TPLF needs to chart a new path ahead for Tigray

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Despite federal efforts to eliminate it and ongoing internal tensions, TPLF remains the most relevant actor for Tigray’s recovery and future success.

No time has been tougher than the last half-decade for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In line with the sentiment of the wise old donkey named Benjamin in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the party could claim it ‘has witnessed it all’, though it has never been alien to existential threats.

Since at least 2014, the TPLF has had to face and work to resist all sorts of legal, illegal, covert, and overt actions to deprive it of the power it comfortably shared in Addis Ababa and solely controlled in Tigray for over a quarter of a century.

It was forced to witness the crumbling of a developmental path it labored to create in Ethiopia and the predictable result of undoing its many achievements. The TPLF-spearheaded constitutional system in place was neither able to protect rights nor the very party that some believe imposed it, first on its allies and, later, on all Ethiopians.

Since November 2020, the TPLF has had to confront the most atrocious war waged against itself and the people of Tigray. Even in the context of Tigray’s long history of wars, the 2020-2022 war was of a greater scale in terms of the countries and forces involved, the nature and scale of violence and destruction it unleashed on the civilian population, and the level of attention it attracted globally. Many believe the intent was to wipe out Tigray, as this objective was observable from the media campaign and unashamedly communicated to foreign diplomats.

Yet, despite the insurmountable cost paid, the people of Tigray somehow did not vanish entirely, and the same is true of the TPLF. Ironically, all that was achieved in Ethiopia during the era that is thought to have been dominated by the TPLF was mercilessly exploited to destroy Tigray.

The TPLF, thus, had to not only withstand physical assaults along with the people, but it has also been forced to engage in a great deal of soul-searching over its past successes and failures.

Ethiopia’s ‘reform’

During the period before the 2020 war, during the war, and even after, the TPLF, once seen by many Ethiopian and foreign observers as a progressive force, has been presented as a conservative, if not outright reactionary, party.

Since the so-called reformers ascended to power in 2018, the TPLF has been on the receiving end of accusations, blame, hate speech, and even curses for all kinds of real or perceived democratic deficiencies, rights violations, economic inequities and deprivations, and, to put it plainly, for all mistakes committed in Ethiopia since the downfall of the Derg regime in 1991, including from its partners, who should have shared the blame.

Some of the allegations targeting the TPLF, like the narrative that it was favoring or developing Tigray at the expense of the rest of Ethiopia or the perception that it is a communist party, were bogus claims. But, yes, there were democratic deficiencies, excessive centralization of political and economic power in Addis Ababa, and failures in terms of protecting basic rights compared to the constitutional promise, though the record remains far better than before the TPLF came to power or after it left power in Addis.

Alas, reform in the context of Ethiopia these days is, to put it bluntly, akin to moving from bad to worse, and is really about determining who is sitting in the driver’s seat in Arat Kilo. The content beneath the label ‘reform’ has never been directed towards improvements in democracy, respect for rights, peace and justice, and enhancements in livelihoods and services.

Global stakeholders are partly to blame for this. Particularly, the U.S., or more precisely some of its staff at the embassy in Addis Ababa and the State Department, was hastily focusing more on sloganeering than the real contents of the reform they wished to prevail in Ethiopia.

Talks of substantive improvements on the political, economic, and social fronts by capitalizing on what was achieved by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and by learning from its failures were recklessly sidelined in favor of polemics, divisive and toxic narratives, and pushing certain people or ‘teams’ to ascend to power.

TPLF’s survival

Credit goes to the heroic sacrifices of the Tigray people that, despite the numerous mistakes it made, the TPLF is still here and is poised to play a critical role in Ethiopia’s domestic politics and indirectly in the Horn of Africa.

In the vocabulary of most power players in Ethiopia, particularly those with centrist tendencies, attacks seemingly against the TPLF or any organized Tigrayan force are simply other names for attacking Tigray’s vital interests.

An illustrative point is the way they use the term ‘woyane’ (literally, a revolution in Tigrigna) flexibly to attack the TPLF, any organized Tigrayan political or economic body, an individual Tigrayan who is engaged in business, politics, or academia, or even a beggar in the streets of Addis Ababa who happens to speak Tigrigna.

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Attackers are logically inclined to focus on the most potent political force, and, thus, it’s no surprise the TPLF has been a prime target of political attacks especially since 2014 but even since it came to power in 1991. Only later did it become clear that the target was not only the TPLF but also the general public and Tigray’s vital interests. In order to subdue or destroy Tigray, the TPLF and Tigray’s elite in general were seen as the best entry points.

Onslaughts against the TPLF appear never-ending, as they continued after the signing of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) in November 2022.

Parties enter into peace agreements to survive after the agreement is signed. A peaceful struggle can, and should, continue, of course. But letting one of the parties survive and thrive and the other gradually vanish after both parties sign a peace agreement is rather unheard of.

This is exactly what the government in Arat Kilo tried to achieve, by providing shrewd bureaucratic reasons to deny the restoration of the TPLF’s legal personality, its ability to run in elections, and its illegally confiscated properties.

A ‘final’ attempt was witnessed in the form of manipulating the TPLF’s internal processes and meetings. The aim was, if possible, to ensure division and finally bring about impotent politics in Tigray, and, if this is not possible, at least to control the final outcome. Once more, despite the mounting pressures and dissatisfaction in Tigray, the ground was solid enough to ensure that the TPLF would stay around.

Addis Ababa is still sitting on the throats of Tigray’s existential interests. It is brazenly exploiting the most critical provisions of the CoHA, such as the restoration of territories seized by Amhara region during the war, to keep power where it resides now.

Those who seek emergency food assistance, those who are suffering in IDP centers, Tigray’s constitutional autonomy, and the overall well-being of the people seem to barely attract the attention of Ethiopia’s decision-makers. Everything, in their understanding, is a game that is focused both on killing the TPLF and on rendering Tigray politically irrelevant.

Necessary changes

Now that, despite the heinous attacks, Tigray and the TPLF proved resilient, it’s the right time to indicate the kinds of changes and reforms that must be introduced by the TPLF to bring about a better tomorrow in Tigray and its environs.

First, as many experts concur, Ethiopia’s federal and regional constitutions are clearly modern ones—at least on paper.

They devote significant attention to human rights provisions, unequivocally stipulate that democracy is the only ‘political game in town’, proclaim clear separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary, oblige separation of party and government, demand governments at all levels to strive to provide services and improve livelihoods, guarantee peaceful co-existence, autonomy, and self-determination, including the right of secession, as well as the right of association, assembly, demonstration, and multiple individual and group protections.

The practice, again, as many experts agree, has been mixed. The outcome has been degeneration and a journey backwards. Meddling with the constitutional provisions must stop. Isolated violations can occur here or there, like what happens elsewhere in mature democracies, but organized tampering with constitutional provisions and principles cannot be tolerated. Amending laws is one thing, while an organized sidelining of active laws is an entirely different matter.

Second, the developmental approach must be liberalism. Period. No expert in development would argue that development could be achieved without the active support of the state and its government. At the same time, the market cannot be stifled.

Markets, competition, the private sector, and peace are the engines of development. The government should ensure peace, rule of law, and order, create favorable conditions for markets and competition, continuously work to address critical infrastructural and technological bottlenecks of development, and create mutually beneficial connections with foreign actors.

Whatever the private sector can do in a way that is beneficial to society, the government must stay away from it. There is no need for the government or public enterprises to engage in petty merchandise, trade, or retailing while there are a host of vacuums, such as in terms of regulation, that they should concentrate on filling.

Third, as we speak, the Ethiopian economy’s commanding heights are out of Tigray’s reach. The voices of all the regional states should matter and should be attended to by whoever controls power at the federal level.

Yet, in Ethiopia’s contemporary politics, it cannot be argued that any regional state’s voice, including that of Tigray, is consequential in terms of influencing the decisions of the federal government on issues like imports and exports, monetary and fiscal policies, privatization, the exchange rate, areas of investment open to international competition, subsidies, and so on.

The TPLF recognizes that Tigray and Tigrayans benefit from open competition and investment. International stakeholders should deal with power holders in Addis Ababa in this regard.

Fourth, given Tigray’s aristocratic and feudal background, and considering the party’s achievements so far, the TPLF is not to be entirely blamed for failing to ensure meritocracy. But it’s clear that there is a long way to go in this regard.

Above all, development compels Tigray to promote institutional capacity building while ensuring meritocracy is at its heart. Capabilities do have a price tag, and Tigray should be ready to pay the bill, which in the long run will be profitable as it will boost Tigray’s capacity to generate and collect revenues.

Fifth, prioritized and focused attention to sustainably utilize Tigray’s soft and natural resources, including minerals and other natural resources, is a must considering Tigray’s current economic difficulties and future development demands.

Sixth, aside from absolutely prohibiting crimes like hate speech, racism, localism, sexism, fascism, terrorism, and their likes, all interests on the land of Tigray should be allowed to be expressed individually or in an organized way.

This includes such imperative issues as the fate of Tigray—should it remain as part of Ethiopia or hold a referendum on independence—given the atrocious nature of the most recent war and Tigray’s history.

Finally, as a TPLF-ite, whatever good deeds we have accomplished, my observation is that we currently lack the requisite knowledge and skills to bring about the changes we aspire to achieve, and worst of all is that we, at times, fail to genuinely implement what we know.

In short, much like other political forces elsewhere in Ethiopia and within Tigray, we suffer from dishonesty as well. This requires being honest with ourselves about existing flaws within the party, and also striving to acquire new knowledge, skills, and attitudes to face the many challenges and opportunities confronting Tigray and its environs.

Among others, the upcoming TPLF Congress must strive to provide clear answers and solutions to each of these points.

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Main Image: Landscape in Tigray, Ethiopia; Ethiopia Insight

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

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