Post-war election may trigger new conflict in Ethiopia

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Implementing peace agreements is fraught with political and security challenges. To consolidate post-conflict political transitions, elections are seen as a panacea to re-establish political legitimacy and authority, and to jump-start a new post-conflict political order. After two years of ravaging war and a humanitarian siege, Tigray authorities succumbed and signed an ‘Agreement for lasting peace’ with Ethiopian federal government in Pretoria in early November, 2022. Focusing on securing a permanent cessation of hostilities and demobilization of the Tigrayan troops, the agreement outlines an interim process before fresh elections are to be conducted in Tigray regional state to facilitate a new regional assembly and political representation in Ethiopian federal institutions.

The implementation of the Pretoria peace agreement is however facing serious challenges in several fields. In particular, the continued presence and operation of Eritrean and Amhara military forces in Tigray endangers the fragile peace. Moreover, conducting elections under the current political context may prove counterproductive to restoring a legitimate and just political order. Instead of pacifying contentious political issues, an election may arguably incite discord and deepen the incongruities in Ethiopian politics which originally ignited the civil war. The transitional framework guiding the interim process will therefore be crucial in mitigating the constraints and dangers of a post-conflict election.

A country’s political culture and level of democratic maturity will obviously also profoundly shape the prospects for a ‘peace restoring election.’ As Ethiopia has never conducted ‘free, fair, and transparent’ elections, and its culture of authoritarianism permeates all sectors of society, a successful post-war Tigrayan election has the odds stacked against it from the get-go. Research also points to three main areas of variation in how elections are organised that impact the trajectory of post-conflict politics: their timing; who is allowed to run; and the political discourse during campaigning.

Transition period

The organization of a transitional phase and the timing of fresh elections are essential to allow for the establishment of the needed infrastructure and to cater for a conducive political environment, and hence a free vote. Premature elections may short-cut societal buy-in and broader political representation in the process, as well as re-inciting the antagonism endured during the war. A delayed election, on the other hand, may foster new difficulties and undermine the authority of the transitional disposition and hence jeopardize the legitimacy of the ballot.

The Pretoria agreement stipulates that new regional elections in Tigray will be supervised by the Ethiopian National Election Board, but without giving any specific timeframe for the vote. Until elections are conducted, an inclusive Interim Regional Administration (IRA) will be established through ‘political dialogue between the Parties’ to the Pretoria agreement. The interim administration is supposed to be established a week after the House of Representatives has lifted the terrorist designation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the regional government party.

The lifting of the terrorist designation of TPLF may be the issue which will stall and possibly derail the implementation of the Pretoria agreement. This the confidence building measure will, according to Ethiopian government’s National Security Advisor and Chief Negotiator Redwan Hussein, be implemented after the disarmament of the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF). The TPLF, however, insists that the Eritrean Army and Amhara regional forces need to withdraw from Tigray region prior to full disarmament. According to Redwan Hussein, though, the withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces will not happen before the TPLF has disarmed to the extent that the Ethiopian federal authorities feel assured that they have the capability to handle any threat from Tigray.  

Pending the withdrawal of forces from the region, an election may at its earliest be conducted in May 2023. But would such an early vote secure stability, or instigate instability? Early elections tend to elicit more radical reactions from voters than in an election conducted at the tail end of a period of political reconciliation and reconstruction. Furthermore, if certain parties feel alienated from the process or are barred from running in the election, the resentment generated may undermine the legitimacy of the vote. A delayed election may also give time for new political alternatives to emerge; parties which may offer an alternative vision for rebuilding a new relationship between Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia.

Who is in and who is out?

The establishment and configuration of an Interim Regional Administration (IRA) will determine how a subsequent election process will be organised and conducted. Although the Pretoria agreement states that the interim administration should be “inclusive”, it does not specify which parties or representatives should be included. The government chief negotiator Redwan Hussein has later stated that an interim government will comprise the TPLF, the federal government party, the Prosperity Party (PP), and opposition parties in Tigray.

But this still leaves questions unanswered. What would the balance of power between the TPLF and the PP in the interim administration be? In terms of opposition representation, should it include regional opposition parties acknowledged by the banned Tigray regional election commission, or only Tigray parties registered by the National Election Board of Ethiopia? Should all opposition parties be represented in IRA, or only one or a selected few?

In the run-up to the war, and as a response to the postponed federal elections, Tigray regional authorities established a Tigray election commission which organised regional elections in September 2020. Tigrayan political parties critical to this decision, were not allowed to register with the new regional election commission, hence only four opposition parties in addition to the TPLF ran in the election. The TPLF won all seats but one in the regional assembly, as the vote was interpreted by the Tigrayan constituency as referendum for self-determination and collective security, in the face of political and military threats by the federal government. Recently, the single opposition representative from the Baytona party withdrew from the assembly, claiming they want no part in an institution which the TPLF – it is argued – has implicitly accepted to be illegal by signing the Pretoria agreement, a document that negates the Tigray election.

The composition of the IRA, who is in and who is out, will surely impact its operational agency, but also its legitimacy in the eyes of the Tigrayans. A lean PP-TPLF composed administration may more easily facilitate the expeditious implementation of the Pretoria agreement as they were the sole signatories to it. Yet such a narrow constellation may come at cost of a broader political buy-in and societal legitimacy.

As the IRA will be the determining power in the transition to consolidated peace, it is argued by some Tigrayans that is should be an all-inclusive Government of National Unity, to cater for all political groups and interests. Others claim that neither the PP nor the TPLF hold the trust among the Tigrayan people, nor have political will to create an inclusive and transparent transitional process; consequently, the IRA should be a purely technocratic government overseeing the transition until a new government is voted in.

The fissures of Tigrayan politics

A free and fair election process may bring forth and amplify the political fissures within Tigrayan politics, undermining a post-conflict societal consensus of state rebuilding. The most contested issue is obviously Tigray’s relation to the Ethiopian federation, over which the two-years devastating war was fought. Three of the opposition parties participating in the 2020 regional elections, the Tigray Independence Party (TIP), Baitona, and Salsay Weyane, all advocate for Tigray independence, partly because of their experiences of atrocity warfare. All other Tigrayan parties, including the TPLF, are supporting a stronger or lesser degree of political autonomy for Tigray under a federal Ethiopian state.

The Addis Ababa based Tigrayan opposition parties, Arena and the Tigray Democratic Party, however, may find it difficult to get an electoral foothold in Tigray, as they generally are perceived as traitors (banda) to the Tigrayan cause since they sided with the federal government during the war. The same obviously applies to the PP. In a free and fair election, it seems unlikely that the PP would win even one electoral constituency in Tigray. This begs the question of whether Prime minister Abiy Ahmed will allow a free and fair election in Tigray when he knows that the PP would likely not secure a single seat in the regional nor federal parliament? Similarly, will federal authorities put restrictions on political campaigning and potentially bar political parties having a Tigray nationalist and pro-secession agenda in the election?

It is believed that in principle a majority of Tigrayans support the idea of establishing an independent republic of Tigray for the lasting solution to the vicious cycles of war every generation is experiencing. However, following the signing of the Pretoria agreement, most Tigrayans are saying that “the republic agenda” is becoming secondary to the “survival issue within Ethiopia.”

The toll of the war and the humanitarian siege became too much to bear for the people, as they were on the brink of annihalation. The issue of outright independence, as advocated by the TIP, is thus becoming a “luxury” issue, as peace, security, economic rehabilitation, humanitarian aid, education and health are the immediate primary needs. But people are still anxious about the future within an Ethiopian state, where Eritrea and Amhara political activists harbour an interest in undermining Tigrayan security and development.

The discourse on how Tigray self-determination, security, and development may be handled in an interim period, before the independence agenda once again can be pursued, will thus remain front and centre in the election.

An elite bargain

The Pretoria peace agreement is an elite bargain between the PP and the TPLF. If the agreement hold, their main objective will likely be to ensure that their power and positions at regional and federal levels are protected in the transitional period and beyond. The current TPLF leadership may however, face criticism for leading the region into war and failing to achieve any of the political objectives promised during the campaign. The TPLF is also divided between a nationalist and Ethiopianist fraction, which may prove difficult to reconcile during a contested transitional period. The current leadership, has through the signing of the Pretoria agreement, exposed their “Ethopianist” inclination in the eyes of many Tigrayans – a position which may undermine their political legitimacy among the majority.

Much will depend on how Prime minister Abiy Ahmed decides to play this process.

If Abiy demands a ‘victor’s justice’ and PP majority control over the interim administration, the TPLF leadership will be caught between a rock and a hard place. Succumbing to this will prove their subordination to Abiy’s centralizing policy and the abandonment of the key principle of self-determination for nationalities, something Tigray also fought for during 17-years of struggle in the 1970s and ‘80s. Resisting PP dominance, on the other hand, may derail the whole peace process.

Paradoxically, President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea may actually help in consolidating the peace process and bridging the TPLF/PP divide. As he is continuously stoking conflicts in Ethiopia, most recently by supporting Amhara expansionism, Abiy Ahmed may possibly need a consolidated TPLF on his side ahead of a future potential conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Increasing demands from his own Oromo constituency to revert to a federalist policy, may also encourage Abiy to bring the TPLF back from the cold.

Against this background, the international community should have low expectations about the potential for Tigray to achieve liberal peace in the near future. Neither the TPLF nor the PP have any history of accommodating and accepting diverging views and opposition politics, or sharing power voluntarily. The best one can hope for is an incremental implementation of the Pretoria agreement under a balanced stewardship of TPLF and PP, securing a negative peace for the Tigrayan people.

How durable such a solution will be, however, depends on broader political dynamics in Ethiopia, and whether Abiy Ahmed will find the courage to turn against his “mentor”, Isaias Afwerki, and permanently neutralize his destabilizing regional interference.  


Kjetil Tronvoll (@KjetilTronvoll) is the Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Oslo New University College. He has researched politics, elections, and conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea for over three decades, and has published extensively in world leading journals. Among his most recent publications are “The Anatomy of Ethiopia’s Civil War” in Current History, “Ethiopia’s Tigray War is Fueling Amhara Expansionism” in Foreign Policy, and “Falling from Grace: The Collapse of Ethiopia’s Ruling Coalition” in Northeast African Studies.  

Meressa Tsehaye (@MeressaTsehaye) is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Conflict Studies, Mekelle University, Tigray. He is researching politics and conflicts in the Horn of Africa and served as a Commissioner to Tigrai Election Commission (2020-2022). Among his publications are “Mediating Unity and Diversity in Ethiopia: Insights and Challenges for Federal Theory and Practice” in International Journal of Minority and Group Rights and “’Game Over’? Abiy Ahmed, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and Ethiopia’s political crisis” in African Affairs.

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