By Addisu Lashitew/ FP
NOVEMBER 15, 2021
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) ruled Ethiopia for nearly three decades before anti-government protests dislodged it from power in 2018. Now, three years later, the renegade rebels are on the verge of storming back into Addis Ababa. The United States—the superpower that can bring the most political and economic clout to bear on the situation—must do all that it can to prevent that. If the TPLF is allowed to shoot its way back into power, Ethiopia is almost certain to fragment into warring ethnic fiefdoms, and the country will again become a scene of apocalyptic suffering.
You only need to look at the TPLF’s history to understand why.
A radical political party with Marxist roots, the TPLF was founded in 1975 with the goal of establishing an independent Tigrayan republic. In the years after its formation, the party moderated its position. For a time it wanted to achieve Tigrayan self-rule within Ethiopia, and then it adopted a grander vision of reshaping the Ethiopian political system to serve its own interests.
After spearheading a successful guerrilla warfare campaign against Ethiopia’s military dictatorship in 1991, the TPLF masterminded an ethnically based federal system, which bestowed upon each of Ethiopia’s 80-plus ethnic groups an unqualified right to secede. Tigrayans themselves represent only about 6 percent of the overall Ethiopian population, and some of their rival groups—including the Oromos and the Amharas—are much larger. So the TPLF created the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an umbrella group of ethnic parties that could serve as a vehicle for its political ambitions. In that guise, the TPLF led a relatively stable but corrupt and repressive regime that lasted until 2018.
A series of popular protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions eventually led to the end of the TPLF-dominated political era. Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, was elected prime minister, succeeding with the support of the EPRDF’s Oromo and Amhara factions—and against the opposition of the TPLF. Once in power, Abiy proceeded to dismantle the TPLF’s levers of influence and control.
The TPLF then retreated—with its resources and key personnel—to Mekele, the regional capital of Tigray, and sought to secure de facto independence. When national elections were postponed in 2020 due to COVID-19, the TPLF rejected the decision on constitutional grounds and took the unprecedented measure of setting up a new electoral commission to undertake local elections, subsequently winning almost all of the seats in the regional parliament.
Then, on Nov. 4, 2020, the TPLF launched a coordinated, preemptive attack on the Ethiopian army’s Northern Command, in an apparent attempt to further its ambition of an independent Tigrayan republic.
The ultimate aim of the TPLF seems clear, but how it gets there is less so.
On Nov. 5, in the wake of significant military gains against the Ethiopian army, the TPLF orchestrated the formation of a new political coalition of ethnic parties and armed groups. This parallels the episode in 1989 when the TPLF engineered the creation of the EPRDF to ensure its political control over the whole of Ethiopia. This time, however, things will be very different.
The TPLF, given its history in power, knows that it lacks the wherewithal to establish a legitimate federal government. Its previous strategy of lording over minion parties of different ethnicities that acquiesce to its dominance cannot work again. The bloody conflict of the past year and bitter memories of the TPLF’s authoritarian rule would make such a government highly unpopular. And yet, the party is too strong and ambitious to abide by a system of fair play with other ethnic groups.
The bloody conflict of the past year and bitter memories of the TPLF’s authoritarian rule would make such a government highly unpopular.
If the TPLF does manage to wrest political power again, it is very likely to use it to dissolve the Ethiopian federation—pushing all ethnic regions to exercise their constitutionally protected right of secession. The breakup of Ethiopia would leave the TPLF’s various rivals weak, fragmented, and potentially pitted against each other. It would also clear the way for the TPLF to impose its will in a border dispute with Tigray’s neighbors in the Amhara region, thus removing the single most important obstacle on the path to an independent Tigray.
The TPLF’s recent formation of a military alliance with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a rebel group that is fighting for an independent Oromia, fits perfectly into this scenario.
The two groups have a long history of bitter and violent acrimony. During the fight against the Derg, Ethiopia’s communist military regime until 1991, the TPLF collaborated with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the political wing of the OLA at the time. However, the two fell out of favor soon after victory, and in 1992 they fought a bloody war that was concluded by the defeat of the OLA. The TPLF killed and jailed tens of thousands of OLF fighters, and it outlawed the party’s participation in national politics for decades afterward.
Given the mistrust between the OLA and the TPLF—and their shared interest in ethnic self-determination—the only endgame that could satisfy both parties would be the dissolution of Ethiopia’s federal system. The Balkanization of Ethiopia, however, would almost certainly unleash vicious ethnic bloodshed, displacing millions more people, spurring famine, and destabilizing the entire African continent.
The United States, which will be burdened with helping to pick up the pieces after state collapse, should immediately apply maximum pressure on the rebel forces to abort their military offensive. Until now, Washington has demonstrated a commitment to a peaceful end to the conflict, mostly by exerting maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on Abiy to accept a peaceful solution.
This time it should turn the heat on the TPLF by taking clear and tangible steps toward designating the rebel group as a danger to regional peace and security unless it commits to an immediate cease-fire. The United States could also leverage its soft power by building a coalition of countries to champion peacemaking efforts, and to provide support for the current African Union-mediated peace process. Considering the rapid pace at which the conflict is escalating, such measures would have to be applied with urgency and seriousness.
The United States should immediately apply maximum pressure on the rebel forces to abort their military offensive.
Given the protracted nature of the conflict, finding a formula that can satisfy everyone will be a massive challenge. Several years of arduous dialogue will be needed to narrow political differences and temper the tide of anger and resentment that has risen on all sides.
For starters, the United States must demand a cease-fire by all warring parties as a prerequisite for a step-by-step process of negotiation leading to national reconciliation. It should also reiterate its firm commitment to Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and declare that it won’t recognize any new government installed by military force.
Washington could also urge the warring parties to build goodwill and create favorable conditions for negotiations. Rival factions could start by extending mutual recognition to each other: The Ethiopian government could remove the terrorist designation it applied to the TPLF and recognize the legitimacy of Tigray’s regional elections.
In turn, the TPLF could recognize the 2021 national elections that were won by Abiy’s party. The Ethiopian government should also openly express its commitment to abide by the current constitutional order, while the TPLF in turn should pledge to abandon any plans for a referendum on self-determination.
Such measures would make it easier to kick-start negotiations with the ultimate objective of concluding peaceful, transparent, and competitive elections. Washington could support this process by arranging financial backing to help rebuild Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia that have been devastated by the war.
A major sticking point is the fate of western and southern Tigray. Both areas were chipped away from the Amharic-speaking provinces of Wollo and Gondar and reconstituted under the Tigray region in 1994—at a time when the TPLF was in power. But after the current conflict began, federal and Amhara forces took over the western area. The dispute runs deep and has ramifications that will outlast the current conflict.
The two sides should be careful not to turn western and southern Tigray into another Jerusalem—a symbol of fierce and seemingly endless animosity and conflict. The Ethiopian Constitution has provisions that would allow people living in such contested areas to decide for themselves whether to join Tigray or Amhara, or opt for self-rule. The last option would enable both ethnic Tigrayans and Amharas to live together and administer their land without being beholden to either region.
The two sides should be careful not to turn western and southern Tigray into another Jerusalem—a symbol of fierce and seemingly endless animosity and conflict.
Another source of contention is President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea, the mortal enemy of the TPLF. Eritrea’s involvement in the Tigray war has led the United States to recently impose sanctions on the country’s military forces and ruling party for human rights abuses.
A lasting peace would require bringing Eritrea into the negotiations, perhaps after the TPLF and the Ethiopian government reach common ground. A clear and transparent border agreement with Eritrea is vital in order to avoid yet another cycle of violence. The prospect of removal of U.S. sanctions could provide incentives for Eritrea’s president to participate in and abide by a peace deal.
Perhaps the most important immediate challenge is either disarming the Tigray Defense Forces or reintegrating them into the Ethiopian army, which would require the TPLF to abandon any plans to secede. There are a multitude of reasons—cultural, economic, and political—why Tigray, the birthplace of the Ethiopian state, should remain a part of Ethiopia’s federal system. Perhaps the most important one is stability and security throughout the country.
The tragic sequence of events that followed the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993 foretells what everyone can expect if Tigray declares independence: a protracted, deadly border war followed by a decadeslong political stalemate. The creation of a Tigray-Ethiopia-Eritrea hate triangle would split Horn of Africa countries into competing factions, fueling instability throughout an already very fragile region.
The United States must apply as much pressure as it can to ensure that Ethiopia will remain a home to Tigrayans, as well as to all other Ethiopian ethnic groups. And the TPLF and the Ethiopian government, having overseen a destructive war that caused incalculable loss of lives and economic destruction, must now be receptive to a peaceful resolution. The alternative is unthinkable.
Addisu Lashitew is an assistant professor at McMaster University and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @AddisuLashitew