Making Sense of the Tigray Crisis

Share This Post

Ethiopia is witnessing a historic tragedy unfolding in one of its northern regions – Tigray. Home to around six million people, out of which 40% live under a social safety net system called the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), the region remains mostly incommunicado with the external world since November 4. The truth of what really happened on the night of November 3 is yet to be corroborated. Still, the central government alleges that the regional forces and the ruling party, Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), which has been part of a ruling coalition for about 28 years but parted its way due largely to ideological disagreements, attacked a part of the national defense force stationed in Mekelle. In what the central government claims to be inhuman and treasonous act by the regional forces, members of the military were attacked while they were sleeping and heinously killed.

Following the alleged incident, Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief Abiy Ahmed ordered the national defense forces to march to Mekelle to dismantle the entire structure of TPLF, which he alleged is a bloodthirsty junta that stirs the wheels of ethnic conflicts, machinate and finance anti-government movements, and conspires with external agencies to destroy Ethiopia.

It has been three months since the war, which was proclaimed to only be a “law enforcement operation,” started. The region largely remains inaccessible, with telecommunications, transport, banking, health, education, and all other services halted. Reports of starvation, widespread rape, looting, and burning of assets, summary executions, destroying of factories and public offices, displacement, migration, and so on are being heard from all corners, ranging from international NGOs with missions on the ground to the international media. Accused of these rather horrific events are the Eritrean military, the national defense forces, the special forces of Amhara and the Eritrean-trained Somali militia. That Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a bitter and costlier war during the 1990s, while TPLF was the dominant member of the ruling coalition, means that there is some historical context in the war that ought to be accounted.

For anyone who has been following contemporary Ethiopian politics, however, this war was predictable. Three factors seem to have contributed to its happening.

To start with, Ethiopian politics has gotten overly ethinicised in the last three decades, with the process institutionalized through the constitution issued in 1991. All aspects of governance, from appointment to accountability, are ethinicised that justice remains a hugely contested political matter. After the change in EPRDF’s leadership following years of public protest in Oromia and Amhara, the approach has been incriminating TPLF and putting all the blames for the wrongdoings of the past three decades on it. This is despite the fact that TPLF was just one member, albeit a dominant one, of a rather authoritarian ruling coalition that was governing with an iron fist.

For a party that is manipulative, full of itself and too arrogant to live in a competitive political space, the blame game of the new ruling alliance (with the Oromo-Amhara elite at the center) was a showcase that its days as part of the coalition are just numbered. Hence, most of its officials, operatives, lobbyists, sympathizers and financiers flocked to Mekelle with the plan of consolidating regional power and resurfacing back to central politics stronger. Yet, the coalescing in Mekelle furthered the rivalry with the center, with federal government officials openly accusing the TPLF for orchestrating ethnic killings, assassination attempts and misinformation.

Things gotten worse with the institution of the new ruling party, Prosperity Party (PP), which dismantled regional parties and brought in former affiliates as full-fledged members. TPLF opposed the approach and officially parted its way from the ruling coalition.

It is important to highlight that Abiy and his compatriots had two objectives in mind in instituting PP. One is to end the dominance of the minority-based TPLF and dissociate themselves from the legacies of EPRDF. A second and equally important objective is to ensure their long-term dominance in central politics by creating a system that gives them the numbers advantage (PP is structured in a way that its decision-making bodies have members proportional to the size of the population chapters claim to represent).

It did not take much before PP, and its inherited propaganda machinery started to demean the guiding ideology of EPRDF – Revolutionary Democracy – and its economic roadmap, Democratic Developmental State. They rolled out a new roadmap, called Medemer, a rather confused amalgamation of economic opening-up, a strong state, multiparty politics, and patriotic nationalism. Despite their fundamental differences, the Oromo-Amhara elite aligned to corner TPLF and erase its legacies.

On its part, TPLF organized a mammoth digital propaganda network to propagate messages of alienation, siege, and counter-criminalization. Coupled with the poorly guided messaging from the center, this made TPLF and its long despised leaders all the more popular in the region. They were considered as protectorates of Tigray’s history, rights to self-administration and positive contribution to Ethiopia’s economic progress. They are taken as saviors from the encroachment of an increasingly assimilationist center heavily influenced by the exclusionary patriotism of the Amhara elite that intends to use all means to advance its territorial expansionism and exceptionalism.

TPLF seemed to have found solace in what it claimed to have more advantage at – military buildup. It deployed all its available human and financial resources in training special forces, commandos and militias. This is despite the fact that it is running a region that hosts the largest proportion (27%) of absolute poor people and the highest (42%) number beneficiaries of the productive safety net program (PSNP) as a ratio of population. This, of course, is in addition to severe environmental degradation, high youth unemployment, high level of migration and low female secondary school attendance in the region.

One important thing that TPLF seems to have forgotten, and dearly, is war could not be won by military capability only. It should rather be underpinned by disposable economic capability and the means to contain vulnerabilities.

A second factor in the war is the Eritrean factor. The regime in Asmara, a one-man show, has always felt uncomfortable about TPLF. It sees TPLF not only as a rival regional power, but as a hindrance to its mission of transforming Eritrea as regional superpower defiant to the dictates of the West. It is believed within the small circle of powerful autocrats in Asmara that the dream, often captured in the popular line of “making Eritrea the Singapore of Africa”, was obstructed by TPLF under the leadership of Meles Zenawi. Further, the defeat in the Ethio-Eritrea war has left marks of anger and dishonor.

For TPLF, Isayas and his compatriots are the prime enemies of Ethiopia. Much as it desired for the border issue be peacefully resolved, it saw Isayas as the number one threat to decentralized and multi-national Ethiopia. As such, they employed all available diplomatic channels to isolate and sanction the regime. Their strategy might have helped to contain the threat coming from the regime, but it created longstanding animosity. And hence, Eritrea’s involvement in the war in Tigray.

A third and last factor is the economics of the power struggle. Under EPRDF, rent-seeking was made the utmost, if not lone, channel to enrich oneself. While political loyalism was the currency for rent seeking, clientelism was the approach. Establishing and maintaining networks serving this purpose was the methodology everyone in the ruling collation was striving to be best at. As the dominant member of the coalition, TPLF was setting the terms of rent seeking. Its loyalists and sympathizers benefited disproportionately.

Channels used in the rent seeking matrix include endowment companies, private companies, government contracts, international trade, parallel market, remittance, construction, real estate, banks, microfinances and so on. The alignment was so extensive that almost every aspect of the economy was taken hostage by these clientelistic networks of rent seeking.

So in essence, this war is about deliberately distorting this longstanding equilibrium of rent seeking by dismantling the rather organized and well established network stirred by the high level leadership of TPLF. And the latest competition for the throne of rent seeking seems to be between the Amhara and the Oromo elite. Lately, though, the Oromo elite, itself hugely corrupt, is getting disenfranchised by the excessive greed of the Amhara elite that tensions are brewing, albeit latently. It won’t take to be a prophet to see that a conflict between this two groups, wrapped in some form of political agenda, is inevitable. Recalling what is happening in Metekel Zone of Benishangul Gumuz Region helps.

Of course, the deal breaker was the legitimacy deficit that Abiy faced and the subsequent postponement of the national elections. TPLF went on to conduct the regional elections, while Abiy and Co opted the rather highly contested road of constitutional interpretation to postpone the elections. The tit-for-tat and the war of words got worse as time went. For TPLF, the regional election was a tool to delegitimize Abiy and Co, putting them in collision course with the other members of the federation.

Important to add in the overall analytical framework is the faltering Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiations, with Sudan slowly moving towards Egypt; the increased militarization of regional special forces; the tight fiscal and monetary space the government had due largely to huge external debt burden; the change of currency notes that the central bank reflexively introduced; the infancy of the security sector reform; and the increasing contraband trade.

The grave miscalculation an emboldened TPLF put in attacking the northern command of the national defense force seems to have brought that rather inescapable event closer. The magnitude of what is unfolding in Tigray after November 4 is difficult to measure as all means of communications remain closed. Whatever is being said about the war and it impact is based on anecdotal evidences. Nonetheless, the picture one would get by connecting the dots is nothing but bleak.

According to the United Nations, 4.5 million people are in need of emergency food assistance and a total outlay of 68 million dollars is required for the response. About 62,000 people have migrated to Sudan, while close to 2 million are displaced within the region.

The lives of 200,000 Eritrean migrants that were living in four camps in the region remain uncertain, with some international NGO sources saying that many might have died in crossfires, while some 5,000 to 7,000 of them are claimed to have been forcibly returned back to Eritrea.

Health stations and health posts have been destroyed and looted, while health care workers are surviving by handouts, as they have not been paid for the last three months. Basic infrastructure, including power, telecommunications, roads, airports and schools have been damaged.

As a result, people are starving to death. They are also dying because of lack of access to basic medication. Each day spent under the blockade entails hundreds dying from starvation, medical complications and bullets.

The impact extends well beyond the region and is engulfing the country. Foreign investors are panicking, while exchange rate is depreciating fast. Inflation is crawling to an all time high, with some food items seeing a month-to-month increment of up to 40%. Markets are seeing significantly constrained supplies. Items such as children foods are becoming scarce in the market.

The business cycle is at its lowest. It is common to see traders complaining about having very low transactions.

With the war costing the national government considerable money, it is highly likely that the consolidated fiscal deficit will increase beyond the 3% threshold. Despite some restraint on central bank borrowing, it is highly unlikely for this restraint to sustain under the current macro situation. And this might further push inflation up.

Shunning foreign investment, constrained remittance and restrained aid will all mean that macro picture may get even more complicated. With expanding trade deficit, increasing negative balance of payments and significant debt repayment outlays, there is a high risk for depleting forex reserve and default on external commercial debt.

As it is often the case, such macro instability disproportionally affects the poor. They often shoulder the brunt of the problem as they have less resources to buffer sudden price surges. A government with stretched fiscal space means that price stabilization will be a huge task.

Politically, the war will have serious ramifications. The federalist camp, which advocates for a more decentralized system, has gotten shocked by the very unfolding of the war. It remained anxious about its relationship with the ruling party and its leadership. The way this camp acts in the regions that it has more political capital, such as Oromia, will define the future of the country.

The unionist camp, with its largest base in Amhara, is having a hay day. But it is not sustainable. After all, the demise of TPLF does not mean the end of the question for self-administration or decentralization of power. In lieu of the current dynamics, it may even mean the bolstering of these questions. It is wise to recall that there are about nine pending regional questions.

More worrying is that the ruling party is facing fractures along the same lines. The tension between those advocating for more devolved country (Oromia PP) and those pushing for a more centralized one (Amhara PP) is reaching a boiling point. This may grow to a real splintering and crisis.

As far as Tigray is concerned, the short and medium term outlook seems bleak. Protracted conflict will cost more lives and livelihoods. A growing sentiment for an independent Tigray will certainly be a challenge the center would have to deal with for the coming decades.

It is sad to see political differences costing so many lives. If anything, what the Tigray crisis has shown us is that our politics is still driven by emotions than reason, and we lack credible and capable institutions to discipline politicians.

As it has been in the past thousands of years, the major assignment for Ethiopians will continue to be creating the right institutions to tame government. Yet another episode of a complicated nation building process that is taking too much time and costing too much only for the ego, imprudence and miscalculation of the politicians of the time.

Disclamer: Addis Insight received this commentary from a writer who prefers to remain anonymous.