ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopia's Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled the country for three decades until 2018, has vowed to hold its own regional vote, an action the national government said would violate the constitution. The TPLF made its declaration after the government delayed this year's national election, citing the coronavirus pandemic. The standoff is increasing the risk of conflict, with the Tigray region holding military parades and refusing to back down.
Just weeks after more than 230 people were killed following the assassination of singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa, a hero to young Ethiopians calling for reform, another potential flashpoint is emerging in Africa's second most populous country.
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which last year decided to split from the ruling party coalition led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, accuses the government of grabbing power by delaying the national election indefinitely. The government says it would be irresponsible to hold an election while the coronavirus pandemic gathers pace.
The dispute has created a legal quagmire, with both sides accusing each other of defying the law. While the government and national parliament have said it is illegal to conduct any vote without the involvement of the national election board, the Tigray region has relied on constitutional articles providing it with rights of self-determination.
Since taking power in 2018, the prime minister has overseen reforms promising to liberalize the economy and embark on a new era of democracy. He has, however, struggled to reduce demands for autonomy coming from areas with strong ethnic undertones.
Fiseha Hailetsion, a TPLF central committee member, spoke with VOA via a messaging app.
"Elections must be held every five years, both for the national law-making bodies and for the regional and local level law-making bodies. It's what the constitution says. But the federal government is bringing the coronavirus threat and pandemic as a pretext to delay the election and hold onto power indefinitely," he said.
Asked about the potential for military intervention should plans for the regional vote go forward, Fiseha said he thought his region had enough in its arsenal to defend itself.
A government spokesperson provided VOA with a statement saying that Prime Minister Abiy has "raised concerns of unconstitutional unilateral actions" being undertaken by the government in the Tigray region. He has also called for the "enforcement of rule of law for actions being taken against the constitution" while simultaneously underlining that the government "has no desire to take armed measures against belligerent regional governments."
Marishet Mohammed Hamza, a post-graduate student at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, said both sides were not acting within the confines of the law and urged them to find a political solution.
"Both governments are trying to use the law to attack each other so that the other side would be depicted as violators of the constitution. But on the ground, none of them has constitutional basis when it comes to elections. For me, what has to be done is both sides have to come to the table and discuss and respect each other," he said.
Campaigning began in the Tigray region Wednesday, although no date has been announced for the vote.