Contextualizing an Ethiopian “terrorist” organization

Despite the government’s vilification of the TPLF to justify the war in Tigray, the party’s role in Ethiopia’s recent stability and growth is undeniable.

There are two very different versions of Ethiopia’s recent history.

Proponents of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) point to progress made during the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) era on human development and in achieving sustained economic growth. The 1995 constitution is portrayed as a legitimate effort to solve the national question. The EPRDF is also credited with maintaining relative internal and regional stability, while securing Ethiopia’s borders from external threats.

Detractors, however, argue that the TPLF was born out of the same feudal culture of intolerance that its leaders claimed to be fighting against. Much like its predecessors, the EPRDF was culpable of violent suppression of dissident groups, arbitrary detention of citizens, and other human rights abuses—particularly in Oromia and the Ogaden. This was all done in the name of safeguarding the achievements of the revolution that began in 1974.

Ethiopia’s state formation

The core of ancient Ethiopia, Abyssinia and the Axumite Empire, originates in the north. Fourteenth and fifteenth-century maps of this ancient land show other independent kingdoms like that of Damot, the Sultanates of Dankalia (Adal), Dawaro, Hadiya, Belew, Arbabri, and many more which existed alongside the Abyssinian kingdom.

Up until Menelik II’s rule in the late 19th century, the country had limited appetite to extend into territories beyond its known boundaries, such as lands bordering the catchment of the Awash, the Abay, and Wabe Shebelle rivers. Since that time, Ethiopian rulers have progressively consolidated and centralized their power over these territories through violent means.

Ethiopia’s current geographic shape is the product of an internal conquest that was pursued by Amhara elites from Shoa and other provinces, in conjunction with other Abyssinian elites such as Shoan Oromo and in competition with European powers. Consequently, many ethnic groups such as the Oromo, Sidama, Gurage, and Somali became incorporated into the country.

Efforts to establish a center where imperial orders were carried out by enderassies (meaning ‘royal representatives’ in Amharic) across the country began to take shape in the early 20th century. In the years that followed, the European presence in the Red Sea rim would be a watershed moment for the country as it began assuming a semblance of statehood with roughly delineated boundaries.

Sporadic uprisings by ethnic groups to safeguard their identity were commonplace during this time. The battle of Segele in 1916 between the provinces of Shewa and Wollo for accession to the throne after the death of Emperor Menelik II can be cited as an example. Similarly, the 1942 uprising in Tigray, dubbed the Woyane (meaning ‘revolt’ in Tigrinya), challenged the central rule of Shoa. Other examples include the defiance by Southern Oromo in the mid-1960s and the Gojjam peasant revolt against excessive taxation.

As Ethiopia, and Ethiopian identity, evolved under this centuries-old despotic and feudalistic system, strong ethnic sentiments or sub-national identities were heightened within many groups. Contrary to the false narrative that ethnic sentiment was fostered by the TPLF after 1991, it has been present at least since the imperial expansion.

TPLF takes power

The TPLF was one of the many anti-Derg movements that sprung up soon after the demise of the Imperial order in 1974. A hastily assembled coalition of dissident groups formed the EPRDF in 1988. The brutal war raging in Tigray today can be traced back to the triumph of the EPRDF against the Derg in 1991.

Although the TPLF was unsuccessful at first in bringing together the various groups that stood to challenge Mengistu Hailemariam’s military government, its leaders ultimately managed to pull together the EPRDF coalition and form a government after overthrowing the Derg. The TPLF continued to face opposition, however, as it had trouble convincing Royalists and Derg sympathizer Ethiopianists, on the one hand, and ethno-nationalists such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), on the other.

To illustrate this point, a few days after the military victory by TPLF-led forces in June of 1991, I had a conversation with an Amhara gentleman who found the “hordes” of Tigrayan fighters flocking into Addis Ababa to be abhorrent. The gentleman accused these “conquerors” of being sectarian and unable to assimilate with other ethnic groups in the country. This same gentleman was no fan of the Derg, as he had been a target of the military regime—his coffee plantation had been confiscated and he had languished in jail for eight years.

As this anecdote demonstrates, the tone against the TPLF/EPRDF was set a long time ago. It is not surprising, then, that people in Addis Abeba received these “conquerors” with public demonstrations and a few by violent means, including armed clashes.

The EPRDF subsequently won almost every seat in parliament during the election held in May 1995. Because a number of parties were barred from running, the outcome of the election did not sit well with opposition parties, in particular the All-Amhara People’s Organization.

The TPLF-led EPRDF followed up its electoral victory by initiating court proceedings to redress the injustices committed by the previous regime. It took more than a decade to dispense justice on those accused of perpetrating heinous crimes, but they eventually faced their day in court.

Multinational federalism

The coalition government formed in 1991 tried to achieve ethnic parity by including ethnicities that had, until then, been treated as peripheral assets. Seeking to stabilize a country that was on the verge of Balkanization, the EPRDF oversaw the drafting of a new constitution in 1995 which sought to address long-standing aspirations of self-rule by many sub-state groups.

Among others, the wars in Eritrea, the Ogaden, Tigray, and Oromia that began in the 1960s and 1970s indicated that the country yearned for a new social contract, one that the EPRDF audaciously applied in the 1990s. The coalition opted for ethnic-based federalism to foster national harmony by promoting plurality.

The architects of federalism in the TPLF-led EPRDF were influenced by Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which acknowledged the existence of nations—defined as a stable community of people formed on the basis of common history, language, and culture—and said that each have the right to rule themselves within a larger political structure.

EPRDF leaders promoted the dictum “unity in diversity.” An important corollary to this philosophy, Ethiopians born after 1991 were allowed to learn in their native languages.

However, those advocating for a unitary system of government viewed the 1995 federal constitution as a recipe for disintegration. Accordingly, they worked relentlessly to frustrate the work of TPLF/ EPRDF.

This is not to say that the TPLF is free from criticism. Many liberation fronts succumb to bravado to solve problems, and, in the process, alienate the very people they swore to help. Those hoping for true autonomy ran up against the EPRDF’s iron-fisted democratic centralism. Most notably, suspicion and outright hostility persisted against the TPLF over what many viewed as puppets in the ruling coalition who were used to govern Oromia, Amhara, and other regions.


Another important step that the EPRDF took after assuming power was to settle the inherited chronic problem of the Eritrean rebellion.

Historically speaking, parts of Eritrea gravitated around what was a diffused Ethiopia. Eritrea, like many countries in Africa, had its borders drawn by colonial powers. Unlike Libya and Somalia, Eritrea did not achieve statehood after independence from Italy.

The historic push and pull forces made it difficult for the people to speak with one voice, resulting in a United Nations-mediated federation with Ethiopia in 1950. This federal system did not hold as expected and was abrogated by the Imperial government, heralding an armed struggle that lasted from 1961 to 1991.

In 1993, Eritrea held a referendum on independence with the EPRDF’s consent, officially ending a war that had drained the country for three decades. This decision caused Ethiopian nationalists to single out the TPLF as the front that had willfully presided over the dismemberment of Ethiopia.

As the 1998-2000 border war and Eritrea’s involvement in the ongoing Tigray war demonstrated, redrawing borders did not solve historic tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

True to its leftist values and to the chagrin of its detractors, the TPLF also crafted provisions under Article 39 in the 1995 constitution that provided the right of nations to secede from the union if they so desired. This particular clause in the constitution aggravated political discourse with Amhara elites and other unionists who vehemently opposed it.

The constitutional provisions on secession were never effectively tested, however, as the EPRDF government prioritized centralizing power.

Land reform

The coalition partners preserved the previous regime’s measures on land reform with slight modifications to circumvent the insecurity of tenure brought about by the previous blanket nationalization of land. The reform promoted land certification with the right of inheritance.

The 1995 constitution upheld the decree on land and its usage, and in particular stated that “land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.” Within each of the country’s nine (now eleven) regions, groups defined as being indigenous were granted special land rights.

The rationale behind keeping land out of the hands of speculators and buyers was borne out of concern for the peasantry, whose livelihood depended solely on cultivating the land. This would be another source of contention.

In the mid-2000s, the EPRDF’s governance of land began to slide towards a neoliberal model, including by selling and leasing land to foreign companies. This culminated in the “Master Plan” to further expand Addis Abeba into ancestral Oromo lands. This proposal sparked protests that ultimately forced the TPLF to give up power.

Economic and human development

Critics of the TPLF-led EPRDF describe the 1991-2018 period as Ethiopia’s yetchelema gzie, meaning the ‘Dark Age’. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has frequently echoed these sentiments.

But it was during this yetchelema gzie that Ethiopia—like no other country in Africa, with the exception of Ghana—registered annual economic growth of up to 10 percent. The annual average income per person steadily rose from $200 when the EPRDF assumed power to $771.5 in 2018. This consistent economic progress was accompanied by an exponential increase in the number of roads and airports, along with the building of a new electrified railway to Djibouti.

Under the EPRDF, health facilities in Ethiopia expanded, the child mortality rate declined, and life expectancy of Ethiopians rose from 50 to 65 in a span of twenty years. Power generation capacity also increased threefold to 2,500 megawatts during the same time and is expected to rise to 8,000 megawatts with the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Unperturbed by thinly veiled threats from downstream countries like Egypt, which had benefited from the waters of the Nile for millennia, the EPRDF government built the Gibe and Tekeze dams. The GERD is near completion today, largely due to the vision and leadership of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Districts neglected by previous governments in education were brought to life through the rapid construction of primary and secondary schools, resulting in 30 million boys and girls being reached in a little over 15 years.

Most impressive, perhaps, were the strides made in higher education. Under the feudal regime, there was but one university. The Derg upgraded two more colleges to university standards in its time. During the EPRDF’s 27 years in power, 45 state universities were built across all nine administrative regions.

How, then, can one equate this period—where many projects of national interest were in full bloom and Ethiopia largely overcame the label of being a land of famine—as the Dark Age?

Moving forward

Before giving up power in 2018, the EPRDF designed and initiated a reform agenda that was meant to rectify its past mistakes. Upon coming to power, Abiy followed these directives, including releasing more political prisoners, relaxing press freedoms, closing the notorious Maekelawi prison in Addis Abeba, pursuing rapprochement with Eritrea, and repatriating numerous dissident parties that were previously labeled as terrorist groups.

Abiy has long since abandoned this progressive agenda. His administration is currently destroying what had been a growing economy, has paralyzed a once highly regarded peacekeeping army, and has joined hands with Eritrea—a pariah state whose leader is hell-bent on destroying Ethiopia—in waging war on Tigray. Rather than building on the EPRDF’s successes and doing away with its negative aspects, Abiy has done precisely the opposite.

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Main photo: Addis Abeba light railway; 2015; CNN.

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About the author

Yebio Woldemariam

Yebio is a graduate of Cairo High Polytechnic Institute and an Adjunct Professor on African-American history at York college of CUNY. He pursued his Ph.D at McGill University focusing on developing stable variety of crops adoptable to a variety of agro-ecologic conditions.


  • Dear Mr. Yebio Woldemariam.

    What you have written here is no “contextualization.” It is the same old tired TPLF propaganda we’ve heard for 27 years of TPLF’s rule, and still hear about it from TPLF terrorists.

    Please explain to us, simply, what “criticism” of TPLF’s EPRDF economic “success” brought about the massive protests in 2016 that eventually led down to vacation of TPLF from it’s throne. Then let’s discuss the cost of the war TPLF waged in the 70s, the human, capital, and material cost on Ethiopia for 17 years war. We already know that that war was not warranted, and brought only bullets and bombs from Derg into Tigray (TPLF brought war to Tigray). How much was the cost of all that destruction?

    Because I think TPLF must first prove that it has made up for the costs it made Ethiopia suffer for 17 years, the schools, hospitals and infrastructure development that money could have gone to. Then we can talk about the “economic progress” you mentioned later.

  • The article is based on the positive facts, figure and truth achieved during the 27 reign of EPDRF/TPLF.

    All the crimes/negatives specially in the area Human right handling, biased development allocation, transgression, power abuse, etc not included. Otherwise thank you very much.

  • The author rises some valid point at first only to backtrack and reinforce his true
    intent.: to minimize the misdeeds and mistule of the TPLF/EPRDF era. I believe no amount of whitewashing cans erase the TPLF led regime’s legacy of terror, transgression, power abuse. ,treachery, authoritarianism , hypocrisy and corruption subjected on the masses over 27 years. I wish people were more straight forward about their sympathy or antipathy for one side or another. But that is my idealistic and humble opinion

  • I loved this article. Based in fact and numbers instead of conspiracy theories and emotion. Time to have a balanced dialogue- articles like this are needed right now.

  • It is biased, if EPRDF was how it was written on this article, why would people rejected it? Why would people live under fear, intimidation and brutal dictatorship for 27 years?

    EPRDF development is the same as colonial rule development, no one benefit out of it except the rulers, every single project was created to benefit TPLF leadership, the entire population was like slave and the entire resource only accessible by TPLF leadership.

    The funny part of this article is the translation of እንደራሴ enderassies (meaning ‘royal representatives’ in Amharic) ??? enderassie means representative there is no word royal included in it , the word directly translated እንደ ende means “like” ራሴ rassie means “myself “ so the general word enderassie can only translate “like myself “ done, no royal in it.

  • Not sure where Davey is coming from. Sounds more like the kind of rant that erstwhile organisations in Northern Ethiopia pay for internationally! He may be correct that 99.9% of Canadians do not care about Ethiopia and that there is no news about Ethiopia in Canada, which is very sad if that is actually true. But he clearly does not know the people of Europe very well and must have very limited access to the news media in the various languages (including English) of the European Union, because the situation in Ethiopia is not only reported but it is on the radar of most EU politicians, technocrats and adminocrats whom are also very aware of the gross inaccuracies in what is being reported in Europe about Ethiopia.

  • An article that turns a blind eye to the atrocities and heinous crimes for 27 years committed by TPLF led EPRDF regime and wants to glorify fabricated stories. The article has also disregarded and covered up what Tigrayan rebels are doing day to day of the massacres, genocide, lootings and ethnic cleansing. It is the war minded TPLF individuals who wage war on Ethiopia and in thier words to destroy the country and kill it’s all protectors.

  • If you’re going to whitewash TPLF and it’s deeds, try to do it to people that didn’t live under it and are naive enough to believe you.
    You’re falsehoods start from the very begnining but this one stands out as a sore thumb, “Sporadic uprisings by ethnic groups to safeguard their identity were commonplace during this time. The battle of Segele in 1916 between the provinces of Shewa and Wollo for accession to the throne after the death of Emperor Menelik II can be cited as an example. ” The battle of Segele wasn’t about identity or safeguarding identity, it was a battle for power, as pure and simple as that. When Lij Iyasu was deposed of his throne by the combination of H.E.M Zewditu and Ras Teferi his father — Ras Michael Ali — mobilized his troops to restore his son to power. There was nothing that involved identity b/c both of the conflicting parties were Amhara/Oromo. And another thing, you need to learn what the word “commonplace” means, the examples you mentioned were more 30 years apart, how is something “commonplace” if it has a 30 years difference?
    Lastly the cream de la cream of your bullshit, the reference about “yetchelema gzie”. Even though the current PM said it was, it is obvious to whoever actually listened that he was referencing the massive and gross human right abuses, murders, ethnic cleansings, displacements, pitting ethnicites against each other and state terrorism inflicting by the TPLF/EPRDF on the people of Ethiopia. If you weren’t so disingenious so as to whitewash TPLF’s deeds then you would have mention what he said when asked to clarify the 27 years of “yetchelema gzie”. He said “We have a road that goes from Jigjiga to Mekelle but we don’t have anybody willing to use it cause of ethnic animosity fostered during the 27 years.” (paraphrased)
    I could go on and on in each line of you’re “article” but it is a waste of time b/c it wasn’t written to convene information, present facts or even opinion. It was written to whitewash TPLF and it’s deeds and that has become common on this website including by it’s founder.

    • Actually this was a great article that shows all the progress made by Ethiopia during the EPRDF years. The fact that the record is being sabotaged by Abiy and the Prosperity Party.

      Do you deny the economic and education strides? The celebration of cultural diversity?

      Then go ahead and write your own article about all the ethnic strife, mass murders, state terrorism, etc (the state is surely acting as a terrorist against citizens of Tigrayan ethnicity now). This website would be happy to publish it.

      Let me also tell you something about Ethiopia’s place in the world. NO ONE CARES! You make all these conspiracy theories about the West wants TPLF, supports TPLF, wants to destabilize Ethiopia. Please check your attitude Mr Imthecentreoftheworld. In Canada, there is no news about Ethiopia. None. 99.9% of people here have no idea what’s happening in Ethiopia. Isn’t that the place where they had the famine? That’s what the typical Canadian knows about Ethiopia. My whole presence is to try to bring this to the attention of Canadians. And it’s no different in US, UK, or Europe. 99.9% of westerners do not trouble their thoughts with Ethiopia or anything about Africa. Sad but true.

      But go ahead and support the destruction of your country and eventually you will get a bunch of aid money and start to rebuild. Once you’ve killed my family I won’t be sending any.

      • First off, Mr. McCrackett, I can obviously tell you’re a TPLF stooge posing as a Canadian here. When we Ethiopians say that the West is hell-bent on destroying Ethiopia, we are not talking about the ordinary people on the street. We’re talking about the ruling elite. It wasn’t the ordinary Europeans who colonized Africa and the rest of the world; it was the ruling elite in the those countries. The views that this is whitewashing—and I mean Whitewashing literally as this is a Whiteman’s media platform meant to help terrorists to destroy Ethiopia—are meant to show that it regurgitates TPLF propaganda over its nearly three-decade rule, and doesn’t provide the truth. Why doesn’t he talk about at least the 36 billion dollars his fellow thieves stole during their reign in power before talking about strides. Strides my foot! As for famine, it’s really racist to talk about Ethiopia in terms of famine because guess what? The Great Famine of 1315-1317 which devastated British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany, western Poland, and some of the Baltic states except for the far eastern Baltic in Europe, and the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1846 most recently never get talked about or used as reference to these places. It’s no secret that the White Western world (and again I am not talking about the ordinary people here) wants to annihilate Ethiopia due to its symbolism of resistance to the Whiteman’s rule in the days of colonialism. There is no gainsaying this fact. Also, who do you think cares about Canada in Ethiopia? If you go to Ethiopia and ask the people on the streets, I am sure 99% of them don’t know about your frigging Canada, Mr. Centeroftheworld McCrackpot!

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