After all those years of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) political and economic dominance over every other member party of the coalition-EPRDF and the ethnic groups in the country, the inevitable quest for a political change gained momentum in 2015.
Even though the change has been basically driven by a persistent national popular uprising, particularly by the country’s youth, the same demand for change has been fermented covertly by a few party members within the ruling coalition-EPRDF. Such combined and coordinated efforts later forced the ruling EPRDF/TPLF to accept the inevitable due to a lack of political stamina to maintain the status quo.
In the early days of the reform, the TPLF exhibited signs of accepting and recognizing the need for an overall political reform, with a hidden desire to dictate the type and magnitude of the reform. Subsequently, the TPLF tabled its so-called “non-negotiable” terms for the planned reform, i.e., the ideology of revolutionary democracy and developmental state mantra.
René Léforte, the renowned French journalist with long-running experience of reporting on issues related to Africa since the 70’s, stated, “TPLF is refusing to move one iota from its immutable dogma of ‘developmental state and revolutionary democracy’.”
If the TPLF’s old guards were genuine in their promise to serve the interests of the people of Tigray, they would have done that through non-violent means. Its history and malevolent character, however, once again created a delusion and dictated that they resort to war as a rebel group.
“How could one dare to choose to restart from the jungle, disregarding its accumulated capital and the taste of modern life?” is the question left for an inquiry into their communist mentality.
Though the TPLF’s fear of losing grip on political and economic power is believed to be the structural cause of the current open conflict with the federal government, its ill-informed choice of adhering to a fatal course by attacking the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) on November 4, 2020, served as a flashpoint.
The TPLF’s calculated and unprovoked attack on the country’s largest military command and the brutal slaughtering of most of the command’s members shocked the rest of Ethiopia and, in doing so, forced the federal government to respond accordingly to ensure law and order by any means necessary.
The speed at which the ENDF reorganized its forces and its overwhelming response to the attack obliged the TPLF to resort to a strategy of employing the “humanitarian crisis” agenda to gain the sympathy of the international community and win political concessions through the crisis-induced international pressure on the federal government of Ethiopia.
To date, the TPLF has been using the same strategy time and again, calculating the power balance. These mischievous tactics of employing hunger, starvation, and humanitarian catastrophe as a means of gaining leeway and breathing space that’s historically proven as an effective means to tie the hands of the government and paralyze its forces were almost the same ones that were used against the military government-Derg.
Furthermore, on August 24, 2022, it launched another round of offensive, nullifying the government’s declared cease-fire that has been in effect since March 25, 2022. The pause in the government’s response provided the TPLF with much-needed time to plan and execute an overall, well-articulated campaign aimed at dislodging federal forces and toppling the central government entirely.
In doing so, its forces predictably went on attacking the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions, driving their inhabitants away into destitution, raping their women and children, and looting private and public properties, hoping to create a nationwide humanitarian and societal catastrophe that was hoped to result in an uncontrollable crisis and state collapse.
But their plan didn’t go as desired. The “Porcupine approach” employed by their forces did not last long. Even though they managed to create a wide-ranging humanitarian crisis and unspeakable suffering for the neighboring Amhara and Afar civilians, a counter-offensive from federal forces annihilated the majority of their fighters and forced them to a position of retreat.
The predictability of the TPLF is apparent in its preference to resort to a military option during times when it feels stronger and capable, and its forces have shown their inherent cruelty by committing atrocities and war crimes on civilians in the neighboring Amhara and Afar regions.
But whenever the condition is perceived as unfavorable and when it needs time to recuperate, the TPLF has been propagating the issue of humanitarian crisis to gain attention from the international community and amass political advantages over its perceived adversaries; the Derg during the 1974-1991 period, Eritrea during 1998-2018, and now against the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
It is not to ignore the humanitarian crisis the war has caused in Tigray but TPLF used it as advantage to advance its PR strategy, which has been very effective, judging by the nature and types of policy statements and rhetoric being perused by a significant number of foreign governments and IGOs. However, one cannot help but notice the glaring gaps that exist in comprehending the TPLF’s clandestine and genuine nature as well as the dynamics of the situation, thus resulting in myopic, one-sided views and misguided perceptions regarding the positions of the Ethiopian government.
Historical records attest that whenever the federal government opens humanitarian corridors for the undeterred flow of aid, including fuel, and agrees to a cessation of hostilities, the TPLF has repeatedly been caught red-handed diverting these much needed resources to its war efforts and, in doing so, abusing the goodwill to its own political advantage rather than alleviating the dire needs of the population it is deliberately holding hostage.
Weaponizing humanitarian aid as well as living-off on the much needed, life-saving assistance that is intended to feed the people of Tigray is the TPLF’s time-tested and effective modus operandi ever since its guerilla days in the 1980s. The unspoken ambitions of the TPLF, therefore, are aborting the ongoing political reform at the national level by destabilizing and, if possible, disintegrating the country by whatever means available, mainly through the exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis, which has served as an instrument to sanction the federal government in general and selected personalities that are members of the federal administration in particular.
Besides, the TPLF has formed paternalistic alliances with renegade groups operating in the Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Gambella regions, in addition to working closely with the internationally designated terrorist group Al-Shabab of Somalia in a desperate attempt to destabilize the country and the Horn of Africa region.
What role does the international community play: immunizing the group or fostering long-term peace?
The people of Tigray are held hostage by the TPLF against their will. This group has continued to politicize the issue of the worsening humanitarian crisis, as it has been doing throughout its existence. Its shrewd nature has always been a deterrent to those with a genuine concern for the populace and those pursuing a fair avenue of compromise and negotiation to end the crisis.
The TPLF has instead chosen to serve as a linchpin for other rebel groups in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region, thereby creating an ever more volatile socio-political atmosphere conducive to regional destabilization in the wider Eastern African region.
Though the TPLF knows very well that the moral, political, and legal legitimacy to claim power at the federal state level is long gone, it still has a suicidal desire to destabilize the whole region and defragment the nation, even at the cost of the people of Tigray, as is evident in the fleeing of Tigrians from Tigray. Hence, the TPLF’s favorite claim that they “are fighting to defend the people of Tigray” is a mere lip-service and a piece of propaganda that is a reflection of its built-in hypocrisy.
The international community has the legal mandate and a moral duty to revisit its courses of action. Any forthcoming position should be based on a critical examination of the TPLF’s true nature, its unending obsession with rebellious mentality, and clandestine characteristics, to decipher its mischievous political algorithm.
Consequently, the international community, particularly the US and the EU, need to either put pressure on the TPLF’s leaders to avail themselves for a peaceful negotiation without preconditions; refrain from making naive policy statements that create a mirage of equivalence between the TPLF and the federal government in matters of sanction and negotiations; or support the legitimate federal government in disarming different rebel groups in the country, including the TPLF, empowering it to consolidate power and stabilize the country and the Horn of Africa at large.
(Anteneh Getachew Damtew is a former Assistant Professor at Mekelle University and is currently a senior researcher at the Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) of Ethiopia. His research engagements include international relations, diplomacy, and conflict studies.)