Mediators must deal with all political actors in Tigray.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is commonly assumed to be the sole political actor in Tigray that can negotiate an end to the conflict that broke out in November 2020 between the region and the federal government of Ethiopia, along with its Eritrean and Amhara allies.
This is the case because TPLF has, almost exclusively, dominated the region’s politics since it was founded in 1976.
While it may be pragmatic for outsiders to neglect the other stakeholders in Tigray and push for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to bargain only with TPLF, this approach of conflict resolution is unlikely to bring lasting peace.
TPLF’s opponents in the region identify the party’s intolerant and undemocratic culture as being the main factor that explains its nearly uncontested dominance over Tigray for decades. The party has controlled everything through its entrenched power across all public spheres, including the media, bureaucracy, security, and the judiciary.
The party is notorious for its five-to-one network, where one party member monitors five people in businesses, schools, workplaces, and even households. This system has been the source of TPLF’s control, particularly in rural areas where the state’s reach is less apparent. Establishing this repressive structure has allowed the party to suppress any dissent at the grassroots level.
A split in the TPLF leadership following the 1998-2000 border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea was the major event that led to the formation of a new opposition party in the region. In the wake of this conflict, disbanded former TPLF elites founded Arena Tigray.
To its credit, Arena made huge strides in becoming an alternative voice in the region. The party’s achievements are limited by the fact that it has never been given space to present itself freely to the public. Members have been ostracized from society and fired from their jobs. Farmers who show support for the party have been evicted from their landholdings.
To make matters worse, members, including party chairman Abraha Desta, have been sent to prison several times. Moreover, TPLF leadership and rank-and-file members have constantly used demonizing terms such as “weed” and “banda’’ (traitor) targeting Arena party. These terms are widely perceived to be a code for the elimination of the opposition party. It is therefore not a coincidence that no significant opposition party or civil society existed until very recently in Tigray.
In 2018, following the sweeping power reshuffle in Ethiopia, a different political environment started to emerge. The new leadership in Addis Abeba proved to be very hostile to the TPLF. Many of the party’s members were either removed from federal offices or faced criminal charges.
For the first time since coming to power in 1991, TPLF faced a critical threat to its survival. The party’s leaders began to take precautionary measures as the newly-formed political alliance under Abiy prepared to eliminate TPLF from power, even in its regional stronghold.
Given this precarious situation, TPLF had no choice but to tolerate various formal and informal opposition meetings that began to take place in the region. These meetings were predominantly focused on achieving greater autonomy for Tigray within the Ethiopian federation.
Many participants started criticizing TPLF’s prior role in the federal and regional governments, as well as its prevailing narratives. This, in turn, led to the formation of three new opposition parties and the emergence of a semi-independent civil society movement in Tigray.
Since at least 2015, the political environment in Ethiopia has been infested with people blaming Tigrayans for the quagmire the nation finds itself in. This hostile environment resulted in an increasing number of brutal attacks against Tigrayans throughout the country.
These attacks—which have been most pronounced in the Amhara region—and the media’s devastating role in propagating anti-Tigrayan sentiments, precipitated a widespread nationalist response from Tigrayan youth and intellectuals.
By and large, Tigrayan nationalism has been understood as a response to the historical Shewa-Amhara dominance. Accordingly, current nationalism in Tigray is tied to questions of identity and self-rule, including secessionist aspirations which were popular during the armed struggle against the Derg.
Many Tigrayan critics of the TPLF argue that during the armed struggle of the 1970s and 80s, TPLF used nationalism to mobilize the youth against the military junta. However, according to these critics, the party pushed aside ethno-nationalism after it captured state power in 1991.
Amid the power contestation that began in 2018, TPLF once again tried to capitalize on Tigrayan nationalism. In practice, it has failed to cope with the newly formed opposition parties like Salsay Woyane, Tigray Independent Party (TIP), and Baitona Tigray that have become the driving force of nationalism in the region.
Representing the vibrant young generation, the leaders of these opposition parties have been vocal in challenging the TPLF and the federal establishment, while demanding greater autonomy for Tigray and even independence from Ethiopia. Among them, Mehari Yohannes, the founder of TIP, a university professor, and an ardent defender of independence, is at the forefront.
Mehari’s eloquence in explaining the need for Tigrayan nationalism has attracted the attention of the youth. He emphasizes that Ethiopia’s political conundrum is structural, is ingrained in the history of coercive state formation, and reflects the imperial character its leaders continue to pursue. Mehari argues that there exists an irreconcilable clash of state-building visions between those who identify with Ethiopia and those who identify with sub-state identities.
In a joint statement issued on 25 June 2020, the opposition parties urged the regional government to hold an election and establish an election commission despite the ruling of the House of Federation that postponed both federal and regional elections due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Apparently, there was consensus among the opposition that they would not be able to defeat TPLF in the election. Yet, the rationale for holding the election was based on the belief that it was an essential guard against the threat posed by the federal government. The parties participated in the election because they wanted to use it as a foundation for a stronger Tigrayan nationalism.
TPLF wanted to hold the regional election primarily to deny legitimacy to the federal government, which it argued had extended its term beyond the period envisaged in the constitution. TPLF was also pushing for national dialogue and negotiations that could ultimately bring it back to the center representing Tigray in a power-sharing arrangement.
To the dismay of the opposition parties, the September 2020 election did not guarantee the newly elected regional government’s legitimacy; it only heightened tensions with the federal government that led to the outbreak of war less than two months later.
In the war, the entire Tigrayan community has been ruthlessly targeted. The brutality of Eritrea’s involvement, the land grabbing by Amhara in Western Tigray, and the hatred of Tigrayans exhibited by many Ethiopians have all cemented the Tigrayan nationalist ideas propagated by the opposition parties before the start of the war.
During its occupation of Tigray from November 2020 to late June 2021, the federal government adopted different approaches in dealing with Tigray’s opposition parties.
When it invited Arena to be part of its provisional administration, only a handful of party leaders agreed to join the regional cabinet. This collaboration by a few members subsequently backfired on Arena following the withdrawal of Ethiopia’s army from Mekelle in late June 2021.
By contrast, the federal government treated the three other opposition parties that have a considerable presence in the political landscape of Tigray as TPLF allies, and the National Election Board has so far refused to recognize them as they have participated in what the Board considered to be an “illegal” regional election.
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The opposition parties have characterized the federal intervention as a genocidal war intended to eliminate the political independence of Tigray, humiliate the Tigrayan people, and destroy the cultural heritage of the society. Ultimately, they contend, the key objective of the conflict is to starve the people and force them into submission.
The opposition parties were not capable of defending themselves and the people from the brutality of the war. Some of their leaders continued the peaceful struggle, whereas other opposition leaders joined the armed struggle.
Amid the armed struggle, the opposition parties did not clearly outline their relationship with TPLF or the leadership of the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF).
With this in mind, the government of Tigray, or TPLF, successfully promoted the narrative that TDF is a neutral military body symbolizing popular resistance in Tigray. Leaders of the TPLF have propagated the idea that TPLF is just one of the political forces contributing to TDF’s military successes, such as expelling the three invading forces from Tigray.
The narrative of neutrality was widely accepted for a variety of reasons. Most notably, many opposition members reasoned that, because there is an existential threat against their people, they needed to unite to remove that threat.
Besides this, the involvement of General Tsadkan Gebretensae in the leadership of TDF created false hope for the opposition and members of the Tigrayan diaspora who revere him. Tsadkan is the former military leader of Ethiopia, including during the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea.
Given the scale of atrocities committed during the occupation of the region by the invading forces, it was difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people to conduct a meaningful debate about Tigray’s internal politics.
After the Ethiopian army’s withdrawal from Tigray, Liya Kassa, a member of TPLF’s central committee, declared that “the elected government has been reinstated to its place.” Such statements indicate that political power in the region is once again monopolized by the TPLF.
Tigrayans, especially those in the diaspora, are divided over TPLF’s statement concerning its reinstatement to its previous position. Some say that TPLF hijacked the popular resistance, while others assert that the popular struggle was meant to put the elected government back in power.
On top of the federally imposed communication and electricity blackout in the region, TPLF denied the opposition parties access to the only functioning government media. This effectively cut them off from having any interaction both within and outside of the region.
TPLF then began to take aggressive measures against the opposition parties. In the usual party practice, people were labeled as renegades. Opposition party members indicated that many have been thrown in jail after public evaluations ordered by TPLF.
The opposition parties have publicly battled with the TPLF on key political questions. These include diverging narratives on the causes and consequences of the conflict, as well as disagreements over how the humanitarian blockade is managed.
Worse yet, the opposition claims that they have been excluded from peace talks and negotiations underway to end the war. The opposition parties hold different views from TPLF on the fundamental issues of security, territorial integrity, political ideology, and the future of Tigray.
In a recent communiqué, Salsay Woyane and TIP condemned TPLF for its lack of legitimacy to govern the region. These parties called for the formation of an inclusive transitional government comprising all political parties.
These two parties blamed TPLF for failing to protect the people of Tigray from the unspeakable atrocities during the invasion. They highlighted the circumstances leading to the election and the current deadlock on the battlefield. In addition, they suggested that a transitional government is needed to deal with the impasse by using the capacity of society as a whole, not a single party.
From this perspective, although TPLF was elected to lead the regional government, Tigray is now a de facto nation-state fighting to defend itself against the federal government, neighboring regions, and foreign forces. It follows that new institutions such as the TDF—which does include opposition party members but is dominated by the TPLF leadership—should remain neutral both in form and function, given that everyone is involved in the struggle.
The other party, Baitona, took a slightly different tone and recommended establishing a national council. Citing the 2020 election, Baitona recognizes TPLF as a regional leader. However, noting that the people did not vote for the federal parliament and local level (Woreda and Tabia) councils, Baitona argues that TPLF does not have the authority to negotiate with third parties representing the government of Tigray and it lacks legitimacy to govern the entire region.
Such internal divisions have been overshadowed by the conflict. Both the ongoing war and the effects of the humanitarian blockade must be solved through cooperation among political forces. Yet, undermining this need, the ruling party has prioritized solidifying its power.
TPLF has its fair share of blame for putting Tigray in its current predicament and so has an accompanying responsibility to get the region out of it. Under no circumstances, however, should it be considered the sole political actor that represents Tigray.
Despite TPLF’s rejection, all Tigrayans should push for increased involvement of opposition parties in addressing the ongoing crisis and in determining Tigray’s fate.
The government of Tigray, the TPLF, needs to form an inclusive administration. Similarly, international actors involved in facilitating ceasefire negotiations—such as AU representative Olusegun Obasanjo—should not engage only with TPLF or assume it is the sole force representing the interests of Tigray.
The bottom line is that pluralism in Tigray would give more legitimacy to any peace initiative and could lay a sustainable foundation for successful peace-making efforts.
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Main photo: TDF fighters in Mekelle, Tigray; June 2021; AFP.
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