News analysis

Tigray-federal tit-for-tat threatens trouble

Both the House of Federation and Tigray’s government are acting unconstitutionally. Unless the mutual antagonism ceases, conflict may ensue.

The House of Federation (HoF) in its latest letter addressed to the Tigray Regional State Council demanded the latter to halt what the upper house of parliament called an “unconstitutional process” to hold a regional election. The request came amid preparation by Tigray’s government to run polls for the regional state council before the end of its existing term, which is 10 October.

The letter, as the Speaker of the House explained on the national broadcaster, condemned the decision of the region to hold an election as unconstitutional, a threat to the federal order, and blatant violation of the HoF’s decision to postpone the 29 August 2020 national election. While the major part of the letter was a recommendation to the regional council to halt the “unconstitutional” election process, it also warn that the federal government would take “necessary and proportional measures”, including ordering an intervention to contain acts that endanger the constitutional order.

In its response to the HoF, Tigray State Council blames the new Speaker of the house for acting beyond his power and regarded the HoF’s request to call off the regional election as a transgression of the right to self-determination of the region and its people. Besides, the regional council alleged once again the unconstitutionality in the HoF’s resolution extending the terms of the federal houses and regional councils until the undetermined post-COVID-19 national election.

House rules

One of the issues that was not very extensively debated during the process that led to the HoF’s resolution extending the August election was the fate of the regional governments. To my knowledge, only once (during the amicus curie briefing) that the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI) panel had raised the issue, though indirectly, to one of the experts who testified before the CCI. But there the expert addressed the issue indirectly, asserting that the regional councils are also crucial for the continued functioning of the government.

It was the House of Peoples Representative (HoPR) that referred the question of constitutional interpretation due to COVID-19 pandemic to the HoF. The main questions presented to the upper house concerns the fate of the federal government if the national election could not be held due to COVID-19 and the consequent state of emergency. The fate of regional councils was not explicitly mentioned in the question for interpretation. Indeed, the HoPR does not have a mandate to do that.

Apparently, it was the panel of the CCI that of its own volition took up the issue and made the recommendation extending the terms of the regional councils as well. Ironically, as Tigray Regional Council has rightly put forward, such a decision was made by the CCI without any request made by any regional councils. Nor was there a consultation or discussion involving the regional councils on the issue. I guess, the recommendation of the CCI was a surprise not only to the public but to the regional governments too. Nonetheless, the recommendation was ultimately endorsed by the HoF.

Interpretation awry

Under the FDRE Constitution, the power to interpret the constitution is vested in the HoF which is assisted by the CCI. This power evidently pertains to constitutional issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The HoF does not have any explicit or implicit power related to regional councils or matters regulated under regional constitutions. It is here that the major fault of the recommendation of the CCI endorsed by the HoF comes out.

Almost all the constitutions of the regional states have a system for interpretation of their respective constitutions. While the majority of them set up a constitutional Interpretation Commission which is composed of a representative from each wereda councils, the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Regional State Constitution bestows the power on the region’s upper house—the Council of Nationalities. They are also assisted by regional councils of constitutional inquiry. It was the mandate of these commissions to interpret their respective regional constitutions and pass a resolution, at least in the same way as the CCI did, extending the terms of the regional governments. Evidently, the HoF’s decision bypassed the constitutional limit on its power and interfered with the powers of the regional states.

In hindsight, both the CCI’s recommendation and the HoF’s decisions concerning regional councils were targeted at recalcitrant regions, specifically Tigray. One can see this given the decision of the Executive Committee of TPLF to hold regional election made one day before the HoPR’s decision to go for a constitutional interpretation. Thus, the HoF’s sweeping resolution was implicitly meant to set aside the procedure under regional constitutions and deny the government in Tigray leeway. But it did not work. Rather, the regional government went extra miles to adopt regional electoral law, setup an election commission, and has almost finalized the preparations for a regional election.

Determined Tigray

A cursory look at Articles 51(15) and 102 of the federal constitution is sufficient to learn that the power to run elections in Ethiopia goes to the federal government. The regional governments do not have power over such exclusively federal matters unless delegated by the federal government (Article 50(9)). Thus, as much as the HoF cannot extend, by its own initiative, the term of regional councils, regional governments do not also have the constitutional power to adopt regional electoral laws and run elections unilaterally.

The government in Tigray is very well aware that its actions do not have any constitutional basis. Thus, it has resorted to the right to self-determination and secession (Article 39). Legally speaking, the right to self-determination has got less to do with a local election. Particularly, in the existing-ethnic based federal system where ‘self-government’ is the mantra, it is hard to conceive that postponing a national election transgresses the right to self-determination unless the existing council was annulled and a sort of proxy was imposed. Rather, Article 39 might be chosen to signal a distinct message–that the government in Tigray is building the case leading up to secession.

Ending tit-for-tat

The HoF through the Speaker has reiterated that further measures could be taken if Tigray Regional Council does not abort the election process. The latter, on its part, disregarded the warning. At the extreme, the HoF could suspend the regional government from the House and could also request suspension of the budget and grant to the region. Military intervention by the federal government is unlikely given the probable catastrophic consequences. But it is possible given the precarious relationship between the Tigray and federal governments, and also between Tigray and Amhara regions. In the meantime, given the unconstitutional act of both the HoF and Tigray’s government, they must step back and restrain themselves from further escalatory actions. The government in Tigray should also reconsider the election if the tit-for-tat halts and the two governments are genuinely ready to smooth out their relationship.

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Main photo: Tigray security forces parade; 2 August 2020; social media
Editor: William Davison

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About the author

Marishet Mohammed Hamza

Marishet is former lecturer at Wolayta Sodo University School of Law. He is studying at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

18 Comments

  • The problem in Ethiopia is actually a Prime minister who is conservative Amhara on his mothers bloodline is ill advised by Amhara elites trying to bring back and keep intact Amhara hegemonic ruling the way it was for the past more or less 150 years . This is why he is violating ,hampering and tampering the constitution on election including article 39 which is a fundamental right to self determination of nations and nationalities .
    Apart from election , a government of Abiy Ahmed is torturing and arresting prominent opposition leaders whom they called a national dialogue on postphonment of election just like that with out reason . Journalists ,business people ,army members …are also victims of the unlawful detention .
    If there is terrorism at all the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is the one supposed to be in the list in real terms.

  • The comments here are very disappointing and personally intolerable:

    Let me be clear.

    Tigray will never again be forced to let those in the capital dictate when and how we Tigrayan exercise our right to vote.

    I swear it, before Tigray is forced to accept foreign rulers we will tear down everything that we’ve built brick by brick. We will always defend the right to control our future. Then when the dust settles, we will fix what is broken as we always do.

    A truly thankless job in a nation so fixated on relinquishing the very freedoms that millions died for us to have one day.

    I ask those who consider this an honest and straightforward question: are you prepared to give all of your power to a man who wishes to restore an order of one ?

    Are we not better than this madness!

    Elections are the most vital part of any democracy, if we do not fulfill our duties as any responsible nation would we do not deserve to be the deciders of our collective future.

  • Insightful article.

    Here is my view:

    Provided that interpreting the extension of regional power and matters of this kind is an exclusive right of the regional council, Tigray council has unequivocally decided not to extend the power of currently ruling party. This implies timely electation in Tigray is a must. However, the legal entity, EEB, clearly stated that it cannot conduct election due to COVID-19.
    This is a contradiction to what the Tigray Council has decided. I see the Ethiopian Election Board should have considered the power of regional states prior to its decision to extend election.

    There should have been a consultation and prior agreement between the parties. In absence of consensus and the existing legal entity refusing to held election, Tigray has, of course, the right to self determination and establish the institution that serves the will of its people. They already established election commission knowing that the federal entity is no longer willing to discharge its responsibility.

    Therefore, I see the Tigray’s decision to held an election is at least logical. If the federal entity’s decision is already illegal and unconstitutional, I think you cannot reasonably question the current decision of Tigray regional council.

    • Tplf should be declared a terrorist organization. The poor Tigray people are being held hostage by the weyane mafia group who have looted the country for almost 3 decades

      • Actually TPLF rebuilt the country for 3 decades. If you were celebrating GERD the other day, you know GERD is a TPLF legacy. So are the industrial parks, the trains, the highways, et cetera, et cetera. That said, no gratitude is expected, and no gratitude is sought.

      • We certainly know the kind of sentiment and its origin . It is you people framing TPLF and denying a legacy of the popular struggle with the intent to bring back the brutal Amhara hegemony which will remain a dream never come true here after .

  • What is the point for holding an election:
    1. when the same old party will win 100;% hook by crook without new political plaforms, new reforms and with the same personalities
    2. When it is legally unsound due to constitutionslity grounds and powers beween the regional and federal governments
    3. When this same action can cause unecessary hostility and destabiliation of the country and the whole region
    Unless it’s intended emptty grandiosity and shouting match, not to mention the misuse of migre resources for the sake of it, this doesn’t make sense.at all.

    • The people decides on who to vote from among the five contesting parties and vote of the people of Tigray should be respected by all means . Live Tigray election up to the Tigrians and stay away from it ..

  • I am in agreement with the author that TPLF ought to reconsider and cancel the planned Tigray election, mainly because the election would have a predictable outcome – TPLF would win given its overwhelming support and stature among Tigray people. But Abiy may take military action to disrupt the election and this would turn the election into political chaos and conflict. Holding a regional election that could turn into warfare is not in the best interest of Tigray. There is nothing to be gained for Tigray…Nevermind defending federalism and the constitution at this point. TPLF alone cannot carry that burden. As things stand now, the stakes are too high for Tigray, and TPLF should focus on its primary purpose and commitment to protect and defend Tigray against potential aggression from all directions. If and when national elections are held, then TPLF should take the uncompromising stand that only the people of Tigray can choose their own leaders and administrators for the region – meaning that it is not for Abiy to appoint a PP administrator for the region….In the meantime the political situation in Ethiopia has become even more fluid, with Oromo political leaders Jawar and Bekele Gerba in jail. There are now reports that Lemma Megersa (“Lemma team”) is being suspended from PP. How the Oromo political situation is to emerge out of these developments remains to be seen…What the future holds for Ethiopia is still being sorted out. In matters between Abiy and TPLF, it depends on Abiy if he can ovecome his anthipathy towards TPLF / Tigray, the political vindictiveness, and using economic hardship as a tool. And then there is the so-called “peace” with Eritrea that Abiy and Isaias have set up to bypass and “exclude” Tigray. It is grotesque to call it peace and yet it contains a component of animosity towards Tigray. It is for Abiy to “include” Tigray in the peace framework if he cares enough to rebuild his relations with TPLF / Tigray.

    • You wish the Ethiopian government would try to intervene in Tigray. That way you can have an excuse to mobilize the poor Tigrayans. You can elect each other all day. The rest of Ethiopia knows better. They know there is nothing to benefit by trying to beg TPLF and keep Tigray in Ethiopia. Nothing except for some tourism sites. So go ahead and start your own nation. Nothing will be lost.

      • You are equating TPLF / Tigray stance on federalism with cessation, but I am not surprised. Eritrea was a case of cessation, and then it turned around and now Eritrea has an embassy in Addis Ababa, and the so-called “peace” between Eritrea and Ethiopia has a visible, noticeable feature: bypassing and exclusion of TPLF / Tigray from the full meaning of peace and reconcilation. It feels like an alliance against Tigray. I think TPLF ought to cancel its election and wait for the national elections at which time TPLF can defend federalism, in that the people of Tigray choose their own leaders and regional administrators, it is not upto Abiy and PP to do so. In the meantime, the political situation in the country has become more complicated with Oromo leaders in jail and Lemma Megersa under house arrest.

        • I think TPLFites are equating the hatred against ethnic Federalism with Unitarianism. Most Ethiopians don’t have a problem with Federalism which is the right to govern themselves without intervention. But the issue is forming these regions by ethnicity as opposed to the historical provincial identities. A new federalism structure is badly needed which is more legitimate. The veiled reason why TPLF keeps advocating for Oromo leaders is to keep that ethnic federalism alive.

          • I don’t think TPLF has a veiled reason to advocate for Oromo leaders to keep ethnic federalism, precisely because the current federalism was put in place to accommodate Oromo/OLF demand to establish their own region with Oromo identity and language (for which they chose Latin/English alphabet, instead of Geez/Ethiopic alphabet). Many of the other regions also accept the current federal system. As for the idea of a new provincial structure and idenity, I doubt if the regions would give up their current structure and current name, their own sense of identity, for some undefined provincial framework. In the end, the choice to keep or change their identity would have to be entirely upto the people of each region.

  • The Civil War of United States of 1861 I think started because of the article of cessation. Abraham Lincolin would not permit it. To day we have the United Ststes of America. I hope we can all appreciate the power of a United States of Ethiopia

  • On what grounds is Tigray special police given such legitimacy? Are they loyal to Ethiopia or their ethnicity?

    As a pro-Ethiopianist, I would not wish for succession, but I also don’t want to stop it. The reason being Ethiopia would actually gain more from it. There are no economical or internal security benefits that would be gained by keeping TPLF and its agents under an Ethiopian state. In fact, Ethiopian central government should set the standard for them to continue with an all-inclusive, non-ethnic, Ethiopian identity or otherwise leave.

  • How do you see that the decision to run election by tigray state is unconstitutional?.
    and what do you suggest to tigray if illegal interferences persists?

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