Pretoria in Power

The theatre surrounding the formation of an Interim Regional Administration concluded with what was billed as an ‘upset’; the three highest profile members of Tigray’s negotiating team assumed the top three positions of the Interim Regional Administration they signed into existence. The ‘upset’ was ostensibly caused by Secretary Blinken vetoing Abiy Ahmed’s selection of Tsadkan Gebretensae to install Getachew Reda instead.

Blinken’s decision was unexpected given Tsadkan’s positioning as the West’s preferred interlocutor (in sharp contrast to his anti-imperialist, socialist, posturing during Ethio-Eritrea war) and may prompt revision of the widely held view that even a reformed TPLF is to cumbersome a geopolitical burden for Tigray to carry. As with Abiy’s competitive selection as chairman of EPRDF, there is remarkable coincidence between the West’s preferences and outcomes produced by internal party processes.

While the agreement continues to underperform in terms of unfettered access to aid and protection of civilians, Reda’s short period in office has been shrouded in headline generating populist antics and whispers of  ‘disgruntled hardliners’ seeking to uproot him from power. The Pretoria administration’s playbook so far resembles that of their new boss circa 2018. Here, the role Abiy originally assigned TPLF is reassigned to a more exclusive ‘clique’ within TPLF.  The sidelining of TPLF’s Executive Committee by the Pretoria administration is perhaps indicative of voting patterns during the leadership contest. However, Fetelewerk’s plea for the continued relevance of the party following Reda’s official assumption of office is revelatory of a more fundamental rebalancing of power between TPLF, the “state”, and TDF.

Both the ‘tilk tihadesso’ (deep renewal) reforms that spearheaded Reda’s rise within the party and state ranks between 2015-2017, and the ‘medemer’ (amalgamation) reforms that dislodged them, show preference for maintaining, even consolidating, EPRDF’s infrastructure while ‘restructuring’ in ways that release its leadership from the rank and files supervision, undermine it’s various organs as hosts of political contestation, and transfer policy making obligations to the state.

What is perhaps novel about the Pretoria administration is its configuration. Although Tsadkan is in office as a scholarly representative of civil society, he is joined in the interim government by four other generals, including his fellow VP Tadesse Werede.  Another perspective on the composition of the Pretoria administration is as a power sharing agreement between centers of power that emerged in Tigray in response to the “home grown” “medemer” reforms. Nevertheless, the heavy presence of combat elements in the administration poses important questions about the military’s role in the “democratization” processes such as the one dictated by Pretoria.

Sara Vaughn, in the recently published ‘Understanding Ethiopia’s Tigray War’ highlights an interesting trend of the Tilk Tihadesso reforms under Hailemariam, to which TPLF clung, that may illuminate the genealogy of Pretoria’s composition:

“role and function of the national military was allowed to continue to shift after 2016 in two strongly linked respects which seemed to have little to do with deliberated reform strategies. Firstly, the role of the national military progressively evolved from it’s ‘outwardly’ focused role in the protection of Ethiopia’s borders…towards a more internally focused role in stabilization and law and order within the country…Secondly, the states of Emergency system of established command posts under joint military and civilian administration in different parts of the country brought the military closer to what would normally be considered policing, local government or political decision making processes. Once again, this had the potential to erode the difference between the civilian and military functions and to affect the national civilian military balance of power”

Unfortunately, the book falls short of examining precedents set through the conduct of war, most notably the interplay between ‘Central Command’, the TPLF, and the now illegally elected government. Much about the process through which organs such as TDF, Central Command, Tigray External Affairs Office, and so on where founded, institutionalized, and operated remains obscure. The lack of scholarly interest in particularly TDF’s fundamental shift of Tigray’s political landscape is surprising.

Elleni Zeleke’s remarks on the mutation of the nation state and its desired functions during the reform period may suggest a relationship between the Pretoria administration’s political project and the composition of its leadership:

“ the Ethiopian state…(is) simply interested in managing chaos for the sake of doing business, so I would describe the state as a security state, a security apparatus”

However configured, the Pretoria administrations adoption of “lewti”, a term intimately associated with the process leading to genocide, is itself indicative of loss of sovereignty and concomitant neoliberalization. If one were to make predications for the prospects of ‘lewti’ in Tigray based on the track record of ‘lewt’ in Ethiopia, neither peace, prosperity, sovereignty, nor liberal democracy emerge as plausible outcomes.

It is unclear that Reda has the diplomatic and political space or more importantly, the will, stamina, and creativity to reverse a trajectory hurtling towards entrenchment of inequalities which, although imposed by genocide, were encouraged by Tigray’s parasitic political and business elite, the permanent loss of sovereignty, and the very real risk of descent into a political economy supportive of warlords and ravine. As Reda attempts to redo 2018, remarks on the highly anticipated reforms of then EPRDF chairperson Abiy Ahmed by a Friedrich Ebert Stiftung publication from the same year offers relevant counsel:

“The present leadership seems ambivalent about the developmental agenda… There are many reasons for this ambivalence. One may be a relic of the Cold War whereby any advance in democracy is regarded as a retreat from concerns about material inequality. Another may be the new intensified strategic alliance forged with the West, which may not welcome a developmental state. In any case, the new leadership’s ambivalent stance towards development is a sharp departure from Ethiopia’s recent past such that it might be regarded as ushering a post-left era… Beyond the Cold War, it is essential to remember release from poverty and the promotion of material betterment and equality is critical for a genuine, sustainable democracy”

If even nominal notions of sovereignty have been made unaffordable by the losses engendered during the genocidal war, its breech exposes Tigray to nefarious external manipulation and internal fragmentation. A risk made more acute by the loss of trust in public institutions and consequent erosion of the body politics’ capacity for coordinated public action to, say, counter genocide, eradicate hunger, or undergird would be democratic institutions.

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