The House of Peoples’ Representatives’ decision to remove of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) terrorist label has drawn mixed reactions across Ethiopia. Lawmakers approved the motion tabled by the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to de-list the TPLF from an official list of terrorist groups in a special session held midweek. The decision was not unanimous though with 61 voting against the motion and 5 abstaining. The TPLF, which once dominated Ethiopian politics, was officially designated a terrorist organization along with OLF-Shene, a term the government uses to refer to the self-described Oromo Liberation Front/Oromo Liberation Army (OLF-OLA), in May 2021 under the anti-terrorism law of 2020. The designation came six months after war erupted in northern Ethiopia following an attack on federal army bases in the Tigray region by forces of the TPLF on November 2020. The lifting of the TPLF’s terrorist tag paved the way for the appointment of a senior TPLF official as the Chief Administrator of the Tigray Region Interim Administration.
The removal of the TPLF from the official terrorist organizations list was agreed to under the surprise peace deal that the federal government and the TPLF struck in Pretoria, South Africa on November 2, 2022 in talks led by the African Union. Backers of the de-listing support it for a host of reasons. They hold that it’s is essential for the proper implementation of the accord. They also maintain that the TPLF had largely complied with/assisted in the fulfillment of the conditions set out in the truce, namely the disarming and demobilization of TPLF combatants; the peaceful and coordinated entry of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and other relevant federal institutions into the Tigray region; the overall control of airports, highways and federal facilities within the Tigray region by federal security forces; and the cessation of all forms of hostile propaganda, rhetoric, and hate speech. The proponents further say that it’s vital to enabling the people of Tigray truly enjoy the dividends of peace, accelerate the efforts underway to rehabilitate a region ravaged by war and allow the impending national dialogue process to be inclusive.
Detractors of the decision, however, trot out a litany of criticisms against it. They say that it’s untimely and is not certain to end the suffering of the people who had borne the brunt of the civil war. They describe the TPLF as an untrustworthy party, accusing it of violating the terms of the Pretoria agreement, primarily when it comes to disarming the heavy weapons in its possession, demobilizing its combatants and conducting military incursions into contested areas. Moreover, they assert that although the federal government formally enacted the regulation establishing the interim administration of Tigray, it did so solely to lend legitimacy to the fact that the TPLF spearheaded the process infringed the provision of the peace deal stipulating that it must be formed under the consent of the federal government and as such robs it of credibility. The critics thus argue that the TPLF must remain on the terrorist list until such time that it verifiably carries out its part of the peace agreement.
While some of the grounds on which the removal of the TPLF’s terrorist label is opposed understandably stem from information gaps and the ingrained mistrust in it, Parliament’s decision to bring it back to the political fold constitutes a baby step in the tortuous journey to bring about durable peace for Tigray and beyond. This said the measure gives rise to a couple of fundamental observations. First, it lays bare the lack of imagination and resolve on the part of the political leadership of both the federal government and the TPLF in resolving political differences without precipitating chaos and devastation. If they had the interest of Ethiopians at heart, the death of hundreds of thousands of citizens, the displacement and traumatization of millions, the incalculable economic toll and the damage to Ethiopia’s international standing the two-year internecine strife caused could have been entirely averted. Second, it underscores the imperative to break the deadly cycle of violence that has been rocking the country since Prime Minister Abiy came to power through peaceful means by engaging the likes of OLF-Shene/OLF-OLA and other armed groups in candid negotiations that help secure a constructive settlement.
Although the lifting of the TPLF’s terrorist tag, a step that is painful yet necessary, has been welcomed, albeit with suspicion, both at home and internationally, it does not in itself guarantee the success of the Pretoria accord; it’s just one of the milestones in a long drawn process that is bound to stretch out over several years. Both parties to the agreement need to honor faithfully their commitments therein and refrain from any counterproductive acts if the healing, reconciliation and rebuilding necessary to recover from the devastating consequences of the civil war in northern Ethiopia are to be achieved. Aside from this, it’s of the essence to ensure that the positive step the establishment of an interim administration in Tigray represents be buttressed by a genuinely inclusive national dialogue that produces broadly acceptable political solutions addressing the root causes of the war and forestall the recurrence of a similar devastation in the future. It’s then that the culture of settling differences that had plagued Ethiopian politics for far too long may become extinct.