What’s new? A clash over budget transfers is the latest flashpoint in a bitter dispute between Ethiopian federal authorities and Tigray region’s government. Addis Ababa sees a September regional election Tigray held despite a federal poll postponement as unlawful and consequently plans to redirect funding away from Tigray’s executive, infuriating regional leaders.
Why does it matter? The standoff could trigger a damaging conflict that may even rip the Ethiopian state asunder. Federal rulings have authorised military intervention in Tigray, which boasts its own large regional security force. The worsening dispute is only one crisis among many rocking Ethiopia’s troubled transition.
What should be done? Both sides should embrace comprehensive dialogue. To kickstart such a process, the federal government should suspend the budgetary measures for now and Tigray should water down its preconditions for talks, particularly that all jailed leaders must participate and a transitional government assume power.
Ethiopian federal authorities and Tigray’s regional government are barrelling toward a major crisis. In normal circumstances, Addis Ababa would transfer a budgetary allocation to Tigray on 4 November. But in early October, the upper house of parliament asked the treasury to redirect funding away from Tigray’s executive after it held regional elections the month before, in defiance of a federal order postponing balloting nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The finance ministry has said it will instead send the money directly to Tigray’s local administrations, bypassing the leadership in Mekelle, the region’s capital. Tigray leaders say this would be unconstitutional, contrary to Ethiopia’s federal pact and thus “tantamount to a declaration of war”. Cooler heads in Addis Ababa and Mekelle should work urgently to defuse this dangerous situation, which could lead to federal military intervention in Tigray and then a wider conflagration. The cabinet should suspend the fiscal measures for now in order to buy time for talks, while Tigray should relax conditions for dialogue.
II. A Dangerous Standoff
Tensions have been mounting between Addis Ababa and Mekelle since April 2018, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in the wake of protests, bringing an end to the predominance of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Tigray’s governing party, within the ruling coalition that had held power since 1991. Abiy soon purged many TPLF appointees from federal institutions and transformed the coalition into the Prosperity Party, which the TPLF refused to join. Frictions worsened in March after the electoral board said it could not run polls set for August because of COVID-19. In June, Ethiopia’s upper chamber, the House of Federation, extended the federal and regional governments’ terms beyond their five-year mandate until a point nine to twelve months after authorities deemed the pandemic sufficiently under control. Arguing that the move was unconstitutional, Tigray pressed ahead with an election for its regional council on 9 September over Addis Ababa’s warnings the vote would be illegal, as Crisis Group discussed in an August briefing covering the bitter spat. The TPLF won in a landslide.