Days before this Wednesday’s election in the northernmost Ethiopian state of Tigray, regional leaders issued a blunt warning to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — stopping this poll risks conflict.

“Any decision by the House of Federation to stop or interrupt the election of Tigray will be tantamount to a declaration of war,” read a statement from the Tigray State Council, referring to the upper house of parliament and the central government’s position that the poll is illegal.

Tigray’s unilateral decision to go ahead with the poll — part of a general election that has been postponed nationally because of Covid-19 — poses a big challenge to Mr Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian agenda.

Since coming to power in 2018, the prime minister has sought to push through liberal economic reforms while stressing Ethiopia’s national identity in a way that critics say threatens the autonomy of the ethnic-based states in the country’s federal system.

Coupled with the rise of previously suppressed ethnic tensions after decades of authoritarian rule, opposition to some of the reforms has led to months of deadly violence in parts of the country.

But the decision by the Tigray administration to press ahead with the vote against the wishes of the central government is the starkest example yet of the test facing the prime minister.

The tension between the federal and regional government reflects a “power struggle between Abiy and Tigrayan elites” who once led Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, said William Davison, senior analyst at Crisis Group.

Map of Ethiopia showing the northern state of Tigray and Oromia

Tigray lost much of its influence after Mr Abiy, who is from the most populous region of Oromia, became prime minister. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, was the dominant force in national politics since a Tigrayan rebel army overthrew the Marxist Derg regime in 1991. After Mr Abiy came to power, it refused to merge into his new unitary Prosperity party, which replaced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a four-party coalition that had run the country for three decades.

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Tigray is operating like a “de facto state” and Wednesday’s vote is “illegal”, said Worku Adamu, a member of Mr Abiy’s Prosperity party who heads the committee of constitutional interpretation at the House of Federation, placing his hand on the turquoise book of Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution that outlines the federal system.

The TPLF challenges the central government’s decision to postpone the vote. “It makes no sense to postpone elections, because elections are supposed to be held, and we take that seriously,” said Getachew Reda, a member of the TPLF executive committee.

“We have also every reason to believe that the people in Addis Ababa who, using coronavirus as a pretext to postpone elections, are not interested in pushing through reforms but in extending their lease on power indefinitely,” Mr Getachew added. “We don’t want to be part of this circus.”

Billene Seyoum, Mr Abiy’s spokeswoman, said the prime minister was fully committed to the democratic process. It was “preposterous” to suggest that elections could be held regardless of Covid-19, she said, pointing to a rising number of infections, now above 57,000. “We are still committed to hold free and fair elections in 2021.”

Addis Ababa was not considering using force against Tigray, she said. Arkebe Oqubay, a special adviser to the prime minister, said the government continued to pursue economic reforms, including a partial privatisation of the world’s biggest telecoms monopoly, despite the pandemic.

Election canvassing in Mekele. The Tigrayans lost much of their influence after Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, became prime minister © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

To the Tigrayan leadership — as well as many from other ethnic groups, including Mr Abiy’s Oromo — the prime minister’s emphasis on national unity undermines a federal system that guarantees significant autonomy for ethnically defined territories, such as Tigray, Oromia and Amhara. An August survey by Afrobarometer showed Ethiopians were split over the right of the regions to self-determination.

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“People have widely divergent perspectives on what Ethiopia is, and whether they should continue as one state,” said Semir Yusuf of the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa.

Mr Abiy’s drive for “pan-Ethiopianism” has stoked strong criticism of his leadership. The Tigray election comes after months of severe unrest following the killing in late June, by unknown assailants, of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer who gave voice to mass protests that paved the way for Mr Abiy’s ascent to power.

Although Mr Abiy, a former army intelligence officer, is also from Oromia, many Oromo have accused the prime minister of betraying their cause. Since Hachalu’s killing, some 9,000 people, mainly in Oromia, have been arrested, and at least 178 people killed, some at the hands of security forces.

“I am alive and free, which in today’s Ethiopia is a lot,” said Merera Gudina, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, an ironic reference to other members of his party — including the prominent Jawar Mohammed — who have been arrested. Mr Abiy, he said, was trying to “run away” from Oromo nationalism, “sheltering himself in Ethiopian nationalism”.

Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, outlined the tensions. “We have seen signs of radicalisation, extreme ethnic-nationalist agenda and intercommunal conflicts and violence which led to lots of senseless killings,” he said. “But in terms of the overall direction of the country, I don’t see a shift in the government’s political will and commitment to the democratic reform agenda.”

Additional reporting by David Pilling in London

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Via Financial Times