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By attempting to shut opposition parties and independent voices out of the interim regional administration, TPLF officials are showing that the devastating war has taught them nothing.
Tigray’s political landscape has undergone dramatic changes on numerous occasions since civil war broke out between federal and regional forces in November 2020.
While the September 2020 election strengthened the TPLF’s position at the helm of the region’s government, holding this vote paved the way for civil war. Since then, two years of conflict have spun the region’s political dynamics in unforeseen directions.
The ebbs and flows of the war included the TPLF being expelled from Mekelle by the invading Ethiopian, Amhara, and Eritrean forces in late November 2020 and the Tigrayan armed resistance coalescing in response to unimaginable atrocities.
After the Tigray forces recaptured a large part of the region in July 2021, federal authorities imposed an inhumane siege on Tigray and an uneasy stalemate set in until the final, and most brutal, round of conflict took place between August and November 2022.
This round of fighting ended with the Tigrayan leadership effectively capitulating and being forced to sign a highly unfavorable peace deal in South Africa. The anticipated establishment of an interim regional administration—a central element of the Pretoria agreement signed on 2 November 2022—brings some hope for genuine change in Tigray’s politics.
However, all signs indicate the TPLF is back to its old tricks of being intolerant toward any internal opposition. Tigrayans are now more divided than ever, as some feel that, in its collaboration with federal authorities, the TPLF has sold out the people of Tigray.
An important development at the onset of the conflict was that Tigray’s large diaspora community united in mass mobilization against the war.
New civil society organizations came into existence and were successful in raising international awareness, launching advocacy campaigns, and organizing demonstrations. Individuals engaged voluntarily, sometimes risking their lives and careers, and worked tirelessly to create a global network and attract stakeholders for successful public diplomacy.
During the first nine months of the war, due to a full-fledged communication blackout in Tigray, there was little to no communication between the TPLF and Tigrayan diaspora. This explains why early initiatives remained largely independent, with objective and de-politicized discussions within the diaspora community shaping the agenda.
The movement which emerged successfully launched social media campaigns and engaged in international digital diplomacy, exposing the horrors of the war and sharing information with the world that federal authorities tried with all their might to suppress.
The resulting mobilization and lobbying to stop the atrocities gave a voice to those who had been muted in Tigray, filling a void that under normal circumstances would have been occupied by official channels.
Even though such efforts couldn’t alleviate the devastation inflicted by the invading forces, the international community was at least forced to give due attention to the humanitarian crisis in Tigray.
Henceforth, despite the concerted and aggressive diplomatic engagement by the government of Ethiopia, the administration has faced sustained condemnation and stringent economic sanctions. The diaspora has also mobilized substantial financial and material support for the people in Tigray.
Tigray forces eventually pushed the invading armies out of Mekelle and much of the region in June 2021. At that time, the TPLF started reestablishing formal diplomatic connections and strengthening its networks.
As the saying goes, old habits die hard. The infamous one-to-five network, the TPLF’s long-standing instrument used to monitor citizens and monopolize politics, started to change the structure of diaspora movements.
During this process, loyalists and representatives of the party gained control of diaspora initiatives. Community organizations were restructured in a way that better suited the party’s agenda.
Consistent with the established party practice, dissenting voices who offered an objective viewpoint were isolated. The vibrant mobilization formed against the war was rearranged to serve the TPLF’s political interests, not those of the public at large in Tigray.
Altogether, the strong party control has weakened the participation of the vast Tigrayan diaspora. This overbearing intervention has impaired the success of public diplomacy and has restricted the movement’s capacity and resources.
The TPLF also began to engage diplomatically on the international stage. Those leading this call were familiar faces from the previous administration who were responsible for serious human rights abuses.
It’s therefore not surprising they’ve done a poor job obtaining meaningful support to stem the challenges posed by one of the leading humanitarian crises worldwide.
The focus has been on mobilizing the diaspora to collect large financial contributions. While already facing the burden of providing financial support to their extended families in Tigray—with an alarming 40-50 percent commission taken by smugglers—Tigrayans abroad have been forced by party networks to contribute large sums to the regional authorities.
As has been the norm for decades, there is no transparency regarding the purpose of the millions of dollars collected and how this money has been spent.
The situation is made more challenging by the fact that TPLF officials have not clearly articulated the central objective of the conflict other than invoking vague statements about self-determination.
For this reason, foreign diplomats and experts who are closely monitoring the situation have been largely unable to understand the fundamental goals of the popular resistance.
The monopoly over politics and the establishment of authority by the TPLF exerted over the diaspora was even stronger within the region itself. There, authorities have launched different strategies to regain control, often using the people’s boiling nationalist sentiments created by the war.
Witnessing the depth of the atrocities on the ground and the magnitude of hate speech against Tigrayans disseminated on conventional and social media, the vast majority of Tigrayans acknowledged the existential nature of the war.
Sharing in this belief, political parties stopped bickering with the TPLF and contributed in any way they could. This unity raised hopes of a new culture emerging in Tigray’s undemocratic political environment, something that was made possible only by the extraordinary context.
Fulfilling their oaths, leaders and members of the opposition parties have fought and died in defense of their society. The wave of recruits has included doctors, university professors, white-collar professionals, and diaspora Tigrayans from the US, Europe, and elsewhere.
During the course of the war, there was an incredible level of public mobilization. This led to the establishment of a new force, popularly called the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), which was mainly composed of the new generations.
A strong consensus was built around the TDF’s role as guardian of people’s liberty. Most importantly, it was believed that this force would treat all Tigrayans—including those affiliated with opposition parties—equally and that it would be an independent actor in the internal affairs of Tigray.
What in retrospect might look like a naive expectation was in fact a rational evaluation of the debt of gratitude TPLF leaders owed to the public on account of the people’s sacrifices made during a war that had erupted in part because of fatal strategic party failures.
However, the hope that pluralism of opinion within the region would finally be accepted did not last long.
TDF generals in control of the army’s high command, many of whom were TPLF fighters in the years of armed struggle against the brutal Derg regime from 1975 to 1991, revealed their loyalty to the TPLF in their interviews. One among them specifically warned the youth to strictly abide by the ruling party’s monopoly of power.
In an attempt to strengthen political authority over the new role of the military in Tigrayan society, Getachew Reda, one of the TPLF’s top officials, added that Tigray could not keep its army while it remains part of Ethiopia. He went on to claim that it was him who had spontaneously coined the term “TDF” in an interview, further asserting that the expression does not legitimately denote any institution.
These statements were part of the political maneuvering by TPLF officials behind the scenes to curtail the emerging public view that the army was an independent institution that needs to be preserved in a would-be “new Tigray”.
The TPLF’s legitimacy was negatively affected by the war. With this in mind, the concerted strategies by TPLF leaders to reassert a monopoly over political narratives should be understood as having multiple objectives.
The key one was to show Tigrayan society the force and legality of the party’s actions even during war times. For this purpose, even though the regional government had been disbanded after being pushed out of Mekelle in November 2020, the party continued to use the term “government” for its propaganda.
Ignoring their shared responsibility in causing the conflict and blaming external circumstances beyond their control, TPLF officials misled the public about developments on the battlefield from the outset.
The fact remains, hundreds of thousands of Tigrayan combatants and civilians have sacrificed their lives due in large part to the TPLF’s strategic failures before and during the war. This was particularly true when TPLF leaders decided to march towards Addis Abeba in late 2021 instead of pursuing options that would have averted the deadly blockade.
Another strategic goal of this communications offensive was to signal to the international community that the TPLF remains their only interlocutor in Tigray capable of articulating and fighting for the region’s interests.
Having understood the governing party’s strategy, opposition groups and independent Tigrayan scholars requested the formation of an inclusive transitional government.
During the war, the TPLF openly rejected such proposals, arguing that its legitimacy continued to derive from the September 2020 election. By the same token, Getachew Reda reiterated that his party had been elected to safeguard the people in a precarious time, glossing over his administration’s shared responsibility for the devastation that followed.
In the spirit of constructive criticism, independent intellectuals proposed alternative ideas on how to deal with existing threats and form a new administration.
Fearing the growing voice of this group, the TPLF established the Tigray University Scholars Association (TUSA) in early 2022 to weaken the Global Society of Tigray Scholars and Professionals (GSTS), which had been instrumental in organizing the diaspora community.
This came immediately after GSTS’s soft push for an all-inclusive government, proving once more the hegemonic aspirations of the TPLF. What’s ironic, however, is that GSTS, a group of thousands of Tigrayan scholars, as it claims, has served the TPLF’s objectives rather than putting due pressure on its leaders and organizing the community to meet the present challenges.
After several stages of unsuccessful deliberations, a permanent cessation of hostilities was signed on 2 November 2022 between the government of Ethiopia and the TPLF. The peace deal has been celebrated as a victory by different actors, including Tigray’s authorities.
It’s safe to conclude that with it the Ethiopian government achieved most of its war aims. Most notably, the peace deal ensured the restoration of federal authority in Tigray and imposed the dissolution of the regional government.
Furthermore, it included an unrealistically ambitious timeline for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of TDF fighters, while setting up poor monitoring and verification processes for the implementation of the agreement, including the withdrawal of any armed forces other than federal ones from the region.
There’s no denying that the peace agreement has, at least temporarily, stopped the war, improved the flow of humanitarian relief, and led to the partial resumption of basic services.
Yet, the agreement has fallen short of expectations in many ways, among which are the unsatisfying provisions on transitional justice for wartime atrocities and the absence of lasting solutions to underlying issues.
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It’s particularly worrying that the peace agreement has excluded well-established principles and guidelines from the UN-based transitional justice framework. Instead, the Ethiopian constitution, despite lacking articles to that purpose, and the newly adopted AU transitional justice policy are the central instruments guiding this process.
In this sense, the peace deal gives in to the Ethiopian government’s persistent objections to international mechanisms and appears to have successfully evaded international accountability for crimes committed by its forces and those of its Amhara and Eritrean allies.
It can be argued that the lengthy siege, the staggering atrocities which followed the new round of confrontation that started in August 2022, and the unbearable human cost of the war forced Tigray to accept any deal, no matter how unfavorable.
For TPLF leaders, the peace deal has opened an embarrassing chapter, as it was forced to make painful concessions. The infamous election that played a triggering role in the conflict was nullified, the regional administration agreed to be dissolved, and Tigray accepted to come again under the exclusive authority of the federal government.
These steps stand in sharp contrast to the TPLF-backed genocide designation passed by the defunct State Council in January 2022 concerning the federal government’s military efforts.
In defense of these choices, the TPLF—in statements issued through the government offices and party organs—tried to sell the deal as a success story which led to the “restoration of constitutional order.”
This argument is a weak rationalization and hides the reality that one of the deal’s primary objectives was securing the party’s political survival through the planned removal of its terrorist designation by federal authorities.
Having temporarily dealt with its external foes, Tigray is now confronted with many internal challenges. In such a time, inclusivity in the decision-making process is of paramount importance and calls to build a government of national unity are more important than ever.
Unfortunately, the TPLF doesn’t seem to have learned much from its leadership failures that helped bring on the war in the first place. The party led the region, as its governing political force, into a terrible war and now wants to monopolize power again in Tigray.
The Pretoria peace deal obliges the establishment of an inclusive regional interim administration, but the process thus far is being single handedly dictated by the TPLF leadership, much to the dismay of opposition parties, scholars, and dissenting generals.
If Tigray is to have any hope of forging a more peaceful and prosperous future under such dire circumstances—in which federal authorities now control the region, marauding Eritrean troops continue to roam freely, and Amhara forces still control Western Tigray—TPLF leaders must change their ways and foster a more inclusive political dispensation.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: 40th Anniversary of the TPLF; Mekelle, Ethiopia; 18 February 2015; Paul Kagame.