By Ulrich Coppel
Addis Abheba/ Mekelle/ Asmara: On 28 November 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spread the news that Ethiopian national defence forces had gained full control of Mekelle, the capital of the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. Is this the beginning of the end, or just the culmination of the conflict between the People’s Liberation Front of Tigray (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government around Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which has dramatically intensified over the past three weeks?
The TPLF has never wanted anything other than to unite the Tigray ethnic group in its own country, under its own government. According to the TPLF programme, this country is to be a federal state with considerable autonomous powers under the Ethiopian flag. In the 28 years of the Ethiopian governing coalition (EPRDF) under TPLF leadership, it has had the power to shape and form both this state and Ethiopia as a whole. And that is what the TPLF did: just as it wished – to the monetary advantage of many of its officials, to the advantage of the Tigray-Ehinie and its region, and to the advantage of others, for instance in development and reconstruction programmes. The TPLF secured its power and influence through strong support from others, especially Western countries, of which it became a faithful assistant in asserting its interests in large parts of Africa.
Internationally, the TPLF pursued its objectives aggressively, using all means at its disposal. These included violence, terror and war.
However, TPLF has never been able to achieve its main objective: To unite and govern the Tigray ethnic group – as they define themselves – in their own, entire, autonomous federal state under the Ethiopian flag. Tigray exists – according to their interpretation – even beyond Ethiopian borders. In Eritrea and in Sudan. In Eritrea, these people are called Tigrinya, and they make up the largest of 9 ethnic groups with equal rights there. Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki is himself a Tigrinya. He, and the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) ruling in Eritrea, however, see the Tigrinya as an ethnic group closely related to the Tigray, but with its own ethnicity, with its own Tigrinya language also closely related to the Tigray language – but with the same cultural, historical and linguistic roots (Habesha).
Origins of the TPLF
The TPLF was formed in 1974 after the fall of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi as a rebel organisation that fought against the communist DERG regime under General Mengistu Hailemariam, which from then on ruled Ethiopia with an iron hand. In 1988, the TPLF formed a coalition with 3 other ethnically defined movements within Ethiopia called the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF and other allies finally succeeded in overthrowing the Mengistu/DERG regime in 1991. Above all, it was able to do so largely because it had been supported for decades by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) since its foundation or during the Ethiopian civil war, and had been trained in guerrilla fighting. The EPLF fought for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia long before the TPLF was founded. Before Eritrea, and later even Ethiopia and Somalia, belonged to Italian East Africa until Great Britain ousted the Italian colonial power from the whole of Italian East Africa during the Second World War. After the end of the Second World War, Eritrea was annexed to the Ethiopian Empire as an autonomous province by the League of Nations. At the beginning of the 1960s, however, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi withdrew Eritrea’s autonomous status and placed it completely under his own central control, which was the trigger for the 30-year war of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious independence independence fighters in Eritrea known as „Shabia“. First, and until its fall, against Haile Selassie and the Ethiopian Empire, and then – together with allies until final victory, against Mengistu/ DERG.
The TPLF over the decades as the dominant governmental force in Ethiopia
Although this victory, and the independence of Eritrea formally sealed in a referendum three years later, meant that the EPLF had achieved its long-awaited Shabia goal and renamed itself from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) as a visible sign of this, the TPLF’s struggle for self-determination and the reunification of the Tigray ethnic group was only partially successful. Soon after the jointly won historic overthrow of the Mengistu/DERG regime, the TPLF pursued territorial claims to the Tigrinya homeland in Eritrea with all means at its disposal, including the border war for the village of Badme between 1998-2000. The TPLF’s motto and objective: Tigray-Tigrinya. Their own programmatic name for this struggle: „Woyane“.
However, after the TPLF lost control of the Ethiopian national EPRF government coalition to Oromo Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the latter is seeking to strengthen a multi-ethnic and multi-religious central government of Ethiopia: The exact opposite of what the Christian TPLF-Woyanes are striving for. Now armed again against the national government. In the conflict, which was carried out armed after a TPLF attack on Ethiopian national defence forces in early November 2020, Ethiopian government units managed to gain military control over the regional government and administration of the Tigray region and its capital Mekelle within three weeks. However, this does not mean the end of the TPLF. Just hours after Abiy Ahmed’s tweet on the occasion of the takeover of Mekelles by Ethiopian defence forces, the TPLF attacked Asmara and other targets in Eritrea with missiles – for the third time within two weeks. The TPLF is highly equipped, with a large number of modern weapons. It is now standing as it once stood: as the Woyane rebel force. It is possible that after losing power in Addis Abheba, it could now focus on its targets in Eritrea. Sure, that within Ethiopia, in the fight against the national government, she is now once again looking for radical allies from other ethnic groups – including those she fought against in times of her national ruling power.
In view of a visit by Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen to Berlin on 27 November 2020, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: „Ethiopia has gained a lot of sympathy in Germany as well, thanks to the peace agreement with Eritrea and the courageous reforms in its own country. Only a political process that continues Prime Minister Abiy’s reform course in the long term can bring peace to the country.“
If this is honestly meant, it certainly means a longer common path, in which words must be followed by deeds. For example, with regard to an international lobby network built up over decades by the TPLF. TPLF cadres, such as former Ethiopian Health and Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, still occupy powerful interfaces in the global economy and politics. Tedros is acting Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The TPLF is also said to have close direct and indirect relations with numerous left-wing alternative foundations, denominational Christian dignitaries, or certain human rights organisations, universities and some Journalists/ Media. They are said to continue to support the TPLF.
Above all, however, the TPLF should continue to enjoy strong support among the local population, as it has been favoured by the Tigray region for decades. Without the equal participation of the Tigray population and other Ethiopian ethnic groups in the ambitious national democratisation and reform process of the Abiy government, what once led to the founding of the TPLF and other ethnic rebel organisations will be repeated: Marginality and inferiority complexes will generate radical resistance, genocides and civil wars. These could become civil wars between the very ethnic and religious warring parties that once fought together against Mengistu. The TPLF has discriminated against and marginalised them all after their historic joint victory. In other words, overcoming what the TPLF and others once created is now the key to their end in peace. Or their resurgence and civil war – whichever comes first. There is a great deal at stake for Germany and Europe itself, namely the future of, in the worst case scenario, millions of refugees who could be the result of a war that could spread to the whole of East Africa.