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Factual Analysis of the Conflict Between TPLF-Ethiopian National Defense Forces

Author : Eyerusalem Belay

On the morning of November 4th, 2020, Ethiopians woke up to the sounds of war horns. According to the Government’s press release, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), a political group that had dominated the political leadership of the country for over two decades, had orchestrated an attack on the National Defense Forces situated in Tigray. After months of escalating tension between the federal government and TPLF forces, the camel’s back finally broke as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.), last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, declared “The final point of the red line has been crossed.” [1]

The strain between the Abiy government and TPLF began as early as June 2018, a couple of months after the PM unexpectedly took office and top TPLF officials withdrew to Mek’ele, the capital city of the Tigray region. The situation grew bitter after the federal government delayed the 2020 election on account of the Covid-19 pandemic, a move which was seen by TPLF as unconstitutionally prolonging Abiy’s rule. On September 9th, TPLF held local elections in defiance of the federal government which resulted in the cutting of federal funding for higher levels of government in Tigray. On their part, TPLF labeled Abiy’s government as illegal as of October 6, 2020. The two-year stand-off finally came to a head on the 4th of November, with Abiy’s government being “forced into a military confrontation.” [2]

The Course of the Conflict

In the 21-day military campaign, the federal government declared a state of emergency in the Tigray Region, cut off all communication lines, issued arrest orders on top TPLF officials and army commanders, established a provisional administration in Tigray, and captured Mek’ele, the seat of TPLF. Pro-TPLF media has called the actions of the federal government “fascist” and called PM Abiy “a dictator” adding the war on Tigray amounted to the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans.[3] In this war of words, PM Abiy in turn labeled the TPLF Clique as “Junta”, a term which exploded in pro-government media as well as with common folks. The war had also gone online on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter with #SayNoToWarEthiopia #StopWarOnTigray #TPLFMustGo and #EthiopiaPrevails trending among users. The popular domestic support seems to be pro-Abiy, given TPLF’s cruel history of corruption and human rights abuses. However, TPLF still garners base from ethnic Tigrayans and a few other groups.

The response from the international community, during the course of the conflict, had varied from calls by the UN Secretary-General, European Union and US Secretary of State and AU Chairperson for de-escalation of tensions,[4] to shock by horrific reports of massacres in Mai-Kadra, a town in Tigray, where Amnesty International reports of hundreds being stabbed or hacked to death by TPLF forces[5] and gradual silence from international media after the government announced the end to the conflict and opened access to Tigray. During the course of the events, the government has held a firm stance on what it called “an operation to enforce rule of law”. The Office of the Prime Minister-Ethiopia issued a statement on November 25th, 2020, citing Article 2(7) of the Charter of the United Nations which provides “a fundamental element of the international legal order is the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states”, urging the international community to stand by until Ethiopia submits its request for assistance and further reiterated Ethiopia’s sovereign right to uphold and enforce its laws within its own territory.

Analysis: Post TPLF Ethiopia Politics

With the capture of Mek’ele on the 28th of November, the military operation came to an official end. And in the weeks since the manhunt for former TPLF officials has continued on the ground along with the re-building of Tigray. As things gradually return to normalcy and the dust settles, the question of a power vacuum hangs in the background. TPLF had dominated the political landscape of Ethiopia for the better part of a quarter of a century. Famed for its repression of political dissent and promotion ethnic-based politics, its removal creates a fresh scene for political play in Ethiopia.

The overthrow of the TPLF came as a shock to many as was evident from celebrations that broke out in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia on the evening of November 28th. However, behind those cheers, is uncertainty as to what lays ahead for Ethiopia. TPLF was a common enemy that railed all against a common goal, its overthrow. What now of the Oromo? the country’s largest ethnic group, a group with a deep resentment for being politically and economically oppressed, and the Amhara? the second-largest ethnic group, a group which feels demonized and pinned as an enemy of the Oromo and Tigray by the TPLF narrative. And what now of the political groups that have moved away from ethic-based politics? What now for election 2021?

The events of the past month leading up to the unexpected dismantling of TPLF, have created possibilities for Ethiopia, that would have been unthought of just a year ago. The country is at a historically critical point. While the TPLF is no more, its ethnic- federalist narratives have created a deep bitter divide within the Ethiopian political plane. And with power up for grabs, election 2021 will decide whether ethnic-federalism is here to stay or if the country can close the chapter towards cohesive, all-inclusive politics.


[1] Office of the Prime Minister-Ethiopia. November 2020. 25 11 2020. [2] Office of the Prime Minister-Ethiopia. November 2020. 25 11 2020. [3] Tigray People's Liberation Front/TPLF/. November 2020. 25 11 2020. [4] African Union. 09 November 2020. 25 11 2020. UN. 4 November 2020. 25 11 2020. [5] Amnesty International, 12 November 2020. 25 11 2020.

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