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Contextualizing an Ethiopian “terrorist” organization

Despite the government’s vilification of the TPLF to justify the war in Tigray, the party’s role in Ethiopia’s recent stability and growth is undeniable.

There are two very different versions of Ethiopia’s recent history.

Proponents of the TPLF point to progress made during the EPRDF era on human development and in achieving sustained economic growth. The 1995 constitution is portrayed as a legitimate effort to solve the national question. The EPRDF is also credited with maintaining relative internal and regional stability, while securing Ethiopia’s borders from external threats.

Detractors, however, argue that the TPLF was born out of the same feudal culture of intolerance that its leaders claimed to be fighting against. Much like its predecessors, the EPRDF was culpable of violent suppression of dissident groups, arbitrary detention of citizens, and other human rights abuses—particularly in Oromia and the Ogaden. This was all done in the name of safeguarding the achievements of the revolution that began in 1974.

Ethiopia’s state formation

The core of ancient Ethiopia, Abyssinia and the Axumite Empire, originates in the north. Fourteenth and fifteenth-century maps of this ancient land show other independent kingdoms like that of Damot, the Sultanates of Dankalia (Adal), Dawaro, Hadiya, Belew, Arbabri, and many more which existed alongside the Abyssinian kingdom.

Up until Menelik II’s rule in the late 19th century, the country had limited appetite to extend into territories beyond its known boundaries, such as lands bordering the catchment of the Awash, the Abay, and Wabe Shebelle rivers. Since that time, Ethiopian rulers have progressively consolidated and centralized their power over these territories through violent means.

Ethiopia’s current geographic shape is the product of an internal conquest that was pursued by Amhara elites from Shoa and other provinces, in conjunction with other Abyssinian elites such as Shoan Oromo and in competition with European powers. Consequently, many ethnic groups such as the Oromo, Sidama, Gurage, and Somali became incorporated into the country.

Efforts to establish a center where imperial orders were carried out by enderassies (meaning ‘royal representatives’ in Amharic) across the country began to take shape in the early 20th century. In the years that followed, the European presence in the Red Sea rim would be a watershed moment for the country as it began assuming a semblance of statehood with roughly delineated boundaries.

Sporadic uprisings by ethnic groups to safeguard their identity were commonplace during this time. The battle of Segele in 1916 between the provinces of Shewa and Wollo for accession to the throne after the death of Emperor Menelik II can be cited as an example. Similarly, the 1942 uprising in Tigray, dubbed the Woyane (meaning ‘revolt’ in Tigrinya), challenged the central rule of Shoa. Other examples include the defiance by Southern Oromo in the mid-1960s and the Gojjam peasant revolt against excessive taxation.

As Ethiopia, and Ethiopian identity, evolved under this centuries-old despotic and feudalistic system, strong ethnic sentiments or sub-national identities were heightened within many groups. Contrary to the false narrative that ethnic sentiment was fostered by the TPLF after 1991, it has been present at least since the imperial expansion.

TPLF takes power

The TPLF was one of the many anti-Derg movements that sprung up soon after the demise of the Imperial order in 1974. A hastily assembled coalition of dissident groups formed the EPRDF in 1988. The brutal war raging in Tigray today can be traced back to the triumph of the EPRDF against the Derg in 1991.

Although the TPLF was unsuccessful at first in bringing together the various groups that stood to challenge Mengistu Hailemariam’s military government, its leaders ultimately managed to pull together the EPRDF coalition and form a government after overthrowing the Derg. The TPLF continued to face opposition, however, as it had trouble convincing Royalists and Derg sympathizer Ethiopianists, on the one hand, and ethno-nationalists such as the OLF, on the other.

To illustrate this point, a few days after the military victory by TPLF-led forces in June of 1991, I had a conversation with an Amhara gentleman who found the “hordes” of Tigrayan fighters flocking into Addis Ababa to be abhorrent. The gentleman accused these “conquerors” of being sectarian and unable to assimilate with other ethnic groups in the country. This same gentleman was no fan of the Derg, as he had been a target of the military regime—his coffee plantation had been confiscated and he had languished in jail for eight years.

As this anecdote demonstrates, the tone against the TPLF/EPRDF was set a long time ago. It is not surprising, then, that people in Addis Abeba received these “conquerors” with public demonstrations and a few by violent means, including armed clashes.

The EPRDF subsequently won almost every seat in parliament during the election held in May 1995. Because a number of parties were barred from running, the outcome of the election did not sit well with opposition parties, in particular the All-Amhara People’s Organization.

The TPLF-led EPRDF followed up its electoral victory by initiating court proceedings to redress the injustices committed by the previous regime. It took more than a decade to dispense justice on those accused of perpetrating heinous crimes, but they eventually faced their day in court.

Multinational federalism

The coalition government formed in 1991 tried to achieve ethnic parity by including ethnicities that had, until then, been treated as peripheral assets. Seeking to stabilize a country that was on the verge of Balkanization, the EPRDF oversaw the drafting of a new constitution in 1995 which sought to address long-standing aspirations of self-rule by many sub-state groups.

Among others, the wars in Eritrea, the Ogaden, Tigray, and Oromia that began in the 1960s and 1970s indicated that the country yearned for a new social contract, one that the EPRDF audaciously applied in the 1990s. The coalition opted for ethnic-based federalism to foster national harmony by promoting plurality.

The architects of federalism in the TPLF-led EPRDF were influenced by Marxist-Leninist doctrine, which acknowledged the existence of nations—defined as a stable community of people formed on the basis of common history, language, and culture—and said that each have the right to rule themselves within a larger political structure.

EPRDF leaders promoted the dictum “unity in diversity.” An important corollary to this philosophy, Ethiopians born after 1991 were allowed to learn in their native languages.

However, those advocating for a unitary system of government viewed the 1995 federal constitution as a recipe for disintegration. Accordingly, they worked relentlessly to frustrate the work of TPLF/ EPRDF.

This is not to say that the TPLF is free from criticism. Many liberation fronts succumb to bravado to solve problems, and, in the process, alienate the very people they swore to help. Those hoping for true autonomy ran up against the EPRDF’s iron-fisted democratic centralism. Most notably, suspicion and outright hostility persisted against the TPLF over what many viewed as puppets in the ruling coalition who were used to govern Oromia, Amhara, and other regions.


Another important step that the EPRDF took after assuming power was to settle the inherited chronic problem of the Eritrean rebellion.

Historically speaking, parts of Eritrea gravitated around what was a diffused Ethiopia. Eritrea, like many countries in Africa, had its borders drawn by colonial powers. Unlike Libya and Somalia, Eritrea did not achieve statehood after independence from Italy.

The historic push and pull forces made it difficult for the people to speak with one voice, resulting in a United Nations-mediated federation with Ethiopia in 1950. This federal system did not hold as expected and was abrogated by the Imperial government, heralding an armed struggle that lasted from 1961 to 1991.

In 1993, Eritrea held a referendum on independence with the EPRDF’s consent, officially ending a war that had drained the country for three decades. This decision caused Ethiopian nationalists to single out the TPLF as the front that had willfully presided over the dismemberment of Ethiopia.

As the 1998-2000 border war and Eritrea’s involvement in the ongoing Tigray war demonstrated, redrawing borders did not solve historic tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

True to its leftist values and to the chagrin of its detractors, the TPLF also crafted provisions under Article 39 in the 1995 constitution that provided the right of nations to secede from the union if they so desired. This particular clause in the constitution aggravated political discourse with Amhara elites and other unionists who vehemently opposed it.

The constitutional provisions on secession were never effectively tested, however, as the EPRDF government prioritized centralizing power.

Land reform

The coalition partners preserved the previous regime’s measures on land reform with slight modifications to circumvent the insecurity of tenure brought about by the previous blanket nationalization of land. The reform promoted land certification with the right of inheritance.

The 1995 constitution upheld the decree on land and its usage, and in particular stated that “land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange.” Within each of the country’s nine (now eleven) regions, groups defined as being indigenous were granted special land rights.

The rationale behind keeping land out of the hands of speculators and buyers was borne out of concern for the peasantry, whose livelihood depended solely on cultivating the land. This would be another source of contention.

In the mid-2000s, the EPRDF’s governance of land began to slide towards a neoliberal model, including by selling and leasing land to foreign companies. This culminated in the “Master Plan” to further expand Addis Abeba into ancestral Oromo lands. This proposal sparked protests that ultimately forced the TPLF to give up power.

Economic and human development

Critics of the TPLF-led EPRDF describe the 1991-2018 period as Ethiopia’s yetchelema gzie, meaning the ‘Dark Age’. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has frequently echoed these sentiments.

But it was during this yetchelema gzie that Ethiopia—like no other country in Africa, with the exception of Ghana—registered annual economic growth of up to 10 percent. The annual average income per person steadily rose from $200 when the EPRDF assumed power to $771.5 in 2018. This consistent economic progress was accompanied by an exponential increase in the number of roads and airports, along with the building of a new electrified railway to Djibouti.

Under the EPRDF, health facilities in Ethiopia expanded, the child mortality rate declined, and life expectancy of Ethiopians rose from 50 to 65 in a span of twenty years. Power generation capacity also increased threefold to 2,500 megawatts during the same time and is expected to rise to 8,000 megawatts with the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Unperturbed by thinly veiled threats from downstream countries like Egypt, which had benefited from the waters of the Nile for millennia, the EPRDF government built the Gibe and Tekeze dams. The GERD is near completion today, largely due to the vision and leadership of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Districts neglected by previous governments in education were brought to life through the rapid construction of primary and secondary schools, resulting in 30 million boys and girls being reached in a little over 15 years.

Most impressive, perhaps, were the strides made in higher education. Under the feudal regime, there was but one university. The Derg upgraded two more colleges to university standards in its time. During the EPRDF’s 27 years in power, 45 state universities were built across all nine administrative regions.

How, then, can one equate this period—where many projects of national interest were in full bloom and Ethiopia largely overcame the label of being a land of famine—as the Dark Age?

Moving forward

Before giving up power in 2018, the EPRDF designed and initiated a reform agenda that was meant to rectify its past mistakes. Upon coming to power, Abiy followed these directives, including releasing more political prisoners, relaxing press freedoms, closing the notorious Maekelawi prison in Addis Abeba, pursuing rapprochement with Eritrea, and repatriating numerous dissident parties that were previously labeled as terrorist groups.

Abiy has long since abandoned this progressive agenda. His administration is currently destroying what had been a growing economy, has paralyzed a once highly regarded peacekeeping army, and has joined hands with Eritrea—a pariah state whose leader is hell-bent on destroying Ethiopia—in waging war on Tigray. Rather than building on the EPRDF’s successes and doing away with its negative aspects, Abiy has done precisely the opposite.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Addis Abeba light railway; 2015; CNN.

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