Viewpoint

Is Tigray really a drop in the bucket for Abiy’s administration?

“Who exceeds you as little as a grain of taff reduces you to that triviality” — Tigrayan proverb

Many Tigrayans are wondering why Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration has taken such a morally questionable turn against their region. They believe the stance reflects poorly on the leader’s political acumen and undermines his otherwise welcome reform agenda.

This is how an unseemly affair has unfolded so far.

Following his confirmation as Prime Minister on April 2, Abiy quickly arranged a trip to Tigray. At that news, there was no shortage of Tigrayans bursting with hope that the new premier would bring change while valuing the constructive elements of the system that they have paid so much for.

In a paper presented at a mid-December conference in Mekelle, former senior government official Bereket Simon explained: “The new leadership’s reception was initially good as the people were ready to try any change that came their way.”

Abiy’s welcome at Alula Aba Nega airport was colorful and respectful, the sort of thing leaders crave. Regional dignitaries lined-up in a red-carpeted parking lot with a marching band and choir. Abiy was hailed with blissful smiles, chants, and ululations, sprayed with grass and petals. On the way to the conference, he was saluted by a parade of school children.

The vehicle has come to a shuddering halt

At the Martyrs’ Memorial Monument, Abiy placed a bouquet as a gesture to the region’s government and people. Next, to nationwide amazement, he made his speech in Tigrigna. Moreover, it was so flowery that it sent an already giddy audience into ecstasy. Every sentence was accompanied by thunder-like applause from a full house in Tigray’s biggest hall. But bringing excitement to a confused and desperate people was not such a difficult task.

The most widely repeated remark was Abiy comparing Tigray to Ethiopia’s engine. But since then, instead of cruising in top gear, the vehicle has come to a shuddering halt.

After the speech, the Prime Minister switched to Amharic to answer questions—and that seemed to trigger a change in his mindset too, as he forgot sugary sentiments and derided the ruling party: “The TPLF appears as a lion only in old images.”

This verbal slight was barely noticed, however, as the ovations cascaded into one another. Tigrayans were also at fault here. Most likely, Abiy would not have dissed his hosts if they had been more cautious in their reception. But, as Bereket pointed out, the people were longing for a change, and so welcomed its embodiment with open arms.

With a covert ambition to degrade the TPLF, and therefore debase the Tigrayan people, detectible in his first visit, Abiy then showed his hand by openly assailing the region’s ruling party. This encouraged the state- and party-affiliated media to slam the 27-year administration in which the TPLF, and by extension Tigrayans, are perceived as the main actors and beneficiaries.

Verbal violence

The first piece of verbal violence came in a television briefing that immediately followed the Meskel Square blast at the Abiy support rally. He alleged “day-time hyenas” were responsible for attempts to reverse reforms.

It was an underhand reference to the dead hand of the TPLF. And traditionally, if a hyena is caught during the day, it would be strung up; hence Abiy’s use of the expression hinted the same. This shocked many, and arguably paved the way for an escalation of mistrust and mob justice—as several grisly incidents then evidenced.

Next was Abiy’s comment in parliament that appeared to try and drive a wedge between the party and the people: “TPLF and the people of Tigray aren’t one and the same. The people are poor and have nothing and would never deserve such denigration together with the malefactor.” This angered TPLF leaders, who viewed it as an effort to undermine them, and it didn’t go down well with regular folk either.

When Abiy was in the U.S. at the end of July, his uber-casual reaction to the death of Semegnew Bekele, the project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, was alarming to many Ethiopians, especially Tigrayans, who are highly supportive of the project. But it was another reported comment by Abiy on the trip that marked the height of the antagonism: “If we must die, at least we wouldn’t die in a local beer house.” This was taken as a reference to the death of the most respected Tigrayan hero, Major General Hayelom Araya, who was assassinated in 1996 in a bar restaurant in Addis Ababa.

This slur was too much for any proud Tigrayan

We may have our own issues with TPLF veterans and their ways, but this slur was too much for any proud Tigrayan to take. The nation’s motor seemed to have morphed into a drop in the bucket. But what is not clear is why; therefore we must speculate.

Most recently, when the government mounted a purge of the security apparatus, Tigrayan officials were considered selectively targeted for prosecution, a perception enhanced in Tigray by the state propaganda documentaries that accompanied the crackdown: “Tigrigna-speaking prison officials and guards were the abusers of Amhara and Oromo prisoners,” it said. Such gratuitous provocation enraged many.

In the circuitous backwardness of Ethiopian politics, which is plagued by personal and communal grudges, is Abiy perhaps playing out an internal dispute? We know a decade ago he clashed with his former boss at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Tekleberhan Woldearegay, a Tigrayan and TPLF veteran. When Tekleberhan stepped away from his INSA perch to study in the U.K., Abiy became lord of his manor.

The upstart deputy faced a grilling from party colleagues for his impetuous ambitions. An early sign of this feud’s ongoing significance was the little-reported arrest six months ago of Biniam Tewolde, a senior INSA figure, although this securocrat’s superficially inconsequential fate became something of a cause célèbre in Tigray because of the perceived persecution.

Futile feuds 

It is conceivable that Abiy’s past feuds gained new momentum when they were coupled with the concerns of the Amhara elite, and their struggles to regain influence. That is to say, maybe he became more receptive to Amhara claims to Wolkait and Raya the more irritated he got by TPLF intransigence.

In an even more historic contest, the protests allowed the Oromo elite to assume a long-aspired position dominating Ethiopia, so it made sense for Abiy to ensure the TPLF was not just dead, but also buried as the nation’s most powerful single political entity.

And what about the armed prophet theory, the Machiavellian musing that claims a leader should be militaristic and force their will upon his subjects? According to this strategy, in order to shape the course of history, and for the sake of building the leader’s reputation, Abiy and allies had to remove regional governments, and therefore felt compelled to encircle the TPLF. After Tigray falls, the entire nation can plunge together through the medemer process.

So Abiy is perhaps influenced by low politics of personal feuds, as well as the great game.

A major faultline is the tendency, particularly strong among those Amhara elites, but pervasive nationwide, to equate the TPLF and the Tigrayan people. This tactical and theoretical misstep has been the main reason for TPLF’s survival; hence the Tigrayan people continue to suffer from the excesses of its repressive rulers.

Tigray may perhaps eventually succumb

Needless to say, TPLF long ago succeeded in convincing Tigrayans to treat the party with respect. But that strong bond was used to manipulate and stifle instead of producing a more democratic society. Now, to the disappointment of progressive Tigrayans, Abiy’s squeeze on Tigray is allowing the TPLF to regenerate its popular support, effectively exonerating the party of its failures and trespasses.

To subdue the formerly dominant actors of the EPRDF, dangerous tactics have been employed. There has been the media harassment and psychophysical encirclement of Tigray. For example, the Mekelle-Addis Ababa highway was blocked for several months until it was recently opened by the military. Abiy has even embraced the clout of regional countries against one of his own regional states, as the antagonism of Isaias Afewerki was brought to bear.

These moves seem to spring from a frustrated ambition to replace and control, as happened in other regional administrations. Replacing Tigray’s government has not proved easy, partly because Abiy’s administration has little acceptance among Tigrayans. Can he eventually win back their admiration that he fleetingly enjoyed? Worryingly, unless there is a fundamental rethink, it does not look like it.

The soft warfare through party organs and out of the Attorney General’s Office seem set to continue, and perhaps they will be supplemented by more ruthless tactics. The tension with Amhara is worsening, with both sides seemingly dedicated to destabilization. Will it all help subdue TPLF and the people it rules over? Maybe. With almost the entire state resource at its disposal, the Abiy administration can place them both into its giant maw. Tigray may perhaps eventually succumb, although surely at huge material and spiritual cost to the nation.

Reality bites

But by the same token, the TPLF will not simply surrender, and, above all, Tigrayans will not cave either—and this is not simply the empty bravado of the party line. Former chief of staff Tsadkan Gebretensae, who fell out with the TPLF almost two decades ago, said at the conference: “If there will be war, as that is what seems at the zenith of the chaotic situation, I don’t believe Tigray will fail to defend itself militarily. And if we enter into war the result will be an equally assured destruction. Therefore, we have to do everything to avoid it.”

Abiy’s moves look like the result of an erroneous calculation. The reality is that Tigray is not and never has been a drop in the Ethiopian bucket, both in terms of its power and its role in the nation-building process. Rather, Tigray, with its history of resistance and resolute people, is an iceberg smack bang in the middle of the path of a coercive medemer process.

The current trajectory damages hopes of reconciliation and socio-political integration, as Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil recognized in a tearful speech to the Annual Conference of Women’s League of the EPRDF in Mekelle recently: “We Ethiopians, members and officials in our party, are living as a country due to sacrifices made by our fathers. So we are indivisible: I am in you and you are in me. So how did we desire to look down on one another with pride, despising, staring at one another, wishing for one another to kneel down?”

Reform should come from within

Clearly, if our elites do not get their act together, as Muferiat beseeched them to, and conflict ensues, history will register that occurrence in its darkest pages. And Abiy’s record, especially in the Tigrayan version of history, will be tainted.

So, how shall we work things out? Will there be a change of policy to propagate the positive aspects of medemer, and help bring on board Tigrayans? Is there not a better way to facilitate positive reforms in Tigray? The answer is that the reform should come from within, as the most durable change is the one that is brought by its own inner force. Just as the viability of a nestling increases if the power of life and change inside the egg orchestrates its hatching.

Otherwise, if the inept calculations of retaliatory forces continue to depict Tigray as a drop in the bucket, and hence the mad dogs of aggression are unleashed, the Tigrayan proverb that says: “who exceeds you as little as a grain of taff reduces you to that triviality” will have held true.

Query or correction? Email us

Note: Article amended on Jan. 19 to correct spelling of Muferiat Kamil and alter paragraph order

Main photo: Part of Mekelle Martyrs’ Monument; Nov. 24, 2015; William Davison

This is the author’s Viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight is responsible for clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

Related Insight

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Dec. 16, Violent Qemant dispute fueling explosive Amhara-Tigray divide

Oct. 28, After Eritrea thaw, Tigray’s southern border with Amhara heats up

Oct. 21, Ethiopia: Climbing Mount Uncertainty

Sep 26, Mob killings split Ethiopians as political fault lines test Abiy’s big tent

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About the author

Nebiyu Sihul Mikael

Nebiyu is an English Literature lecturer at Mekelle University, a political analyst, and social activist. He is the author of historical novels in Tigrigna and English

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30 Comments

  • I highly doubt that Tigray will succumb to any aggressor. The choices seem pretty simple to me, a Tigrian. Live under dominance, or truly own your destiny. We know what will happen once Shoan Politics will do once it takes hold in Tigray. It’ll be too late fighting it once it takes hold. We need real federalism, none of that TPLF fake stuff. I, as a Tigrian, am choosing to live with TPLF, not because I love that back stabbing party, but because what follows after it’s demise is worse for me and my kin. My language will be dominated, my way of life will be dominated, my culture will be reduced to nothing. I’d rather not live than live under cultural tyranny. Real federalism, and along with that, real autonomy is what we are looking for. Any attempts to go backward on my martyr fathers and mothers promise to my generation will result in disaster. Real democratic federalism now. Real respect to the ethnic groups of Ethiopia equally now. An Ethiopia that doesn’t guarantee me safety, right to work anywhere, allow me to develop my language and way of life, is not a country to me. The government ought to thread really really carefully.

  • Hi Nebiyu
    I have read your article. Well written and organized, resulting in coherent product.
    I think you are looking for answers on how Abiy rose to power and how will TPLF end.
    My guess is that he was recruited by the powerful Amara diaspora located in USA, not by Oromo activists. Powerful activist Jawar Mohammed has also been converted to Ethiopiawinnet which gives cover to the blatant Amara nationalism. As well, the Anuak activist Obang Metho. Both still hold that their missions are for the rights of their tribes but under a reformed Ethiopia. Gobena Dache may have believed so when he joined Menelik with all his soldiers against Tewodros.
    Abiy’s reformist views were heard openly at EPRDF meetings, which cannot be construed as ‘personal feuds’ during the protest in Oromo and Amara, for which EPRDF chose rather draconian measures. Ethiopian security services should have known this but trusted their state of emergencies will triumph.
    TPLF may disintegrate just like the Emperor Yohanis’ officials and army dissolved, some by joining MenelikII, some by going abroad and the rest staying within Tigray. What measures Abiy will take to effect TPLF’s disintegration, we have to wait and see.

  • Better to sustain such articles realistic, from all perspective and upto speechs’ time ordor than a personal opinion that still prefered to say Tigray and TPLF are one…

  • I certainly believe that giving personal criticism is good and appreciated.More over pointing out words in every aspect is not good and it’s better to understand the contextual parts,time and event.Dr.Abey asserted each and every statement on the basis of good ground and time manner. Do not take a single word in order to blame the whole agenda and the good thing that he did .we are watching every aspect of his achievement with in a very short period of time and imagine What will be happen? if the PM continue for the coming 27 years as Meles .we will see a lot of his best career. Any ways let the chance for other …..every thing has it’s own limit and enough is enough for T.P.L.F.

  • Subversion is legal in Ethiopia, it seems. From the PM to everybody else on media, all are subversive agents or subverted idiots. Maybe another 40 yrs to get some clarity, yes?

  • I find this writer to be a rather unsubtle apologist for the TPLF. He begins by making the unwarranted assertion that Abiy and his government have taken “a morally questionable turn against the region” without providing any evidence or reason for such claim. This reflects exactly the narrative that the TPLF has been propagating for the last few months. The Tigrean people have indeed wished for change as much as other Ethiopians. It is disingenuous on his part to claim that the PM and his administration did not include Tigray and the Tigrean people in their reform agenda when the TPLF has done nothing but its utmost to obstruct their efforts. The need for change was not an artificially generated scheme by the PM, but it was the logical consequence of 27 years of intolerably oppressive administration. The writer makes also the unpardonable mistake of conflating the demands of the people of Tigray with those of the TPLF. What is good for one is not necessarily good for the other; conversely what is detrimental to one may not be to the other. There is also a clear misleading statement that the writer tries to give credence in this piece. And that is that officials of the Tigrean people have been charged and prosecuted for crimes and corruption in numbers far greater than officials of other ethnic groups. The fact of the matter is that Tigreans have been represented in overwhelming number in the higher echelon of the administration for nearly a quarter of a century. And it is but logical that they would be responsible for the unprecedented level of corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power. As the saying goes “with greater power comes greater responsibility”. Abiy’s “strategy” of driving a wedge between the Tigrean people and the TPLF is not done out of simple political expediency, as the author seems to imply, but to end TPLF’s tendency to arrogate itself alone the right to speak for Tigray. It was also as a way of including the Tigrean people in his reform agenda to which the TPLF was grudgingly opposed. It is ironic that the writer accuses Abiy of being a Machiavellian when there has never been a more Machiavellian politician than Ato Meles Zenawi and his politburo. If the TPLF is on the rebound and Abiy’s call for “Medemer” or unity goes unheeded in Tigray , it is thanks to apologists such as this writer.

    • I totally agree with you. Especially how he uses Kimant people as leverage to sound genuine. On the contrarily he or Getachew read doesn’t give rat ass about poor Kimant farmers. What I don’t understand is the arogant Amhara who are killing the Kimant people. There is a proverb it says:- you hit the sack when you scared of the donkey who carries it. Amhara please show your mucsle to TPLF if you have to nit Kimant. I read Asaminew saying we only heard of Kimant 5 years ago:(:(:( I feel sorry for suck ignorant people. Kimants are considered the oldest people in Africa. Asaminew you don’t represent Amhara only yourself.

  • What an analysis. Despite of all the appreciation to the prime minister he wrongly went on all the issues we have trusted him much and he decided to be on the wrong side of history including the war against wellaga.

    His wrongdoing made him helpless in this critical time of the country.
    Too much incarceration, defamation & characterization of former officials. Zero prioritizing skills as to the critical time he is now.

  • If we look at the basic tenants of democracy Tigray is an open air prison where there is no freedom of speech, independent judiciary/respect of human right, freedom of associations. In fact, there is no independent newspaper, people are mobilized by the para-military ethnic militants of TPLF to be segregated into different layers at the wish of the leadership. TPLF has only contributed to keep the vast majority poor or dependant on humanitarian aid. The pressure from the rest of Ethiopia have forced TPLF to concede more freedom to all Ethiopians including Tigrayans. The struggle led by many Ethiopia has managed to bring change in all the country with the exception of Tigray where the remnant of the TPLF are putting a resistance. Ethiopians will continue to push to free the country from TPLF and the enslaved mentality of their deaf supporters as much as Germany has been freed from the NAZI !

  • Continuing to pretend that this is a real change and TPLF is dead will only lead us back to square one…(do any of you know Ethiopian history), you guys don’t really know how this will end? All that happened was reshuffling of the same deck of cards for the party to survive. Yes, there was/is division with TPLF that allowed OPDO to ride the Qeerroo wave to power within the party. Does anyone for a second think Aby and OPDO will win the election in Oromia…or the ruling party will just walk away when they loss election…I don’t even think this election will take place. The ruling party is starting small fires throughout the Country so it can convince its donor nations that it is not safe to hold election. In the meantime, wipeout opposition groups in all the regions. Demonizing Tigray people and pretending Oromo and Amhara people are one the same page is the new strategy. TPLF is still the head of the snake, it controls the military and the economy. Aby is more scared of Oromo people than he is of TPLF…TPLF is his safety net… they created him…..if you want peace and prosperity in the country….you must answer the Oromo question…OPDO/OPD does not represent the interest of the Oromo people! Ask yourself, does TPLF represent the interest of the Tigray people? Does ADP/ANDM represent the interest of Amhara people? Which one of these three parties is likely to win a free election in their respective regions? I as an Oromo person…. will hate to have an Oromo dictator (one crated by TPLF) as much as I hated TPLF and Amhara dictator. Unfortunately that is where we are headed and if you think otherwise you are a fool.

  • Though Tigrai is 7-10% interms of mere population count, its role interms of all aspects in the country is so major. Millitarily, economicaly, politically and socially its share is so huge. This has been true since ages. The country Ethiopia in itself has been built on the history of the Axumite and Tigrian history. Looking down on this fact is playing with a very dangerous card and so will jeopardise the country’s fate.

    • Modern Ethiopia has nothing to do with Axum Kingdom, thd Zagwe Dynasty that grew out oc its downfall because Sabeans coukd not subsidize Axum’s life needs and Yekuno Amlak of Lasta Wello, who made fake if veing descendant of Menelik I.
      Modern Ethiopiz is built on the values of Westrrn European colonialism such as Britain, France, Italy, Swizerland.

    • Axum civilization died and was buried hundreds of years ago by Yodit Gudit and the Beja. The people that built the Ethiopian state as we know it are Amharas-like it or not.

      Tigray was for all practical purposes a basket case for hundreds of years, a region that could barely feed it’s self due to the climate and degradation of the land. It was only because the Yohannes was able to arm himself with British help that there was Tigrayan Emperor for a few years. Of course his time was an important step in the development of the modern step, and Axum was the means by which Christianity at least was introduced to Ethiopia. The Abesha identity is based on the local culture of Northern and central Ethiopia, of the Agew and Amhara, Tigre, Tigrigna etc.

  • I believe the reason that most Tigrians feel slighted is the result of the very statement you made about the dominance of Tigrians before the change. If as we witnessed the change came about because of exclusion, corruption, and political violence, then conventional wisdom tells you that the dominant party is responsible. If also we are honest in our assessment, the very organizational structure of the ethnic based politics TPLF espoused would bring about this feeling of dejection.

    How do you go forward without addressing the very grievances that brought the change? How did you come to conclusions that Tigirai is the engine without mentioning the disproportionate investment made by the counry’s hard earned currency? How do you go forward while the tortured just came of the dark to tell their gruesome tale? Those who quietly buried their part of their family need to tell their story mourn their loss. The physical scar is too fresh to quickly to forget for most. Time certainly heals all hearts, but who is taking responsibility?

  • The people of Tigray have one voice, one leadership – TPLF. And no amount of orchestrated vilification and persecution can alter the connection between Tigray people and their political leadership. The endless ad nauseam hostility towards TPLF has become more than a political deadlock. It has the feel of a pathological animosity against things Tigray and Tigrayans. At the moment it seems that Abiy is running a government of Oromo/Amhara alliance, and the exclusion of TPLF is very likely one main goal of this alliance, which makes it look like a collusion. In the beginning Abiy said that the country has suffered enough and that he was going to be the prime minister of all the people of Ethiopia, it was very uplifting at the time. The people of Tigray need that assurance from Abiy himself, without reservation, that he is committed to their security, safety and wellbeing, as he would for Oromo, Amhara, and the other regions. This would be an act of statesmanship that Abiy as the Prime Minister can provide.

  • Tigray makes up only 6% of the population, and Tigray will be given 6% of political power and economic share. In other words, you will get 6% of our attention. And no sqwaking or empty threats will change that. Take it or leave it.

  • TPLF didn’t change it’s jungle while ruling the country for 27 years. it is high time for TPLF live up to its promise and secede from Ethiopia. be brave just like Eriteria. no one begged you to be part of Ethiopia.

  • My name is Fiseha Dejenie Letta. I used to be a preacher. I know a propoganda piece from afar. I wanted to tell you that I tried to read ethiopia-insight several times but have been disgusted by its one sided propoganda. Every article is a contribution in subtlety trying to tell the world that the TPLF is a victim of the ongoing reform in Ethiopia. The only weakness you could admit is that they did allow Abiy lead the country. In fact, what’s going on is not really a reform for you but a derailed train of sort. I wonder why you bother hiding behind ethiopia or an insight. Your message is loud and clear. It’s what you guys call revolutionary democracy. It’s the same old slogan of the past 27 years. Same stuff brushed to meet the current affairs. I must admit that I never really understood the revolutionaries nor do I trust their democracy anymore.

    I think a more fitting name for you is insight on revolutionary democracy. That way people like me would know what to expect. No surprises. I have no problem reading you if you tell me your real position. Stand where you should. Firmly on what convinced you. Don’t preach we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Let others be the judge. You could be wrong!

    • Fiseha, you can read a bit about the website here: https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/about/
      I think you’re only judging us on a few articles that do indeed present a counter-reform narrative, and yes one most closely associated with the TPLF and supporters.
      Best to judge us on our overall output. The Viewpoint section deliberately includes a diverse range of ideological perspectives.
      This one, e.g., presents an anti-TPLF narrative: https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2019/01/09/tplf-hegemony-has-ended-but-eprdf-power-struggle-is-just-beginning/
      Btw, I don’t think Nebiyu is a TPLF supporter. He’s more a concerned Tigrayan
      Cheers
      Will

    • I have read all their articles and don’t think this site is biased. As for this article, I have Tigrean friends who are supporters of TPLF who feel every bit slighted and exactly hold the same sentiment this article highlights. So, in my view, even if I/you/we disagree, I want to know that this viewpoint or sentiment exists… don’t you?

    • Ato Fiseh, please dont ask for a censorship of the press, the freedom of expression one kind over another.
      If you agree, I believe such marginalization one idea ocer another is anchored on misunderstanding the neaning and scooe of Freedom of the Press. I would work more on this.
      Respectfully

  • “derided the ruling party” is simply politics played by politicians which I think is within their rights to do so. Highlighting a political adversary’s faults and mistakes is and should be the norm as that is a way to keep each other in check. The biggest disagreement I have with your argument is your association of TPLF and Tigreans almost as one in the same and Abiy is putting a wedge in that. Political parties and the people it serves is not and should not be the same. In this case, as was evidenced by Arena Tigray officials, TPLF came back to Tigray when it lost power and tried to make the party and the people one in the same when it had not been there before. So how come Arena Tigray doesn’t get the same blame for saying almost the same thing? With that said, I think you have a solid point when you say Abiy did wrong when his government did nothing when the roads where blocked. This is directly affecting/depriving Tigreans which is not acceptable.

    This is also interesting in that it highlights the problem of ethnic based politics. If a party of certain ethinicity rightly highlights mistakes of another party of a different ethnicity, its looked at as ethnic based attack as opposed to exposing of a serious issue by an opposition. If parties were judged on merit as opposed to ethnic association, then the winners of these political battles reward the best performers and keep each other honest and in check. Ethnic based politics gives poor performing politicians a place to run and hide as evidenced here by TPLF. Tigreans are dragged into this mess with as much if not more by TPLF as by Abiy.