People have begun voting in a local election in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, defying the federal government and increasing political tensions in Africa’s second-most populous country.
Tigray officials holding polls on Wednesday for the 190-seat regional parliament have warned that any intervention by the federal government would amount to a “declaration of war”.
They have objected to the postponement of the national and regional elections, originally scheduled for August, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the extension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s time in office.
Ethiopia’s upper house of parliament, which mediates constitutional disputes, ruled on Saturday that the polls for regional parliaments and other positions were unconstitutional.
While Abiy has ruled out military intervention, there are fears that any punitive measures by the federal government could further escalate tensions.
The Tigray defiance of the federal government is the latest challenge to the administration of Abiy, who is struggling to hold together a federation that stitches Ethiopia’s 80-plus ethnic groups into a nation.
Abiy took office in early 2018 and introduced several political reforms and peace initiatives that raised optimism in his country and saw him win the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Tigray has dominated Ethiopian politics since the region’s governing party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led an armed struggle to remove the communist Derg government in 1991.
Leaders from the ethnic group, which makes up only 6 percent of Ethiopia’s 110 million population, went on to dominate Ethiopia’s politics for nearly 30 years.
But that ended after anti-government protests swept Abiy to power in 2018.
Some 2.7 million people in the Tigray region are expected to cast their votes at more than 2,600 polling stations, regional election officials said.
A regional broadcaster, Tigray TV, showed voters lining up in the early hours on Wednesday.
Two residents of the regional capital, Mekelle, told The Associated Press there was tight security in the city and surrounding areas, with motorcycles and auto rickshaws banned from the city as of Tuesday evening.
On Monday, Ethiopian security officials prevented a dozen people, including four journalists and a senior think-tank analyst, from flying to Tigray to cover the vote.
Separately, a non-governmental organization told AP they had been barred from observing the election “for no sufficient reason”. The group, Seb Hidri, said the TPLF was behind the ban.