Rise and Fall of an Illegitimate Power. Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) has never been a legitimate entity in Ethiopia and the larger Horn of Africa. When it was imposed on the Ethiopian state in 1991, TPLF was a minority in every sense of the term. It played junior role in toppling the military Derg regime, espoused a radical ethno-Marxist ideology, had marginal place among Ethiopian political forces, and represented only a small fraction (4%) of the Ethiopian people. TPLF, therefore, owed its ascendance to power to the confusion in international politics attending the end of the Cold War. In an arrogance reminiscent of the Berlin Conference (1885), which divided up Africa among European colonial powers, TPLF’s western patrons seated the rebel front with little consultation or care to the interest of the Ethiopian people or the impact of that fateful decision on the region.
Under a façade of democracy, TPLF ran the quasicoalition, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF), and refashioned the state in its own image, as a minority ethnocracy. TPLF instituted radical ethnic federalism, ethno-dominant party rule, and divisive style of governance. It stifled political dissent by heavy-handed authoritarianism and monopoly over all spheres of national life. For 27 years (1991 – 2018), TPLF ruled Ethiopia as spoils of war, hoarding all real political, economic, military and security power under a phenomenally corrupt Tigrean elite.
TPLF attempted to make up for its serious aberrations by skillfully and self-servingly manipulating the global power game. Even though its international patrons and staunch supporters implicitly recognized the threat TPLF posed to both Ethiopia and the Horn, they overlooked and tolerated its misbehaviors and transgressions as long as the group faithfully catered to their national interests.
From a Rebel in State to a Rebel against State
TPLF from the very outset understood the precariousness of its legitimacy and dominance in Ethiopia. It, therefore, crafted a constitutional outlet, the controversial right to secession (FDRE Constitution, Art.39/1), and kept fortifying its homebase in Tigray. It remained a “front” in control of a state. When welling opposition to TPLF ethnocracy finally ignited waves of popular revolt across Ethiopia, the leadership fled to Tigray in April 2018. It then officially set off the long deferred exit plan.
A. Defying and Sabotaging the State;
Now suddenly reduced to a regional power, TPLF found it hard to accept its peripheral position or acknowledge the legitimacy of the new federal government. After a brief reorganization, the discontent TPLF became increasingly defiant against the state and pursued two parallel strategies to tip the power balance in its favour.
On the one hand, TPLF devoted itself to destabilize, weaken and force the federal government to its knees. It rejected the reformed coalition Prosperity Party (PP) and did everything to create dissension within the latter’s ranks. In addition, TPLF assembled and put itself at the head of a rival front which it dubbed as “federalist forces”. It also attempted to gain popular Tigrean support by systematic isolation and propaganda of fear against ‘others’.
On the other hand, TPLF engaged in aggressive military build up. It upgraded and highly expanded the regional Special Force into a core fighting army. It expanded the regular police and the people’s militia forces, and created special youth brigades known as Samri. In addition, TPLF put Tigray region on war footing by widely arming the civilian population.
TPLF jealously guarded its safe haven Tigray from any “external” intervention as semi-seceeded “defacto state”. It considered itself as separate sovereign power in par with the federal government. It even attempted to establish independent foreign relations network. In early September 2020, TPLF capped its defiance by a phony election in Tigray against the reprimands of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), and then declared the federal government “unconstitutional” after early October.
B. Fomenting Conflict and Chaos in Ethiopia;
In addition to challenging the authority of the state at every turn, TPLF strived to erode public confidence on central government by fomenting and spreading conflict throughout the country. It openly allied itself with all radical anti-government elements and has been behind every major interethnic and intercommunal conflict by financing, training, arming and deploying terrorist forces.
TPLF-sponsored terror escalated to unprecedented levels, more than one-hundred incidents on PM Abiy’s admission to parliament, over the past couple of years. In almost all regions, Somali, Oromia, Amhara, Southern Nations, Gambella, Benishangul–Gumuz, and Afar, communal conflicts claimed thousands of innocent Ethiopian lives, destabilized millions, and destroyed multibillion dollars of properties.
All attempts by the federal government and third parties to find peaceful solution to the confrontation failed largely due to TPLF’s intransigence. As TPLF became aware of its inability to dismantle the government and rather sensed the latter’s apparent consolidation, it became increasingly restive. Its leadership, therefore, made a desperate bid to resolve the matter by force and treacherously attacked the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF).
TPLF Attempts to Provoke Civil War
TPLF’s armed insurrection against the state is part of a meticulous plan to dismantle Ethiopia and insure the secession of Tigray. For this purpose, TPLF not only hoped to provoke and drag the Ethiopian government into a ferocious armed conflict but also to escalate this into a civil war. Its brazen attacks on the national army, the heinous atrocities against the Amhara people, and the rocket bombardments in the region are all parts of an irreversible war of secession.
A. TPLF Stabs ENDF in the Back;
On the night of 3 November 2020, TPLF committed a treacherous attack on the Northern Command, the largest of the ENDF, based in Tigray. In what its top leaders admitted as “a preemptive strike”, Tigrean insiders in the army, assisted by regional special forces, cold-bloodedly massacred hundreds of unarmed commanders and soldiers, mostly ethnic Amharas, who unsuspectingly spent that very day helping out Tigrean peasants with harvesting crops.
Most birgades attempted to fight back this surprise and many of them were reportedly overwhelmed and tricked into submission. Thousands of soldiers also retreated to Eritrea in disarray. TPLF leaders rather glorified this cowardly act as demonstration of Tigrean gallantry and boasted of destroying the entire Northern Command, holding thousands of soldiers in captive and looting unspecified amount of light and heavy artillery.
TPLF’s treasonous attack on the Ethiopian army dates back to its early days. In the Ethio-Somalian war of 1977, TPLF had openly sided with the invading army. In one of the tragic episodes of the Ethio-Eritrean civil war, TPLF rear attack in 1988 was instrumental in the defeat of the Nadew Command, the most formidable army of the Derg. When TPLF controlled the nation it fought to dismantle in 1991, it revenged the army by incarcerating, assassinating and duly dismantling the ENDF.
This latest TPLF stab in the back is, however, unparalleled in Ethiopian history both in its scale and barbarity. As an act of betrayal against the army, the government and the entire Ethiopian nation, the incident horrified all Ethiopians and sent shockwaves across the African continent. By all measures, TPLF has committed the most treasonous and unpardonable crime that could be leveled at any sovereign state.
B. Genocidal Attacks against the Amhara
A second key element of TPLF’s desperate attempt to start civil war is dragging the Amhara people into the ongoing conflict. Accordingly, the 3 November 2020 attack on the ENDF was synchronized with an offensive on Kirakir village of the Amhara Regional State. TPLF army and militia forces also deliberately targeted innocent civilian Amharas in active conflict areas such as Dansha, Abrhajira, Humera, Sanja, Korem, Mehoni, Chercher, etc.
Since its inception in the 1970s, TPLF has made hatred of the Amhara people its raison d’etre, indeed its only sacred ideal. The founding Manifesto – 68 (in 1976) of the front explicitly singled out the Amhara, along with US imperialism, as arch enemies of Tigray. Following the control of state power, TPLF enshrined this ideology of hate as the governing law of the land, both in the Transitional Charter of 1991 as well as the FDRE Constitution of 1995.
In the 27 years of TPLF rule, the Amhara were made a pariah people and millions were subjected to state-sponsored discrimination, destabilization and genocide. In particular, Amhara territories forcefully seized by TPLF since 1984, Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, Humera, and Raya (in 1990), have been sites of prolonged systematic ethnic cleansing and genocide against the native Amhara. Even after its oust from power, TPLF’s proxy attacks primarily targeted the Amhara in Somali, Oromia, Southern Nations, and Benishangul – Gumuz regions.
In the recent conflict, TPLF even targeted major cities in Amhara region in three rounds of missile attacks. On the night of 13 November 2020, first bombardments on Bahir Dar, Gondar and Woreta towns had few casualties in life and property. A second round of rocket attack on Bahir Dar came the following night, 14 November. Again, on 23 November, four volleys of missiles were fired on Bahir Dar city. Though all attacks were (perhaps deliberately) off target, they did not create the intended panic and violence in Amhara region.
The most shocking of TPLF atrocities was committed on Amhara residents of Maikadra town in Wolakait on 10 November 2020. TPLF special genocide birgade known as Samri, organized and trained like the infamous Interahamway, and led by a veteran TPLF colonel named Yemane Gebre-Michael, in concert with Maikadra area Tigrean militia and police forces, opened genocidal spree in which so far confirmed 1000 defenseless Amhara civilians were massacred and a much greater number wounded.
As noted by Amnesty International and confirmed in the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission preliminary report (published 24 November 2020), Maikadra was a deliberate, organized and systematic crime against humanity and war crime. This is indeed a stark act of genocide against one ethnic group, the Amhara.
The perpetrators of the genocide had listed and isolated the Amhara of Maikadra beforehand and massacred the victims by rifles, knives, sticks, machetes, scimitars, axes, and hanging ropes, and then dumped the bodies in mass graves. The notorious Samri, along with their military and civilian accomplices, have now crossed the border to the Sudan and are posing as refugees.
TPLF Attempt to Internationalize the Conflict
It would be naïve to think that TPLF provoked armed conflict in hope of military victory over the Ethiopian state. Despite its official rhetoric, a TPLF military comeback was practically inachievable since Amhara region posed insurmountable hurdle to such adventures. In reality, the armed insurrection was about forcing the full independence of Tigray.
Accordingly, TPLF’s military objectives appear very limited and pointed on forcing some kind of internationally mediated deal. One ingredient of drawing international attention, explicitly made by TPLF leaders from the outset, was escalating the conflict into the Horn of Africa. TPLF amply demonstrated its willingness to transgress any international norm to achieve this objective.
A. Terrorizing the Horn
Eritrea was particularly singled out for the regional escalation strategy. On the night of 14 November 2020, the capital Asmara was targeted by a barrage of five rockets, though reportedly causing limited damages on the airport and ministry of information. Again Asmara was bombarded about midnight of 23 November. The third attack on Asmara and other Eritrean towns took place at midnight on 27 November, after the Mekele fortress was taken by Ethiopian government troops.
Though these tactics of terror so far failed, largely due to the exceptional reserve displayed by the Eritrean government, TPLF ransom plan was much larger. The front’s leaders have repeatedly vowed to attack UAE military bases in Eritrea and further widen the magnitude of the conflict, hopefully dragging the Sudan and Egypt into the fray.
Now TPLF has tested a decisive defeat on the battle front by the joint ENDF, Amhara Speical Force, Amhara Militia and Fanno . When spearhead troops enterd Mekele on 27 November, therefore, TPLF leaders fled in disarray with little resistance. They are now surrounded by Ethiopian troops in various parts of Tigray, manyare being apprehended and some are surrendering. Whether the remaining TPLF leadership could reorganize and give frontal battle to the ENDF or resort to guerilla attacks and continue terrorizing the region will be decided in the coming few days.
B. The Propaganda Stalemate
TPLF seems very well prepared on the international propaganda front. Its machinery was swiftly mobilized to misinform and mislead the world. By framing the conflict as a “civil war”, on the very day of its insurrection, TPLF hoped to play the underdog and gain sympathy. This strategy paid off since the international media took bait and prominent outlets echoed “civil war” was brewing in Ethiopia. The diplomatic community cautiously followed suit to give TPLF the upperhand in the propaganda battle.
As the conflict began to be drawn, therefore, Ethiopian military success was threatedned by TPLF propaganda offensive. The government was alarmed by the turn of events so that it began frantic efforts to explain itself to the global audience. The newly reshuffled Ministry of Foregin Affaris engaged in a shuttle diplomacy to convince international diplomats and statesmen.
Still, TPLF propaganda army is finding new tactics, such as humanitarian appeals, to misinform and mislead the international community. For decades, TPLF has carefully cultivated an army of advocates, lobbyists and propagandists among foreign politicians and diplomats. It has also infiltrated and strategically set Tigreans in human rights advocacy groups and institutions. Its cyber army is engaged in feeding misinformation and disinformation, attacking government and non-government targets, flooding major international social/media outlets, targeting western politicians and governments with organized activism, and raising millions of dollars for supporting the TPLF insurrection.
Ethiopia’s Rightful Measures
By provoking armed insurrection, the secessionist TPLF has forced Ethiopian government to fight for its life. Therefore, on that fateful night of 3 November 2020, the commander-in-chief of the army, PM Abiy Ahmed, appeared on national TV and ordered the ENDF to contain the situation, restore law and order, and bring the recalcitrant group to justice. On 4 November, the battle officially began.
Though the government seems alarmingly unprepared for this kind of attack, it was able to rally popular support for what it latter described as a campaign for the restoration of peace and order and for defending the unity and sovereignty of the nation. This campaign was again elaborated to have three stages: reorganizing and reversing TPLF offensive, countering and defeating TPLF, and rehabilitarion and restoration of peace and order in Tigray.
In the eraly critical stages of the campaign, the day was saved for the Ethiopian state by the gallant response of the Amhara Special Forces, Amhara Militia and Fanno irregulars who were able to save beleaguered ENDF units from annihilation, subsequently launch swift counter-offensives in coordination with the regular army, and decisively roll back TPLF forces.
So far, the state also appears successful in countering TPLF’s characterization of the conflict. What is taking place in Ethiopia is not a civil war, as some sympathizers of TPLF would have liked it to appear. It is the maintenance of law and order, which is a sovereign right of any state recognized by international law. As its regional part is rebelling against the state, Ethiopan government has every right to take appropriate measures to bring this recalcitrant group to justice.
Nearly a month after the start of the conflict, the Ethiopian government has announced that the campaign is completed with the fall of Mekele on 27 November. Nevertheless, this premature announcement, perhaps to ward off international pressure, does not mean that the conflict is over. Most of TPLF top leadership is still at large and vowing to continue the fight to the last man. A significant part of TPLF army is still positioned in fortified pockets across the conflict zone.
The Way Forward
TPLF is the root of the problem and eradication of this organization must also constitute the heart of the solution. Ethiopian government seems to recognize that TPLF is beyond redemption. Its treasnous attack on the national army and its behavior in the course of the conflict has been well out of proportion. TPLF genocidal crimes have caught global attention and can no more be denied or covered up. In this regard, Maikadra is the tip of the iceberg, as numerous recent massgraves (about 76) uncovered in the vicinity of Humera airfield foretell.
In short, TPLF has destroyed all the bridges and it cannot be reconciled and reintegrated to Ethiopian politics after all these egregious crimes. Justice is, therefore, the only sensible and plausible precondition to peace. Government resolve to hunt down TPLF leaders and force them to surrender immediately and unconditionally is appropriate.
Measures so far taken by the Parliament, the Attorney General office, Federal Police and other state organs, particularly against TPLF leaders, business empire and bank accounts are all steps in the righ direction. Nevertheless, these are only partial measures which will bring incomplete solution to the problem.
In particular, government characterization of the culprits as “junta” in TPLF is clearly inadequate to the situation.
TPLF must be reconginzed and categorized for what it is, that is as a terrorist organization, and legally dismantled. This postion, which has been advocated by the National Movement of Amharan (NaMA) since December 2018, was recently tabled twice in the parliament though a resolution did not materialize. The rehabilitation phase is a very daunting task ahead since TPLF has left deeper and darker legacies. TPLF political cadre and rank and file members also need a rehabilitation scheme. Specially, the government needs to think seriously about the handling of remnant TPLF army. The notorious genocide birgades, Samri, are now in refugee camps are misleading the entire world. These are trained killers potentally biding time to reorganize and terrorize the region. The Ethiopian government must work for an immediate repatriation of Samri criminals.
TPLF ideology of ethnic animousisty and hatred also needs time for rehabilitation. There are deeper wounds which threaten to implode Ethiopia. One of these vital to the lasting peace of Ethiopia is TPLF’s aggression and forceful occupation of territories of the Amhara people.
The fate of Amharas in Wolkait, Tegede, Telemt, and Raya, needs most urgent attention. Now these areas have been defacto restored by blood to their rightful owners. Tampering with the new status quo is unthinkable and counterproductive. A future political solution must recognize this fact and restore the areas to Amhara region while at the sme time guaranteeing the rights of non-Amharas.
The international community needs to recognize the fact that a stable and lasting peace and security regime can be built in Ethiopia and the Horn only by an honest reappraisal of the situation. This cannot be done by outside imposition but by a broad-based dialogue and understanding between all stakeholders. Africa is the primary stakeholder and must take its destiny in its own hands.
One of the serious flaws in the security calculation of the western powers is cuddling TPLF as a partner in the fight against terrorism. TPLF post- September 9/11 alliance with US in the war on AlQaeda had eclipsed the regime’s dangerous aspect of political terrorism. It allowed TPLF to sow terror on its own citizens with impunity without being labeled as “rogue state” or even “terrorist state” though its markedly terrorist inclinations were not unknown by the international community.
The history of TPLF is hallmarked by a continuous saga of treachery, terror, greed and deeply anti-social behavior. The latest TPLF attempt to internationalize the war by unprovoked attacks in the region is a clear demonstration of its inherently irresponsible and terrorist characteristics. The world can no more afford to condone a secessionist power to ransom the Horn of Africa by terror. This would be a bad precedent to entire continent, particularly the most delicate and unstable Horn of Africa. TPLF is now brought to its knees by force of arms. Its defeat is a victory to humanity.