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Last month’s decision that prevents Tigray’s leading party from running in elections raises questions about federal authorities’ commitment to peace.
After a period of improving relations between federal and Tigray authorities consolidated their November ceasefire, the electoral board has inserted a spanner in the works by effectively preventing the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from running in Tigray’s elections planned for next year.
If officials in Addis Ababa stick by the decision, it could cause significant turmoil in Tigray and further afield, emboldening TPLF’s myriad opponents and incensing its loyalists.
After the outbreak of war, on 18 January 2021 the board stripped TPLF of its legal status due to its role in what the federal government classed as a revolt against the constitutional order.
Following the removal of TPLF’s terrorist designation in March and resumption of its relations with the federal government, as per the Pretoria peace deal, the party submitted an appeal on 12 May to the board requesting a reversal of its 2021 decision.
However, the board, led by former opposition politician Birtukan Mideksa, rejected the request on somewhat technical grounds, stating that there is no legal provision for undoing the ban, despite admitting the basis for it no longer exists.
The crucial question now is to what extent that decision has broader political backing.
Tigray’s Interim Regional Administration (IRA), formed in March pursuant to Pretoria, on the same day called it “unacceptable in both law and politics” and highlighted that the ruling threatens the IRA’s existence since TPLF has a major role in it.
Furthermore, it argued the board’s approach “disheartens forces that, like the TPLF, are preparing to return to a peaceful struggle,” presumably referring to the Oromo Liberation Army, which recently entered into talks with Addis Ababa.
The board recently announced that it’s preparing for elections in Tigray since 2021 national polls weren’t held in the war-torn region. In the Pretoria deal, TPLF implicitly acknowledged that the regional election Tigray conducted in September 2020 in defiance of federal authority was illegitimate.
While rejecting TPLF’s request, the board has registered other Tigrayan parties, including Salsay Weyane Tigray and National Congress Party (Baytona), for the election set to be held next Ethiopian calendar year.
The board sanctioned parties’ involvement after affirmations that they weren’t involved in the war. Thus far, Tigray’s opposition parties have remained silent on the board’s decision regarding TPLF.
Some Tigrayans expressed concerns online that the decision could undo the hard-fought peace and plunge northern Ethiopia back into war.
Yemane (not his real name), who’s close to the IRA leadership, sees a political motive behind the board’s decision: “I have a hard time believing that Birtukan made such a momentous move without Abiy’s blessing”.
Yemane believes Abiy’s likely trying to drive a wedge between the TPLF and the IRA, based on the premise that the party is losing power under current arrangements.
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Conversely, Meron, a Tigrayan journalist who also asked to use a pseudonym, argues the decision will not have a decisive impact on determining TPLF’s fate. “It is here because it is the TPLF, not because the NEBE gave it recognition,” she insists, reminding that “even the terrorist designation didn’t make a difference.”
Yemane is more concerned. “They [federal authorities] know that we need them more than they need us at the moment,” he laments. “There’s no credible fallback position on our part where we can successfully threaten to reinitiate hostilities. That gives Abiy a chance to fiddle with the agreement.”
Nevertheless, he believes tensions will be resolved through negotiations: “Most likely, this is yet another ploy” by Abiy “…to extract concessions.”
The board is within its rights to cancel the registration of a party that engages in “violent rebellion”, but Gebremeskel Hailu, an associate professor at Mekelle University’s School of Law, questions the legitimacy of the process after the board acted as prosecutor and judge.
“It can’t establish the fact by itself and then pass a decision,” he says. “Another body needs to investigate and establish it.”
Additionally, Gebremeskel points out TPLF wasn’t given the opportunity to defend itself, which the law grants, and believes such discrepancies cast doubt on the decision.
Gebremeskel also argues that the lack of an explicit legal provision for reversing a ban doesn’t mean automatic rejection of a request. “This calls for a legal interpretation,” he says.
Gebremeskel backs TPLF’s stance that the decision contradicts the spirit of Pretoria: “I don’t believe sticking to an extremely legalistic and narrow interpretation is the appropriate course.”
Although there are no specific terms in the agreement safeguarding TPLF’s existence, the agreement to, for example, jointly form a regional administration, clearly presumes TPLF’s legal status as a legitimate organization.
In 2021, the board ordered the party’s funds to be expropriated to cover the party’s debts and support civic and electoral education. Gebremeskel suspects the underlying motive of its recent decision is to ensure TPLF remains financially weak. “If it ceases to have a legal existence, there is no chance for [TPLF] to reclaim its property,” he explains.
While much remains uncertain, Gebremeskel believes that TPLF rebranding would be a blessing in disguise as it would help it regain lost credibility. “I think it would be good for Tigray as well as for itself if the TPLF were to rebrand itself and re-emerge with a new political program.”
On 22 May, Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF chairman, gave a press conference in which he asserted that his party will not make a fresh registration application. “It is like asking a 50-year-old man to start over,” he said, adding, “It will continue to exist unless it dissolves on its own in another way.”
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Main Image : Birtukan Mideksa becomes President of National Electoral Board of Ethiopia- NEBE; 22 November 2018