Yonas Biru, PhD
On August 24, the Tigryan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) waged a war against the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) for the third time. The front lodged its first war that it dubbed a “lightning strike” on November 4, 2020, with aim to “demobilize the federal forces and take control of 70 to 80 percent of the nation’s military fire power.” In response, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) to restore the constitutional order. On June 28, 2021, the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire.
The TPLF dismissed the gesture and informed CNN that it “will not be a part of such a joke” and invaded two neighboring regions: Amhara and Afar. Jeffrey Feltman, former US envoy to the Horn of Africa rightly noted TPLF’s war “widened the conflict and misery into the neighboring states of Amhara and Afar.” On November 9, 2021, The Amnesty International (AI) condemned the TPLF’s atrocities that “potentially amounts to crimes against humanity and defy morality or any iota of humanity.”
On March 24, 2022, having defeated and pushed the TPLF forces out of Amhara and Afar regions the government of Ethiopia decided not to pursue the fleeing Tigryan forces. Instead, it released from prison high-level TPLF officials who were captured during the first round of war. Subsequently, it declared its second unilateral truce to thwart the humanitarian crisis and pave the way for a peaceful resolution. The TPLF agreed to a “cessation of hostilities.” Sadly, that did not last long.
The TPLF used the lull period to rearm and forcefully recruit new fighters. Alex De Waal, TPLF’s advisor, revealed this, stating: “Sudan has quietly facilitated TDF supplies and allowed the TDF to recruit refugees, including a unit of Tigrayan soldiers that had been serving as UN peacekeepers in Sudan prior to the outbreak of the war and who refused to return to Ethiopia at the end of their deployment.” Speaking of rearming Tigray by foreign sources, William Davidson of the International Crisis Group said there are “pretty solid evidence.”
On August 24, the UN World Food Program (WFP) announced the “TPLF forces stole 12 fuel tankers from its warehouse in Mekelle,” the capital of Tigray. The same day, breaching the ceasefire, they used the fuel to launch its third war to invaded Amhara and Afar regions for the second time.
David Beasley, the head of WFP, condemned the looting as “outrageous and disgraceful.” The UN Secretary-General’s office stressed the TPLF’s action “will impact humanitarian operations,” such as “the distribution of food, fertilizer, and other emergency relief items.” The head of the USAID, Samantha Powers, characterized TPLF’s action as “deeply cruel.”
The international community is cognizant that this is not the first time TPLF diverted humanitarian aid to its war adventures. In August 2021, USAID officials complained US donated high-energy biscuits that were intended to starving children were confiscated by the TPLF fighters. A month later, the UN lamented the TPLF stole 428 UN aid trucks. The TPLF’s recent crimes are not circumstantial transgressions, but reflections of its character that is deeply embedded in its culture that has earned it a terrorist designation in the 1980s by the US government.
I would like to focus the balance of my article on five critical issues: (1) The timing of the current war, (2) for what purpose the TPLF uses looted trucks, (3) what the TPLF’s ultimate goals are, (4) the role that the international community can play to change the TPLF’s war calculus, and (5) Ethiopia’s redline that cannot be crossed.
- The Timing of the Launching of the Current War
Soon after it the TPLF started the first war on November 4, 2020, it lost most of the heavy weapons, including tanks and missiles it confiscated from the ENDF. This prompted it to change its strategy from overwhelming the ENDF with heavy weapons to fostering humanitarian crises to win political concessions through crisis-induced international pressure on the government of Ethiopia.
As part of its humanitarian crisis strategy, the Chair of the TPLF vowed to make the conflict a “people’s war starting with the children.” A child soldier told BBC: “I was playing football with friends when I was forcefully recruited by Tigrayan fighters to join their ranks.” In response Getachew Reda, TPLF’s spokesperson had no qualms to tell the BBC journalist that 18 is the legal age to join the army and that there were younger than 18-year old fighters among TPLF’s military ranks.
The TPLF went beyond using child soldiers. As a joint statement by the UN Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission documented, the TPLF forces went as far as “setting up road blockades delaying delivery of humanitarian relief” to their own people in Tigray. Even worse, they deliberately waged successive wars in areas used for humanitarian access.
What explains the TPLF’s decision to ignite the third war last month? On July 15, UN-WFP Director for Northern Ethiopia Adrian van der Knaap expressed optimism that the government of Ethiopia had allowed the UN agency to provide much-needed aid to the people of Tigray region and that “famine has been averted.” Further, as reported by the UN, on 20 August, “the second batch of 840 tons of fertilizer arrived in Tigray to support farmers in the planting season.” The future bore a flicker of hope, as farmers prepared to plant their crops. The TPLF saw this as a threat to its crisis leveraging strategy and launched a new round of war.
- What are the Looted Trucks and Fuel Stock Used For?
First and foremost, they are used to transport child soldiers to the war front. While older militia forces can endure walking for days on end, children as young as nine years old are transported by trucks. There were many times when the Ethiopian air force decided not to bomb convoys of trucks that were believed to transport child soldiers to the war fronts. As the Organization for World Peace reported, “the TPLF have recognized that the ENDF will not directly shoot at children which has led to Tigray rebel forces using these children as human shields against attacks.”
When they are not transporting child soldiers and weapons, the trucks are used for business, charging humanitarian agencies to transport food and medicine to affected areas. This is not new for the TPLF. In 2012, Martin Plaut, Africa Editor and Director at BBC, wrote “Using the fleet of trucks donated to the TPLF during the 1984–85 famine by aid agencies, it became the preferred provider of transport for donated grain provided annually to the country – most notably by the USAID. Its fleet of 458 trucks have cornered much of this lucrative market.”
The TPLF’s response to the WFP’s condemnation of TPLF’s fuel theft is telling of its culture of profiteering from the misery of the people of Tigray. The statement read: “The Government of Tigray has not ‘stolen’ any fuel tankers. It had loaned over six hundred thousand liters of fuel to the WFP, and it simply demanded that it be paid back in accordance with the agreement we had.” Let us ignore the claim that TPLF lent fuel to an international agency fuel to distribute lifesaving food and medicine to the people of Tigray. Where did it get the “six hundred thousand liters of fuel” it supposedly lent to the WFP? If indeed it lent fuel to the WFP, it was looted from humanitarian fuel stoke. TPLF has no way of importing fuel nor does it have fuel wells.
- What Does the TPLF Want?
This is the question that intrigues the international community. Tibor Nagy, former US Assistant Secretary of State, grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and asked: “What do the Tigrayans want? We discussed that question when I was in the US Government with no clear answer. Is there one?” There are two sets of answers: official and unofficial.
- Official Demands of the TPLF
Officially, in 2018, the TPLF put forth three preconditions to be a part of the new administration. In a letter to Prime Minister Abiy, it sought assurances that he would (1) drop his reform that aimed to transform Ethiopia’s economy from state-led command economy to market-based private enterprise system; and (2) disband the National Border Commission that the Prime Minister had established to settle border disputes between different regions, including between Amhara and Tigray regions. These were critical issues that the Prime Minister was not prepared to concede.
The Demand to Maintain Command Economy: The Prime Minister’s signature reforms to introduce market-based economy were characterized by the Nobel Prize Commission as “important reforms that give many citizens hope for a better life and a brighter future.” Professor Paul Collier, former Director of Research at the World Bank, hailed the Prime Minister’s reform as “Ethiopia’s Path for Prosperity.” At home, the off the chart excitement surrounding the Prime Minister’s reforms prompted CNN to wonder “Why Ethiopians believe their new prime minister is a prophet.” Sadly, the TPLF “refused to move one iota“ from its command economy with my way or the highway to war attitude and through its war adventures disrupted the reforms.
Land Conflict Between Tigray and Amhara Regions: The second demand was beyond the Prime Minister’s purview. The Amhara and Tigray regions have border contentions. The Amhara accuse TPLF of annexing their lands and incorporating them into Tigray. They note former governor of Tigray Ras Mengesha Seyoum, and Dr. Aregawi Berhe, the founding chairman of the TPLF, among other prominent Tigrayans have publicly testified confirming the lands in contention belonged to the Amhara region. On its part, TPLF claims the lands were originally part of Tigray. Such conflicts are not unique between Amhara and Tigray. Similar contentions are lodged by different regional governments. The government of Ethiopia believes all border disputes need to be resolved peacefully.
- The TPLF’s Unofficial Demands
The TPLF’s unofficial demands are even more preposterous. The TPLF leaders seek more political voting rights for their region than what can be justified by the size of its population. Their underlying public argument was broadcasted in March 4, 2020 in an interview that Sibhat Nega, the founding father of the TPLF, gave to a Tigrayan journalist. The point made was that “Tigray is the cradle of Ethiopia’s civilization” and it deserves special treatment.
- The Role the International Community Can Play to Change the TPLF’s war Calculus
The international community has been trying to bring an end to the senseless war. It has also generously provided humanitarian aid to mitigate the crisis that the war has wrought. For this the government of Ethiopia has expressed gratitude. In the meantime, the international community’s bothsidesism has created false equivalency. This has not only freed the TPLF from accountability.
Even its most outrageous use of child soldiers has not received the unequivocal condemnation it deserves. The international community has turned a blind eye to the TPLF’s brutal use of over 100,000 child soldiers. Far from condemning the TPLF’s war crime, some international media outlets described child soldiers as “highly motivated young recruits.”
The international community can help end the war to the extent it is willing to be impartial without being neutral to TPLF’s strategy of capitalizing on human misery.
- The Bottom Line: Ethiopia’sRed Line for Peace
The TPLF demand to establish “an all-inclusive government” is dead on arrival. The same is the case with TPLF’s demand for “an all-inclusive dialogue.” The 2021 elections were referendum to the governance choice of the people. The elections have been monitored and upheld as free and fair by many international observers, including the African Union. On November 2, 2021, the US Envoy to the Horn of Africa confirmed this, stating the Prosperity Party “has significant support across Ethiopia as reflected in the election results.” This was echoed by the US Secretary of State who recognized Prime Minister Abiy as “the duly elected leaders of the country.”
The international community’s position did not sit well with the TPLF leaders. On November 10, 2021, the chief spokesperson for TPLF refused to accept the people’s will to vote for their leaders, and characterized the international community’s position as “mainly about saving Abiy” and “doomed to fail!” On December 24, General Tsadqan Gebretesae, the head of the Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF), stressed “establishing an all-inclusive government” remains to be one of the two top demands of TPLF.
The government of Ethiopia has neither interest nor constitutional authority to concede to the TPLF’s demands. The priority must be ending all hostilities between the federal government and the Tigray region. Once this is resolved all regional governments have constitutional means to raise any political matter through the political framework or through the Independent National Dialogue Commission established by the National Parliament.
Finally, the issue of restoring services such as banking must be a priority for the Ethiopian government, provided certain conditions are met. It is to be remembered that months before the TPLF was forced to relinquish power in 2018, it printed billions of Birrs and sent a plane load of it to Tigray. It later used this stolen currency to destabilize the country, financing different subversive forces and converting the ill-gotten Birrs to US dollars and Euros through the black currency market. The government of Ethiopia was forced to change its currency because of it.
Restoring the banking services requires transferring billions of the new currency to the TPLF. The government of Ethiopia has no reason to believe the TPLF will not use it for nefarious reasons just as it has done with WFP’s fuel, UN’s Trucks and USAID’s high-energy biscuits.
The international community must come to terms that the TPLF has lost credibility not only with the people of Ethiopia but also with the international community. An institution condemned as “disgraceful” by the UN and “deeply cruel” by the US cannot bring peace in the country or in the greater horn.
The international community must pressure TPLF leaders to accept a safe passage to a life of exile in an agreed safe haven with the following conditions: (i) the safe haven will not be a border nation; (ii) they will not be allowed to leave the safe haven for five years; (iii) they agree not to be involved in Ethiopian or Horn of Africa politics; and (iv) they agree to be extradited to Ethiopia if they violate any of the above three conditions. That will reset the peace process and end the humanitarian crisis.