There is enough evidence of both state sanctioned and a horizontal ethnic profiling of Tigrayans especially in the last three weeks, not just targeting of TPLF. It added toxic to the very bad situation. There are verified reports of concerted efforts targeting ethnic Tigrayans, which is institutionalized and sanctioned by the state. We receive a lot of complaints from native Tigrayans in the capital Addis and elsewhere about incidents when the police show up in the night to search their houses without warrant papers. There are also reports of bank accounts being frozen for no apparent reason. This is despicable and very sad.
This is the English original of the interview with Tsedale Lemma published in German in the TAZ print edition of Monday 30 November 2020.
taz: Ms. Lemma, phone and internet connections to Tigray are cut off. What do you know about what’s happening in Tigray?
Tsedale Lemma: Most reports are coming from rights organizations, humanitarian agencies and journalists from international media who are reporting from Sudan where more than 43,000 refugees from Tigray region are sheltering. Going by these reports, the situation is grim; the massacre in Mai-Kadra has claimed the lives of more than 600 civilians and there are two sides of stories on who perpetrated the crime. Communication in Tigray region remained cut off.
How did we get to this point? When Abiy came to power in April 2018 there was lots of optimism and happiness. The term “Abiymania“ was coined.
It was true; even us critical journalists were happy and showed optimism to a certain extent; but at the same time, we were also expressing reservations at the early signs of a turn toward a one-man authoritarianism.
You said you were cautiously optimistic when Abiy came to power. When did that change?
That only lasted the first few months. Then the critics started getting louder that the reform was losing its track. There is no roadmap to it. Abiy kept on downplaying calls for a roadmap, for calls for negotiation, settlement, compromise with all the opposition. He opened the space, the political space, but there was no rule of law. And he never had any serious conversation with the opposition and we kept calling and calling, we need to talk out even as to how the election was going to take place in this tense atmosphere, because the political space, which has been held so tight for twenty seven years, is suddenly unleashed, and you need to have order in it. That is when millions of Ethiopians started realizing that he’s really going the wrong direction. He did more to beautify Addis Ababa and build public parks than tackling some of the most pressing issues for example security.
In 2019 the Nobel Committee gave him the Nobel Peace Prize for a peace deal with Eritrea, a country Ethiopia had been in war with for two decades.
We never knew what was included in those peace agreements. We mentioned that the people of Ethiopia need to know and that the deal should be institutionalized. But that was never acted upon. The Ethiopian parliament for example never approved anything. Abiy also bypassed the foreign ministry, which normally should have been front and center of the peace deal with a foreign country. It was just personal relationship between Abiy and the Eritrea president. Us local critical journalists we were mentioning those things. We were not as blinded as Oslo.
When Abiy came to power he aimed for a more centralized state and promised unity. Was that naive?
Yes. There is Ethiopia’s multinational constitution and there is Abiy’s book “Medemer“; if you read his book you will find out that it is the antithesis of Ethiopia’s multinational federalism. There is a raging war of vision on what kind of Ethiopia we want to build. The prime minister kept on saying he’s determined to the multinational federation. But what keeps happening is his vision of state building which is tilted against his rhetoric. What happened in the last two years is that there is no autonomous region whose president is not assigned one way or another by the prime minister. Except for Tigray, each and every region has its presidents maneuvered and assigned by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. I want you to imagine Angela Merkel calling the Bavarian president to her office and telling him you’re going to have to make your cabinet resign overnight. Abiy Ahmed did that and it is a sign that he is in favour of a much centralized government the kind of which he has unhinged power of influence and that runs contrary to the way in which the Ethiopian state was last reconstituted after the 1995 constitution was adopted.
Ethiopia had one ruling party coalition, the EPRDF, ruling for three decades and winning with over 90-something percent. Tigrayans had huge influence although they make up only six percent of the population. Abiy in 2019 founded a new ruling party, the Prosperity Party (PP) that the TPLF has never joined. Was his aim not to create a fairer representation?
You need to understand one thing: The EPRDF was detested, it was rotten from deep inside. It was replete with cronyism, corruption, authoritarianism and cruelty. As such, there was that need of undoing that party, distancing himself from the legacy of the EPRDF. And so Abiy wanted to dismantle it. That is understandable to a certain extent but it was deeply problematic.
The problem being?
The problem is that the EPRDF itself, before Abiy Ahmed came, in December of 2017, had a closed session. The presidents of all the four major parties that make up the EPRDF sat down for 17 days and did a soul-search and they came up with a list of things they needed to change in order to redeem the party. There were major changes if they were followed through. These changes included releasing prisoners; democratising the politics; reforming the judiciary; opening up the political space and reform the security and all. Abiy Ahmed was placed in power to conduct those reform agendas and lead the country to a democratic election but instead he opted to conduct an abrupt and disorderly break up of an authoritarian party that ruled the country with an iron fist.
What did he cause by dismantling the party?
In the process he disfigured the only political arrangement that the country had for 27 years. Deeply entrenched, it takes really a very careful unraveling of this party, but what he did was like hitting it with a brute force. That of course led the party itself to get so fractured, so fragmented, it led Abiy to lose his own closest ally, Lemma Megersa, the president of the Oromia region, for example, a man who was so instrumental in bringing Abiy himself to power, but someone who, as we speak, is placed under house arrest.
What was Abiy’s aim by founding the PP?
His overwhelming driving force is power consolidation. The PP is a structure to make it possible for few people to control ultimate power at the center. It is unfortunate because the Ethiopian people fought so hard against the consolidation and domination of power among the few elites only to have it replaced by some elites from the Oromo, Abiy’s own ethnic group. You have to be careful not to mistake the Oromo people with the few Oromo elite consolidating power. The Oromo people are still waiting to get answers for their questions for jobs, for the right to self-administration, the right of their language to become the federal working language which are not answered so far.
The PP, however, aimed for a fairer representation, didn’t it?
Of course, formerly marginalized regional states, for example, the Somali regional state, could come to the center. The Somali regional state president today sits in the executive of the new party, which was never the case before. That was a good development, but it ended there and the party structure was never completed. The party itself never had its founding conference. There is no executive decision that is collectively taken by the party so far. All the decisions that were taken after the Prosperity Party was formed came from Abiy’s office. So they were just being the symbolic cheerleaders.
The TPLF did not join the PP. How much backing does the TPLF have among ordinary Tigrayans?
If you had asked me this question two and a half years ago when the prime minister came into power, I would tell you it was a dwindling support that they had. The Tigrayan people were growing unhappy about the way the TPLF dominated government of the then EPRDF coalition led the federal federal and regional (governments. The government was turning into a sheer authoritarian regime and Tigrayans, along with the rest of Ethiopians, were expressing their displeasure with their own party.
It changed when Abiy Ahmed came into power and began to sideline and prosecute TPLF officials from his circle, to press criminal and corruption investigations. Others who have been equally, if not more, criminals than the TPLF, were largely left untouched. The TPLF leaders became the target of a crusade against corruption, and against human rights violations. The TPLF leadership said they were being profiled and pushed, and that they were being becoming the scapegoat for all the ills in the country. So they left the center and stationed themselves in Mekelle, the Tigray region capital which has contributed to bring them close to the people of Tigray and continued to widen the political rift with Abiy and his government.
How did the relationship between Abiy and TP L F turn so sour?
The cascade of events that have played a role in widening the rift between Abiy and the TPLF leadership are plenty. At time one is more belligerent than the other; at time both seem determined to not give compromise a chance. But once most of the TPLF leadership were purged from the center the difference was not only a distance of the politics, it was also a physical distance. And then, of course, there were the rhetoric, you know, the media and the war of words and the exchange of these very tough accusations, one after the other; these were all contributing to the toxicity of the political environment between the federal government and the regional government. And that was, of course, going south every day, every month. The major turn of this deteriorating relationship came when Abiy dismantled the EPRDF and formed the PP which TPLF rejected joining. This was followed by another major difference when the federal government postponed the much anticipated general elections due to COVID-19. The relationship after that became irreversible when TPLF unilaterally conducted its regional election in September.
There are now reports of ethnic Tigrayans targeted elsewhere.
Yes, there is enough evidence of both state sanctioned and a horizontal ethnic profiling of Tigrayans especially in the last three weeks, not just targeting of TPLF. It added toxic to the very bad situation. There are verified reports of concerted efforts targeting ethnic Tigrayans, which is institutionalized and sanctioned by the state. We receive a lot of complaints from native Tigrayans in the capital Addis and elsewhere about incidents when the police show up in the night to search their houses without warrant papers. There are also reports of bank accounts being frozen for no apparent reason. This is despicable and very sad.
What’s left of the peace deal with Eritrea, what is the situation like today?
Right now, the area is a war zone. But until this war broke out – which the government prefers to call “law and order operation“–the border was still militarized. What we know is that all the five gates in the border between the two countries were closed a few months into the peace deal. Not so much by the Tigrayan side, but by the Eritrean government.
Is the Eritrean government involved in the current conflict?
Asmara and Addis Ababa deny it. But Ethiopians who have fled to Sudan say that bombardment was coming from the Eritrean side as well, and that there are Eritrean troops on the ground supporting the federal government. The regional government itself is reporting drone attacks, which is most likely because the UAE has a military base in Assab in Eritrea from which it launches the drone attacks against the Huthi rebels in Yemen. And it’s very likely that the UAE is engaged in drone attacks against the TPLF. The TPLF has also attacked Eritrea with rockets, saying it was in response to Eritrea’s involvement.
Now the war has been going on for over three weeks. What needs to happen?
An immediate cessation of hostilities, because every passing day is complicating this conflict, opening up the Pandora’s Box for regional rivalries. News of the UAE and its use of drones, if confirmed, is bad signal for regional rivalries; Sudan, which is bordering the Tigray regional state, has a state replete with mercenaries and many government people who walk around with guns, with leverage that goes beyond the Sudanese border. So every passing day is going to complicate the regional dynamics of this war, but also it’s making Ethiopia itself very vulnerable internally. The social fabric is being ripped apart; polarization is at a scale never seen before and repression is rearing its ugly heads once again because that is what war does to a society.
We are receiving reports of massacres and an increased armed movements in other parts of the country such as the southern region and western regions that are not receiving media coverage.That means the federal army who are now being moved north have left a security vacuum in these places. Conflicts are flaring up with more intensity now than they already were. If this continues unabated it will unravel the federation. This war has to stop now, and cessation of hostilities must be implemented immediately. before the right to life of thousand more Ethiopians is lost unnecessarily.