Tigray’s strategic dilemma in midst of unraveling polycrisis in the Horn and US policy shift toward Eritrea: Scenarios for transitional administration

Originally Published on: Addis Standard and The Elephant

On 1 December 2023, over a year after the signing of the Agreement for Lasting Peace through the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities (the Pretoria Agreement) in Pretoria, South Africa, the African Union (AU) convened the Third Joint Committee Meeting of the Monitoring, Verification, and Compliance Mechanism (MVCM) of the Ethiopian peace process. According to the AU press release, the meeting was attended by representatives of the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (GoE), the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the AU High-Level Panel. It is worth mentioning that the Tigray Interim Regional Administration (TIRA) took part in the meeting, but their involvement was not mentioned in the press release. The aim of the meeting was to “reflect on progress, challenges, and opportunities in the implementation of the Permanent Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, signed on 02 November 2022”. The meeting further “agreed to convene a strategic reflection session involving the AU High-Level Panel in Ethiopia at the earliest possible time but not later than two months”.

Optimal timing for strategic reflection
This meeting and the suggested “strategic reflection session” come at a time when Tigray, in particular; Ethiopia; and the Horn of Africa in general, face a polycrisis of four mutually reinforcing man-made disasters, namely a) the spectre of a devastating famine which is a deliberate consequence of wars and the use of food aid as a weapon of war; b) the ongoing civil wars and internal political crises; c) mounting deployment of armed forces and mobilization of public support causing concerns over preparations for a likely war between Ethiopia and Eritrea; and d) a war economy in free fall with increasing threats of international loan defaults.

A failed rainy season due to climate change has caused drought, but the famine is primarily a result of the genocidal war that has destroyed community assets. The international community’s decision to suspend aid distribution, a measure taken in response to aid diversion by federal and local authorities, have also significantly contributed to the reported toll. Furthermore, the transition of 2018 led to a divestment – both financial and political – from the previously effective famine warning system and response policy, resulting in preventable deaths. Historically, a government’s timely response, or lack thereof, to famine often serves as a barometer of its concern and accountability for its people, its willingness and capacity to respond to calamity and, ultimately, its legitimacy to rule. The repercussions of a poorly managed response to famine go beyond eroding public trust. The escalating death toll from the famine poses a direct threat to stability in Tigray by aggravating existing political tensions, potentially leading to unrest or conflict and thereby further destabilizing Tigray and the region.

To maintain stability and facilitate the transition to a permanent governance structure, it is crucial for the TIRA to address the famine ravaging the people of the region. This effort will not only fulfill the humanitarian obligations of TIRA and the international community but will also help TIRA gain and maintain public trust. It necessitates prompt and effective action on the ground, including the efficient use of every penny and minute towards saving the lives of the hungry. Most importantly, it requires an acknowledgment of failure and a call for urgent international action, in stark contrast to the central government’s current policy of denial.

Some elements in the TPLF may see their power eroded within both the TPLF and TIRA, which could further complicate regional political dynamics. Should this internal tension escalate into a struggle for survival, it is plausible that any of Tigray’s major political forces may align themselves more closely with and lend support to the GoE. Such an outcome could significantly influence the course of the transition with significant implication to the people. Successful management of these diverse pressures, while navigating the sensitive political landscape, will be crucial in determining the path of the transition.

Transitional scenarios
We can consider three major scenarios for the outcomes of the Tigray transition.

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