Date: Monday, 24 October 2022
Article: Bisrat Lemessa Kabeta
Sunday, 23 October 2022, 5:02 am
Underneath the renewed fighting in northern Ethiopia, a post-TPLF Tigray is becoming increasingly likely. TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) can no longer make significant military gains as Ethiopian defense forces are steadily eroding its fighting capabilities, liberating strategic locations, and closing in on its command centers. Its leaders may soon have to choose between a negotiated exit or a total defeat. In either case, Ethiopia’s post-war trajectory will begin.
Western political players seeking a resolution to the war are ready to embrace a post-conflict Ethiopia but not one without TPLF in government roles. They want TPLF not only to survive but also to have a vital role in determining the country’s destiny. As the window of opportunity closes with the national defense forces’ military advances, they are urging an unconditional ceasefire to prevent TPLF from dissolving completely. Then, they want the AU-led peace negotiations to facilitate TPLF’s re-entry into Ethiopia’s political arena as a recognized regional authority. It is unlikely that the Ethiopian government will accept this scheme. There are at least three reasons why: the problem of false premises, implementational challenges, and adverse consequences.
The case for TPLF’s recognition as a legitimate political entity is predicated on the erroneous assumption that TPLF is the sole representative and defense of the people of Tigray, against whom Ethiopia (and Eritrea) are accused of waging a genocidal campaign.
Therefore, it is argued that the demise of TPLF would mark the beginning of the elimination of Tigrayans. This line of reasoning is compatible with some of TPLF’s false claims. Here are three of them:
•=> The first one is the misrepresentation of the conflict as Ethiopia’s war on Tigray.
The source of such views is nothing else but propaganda. Remarkably, a robust narrative-framing operation to persuade the world in favor of TPLF erupted the same day the group carried out pre-emptive attacks on the national army’s outposts. Many social media sites supporting TPLF were already tweeting the trending hashtag TigrayGenocide to demand action against Ethiopia. The twist was impactful: the media soon presented the conflict as Ethiopia’s genocidal campaign against Tigray. They commended TPLF as patriotic and ethical but lambasted Ethiopia as a disintegrating state with a criminal army. Those narratives have persisted as mainstream views, sparking a counterproductive reaction from the West.
The truth is that the conflict is neither Ethiopia’s nor Tigray’s war. It all began when TPLF’s nearly three-decade absolute dominance over the Ethiopian State ended at the start of a dramatic political opening in 2018. Shortly after, hundreds of resentful veterans regrouped in Tigray, from where they carried out meticulously planned pre-emptive strikes on the national army on the 4th of November 2020. Their objective was defeating the army and marching back to the capital to resecure unfettered privileges. If things did not go to plan, they publicly vowed to destroy the nation they once ruled and build a new one to their taste.
The November 2020 episode was neither isolated nor spontaneous. The incident was inspired by TPLF’s long-pursued strategy of using violence as a viable and primary means for achieving political objectives. Attesting to this reality, TPLF commanders’ ambush of thousands of soldiers on the consequential night happened after they rejected more than ten dialogue initiatives from state and civil society actors. It did not stop there. They resumed hostilities in June 2021 and August 2022, interrupting relative periods of calm after dismissing the federal government’s declaration of a ceasefire as “a sick joke.” They also escalated the violence by invading and destroying several towns and villages in the Afar and Amhara regions and provoking Eritrea by threatening annihilation and firing rocket missiles into its residential areas.
•=> The second assertion is that TPLF represents the people of Tigray and that the two are indistinguishable.
This argument is illogical and carries consequences. Let us start with the obvious: TPLF, as an armed group with narrow ideological and economic goals, cannot be considered analogous to the population of Tigray, which has a more comprehensive range of social and political backgrounds and perspectives.
Since its inception as a communist separatist insurrection in the 1970s, TPLF has imposed its dictatorship on the people of Tigray, causing them to suffer poverty, violence, and isolation. After eliminating alternative voices, instilling fear and fragility, and masquerading as the sole defender, the group seized the populace prisoner, turning the territory into its fort. Some participation in its violence seems to be the product of decades of indoctrination, agitation, and coerced enlistment.
The leaders worked hard to create animosity between the people of Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia. As explicitly stated in their manifesto, they formed their political movement to organize Tigray’s war against the Amhara and eventually create an independent state. They used propaganda to legitimize hostilities and gain local support, portraying Tigrayans as both existentially imperiled and matchlessly valiant. Their objective was to pursue their dominative ambitions under the banner of a Tigrayan cause. For this purpose, they appealed to victimization and superiority complexes.
Within the last four years alone, they launched extensive misinformation operations designed to create an environment of vulnerability. For instance, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s comparison of a few TPLF commanders accused of robbing the nation and committing atrocities to “day-time hyenas” and “weeds” were deliberately misconstrued as allusions to the people of Tigray. Then, they herded hundreds of thousands of ill-equipped people into the blaze of conflict to act as cannon fodder, paving the way for the group’s well-trained combatants. Determined to achieve their goals by whatever means possible, they paraded youngsters to the front lines with the order to shoot them if they retreat.
TPLF views the local population as expendables. In addition to coercing them to fight, it uses their plight to acquire essential supplies and secure diplomatic backing. Reminiscent of their guerrilla tactics, the veterans understand the deprivation of the people of Tigray, when widely publicized, is a quick way to incite international sympathy. By doing so, they can shift blames and even amass humanitarian provisions that they divert to their war operations. A recent televised statement by Getachew Reda, TPLF’s spokesperson, is a classic example of how the group generates and markets human suffering for attention, sympathy, and support. Decrying that the Biden administration has not come to their aid, he asserted, “what is necessary to do now is that we create a reason for them to take Tigray’s case as their own and pursue it boldly.”
Aside from the false narratives, several thousands of civilians are fleeing Tigray along dangerous routes to evade TPLF’s forced recruitment and to seek sanctuary in the Amhara and Afar regions. They tell harrowing stories of TPLF commanders withholding humanitarian supplies to families and arresting them for refusing to send their children to the frontlines. The international community is not new to accounts of the militants robbing humanitarian supply depots and stealing hundreds of aid trucks and fuel tanks for war operations. As the defense forces retake areas, they discover USAID-supplied flour and WFP’s high-energy biscuits for extremely malnourished children inside TPLF bunkers. In the meantime, the global media lauds the militants as “battle-hardened” and adept in guerrilla warfare. The media’s likely intentional misrepresentation of the conflict has played a role in encouraging the militants and prolonging civilian suffering. What else could illustrate the numbing lack of principles in reporting on the conflict than the New York Times revictimizing Tigray’s child soldiers as “highly motivated young recruits”? What mocks humanity’s moral fortitude more than the BBC publishing Alex de Waal’s story that glorifies a TPLF general who forced children into his military swarming as “one of the finest military strategists of his generation in Africa”?
Echoing the claims of a few power-hungry kleptocratic militants hiding beneath an ethnic mask encourages violence and incentivizes the deprivation of millions of citizens. Also, it signifies a moral penance imposed on the people of Tigray for the transgressions of TPLF. This claim has long-term ramifications, as it forces the people to live with a broken self-image and severed connections to the rest of Ethiopia.
•=> The third false claim is that TPLF represents Tigray’s regional State and hence functions in a government capacity. From a constitutional perspective,
TPLF’s tenure as a political party and the privilege to participate in Ethiopia’s political processes officially ended when the group declared war on the Ethiopian State and attacked the national defense forces. Eventually, the parliament rightly labeled it a terrorist outfit, reflecting the legitimacy crisis inherent in its claims. Aside from the propaganda-induced illusion, Tigray is neither terra nullius nor a de facto state to which TPLF can have free rein. It is, by all applicable criteria, an integral part of Ethiopia’s sovereign territory, hence administered by the laws of the land under the federal government.
The notion of TPLF as a legitimate government is partly pushed by the leaders’ overinflated self-image and belief that violence is an acceptable means of gaining political recognition. In line with this view and by socializing violence, they converted Tigray into a garrison territory. They plunged the region into darkness by destroying local infrastructure, blocking federal government operations, and interrupting critical services, including executing utility staff assigned to rebuild networks. Tigrayans criticizing TPLF’s conduct are shunned as “genocide deniers” and “Abiy’s allies”.
Those who argue that TPLF is legitimate because it held elections in August 2020 insult our collective intelligence. What happened was overreaching and a sham performance in which TPLF made itself the electoral administrator, practically the only contender, and the electoral observer. The objective was to lay claim to the people of Tigray, who had been taken hostage and left without actual political participation. Not only is TPLF now incapable of providing essential services as a government, but it is also a roadblock to any possibility of calmness and regional rehabilitation. Regarding such a criminal organization, which not only subjugates millions but also lacks the legal, moral, and functional elements of a healthy political body, as a government is a travesty. Contrasting their claim, in an armed conflict or a peace talk, TPLF leaders are only able to represent themselves and those in their ranks.
•=> Reintroducing TPLF as a viable political entity, much alone a recognized regional authority, would be legally and politically problematic.
Legally, TPLF is designated as a terrorist organization. It has been accused of committing treasonous and brutal acts on the national army; compromising the State’s sovereignty by colliding with Ethiopia’s strategic rivals; and inflicting grave harm to countless lives, critical infrastructure, and the nation’s social fabric. Its leaders have been determined responsible for coercing minors and other civilians into their extremely costly military swarming operations, appropriating meager humanitarian supplies for war activities, and crafting and sponsoring intercommunal conflicts and violent insurgencies in other parts of Ethiopia. The gravity of these crimes and many more, including massacres committed before and after the start of the war in November 2020, have scarred society’s consciousness. Therefore, the government carries weighty moral and constitutional obligations to demonstrably ensure that truth is sought and justice is done to the extent that public trust in all branches of the government is maintained.
Aside from the moral and legal issues, TPLF is not operating as a viable political body. It lost its political capital long ago and has since depended on ethnic agitation and violence to survive and restore its prominence. Its violent subversive activities, relentless propaganda, and frantic insistence for foreign support demonstrate the organization’s impotence and rejection in Ethiopia’s larger political context. Even in Tigray, the region that TPLF claims as its social base, the veterans had to instill fear and employ violence to maintain control.
TPLF’s structure has crumbled as an organization, and the leadership is depleted and confused. Its political activity is mainly carried out by former members and sympathizer groups in the diaspora, who are insistently soliciting support from Western actors. Also, the leaders lack a defined political purpose. They seem to pursue the objectives of reclaiming a monopoly of power, dissolving the Ethiopian State, breaking away and reintegrating Tigray, and invading Eritrea simultaneously. Their claim of fighting to avert extermination and break a siege on Tigray is not genuine. There is no proof that the Ethiopian government intends to harm compatriots in Tigray. TPLF veterans are the ones who launched the conflict, disrupting services, inflicting infrastructural damage, and impeding the federal government’s essential activities, putting the region on a lockdown. The issue is rooted in their political objective of re-establishing supremacy, which is hard to state in public while professing to fight for Tigray.
The federal government may not trust the group with governmental responsibilities at any level of the state structure. The challenges are clear. After ambushing uniformed troops, sabotaging the economy, and conspiring with strategic adversaries, the leadership would not be trusted to engage in Ethiopia’s security, financial, and political processes. They may fail to convince the government and the public that they have abandoned violence, including their ambition to defeat the Amhara and dissolve Ethiopia and they now support political and economic reforms.
•=> Reinstating TPLF leaders as recognized regional authorities would have negative security, political, and economic consequences.
The group’s reintegration will have to occur amid an atmosphere of anger, mistrust, and division, posing huge structural and operational problems for the federal government and TPLF. Due to the high likelihood of being isolated and viewed suspiciously by actors in the State’s crucial institutions, such as regional administrations and the army, TPLFs’ bargaining power and capacity to participate in decision-making meaningfully would be limited. Also, Tigray, continuing to be treated as TPLF’s constituency, would again be at a significant disadvantage, diminishing its prospects of stability, rehabilitation, and development.
Given their use of ethnic hostility as a successful political tactic for half a century, TPLF leaders may be unable to turn themselves into innovative political actors and start contributing to peace. Instead, as they have done from the beginning, they may attempt to hamper the country’s delicate political and economic initiatives, such as the national dialogue and homegrown economic reforms. Most crucially, their ethnonationalist ideology, which is inherently retrogressive and hostile, will hinder the vitally needed progress toward civic nationalism and democracy.
A weakened and isolated TPLF may resurface as an obstructive force, gathering disgruntled and radicalized players into a disruptive opposition block. Its recent agreement with the Oromo Liberation Army, which has been carrying out civilian massacres and interrupting essential services in various parts of the Oromia region, proves that the group may not abandon violence and commit to peaceful political processes in the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, the federal government risks losing public trust due to frustration over the lack of accountability and justice. Widespread resentment may hinder reconciliation efforts, blocking the path to long-term peace. This is especially troubling for Tigray, where TPLF rule would prevent locals from holding war criminals accountable and potentially enjoying democratic liberties. Given its attacks and threats of destruction on Eritrea, re-establishing TPLF as a legal organization will harm regional stability and Ethiopia’s geopolitical partnerships.
TPLF’s departure from politics is a significant step toward a post-war Ethiopia that can pursue economic growth, democratic reform, and sustainable peace.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, TPLF is the greatest obstacle to peace and recovery in Tigray and beyond. While it maintains control of the region, the chances of the fighting ending or essential services resuming are slim. Calmness is not in the group’s best interests as long as its leaders’ ambitions, which require subduing the Ethiopian State, remain unmet. As a result, violence is TPLF’s lifeblood. By fueling conflict, the group justifies more hostilities, diverts attention away from its crimes, and fosters impoverishment, a vital component of its war strategy.
When human suffering is not readily vivid enough to generate dramatic media coverage, people are instructed, and tragedies are produced. This statement does not dispute that the people in Tigray have suffered atrocities in the war. They have endured starvation, extrajudicial killings, human rights violations, and more. However, it is crucial to underline that TPLF leaders view civilians’ anguish as critical in pursuing their objectives. Hence, they lack the incentive to improve the dire conditions. Therefore, the government’s defense activities are necessary to stop human suffering by neutralizing TPLF as a security threat or compelling its commanders to give up. Military operations aimed at eliminating violent threats while protecting civilians to the greatest extent feasible must continue even when hopes for peace talks are high.
The way forward must be imagined through the lens of a post-TPLF Tigray as a crucial step toward a post-war Ethiopia. International and local actors keen on sustainable peace in the country should prioritize disarming TPLF and persuading its leaders to give up. To avoid more human suffering, the Ethiopian government may decide that granting the leadership a way into exile is in the country’s best interest. Although this avenue may undermine the preceding arguments for accountability and justice, it may be a necessary compromise that a responsible government would explore.
Regardless of the negative repercussions of its political programs, TPLF played essential roles in the country’s economic progress during its tenure. Although tainted by hostility and violence, its emphasis on the need to address identity-related issues will be remembered as a vital milestone in the unfinished business of nation-building. Nonetheless, its leaders and supporters must recognize that TPLF operates on borrowed time. It is not a forward-thinking organization prepared to fulfill the youth’s needs now and in the future. Its reluctance to forsake violence would only exacerbate the dire situation and delay the much-needed efforts toward peace and economic recovery in the region and beyond. There is no point in wasting the lives of so many young people and erasing hope from Tigrayan communities when the outcome of the conflict is clear. At this pivotal point, the leaders have enormous moral and social responsibilities to do the right thing by laying the groundwork for a post-war Tigray via their exit. TPLF’s departure does not signify defeat for the Tigrayan people. Instead, it would be considered the leadership’s brave move to seize the moment and let the people they claim to be serving have a future.
In the meantime, the federal government should work with domestic and international actors to stabilize liberated areas. Efforts should be maximized to facilitate humanitarian aid, restore critical services, and rehabilitate essential infrastructure. Ethiopians at home and in the diaspora, more importantly, those with Tigrayan backgrounds, should step in to mobilize resources and coordinate the recovery efforts.
It is necessary to acknowledge that a climate of fear and hostility has significantly impacted the collective psychology of Tigrayan communities. Stabilizing and rehabilitating the region cannot be successful without understanding the scope of indoctrination and propaganda TPLF has employed to sustain its control over the past five decades. The government and the rest of Ethiopians, especially civil society actors from religious institutions and development NGOs, must harmonize their interventions to cultivate trust and a sense of solidarity. There should be a clear roadmap of activities fundamental for peace-building through initiatives like truth and reconciliation, national dialogue, and political reforms. The government must lay out its plans for addressing concerns that some might have regarding the rights of local people to self-administration.
•=> Punishing Ethiopia’s security and economic endeavors will impede peace, recovery, and development.
The international community must prioritize facilitating peace by fostering settings favorable to effective law enforcement, political dialogue, and economic prosperity. As has already been shown, diplomatic threats and economic penalties negatively impact society’s well-being. They erode security, disrupt critical services, and threaten livelihoods. Contrary to what they assert, they enhance vulnerability while promoting belligerence. Suggestions like activating the R2P or pressing for a no-fly zone are threats directed at Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They also amount to creating a haven for TPLF leaders who choose to evade responsibility. Additionally, they doom the people in Tigray and beyond to perpetual conflict and deprivation.
Effective and accountable law enforcement institutions benefit all Ethiopians. In this respect, the government’s demonstrated commitment to bringing perpetrators of human rights crimes accountable, including those under its command, should be acknowledged and supported. As the country is countering TPLF’s aggression, various armed groups are carrying out civilian atrocities under the guise of ethnic motives. The international community has a moral obligation to denounce such entities and support the government’s efforts to neutralize them. Establishing diplomatic relations with such groups gives them credibility and encourages them to use violence for attention. Unsurprisingly, they feel motivated to carry out more assaults on communities and essential civilian infrastructure.
It is no secret that geopolitical interests have played a significant role in defining the West’s stance toward the crisis and the government’s defensive efforts. However, misinterpretations of the war have also substantially oriented the international community’s counterproductive reactions. Foreign groups that may aid peace efforts are no more regarded as neutral and trustworthy. The government, the general population, and a broad spectrum of political and civil society players see their actions as elements in extending the conflict and making a solution unattainable.
To make beneficial contributions, Western states and civil society actors must change course by incorporating objectivity and principles into their operations. The initial step in this direction is condemning TPLF’s belligerence and rejecting its strategy of using violence as a viable means of pursuing its objectives. Lasting peace is premised partly on the group’s disarmament and exit from politics, and this view should guide the aim and form of the AU-led peace talks. International actors should match the government’s resolve to protect people and restore critical services in areas under the national army. On the other hand, statements and actions discouraging the governments’ multi-layered operations in Tigray would encourage TPLF to keep fighting and reject alternative avenues.
AUTHOR NOTE: Bisrat, based in the US, is an independent researcher on Ethiopian politics. He holds a PhD in political & social studies from the University of Aberdeen.