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Shedding light on the TPLF: Challenging common misconceptions

TPLF Flag (Photo: dark-tourism.com)

By Kinfe Hadush

Introduction

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has been one of the pivotal political forces in the Horn of Africa for half a century, contributing in shaping the region’s security and political landscape. Yet, the true nature and character of the TPLF remain obscured, as the party has been subject to wildly divergent portrayals. It has been simultaneously demonized by critics and venerated by fervent supporters in almost equivalent proportion. The TPLF has been given a wide range of contentious labels by various actors, cementing its status as a highly controversial entity since its inception. Paradoxically, both the TPLF’s allies and adversaries appear to have significantly misunderstood the party and its role. Unraveling these deep-seated misconceptions is crucial to gaining a more nuanced perspective of the TPLF’s multifaceted legacy in Tigray, Ethiopia and beyond.

TPLF has been the subject of starkly contrasting and often caricatured portrayals by various domestic and foreign actors. On one hand, the so-called “Centrist Elite” have broadly perceived the TPLF as an anti-Ethiopian unity, narrow ethno-nationalist party that has served to “ethnicize” the country’s body politic. Conversely, Eritrean forces, mainly the PFDJ have viewed the TPLF as an irredentist nationalist movement, intended on establishing a “Greater Tigray” by annexing parts of Eritrea, including vital Red Sea ports.

Juxtaposed against these perspectives, nationalist forces have painted the TPLF as a hegemonic force that has ruthlessly suppressed the constitutionally enshrined right to self-determination of Ethiopia’s diverse nationalities. Yet, paradoxically, a considerable number of Tigrayans have fervently supported the TPLF without fully comprehending the party’s true ideological foundations and strategic objectives.

Amidst this maelstrom of competing narratives and caricatures, the genuine nature of the TPLF remains elusive and obscured. The party’s actual character, motivations, and role in Tigray, Ethiopia, and beyond appears to be far from the reductive characterizations offered by both its domestic and international allies and adversaries. Unraveling these deep-seated misconceptions is crucial to developing a more nuanced, contextual understanding of this enigmatic political force and its enduring impact.

The Ethiopian Student Movement and the formation of the TPLF

The tumultuous student movements that erupted in Addis Ababa university campuses in the 1950s and reached their zenith in the mid-1960s proved to be a transformative force, reshaping the political landscape of Tigray, Ethiopia and Eritrea. As these student-led uprisings initially raised demands for change, they gradually evolved into an ideologically oriented force, coalescing around a thorough-going call for systemic transformation.

However, as Historian Gebru Tareke (2009) observes in his seminal work “The Ethiopian Revolution”, the student movement that gave birth to Ethiopia’s left-wing forces soon diverged into two mutually hostile factions. This schism was driven by sharp differences in their prioritization of class versus national cleavages. Despite this divide, there was a broad consensus among the students regarding the prevalence of both national and class oppression within the Ethiopian empire.

The proponents of the primacy of class struggle led to the formation of two competing multi-national parties – MEISON and EPRP. In contrast, those who believed that national oppression was the more evident and pressing contradiction, argued that resolving this issue should take precedence over addressing other contradictions. This line of thinking ultimately culminated in the emergence of various nationalist parties.

In this regard, as Gebru Tareke astutely observed, the Tigrayans proved to be particularly adept “ethnic entrepreneurs” within the Ethiopian context, giving rise to two rival nationalist movements – the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). These parallel, yet contrasting, political formations would go on to play pivotal roles in shaping the future trajectory of Tigray and the broader Ethiopian empire.

Tigrayan students were a minority within the larger Ethiopian student movement, but they played an outsized role in shaping the political discourse. This speaks to the intellectual caliber and organizational savvy of Tigrayan student activists. They were able to leverage their position within the university setting to amplify Tigrayan concerns and inject them into the broader debates.

As Gebru Tareke plainly stated, during this period, two contending views on the “Tigrayan question” emerged among Tigrayan student-activists. On one side, the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF) advanced the position of Tigrayan independence. On the other hand, a group of Tigrayans within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) believed that the problems facing Tigray were no different from those of other Ethiopians, and should be resolved through the right to self-determination within a united Ethiopia. The TPLF however, wavered between the contending perspectives for a while; endorsed EPRP’s stance; the question of oppressed nationalities including the Tigrayans will be addressed through self-determination.

From the get-go, the TPLF did not have the Tigrayan national question as its primary agenda. Instead, the TPLF’s choice to organize around Tigrayan nationalism was a tactical maneuver aimed at capitalizing on the growing national sentiment of Tigrayans following the death of Emperor Yohannes, rather than an inherent core part of their original goals. In fact, as Historian John Young (1997) has concluded, the TPLF aligned itself with the EPRP’s position, endorsing the view that the Tigrayan question should be resolved through the right to self-determination within Ethiopia. John Young (2021) prudently stated that;

“Ultimately the difference between the EPRP and the TPLF was not a strategic question since the TPLF affirmed that the class contradiction superseded all other contradictions. Rather it was a question of whether the national issue was primary for purposes of mobilization, as affirmed by the TPLF, or class, as held by the EPRP.”

Historians John Young and Gebru Tareke have argued that at a fundamental level, the strategic goals of the TPLF were not different from those of the EPRP. The key distinction between the two parties, they assert, was primarily a matter of tactics rather than underlying goals.

TPLF and its antagonism towards Tigrayan nationalists

The TPLF has aggressively suppressed nationalist movements and nationalist voices both within Tigray and even within its own party ranks. This heavy-handed crackdown was driven by the TPLF’s determination to monopolize and control the Tigrayan movement and to disguise the Tigrayan nationalist struggle on the generic principle of self-determination.

One prominent victim of the TPLF’s anti-nationalist actions was the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF) – a political and military force that had taken up arms with the goal of realizing a Tigray Tigrigni state. This would have incorporated not only the Tigray proper, but also the broader Tigrigna-speaking populations inhabiting the Eritrean highlands across the Mereb River.

The TLF’s position was that Tigrayan nationalism should not be confined within the colonial boundaries, but rather should encompass all Tigrinya-speakers. This stance, which the TLF saw as historically and ideologically justified, put it at odds with the TPLF’s more circumscribed vision of realizing Tigrayan self-determination within Ethiopia.

However, the TPLF’s crackdown on the TLF and nationalist elements within its ranks ultimately enabled the TPLF to monopolize and control the narrative of Tigrayan self-determination, shaping it to align with the party’s own strategic and political interests. In fact, one of the founders of the TPLF Aregawi (2008) states that the pursuit of independence was one of the three main differences between the TPLF and the TLF. The TPLF’s opposition to the TLF’s independence struggle is further corroborated by John Young; the TPLF describes the TLF as a “die-hard, narrow nationalist organization“.

Tragically, the historical record indicates that the TPLF took drastic measures against the TLF’s leadership. Gebru Tareke explains that the TLF “vanished from the scene following the brutal murder of its top leadership by the TPLF.” This violent crackdown on the TLF’s and its nationalist agenda appears to have been a defining moment in the demise of the party.The party that came to the field of armed struggle before the TPLF, armed with a nationalist agenda, was destroyed in the manner described above. Even in TPLF documents, it is stated that this party and its nationalist demands were deliberately destroyed.

“Narrow-minded Tigrayan nationalists, who were threatened by the TPLF’s more internationalist orientation, were organizing under the TLF and propagating reactionary nationalism. Realizing this danger, the TPLF quickly decided to destroy the TLF in a well- planned operation.” 

Therefore, the TPLF worked both politically and militarily to eliminate the TLF as a party, labeling it as a “narrow nationalist organization”.

Many cite the TPLF’s 1968 manifesto as evidence that it had the goal of making Tigray an independent state. This manifesto declared the independence of Tigray based on the historical territory of the Tigray. However, this manifesto was soon collected and destroyed, and the idea of Tigray independence was strongly condemned. As Young describes, “the 1968 manifesto was quickly disowned and has been a source of embarrassment for the TPLF ever since.”

The TPLF leadership destroyed the manifesto shortly after it was disclosed; The agenda of independence bitterly condemned thenceforth.

The Formation of the MLLT and its Subsequent Disavowal of Tigrayan Nationalism

TPLF underwent a significant ideological transformation over the course of its history, and this shift was marked by the establishment of a vanguard party called the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) a decade after the TPLF’s founding. Initially, the TPLF had used the nationalist agenda, drawing on the sentiments of the people of Tigray to build its power base and mobilize support for the liberation struggle. However, the creation of the MLLT in the mid-1985 represented a dramatic departure from its nationalist rhetoric.

The MLLT, with its unwavering commitment to Marxist-Leninist principles, effectively eradicated the tactical use of Tigrayan nationalism that had previously been a hallmark of the TPLF’s approach. This ideological transformation was not merely a rhetorical shift, but a concerted effort to reframe the Tigrayan struggle within a broader, class-based framework. The MLLT’s dominance over the TPLF’s strategic direction meant that the national liberation aspirations of the people of Tigray were now subordinated to the party’s overarching Marxist- Leninist ideology.

Ironically, this ideological pivot occurred at a time when Marxism-Leninism was rapidly losing relevance and influence on the global stage. As the world moved away from this political philosophy, the TPLF found itself increasingly out of step with the prevailing trends, yet stubbornly committed to its newly-adopted ideological framework. Regarding the ideological shift of the TPLF and the nature of MLLT, John Young (1997) states:

One notable exception is the absence in the MLLT’s stated objectives of any reference to support for Tigrayan nationalism. Indeed, it would appear that apart from strengthening the TPLF’s Marxist character, a principal objective of the League was the formation of a unitary multinational Marxist-Leninist party of Ethiopia

In addition, Gebru Tareke states that the TPLF’s ultra-Marxist-Leninist vanguard party was hostile to all branches of leftist ideologies and chose to embrace the then pariah Albania. He describes the forces and ideologies that MLLT has declared enemies as follows:

“Anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, and anti-Zionist, the party was committed not only “to spreading Marxism-Leninism throughout the world” but to opposing “all branches of revisionism (Khrushchevism, Titoism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and Euro-Communism.”

The establishment of the MLLT, which took place in the outposts of Werri in July 1985, was witnessed by an invited journalist from socialist East Germany. This foreign observer, summoned to witness the birth of the new leftist organization, was greeted by a landscape adorned with large banners bearing the iconic images and slogans of socialist icons – Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The journalist was surprised to encounter such a strong ideological symbolism in a remote and isolated setting. He said “What Marx, Engels and Lenin have to do in this outpost?”; suggests he found Marxist-Leninism incongruous with the backward, agrarian and peripheral Tigray. This visual spectacle underscored the TPLF’s unequivocal commitment to the Marxist- Leninist ideology, a commitment that would come to dominate the party’s political and strategic direction in the years to follow. The TPLF’s abandonment of its previous nationalist approach, mainly tactical however, in favor of Marxist-Leninism represented a significant turning point in the party’s evolution. This ideological shift marked the beginning of a new era, one in which the Tigrayan national liberation struggle would be subsumed under the broader, class-based framework of Marxism-Leninism.

Conclusion

There is a pervasive misconception that the TPLF is the national force representing the interests of the people of Tigray . However, this view reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the party’s true nature and objectives. This bias has also contributed to a distorted portrayal of the party’s role in Tigray’s political landscape. In reality, the TPLF’s ideology was directly influenced by the Bolshevik Party in Russia, as the Historian John Young (2021) has astutely observed. Young’s analysis draws an illuminating parallel between the Bolsheviks and the TPLF, describing both as “nationalist in form, socialist in content.” This characterization reveals the TPLF’s seemingly complex and confusing ideological underpinnings. While the party may have tactically embraced Tigrayan nationalism, its core tenets were firmly rooted in Marxist-Leninist principles.

The TPLF has long been viewed as a political force representing the interests of the people of Tigray. However, a closer examination of the party’s history and policies reveals otherwise. During the armed struggle, the TPLF failed to establish strategic alliances with nationalist forces and political parties. Instead, it found itself pursuing a strategic alliance with the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), a splinter of the EPRP, that ostensibly sought to maintain the basic characteristics of the Ethiopian Empire.

This ideological myopia has had profound consequences for Tigray. Despite nearly three decades of TPLF rule as part of the EPRDF, Tigray’s structural problems have remained unresolved. The TPLF’s lack of a clear plan to address Tigray’s challenges has left Tigray lagging behind the country’s average in terms of poverty reduction. Tigray continues to have the highest poverty rate in Ethiopia, a testament to the TPLF’s failure to promote the nation’s economic and social development. World Bank (2016) data reflects this failure – while Ethiopia’s overall poverty rate has declined to below 24%, Tigray continues to lag behind, with the highest poverty rate in the country at 27%. This stark contrast underscores the TPLF’s inability or unwillingness to prioritize the well-being of the people of Tigray over its own political interests.

The TPLF’s policies have also had a detrimental impact on Tigray’s territorial integrity, a foundational aspect of Tigray’s national identity and sovereignty. Under the TPLF’s rule, the geographic size of Tigray has been systematically reduced from 65,900 square kilometers in the 1960s to around 54,000 square kilometers today. This substantial territorial compromise has effectively undermined Tigray’s national existence, calling into question the TPLF’s claims of being a true Tigrayan nationalist force. This territorial diminution has been carried out through a process of “constitutional” means, further highlighting the TPLF’s willingness to subvert the interests of Tigray for the sake of its own political survival and dominance within the Ethiopian power corridor.

Interestingly, the TPLF has not sought the outright destruction of Ethiopia, as is often assumed. Instead, the party has consistently upheld the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state, even at the expense of the free will and self-determination of Tigray and other nationalities. On the other hand, the party’s stubborn stance is bluntly evident in its persistent position on the Eritrean issue, which continues to unequivocally support the sovereignty of Eritrea, even at the expense of Tigray.

In essence, the TPLF’s core strategy has been to dominate the power politics of Ethiopia, prioritizing its own survival and remaining in power in Tigray above all else. This pursuit of power has come at the expense of Tigray’s core interests, leaving Tigray impoverished, downsized, and with its very survival at stake. As Alemseged (1998) prudently captures, “TPLF leadership led a costly nationalist struggle without being nationalists”. After half a century as the anchor of Tigray politics and more than three decades in power, the TPLF has ultimately worsened the socioeconomic, political, and security challenges facing the people of Tigray .

Editor’s Note: Kinfe Hadush is an academic and activist based in Tigray.  He can be reached at [email protected]

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