Tigray’s precarious transition: On the establishment of an Interim Regional Administration

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Flag of the Tigray Region/CREDIT: J. Ollé
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After two years of ravaging war, the Tigray Regional State’s government, represented by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Federal Government of Ethiopia, reached an Agreement for Lasting Peace through the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities (CoHA). The agreement prescribes that “the establishment of an inclusive Interim Regional Administration will be settled through political dialogue between the Parties” (Article 10.1), without specifying the modalities to such effect or the composition of and balance of power within an interim administration.

The process to establish an Interim Regional Administration (IRA) has been prolonged and the TPLF leadership has increasingly been criticised by various Tigrayan stakeholders for delaying and controlling the process. So will the process ultimately lead to an IRA that will be mutually acceptable, legitimate and stable? In this article, we explain why some of the early signs are worrying. We ask who is in control of the process, who should be represented in the IRA, and what checks and balances and be introduced to ensure that it represents the interests of Tigrayans themselves.

Who is in control?

In mid-February this year, the TPLF established a nine-member committee to explore and propose an interim administration set-up, headed by the commander of the Tigrayan Defence Forces Lt. Gen. Tadesse Wereda. The opposition parties and other stakeholders were frustrated by the lack of consultation and inclusivity on the establishment of the committee. They also critiqued how rushed the process to prepare and propose an IRA turnout out to be. Against the backdrop of this criticism from Tigrayans, the process thus missed the opportunity to take corrective action and bestow popular legitimacy and public trust on the proposed regional administration.

It appears that the federal government is not actively involved in the process of preparing and establishing the IRA, which is puzzling considering the principles in the Pretoria agreement. One may assume, however, that Mekelle is effectively handling the process with consent from Addis Ababa. According to TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda, the proposal will be forwarded to the federal government and agreed upon “after mutual consultations between the parties to the Pretoria agreement.”

The lack of transparency in the communication between TPLF and federal authorities is not surprising, as this has been and continues to be standard operating procedures among Ethiopian political elites. However, considering the challenges ahead for establishing a legitimate transitional authority in Tigray – in the eyes of the Tigrayan constituency, as well as rest-Ethiopia – one would hope for a change of modus operandi to boost transparency and public trust. The hitherto non-transparent procedures and use of back channels of communication between Mekelle and Addis Ababa have undercut the work of the African Union mediators and monitors, and pushed the implementation of the Pretoria agreement to verbal and informal communications between the Federal government and TPLF.

The implementation of the Pretoria agreement and the post-war process in Tigray has so far worked to prevent the outbreak of new armed hostilities between Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) and Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). However, a raft of issues is left either unanswered or unimplemented. Key among these are: continued impediments to the adequate distribution of humanitarian aid; continued occupation of West Tigray by Amhara regional forces; continued presence of and harassment by Eritrean Defence Forces on Tigray soil; lack of provision of much-needed medical supplies to hospitals; lack of adequate cash and banking services; continued blockage and informal imposition of extortionate fees by Amhara authorities for the transportation of goods; the lack of robust security protection to the civilian population in north and west Tigray; lack of progress on access to international investigation and accountability mechanisms … the list goes on and on.

All these deficiencies are rooted in a lack of interest in enforcement – or in a few cases capacity – by the federal authorities, for one reason or the other. This ambiguous and challenging political context, combined with internal differences within the Prosperity Party regarding how to handle the Tigray peace process – and the broader question of the Ethiopian political dispensation – renders the Tigray transition process increasingly precarious. This is especially worrying given that there are also national, and regional spoilers who may have an interest to destabilise the transition, and even derail the peace agreement itself.  

We must also not lose sight of fact that the divisions among Tigrayan political parties about how to proceed are widening, exacerbating tensions between them. The immediate cause of these disagreements is deeply rooted and highly political, namely: the nature, mandate, structure, and allocation of the IRA’s powers.

To resolve some of these tensions, those involved in constructing the IRA need to find inclusive and mutually acceptable answers to the following questions: a) what should be the key tasks of the IRA?; b) what structures does the IRA need?; c) who should be included in the IRA, and how should power be shared among the stakeholders to ensure the right balance of power?; d) what kind of checks-and-balances on executive power and oversight functions should be designed to safeguard a stable and inclusive transition?; and, finally e) how should an interim dispensation be anchored at the grassroots and reflected in local administration?

Composition of the interim administration

The CoHA prescribes that the Interim Regional Administration (IRA) should be “inclusive”, without offering any details on composition and representation. One would assume however that this means some kind of power-sharing arrangement. This begs the question of how issues of representation and the balance of power will be dealt with in the IRA.

There are two possible approaches to this question: first, using the 2020 regional election result as a “baseline”, or second starting with a clean slate and rethinking representation in a broader sense of the term. As the 2020 election was organised and conduced in a “run-up to war” context, it does not necessarily reflect the diverse political sentiments and affiliations of the Tigrayan constituency. Many voters consulted during the election period stated that due to the the post-2018 experience of increased individual and collective insecurity and harassments, they saw the need to rally behind the TPLF as the perceived best party which could ensure collective security of Tigray.

Concomitantly, voters have explained that had the politico-security context been different, they would have voted differently, as many distanced themselves from the ideological policies and positions of the TPLF. The 2000 regional election was thus a protest vote against the federal government and the impending security predicament facing Tigray – and should not be considered a representative baseline fo the political visions and interests of the Tigrayan constituency. Given this, a “clean slate” approach would be the best option to secure an inclusive and more legitimate transitional administration.

Representing who?

Who then, should be represented in the interim administration? And how should the power balance be calibrated? As the landscape of institutionalised political parties in Tigray has been stymied since the inception of multipartyism in the country, it is important to go beyond political parties to ensure the inclusion of a broader segment of competent representatives from academia and civil society organisations too.

After the signing of the Pretoria agreement, government chief negotiator Redwan Hussein stated that an interim government would comprise the TPLF, the federal ruling party, Abiy’s Prosperity Party, and opposition parties in Tigray. However, this was later disputed by the TPLF, which argued that only political fronts participating in the struggle against the atrocious onslaught on Tigray would be welcome to join the IRA. This would effectively exclude Tigrayan opposition parties such as as Arena and the Tigray Democratic Party, as well as the Tigray Prosperity Party.  

A further contested issue is the level of representation and thus influence for each political party. Considering their near monopoly over power in Tigray since 1991, the TPLF will likely argue for a majority of positions. This may be difficult to accommodate, however, considering the need to also include civil society representatives, and would not be befitting for a power-sharing arrangement.

Emphasising values such as inclusion, transparency, accountability, plurality, accommodation, and negotiation, no single party should hold a majority control of the transitional government. This would mean that while TPLF would most likely form the biggest bloc in the interim administration, it would need to engage and negotiate with other representatives in order to forge a consensus or at the very least a majority.

The transitional process would thus be a much-needed learning experience for the TPLF in relating to, accepting, and managing genuine plural politics.

The limitations of technocracy

Some have argued that one way to resolve these issues is to form a technocratic administration without politicians. But while some of the role of the interim administration will be technical, i.e. overseeing the implementation of the Pretoria agreement and coordinating reconstruction efforts of the war torn society, these issues are not void of politics. 

Moreover, given the overwhelming support to the popular resistance by Tigrayans, many on the ground are looking to the transition to represent the aspiration of the people for maximum autonomy, unity, and inclusivity. Against this backdrop, calls for an inclusive unity government with an assembly or council of all key stakeholders make sense. 

Political consensus and priorities will be instrumental in guiding developments effort, ensuring stability, and offering alternative visions for the future of Tigrayan political community. In this respect, the majority of the positions in transitions may be occupied by representatives from political parties. In the case of Tigray, the stakeholders can be broadly divided into three: political parties, the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), and Civil Society, including the diaspora.

Several proposals were forwarded for possible power sharing at the executive level. One of the political parties, Salsay Weyane Tigrai, proposed 60% for political parties to be shared equally, while 40 per cent to be shared equally between TDF and the Civil Society. Earlier, the Global Society of Tigrayan Scholars advanced the proposal of 25% for TDF, 25%  for TPLF, 20% for other political parties and 30 % for civil society. In contrast, the preparation Committee proposed to allocate 30% for TPLF, 15 % for other political parties, 25 % for TDF and 30% for civil society. More essentially, it only proposed the establishment of an executive cabinet body at the regional level without a legislative body (regional assembly) and left the administration’s lower tiers untouched. This undermines the constitutionally guaranteed sovereignty of the people of Tigray to have a legislature and leaves the executive without checks and balances and oversight. These decisions could prove dangerous in eroding the country’s constitution, setting a precedent for a rule by Addis Ababa through dictates.

Research on electoral boycott show that non-participation in transitional processes and elections is more harmful to democratisation than participation, even when that may bestow legitimacy to processes that incumbent authoritarian governments control. Although one can understand opposition frustration over the lack of transparency and inclusion in the preparatory process to an interim administration, to boycott public discussions will certainly not help the case of increasing transparency and plurality, on the contrary it will damage the aspiration of the people Tigray to build a robust democratic political community. 

Checks-and-balances and anchoring of the IRA

Comparative research on political transitional arrangements indicate that key to advancing democracy in transitional settings is not only the composition of the interim government itself, but rather the checks-and-balances put upon its powers and how the interim arrangement is anchored in local administration.

Constraints, to whatever degree, on the executive reduces the chances of power abuse, and may advance democratic practices and culture. Hitherto, there has been minimal checks-and-balances on the political executive in Tigray, and TPLF has been accustomed to monopolistic rule in the region since assuming power in 1991. A major challenge would thus be for the TPLF to accept that other stakeholders have a legitimate claim to a seat at the decision-making table, and to understand the need of an active and critical role by oversight bodies to restrain their power.

A new interim regional assembly could be the key check on executive power in Tigray. Furthermore, it will also insulate the transitional process from unwarranted interreferences. The representation in the interim regional assembly ought to reflect the same principles as the composition of the IRA; a mix of political parties, TDF, academics/technocrats and civil society representatives – rendering TPLF without a majority position. Ensuring that the assembly is staffed with competent and independent individuals from all sectors of society, would be essential in bestowing it with a societal legitimacy.

The committee to prepare for the interim administration could also have proposed other ad hoc regional institutions of oversight, as for instance locally anchored human rights and ombudsperson representatives. This may be particularly important, as the federal institutions of checks-and-balances, as the judiciary and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, are not viewed as impartial and autonomous bodies in the eyes of the Tigrayan populace. Lack of legitimate Tigrayan representation in the federal institutions as the House of Representatives and the House of Federation, render these bodies mute as legitimate institutions of checks-and-balances in the eyes of the Tigrayan constituency.

In Tigray, as elsewhere in Ethiopia, however, the power to control the populace emanates from the executive but is exerted by the local administration. It is thus essential that an interim arrangement also includes local administrative structures down to tabia level, as TPLF should not be the solitary actor to staff and control local administration. As it would be a challenge to design and staff a truly politically plural and representative local administration throughout Tigray, one could rather entertain an idea of de-politicising the local administration structure. The hugely experienced and qualified middle-level officer corps in the TDF, for instance, in combination with other local educated elites, could provide the backbone in a new technocratic local government structure. Such an arrangement would be essential in opening up for political plurality at the grassroots of Tigray and would ensure a more inclusive and level playing-field for the upcoming election. Without real reform on the local administrative tiers, the IRA will be less meaningful.

Together we stand, divided we fall …

Neither Tigray nor Ethiopia are out of the woods in terms of civil war and conflict. Eritrean armed forces are still in northern and western Tigray and are a continuous threat to civilian life and well-being, as well as undermining stability in the region and the country as such. West Tigray is still under control of Amhara regional forces, and the parties are in no agreement how this territorial dispute should be solved. The siege continues in varied forms.

To safeguard and stabilise the very precarious political transition to the betterment of the people and the future of Tigray (and Ethiopia), all stakeholders need to show restraint and strive to reach a consensus on the modalities for an interim dispensation. If the Tigrayan political and civil landscape will be divided, Tigray will likely fall prey hostile forces. This ought to bestow all actors with a sense of heightened responsibility. There is still time to take corrective measures to make the IRA sincerely inclusive and lay the ground for democratic and autonomous political dispensation the people of Tigray deserve.

The transition process is in its initial phase and many key questions and issues on the future of Tigray are still left unaddressed by the Pretoria agreement. The role of TPLF will thus still be crucial in managing and leading the process. It thus bestows upon the TPLF leadership to show a sense of political maturity, sensibility, and inclusiveness unaccustomed to the Front. Furthermore, in an ideal liberal democratic context – in which Tigray and Ethiopia are far from being – and in the interest to mitigate warranted concerns about their democratic credentials and pretentions, the TPLF should signal its long-term vision to dissolve itself as a political party. Why? Basically, because TPLF is not a political party in its narrow sense of the term, but still functions as a ‘liberation movement’ with a totalitarian inclination. In a context of war and political turmoil, such an organisational framework and ideology is needed – there is no space for democracy in the trenches. 

However, if the TPLF’s political leadership is sincere in wanting to develop Tigray into a genuine democratic political community – an issue which is far from clarified in our view – TPLF in its current shape and function does not have a constructive role to play. There is a massive amount of comparative political research which underline this thesis: Marxist-Leninist originated resistance movements have never managed to accept and accommodate plural politics and develop a liberal democratic system after assuming power. Thus, in the long-run, TPLF should have a vision to re-organise itself into several political parties, something which may not be that difficult as their membership-base already reflect a variety of diverging position in the formation of IRA, and even on the political visions and aspirations for Tigray development. Until that day aspires, opposition politics in Tigray will be an up-hill struggle.

Political developments in Tigray cannot be viewed isolated from events in rest-Ethiopia, however. All the obstacles and challenges to develop a genuine democratic system and culture in Tigray are also to be found in Ethiopia. Transitioning Tigray out of autocracy cannot happen without genuine political transformation and change of political culture in Ethiopia as such. It is naïve to assume, however, this will happen in the near future. Hence, the political transition in Tigray will continue to be precarious, no matter what kind of interim dispensation will be agreed upon.

Kjetil Tronvoll (@KjetilTronvoll) is a Professor at the Oslo New University College in Norway.

Mehari Taddele Maru (@DrMehari) is a Professor at the  European University Institute.

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