By Fitsum Gebre (PhD)
Acemoglu and Robison’s 2012 book ‘Why Nations Fail?’ indicated that poor countries fail because these countries have been ‘ruled by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit, for their interest at the expense of the vast majority of the people’. The authors go further, political rights are not much more broadly distributed, where the government is accountable and responsive to citizens, and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities. This clearly represents the problem in Tigray. The main cause of the failure of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary and Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, where the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was a coalition partner, was failure to build pluralistic institutions. This failure, despite the much-acclaimed economic growth and relative peace, was of serious hindrance for political change and economic development. The ‘prosperity government’, which assumed power in 2018, failed to exploit the available opportunities, exacerbating the misery of the people, widespread conflict, and misuse of power.
After two and plus years of war and atrocities in Tigray, which is the focus of this short piece, followed a secession of hostilities agreement between the Central Governments and the ‘TPLF’, through the Pretoria agreement, implementations agreements in Nairobi and various informal meetings. The agreement, which the TPLF is a signatory, stipulates dismantling the existing government and establishing an interim government. This provides an opportune, a sort of blessing in disguise, moment for the people of Tigray. I feel that Tigray is at a crossroads to transition itself to a national state, which is a much needed change in the political landscape, the subject of growing demand of multiple stakeholders in the society.
There are opportunities and bottlenecks for this desired transition. The opportunities are enabling multi-national federal systems, which started in 1991, although it had many shortcomings to translate this opportunity to a pluralist and democratic system. I believe there is no escape from recognizing diversity and accommodating multilateral democracy in the country. The possibility of political transition, its challenges and opportunities in Ethiopia is a topic on its own and I will not dwell on it right now.
The Pretoria Agreement stipulates that the formation of a transitional government involves the negotiation of the federal Government and the TPLF. In this regard, there is a possibility that the federal Government imposes a proxy transition government, which should not be discounted, and people in Tigray have to be careful of. The roles of the African Union Panel, United States, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and others should be considered in the formation of a transitional government in Tigray as well. The role of the Eritrean government, mainly negative, and Amhara regional government in this transition should not be discounted. I will focus on the internal issues for the moment.
After the start of the genocidal war between the Ethiopian government and Tigray, the trust of the people on the TPLF was seriously challenged, not only for its failure, as the governing party, in adequately predicting, preventing and preparing for the brutal war of 2020-2022, but also for its failure in governance, addressing the region’s economic, political and social problems. The greatest danger to genuine transition will come from the existing party state itself. The regional government of Tigray has been a one-party state, the TPLF controls all chambers of government, government channels at all levels of administrative units, and all vital resources of the region. TPLF has been in power in Tigray since the overthrow of the Derg (the military government in Ethiopia), and served as a dominant coalition government in Ethiopia until 2018. A knowledgeable friend attested that TPLF has no ‘DNA’ for political tolerance and democratic pluralism.
During the rebellion years for overthrowing the military junta, the TPLF did a miraculous achievement by combining national issues and ideology of Marxism-Leninism. However, its advocacy of Marxism-Leninism ideology and its strong association with it was alleged as one of the reasons for losing its credibility in the West. Nonetheless, the TPLF has proved time and again as an elite group, not entirely akin to the interests of the people. The people of Tigray must recognize that the political organization has evolved itself into an entity that stands for its own interests. In the talk of evicting the TPLF from or minimizing its political role in the transitional government, there is a misunderstanding. The average Tigrayan is unable to differentiate between the leadership of the political organization and the loss of sons and daughters in the liberation war, Ethio-Eritrea border war and the brutal war of the last two years. The TPLF is a political force to reckon with. But it should not violate the spirit of having a broad and all-inclusive transitional government, which is necessary for the survival of Tigray.
The people and all stakeholders, including opposition parties, civil society organizations and ethnic minorities must call for all-inclusive political space and demand for plural representation in the transitional government. There are encouraging discussions in the mass and social media to this effect. From the governing party side, however, there is disturbing silence and recent last-minute cancellation and prohibition of political meetings organized by the opposition parties and civil society organizations. There is also discouraging developments from the TPLF and its close associates which counts as thwarting the drive for genuine transition.
Capitalizing on the opportunities and drive to changes in the political landscape, despite the challenges, enabling formation of a broad-based transitional government in Tigray is a necessity, if Tigray is to survive as a society as is and to build a better social contract. This requires open discourse involving the society at large and all stakeholders representing different branches of society, including political parties, the TPLF, Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) (which represents the people’s resistance to the genocidal war) private sector, diaspora, civil society organizations and ethnic and social minorities.
This is a personal call for all people concerned to let their voices be heard. There is a famous saying that ‘evil thrives in silence’. Let’s prevent that from happening again. What happened in the two plus years is exactly that. This is, indeed, a defining moment, where realizing genuine political transition could ensure the survival of Tigray as a society but failure leads to its dismantlement and annihilation.
About the Author
Fitsum Gebre (PhD) is a Kenya-based researcher and economist. His work includes, among others, adoption and impact of irrigation, technical and allocative efficiency, supply chain of irrigation technologies, water valuation, payment for ecosystem services, climate smart agriculture and its adoption and impact, policy and institution analysis, and assessment of policy environment for circular economy and policies and strategies for food transformation in Kenya.