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 TPLF’s ambiguous journey in Ethiopia

After initially fighting for freedom and then against it, TPLF is now back at fighting for freedom, or maybe not.

At different points in Ethiopia’s civil war, both sides have wished to see an end to the large-scale conflict on their own terms. On the one hand, some Ethiopians wanted to see the TPLF triumphantly marching towards the capital, an ending similar to the recent events in Afghanistan. Others wanted to see TPLF annihilated, like what has happened to the Tamil Tigers during the Sri Lankan civil war.

But, amidst the war on the ground and the accompanying social media warfare, a critical question has been forgotten: What exactly does the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) want?

Ideological underpinning

TPLF’s inception took place five decades ago at the Haile Selassie I University, as it was called then. TPLF’s founding ideology was anchored in the pages of the famous essay “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” written in 1969 by student activist leader Wallelign Mekonnen; five years later, in September 1974, the Tigrayan National Organization was established, which later became the TPLF.

Although the essay’s lofty title promised an in-depth analysis, it fell short of prescribing a cogent solution to the problem it raised.

The handful of young, would-be TPLF leaders, like many others in the student movement, accepted the essay’s position of promoting ethnic-nationalisms and blaming northern highlanders—mainly Amhara—domination for Ethiopia’s problem.

This rhetoric was then evident in the 1976 TPLF manifesto that blames Amhara national subjugation for the plight of Tigray and declares a fight against it.

Proclaiming Marxist-Leninist ideals, including universal proletarian values, TPLF attempted to reconcile two seemingly contradictory positions. On the one hand, they indicted the Amhara nation for what they perceived to be a national subjugation and, on the other, they celebrated the universalist communist ideology. The latter included an attempt to domesticate the imperceptible ideology of Enver Hoxha’s self-isolated Albania of the 1970s and 80s.

TPLF’s raison d’être and unwavering commitment to its founding credo is still alive, and often serves as a marching order.

For example, a statement authored by Lt General Tsadkan Gebretensae, a member of the Central Command of Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), published in December 2021 reads:

“Ethiopia is a nation of nations, and the only way forward for the country is to recognize this. There can be no return to empire building or the domination of one group over the other.”

The group implicated as a ‘dominant group’, of course, is easy to guess.

For and against freedom

The 1980s were one of the darkest periods of Ethiopia’s long history. The war between Eritrean liberation fronts and Ethiopian forces had reached its climax, while the war in Tigray gathered momentum as thousands of Tigrayan youth and intellectuals, in part saddened by the famine ravaging Tigray, joined the TPLF in the thousands.

The famine in Tigray presented an opportunity for much-needed publicity for the TPLF and provided it with material and financial resources. Millions of dollars and logistical resources poured in from the international community.

It was amid this apocalyptic moment that the Ethiopian army evacuated from Tigray in February 1989, effectively leaving Tigray to TPLF. After 15 years of armed struggle, Tigray became “free.” Meanwhile, the war in Eritrea was into its third decade.

Becoming independent within such a short time had given TPLF a sense of invincibility. However, it only took a few months before a new realization set in and “freedom” became something to escape from.

The free, independent Tigray was only free from Ethiopian soldiers and central government officials. But, millions were still surviving on wheat donated from abroad. An independent Tigray was the home to destitute peasants who wanted more than a free Tigray.

After all, TPLF elites realized that being free from Ethiopia is not enough—for Tigray to be truly free, they had to come to the center and rule over a country that they fought to unshackle Tigray from.

In part, this is what led to the formation of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1988, a political and military front consisting of groups representing major Ethiopian ethnic groups.

The front, under the political and military leadership of TPLF, quickly went into action in the early 1990s and defeated the demoralized Ethiopian army to effectively “liberate” Ethiopia from Amhara domination.

On top of the long demand for autonomy by other ethnic liberation fronts, the ethnic element of the Ethiopian federation and the constitutional right of ethnic groups to secede from Ethiopia were ratified because TPLF wanted to ensure the reality of two contradictory, ambiguous ambitions—to be ‘free from’ and also ‘to reign over’ Ethiopia.

Ironically, a liberation front that fought to end the domination of one ethnic group started its tenure as an oppressive and dominant ethnic organization ruling with an iron fist. TPLF, once again, proved its ambiguous nature.

After EPRDF’s state capture, the guilt-ridden international community was ready to repent for having allowed millions to die in a preventable famine and thus was eager to assist the new administration. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and western donors lined up to lend and donate billions of dollars.

The result was a success.

For over two decades, Ethiopia’s economy scored significant economic gains in various sectors. Poverty was reduced, while GDP was growing at a high rate. Metrics on human development indexes also showed a very encouraging upward trend.

Furthermore, as billions of dollars in foreign direct investment—mainly from investors desperately seeking cheap labor and free access to resources—were coming in, the country was on the path to becoming a middle-income nation.

However, the democratic promise offered to Ethiopians in the form of electoral freedom at the 2005 election exposed TPLF’s true repressive nature. As a result of this failed experiment, an era of deep mutual distrust between TPLF and the rest of Ethiopia began.

A party that went as far as ensuring self-determination to ethnic groups via Article 39 of the constitution couldn’t survive the true test of democracy when ethnic groups said no to the EPRDF under its domination.

The mid-2010s uprising led by Oromo youth known as ‘Qeerrooand then followed by the ‘Fano’ Amhara youth shook EPDRF to its core. TPLF became more and more isolated, even from the other members of the EPRDF. As the Amhara and Oromo parties of the EPRDF were unhappy with the long domination of the TPLF, they sidelined TPLF, aligned themselves with protestors, and used the opportunity to extend their tenure as reformists.

TPLF, despite continuous claims that it stood for ethnic equality and regional autonomy, has never considered its allies as equals. Rather, it treated them as its own creations—as helpless entities that existed to give it validation and whose constituent nations should be thankful for having been liberated from oppression. Some EPRDF allies like the parties from Afar and Somali regions were not even found competent enough by the TPLF to join the front.

But, as ironic as it may seem, it was actually the EPRDF that gave TPLF the legitimacy to govern, only to take it away after 27 years. After being sidelined by EPRDF, the only safe place for TPLF was Tigray itself, which had been free since 1989.

However, to survive in Tigray and in isolation, TPLF had to reinvent itself and once again become a freedom fighter—that was easy to do, thanks to its ambiguous nature.

War and nationhood

After rejecting the federal government’s call for the postponement of the national election, conducting an unconstitutional regional election in September 2020, and then openly delegitimizing the Ethiopian government, TPLF’s new path to create a de facto nation-state in Tigray appeared to be a hard reality.

TPLF was using self-imposed isolation as an opportunity to tell the world that Tigray is under siege by Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders who were conspiring against it. A road map was prepared and rehearsed to restart the struggle for “freedom,” while daily bravado and belligerent displays of power became common.

The reactions from both Ethiopia and Eritrea were similar. The leaders of both countries tried to show their readiness for the inevitable war by military posturing.

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There is, of course, disagreement about the genealogy of the war, and TPLF and its supporters say it is the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea that started the war. But, as much as they can claim TPLF acted only to preempt an inevitable aggression, Ethiopia, and also Eritrea, shouldn’t be denied the right to claim likewise.

Indeed, in light of the well-trained special forces inside of Tigray, a large number of high ranking Ethiopian army officers of Tigrayan origin suspected to be loyal to the TPLF, and the largest army command inside of Tigray with commanders that could defect at any given moment, Ethiopia had legitimate reasons to prepare.

Retrospectively, first holding an unauthorized election and then launching a war may have been TPLF’s attempt to assert sovereignty followed by statehood.

But, when the war turned out to be a dismal failure, it seems like TPLF quickly adopted another strategy. It used the war, the tragic human rights abuses at the hands of federal troops and their allies, and the widespread humanitarian crisis in Tigray for the purpose of shaping the Tigrayan psyche and laying fertile ground for independent nationhood.

With the help of effective campaigning from the Tigrayan diaspora and some support from the international community, TPLF has been successful in portraying the war in Tigray as a genocidal war. Accordingly, many Tigrayans now see Tigray as a nation subjected to genocide that needs to achieve nationhood as soon as possible.

Whether what has happened in Tigray can be labeled as genocide or not is a difficult question that only experts and legal authorities on the matter can answer. To date, however, no relevant national or international institution has labeled it as such.

But, as far as the TPLF is concerned, pushing the narrative of Tigray being a victim of genocide is important to intensify Tigray nationalism to the end of nationhood.

Cycle continues

The first 14 years of TPLF’s existence can be defined as an armed struggle waged to free Tigray from the shackles of the Ethiopian empire, and its 27 years in power highlight TPLF’s ambiguity as it struggles to escape from the very freedom it achieved.

The ever-elusive journey of TPLF that took the country of 110 million and the region to the gates of hell and back may continue. Even on fundamental matters such as the secession of Tigray, TPLF is not free from ambiguity. Sure, the general perception is that TPLF is now for Tigray nationhood; but, true to its ambiguous nature, the party is not yet committed to this view.

Leaving that aside, even if a free Tigray calls itself independent, it only means it is free of political relationships. However, as a major component of the complicated system called Ethiopia, it will forever remain entangled with Ethiopia.

Nations, it must be noted, are more than political and geographical boundaries. They are more than the sum of their parts; they are emergent properties. What makes a group of people or a region a separate entity or state is not a simple political declaration of independence. In a complex political system like Ethiopia, there’s a more intricate bond between peoples and regions.

To bring peace, or at least to mitigate the mayhem that engulfed the region, Tigray’s secession from Ethiopia may appear to be an attractive and viable solution. However, looking at what happened to Eritrea and South Sudan, one cannot have confidence that this will guarantee peace.

Many considered separating Eritrea and Ethiopia as a peaceful solution for a troubled region. Nonetheless, the two countries never left each other alone—and actually went to war from 1998 to 2000. No doubt this will be a reoccurring phenomenon with a potential Tigray secession.

Finally, although surviving within a complex system of relations such as Ethiopia requires accepting ambiguity as a coping mechanism, when ambiguity is the building block of one’s unique identity as has been the case with the TPLF, it compels us to imagine a future both ‘with’ as well as ‘without’ TPLF.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: TPLF’s 45th-anniversary celebration in Mekelle, Tigray; February 2020; TPLF’s Facebook page.

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About the author

Berhanu Kebede

Berhanu is an economics lecturer at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada.

15 Comments

  • The price of one loaf of bread in TPLFs led Ethiopia had increased by a whopping 3000%. The claims of decades of double digit growth do not support the reality on the ground. The average living expense especially, food and basic services during the time of the Derg were several folds lower than what transpired under TPLF. Ethiopia accumulated an eye popping 35-40 billions of dollars during TPLFs 30 years of reign of terror. For substandard and often shamefully deficient, ill designed and terribly executed projects that were used as a cover up to loot the country’s resources, Ethiopians have been hoodwinked and cheated. TPLFs era was marked by widespread corruption, embezzlement, massive looting, theft, nepotism, backward clannish mentality. Thanks to TPLF, a generation of millions of badly educated youth with no prospects for upward mobility are stuck in the failed pipe dream of nation and nationalities while simultaneously denied the basic individual right to exist and coexist as a citizen of Ethiopia first. Add to these miseries, the destruction of the civil service, the corruption of all branches of the judiciary with rampant bribery of judges, public officials and no due process of law, the tarnishing of all educational standards, even minimum standards, is it any wonder why people are in despair? Meritocracy has been replaced by ethnicity, talent shadowed by arbitrary quotas, and people are wondering why nobody knows how to do a single task properly and with efficiency? There is your legacy of the TPLF era, and the current in power, one still diseased in the mind, psyche and the physical with the enslavement of the TPLF ethnofanatic disease unfortunately, to the chagrin of hundreds of millions, will not fare any better. It must also be mentioned that neither the era of Emperor Haile Selassie, nor that of Mengistu Hailemariam, enjoyed the continuous 3-4 billion dollar annual remittances by the huge diaspora. So in a nut shell, the TPLF had wasted 30 years and over 100 billion dollars on nothing. This is the reality no TPLF sympathizers, looters, and current ethnic-fanatics will dare to admit. The city administration in Addis Ababa has gone from mediocre during the derg’s era to bad at the start of the Meles era to worst. The other provinces, pardon my vocabulary, the other kileles are not faring any barter. The once cosmopolitan cities of Harar and Dire Dawa, are now in tatters, frozen in time to 40 years back, dilapidated, shanty, in tatters. What a shame? To make Mekele the new industrial heart beat, TPLF had to destroy Dire Dawa. The fruit basket of Ethiopia, Harar, the land of the beautiful, the kind, the elegant, with generations of multilingual residents fluent in Harari (Aderegna), Oromigna, Somali, even Arabic, French and Italian with some English, all left in poverty and misery. Ethnic federalism, my foot. Learn what federalism means first!!! The ignorant Tsdakan was once asked why they, i.e., the TPLF brought ethnic federalism to Ethiopia, and low and behold the ignoramus Tsdakan replied a gut feeling but honest answer, “because at that time that was our understanding of it, i.e. federalism then”. It were not as if Meles and his ignorant TPLF yes men and women, suddenly discovered Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison or even read or understood a single sentence from the Federalist Papers, that they would dare speak about it, if at all. After all, the rudimentary concept of a central state power ruling with regional state powers was not even new to Ethiopians. The King of kings, central vs regional power structure was already a well recognized and practiced form of governance in Ethiopia for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Meles thieving gang. And at last, in the greatest federal country in the US, lest we forget, English is the one and main working language in the government, courts both at the federal and state levels, the constitution is based on ensuring life, liberty,and the pursuit of happiness for the INDIVIDUAL CITIZEN!!!! Neither TPLF, nor many in the PP will acknowledge or grasp these fundamental core values, because practicing true federalism will force their kleptocratic hands out of the Ethiopian cookie jars from which they loot day in day out.

    • Mr Johnton, what do you intend to say? The life during Derg time was better than during EPRDF time, the Emperial time was much better than Derg? (was it the time when you left Ethiopia?). What is about the future – once tplf is eliminated, should Ethiopians expect the coming of paradise soon, in the form of “true federalism” or unitary state?

  • A very insightful article. I enjoyed your detailed analysis of our political path. But I felt some essential events or turning points that changed the course of our political path, such as the division that occured amongest the TPLF’s heirarchy and the passing of the former TPLF leader have been omitted.
    The other turn of events which chronological order you may want to review is this. You ststed that after achieving freedom for Tigray in 1989,
    “TPLF elites realized that being free from Ethiopia is not enough—for Tigray to be truly free, they had to come to the center and rule over a country that they fought to unshackle Tigray from.
    In part, this is what led to the formation of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in 1988, a political and military front consisting of groups representing major Ethiopian ethnic groups.”
    Thank you for the great read
    Israel Ayano

  • It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. And as such the author here presents a distorted view about TPLF. Giving the country 27 years of stability and economic revival was TPLF’s finest moment in Ethiopian history. However, the author chooses to weave distortions about the past and the present to convey his implied endorsement of the war, showing no concern about the carnage.

  • The author sincerely tries to be objective and to reach to answers for difficult questions. However, my feeling is that he does not consider the main subject of his article as something serious. It looks like for him, TPLF is a “fake party”, a small group of people that built their cause on fake issues and accidental luck, and their deeds and steps are erratic or illusive. The author further appears to think that, even though Tigrayans are being abused indeed (actually, again and again the course of the century) they may not see their salvation in an independent statehood – for that, they should be duped by TPLF since the abuse is also fake at least to a great degree.

    • Dear Abate, again and again there are calls to “outlawing ethnic politics in Ethiopia”. I think it is wrong, simplistic and dangerous because of at least several issues: 1. You cannot simple take and “outlaw” the foundation of the state inscribes in the constitution. There should be a wide and thorough all-Ethiopia public discussion about it (you should prove what “ethnic politics” is wrong), no pressure and no vilolence, change of the laws. All this is very difficult to achive now. 2. What do you want instead? A unitary state like in HSI or Mengistu’s time? 3. You should not think that ethnic policy has no wide support in Ethiopia. 4. Actually, the policy worked, more or less, and resulted in a couple of decades of relative stability and growth and other positive changes (there were of course negative aspects as well). 5. It is unlikely that the new government will sway away from ethnic federalism.

  • It seems that it has been written by someone who strictly hates TPLF/ Tigrayans as people. Weak analysis at all.

    • Dear Fiseha,
      I might dislike or even hold Tplf accountable for the suffering of millions of Tigrayns and other Ethiopians, however, I have NO REASONS to hate Tigrayns as a group. Some of my closest family members and friends are Tigrayans, of every political stripe, and I will stand for their rights. If you really think Tplf = Tigrayans, you are wrong. Let’s just wait and see.

  • After EPRDF’s state capture, the guilt-ridden international community was ready to repent for having allowed millions to die in a preventable famine and thus was eager to assist the new administration. The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and western donors lined up to lend and donate billions of dollars.
    This was not as easy as the author makes it out to be. The government had to earn the trust first. It took until 2005 for the GPD to increase significantly.
    The speed of the war process shows that Dr. Abiye and Eritrea started it.
    Already days before it was known that they will attack. The TDF had to react.

    • No, since the previous government of Ethiopia was a communist and TPLF came to power partly through political and military support from the west they were more than ready to help it in every way. However, TPLF has to be clear how to lead a nation first and should recover from the impact of Ethio Eritrean war of 1998-2000 to start to lead the nation on to a faster growth trajectory. Which TPLF managed to achieve had it not been for its favoritism for one ethnic group over the others.
      With regards to who started the war unless you purposely denied it TPLF leaders themselves (Sekou Toure and Tsadikan) have openely admitted that they started it but they said they had to act since the war was eminent. All in all stand with the truth not to favour one group over the other.

  • Thanks for sheding light ro the history of our political progress and its effects. I would love to hear more on how all this as related to geopolitics in th HOA. I think the vested interest of the ‘super powers’ has also tremendous impact in terms complicating the situation we are in today. Another interesting issue is the role played by the mainstream media in stabilizing/destabilizing sovereign countries.

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