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A Brief Case Study on the Ignominious Defeat of the TPLF and Its Implications for Ethiopia

Assefa Fayesa
February 18, 2021

Ethiopia is undergoing drastic and seismic changes. The Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), a minority party that claimed to represent roughly the six million people of Tigray and for decades the undisputed overlord of Ethiopia’s ethnic/linguistic federation, made fatal miscalculations and now finds itself in its death throes. The TPLF, the honcho in the now defunct governing ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF), dictated politics for three decades in the second most populous, geo-strategically, and historically important country in Africa. Politics, as often stated, is the art of compromise. But in the TPLF’s lexicon compromise was nonexistent. While in power, the TPLF weaponized Ethiopia’s linguistic/ethnic differences and employed Machiavellian tactics in “winner-takes-all” deadly politics to the detriment of the vast majority. The Oromos and the Amharas, respectively about 35 and 27 percent of the population and others were treated in this lopsided system as sidekicks.

The TPLF squandered multiple opportunities to shepherd meaningful reform from a position of strength and nurture a democratic system fit for a multi-ethnic nation with strong minority rights protections. Despite welding national power, the TPLF remained a “liberation” front and used dictatorial tactics and chicanery to hold absolute political and economic control. Political dissidents were killed, arrested, tortured, or exiled and business competitors were systematically vanquished. The systemic repression and exploitation created deep resentment and led to the 2016 nationwide uprising and to the 2018 right-sizing of the TPLF in national power. The new government, led by the charismatic and pragmatic Abiy Ahmed, realized the dangers of ethnic politics, and tried to subdue the flames of division. It transformed the EPRDF ethnic coalition into a single political party and severed the longstanding stranglehold of the TPLF over the governing party and the country. \

Despite the TPLF’s gross human rights violations, grand corruption, and penchant for mischief, Abiy tried to work with it. But the TPLF was uninterested in genuine and equitable power-sharing and schemed to gain back its lost power at any cost. It left the federal government, decamped in Tigray, and launched an asymmetric war to weaken Abiy’s government and make the country ungovernable. The TPLF is accused of instigating and funding ethnic conflicts in Amhara, Metekil, Oromia, Somalia, and in the South, resulting in the deaths of thousands and dislocation of millions, putting the Abiy government’s ability to hold the country together in question. It objected the government’s decision to postpone the 2020 national elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in clear defiance, conducted its own regional election and, of course, as it did in the past 30 years “won” 100 percent of the contest in Tigray. In fact, the TPLF assumed a more belligerent position and claimed that what Ethiopia’s regions needed was more autonomy from the center under a confederate structure and sponsored a conference of known extremists in a failed attempt to form a pseudo-confederation.

Meanwhile the TPLF readied an estimated 250 thousand militia and paramilitary force and secretly organized key Tigrayan officers in the country’s military, intelligence, and security forces and created a parallel structure with the intention to usurp national power. On November 4, the TPLF made its biggest miscalculations and surreptitiously attacked the unsuspecting national forces guarding the Ethio-Eritrean boarder. Many non-Tigrayan were arrested or executed by their own comrades in a treasonous act, according to the government.
The surviving and betrayed national forces retreated to Eritrea. Abiy and his military leaders quickly reorganized their loyal forces and launched a blistering counteroffensive, and in a span of a few weeks, decapitated or arrested almost the entire TPLF political and military leadership and dismantled the organization. Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia and others in the wider region, fearing the specter of ethnic strife and instability, quickly sided with Abiy. Of course, others in the region also used the distraction to try to advance their expansionist and geopolitical interests. If the TPLF had succeeded and clawed back to national power, the subjugation and exploitation of over 100 million people would have resumed déjà vu with vengeance, and in reaction the country could have descended into a civil war and possible disintegration.

The TPLF’s hubris and uncompromising lust for power created in its leadership a false sense of military superiority and invincibility, faulty reading of the changed national and geo-political environment, and in a poorly formulated and executed stratagem riddled with layers of fatal risks. Untamed by advanced age and experience, the TPLF’s mostly septo-octogenarian leaders remained stuck in their extremist positions of their youth and failed to transform into statesmen to help guide their country into a moderate state and a kinder and gentler future for themselves. It was sad to witness the disheveled and disgraced TPLF leaders paraded one after the other in handcuffs reminiscent of recent history in Iraq, Libya, and Côte d’Ivoir.

The TPLF is now for all practical purposes a militarily defeated and a politically spent force. For the first time ever, people are free from its suffocating clutches. Several Tigrayan political parties are sharing power in a transitional government. A lot needs to be done to fully restore peace, security, and law and order. Urgent work is a must to rehabilitate wide segments of the affected population, rebuild damaged infrastructure, reestablish full government services, and breathe life into the economy. Some remnants of the TPLF are agitating for a prolonged, costly guerrilla war to unseat the government. They are ignoring that the TPLF is a ghost of its former self, the absence of a galvanizing and unifying just cause to spark, drive, and sustain such a struggle, and the unfavorable extant national and geopolitical landscape that makes success inconceivable. Pragmatic TPLF supporters and sympathizers should learn from the mistakes of the ignominiously defeated leaders of the TPLF and spurn the temptation to engage in another cycle of retribution. They should instead embrace peace and sell their vision and ideas through the next and subsequent elections. The question for all Ethiopians now is whether they can learn from their torturous collective history and build a promising future where citizens can live and work with freedom and dignity in any part of their country under the equal protection of the law. Prime Minister Abiy was right when he warned his compatriots not to glow in the euphoria of the moment, but instead to focus on the hard work ahead.

Assefa Fayesa

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