Ethiopia: Interim leader Getachew’s voyage to America is an optics game

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In July 2023, the Interim regional governor of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray Region, Getachew Reda, embarked on a visit to the United States, where he met with diaspora devotees, and held discussions with the members of congress, who supported the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in its effort to forcefully remove the Government of Ethiopia (GoE).

Getachew met representative Brad Sherman, representing California’s 32nd Congressional District. The congressman stood out for his unwavering support for the Tigray rebel group, despite aggressive actions taken by them against Ethiopia’s army and neighboring Eritrea. Even as the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) agreed to in Pretoria, South Africa, effectively ended active fighting, Rep. Sherman continued to accuse the GoE, Eritrea and Amhara regional state for “genocidal war crimes against Tigray”.

Congressman Sherman’s alignment with the insurgent group raises concerns among observers in Ethiopia. Getachew confirmed “the congressman is one of the vocal promoters of our cause”. He believes, the TPLF’s external lobbying efforts, spearheaded by diaspora-based organizations have had some success in persuading key congressional sentiment in their favor.

The diaspora-based Tigray Center for Information and Communication has enlisted the lobbying services of Von Batten-Montague-York to advocate before the Biden administration and Congress. Their stated objective has been to press for the withdrawal of all Eritrean military personnel and Amhara militia from the Tigray region. In the period when the TPLF was military engaged, between 2020 and 2022, congressional lobbying efforts aimed to exert pressure on the GoE-to facilitate “unrestricted access to humanitarian aid and appoint an independent investigator to verify allegations of war crimes committed against the Tigray people.”

On his Twitter page, Getachew said Congressman Sherman, “Expressed concern over the pause of humanitarian aid & its impact on vulnerable groups such as the hundreds of thousands of IDPs & he promised to work towards resumption of aid to the needy in Ethiopia including those in Tigray”. Humanitarian aid distribution in northern Ethiopia was suspended by the USAID as well as the WFP in June, due to alleged diversion of aid by government officials and armed combatants. However, investigations to be conducted by aid agencies alongside the GoE, to ascertain claimed diversion have yet to be finalized. Abren did a four part in-depth perspective report on aid suspension.

In addition, Getachew met with Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey for talks around “humanitarian aid, Disarmament Demobilization Reintegration of TPLF combatants, and accountability & transitional justice”.

Representative Brad Sherman tweets about his meeting with Interim regional leader Getachew Reda.

On the surface, as interim head of an embattled region, Getachew seeking humanitarian aid seems normal. However, it raises legitimate questions about optics and the extent of a regional authority’s jurisdiction in dealing with matters external affairs and engagements. Ethiopia’s constitution makes clear, the Federal Government is the only body with authority in the international dealings. While regional governments have some leeway in international relations, they must first receive the permission of the federal government.

These discussions have sparked debates and speculation, with concerns about the potential implications of an official from a regional government engaging in matters typically reserved for federal officials. Observers in Ethiopia view this as further erosion of Ethiopia’s sovereignty and growing autonomy of Tigray under TPLF.  As this situation unfolds, further clarity on the scope of Getachew Reda’s role and responsibilities in representing Tigray’s interests in international forums may be sought. Certain members of parliament are said to be bemoaning these actions and the federal government’s silence over the issue.

An official with Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, who declined going on the record, said “these antics by the regional leader are deliberate actions taken for their preceptive and propaganda value.” Its implications on the broader context of ongoing tensions in Ethiopia is nonetheless palpable. He adds, ‘It sends signal that the federal government is weak, and regions are taking matters of foreign policy into their own hands.’ This is the view the TPLF wants to create to weaken the center. It also sows confusion on U.S intentions after the CoHA.

The overlooked point in the discourse is the issue of responsibility for unleashing the war in Tigray. While attention has been drawn to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Tigray, attacks by the TPLF on communities in Afar and Amhara regions, leading to greater IDP numbers have largely been ignored by the United States and the mainstream media. This favoritism in reporting that categorizes into ethnic-based catagories ofworthy and and unworthy Ethiopians has resulted in mistrust.

Undoubtably recent the international voyage by Getachew Reda was intentionally provocative and meant to erode trust in federal authorities. It had psychological components that are directed at creating problems for Addis Ababa. However key figures in the GoE will not be under any elusion regarding public perception. What actions they will take in the weeks and months ahead remains to be seen. But the public will ask why it was green lighted in the first place.

The Federal Government’s perceived silence on the matters will draw criticism, with demands for clarity. The few opposition figures in parliament, who have recently become more vocal will no doubt relish the occasion to criticize Prime Minister Abiy’s government for being soft on TPLF. Neighboring Eritrea is also eager to see the GoE end its subtleties towards the group. As Ethiopian authorities perform a tricky post conflict balancing act, regional tensions, reconstruction bills, and political unrest will likely in the medium term.

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