Asmelash Yohannes (PhD, Mekelle University School of Law)
August 28, 2019
The popular uprising against the ruling EPRDF party since 2015 was turning deadly. Among other things, it resulted in the abrupt resignation of the then prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn. However, no one has seen the coming to power of a new replacement prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. Above all, what he was going to do and how he was going to treat the old guards of EPDRF remained a puzzle. But the wait did not last long. He misspoke and miss-stepped right from the onset. He was applauded by political pundits with the way he managed to get rid of the former national defence force chief of staff, General Samora Yonus. Moreover, he cannily and systematically dismantled the security apparatus that served well TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front), the oldest party within the coalition of movements that formed EPRDF, for more than two decades. His measures also included rounding of dozens of security officers. Some of these measures were believed to have been done with the blessing of the West. At first, these measures seemed to tighten the screws on TPLF leaders. Moreover, these measures on their own didn’t turn ordinary Tigreans against the new prime minister.
However, his approach towards Tigray and Tigreans as a whole was not well-orchestrated. There was fatigue even among the core supporters of TPLF in Tigray and a reform was long overdue. Instead of trying patiently to build support, his public speech at home and abroad angered many people in Tigray. After the failed attack against him at a rally in Addis Ababa in June 2018, he made a very regretful speech. Out of anger or a deliberate attempt to use the occasion to galvanize support in Oromia and Amhara, he appeared on national TV and uttered words that shifted the opinion of many people in Tigray. He called the perpetrators የቀን ጅቦች , an offensive word that translates into “day light hyenas.” This word was picked up and repeatedly used by social media users to attack not only TPLF officials but also ethnic Tigreans. The hate campaign waged on social media was beyond magnitude and it resulted into killings and displacement of ethnic Tigreans from Amhara and Oromia regions. The prime minister was within his right to denounce the attack but his choice of words had brought unintended consequences.
To add an insult to injury, his speech in July 2018 in Minnesota was not taken positively in Tigray. His response to simple questions raised by a person named Lilit Gebru had alienated many people in Tigray. Instead of answering her seemingly innocent questions, he appeared to castigate her for being a mouth piece of TPLF’s old guards. Moreover, the way the former head of METEC (Metals and Engineering Corporation), General knife Dagnaw, was arrested and publically humiliated was another incident that intensified opposition to prime minister Abiy in Tigray. Furthermore, his unsuccessful attempt to capture the main airport in Tigray by sending military commandos was also an ill-conceived plan to say the least.
The combinations of the above missteps of prime mister Abiy have created bewilderment and unease in Tigray. TPLF’s old guards, who were retreating from their comfort in the capital Addis Ababa and trying to re-group from Tigray, had seized his missteps to solidify their base as well as turn public sentiment against him. TPLF veterans have the media machinery and the money to unleash their campaign against Prime Mister Abiy’s new administration in full swing. They have skilfully skewed public opinion and they turned public anger to their own advantage. PM Abiy has to blame no one but himself for losing the support in Tigray. TPLF leaders were in disarray and confused after he took power. Abiy could have given it ago to loosen TPLF’s support Tigray had he had put in place a well-coordinated strategy to deal with his new found power. However, he was rather carried away with emotions and populism had blindsided him from thinking ahead of his opponents. TPLF, the lucky bunny, got the time to re-group and it managed to survive Abiy’s onslaught.
The questions that remain lingering are these: would PM Abiy give it a last try to use force to crash TPLF and settle his feud with its leaders once and for all? Or would he rather resort to a ‘battle of waits’ until TPLF is cracked under pressure from within? How about if Abiy and TPLF brush their feud under the carpet and extend an olive branch reciprocally for the sake of the country? Would that be a win-win solution for both? Only time will tell how the political quagmire will end.