By: Neamin Zeleke

There is a need to inform the world about the true nature of the conflict in Tigray region of Ethiopia. The conflict is between the Federal government and a regional party that just turned a rebel organization, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). TPLF was once a dominant party in the EPRDF ruling coalition that ruled Ethiopia for 27 years until 2018.  In addition to controlling the political sphere, TPLF members also controlled the Ethiopian defense forces and key other security frameworks.

The international community has failed to grasp the true causes and the nature of the conflict and mistakenly interpret it as if it is now the “usual African civil war” between a strong man of the central government and a minority region that is seeking greater autonomy. Sadly, such a narrative had already been rampant due to the deliberate and highly coordinated work by TPLF propogandists.


Enter pre-2018 Ethiopia. Ethiopia was ruled by a coalition called Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). During this rule, TPLF was not only dominant but nothing in the political and economic life of Ethiopia happened without the initiative or blessing of the TPLF. During this time, the Ethiopian political space was completely closed and characterized by mass-incarceration of political opponents, gross human rights violations, corruption, and communist-like elections where the EPRDF always wins to the tune of 100% parliamentary seats.

One of the mechanisms used to stay in power by the TPLF-led regime was promoting a politics of sowing mistrust amongst different ethnic groups.

In such a rule, the sham “ethnic federal system” began to falter and crack. A coalition of the Amhara, the Oromo, and other communities rose against TPLF’s domination ushering the emergence of the 2018 reform movement. The 2018 reform enabled opposition groups outside the country to return to Ethiopia while tens of thousands of political prisoners jailed by the regime were released.  Independent media began to operate freely. The no-war no-peace stalemate that existed for over 20 years between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended.

Furthermore, notable critics of the government who were imprisoned or castigated by the former regime were invited back to public service and appointed at the helm of the election board, human rights council, and the Federal courts as part of wider cases of institutional reforms. National election was also scheduled to be held in May 2020 before it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemics.

The reform also included measures to professionalize government security forces and the defense department with a well-planned and consulted security sector reform. The army was reorganized as an institution that will protect and safeguard the constitution and uphold the rule of law as opposed to serving the interests of just those incumbents in the ruling party. The army was allowed to bury its old guiding doctrine of “revolutionary democracy,” which intimately linked it to the ruling coalition.  As part of easing the ethnic tensions raging rampant in Ethiopian politics, Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed also started transforming the EPRDF coalition. 

To achieve this, the Prime Minister proposed and got a buy-in from the three out of four constituents of the EPRDF coalition to form a single national party. This party would have regional branches not only in the three remaining EPRDF coalition constituents, but also in the additional five more regions of the country, hitherto related to a junior and marginalized position under the pretext of lacking “socio-economic development”. The nine regions of the country now have a good foundation to move into truly federated regions unlike the old TPLF-dominated federal system. Moreover, such a move in establishing a truly national party also hopefully creates the opportunity to separate government bureaucracy from that of the party bureaucracy.

Conflict in context:

The Ethiopian army is advancing in Tigray province | News1 English
ENDF (image source: News1)

To understand the current challenge, it is critical to know that the TPLF and its “allies” were vehemently against these reform measures from the beginning. Reform meant loss of complete power over all aspect of political and economic life as well as influence over military and security sectors. No longer are TPLF leaders and their allies able to live above the law. Thus, TPLF leaders as well as those how benefited from the old corrupt and repressive system began to openly obstruct the reform process. They recruited ethnic extremists who became their allies and committed ethnic-based atrocities in various parts of the country.

An attempt to assassinate the prime minister failed after a grenade thrown at him during a public rally missed its target in June of 2018, few months after he came to power.

The new government pushed on with reform despite the many hurdles it faced. It managed to bring corruption and widespread human rights violation related charges against some former officials. But many suspects simply began to flee to the Tigray region which was being administered by the TPLF. When former head of internal security was charged with human rights violations for the many atrocities he committed, he simply fled to the capital of Tigrai region and resumed regular life outside the reach of the federal police. The TPLF leaders defied a Federal warrant for his arrest, the entry point for TPLFs serial violations of the rule of law and constitution.

In the past two years, the TPLF and its ethnic allies exploited the ethnic tensions that were engineered in the previous 20+ years of divide-and-rule system. Millions of Amharas, Oromos, Somalis, Gedeos, the Konso, Wolaytas, Afars and other ethnic groups were displaced from their places of residence because of ethnic agitations. That still continues today. In addition, ethnic-based violence against minorities has been common as armed mobs and rogue groups continued to be financed by TPLF.

In recent months, a flurry of ethnic violence amounting to ethnic cleansing was perpetrated against Amharas in Oromia, Southern and Benishangul regions. Thousands of innocent lives and properties estimated to be in billions of Ethiopian Birr have been destroyed. The political objective of all these criminal activities was to incite inter-ethnic conflict and to make the country ungovernable. The propensity to use ethnic-based violence as part of their means of struggle was evident in the genocidal killings committed against ethnic Amharas and with the most recent one – in Mai-Kardra – corroborated  by the likes of Amnesty International.

TPLF and its allies used the postponement of the May 2020 national election due to the COVID-19 to campaign against the legitimacy of the federal government. Instead of going to court and seeking legal redress for what they alleged was a “constitutional violation,” they unilaterally declared the federal government illegitimate. TPLF then conducted an “election” in May 2020 in Tigray in defiance of the federal government’s warning and the constitutionally mandated national election board’s advice. As usual, the TPLF declared it won 100% of the seats and formed a regional government that began to operate as an independent state. After September 2020, not only did TPLF and its allies declared that they do not recognize the federal government as legitimate, but they also insisted that the new election they held granted them the legal justification to ignore any federal order

It is important to note here that the reform process did not prevent TPLF and its allies to openly participate in the political process. TPLF and some of its allies were still legally registered political parties who could have contested the ideas of the reform in the national election. The problem is not that they have different ideas and that they oppose the reform agenda, but that they have chosen to impose their will outside of the legal and peaceful political process.It is important to note here that the reform process did not prevent TPLF and its allies to openly participate in the political process. TPLF and some of its allies were still legally registered political parties who could have contested the ideas of the reform in the national election. The problem is not that they have different ideas and that they oppose the reform agenda, but that they have chosen to impose their will outside of the legal and peaceful political process.

Here come immediate triggers of the conflict:

While Abiy was counseling patience amidst public pressure to take legal measures against TPLF’s repeated lawlessness and intransigence, TPLF leaders were preparing for war. While Tigray was only one of the 9 regional states, it trained and armed more than 250,000 militia and soldiers. It also organized a military parade that was recorded and widely disseminated for public consumption. Thousands of young men and women in military battle fatigue carrying machine guns and grenade launchers were paraded through the streets Mekele, the capital of Tigray region. The federal government, again, counseled patience.

One of the largest Ethiopian National Defense Force’s army commands, the Northern Corps, was stationed in Tigray.  The TPLF had interfered in the normal operation of the Northern Command of the Ethiopian Army that was stationed in Tigray by sometimes preventing the army’s scheduled and unscheduled movements. But the interference turned into a flagrant belligerence when in October 2020, the TPLF intercepted the newly appointed vice commander of the corps at Mekele airport and denied him the passage to join his army. Even then, the federal government remained patient.

The final straw that broke the proverbial Camel’s back was the pre-planned and orchestrated attack against unsuspecting federal troops stationed in and around Mekele, and many other military bases particularly in Dansha area. In the evening of November 3, 2020, TPLF Special Forces in partnership with some ethnic Tigrean officers of the Ethiopian Northern Command surrounded and attacked the Northern Command with an objective of dismantling it and confiscating its heavy and mechanized weaponry. On such a night, the unsuspecting and mostly unarmed soldiers and officers were savagely murdered, many of them while asleep.

Finally, the Federal Government was forced to act. It sent immediate reinforcement to the area and began an operation designed to bring to justice the leaders of TPLF who are responsible for the death of untold number of federal soldiers. The true extent of the crime committed against members of the Northern Corps is not yet known. But many who managed to escape the carnage have reported harrowing accounts.

The TPLF has not denied that it carried out unprovoked attacks against the federal garrisons in Tigrai. Its official explaining the heinous act likened it to the surprise attack carried out by Israel against Egypt in 1967.

Such are clearly the triggers that forced the military engagement of the federal government to restore rule of law, peace, and stability in Tigray.  No nation worthy of the name will tolerate such a wanton act of violence against its sovereign defense forces.

Moving forward:

The conflict now entering its third week has reached a point where the TPLF leaders are encircled in the city of Mekele from all directions. They are counting on using the Tigrayan people as human shield and the international community’s natural propensity to demand for a negotiated settlement as a savior from the predicament of their own making. In such a negotiated settlement they hope to wash their past and recent crimes as well as restart their struggle to stop the process of reform that will deny them of their dominance in Ethiopian politics.

The government of Prime Minister of Abiy Ahmed seem determined to bring the TPLF leaders to justice and return Tigray back to normalcy. National election is also scheduled for May 2021 and so much preparation and national pre-election planning is still needed.

The International community should not use its good offices to pressure the PM to do what other sovereign countries should not and would not do. Instead, the International community must act on the following:

  • Pressure the TPLF leaders to give themselves up and face justice and prevent the unnecessary human suffering that will result from the actions of a few
  • Ask for a fair judicial/transitional justice process if the TPLF leaders give themselves up to face justice
  • As there are reports of war crimes already, the international community should do everything it can to prevent such crimes and prevent and minimize civilian causalities
  • Encourage and monitor carefully that Ethiopia stays the reform and democratization course including an open and fair election that is scheduled for May 2021.
  • Investigate the veracity of several ethnic cleansing crimes already committed in the past two years by political groups that are crying foul now as they are being brought to justice by the security forces of Ethiopia. Such a process would prevent the international community from giving political cover to those who agitated and led these crimes.

Neamin Zeleke is a longtime advocate of democracy and a former leading member of a major Ethiopian opposition group. He lives in VA, USA.