Fears are mounting that Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country with a rich history and diverse culture, may be on the brink of a break up, as tensions escalate in the strategically important Tigray region, and thousands of Oromo people and opposition leaders remain incommunicado, locked up in various cells across the country.
Many say Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, has quickly turned into a dictator who has used the coronavirus pandemic to extend his mandate by postponing elections, and who has capitalized on the death of a popular Oromo musician to go after the Oromo people and opposition figures.
And Ethiopians in the United States are beginning to lose patience with the chaos back home. Many have been contacting TODAY NEWS AFRICA in the past few weeks to say they were fed up with the political degradations in Addis Ababa, and needed to see a different country and a less draconian approach by the government of Abiy Ahmed.
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There are now fears that the feud between Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray region may lead to a military confrontation and possibly the break up of one of the most important countries in Africa.
The tensions revolve around the regional government’s decision to go ahead with its own election for the Tigray parliament on Wednesday.
Many say this represent a clear act of rebuke and defiance against the federal government.
These tensions are taking place at a time when human rights organizations are beginning to warn that Ethiopia may be slipping back into the authoritarian rule that Abiy Ahmed promised to end when he took office in 2018, and after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Right now, at least 9,000 Ethiopians arrested since deadly clashes sparked by the killing of singer Hachalu Hundessa in June, are in various jails in the country. Many opposition leaders who were also arrested by the federal government have remained incommunicado till date with their lawyers unable to contact them.
Tensions in the Tigray region exploded when The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) announced that elections for a regional parliament would take place despite the federal government and electoral board announcing the postponement of all elections.
The federal electoral commission had said that it postponed the election because of the outbreak of coronavirus, but opposition parties argued that the election was postponed because the prime minister wanted to cling to power.
The TPLF and other opposition groups have said Mr Abiy’s mandate should end this month as the parliamentary terms comes to an end.
They have argued that the postponement of the elections, that were supposed to have happened in August, is in breach of the constitution and raised the prospect of Mr Abiy becoming an illegitimate ruler.
Although the federal parliament extended Abiy’s term for another 12 months until the coronavirus is defeated and elections can be held, TPLF and opposition groups say from now on, Abiy is no longer a legitimate ruler.
Analysts say the disagreement between Abiy and the TPLF is a deep fracture at the very core of power in Ethiopia because since the end of Marxist rule in 1991, the TPLF has been in a ruling coalition of ethnically based parties, each in control of their own region in a federal system.
“It has raised concern that the TPLF could be laying the groundwork for the creation of a breakaway state, with a parliament and government taking office without the blessing of the federal government,” the BBC noted in an article recently.
The report added that “the TPLF maintains that it is committed to keeping the region within Ethiopia, but it will defend “self-rule” and oppose what it calls Mr Abiy’s attempt build a strong “unitary” state.”
“We will never back down for anyone who is intending to suppress our hard-won right to self-determination and self-rule,” the region’s leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, said last month, according to the report.
Debretsion Gebremichael released his statement just days after “the regional security forces – armed with AK-47 rifles and RPG rocket launchers – marched in major cities in Tigray, in a display of military might that intensified worries about armed confrontation,” the BBC added.
“We are ready to pay the necessary price for our peace,” the region’s security office wrote on Facebook on the day of the parade.
Abiy’s federal government has declared the Tigray elections illegal, saying that only the national electoral board has the power to organize polls.
However, Mr Abiy has ruled out sending federal troops into the region to stop the election, saying it would be “madness” to do so.
“The federal government has no intention and interest to attack its own people,” he said on 25 July.
But pro-Abiy hardliners, including former army General Kassaye Chemeda, have called for military intervention in Tigray. “The government should plan well, and they should be attacked,” he said in an interview with the government-affiliated Walta TV, per the BBC.
Attacking the Tigray region would inevitably lead to a military confrontation that may last years and lead to a possible break up.
Right now, tens of thousands of Ethiopians are in prison for political reasons, including opposition leaders, and all media outlets, except those fully controlled by or affiliated to the Prosperity Party, are closed. Tension is escalating by the day, and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is failing to resolve the many crises in the country.
Outrage exploded last June after the killing of a popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundiessa sparked massive riots that quickly snowballed into fighting in most parts of western and southern Oromia between armed forces Oromo Liberation Front fighters and government forces.
The killing of Hachalu Hundiessa, the riots and the confrontations occurred as the opposition parties in Oromia were preparing for resistance, following the decision of the government to continue in power beyond its mandate at the end of September 2020 citing the novel coronavirus.
As the protests rocked much of the Oromia region, many businesses and shops were torched or looted, while the government response to the riots left 178 people dead and a further 9,000 detained without due process of law, according to human rights organizations.
The internet was shut, curfews imposed, even as the public mistrust grew deeper amid confusing statements by the government, the arrest of opposition leaders and the failure to set up an independent inquiry into the artiste’s killing.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made things worse in Oromia by purging over 1,700 local administrators and civil servants, dismissing senior officials, including Lemma Megersa, the Defense Minister, a former ally who was considered pivotal in prime minister’s rise to power.
All these missteps led to a political crisis that is currently not showing any signs of abating, rather, many fear it may get even worse.
Many bodies and people have tried to intervene. For instance, the African Union has been called upon to mediate between prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front while a US-based Ethiopian working group has urged Washington to play a more prominent role in the escalating crisis.
Some high profile senators in the United States also wrote a petition calling on the US secretary of state to urge the government in Ethiopia to free opposition leaders and others, warning that the crisis was escalating.
Beth Daley writing for The Conversation noted that the “ongoing riots in Oromia and Wolayta; state fragmentation in the Amhara region, and the standoff between the federal government and the Tigray region have put the survival of the government in question.”
She wrote: “The Wolayta people in the country’s south have long agitated for a regional state of their own. The claims have become louder since December 2018 when the neighboring Sidama people secured a referendum to form their own regional state – breaking away from the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional state.
“The constitution recognises the right of any nation or nationality clustered in any of the regional states to form its own state. Following the steps required, the council of representatives of the Wolayta zone unanimously voted for a regional state, and presented its decision on December 19, 2018. But this has yet to be considered at regional or federal levels or referred to the Electoral Board.
“In protest at the silence, the Wolayta organised a massive rally and the 38 representatives to the regional council declined to attend the council meeting. The federal government responded to these developments by detaining dozens of zonal officials, elected members of the Wolayta statehood council, political party leaders, and civil society actors.
“The regime also acted violently against peaceful demonstrators demanding the release of those detained. The government also suspended a community radio station and shut down offices of civil society organizations.”
Daley concluded that “events in Oromia and Wolayta illustrate the point that the current Ethiopian problem is not limited to a dispute between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). It is a national one.”
It is our belief that for peace and confidence to return, Abiy Ahmed should release all political prisoners and reopen all media outlets immediately. He should also end the unlimited and unlawful state of emergency.
Using COVID-19 to postpone the scheduled elections remains unacceptable by most opposition political groups who have called for a dialogue to avert the consequences of the constitutional crisis. Abiy Ahmed should embrace dialogue and reject dictatorial tendencies.
He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 because of his peace moves within and outside of Ethiopia. However, these days, he looks more like a dictator rather than someone who just won the peace prize last year.