The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is little known outside of Ethiopia, but in that country it was a byword for government for almost three decades. It is now a marginalised paramilitary group, fighting a war for its survival. Ethiopian national government troops are currently on the march towards Mekelle, the stronghold of TPLF and the capital of its homeland, the Tigray regional state.
In Ethiopia, where various regions based on the country’s diverse ethnic make-up maintain a level of autonomy – almost full sovereignty – deeply rooted in the constitution, the TPLF ostensibly exists to represent the interests of the Tigrayan ethnic group. Tigrayans account for around six per cent of the total population.
The fighting, which has brought Ethiopia to the brink of a full-blown civil war, is the result of a clash over competing narratives of the country’s recent history, and competing viewpoints over its future identity.
The TPLF movement was formed in February of 1975. At the time, Ethiopia was ruled by a brutal military junta known as the Derg, which had overthrown the country’s emperor, Haile Selassie, a year earlier. The TPLF arose as a small guerrilla movement with Marxist leanings in Ethiopia’s north, aimed at securing self-determination for the people of Tigray.
The Derg conducted a series of campaigns known as the “Red Terror” against various Marxist groups, including the TPLF. The death toll was in the tens of thousands.
Unlike most other contemporary resistance groups, which sought the political liberation of Ethiopia from the Derg, the TPLF’s focus was on Tigrayan independence, though it was open to “pan-Ethiopian” strategic alliances.
That all changed in 1991 when a TPLF-led coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), finally ousted the junta. The EPRDF was the product of four parties with roots in several of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups: the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, the Southern Ethiopia People’s Democratic Front and, of course, the TPLF.
As the tip of the EPRDF’s spear, the irredentist, ethno-nationalist TPLF was now at the core of Ethiopia’s new national government.
The TPLF’s new position in power saw its long-standing Tigrayan leader, Meles Zenawi, who was by now the most powerful EPRDF official, lead Ethiopia for more than two decades. Under his leadership, Ethiopia was transformed from a drought-stricken country to one of the fastest growing economies in the world. He oversaw the construction of numerous infrastructure projects including hydroelectric and irrigation dams, roads and railways. The country also saw a long period of relative peace and stability under his rule.
Despite being known for his state-led economic development model, however, Meles’s administration was responsible for human right abuses, torture and deaths of political dissents. Critics also accused him of being responsible for injecting more ethnic division into the country’s politics, and these have led to further internal conflict as well as the deaths of thousands of civilians in the past three decades.
After the death of Meles in 2012, Hailemariam Desalegn, who is an ethnic Wolayita (an ethnic group from the south), led the country for almost six years. Nonetheless, during his rule, TPLF continued to be the dominant player, holding key positions in the government bureaucracy, the army and intelligence apparatus. During one press briefing, he was referred to as a TPLF puppet.
In 2018, as internal pressure from other flanks of the EPRDF mounted and widespread protests erupted in the Oromia and Amhara regions, Mr Hailemariam was forced to resign from his post.
When Mr Hailemariam resigned, the leaders of other EPRDF constituent parties jockeyed to replace him. The man who eventually rose to the top was the current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, who is an ethnic Oromo. It was not an easy rise. The 180-member EPRDF Council, which comprises 45 members from each of the four constituent parties, was split on the decision. Mr Abiy secured the full support of Amhara and Oromo members, but only partial support from the southern region party and less than 10 per cent from the TPLF.
Soon after his appointment, Mr Abiy removed influential TPLF military and intelligence officers. These included Getachew Assefa and Gen Samora Yenus, who had been spy chief and army chief of staff, respectively, for two decades. This was followed by the arrest of senior leaders of the country's military conglomerate for alleged corruption, malpractice and misappropriation. The majority of them were ethnic Tigrayans loyal to TPLF.
Frustrated by these actions, the TPLF began to rally state media outlets under its control against the central government. But the fatal blow to its ties with the government was Mr Abiy’s decision to dismantle the EPRDF, replacing it with the new, pan-Ethiopian Prosperity Party.
The TPLF refused to join the new party, and its officials subsequently were removed from key ministerial positions. The new political landscape was unable to solidify through the democratic process because of the intervention of the Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed the general elections scheduled for August of this year. For the TPLF, the delay was an excuse by Mr Abiy to hold onto power, tighten centralised government and continue his campaign to sideline the TPLF.
And so Tigray, under the administration of the TPLF, conducted its own regional election, with vehement opposition from Mr Abiy. Five political parties participated, and 2.7 million voters were registered. The TPLF was declared by the regional election commission to have achieved a 100 per cent victory. The federal government, unsurprisingly, declared the election null and void.
As both sides accused each other of lacking legitimacy, war broke out. TPLF forces first attacked a Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces camp, though it has claimed this was a pre-emptive strike. Mr Abiy immediately released a statement saying TPLF had crossed red line, and that his administration was keen to enforce the rule of law.
At the time of writing, the National Defence Forces have carried out air strikes and seized control of key towns in Tigray. The TPLF, in response, conducted a missile attack against airports and military installations in the towns of Bahirdar and Gondar, in the neighboring Amhara region, as well as another one in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. The TPLF says Eritrean soldiers are fighting along Ethiopian troops, an accusation Mr Abiy’s administration strenuously denies.
So far, the latest conflict has displaced thousands, killed hundreds and rendered destitute tens of thousands of Ethiopians who have fled to neighbouring Sudan. This threatens to make the conflict regional and may even go beyond regional borders by way of mass migration and refugee flows.
With Mr Abiy in control of key towns in Tigray, there is a chance that 2020 will see the downfall of the TPLF, one of the most powerful political forces in Ethiopian history, and a fundamental transformation of Ethiopian society in Mr Abiy’s image.
Samuel Getachew is a freelance correspondent based in Ethiopia