By Shiferaw Abebe
Under the dark shadow of the current State of Terror in Ethiopia, Arena Tigray recently held its low-key fourth congress and elected Abraha Desta as its new Chairman. Before his release last July, the new Chairman, a philosophy lecturer at Mekele University, had spent two full years in TPLF prison on trumped up charges of having a connection with Ginbot 7. Abraha has a well-deserved reputation as a courageous truth teller and a thorn on the side of the TPLF. He is arguably the best person to lead Arena Tigray at this point in time and I wish him success.
However, to succeed, Arena Tigray needs to take the next bold step and convert itself into a national (nation-wide) party and change its name too (e.g., Arena Ethiopia for Democracy andSovereignty). The party’s recent congress was the perfect opportunity to do just that but it is not too late to do the most strategic thing that will transform the party into a formidable opposition both in Tigray and throughout Ethiopia.
The Ethiopia of today is much different than the Ethiopia of two and a half year ago when Abraha was arrested. Not only have the intervening years proved beyond any doubt that the TPLF regime has utterly failed to deliver democracy, equality, justice and economic growth for all, it is also during this time period that TPLF’s governing philosophy – ethnic politics – eventually pushed the country to the brink of an all out civil unrest and disintegration.
According to recent interviews Abraha gave (to VOA and Kaliti Press), his party has during its recent meeting taken stock of the changed political landscape in the country and the challenges ahead. Unfortunately, however, except for a change in leadership, the party’s strategic direction appears to have remained basically the same. As a regional party with a national agenda, as before, the party’s membership base and political activities will continue to be restricted to Tigray while the party hopes to advance its national agendas through Medrek.
Arena Tigray is also apparently committed to working through Medrek toward forming a unified party. If this route fails to deliver a national party, Abraha says his party is ready to convert itself into a national party, as a last resort.
First of all, it is at best a questionable strategy to work through Medrek to create a unified party. Arena Tigray had tried that in the past publicly expressing its readiness to merge with any interested opposition party to form a national party. That call fell on deaf ears and the best evolution Medrek managed to achieve was becoming a front – a significant achievement one might have thought given its composition (of ethnic and national parties) – but in failing to achieve unification, Medrek failed to capture the imagination, excitement and enthusiasm of Ethiopians. By the time the last general election came and went, Medrek was a weaker coalition with one of its strongest members – Andinet Party – decimated by internal strife. Today, this coalition may exist on paper but is virtually defunct for all intents and purposes.
More importantly, it is illogical and a bad strategy to withhold its conversion into a national party until it finds a willing partner to form a unified national party. Arena will have a much better chance of merging with other other parties to form a bigger national party if it first converts itself into a national party.
Apart from that, there are even more imperative reasons why Arena Tigray must convert itself into a national party sooner rather than later. Arena Tigray will succeed as an opposition party if it is able to control and lead the conversation the people of Tigray need to have in their households, in their neighborhoods and in their communities, if it can veer those conversations to questions of national unity, peace and lasting stability, shared history, common destiny, and Ethiopiawinet. These are topics of existential importance in today’s Ethiopia that have the power of penetrating the stale propaganda of TPLF and resonate among the people of Tigray.
Over the past 26 years, TPLF has willfully created mistrust, isolation, resentment and animosity between the people of Tigray and other Ethiopians. That mistrust and resentment almost reached a tipping point in the recent uprisings in the Amhara region, which TPLF is now shamelessly fanning as a war against Tigreans.
What the people of Tigray need at this point in time is not another partisan, Tigrean party that claims to represent their exclusive interests. They have TPLF for that, and look what it got them. What they need is a home grown national party that has the credibility, the foresight and the fortitude to chart a renewed relationship, unity and cohesion with the rest of Ethiopia.
By converting itself into a national party, Arena Tigray will differentiate itself from TPLF philosophically and practically in the clearest, most visible and definitive way that will also send a resounding message to the rest of Ethiopia where it needs to succeed as a national party.
The people of Tigray are historically at the centre of Ethiopian history, its unity and integrity. But what TPLF brought on their behalf over the last 26 years has been division, national degradation, injustice, inequality, and instability. Arena Tigray has the opportunity to change that narrative and write a new history by joining the people of Tigray with the rest of Ethiopians on a national mission of unity, justice, equality, and prosperity for all.
The time is perfect for the new leadership to take their party national. Time will tell if they will rise to the occasion.