TPLF: To Be or Not to Be

In 1976, the TPLF declared Tigray had nothing to do with Ethiopia and its people and vowed to establish their own nation, the Republic of Greater Tigray
The two undesirable options for the TPLF right now are choosing between an Independent Tigray and to remain part of Ethiopia.

BY SENNAY ZEMEN

When the TPLF launched an armed struggle in Tigray in February 1975, a narrow left-wing nationalistic tendency was bubbling to the surface. Exactly one year after they took up arms, that is, February 1976, the TPLF leaders had their heads in the clouds and unveiled a new document, the Tigray Manifesto.

They declared that Tigray had nothing to do with Ethiopia and its people and vowed to establish their own nation, the Republic of Greater Tigray, which had its genesis in small groups of Tigray university students in 1974.

They were imbued with deep hatred and vindictive feelings against the people, especially, the Amhara, and the land, Ethiopia. Therefore, out of unbridled ambition to settle the old score with its old ‘enemies,’ they drew strategies that resonate with its future agenda.



Having failed to realize the huge gap between reality and fantasy, the leaders, mostly students from Addis Abeba university, drew a map for the cuckoo land based on irredentism and hundreds of years of history with the aim of reviving the ‘Axumite Kingdom’ and bringing an end to ‘centuries-old injustices’ of the Tigray people from Ethiopian imperial times.

No matter what angles were approached, the Republic was deemed impractical from the very beginning and challenged by Tigriyans and Ethiopians as well. Despite this, the TPLF has harbored unrealistic expectations and betrayed Ethiopia and its people since then. Most likely than not, the previous regimes of Ethiopia are more sinned against than sinning.

In spite of the fact that all Ethiopian armed groups had a common enemy, they were fighting against it independently and with different visions. However, as the fall of the Dergue was on the horizon, the formation of a multilateral alliance was the requirements of the times.

With an eye to the future, therefore, the TPLF and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) formed a coalition under the umbrella of the EPRDF in 1989. The main goal of the coalition was to set up a transitional government after the collapse of the regime so that the country would remain stable during the interim period.

The other two movements, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) entered into the coalition later on. It should be noted that though, the TPLF was militarily stronger than the other rebels, their contribution to defeating the Dergue cannot be ignored.



On top of this, the stunning military victory of the EPLF over the Dergue in Eritrea tolled the death knell for the military regime and, as such, its total defeat was an inevitable result of these successes. However, most Ethiopians are ignorant of the fact that the defeat of the Dergue was next to impossible without the military victories in Eritrea.

Despite this fact, for political purposes, Ethiopians are still kept in the dark about the EPLF’s military and other support to the TPLF and other rebels, as well as the role it played in the creation of the EPRDF. It goes without saying that it gives more comfortable to the TPLF and other chauvinistic Ethiopian politicians to live in denial.

Though the TPLF leaders had never had any interests other than establishing the Republic after the fall of the Dergue, they set out to cross the river with the coalition members in the same boat instead of burning it by swimming against the tide. To put it another way, they bowed to necessity when it was borne in on them that the military regime’s days were numbered, when they realized that declaring such Republic was not in favor of them due to internal and external pressures and when no strong movements existed in Ethiopia that could challenge their military supremacy in future, they decided finally to keep in touch with the times but hiding their true nature.

In such situation, the TPLF hogged its seat at the top of the heap and set to preside over the new coalition with the caveat that the constitution, federalism and political ideology including the right to secession would secure its domination over Ethiopian politics. Blinded by hubris, the TPLF, which represents only five million of the total population, sat in the driving seat with three ‘passengers,’ that have a combined population of at least 80 million people. In short, its military superiority gave it a tremendous leverage in dictating Ethiopian politics for 27 years.

From the onset, the three EPRDF members and the five non-members were being treated beneath contempt for 27 years. Given this fact, the TPLF has been neither a genuine nor a trustful political partner in Ethiopia. It started to rule the country with a duality mindset and dominated the entire political system without strong opposition from the three coalition members other than picayunish challenges against it.

With a ‘beggar my neighbor policy,’ it kept a tight rein on the coalition members and rode roughshod over the wishes and aspirations of the Ethiopian people for almost three decades. That having been said, the Ethiopian people had defied the TPLF dominated government right from the beginning. This is to mean that even prior to experiencing its harsh rule, they had never given its army a warm welcome when they were entering the capital, Addis Abeba, and other towns in 1991. So, it can be said with certainty that the TPLF had been a big fish in a small pond for 27 years.



Needless to say, the purpose of the coalition was primarily to help the coalition members establish a transitional government after the military regime removed from power. Though it was due to run out after Ethiopia held its first ‘election’ in 1995, it continued serving the minority group’s interests for 27 years. The TPLF blackmailed the three members into maintaining it in order to ‘bleed’ Ethiopia and plunder its resources like ravening wolves. It is to be recalled that though the regions were technically running their own internal affairs, the TPLF was calling the tune. Therefore, it is not a stretch to say that the three coalition parties and the five partners were totally subjugated to the wishes of the TPLF. What is more, officials from the three coalition members who were placed on high government positions were simply figure heads. Right from the start, the principles of justice and equality were totally abhorrent to the TPLF.

Since 1991, the anti-TPLF opposition was growing slowly in momentum before it elbowed the TPLF out of power in 2018. During its rule, it pursued ‘Tigray First’ pernicious doctrine which typified appropriately by corruption, arrogance, violation of human rights and high-handed attitude.

However, its hegemonic rule came to an end in April 2018 with no U-turn to power after four years of bloody people’s uprisings in many parts of the country, except in Tigray. The uprisings together with the internal struggle within the EPRDF set a stage for the reformist forces led by Dr. Abiy Ahmed to come to power. The home-grown reforms have already brought about a series of changes and revived hopes for the bright future of Ethiopia. Despite being beset with challenges and suffered greatly by strategy of destabilization of the TPLF, the winds of change have been swirling and moving forward unabated with silver lining.



The dominance of the TPLF over Ethiopian politics was confronted with serious headwinds and, as a result, the coalition members finally managed to shake off its rule. They cut the apron strings and changed their previous names to new one to keep abreast with the political changes and, after all, the armed struggle against the Dergue was ended 29 years ago. It is to be recalled that OPDO changed its name to Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) to the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP).

With respect to the TPLF, however, the name ‘TPLF’ is considered as the most hallowed one and directly linked with the goals and objectives of the Tigray Manifesto, not with Ethiopian agenda. So, the TPLF has never had any wish to change its name nor will change it in the future so long as the struggle for achieving the Republic has realized. Therefore, “aluta continua!” (the struggle continues!), has remained and will remain the slogan of the TPLF until it meets a sticky end. It is no wonder that betrayal, which is a byword for the TPLF, is embedded in its political culture.

Notwithstanding the fact that the five regions had been fighting for a place in the sun since the 1990s, the fate of the merger was fallen at the TPLF mercy. Rather than promising the regions the moon, it never had any willingness to include them within the EPRDF coalition despite the issue was being repeatedly raised in several occasions. However, the TPLF hogged the merger deliberately since it would conflict with its long-held political ambition and hamper its grip on power especially over the two coalition members. So, the duty of the five regions was remained to take the bullet for the TPLF and to stand behind it in order to offset the looming danger coming from the two big ethnic groups. Only when the reformist forces came to power and when the TPLF was no more calling the tune, did the coalition members agree to push ahead with a single party during the 11th Conferences of the EPRDF held in Awasa. The conference also bade farewell to the TPLF domineering attitude.

At the time when the reformist forces were pushing for a single party and putting the plan in motion, the TPLF resented the proposed plan and backed out unabashedly its previous commitment and made a brazen attempt to fail it. It started to sing a different song and rejected it both in word and deed and flew in the face of the wishes and expectations of the Ethiopian people. Ahead of the meeting of the EPRDF that was held in November 2019, it had already embarked on a campaign against the union. To counter further the gravity of the situation, the Executive Committee of the TPLF held a meeting on October 15, 2019 and issued a statement and strongly condemned the merger agenda and attacked the PM and his government in barbed words. But in point of fact, the statement doesn’t tally with the truth or hold water but was intended to buy time until it builds a strong force to deconstruct the country in cahoots with its allies. Indeed, the decision of the EPRDF has transformed the TPLF into an injured predator that mercilessly attacks anyone who approaches it.



Much to the chagrin of the TPLF, the merger agenda, which was systematically and deliberately suppressed for years, finally come to the surface. The Executive Committee of the EPRDF at its meeting held on November 16, 2019, passed a historical resolution in the teeth of strong resistance from the TPLF. In addition, on November 21, 2019, the Council of the EPRDF unanimously approved the decision of the EC during which the TPLF representatives refused to attend the meeting. The decision cleared the ground for the country to set off on a new journey towards a political and economic resurgence. Against this backdrop, the political parties of the three coalition members agreed to form a single party, the Prosperity Party, to govern the country on an equal footing together with other regions while safeguarding the interests of all ethnic groups equally and fairly. The TPLF has been bewildered by the wave of reforms and defied to admit the fact that the shoe is on the other foot.

Gone are the days when the TPLF alone was deciding the destiny of Ethiopia. What goes round comes round.

It stands to reason that the political parties of the five regions have fully backed the formation of the new party due to the fact they were being treated for long with utter contempt and, as such, had never had the right to participate in decision-making process that matters their own regions. It is strongly believed that the merger would guarantee non-interference in each other’s affairs, build mutual trust, promote a sense of belongingness, treat each other with respect and accommodate each other’s interests and concerns, to say nothing of its contribution to unity, peace and stability.

So, it is high time for the regional political parties to join the new party and press ahead with amendment of the constitution and federal system to level the playing ground for all ethnic groups who were deprived of their political rights for years.

When Ethiopians were looking ahead with optimism after the EPRDF passed a historic and landmark resolution to replace the ‘front’ with a ‘party’, the TPLF executive and central committee held an urgent meeting one after another in Mekelle from November 23 – 24, 2019, for the second time (first held in October) to oppose obstinately the decision of the EPRDF, which has laid bare the truth behind their real intentions.

For all intents and purposes, the adamant refusal marked the official end of the EPRDF coalition and, as such, the TPLF burned its bridges despite tomorrow is another day. Since then, its relationship with the coalition members and other political parties of the country had reached at an all time low just before it officially left the EPRDF in disgrace. Most unfortunately, the one-time ‘advocator’ of the merger has turned out to be the main enemy of the union. The wolf changes his hair, but not his nature.



In reply to the decision of the EPRDF, Dr. Debretsion, acting President and Chairman of the TPLF, held an interview with local media and mouthed the usual platitudes and prated on about the current political situation in Ethiopia. During his long and gibberish speech, he warned the people of Tigray that a black cloud looks a bit ominous in Tigray and, as such, should have to stay alert for any unforeseen circumstances. He tried to dupe the people into the belief that foreign forces including the USA, Europeans, Arabs and Eritrea are collaborating with the Ethiopian government to attack Tigray. But this is a white lie which is nothing less than figments of his imagination.

He also said “the TPLF would never allow any political party [the Prosperity Party] to stand against the hard-won political line of the Tigray people which include the constitution, federal system and revolutionary democracy ideology.” In general, his speech set a pessimistic tone for the Tigray region’s relationship with Ethiopia in future.

Taking into account the past history of the TPLF, which was full of intrigues and betrayals, its political program which embodied the constitution, federal system and revolutionary democracy, it’s hegemonic rule over Ethiopia for 27 years and its destabilization strategy that has been following to disintegrate the country, the political stand taken by the TPLF against the formation of a one party is not surprising. After the EPRDF had passed a decision for the merger, it left the coalition officially for good due to the fact that the new party has posed the greatest challenge to its political agenda. Furthermore, it rejected it, lest its deep-narrow nationalism would be enveloped in Ethiopian nationalism and its very survival and influence would be threatened and dwindled in due course.

We should remember always that “the water that bears the boat is the same that swallows it up.”

Despite its sanctimonious speech about Ethiopia, the TPLF was a quasi-Ethiopian political party. After its removal from power with humiliation, it kept itself aloof from the EPRDF business and viewed the adoption of new policies, decisions, or amendments by the government with a pinch of salt and as “an affront to the struggle of the Tigray people.”



It declared a de facto government and started to govern the Tigray region by the seat of its pants and completely on a different wavelength guided by the TPLF program and bombastic nationalism. Before it officially drifted away from the EPRDF in November 2019, it did all its best to fail the formation of the new party in collaboration with other opposition forces, but to no effect. So, it is no wonder that the TPLF had no any political will to work in tandem with the coalition members and, as such, the political position that it took to split off from the coalition government had already been in the pipeline.

In addition to the above briefly mentioned iniquitous practices, from December 28-29, 2019, the TPLF held a two-day public conference in Mekelle. The debate was revolved around the current affairs of Ethiopia in which the “violation of the constitution, federal system and the Prosperity Party” were in the heart of the discussion. Top TPLF officials including Dr. Debretsion, attended the conference. The aim of the conference was, as per usual, to seek support from the participants for their political decisions passed in October and November, respectively. At the conference, the TPLF leaders and the participants broke out into a long tirade against the reformist forces and reaffirmed further their strong opposition to the new party. The party members sang the praises of the TPLF’s “remarkable contribution towards the political and economic progress in Ethiopia in the past 27 years.”

In the mean time, they accused ‘the reformist party of leading the country to a political quagmire and economic stagnation as well as of being a “threat to the constitution and federal system” and vowed to fight it to the bitter end. The participants passed unanimously a nine-point strong worded statement and fully backed to the decisions of the Executive and Central Committee of the TPLF.

Following the conclusion of the public conference and at a time when the Executive Committee of the Prosperity Party was holding its first meeting to respond to the call of the times and chart out future courses of action accordingly, the TPLF called an urgent party conference in Mekelle for two days, from January 04-05, 2020. The conference was organized with similar agenda to that of the previous ones. That is, to revive the EPRDF or preserve the status quo. It was closed after the participants passed an eight-point resolution.



Among which, it has officially announced not to join the Prosperity Party, set to work against it in alliance with the federalist or other forces to eliminate it at all costs and decided to remain as part of Ethiopia only with certain caveats or preconditions. In implicit terms, it has drawn a red line over its future relationship with Ethiopia and warned it to keep its hands off Tigray which truly amounts to an invitation to confrontation.

The conference was concluded after the party members pledged to make themselves ready for any sacrifices whenever and wherever needed and after they jointly sang a war song. In short, the vainglory of the TPLF has put Tigray at stake.

The nearsighted decision has exposed the TPLF to the cruel fact that it has started clearing the ground for Tigray Manifesto. But, the fact remains that Tigray without Ethiopia is just like a bone without a flesh as well as the expense of abandoning Ethiopia is massive, not to mention impractical. In addition, the ‘history’ of Ethiopia is the history of Tigray and Amhara people. If the TPLF renounces Ethiopia, to which in heart and mind the people have always belonged to it, on what historical background should the other ethnic groups call themselves ‘We are Ethiopians,’ who could never trace their history, culture, religion, or tradition to the said ‘Ethiopian history.’

What is more, Tigray does not have a constitutionally defined border with its neighboring regions.

But the question remains: Which way Tigray? Will the TPLF bite the bullet and abide by the government policies and decisions gracefully if the Prosperity Party wins the 2020 election? Or, will Ethiopia accommodate ‘one country, two-political-systems’? Whatever the answer turns out to be, the arrogance of the TPLF is plunging the country into chaos.



It becomes apparent that there are irreconcilable differences between the reformist forces led by the Prosperity Party and the Federalist Group led by the TPLF, to be more specific, between promoters of Ethiopian interests and the TPLF interests. Since the hawkish TPLF politicians have chosen guns over butter, they will continue incessantly their sinister motives in scope and intensity to make a comeback to power, revive its past glory and lead the country on its own chosen path despite history is marching forward without making a U-turn. Notwithstanding what has just been said, the TPLF is still longing for the paradise lost which is really, to borrow a modern phrase, a cockamamie idea.

Finally, the TPLF has decided to ‘end its marriage’ with the EPRDF coalition members after declining to join the new Party due to the fact that its goals and objectives run counter to that of the Prosperity Party. This way or the other, the TPLF is on the horns of a dilemma in the sense that it has been caught between two equally undesirable options whether to choose an independent Tigray or to remain part of Ethiopian.

Of course, the TPLF agenda, an independent Tigray, is a dangerous chess move and its realization is a distant hope. While the second choice, ‘to be with Ethiopia,’ though it is realistic, historic and within the realms of possibility, it is against its avowed interests. Even if it wishes to go for it, it will be realized only with a painful price. In short, to be or not to be that is the question facing the TPLF as it confronts the gale-force winds of the reformist forces that enjoy great support from the Ethiopian people and international community. Put it briefly, the TPLF has turned into a prisoner of its own device.