By Hulluf Weldesilassie Kahsay
As per the Pretoria agreement and subsequent deals, Tigray is forced to set up a ‘transitional’ – or ‘provisional’ – government. Now, apparently, the ball is in Tigray’s court to comply with this demand from the Abiy government, if it is to receive federal funds and for the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) to be removed from the government’s ‘terrorist’ list.
We from Tigray should now come to terms with this as an inevitable reality. We must face the facts, without losing hope and sight of our collective aspirations as peoples of Tigray: Irob, Kunama, and Tigrigna-speaking Tigrayans, civil society groups, allies, the diaspora- all of us. This is a moment of reckoning of where the rain started beating Tigray. Accordingly, we must make sure passed political mistakes are not repeated, as we sail cautiously to avoid perilous exposure to attacks.
Now, though I am not privy to the details and requirements of the transitional arrangements, I share the fear that the TPLF or other political parties might unduly dominate the proposed transitional process. Thus, there is a high likelihood that the Irob and Kunama minority language groups and women might be sidelined – though they would deserve special attention and inclusion from the very start of the process. A few, simple but CRUCIAL, points that Tigray should avoid – given the passed mistakes of exclusion and paternalistic one-party show – are particularly worth noting:
1. The Irobs and Kunama are numerical minority ethnic groups in the larger Tigray region.
Certainly, such minorities are extremely endangered by cycles of merciless wars in all forms, mainly by Eritrean forces. These groups are on the verge of extinction, though without much notice and attention. Irobs and Kunamas did not enjoy much affirmative action in the past under the Tigray government.
The obvious reality is that they symbolically had only one seat each in the Ethiopian parliament, and did not enjoy any meaningful representation in Tigray’s various power structures. Fact. Therefore, this time round, in appreciation of the precarious conditions and the principle of inclusivity, the two groups must have their say and opportunities to sit on the negotiating table!
I am neither talking about meaningless promises nor stooges in the name of Irobs and Kunamas, but direct inclusion in various institutions at the decision-making levels. It is a test of Tigray’s political enlightenment; after all these experiences we have gone through as a society. Tigray must have political magnanimity, at the structural, public, and civil society levels to meaningfully include its minorities in its structures.
Moreover, the Tigrayan political elites must make a commitment to come up with structures that perpetuate fairness, protect cultures, languages and ancestral lands of the minority groups. Likewise, the Irobs and Kunamas MUST, at all times, act in the overall interest of the Tigray region– as their sociopolitical framework of reference. This is a categorical principle that Irobs and Kunamas must always uphold.
2. Affirmative action is needed in regard to the participation of the Irobs and Kunamas in the transitional process and beyond.
Tigray region, the whole of Ethiopia, and the partners in potential regeneration and rehabilitation efforts are duty-bound to consider the Irobs’ and Kunamas’ meaningful inclusion and support at all levels in Tigray. It should start off well right now; because, as they say, ‘it doesn’t go wrong, it starts wrong’.
Tigray must avoid another wrong start. The inclusion of all political and ethnic groups, civil society, and technocrats will be crucial for the success of the transitional process. Let all feel included and own the process, because united in death and struggle but divided in sharing dividends of peace cannot build a sustainable Tigray.
3. Civil society in Tigray’s Transitional arrangement must be encouraged to participate.
In the past, Tigray did not have a robust civil society, commensurate with the democratic, development and governance demand that existed prior to the war of Nov. 2020. Independent media, religious leaders, non-governmental organisations – all must participate as one entity, with equal status to the political parties during the transitional process. Leaving the Tigray transition to competing political parties alone amounts to accountability accountability and Tigray’s political future.
4. Tigray must also attempt to introduce a more robust democratic culture in this chapter of its history, using the upcoming transitional moment.
By now, we must have understood that one-party paternalism cost Tigray everything. I don’t mean to whitewash the crimes committed on Tigray by external enemies and their genocidal motives – blaming everything on the TPLF. However, undeniably, the TPLF’s lack of foresight and bad governance exposed Tigray on multiple fronts. One of the problems has been the reality of weakening and stifling of civil society, muzzling of independent media in Tigray, controlling all opportunities in the region, forcing the elite to be unquestioning supporters of the party, usually at the expense of principles of human rights.
Therefore, the TPLF grew politically short-sighted, chronically undemocratic, politically lazy, and dominated by parasitically networked, corrupt and inept politicians. This made most of the elite from the region afraid of criticizing the frameworks of the ruling party. If one dared, they risked being stigmatized, unemployed, blackmailed, or being taken to court on fabricated accusations.
The TPLF’s failure is colossal, though the party is not without exemplary exploits, such as dedication to its cause, organizational and mobilization capacity, accumulated capital of political experience, and some good policies like health and environment. The party, surely has its undeniable and unmatched strengths in some aspects, but it is time Tigray moves on, with the reasonably diminished role of the TPLF, and enhanced, inclusive participation of all Tigrayans. The transitional elite must be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders such as the federal government, without ignoring the constitutional and rightful demands of Tigray with regards to its territories that have not been liberated.
Conclusion– the Tigrayan elite must now be drastically changed to reflect a new reality – if not, the change will change us, as they say, – we risk being passive victims. The international community, federal government, Tigrayan elite, diaspora and civil society – all have RESPONSIBILITY to ensure there is meaningful inclusion of the Irobs and Kunamas in the governance and public affairs of Tigray! Civil society must also play a big role in the transition process, with a view of balancing the undue influence of political parties.
Moreover, it is crucial to be cautious of the fact that some political parties may be linked to civil society groups. If Tigray wants to claim the moral high ground, and condemn Ethiopia for its lack of democracy and self-determination rights, it must be truly inclusive and democratic at home.
We must stop being governed by fear. Governance by fear has brought us this far. Fear and exclusion from political life in Tigray resulted in our being victims of one party’s mistakes and lack of foresight – while we are also partners in this failure to some extent. Therefore, a more democratic TPLF and other political parties are political assets for Tigray, but none should be given undue prominence in the transitional process and thereafter. Civil society groups must play a watchdog role in ensuring the inclusion of minorities and overall accountability by all stakeholders.
Let us avoid a bad start. Let us be inclusive. The going is still tough. Get the best from every corner of Tigray. I say all this assuming that the agreement between the federal government and the TPLF will continue to hold. Good luck to the transitional efforts of Tigray.
Mr. Hulluf Weldesilassie Kahsay is a former Deputy Secretary General of the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE). He can be contacted at his email: [email protected]