Navigating the Uncharted Waters: Tigray’s Quest for Self-Determination

Navigating the Uncharted Waters: Tigray’s Quest for Self-Determination

A Crossroads of Aspiration and Uncertainty

The yearning for independence in Tigray ignites a potent mix of hope and apprehension. The desire for self-determination burns bright, fueled by a long history of marginalization and a recent genocide that has further fractured relations with the Ethiopian state. There are also legal mechanisms for independence, both international and Ethiopian. 

However, the path forward remains shrouded in uncertainty. The internal political landscape is fractured, with varying degrees of support for independence and potential for internal conflict. Externally, the international community faces a delicate balancing act, recognizing Tigray’s aspirations while maintaining regional stability. 

Navigating this complex landscape requires a multifaceted approach: a nuanced understanding of Tigrayan’s motivations and grievances, a clear-eyed assessment of the political and economic opportunities and obstacles, and a strategic roadmap for navigating the uncharted waters of sovereignty. Only through careful consideration and commitment can Tigray navigate this critical juncture and chart a course towards a brighter future.

The Seeds of Aspiration

Tigray’s desire for independence stems from an interplay of historical, political, and cultural factors. For centuries, Tigrayans have been marginalized and excluded from Ethiopia’s political and economic structures, despite the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) coming to power in the 1990s as part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This marginalisation has resulted in a genocide, and fueled a deep-seated yearning for self-determination and freedom from oppression. Despite centuries of oppression, many Tigrayans in modern-day Ethiopia were part of the Ethiopian community and felt Ethiopian for the most part, with some exceptions. However, the genocidal war that ensued after November 2020 ripped away this sense of belonging, replacing it with a longing for a Tigrayan nation-state. Now, there is a burning desire for a future where Tigrayans are the architects of our own destiny, unconstrained by external forces, and free to build a society that reflects our unique values and aspirations. This dream of an independent Tigray should motivate and unite our people, driving our unwavering pursuit of self-governance.

The fertile lands of Tigray hold immense potential for agricultural development, capable of not only feeding her own population but also generating surplus for export. Rich in natural resources like minerals and water, Tigray possesses the raw ingredients for a thriving economy. However, under the current system, these resources remain largely untapped, their potential unrealized.

Tigray’s cultural landscape is a tapestry woven with vibrant threads of unique languages, traditions, and customs. Yet, even Tigrayan culture was targeted as part of the genocide that started in November 2020. Independence for Tigray presents a crucial opportunity to preserve this rich heritage, ensuring its continued vitality and fostering a sense of belonging, cultural pride, and a distinct Tigrayan voice on the world stage. It allows for the creation of a space where Tigrayan culture can flourish, free from external pressures and with the freedom to express its unique identity. This cultural autonomy will empower our Tigrayan people to share our traditions and perspectives with the world, enriching the global cultural landscape and fostering understanding and appreciation for Tigray’s unique identity. 

The aspiration and yearning for self-determination and independence fueled the resistance during the height of the genocidal war and was used by the Tigrayan leadership as a rallying call; yet after the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement between TPLF and the Ethiopian Federal government, the flames were largely quenched as aspirations for self-governance became a victim of the agreement and the dire humanitarian situation in Tigray. Where we stand today with famine engulfing the region and almost 40% of Tigray illegally occupied, however, the Ethiopian government nor the international community has held up its end of the deal. Discussions of independence are perhaps more relevant today than previously as Tigray’s needs are far from being met and an existential threat looms large.

Legal Mechanisms: International Law and the Ethiopian Constitution

The aspiration for self-determination within Tigray could have grounds in both international law and domestic laws prescribed in the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution.

ICCPR: Independence Forged in Freedom’s Crucible

On the international stage, several human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), recognize the right of self-determination for all peoples. This principle allows for the possibility of secession under certain circumstances including oppression, providing a legal framework for Tigray’s claim to independence. The ICCPR also raises an unyielding shield against external aggression, a bulwark against those who seek to extinguish the flame of hard-won independence. Its provisions against the use of force and threats to territorial integrity offer newly independent nations a sanctuary, allowing them to chart their own course without the shadow of foreign intervention looming over their shoulders.

Arguments for Tigrayan independence based on the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995

Article 39.1 of the Ethiopian Constitution recognizes the “unconditional right to self-determination including the right to secession” for “every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia.” Tigray constitutes a distinct nation with our own language, history, and culture, granting us the right to secede. The constitution further establishes a federal system where regions, including Tigray, have significant autonomy in areas like language, education, and internal security. This is a stepping stone towards eventual independence. However, since the establishment of the Constitution, a region has yet to acquire independence through this Article. Furthermore, the current Abiy Ahmed administration has tried to remove and repress the autonomy of the regions, as it has centralised power. 

Nonetheless the Constitution remains in place, and Ethiopian government has violated it by interfering in Tigrayan affairs, limiting our autonomy, and committing genocide. This justifies our pursuit of independence.

Internal Challenges

Despite the legal frameworks, the path to self-determination is not without its internal hurdles. Building a united front within the diverse landscape of Tigrayan society is critical. This requires addressing historical grievances, promoting inclusive dialogue, and ensuring all voices are represented in the decision-making process. This requires the equal participation of all political parties and the independence of civic and civil society organizations.

Achieving a truly meaningful independence for Tigray further requires strong institutions that transcend mere words on paper. Robust structures equipped to manage resources efficiently, deliver essential services reliably, and uphold the rule of law are fundamental. Currently, this is not the case in Tigray. Without them, independence could feel hollow, its promises unfulfilled. Transparency, accountability, and expertise must be the cornerstones of these institutions, ensuring that the fruits of independence are not just tasted by a select few, but nourish all Tigrayans. Only then can independence truly blossom into a reality that benefits every citizen. Competent, capable, concerned individuals; systems that are fair and transparent; as well as institutions that are governed by the rule of law are indispensable. 

Tigray, etched with the scars of recent and currently evolving genocide, faces a monumental task of rebuilding. Our economy lies in tatters. Infrastructure stands in ruins, and communities fractured by trauma yearn for healing. To rise from the ashes, Tigray must be rebuilt. Diversifying beyond our agricultural roots is crucial. Fostering new industries, nurturing entrepreneurship, and attracting investment will inject lifeblood into the local economy. Jobs, the seeds of hope, must blossom across the region, empowering communities to reclaim their lives and build a sustainable future. This requires the initiative of all Tigrayans as well as a government that prioritizes Tigray.

External Pressures: Weathering the Storm

Tigray’s path to independence, already fraught with internal complexities, also faces an external hurdle: the Ethiopian government’s opposition. This will undoubtedly cast a long shadow over Tigray’s aspirations for international recognition and political legitimacy. 

Securing acceptance from the international community and building a viable diplomatic standing will require navigating a delicate dance, maneuvering through the Ethiopian government’s objections while garnering support from other countries. It is a precarious tightrope walk, demanding both unwavering commitment to Tigray’s self-determination and a shrewd understanding of the intricate geopolitical landscape.

The intricate geopolitical tapestry of the Horn of Africa, characterized by a complex web of competing interests and shifting alliances, presents potential challenges for any international response to Tigray’s aspirations. Navigating this intricate landscape necessitates a nuanced approach that prioritizes building alliances and forging common ground with key regional actors. Only through such diplomatic efforts can Tigray secure the necessary international support and foster a conducive environment. 

 Sailing Towards a Prosperous Future

The quest for Tigrayan independence, though fraught with difficulties, also brims with promise. To solidify this future, Tigray needs to build a firm foundation from within. This demands an inclusive political process that incorporates diverse voices and fosters unity as Tigrayans. Robust institutions, free from corruption and upholding the rule of law, are crucial for stability and attracting investment. Finally, a diversified economy, not solely reliant on agriculture, will empower Tigray and bolster our self-sufficiency. By nurturing these pillars, Tigray can set the stage for a prosperous and independent future, laying the groundwork for international engagement and recognition.

Tigray’s quest for independence faces a complex international landscape, where navigating competing interests and building support requires strategic finesse. To garner international backing, Tigray must leverage effective diplomacy, advocating for our right to self-determination through a clear, consistent message that resonates with the global community. Tigray’s location in the Horn of Africa, in proximity to the Red Sea, makes it a strategic partner in stabilising the Horn of Africa. Building strategic alliances can amplify our message and present a united front on the international stage. By showcasing a vision for a stable, democratic future, Tigray can potentially win over key international partners and secure the support needed to navigate this critical juncture in our journey. However, navigating the international arena also requires understanding the intricate web of regional alliances and competing geopolitical interests. 

Despite the complexities surrounding our future, Tigray’s rich tapestry of cultural heritage holds immense potential for both internal empowerment and international engagement. Nurturing this legacy through initiatives that revitalise Tigrayan language education, celebrate vibrant arts and music, and promoting international cultural exchange programs can serve two crucial purposes. Internally, these efforts can solidify Tigray’s unique identity, fostering a sense of shared history and belonging that strengthens our communities. Externally, showcasing this rich cultural heritage fosters a deeper understanding of Tigray on the international stage. By actively preserving and celebrating our cultural heritage, Tigrayans can not only solidify our own identity but also forge vital connections with the world beyond the borders.

Tigray’s journey towards self-determination is a complex and challenging one, yet the potential rewards are immense. By seizing opportunities, addressing internal and external challenges, and embracing the principles of inclusivity, democracy, justice, and sustainable development, Tigray can navigate independence and build a prosperous and peaceful future for our people.

Batseba Seifu – Omna Tigray External Contributor, February 2024