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Time for Arena Party to rise up to the occasion

By Haile Tessema
Tigrai Online, Feb. 22, 2018


During the second Ethiopian general election, a Western news media reporter asked a voter in Gambela whom she casted her vote for, and she responded, “The Government”. When he further asked why, she bewilderedly shot back, “was there anyone else?” This indeed wasn’t her fault, and the same could’ve happened in any part of the country.

In Tigrai, public media and governmental institutions calculatingly and ceaselessly work to create the image that TPLF (Tigrai People Liberation Front) and the regional govt. are one and the same. High and low ranking officials seize every opportunity to praise ፓርትናን መንግስትናን” (our party and government) simultaneously in gatherings, special events and at every media exposure.

Public financial, material and human resources are used for partisan politics (including election campaign) without any repercussion or concern for public backlash. Political patronage, favoritism, cronyism and nepotism are rampant.

The worst part is members of alternative political parties are viewed and portrayed not as adversaries of the ruling party, but rather as enemies of the state and the people. Political, social and economic pressure or reprisal, including imprisonment, awaits those who dare to strongly oppose.

So, in this kind of political environment – with not just unequal but non-existent level playing field – anyone or group that rises up to oppose an authoritarian regime is certainly to be commended. To that effect, Arena Tigrai for Democracy & Sovereignty and its current young leadership is to be applauded for playing an official opposition role in the region despite all the hurdles thrown their way.

On the downside, Arena hasn’t made a significant breakthrough in the region. And the responsibility for the failure cannot squarely fall on TPLF as Arena also has enough blame to share. At the root of the problem lies the fact that Arena does not seem to have made its mind on whether it wants to be a regional or federal political player. As a result, it’s aimlessly and ineffectually swinging left and right, north and south.

When it comes to Tigrai, where its constituency is supposed to be based, Arena doesn’t seem to comprehend the issues that matter to the people most. Just to use a recent example – which triggered the writing of this opinion piece – Arena leader Abraha Desta has released a statement opposing the Ethiopian Govt.’s decision to impose a state of emergency which of course is his personal and party’s right to do. However, as will be discussed hereunder, some of the statements he made give the impression that Abraha is out of touch or indifferent to the sufferings of Tigraians, particularly those who live outside Tigrai Region.

“የአስቸኳይ ግዜ አዋጅ የሚታወጀው አደጋ ሲያጋጥም ነው፡ ህዝብንና ሀገርን የሚጎዳ አደጋ። አደጋው የተፈጥሮ ወይ ሰው ሰራሽ ወይ የፖለቲካ (ለምሳሌ የውጭ ጠላት ሀገርን ሲወር) ሊሆን ይችላል። መንግስት ህዝብን ከአደጋው ለማዳን ሲል የአስቸኳይ ግዜ አዋጅ ሊያውጅ ይችላል።” (Translation: A state of emergency [SOE] is declared when there is a crisis that hurts people and the country. The crisis could be caused by natural disaster or manmade or political (when there is foreign invasion, for instance) whereby the govt. could declare a SOE to rescue citizens).

He goes further, “አሁን አዋጁ የታወጀው በተፈጥሮ አደጋ ምክንያት አይደለም። የወረረን የውጭ ጠላትም የለም። በፖለቲካ ተቃውሞ ምክንያት ነው። ህዝቡ ሰብአዊና ዴሞክራሲያዊ መብቱ ተገደበና ታፈንኩ ብሎ ተቃወመ።” (The current SOE is not based on natural disaster. We are not invaded by foreign enemy. [Rather], the reason behind is political. The people are protesting due to lack of democracy and human rights.)

“አደጋ ተደርጎ የተወሰደው ህዝባዊ ተቃውሞውን ነው። ህዝብ መንግስትን የመቃወም መብት አለው። ፀረ መንግስት የሚደረግ ህዝባዊ ተቃውሞ ዴሞክራሲያዊ መብት እንጂ የአስቸኳይ ግዜ አዋጅ የሚጠይቅ አደጋ አይደለም።” (What is deemed a crisis is in fact public protest. The people have the right to oppose. Anti-government protest is a democratic right, not a crisis that calls for a SOE.)

Abraha asked a rhetorical question, “... ህዝብ ተቃውሞውን በሰላማዊ ሰልፍ የመግለፅ ዴሞክራሲያዊ መብቱን ቢከበርለት ኖሮ እንዴት ያምፅ ነበር? ...” (If the right to peacefully protest was granted, would people revolt?) Abraha hammered on not only on the people’s right to protest, but also that an uprising of this nature is essentially justified as a desperate means to end oppression.

Yet, as someone who is active in social media and who presumably follows the news from the local and international mainstream media, the Arena leader must have seen how roads through which essential goods (including food items and medical supplies pass through) have been blocked for days. Public and private properties have been destroyed and burned to ashes. People have been targeted solely because of their ethnic identity. Worse, lives have been lost although the exact number of victims is typically withheld or kept to a minimum in official reports.

As if that is not already harmful enough, political agitators in the U.S. (who have become de facto leaders) are threatening a sequel (from the safety of their distant and safe homes, of course) if they don’t get things their way. So, if this is not a crisis to, don’t know what is.

Most importantly, as Ethiopians of Tigrai origin have been systematically targeted in the name of public protest, it’s mindboggling how a political leader – who shares the same ethnic background with those being victimized – would neglect addressing the matter. After all, as Abraha’s public statement was written in Amharic, it’d be safe to assume that his target audience is Ethiopians as a whole. Hence, while he may or may not have publicly tackled this issue in the past, the Arena leader squandered the opportunity on this one to unequivocally make the point, and keep the record straight that a people and a political party are not one and the same in any way, shape or form.

Sadly, Ethiopians of Tigrai origin have become victims of an unlikely “protester”–government–opposition axis unholy alliance in action and inaction. Politically and socioeconomically disgruntled individuals and groups target Tigraians, their businesses and livelihood under the pretext that all Tigraians are beneficiaries of the current political system despite evidence to the contrary (including beggars and street vendors who conveniently and preposterously are labeled as “spies”).

The Regional Govt. of Tigrai – for a reason only they can understand – deny the obvious and claim that there is no ethnic targeting, but rather an attack on the system. In essence – perhaps inadvertently yet ill-advisedly and irresponsibly – they are agreeing with the victimizers that the people of Tigrai are part and parcel of the system when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Opposition parties in the country, on their part, seem to find comfort in looking the other way and choosing silence on such grave constitutional and human rights matter with lasting political and socioeconomic implications. And this is because, while some of them are undoubtedly driven by ethno-phobia, others may very well be convinced that coming to the defense of a minority group is not politically profitable.


  • While the current young Arena leaders – Abraha Desta and Amdom Gebreselassiie – are bold and brave politicians, they lack the experience and pragmatism the job entails. Reading what the duo, particularly Amdom, writes on facebook, it’s hard to say if they are ready for public office in the regional parliament. Instead, it appears that they see themselves as political activists first who use the available platform for venting anger and getting in a tit-for-tat with individuals who hold opposing views.
  • The same Arena leaders are preoccupied with “big” political matters – typically federal ones – while they give little attention to “small” bread and butter regional issues such as unemployment and socioeconomic hardship affecting many households and individuals. (Time allowing, I will elaborate in detail on this in the near future.)
  • Their association appears to be with politicians and activists in the country’s capital. There is no denying that this, in part, is due to the fact that Tigrai is far from a fertile ground for political activism.
  • Thus, it’s plausible that Arena leaders – especially Abraha – see Tigrai as a stepping stone for launching a political career at the federal level. If so, I think that would be ill-advised. Fact is, even veteran political heavyweights such as Gebru Asrat and Aregash Adane haven’t shined in federal politics. Similarly, Asrat Abraham, who left Arena to join Andnet (Unity) party didn’t get the opportunity to effectively apply his skills or reach his full potential.
    In fact, Abraha himself is another living proof. Soon as the man they endorsed as a hero for going through a lot to bring political change said or wrote something the naysayers didn’t’ like, he was downgraded to a TPLF in a closet, and a mole who was sent down to prison for spying.
    So, the key to ultimately being a force of change in the country is not by sucking up to political manipulators in the country’s capital, but rather strengthening one’s political position in one’s home turf, and thereby eventually being fit to engage in a larger political arena on an equal footing.
    Arena leaders may also be victims of political correctness that makes standing up for Tigraian interests lavish, thus a no-no. Sure enough, not only opposition groups, but also the Tigrai Regional Govt. has contributed to the creation of this false image of the region and its people. (TPLF of course has finally admitted that data had been cooked in its political labs and stories fabricated in newsrooms – of “millionaire farmers”, for instance – and broadcasted in public media.) 
  • Arena’s financial, material as well as human resources deficit. In a fair and democratic world, Arena – or any other registered political party – would be entitled to public funding. On top of that, it would be able to freely solicit funds through membership fee, fundraising events, letter writing campaign, merchandize selling, etc. This would enable the party to run a proper office and pay for utilities as well as other essentials; hire permanent and temporary staff; obtain necessary professional support from think-tanks and consultancies; enable party leaders and advisors travel to meetings, etc.
    Regrettably, the politically backward winner-takes-all system subjects a party leader like Abraha Desta, for instance, to depend on Zemarias and Abraha Castle Hotels for WiFi internet service. That is almost as shameful as what former FDRE Negasso Gidada had to go through. (It’s worth noting that OPDO is taking the step in the right direction to correct this long overdue wrong, while at the same politically capitalizing on it.)
    God knows when party and govt. leaders in Tigrai would come to their senses, and catch up with the civilized world that is way ahead of them. Not just in mature democracies, but also in some parts of Africa. In fact, if they have any politically functioning mind, even OPDO is leaving them behind in its new approach to bridge the partisan political gap and widen the tent.
    On their part, Arena and its leaders ought to stand up, and get counted as the voice for the voiceless Tigraians that are being hunted, harassed and displaced from their homes or, worse, getting killed. Failing that, it’d be a travesty of justice and a grave historic wrong for Arena to sweep under the rug; wish that the problem would somehow go away, and that they ultimately are “going to sit around a [democracy] campfire; holding hands and singing Kumbaya”. Besides not helping the people they present in any way, that would be suicidal for the party.
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