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Getachew Reda’s interim administration likely to ramp up pressure over Amhara-controlled lands.
On 23 March, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed Getachew Reda as the head of the Tigray Interim Regional Administration (IRA), marking further consolidation of the Pretoria peace deal but also a step towards Amhara and Tigray regions clashing over territory.
Abiy’s move comes after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) Central Committee picked Getachew over long-time party and government leader Debretsion Gebremichael, who Abiy rejected.
Getachew’s appointment came a day after the House of Peoples’ Representatives removed TPLF’s terrorist designation.
In his first interview, Getachew said his government’s priorities include ensuring displaced citizens return home, preparing for credible elections, ensuring economic recovery, and rehabilitating war veterans.
When formally established, the new leader’s administration is also set to make more assertive demands, including the full withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara forces and the return of annexed territories.
TPLF and National Congress Party (Baytona) are represented in the IRA, which also includes military commanders and scholars.
Kibrom Zebib Sibhatleab from Baytona is among those who’ve begun to warm up to the promotion of Getachew, who now must work to bridge the gap between TPLF leadership and the opposition parties that are not part of the IRA.
Getachew formerly had a close relationship with Abiy and appears to have reconnected with his top negotiator, Redwan Hussien. His ascent implies that TPLF will keep taking pragmatic measures to try and make long-term gains, even in the face of an indignant Tigrayan public.
General Tsadkan Gebretensae, whose inclusion in the IRA is widely expected following his recommendation by the Global Society of Tigray Scholars, is also said to endorse a sober political settlement with the federal government.
On the flip side, Getachew’s at times careless remarks have enraged many in Amhara, and, in a sign of possible trouble to come, he hails from Alamata in southern Tigray, which is currently Amhara-controlled.
Overall, Getachew has the potential to restore Tigrayan trust in TPLF, which has faced a crisis of legitimacy following Pretoria. However, it remains to be seen how he will navigate Tigray and Ethiopia’s complex political landscape and whether he can live up to expectations.
His biggest challenge is achieving the return of Welkait and southern Tigray that were annexed and, in places, cleansed of Tigrayans by Amhara during the war.
Tigray’s top commander, Lt. General Tadesse Worede, head of the committee that established the IRA, recently said restoring them is a top priority.
“It is not possible to make preparations for the next election while leaving about half or a quarter of the people of Tigray [out of it],” he stated.
Getachew, in his inaugural speech, insisted that Amhara-occupied lands are integral parts of Tigray and pledged to prioritize their return.
“In the Pretoria Agreement, it was clearly stated that the territorial integrity of Tigray should be resolved in accordance with the constitution,” he stated.
The reported withdrawals in March of Ethiopian troops from Welkait has increased Amhara speculation that federal authorities will allow Tigray to retake the area.
Welkait’s uncertain fate fuels continued animosity between Tigrayans and Amharas, and also raises Tigrayan concerns.
Specifically, some claim TPLF may use the UN investigation into war atrocities as a bargaining chip, as the federal government is eager to end it, a move that would provoke Tigrayan outrage.
Regarding the probe, Getachew has merely said, “We recommend the federal government to accept the commission.”
There is also plenty of potential for more Amhara nationalist outrage. They have expressed concern about federal-TPLF negotiations that exclude Amhara representatives.
They consider Welkait a closed case. Colonel Demeke Zewdu, chairman of the Welkait-Tegede Amhara Identity Restoration Committee, has said they’ll even resist efforts to return Tigrayans who fled during the war.
“If one million of these people come and live in Welkait, this would be giving ourselves to another disaster once again,” he stated.
Amhara-aligned media, such as Zehabesha, oppose any compromise over the territories, including making them federal districts.
The federal-TPLF rapprochement following Pretoria has the potential to influence the destiny of the contested territories.
Abiy’s enmity with TPLF and alliance with Isaias Afewerki had worked out well for Amhara nationalists, as TPLF, their historic rival, was excluded and targeted.
Later, federal authorities looked the other way as Amhara forces, with Eritrean military support, extra-constitutionally annexed Welkait.
Now the tide may be turning.
Considering its troubled relations with Sudan and neighboring Ethiopian regions, Welkait’s return to Tigray would mean Amhara’s isolation, deprived of a corridor to its key ally, Eritrea.
Pretoria was an unwelcome surprise for Amhara politics, as it threatens to unravel the Addis-Bahir Dar-Asmara alliance.
Wary of the damaging repercussions of more war in Tigray, Abiy opted to settle while retaining the upper hand.
Similarly, the humanitarian crisis and military setbacks forced TPLF to make “painful concessions” and commit to peace on federal terms.
Nevertheless, Pretoria was far from the claimed “terms of surrender” for TPLF, as it contained the tools for it to claw its way back into the political arena and reassert Tigray’s interests.
While rendering TPLF militarily irrelevant, Pretoria requires the federal government to uphold Tigray’s constitutional rights; rights it subverted in its wartime dealings with Eritrea and Amhara.
Enforcing the agreement means removing Eritrean and Amhara forces from Tigray, as well as ensuring Tigray’s territorial integrity as per the constitution.
There is thus increasing tension between Tigrayan determination to restore its pre-war borders and Amhara resistance to giving up the territories.
Reports allege Eritrea’s support for Amhara forces aiming to resist any federally backed effort to restore Welkait.
The federal government must work to rebuild Tigray-Amhara ties, and try to bridge the gap between their legal, historical, and demographic claims.
Otherwise, the situation could well devolve into another devastating conflict between Amhara and Tigray.
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Main Image: Getachew Reda at UN Media forum; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; October 24 2016; UNICEF Ethiopia, Demissew Bizuwork.
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