“Three conundrums form what together might be called the ‘Tigray Dilemma and more aptly Tigray Quandary’.”

Mehari Taddele Maru (@DrMehari)

Addis Abeba, December 23/2019 – The tension between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and National Regional State of Tigray is getting more overt, complicated and acute. Rarely have the stakes been so high for Ethiopia. It is high time to take stock of this dangerous situation and proceed with circumspection, sensitivity, and wisdom.

In the most recent example of the tensions, on 20 December 2019, the Tigray regional state accused the federal government of forcefully disembarking a Chinese delegation in Addis Abeba from a plane flying to Mekelle. The delegation from Shanxi province, led by the Deputy Governor of the province, was traveling to meet officials of Tigray to discuss investment projects. Initiated by the Ethiopian Embassy in China and fulfilling all requirements set by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the delegation arrived in Ethiopia with the full knowledge, approval and facilitation of the Federal Government. The delegation had actually met officials of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture before its foiled attempt to travel to Tigray.

This measure breached an established practice of regional states receiving and sending foreign missions, pertaining to trade and investment, aid, culture and education. Regional states have been active participants of bilateral meetings with neighboring and other countries. Only recently, Dire Dawa, Oromia, and Southern regional states received delegations from China, while envoys from Western countries have visited regional states, including Tigray without any trouble. Thus, Tigray is the first regional state where delegations are prohibited by the Federal Government from visiting.  However, this was not the first such incident. In October this year, more than 15 Asian diplomats residing in Addis Abeba were instructed by the Federal Government to halt their visit to Tigray and return to Addis Abeba.

Constitutionally too, this measure is bizarre. While federalism and foreign relation is a topic of its own, suffice it to note that as per Article 51 (8) of the Constitution, foreign policy is a function of the federal government. Nonetheless, as practiced in Ethiopia and elsewhere, the federated constituent units have an increasing role in foreign relations, particularly in the form of para-diplomacy, constituent diplomacy, business diplomacy, and public diplomacy. To mention few: in Belgium, the regions are actually required to maintain their foreign relations.[1] The Swiss Cantons[2] not only conduct foreign relations but also have residual treaty making powers, including on matters of good neighborhood and public diplomacy. In the same vein, in Germany, Lander has increasingly enter into treaties in certain areas, mainly economic diplomacy.[3] Similarly, in India, states play prominent role in constituent diplomacy particularly cultural and business diplomacy.[4] Many of the constitutes of European federal countries have delegations and offices representing their interests in regional blocs such as European Union.

The basic requirement for constitute diplomacy are: respect to the federal constitution, and other constituent units, with a focus on economy (trade and investment), culture, and neighborhood and public diplomacy.[5]

…representatives of the Western countries in Addis Abeba, who now wield unprecedented influence over the federal government, know this very well, but they remain tight-lipped

Mutual assured distrust and grave political escalation

In a trend that has emerged over the past two years, no federal entity dares to take responsibility for actions that are most often blatantly illegal. These bizarre actions with regard to diplomats and delegations traveling to Tigray were not sanctioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is constitutionally mandated to deal with such issues, but rather came from mysterious entities of the federal government. Recall also the military plane with tens of heavily armed soldiers that were detained in Mekelle Alula Aba Nega Airport. The new norm is to act illegally and deny; it is increasingly representing a dangerous adventurism now ruling the country. These are plain facts. For that reason, representatives of the Western countries in Addis Abeba, who now wield unprecedented influence over the federal government, know this very well, but they remain tight-lipped.

The issue is neither about diplomacy nor about power politics between EPRDF and TPLF. At its core is the nature of the Ethiopian state and its future. It is symptomatic of the coming anarchic political relations between regional states ruled by a party opposed to a ruling party at the Federal level. It signals considerable turbulent undercurrent beneath the unruffled surface of what supporters of the new leadership now call transitional period. 

Suffice to say that the recent odd actions on visiting foreign delegations, the fake news by Walta Information Center on the death of the Vice President of Tigray, the decisions to merge the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition, and the investigation outcomes on the assassinations of the late Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces General Seare Mekonnen, the President of Amhara National Regional State Dr Ambachew Mekonnen and others have once again ignited a longstanding debate on Tigray’s relations with the rest of Ethiopia.

The root cause of this grave political escalation is the mutual assured distrust that characterizes the relations between Tigray and the federal movement at this moment in time. But where will this escalation end?

The Tigray Quandary

For some time now, Tigray has been holding a conversation with itself, as it did in 1989 and early 1990s when a significant number of TPLF fighters refused to move south beyond Tigray’s regional border, claiming that other communities in Ethiopia needed to fight against the Derg military regime and liberate their areas as Tigray had done. As a consequence of that refusal, the military advance to remove the Derg from Addis Abeba was delayed for months.

It should be recalled that Tigray Vice President Debretsion Gebremicahel acknowledged in a recent interview that there was growing public sentiment in the region towards secession from Ethiopia. A former President of Tigray, Gebru Asrat, confirmed this in another, more recent interview. 

Although by no means a revelation, the admission came as a surprise to some scholars, Ethiopian and foreign alike. Given the historical record and the recent role played by Tigray in Ethiopia’s nationhood and federation, it was no surprise that some observers considered talk of secession a bluff.

Reading the public sentiment and ongoing discourse in Tigray, it is nonetheless easy to conclude that the secession agenda is a serious one. A close scrutiny of the rising feelings among the youth indicates that Tigray has never before experienced such a groundswell of public sentiment on secession. It would be a mistake to dismiss this as empty political grandstanding or a grand negotiating tactic: the outcome of the debate will surely go far to determine the future of Tigray in particular, and probably Ethiopia in general. What has caused this drastic shift in the public mood in a region that was the ‘seedbed’[6] of ancient Ethiopian civilization and a trailblazer of the federation? Is it to become a torchbearer of confederation or even secession? 

Anger at TPLF

Like other regional states in Ethiopia, Tigray is in transition, but with different motivation for change and ultimate aims compared to the others. Uniquely, in Tigray the political transition began in a state of confusion that later morphed into anger. On the one hand, the anger was – and still is – directed inward to the old leadership of Tigray’s ruling party TPLF but was also outward.  On the other, it reveals itself into the antagonism with the EPRDF (of which TPLF was a leading coalition member).

Within Tigray, the TPLF is accused of failing to create a merit-based, dynamic, competent, economically prosperous regional state committed to both democracy and developmental delivery. Like the other regional states, Tigray was unable to exercise the principle of self-rule enshrined in the constitution due to EPRDF’s principle of democratic centralism. EPRDF, as a ruling party with coalition members in control of the regional states, has reduced the de jure federalism into de facto centralization. Repeated public calls for an end to a deeply entrenched, loyalty-based political system and its replacement by a merit-based social structure have fallen on deaf ears in the past and indeed still do. For the overwhelming majority of Tigreans, the narrative of Tigray domination of Ethiopian political economy is not only false but a deliberate plot of distortion that has nothing with realities on the ground. Save its support to the current constitution, Tigray, like the other regional states, is full of public grievances on the implementation of the constitution and the governance.

For long time and by its own account, TPLF swore in the name of Tigray and its people that it would ensure a corruption-free responsive governance in the state.  But under its leadership, corruption has become rampant and TPLF’s apparent political dynamism has lacked substance. Until recently, divisions within the Tigrean elite were rife and are still to be fully resolved. The Tigray state apparatus mirrored existing autocratic tendencies in the TPLF leadership and is still a threat to a democratic dispensation. Publicly disseminated ‘progress reports’ have been marked by exaggerated claims and in some cases outright lies. Delivery of public goods has been poor and the violation of individual rights in pursuit of personal interests, among other human rights abuses, is pervasive. Tigreans of all walks of life were forced to surrender to apathy, resign to their unfortunate fate; or opt for total avoidance of anything to do with Tigray’s state apparatus, instead preferring to work (and invest) outside the region. Trends are drastically changing in recent years, in the number of investment pledges and road under construction.

Public anger is not limited to the governance of Tigray but extends to the way in which the TPLF has handled federal matters. For many, the present state of affairs in Ethiopia generally is partly attributable to the mistakes made by TPLF as the core element of EPRDF. Despite its great success on the security, economic and diplomatic fronts, EPRDF has failed to ensure individual human rights, combat rampant corruption and internal decay.  What is more, TPLF’s petty and unprincipled domestic squabbles have contributed to the paralysis first of its own leadership and then that of EPRDF. While other members of EPRDF were gaining considerable standing at national and international levels, TPLF leaders were at each other’s throats.

Although divisions persist within Tigray, it is anger and grievances at, and distrust of, the political forces of ‘majoritarianism’ that generally characterize the political discourse

TPLF’s inertia has permitted adversaries of Tigray to gain the upper hand in many parts of Ethiopia.  As a result, some believe that Tigreans felt that all the sacrifices made in and by Tigray and the state’s positive influence on the political and economic emergence of the new Ethiopian federation have been squandered, resulting in the region being seen in a negative light by other Ethiopians. In a strategic blunder, TPLF has mismanaged the progressive forces of equality that could have drawn together the most sustainable and lasting allies of genuine federalism in the broader Ethiopia. Many are furious with the TPLF for having squandered Tigray’s existing strategic alliances – and others it might have – that were developed with progressive forces in other regional states and communities. This grave error by the TPLF leadership has endangered the social bases of the federal constitution. Now, in Tigray, an undercurrent of public anger has taken a new turn into a process of introspection reinforced by a public outcry over TPLF leadership (or the lack of it), failure of the members of EPRDF to defend their own positive wins such as the economy, security and diplomacy, and is sliding into a generalized mood sympathetic to secession.

Deep distrust towards ethnic majoritarian forces

Although divisions persist within Tigray, it is anger and grievances at, and distrust of, the political forces of ‘majoritarianism’ that generally characterize the political discourse. Many in Tigray expected that their sacrifices and successes in removing the unitary military regime and establishing a federative system, reconstituting Ethiopia and in the process spurring impressive economic development, would stamp a lasting positive impression of Tigray on Ethiopian politics. But such a process has been frustrated by EPRDF (with TPLF at its center) and by various other political forces. Ethiopia’s new leaders, the opposition and the EPRDF itself have both perfidiously and selectively depicted Tigreans as the nation’s most corrupt people, while Tigray is portrayed as a region that has benefited disproportionally from federally funded projects. The federal government and the EPRDF have allowed such attacks, in some cases orchestrated by EPRDF members, to continue. Tigreans are not only angry at the failure of the EPRDF leadership to defend the rights of all citizens equally; they also resent the active and passive role the EPRDF leadership has played in dehumanizing Tigreans. Now, as many other Ethiopians, Tigray and Tigreans perceive the denial of peace and tranquility they sought and fought for over so many years as an affront to their struggle.

Even worse (and with a potentially long-lasting political impact), Tigreans have come to develop a deeper distrust in the Ethiopian political processes and structure. Pressure on TPLF to leave EPRDF and seek alliances with other forces working toward a consensus-based federation is not only a real question for Tigray that demands a real response, but also a strategic issue.  

Three conundrums

Three conundrums form what together might be called the ‘Tigray Dilemma and more aptly Tigray Quandary’.

First, the assimilationist and majoritarian overarching ‘Ethiopianness’ (‘Ethiopiawinet’) dilemma; second, the numbers related to majoritarian dilemma; and third, the security dilemma. For Tigray to play a meaningful role in building a harmonious Ethiopian society, these three conundrums need to be resolved. The options of a consensus federation, a confederation or outright secession closely intertwine with these dilemmas.

In the first conundrum, Tigray has always been the seedbed of a broader Ethiopianism, while at the same time a victim of the assimilationist culture and governance of modern Ethiopia’s ruling elite.  In consequence, it was and now is on a collision course with the majoritarian agenda. The 800-year history of the Axumite kingdom of the first century AD, the 1896 battle of Adwa which saw victory over the Italian colonial power, the Abrahamic religions (Christian and Islam), and a particular language and culture, all have contributed to a sense of uninterrupted statehood in the collective psychology of Ethiopians and remain the bedrock of modern Ethiopianism. The history of Axum and that of the Orthodox Church, as well as that of the Prophet Muhammad’s first hijra when his followers fled persecution to Negashi in Abyssinia in 613, all constitute a genesis without which Ethiopian history would be both incomplete and defective. Tigray was – and remains – central to the story of both ancient and modern Ethiopia but it has been forced to the periphery by an absolutist Ethiopianism that for many decades denied Tigray its autonomy, unity and cultural identity. Indeed, in some political circles, Tigray and Tigreans are still portrayed as anti-Ethiopia and anti-Ethiopiawinet. Now, a new national elite is emerging that hews to the old absolute majoritarianism and certainly will be vehemently opposed by Tigray and its people to the point of total rejection. 

As noted above, Tigray and its people have played a critical part in the progressive religious, political, military and cultural history of Ethiopia. From the 18th century nobleman Ras Mikael Sehul to Emperor Yohannes IV and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and from General Ras Alula in the 19th century to General Hayelom Araya two decades ago, the history of Ethiopia is replete with distinguished names from Tigray and their contribution cannot be understated.

Moreover, Tigray paid dearly for Ethiopia’s independence: Most of the wars against invaders and the battles during the civil war under the Derg were fought in Tigray’s soil (as well as in neighboring Eritrea). Tigray state and its people stood with their Ethiopian sisters and brothers at the center of the widespread pre-1974 peasant revolts and the 1974 revolution that ended the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. Since then, both the peasant revolts and a burgeoning Ethiopian student resistance movement centered on Tigray have formed the vanguard of attempts to build a progressive Ethiopianwinet that allows for dignified means of finding Ethiopian identity while maintaining Tigray’s administrative autonomy and particular culture. But a re-written Ethiopian history disregards their legitimate place in politics, as in other fields, as if they never existed.

How could the cradle of Ethiopiawinet become the ‘enemy’ of Ethiopia? The answer lies in the inability of Ethiopian elites including from Tigray and mainly from the numerically larger cultures to properly govern diversity in the country. Unfortunately, proponents of majoritarianism may now repeat this failure of governance that led to protracted civil war and bloodshed earlier. The politics of the ‘tyranny of numbers’ has reduced Tigray’s long-standing role to almost zero, thus bringing to the forefront the second dilemma, that of numbers.  The trend is worsening in that it denies any political space for present-day Tigray and its people, even to receive and deliberate investors in its capital Mekelle. They are therefore fearful that majoritarian democracy will be used permanently to deprive them of any role in Ethiopia’s future, and worst to develop their region applying policies they see it fit. Some politicians from numerically larger communities now depict Tigray as anti-democratic despite its having fought for a democratic and federative dispensation in Ethiopia. This politics of numbers pushes Tigray and Tigreans into a corner and stokes anger and resentment against the old absolutist, and the emerging majoritarian, elites.

The third conundrum, the security dilemma, arises from and is compounded by the first two, particularly the dilemma of numbers. The federal government is perceived to take a stand against Tigray with regard to the flash points of border disputes with Amhara regional state and Eritrea. The associated rhetoric of armed confrontation presents a security dilemma for Tigray.

Ethno-nationalist activists ostensibly working to ameliorate grievances of specific ethnic groups or – most often – operating in the name of an absolute Ethiopiawinet, have fueled anger in their respective constituencies by scapegoating Tigreans

Ethno-nationalist activists ostensibly working to ameliorate grievances of specific ethnic groups or – most often – operating in the name of an absolute Ethiopiawinet, have fueled anger in their respective constituencies by scapegoating Tigreans. Tigray’s opponents have contrived to make use of TPLF’s mistakes to depict Tigreans as anti-Oromo and anti-democratic. Under a thinly veiled narrative of ‘Tigray dominance’ and alleged ‘minority government’, Tigreans have been demonized as hell-bent on dominating Ethiopia by sheer force. Employing ethnic genocide-directed campaigns and untruthful narratives, some activists (aided by some media outlets) have succeeded in stoking hatred against Tigray  and in some cases, have even broadcast ‘news’ with genocidal intents.

These attacks generally are based not on facts but on the tyranny of numbers, resting on the idea that Tigreans constitute a relatively smaller community (though is the third or fourth largest community) with a limited capacity to fight a furious populist assault. Such forces are using the old methods of conspiratorial ‘divide and rule’ to undermine the unity of Tigray while deliberately working to push the regional state into a condition of permanent deprivation and conflict. Using as a pretext some boundary disputes concerning Tigray regional state, the new elites of absolutist Ethiopiawinet, allied with emerging ethno-nationalist elements and also some external forces strategically hostile to Ethiopia, have already created a security problem in Tigray  that poses a clear and present danger to the region.

Against this background, despite a peaceful transition of power, the federal government’s selective prosecution of Tigrean former officials of the federal government, the obstruction of the visit by the Chinese delegation, the fake news propagated by media outlets under the purview of the ruling party, the assassination of generals from the region, initiatives such as those of the boundary commission, and recent partisan political recommendations by leaders of judiciary and old commissions considered purely political issues are fueling the deep distrust Tigray has against these elites in the center. The dominant public view is no federal institution (including parliament, judicial bodies, national human rights institutions and even the reconciliation commission) is impartial or can be trusted; hence they lack any popular legitimacy in Tigray. Until trust is restored, it is unlikely that Tigray regional state officials will cooperate fully with federal authorities; if they do, they will face public fury. Tigray alone may not possess the numbers or the mandate to stabilize Ethiopia, but the security dilemma they face will add to the instability the country is facing. 

In the final analysis, Tigray and its people have been left to fend for their own security in the face of populist, absolutist and majoritarian mobilizations of numerically larger communities and even potential armed confrontations in the disputed border areas. Now, anger and confusion within Tigray   are hardening into an attitude of permanent grievance against the Federal Government, bringing about a mobilization of opinion and a surge of populism formerly alien to Tigray.

Drift to secession

New realities have emerged on the ground in Tigray. While in the nation’s capital Addis Abeba a new form of majoritarianism is emerging and absolutist populism hardening, in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, the public mood is drifting towards secession.

The sudden emergence of Debretsion as unquestioned leader is more than anything else a result of the determination of the younger generation itself to chart the future direction of Tigray.

Tigray is home to a very young, mobile but above all free generation which is forever demanding inclusive leadership of the freedom generation. This young generation seems to recognize that no official or party can or will save Tigray and Tigreans from rising threats from beyond its regional borders and aims to take the fate of the state into its own hands – the desirability, according many, of which is perhaps the greatest lesson Tigray has learned from the past decades of transition in Ethiopia, in which TPLF as part of EPRDF has failed to deliver. The new generation is demanding a more vibrant, dynamic and democratic Tigray led by creative and inclusive leaders with strategic foresight.  For this very reason the young demography in Tigray is unlikely to submit itself to the forces of democratic centralism from Addis Abeba or for that matter from elsewhere, which have created a sense that members of the ruling party are more concerned and committed Tigreans than are non-members, and have killed Tigray’s former culture of innovation, institutional independence and empowerment. As a politico-cultural weapon in the real world, democratic centralism has destroyed meritocracy and replaced it by networking and corruption. Intellectual capacity has been debased while those holding animus towards Tigray are aiming for the new moral high ground.

For this reason, the new leadership of Tigray under Debretsion has enjoyed a significant surge of popular support over the past few months. This reflects the high level of political consciousness among Tigrean youth and a population that yearns for – and demands – a unity of purpose around certain principles. The sudden emergence of Debretsion as unquestioned leader is more than anything else a result of the determination of the younger generation itself to chart the future direction of Tigray. His open approach as leader has been a particular contributor to this, but that style is largely a creation and a reflection of Tigrean youth.

Furthermore, the new generation in Tigray is demanding yet more political reform by way of reconciliation and healing through achieving closure on past human rights abuses and urging the utmost current observance of human rights. Over the next few years demands for better public service delivery, improved job opportunities and sustainable development free of corruption will increase and in turn may lead to more protests. As the relation between Tigray and the federal government has to be invented, the governance within Tigray needs to be reinvented.


Historically, Tigray has preached the democratic unity of equals while talk of secession has been associated more with Oromia. In a surprise turn of events, it is Oromia that is of late emulating the Tigray discourse of democratic unity under majoritarianism, while the new generation of Tigreans is posing serious questions on the kind of relations Tigray forges with the rest of Ethiopia. Like other members of EPRDF, TPLF may not survive as a party if it is removed from office; but to retain power it needs to heed the voice of Tigray’s youth, which is saying ‘consensus federation or secession’. In the minds of the youth in Tigray, the old Ethiopia has gone forever, never to return: Only the future lends itself to negotiations of interests and consensus-based federalism. Absent an improvement in the federal government, TPLF increasingly will find itself squeezed by more nationalist youth movements in Tigray, putting Tigray federalists on the back foot. Debretsion’s Reporter interview cited previously is indicative of this new public pressure. If it were not for the forbearance of its leadership, it is doubtful that TPLF would stay in the EPRDF coalition with the Oromo Democratic Party and the Amhara Democratic Party, both of which are perceived to be hostile to Tigray and indeed to the TPLF itself.

Within Tigray, the most urgent task should be to begin creating an elite sufficiently enlightened to overcome societal divisions while steering clear of skirmishes on petty issues and promoting a vision for a dynamic regional state

Within Tigray, the most urgent task should be to begin creating an elite sufficiently enlightened to overcome societal divisions while steering clear of skirmishes on petty issues and promoting a vision for a dynamic regional state that plays a prominent role in the Ethiopian polity. This elite should avoid looking back and focus on furthering a progressive agenda in Ethiopia’s national political and economic life. It should become the champion for perfecting the current federation of cultures and the creation of a looser federation of a progressive, multicultural Ethiopian polity.  This requires a new vision and energy that unites Tigreans around a self-sufficient, dynamic, democratic and well-developed Tigray confident enough to negotiate its future. For this to come about, the older generation of TPLF leaders and functionaries will have to step aside and allow newcomers to lead a new freedom generation.

Past glories have gone; a new history needs to be made. Tigray state itself needs to shed old habits of control and begin real reform. In this regard it should also set an example to other regional states by urgently calling on all strands of political opinion to join a state-level Tigray regional dialogue to address both old and new grievances. Such a dialogue should lead to solid institutional reforms that confer on the regional state popular legitimacy and gain the support of all peoples within and beyond Tigray. Such a dialogue would not only help forge a unifying shared vision for Tigray but would also contribute to reconciliation at the federal level. The outcomes of such reconciliation forums should assist in carrying out economic and political transformation within Tigray and in moving forward with the transformation towards consensus federalism.

Like many other cultural communities, Tigray would benefit from the establishment of a consensus-based federalism and constitutional democracy, along with other Ethiopian progressive forces urging equality, and needs to work for such an outcome, based on a federation of cultures. This would be impossible without addressing the Tigray dilemmas outlined above, particularly the security issue.  Facing down the tyranny of numbers that in the past has led Ethiopia into civil war, all Ethiopians – especially those from Oromia and Amhara – need to reach out and build alliances with those who can critically evaluate their role in current and past crises; and search sincerely for common ground and for peace, reciprocal respect, equality, democracy and sustainable development free of corruption.

Recall our own h­istory: it was when unionists and majoritarianism indulged themselves in a false sense of victory that the seeds of Eritrean independence were sown. AS

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

[1] David Criekemans, 2010, Foreign Policy and Diplomacy of the Belgian Regions: Flanders and Wallonia, Clingedael, Hague.

[2] Article 56 Constitution of Switzerland. See also Roland Portmann, 2019, Foreign Affairs Federalism in Switzerland, Oxford Handbook of Comparative Relations Law.

[3] Klaus Otto Nass, The Foreign and European Policy of the German Lander, The Journal of Federalism, Vol 19, Fall 1989.

[4] Rob Jenkins, 2003, India’s States and the Making of Foreign Economic Policy: The Limits of the Constituent Diplomacy Paradigm, Emerging Federal Process in India, Vol 33, No. 4.

[5] John Kincaid, 1999, Constituent Diplomacy in Federal Polities and the Nation State: Conflict and Cooperation, Oxford University Press. 

[6] The term ‘seedbed’ is borrowed from Talcott Parsons, Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives, 1966, cited and also used in Donald Levin’s piece on Axsum as Seedbed, unpublished, 2009.

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