Tigray Independence Party
Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF)
The Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) had been the dominant part of Ethiopia’s governing coalition following its leading role in overthrowing the Derg – a Marxist junta led by notorious dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam – in 1991. Tigrayans dominated Ethiopia's politics from 1991 to 2018 but their power waned since April 2018 after prolonged unrest that propped incumbent Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed into power. Mass protests – largely amongst the Oromo ethnic group – prompted the coalition to elect Abiy as its new, reformist leader. The Oromos are Ethiopia’s biggest such group, comprising around a third of the population, including Abiy.
The TPLF prefers the federal system it took part in founding, in fact the current Ethiopian constitution which was the brainchild of the TPLF. Abiy Ahmed on the other hand wanted to move away from the ethnic based political arrangement, into something more like a unitary centralized system, colored by a nostalgic view of Ethiopia’s past. TPLF leadership in Tigray continued to encourage its former clients in other regions of Ethiopia to resist the change and subvert it.
Abiy announced sweeping political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Those reforms, however, opened space for old ethnic and other grievances. After Abiy became prime minister in April 2018, several high-ranking TPLF officials were prosecuted for human rights abuses and corruption. The TPLF responded by accusing Abiy of targeting them in a politically motivated campaign. In 2019, the TPLF refused to join the Prosperity Party, the outfit Abiy created to merge and replace the ruling coalition of ethnic-based parties. When Abiy’s government delayed this year’s general elections until 2021, citing Covid-19, the TPLF accused the prime minister of using the pandemic to hold on to power beyond his mandate. TPLF said Abiy’s administration has no authority as its term expired on 05 October 2020, and it will not adhere to new federal laws and regulations.
The TPLF, feeling marginalized, retained a strong military force. Their regional troops and associated militias number up to 250,000 men, according to the International Crisis Group. This number is substantially larger than the entire Ethiopican army, and probably includes various support and reserve troops that are not front-line combatants. Of these, there are some 30-60,000 effective fighters, diplomats said. Howqever, by other estimates, as of late 2020 the TPLF fighters were estimated to be as many as 25,000, drawn mainly from a paramilitary unit and a local militia.
On 28 March 2020, Tigray Regional State implemented a comprehensive travel ban as part of its effort to block the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19). The ban would be in effect for two weeks. Measures included a ban against travel between towns and cities in Tigray Regional State, but the airport will remain open. The ban required that mini-buses transport no more than eight people at a time, while three-wheeled vehicles (bajajs) can only transport one passenger. TPLF held regional elections, with zero opposition and 100% of the votes victory.
The Tigreans, largely Christian peasant farmers, share a common cultural and religious heritage with Ethiopia's dominant Amhara ethnic group. For centuries the Tigrean and Amhara royal houses vied for control of the country and recognition as the legitimate defender of Ethiopian culture and Coptic Christian Orthodoxy.
The collapse of Emperor Haile Selassie's Amhara regime in 1974 weakened central government control of the countryside, prompting a renewal of Tigrean nationalism that had been dormant since the 1940s. This rebirth culminated in the formation of the TPLF in March 1975. The Tigrean front grew slowly at first, primarily because of competition with in the province from other groups on the left and right. It gradually absorbed the smaller Tigrean resistance forces and defeated rival non-Tigrean guerrillas.
The Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) was established in the Tigray-majority region of Ethiopia in the 1970s as one of the many rebel groups fighting for freedom from Ethiopian imperial rule. The Tigray community, at that time, was marginalised by the feudal system. After the military overthrow of the imperial government, the front, like others, fought the newly established communist military government. Along the way, the TPLF developed its elaborate ideology, combining ultra-nationalism and ethnic pride with a sense of victimisation, especially directed at the feudal Amhara elite and the communists. It propagates the divisive idea of “us vs them” – that the Tigray people are surrounded by enemies and only the TPLF can ensure their protection and survival.
The TPLF increased significantly in size and strength following its alliance in 1978 with the Marxist Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), the major Eritrean guerrilla group. The agreement gave the TPLF access to arms and training. In addition, the TPLF gained valuable experience in more conventional fighting by participating in joint operations with EPLF units in Eritrea. The close ties between the leadership of the TPLF and the EPLF were based on ideological compatability and, to some extent, a common Coptic Christian heritage. In addition to providing arms, the EPLF trained Tigrean recruits at facilities in Eritrea and supported the TPLF in its conflict with their mutual antagonist, the Eritrean Liberation Front, another dissident faction. In return, the Tigreans fought alongside EPLF forces in Eritrea and supported their effort by harassing goverment supplylines and garrisons in Tigray Province.
Since the late 1970's the Tigrean People's Liberation Front sought economic and military assistance from several Arab states - especially Saudi Arabia - and the West. The movement's Marxist reputation and predominantly Christian membership effectively deterred Arab support, however, and there had been little response from Western nations unwilling to jeopardize relations with Addis Ababa. As a result, the TPLF had been forced to rely on arms captured from the Ethiopians or those provided by such sources as Sudan and the larger, more self-sufficient EPLF, which had a large stock of captured equipment andthe capability both to produce some light armaments and repair damagedweapons and vehicles.
By the early 1980s the TPLF had approximately 15,000 armed regulars and several thousand additional poorly armed "militia" troops. The TPLF leadership was originally dominated by Marxist nationalists from the urban areas. Subsequently they still played a key role in the organization, although more conservative, less doctrinaire figures reportedly assumed leadership positions. This shift was probably a reflection of the increasing numbers of conservative Christians who had joined the TPLF. In an effort to broaden the appeal to these elements, the TPLF leadership downplayed ideology, stressing instead the historical appeal of Tigrean nationalism and the threat posed to the traditional Tigrean social structure by Addis Ababa's internal socialist policies.
The TPLF insurgents successfully used classic guerrilla tacticsin their campaign against the central government. They ambushed convoys of regular Army forces, raided isolated garrisons, took foreigners hostage, and attacked government facilities in large towns to gain publicity or to capture supplies. In addition, they aggressively attacked the government's poorly armed and ill-trained militia, severely undermining its morale.
Despite the TPLF's impressive growth in numbers, its military capabilities remained limited. The guerrillas were lightly armed - unlike the EPLF, they had little artillery, and no armor to oppose Mengistu's regular forces - and suffered from a lack of vehicles. Without large amounts of outside assistance or a significant expansion of activity from other dissident groups - which was unlikely - the TPLF's ability to pose a serious military threat to the stability of the regimewill remained limited.
The TPLF's goals had never been clear. Since the establishment of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), in their 1976 Manifesto, they labeled their struggle as “anti-Amhara oppressors” and in order to achieve their struggle against the Amhara oppressors they must destroy the old and the dominant Amhara culture and replace it by a new and revolutionary culture. It is only through this struggle that they may be able to secede from Ethiopia and establish the Republic of Tigray. TPLF ascension to power was due to a power vacuum created as a result of the many warring parties during the Ethiopian civil war.
According to a Tigrean spokesman, the front would like to see the government of Ethiopia established as a civilian-led federation, providing for the full and equal participation of the various nationalities in the country. Failing this, he stated that the TPLF would like to acquire either a strong measure of autonomy or full independence for the province. Many believed, however, that the Tigrean leadership has the basic long-term goal of supplanting Amhara domination with Tigrean hegemony.
The Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) took advantage of Addis Ababa's preoccupation with the rebellion in neighboring Eritrea Province to expand its military operations significantly since 1980. By 1983 it operated in large portions of the Tigrean countryside and in Tigrean-inhabited areas of Gonder and Welo Provinces. Despite its gains in the prevsious three years, the TPLF clearly lacked the strength to achieve victory militarily.
The central government was increasingly concerned over the expanding insurgency and launched several military campaigns in an effort to dislodge the guerrillas. By 1983 there were some 20,000 government soldiers with Soviet advisers in Tigray and nearby provinces. Despite several large military campaigns, the government failed to subdue the guerrillas. The attacks had only limited success and government control of Tigray Province remained restricted to the major towns and highways. With neither side capable of military victory or willing to enter serious negotiations, observers expected inconclusive fighting to continue indefinitely.
The TPLF leadership apparently recognized that the movement was unable to achieve its goals alone. The Tigreans attempted to form an alliance of Ethiopian dissident groups - such as the Eritreans and Somalis - to apply military pressure on the Mengistu regime along a broad front. This proposal was unrealistic and held little prospect for success. Unlike the TPLF, the other key insurgent groups in Ethiopia were committed to independence from the central government.
After the party came to power in 1991 within the coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), this hostile narrative did not go away and, in fact, took on an even broader scope. The Tigray Regional State came under TPLF control, which allowed the party to promote its ideology among the whole Tigray population of Ethiopia undisturbed. The TPLF also took control of the centre of power in Addis Ababa, when its head, Meles Zenawi, became Ethiopia’s president in 1991, remaining in power up until his death in 2012. It was under his leadership that the EPRDF propagated the idea that the Ethiopian population consisted of ethnic groups with irreconcilable differences, denying the reality that the Ethiopian society is a multiethnic one, united by ties of intermarriage, trade, religion, and culture.
On October 17, 2013, following consultation with the US Secretary of State and the US Attorney General, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security exercised his discretionary authority not to apply certain terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds to certain applicants for voluntary activities or associations relating to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Specifically, the exercise of authority permits exemption of the following activities: Solicitation of funds or other things of value for; Solicitation of any individuals for membership in; Provision of material support to; or Receipt of military-type training from, or on behalf of, the TPLF.
Tigray and Amhara, Ethiopia’s two powerful northern regions, were locked in a dangerous standoff. The tensions over Amhara claims to land administered by Tigray sparked proxy violence in 2018 and could do so again given the lack of appetite for compromise. The dispute came into focus in 1991, when Tigrayan rebels seized national power as the heart of a multi-ethnic coalition and, as the Amhara see it, also annexed historical Amhara land to their own region. It remains a flashpoint under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose ascent was presaged by Amhara protests over the territories and Tigrayan political domination.
The result of the TPLF’s rule was a minority party controlling the majority of the population in Ethiopia. Since coming to power, the TPLF ruling party has been persecuting Amharas to achieve their mission as stated in their Manifesto. The TPLF led government forcefully annexed historical Amhara lands of Wolkite, Tegede, Humera, Tselemete and Raya-Azebo to Tigray. Under the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, the TPLF transferred thousands of Tigray settlers to the annexed Amhara land in an attempt to change the demographic make-up of the region. The land mass of the Tigray Region has grown by a third since annexation of historical Amhara lands including lands annexed from the Afar Region.
For more than 20 years, Zenawi held near-total control over the country, ensuring the TPLF’s dominance within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). But in 2018, several years after his death, under the pressure of years of social and political upheaval, change finally came to Ethiopia. The TPLF lost power in Addis Ababa and the EPRDF was disbanded a year later. While the rest of the country embraced a new horizon, the TPLF retained its old ideology.
Its mythology gave birth to the far-right “Agazian” movement, an incipient movement that seeks to create a Tigray homeland by uniting Christian Tigrigna-speaking people in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is driven by those who see themselves as the successors of the ancient Axumite kingdom and dream of reviving it.
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