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Op-ed: Tigray Interim Regional Administration: A case for government of national unity

Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD). Photo: Screenshot/AddisStandard

Mehari Taddele Maru @DrMehari

Addis Abeba – On November 2, 2022, in Pretoria, South Africa, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (GoE) government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (the Pretoria deal). Ten days later came the Declaration of the Senior Commanders on the Modalities for the Implementation of the Pretoria deal (‘Modalities’). The international community has been all but unanimous in its support for the agreement. One might imagine that Tigrayans, who have endured a series of horrors during the two years of the conflict, would be especially jubilant over what was an apparent breakthrough, this, however, has not entirely been the case. In Tigray the deal has been met with a respite and a degree of caution.

Only time will tell whether or not the deal will hold, and exactly what political structures will emerge in Tigray as a result. It is axiomatic to assert that peace agreements are only as effective as their implementation. So far, the implementation of the Pretoria deal is lagging in civilian protection, aid provision, restoration of services, and withdrawal of forces. Another major issue – the establishment of an interim governance structure in Tigray also awaits implementation.

Marriage of convenience

Article 10 of the Pretoria deal aims to establish ‘an inclusive Interim Regional Administration (IRA) [that] will be settled through political dialogue between the Parties’ within a week of the GoE removing TPLF from its of terrorist organizations. The establishment of the IRA, the Pretoria deal states, ‘will be settled through political dialogue between the Parties.’ Under this arrangement, The Pretoria deal aims to bring about a forced marriage between the parties to Tigray’s TPLF and the Prosperity Party of Abiy Ahmed’s government, previously greatly at odds.

The face of the Pretoria deal

IRA constitutes an arrangement for a transitional governance structure. It will remain in power until elections are conducted that lead to the formation of a Regional Council that elects Tigray’s representative to the federal House of Peoples’ Representatives. These elections will be held under the supervision of the Ethiopian National Election Board.

The IRA thus constitutes a significant part of the Pretoria deal (and of implementing the Nairobi Declaration on Modalities) and its importance cannot be overstated. Whatever form the IRA eventually takes, it will in many ways determine not only the future of Tigray itself but also the nature of its relations with the Government of Ethiopia. The mutually assured distrust that marks relations between Tigray and Ethiopia’s federal state will not end soon and it is not impossible that Tigray, like the Oromia region before it, becomes characterized by the politics of resentment and resultant endemic violence. The IRA will be the public face of the Pretoria deal and will face demands from the population for more humanitarian aid and improved administration; it will have to take into account that reconstruction of a war-ravaged Tigray will require broad-based mobilization of all sectors of society. The IRA is therefore likely to sail into turbulent political waters. The surface of the Pretoria deal may seem smooth enough now but under it lies widespread and broad-based public resentments that inevitably will be a major factor in arriving at any final political settlement.

Between Eritrean federal forces and the Tigray population

A significant test of the IRA will be the skill it demonstrates in mediating between the several political and military forces in operation. First, the Federal forces now in control of most of Tigray; second, Tigrayan political parties and Tigrayan Defense Forces; and third, the population at large. These are weighty considerations that will require delicate, dangerous, arduous and complicated compromises. The Pretoria deal posits that access to humanitarian aid, ending siege, protecting civilians, resumption of vital public services, and rebuilding a functioning public service infrastructure will reduce the possibility of a return to violence. This may be true in part. Nonetheless, it is a more fundamental process of establishing inclusive governance and democratization within Tigray and the federation generally, that eventually will prevent a relapse into war. Such outcomes are rarely limited to purely economic factors but instead are exacerbated and restricted by political partisanship. Hence serious attention to politico-military and economic development will be critical to Pretoria deal’s success.

The most effective means of preempting the possibility of return to war would be to ensure the non-repetition of atrocity crimes, and that the will of the Tigrayan people, however expressed, is respected. Most importantly, the mandate of the IRA needs to reflect a multi-sectoral approach that addresses the causes of, and possible relapses into conflict, and center on preventing renewed outbreaks of war. In this regard, the perceived legitimacy of the IRA, its willingness to call on local expertise, and keeping its ear to the ground by cultivating closeness to the local population, are prime requisites.

A case for government of national unity

Bold initiatives such as the formation of a government of national unity in Tigray aimed at ensuring the IRA’s inclusivity would go a long way toward ensuring a successful peace process, even though the fundamental causes of past conflict remain. A government of national unity in Tigray would help build confidence quickly. Usually, governments of national unity are established during or after a time of war offering a coalition government consisting of major parties and stakeholder the opportunity to serve as a transitional mobilization of legitimacy and resources.

Matters such as public accountability, determining the will of the people and establishing permanent security institutions must be left for a future, duly elected government to be arrived at through a free, fair and credible election process

The IRA’s first job will be to spearhead the implementation of the Pretoria deal as the initial phase of public participation in creating a climate of security. This critically important task will demand a broad-based, inclusive governance structure that can bring together all Tigrayan stakeholders, including members of the Tigray Defense Force, political parties, youth and women’s organizations, scholars, religious leaders, civil society and minority ethnic communities. The IRA should not set out to deal with long-term political issues beyond humanitarian aid, economic recovery, the provision of security through law and order, and preparations for elections. Matters such as public accountability, determining the will of the people and establishing permanent security institutions must be left for a future, duly elected government to be arrived at through a free, fair and credible election process. In this regard, the nature of next election will serve as both lock and key to the success or failure of The Pretoria deal. The IRA and the upcoming elections will be instrumental in preventing a return to conflict by addressing the root causes of earlier wars, ensuring that genocide is a thing of the past, and encouraging and fast-tracking the implementation of post-conflict reconstruction. Hence creating understanding of the vital role of the observers (particularly those from the US and Europe with resources and leverage), and their active participation in the peace process as The Pretoria deal guarantors, must be a primary objective. The US administration in particular needs to show the same degree of commitment to the implementation of the Pretoria deal as it did take especial role in its negotiation.

Secondly, given the many outstanding questions on the precise terms of the Pretoria deal and Tigrayans’ deep-seated public hostility to Ethiopian state institutions, the IRA will face searching questions as to its legitimacy. Broad-based representation of the population in the IRA may to some extent mitigate that problem. But it must be recognized that Tigray is now home to a very young generation which is coming out of a vicious genocidal war as fighters for survival and that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions. The dominant public view in Tigray is that no federal institution is impartial or can be trusted; hence the Government of Ethiopia enjoys no popular legitimacy. Until trust is restored, it is unlikely that the population will cooperate fully with federal authorities. Tigray alone may not possess the numbers or the mandate to stabilize Ethiopia, but as has been amply demonstrated during two civil wars, Ethiopia will never be stable while there is conflict in Tigray. It is also true that governing a region like Tigray would be more successful in the context of a government of national unity, which would help promote political stability and forestall a potential Tigrayan insurrection.

Thirdly, though the TPLF was elected to government in the last September 2020 poll under a Tigrayan electoral board, that election was more of protest vote against attacks by the federal government and other hostile forces, than one of popular confidence in its capacity to govern Tigray. TPLF has been accused of failing to create a merit-based, dynamic, competent, economically prosperous regional state that is committed both to democracy and developmental delivery. Like other regional states, Tigray has been unable to exercise the principle of self-rule enshrined in the constitution due to the so-called ‘democratic centralism’ exercised by the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front coalition government that held federal office until 2018. Repeated calls for an end to a deeply entrenched, loyalty-based political system mired in corruption, and its replacement by a merit-based social structure, fell on deaf ears in the past and still does. Given the monopoly of power held by the TPLF to the exclusion of the opposition, to all intents and purposes Tigray has been a one-party political community lacking a culture of democracy, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

An end to a monopoly of power under one party for a time may lead to increased instability in the region; but a government of national unity would see the level of intra-Tigrayan conflict greatly diminished

Fourthly, in the coming months and years, Tigray’s political parties will face severe internal power struggles. New political realities may soon emerge on the ground. The IRA therefore will be involved in contentious issues of governance ranging from politics to resources and from security to humanitarian aid. Local communities and their traditional or religious leaders should be entrusted with the job of mediating differences among and between political parties. Local priorities and ownership are best assured by devolution or decentralized resource allocations, taking account of the diversities inherent in Tigray society. Moreover, if it is to be truly effective, the implementation of the agreement should be local in nature, because without ‘buy-in’ from local populations and legitimate popular leaders, The Pretoria deal will face severe hurdles in its execution.

Fifthly, like the rest of Ethiopia, Tigray in the past has lacked any space for the politics of toleration and pluralism. For the next elections to address the causes of past war and prevent future conflicts, the IRA needs to bring into Tigrayan politics and governance the voices of a new generation. The present Tigray state apparatus mirrors existing autocratic tendencies in the TPLF leadership and still constitutes a threat to a democratic dispensation.

More essentially, the question is whether Tigray can hold a democratic election while Ethiopia remains under autocratic governance. In tackling this problem the international community, especially the US, will play a vital role. An end to a monopoly of power under one party for a time may lead to increased instability in the region; but a government of national unity would see the level of intra-Tigrayan conflict greatly diminished.

Other heavy duties

There are myriad of duties involving peace-building will form a massive task for any transitional process such as IRA. It will involve, among other specifics, providing security and protection to the civilian population; addressing the gap between emergency aid and developmental reconstruction; protecting human rights and humanitarian codes; establishing participatory governance; repatriation of refugees; return and reintegration of Internally Displaced Persons; the establishment or re-establishment of businesses and individual livelihoods; and overall socio-economic development (mainly in food, health, shelter and education). Promoting economic recovery, generating growth – mainly through youth employment programs – and those leaving armed entities will also be a weighty exercise.

Conclusion: beyond stabilization

Although the end of military engagement might be seen as portending post-conflict politics, it must be borne in mind that most of the underlying causes of socio-political tension remain and could erupt into open conflict if their root causes are not addressed. The transitional period of The Pretoria deal implementation could offer an opportunity to build new political infrastructures aimed at bringing about safe political participation, pluralism, and the establishment of stable institutions capable both of upholding the diverse interests of society and reflecting the will of the people. One of the root causes of Ethiopia’s wars has been an obsolescent political system. The inference to be drawn might be that an obsolete system may need to be replaced by an entirely new one; Tigray therefore may have to build a new governance system ab initio. But such a project cannot succeed under an Ethiopian federal autocracy. In practice it would need a coordinated approach from a range of international players, in particular the UN, the EU and the US.

In sum, there is no quick fix for the problems of Tigray, but a government of national unity, comprising political figures who command real respect, would go far to prevent a relapse into conflict and war by building faith in domestic institutions. AS

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Editor’s Note: Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru is an academic focused on peace and security, law and governance, and humanitarian and migration issues. He tweets @DrMehari

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