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End of the road for TPLF?

End of the road for TPLF?

Surrounded by the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and the final assault on Mekele already underway, these look like the final days of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Even underneath the ardent defiance and unexpected claims of victory by the TPLF, there are some subtle admissions of an impending military defeat. In his interview on Tigray Tv this week, Spokesperson and Member of the Executive Committee of TPLF, Getachew Reda stated that the defense forces could roam Mekele with their tanks and deploy commandos from the air but that would not mean defeat as administering the region would still be impossible. Underneath Getachew’s bravado, however, is a glimpse of his expectation that Tigray’s capital could be engulfed by the defense forces.

Even before the miscalculations by the TPLF that brought it into a full scale war with the federal government, calls for the party to be banned from Ethiopian politics were cropping up here and there following the regional elections it held in defiance of federal authorities. Those calls have grown even louder since the military engagements of the past three weeks.

Article 96 of The Ethiopian Electoral, Political Parties Registration and Elections Code of Conduct Proclamation No. 1162/2019 that deals with canceling the registration of political parties provides that a party may be cancelled for three reasons. The first is when the party, according to its by-laws, consents and requests to be canceled; the second is when the Board (NEBE) decides based on this proclamation; and the third is when a cancellation of the registration of the political party is ordered by a court based on this Proclamation.

Subsequent Articles of the proclamation consider each reason for cancelation; accordingly, Article 98 deals with canceling registration of political party upon the decision of the Board. Article 98 1b states the Board may cancel the registration of a political party “where the political party fails to submit to the Board annual performance, audit, or other periodical reports required in accordance with this Proclamation within the stipulated timeframe and having been granted a 30 days extension by the Board, fails to submit the same without sufficient reason.”

Article 113 that deals with annual audit report stipulates: “any political party shall undertake financial investigation annually by its auditor. Starting from 6 months after registration, the political party shall submit its audit report to the Board on the third month after the end of each budget year.” That leaves September as the deadline to submit audit report.

Chairperson of the NEBE, Birtukan Mideksa, confirmed that TPLF has not submitted its annual audit report. However, she went on to explain, no party ever did. Apparently, no Ethiopian political party has ever submitted audit report and the NEBE has not been in a position to enforce this specific provision. Accordingly, explained Birtukan, the Board has come up with a new directive that sets a financial report format for political parties to use and intends to begin enforcing the provision once the new directive comes into force.  

Article 98 1f stipulates the Board may cancel the registration of a political party “… if the party has been engaged in violent rebellion, crimes related to corruption or fraudulent activities.” Despite her cooperative moves to answer the questions raised earlier, a second time approach to have the Chairperson of the NEBE comment on this matter failed. The ongoing military confrontation in Tigray between TPLF forces and the federal government is commonly referred to as a war and that is way more than a violent rebellion.   

Another ground for cancelation stipulated in Article 96 is based on court decision. There are possibilities that the TPLF’s decision to establish a regional electoral body could be ruled by a court as violation of the provisions of the constitution. Some of the recent activities of the party are also being viewed both nationally and internationally as criminal acts. Regarding this option, Birtukan said that the ongoing investigation by the attorney general could lead to charges against the party but such measures need the due process of law to take full effect before the NEBE could cancel its registration.

Regardless of the legal predicaments, TPLF is still a legal party certified by the NEBE. That means a party that failed to recognize NEBE’s authority and went on to establish a regional electoral body in violation of the constitution and held elections is still enjoying the recognition of the NEBE. The constitution entrusted the NEBE with the monopoly of power to organize and hold elections, explained a scholar from Addis Ababa University The Reporter spoke on condition of anonymity, arguing that breaching that provision to establish a regional electoral body is a violation of the country’s supreme law. It’s also the fact in Ethiopia that a political party that has gone into a full-fledged war against the federal government still maintains its legality.

Speeches by government officials have also been very confusing as to which direction the government would take in revoking the legal recognition of TPLF. A statement released on November 18, 2020 by the Office of the Prime Minister states: “make no mistake the current law enforcement operations in Tigray target primarily the disgruntled, reactionary and rogue members of the TPLF clique that have been destabilizing Ethiopia. As such, the federal government intends to put an end to the deadly crime spree of this group within TPLF, which has also affected the people of the Tigray region.” As indicated in the statement, it is the group within TPLF they call the clique that is targeted. Such assertions give out the impression that the party may not be banned after all.

Adam Kasse (PhD), Constitutional Researcher and political analyst, believes TPLF may not be banned as the government is reluctant to refer to the party in general, associating specifically party leaders with the atrocities across the country. He pointed out that government officials have openly stated the military operation is not against the party in general but the handful of its leaders in particular.

On the other hand, a video production about the ongoing war in Tigray on one of the state television channels depicts Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) as saying the TPLF has to be destroyed for the killings in all corners of the country to stop. Although the PM’s statement is not a clear call to outlaw the party, it clearly refers to the party in general and not a small group within it.

The Addis Ababa University scholar who spoke to The Reporter on condition of anonymity argued that the establishment of an interim administration in place of TPLF in the Tigray region could be taken as a signal for an impending ban on TPLF. He remarked: ‘if they thought of TPLF as a legitimate political party after the ongoing war and focused only on the top leadership, they would have kept the regional administration intact and not set up an interim government.’ 

Wasihun Tesfaye, Party Affairs Head of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA), stated that TPLF has trespassed against the provisions of the covenant document Ethiopian political parties signed in 2019. He noted: ‘TPLF has behaved in breach of the provisions of the covenant document and jeopardized national unity through its actions. Its actions do not only merit cancellation but criminal charges against it as well.’ He also called on the NEBE and the Parliament to take legal measures against what he called the reckless moves of the TPLF.  

In a parliamentary session held following the killing of dozens of Amhara nationals in Guliso, West Wollega, in which members of Parliament (MPs) expressed their anger and grief in a very emotional manner, some of them asked for TPLF (the party they alleged is the mastermind behind the attacks) to be banned. Although there has been no reason to assume that the law makers pushed forth with their demands, the idea has been raised in the house.  

One thing that is certain after the ongoing war against TPLF is that the party is going to be dead or significantly weaker. With both national and international calls to investigate the Mai-Kadra massacre, allegedly carried out by TPLF and groups related to it, the future of the party is tattered with uncertainty on the legal front as well. Amnesty International and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission have already confirmed the massacre with the latter implicating the local administration, local militia and an informal Tigrayan youth group called “Samri” for the death of over 600 innocent people. The Commission reported of grave human rights violations which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The Addis Ababa University scholar The Reporter spoke on condition of anonymity asserts that the strong military action and the legal process already underway against TPLF would ensure the unmaking of the party. He stated: ‘with the gravity of the charges the government is accusing TPLF of instigating all across the country and the legal grounds at its disposal, a ban is a reasonable expectation.’

A ban would cap the age of the party established at Dedebit on February 18, 1975 by a group of ethnic-nationalist individuals charged with the socialist ‘question of nationalities’ at 45 years. During all these years, the party has altered Ethiopia significantly. There are significant differences between the Ethiopia the TPLF led coalition of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) received from the government of the Ethiopian Workers’ Party and the one it left to Prosperity Party (PP). These differences have both positive and negative aspects. The positive aspects of its reign include fast economic growth and expansion of infrastructure. On the negative side, Ethiopia has shrunk in size as Eritrea seceded under the rule of TPLF; the country has become landlocked as TPLF failed to negotiate access to the Red Sea; the birr was devaluated from 2.07 a dollar to about 30 a dollar during its reign; social cohesion deteriorated as the party employed ethnic federalism as a governmental structure; and corruption has spread with a vast derailment of social values.

With TPLF set to exit Ethiopian politics or assume a negligible role in it, its departure could affect the dynamics of Ethiopian politics. Some politicians and scholars think there are going to be significant changes while others beg to differ.

Adam Kasse (PhD) argues that the cancellation of TPLF would raise the power of the federal government and tighten its grip on regional governments. He further explained that the situation may create the sort of arrangement EPRDF, under the leadership of TPLF, had in its relations with regional governments.

For Merera Gudina (Prof.), Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), roundtable negotiations involving all political groups are the only means to answer the “question of nationalities.” He stated: ‘it has been 51 years since the question of nationalities was first raised and all approaches to answer or suppress it have failed. Elite bargain is the right way to answer the question of nationalities.’

Wasihun Tesfaye argues that numerous parties that benefitted from the enabling conditions set by TPLF to pursue their ethnic centered goals would be impacted by a ban on the party. However, he went on to state, the ethnic nationalism that TPLF promoted at a national level should be banned along with the party. He remarked: ‘the system that directed political issues along ethnic origin and identity should be replaced by one that gives room for parties to compete over the ideas they present to the people. TPLF’s demise has the potential to create a good opportunity for ideas as a base for democracy.’

Wasihun further pointed out that the horrific and heinous crimes across the country have created a basic understanding among all Ethiopians of the dangers of ethnic nationalism. He believes the chaos and unlawfulness of the past couple of years have taught the government a lesson in depicting the glaring troubles of ethnical nationalism. Despite the long distance ahead of it, he explained: ‘the ruling party has moved ahead quite a distance from the ethno-centric approaches of the TPLF led EPRDF as the member parties of the coalition merged and paved the way for any Ethiopian to join it.’ He noted that the ruling party has changed its programs and rules to become more citizen-oriented than its predecessor EPRDF, under TPLF leadership.

With time desperately running out on the TPLF to remain a legally operating political party in Ethiopia, the cards to determine its fate are well stacked in front of the government. Whether it draws the cards that spell game over for TPLF is yet to be seen.   

By Tewedaj Sintayehu