in 2018 to signal “new” commitment towards “scholarship” in policy making as part of TPLF’s liberal revamp, promptly issued condemnation:
“(TDF) the sole provider of the security of Tigray…only guarantor of the nonrepetition of genocide against Tigrayans…should not be disbanded” adding “the imposition of an interim administration contradicts the will of the people of Tigray as expressed in previous elections. These provisions infringe the inalienable rights of the people of Tigray to self determination”
Three months on, disapproval of the agreement amongst Tigrayan ‘elites’ and the diaspora has dissipated. The change of tone is partly due to relief expressed by the Tigrayan public. Fatigued by siege, politically induced hunger and aid dependency, daily threats of aerial bombardment, lawlessness, and the endless ills that still accompany this war, the people of Tigray’s commitment to peace at any cost is greater then ever.
Interim Regional Administration
Public angst was also placated by central commands appeal to ‘political negotiations’ that would take place in Pretoria’s aftermath. Perceived opportunities for democratization proffered by article 10, which stipulates an interim government for the region be devised through negotiations between TPLF and Federal authorities has popularized ‘peace’. Enthusiasm for the clause is reflected in pieces suggesting preferences for the interim government’s composition; campaign style public discussions by opposition parties with calls for ‘politics to come out of the town hall and into the streets’, rumors of bitter quarreling and clamoring for position within central command, and so on.
The show of democratic or even undemocratic contestation for ‘shared power’ is uncompelling theatre. Tigray’s interim administration, of ‘national unity’, or, of ‘technocrats’, or, of some figure from central command, will be populated by handpicked individuals beholden to Abiy Ahmed. Any pretensions towards self-determination, even within federative arrangements, amount to wistful fantasy.
Africa’s greatest general, Tsadkan Gebretinsae, reinforced this point in a note on the recently created committee for interim government, reminding his colleagues of the meaning of his submission:
“As clearly stipulated in the Pretoria agreement, the formation of the IRA may and should involve the participation, consent, and agreement of so many parties but more specifically, of the Federal Government of Ethiopia, hence the need for to go through an open, transparent, democratic, and all inclusive election process and deliver an outcome that is acceptable to all”
What’s been reintegrated into Ethiopia is a Tigray without any recourse to its constitution and so without any autonomous institutions. No longer can Tigray claim a government legitimatized strictly by the democratic will of the body politic it administers.
Even if the Tigrayan public could still decide its own fate, the ‘political market place’ offers remarkably homogenous product. TPLF higher ups, TDF generals, Central Command members, and opposition parties (known since 2018 as “tenhanahti” in adherence with Abiy’s linguistic preferences) offer near indistinguishable positions. The ‘elite’ consensus is ‘reform’ is the prize, surrender price of achieving it, and Abiy Ahmed the benevolent mass murder overseeing it. The tortuous journey from we fight because ‘it’s about our extinction’ to we capitulate because Abiy will deliver us to ‘democracy’ has been travelled with remarkable moral dexterity and political cynicism.
Those who hold out hope that free and fair elections will be held in Tigray as it finally joins the federally mandated reform bandwagon forget the immediate catalyst of genocide; elections.
Although TPLF’s mobilizing premise for elections held in defiance of the federal government was ‘self-determination’, and the two rights are mutually reinforcing, what was directly threatened by Abiy’s unconstitutional extension of his mandate was the right to vote, corner stone of liberal democracy. Its of no little irony that the ‘intelligentsia” represented in the newly established committee for the formation of the IRM is comprised of the Tigrayan Electoral Commissions leadership.
An interesting omission of GSTS’s short-lived condemnation of the Pretoria agreement was its exclusion of institutions and individuals charged with delivering elections from the type of accurate criticism they offered of institutions and individuals charged with delivering justice. Yet the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia and its chair, like the Ministry and Minister of Justice, are “part and parcel of of the war on Tigray and genocide against Tigrayans”. Given her track record, elections held under the auspices of Birthukan Mideksa are likely to be fraudulent, violent, and, as with the transitional government, deliver outcomes dictated by Abiy Ahmed.
The Cessation of Hostilities real peril isn’t disarmament but its criminalization of Tigray’s elections. Pretoria and Nairobi gave up the general principle of Tigray’s resistance ensuring any future defiance to tyranny from the center will be deinstitutionalized; a cause only rebels, not elected government, can take up.
In an interview following the first public conversation between Tigray’s negotiating team and Abiy Ahmed, Getachew Reda too confirmed reforms are unlikely to be outside of ‘medemer’ essentially saying “we lost so we will accept what we’re given…We will create an inclusive transitional government because the federal government demands it in line with the Pretoria agreement and because it falls in line with corrective (reform) measures we’d adopted.” In other words, ‘metererai’ is ‘home grown’.
Verhoeven and Woldemariam in the first ‘robust treatment of the international origins of Ethiopian crisis to date’ posit what, if any, role U.S foreign policy could be assigned in Ethiopia’s descent into the abyss? Answering in the affirmative they weave a story that ostensibly begins with a 2015 visit by President Obama and culminates with Abiy’s genocidal entrenchment of reform. Processes associated with reforms, including Pretoria and Nairobi Accords judgment that elections may be reversed through committal of war and war crimes, have been decidedly illiberal. Verhoeven and Woldemariam make the following observation:
“The discourse of “democratic transition” notwithstanding, the major constant since March 2018 was the personalization of power…refusing to question the growing chasm between the promise of liberalization and the reality of concentrating power…reinforced the inter-communitarian violence and displacement”
‘Reforms’ popularity amongst Tigrayan ‘elite’, therefore, isn’t explained by its hollow promises of maintaining sovereignty and instituting democracy. Instead, cheerleading the loss of both is justified by Revolutionary Democracies implication in Tigray’s political, diplomatic, and military defeat.
Those who commanded the war effort tell us Tigray would have fared better had its leadership been more readily constrained by institutional checks and balances, meritocratic bureaucracy, political plurality, and independent free press. This is, no doubt, very true. Such an outcome would have certainly been more commiserate with the painful intergenerational sacrifices Tigrayans have made to secure political community and freedom from indignity.
Despite the validity of the insight, however, capitulation to Abiy’s personalization of power isn’t a viable route to building these institutions. Any attempt to contend with this dire juncture must confront reality as it is and not as it is spun by the political and material ambitions of opportunistic predatory elite.