Understanding the Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia

Alessandro Lattanzio
The Tigray Liberation Front was born in 1975 to fight the Ethiopian DERG government, and when the civil war peaked in the 1980s, the region was hit by drought. The TPLF devoted itself to the theft and sale of food aid sent by the international community, using the proceeds to buy weapons. Tigrinos died in the thousands from hunger and thousands more ended up in refugee camps in Sudan. Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, the TPLF attracted the attention of North American diplomats, such as Herman Cohen, who visited the TPLF base in Tigray with the full support of the US government. Ambassador Cohen did so knowing full well that the TPLF had an ideology linked to enverism. And the ambassador also supported the TPLG in 2020. Ambassador Susan Rice was another ardent supporter of the TPLF.

Since 1991, the FPTF divided the country along ethnic lines, with a new constitution designed to exclude many Ethiopians from the country’s society. The group also refused to recognize Ethiopia as a united country: some ethnic groups were prosecuted as historically oppressive and others were hailed as oppressed. Many were condemned and killed only on the basis of these categories invented by the TPLF. From an economic point of view, the TPLF founded companies to bring funding to Tigray. But in Tigray, the majority of Tigrinya live in poverty, with subsistence farming, few medical facilities, “while the children of the TPLF leaders fly to Dubai on weekends. The EPRDF was dominated by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, from the EPRDF’s Oromo faction, coming to power promising democratic changes, with a peace initiative to resolve the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, accepted by Isaias Afewerki, President of Eritrea. Mohamed Abdullahe Fermaajo, president of Somalia, joined the popular initiative of Abiy and Isais. Fighting in the bush, decades ago, the leaders of the TPLF perfected their negotiating strategy to annihilate the enemies. The TPLF invited opponents or dissidents to “negotiate”, invited them to lunch and then massacred them at night. On November 4, 2020, this is exactly what the TPLF did to the North Command of the Ethiopian army. They invited them to an interview for dinner, and massacred them at night. Hours before the massacre, the head of the TPLF junta, Debretsion Gebremichael, negotiated with Premier Abiy Ahmed about funds for the region. When Prime Minister Abiy sent 1.2 billion beers by plane to Macallé airport, Debretsion had already launched the attack. For the TPLF, negotiations are tricks. In 1984-85, when Tigray suffered a severe famine, the TPLF created a scam organization called “Relief Society of Tigray” (REST) and negotiated with NGOs for the distribution of food. The leaders of the TPLF diverted $95 million in aid to buy weapons. In 2000, the FPTF negotiated the resolution of the Badme dispute through “final and binding” international arbitration. When Badme was assigned to Eritrea, the TPLF reneged on the negotiations. In 2006, the TPLF chief Zenawi negotiated a handshake with North American General John Abizaid to wipe out al-Shabab in Somalia. The handshake brought billions of dollars in US military aid to Ethiopia. But Zenawi had also negotiated with al-Shabab to maintain a minimal military presence in Somalia. In 2008, in the “regional elections”, the TPLF obtained 1903 seats out of 1904, gaining 99.999% of the vote. In May 2010, the TPLF “won” all the seats in “parliament” with 99.6 percent, and in May 2015, the TPLF “won” 100 percent of the seats in “parliament”. This was in a country where there are 79 registered political parties. Since 1991, in fact, no opposition party in Tigray could freely conduct the election campaign. Only with this repression the TPLF obtained 98.5% of the votes in the regional elections and took all but one of the 190 seats in the regional legislature.

On June 8, 2005, the security forces and police controlled by the TPLF murdered 193 protesters and dozens of inmates in Akaki Prison, who had been intentionally and deliberately killed by the police. A further 763 people were injured. In Ethiopia, further massacres took place between November 1 and 16, 2005. In August 2007, TPLF chief Meles Zenawi “pardoned” the 38 opposition politicians “to boost political negotiations in Ethiopia after the crisis over two years and the stalemate”. In October 2007, the FPTF confirmed that the 38 opposition leaders were criminals because they accepted the “forgiveness”, after having publicly forced them to “admit” crimes they had never committed. In 2009, the TPLF engaged in “negotiations” for the release of political prisoners, only after they had “signed a document admitting they tried to overthrow the government in an “unconstitutional” manner. In 2010, the TPLF negotiated the release of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman to head an Ethiopian political party and now head of the Ethiopian Electoral Commission, after “apologizing for denying the 2007 pardon” and “begging the Prime Minister to grant her a second pardon so she could see her mother and son. In October 2016, the TPLF massacred 800 people celebrating the Irrecha Festival in Bishoftu, southeast of the capital Addis Ababa. In 2014, the TPLF massacred hundreds of students in Ambo and other universities. The TPLF created the inter-ethnic division in the country, including it in the constitution as a tool against inter-ethnic alliances that challenged the dictatorship, allowing only ethnically based political organizations to be formed in the country. After three decades of government, the people of Ethiopia had enough that in 2018, the revolt of the young Ethiopians overthrew the TPLF and Abiy, coming to power, decided to make peace with Eritrea by accepting the Paris Peace Agreement and normalized relations with Somalia and Sudan. These efforts, criticized by political analysts and opponents, gave them enormous political support. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the main force that tried to hinder Abiy’s government, always seeking escalation in the conflict. In fact, the TPLF considered peace with Eritrea, their bitter enemy, as an alliance directed against it. So the TPLF locked itself up in Macallé, the capital of Tigray, which was trying to detach itself from the rest of the country, using the right to secession provided for in Article 39, enshrined in its constitution. Acting as de facto independent leaders of the State of Tigray, they opposed Abiy’s government and bypassed it to contact other states and international organizations. When the federal parliament postponed the national elections because of the coronavirus, the TPLF held them in the Tigray region, claiming to have had 98% of the votes. The purpose of the TPLF was to gain legitimacy and secure relations with international entities as a representative of an independent state. But the federal government declared the elections “null and void”. At that point the FPTF began to provoke the federal government and Eritrea, trying to internationalize the internal crisis.
https://i1.wp.com/aurorasito.altervista.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/political-map-of-Ethiopia-720x544.gifEthiopia is a federation of 10 regional states and 2 city administrations. The northern region of Tigray is governed by the TPLF and is home to 6% of the Ethiopian population. However, exploiting the country’s ethnic faults, the TPLF was the dominant political force in the country for 27 years until April 2018, when the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. It was probably what prompted the TPLF to trigger the current conflict. Prime Minister Abiy was beginning to redistribute state resources, providing more opportunities for all Ethiopians, with a seismic shift in the privileges enjoyed so far by the TPLF. Then the TPLF withdrew its support to Abiy’s coalition, entrenched in the Tigray region and rebuilt its military forces in the last two years, gathering militias and special forces estimated at about 250000 troops, which he wanted to exhibit in several military parades to show its strength. In addition, the Abiy administration accused the TPLF of now supporting various armed groups to destabilize the country, while the TPLF called the Abiy administration illegitimate, especially after the national elections scheduled for August 2020 were postponed due to the pandemic. On the night of 3-4 November, Tigray’s regional security forces launched a surprise attack on the northern command of the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF) in Macallé, the capital of Tigray. The TPLF itself stated that this action was a “pre-emptive attack in self-defense”. On November 5, 2020, Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael, president of the TPLF and interim president of the Tigray region, said that the northern command of the Ethiopian Army was forced to surrender and hand over its armaments.

It was the typical tactic that the TPLF used several times against opponents, such as the Tigray Liberation Forces (TLF) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary People’s Party (EPRP) in the late 1970s and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1998; pretend to pursue negotiations and, when the enemy is discovered, attack. However, the EPLF overestimated its military strength and underestimated the Ethiopians’ determination to no longer allow them to take control of power in Addis Ababa. Moreover, the actions of the TPLF against the ENDF united the country around Prime Minister Abiy. Even the party of the political prisoner Eskinder Nega fully supports Abiy’s response to the attacks of the TPLF. Abiy called the attack “treason that will never be forgotten” and launched the military offensive to restore “the rule of law and the authority of the central government” and arrest the traitors. A state of emergency was declared in the region. Electricity, telephone and Internet in Tigray were closed by federal authorities. The regional administration of Tigray swore to retaliate against the infrastructure of Ethiopia and Eritrea. On November 5, the Ethiopian Air Force bombed the Macallé with weapons, radar and anti-aircraft missiles seized by the TPLF, and the counter-offensive was launched on several fronts against the TPLF. On November 10, the Ethiopian National Defense Force liberated Humera and its airport, isolating the TPLF from the world. From the north, Zalambesa and Shiraro were reconquered by ENDF. From the south, the Raya region and the city of Alamata, 60 km south of Macallé, were taken back by the federal forces. Tens of thousands of refugees flocked to Sudan and the retreating TPLF forces committed a massacre at Mai Kadra.

On November 13, the TPLF fired about 20 missiles on Baherdar and Gondar, in the Amhara region, and three missiles on Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, as an act of provocation to drag Eritrea into the Ethiopian conflict. Eritrea did not bite. All their supporters, including the United States, condemned the TPLF provocation. The government of Sudan closed the border with Tigray.

On November 16, Ethiopian forces liberated Alamata, a town near the border with the Amhara regional state. Debretsion Gebremichael, regional president of Tigray, meanwhile accused Eritrea of sending tanks and thousands of troops to support the offensive of the Ethiopian government. At least 20,000 Ethiopians had fled to Sudan, according to the United Nations. The TPLF then bombarded Gondar and elsewhere with rockets and missiles, with the intention of expanding the conflict, so on November 21, government forces liberated two cities in northern Tigray, while the TPLF launched missiles on Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara region. Ethiopian government forces advanced on Macallé, the capital of Tigray, from different directions. To the north, Ethiopian troops took the cities of Axum and Adua, advancing towards Adigrat, 120 km north of Macallé.

On November 17, the Ethiopian federal army liberated Raya in southern Tigray, on the border with Amhara, along with the Chercher, Gugufta and Mehonin districts in eastern Tigray. The Ethiopian government blocked the bank accounts of 34 companies owned by the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) on charges of attempting to destroy the constitutional order and financing terrorist activities. Among the companies are Sur Construction, Gunna Trading, Mesfin Industrial, Selam Bus, Mega Printing, EFFORT, Effort Electrical, Effort Design and Construction, Ezana Mining, MesobeA Building materials, Velocity, Saba Stone and Sheba Tannery, APF Express Transit Service, Meganet Corporation, Desalegn Cathrina, Sheba Tannery, Almeda Garment, Dedebit Microfinance, Addis Pharmaceuticals, Star Pharmaceutical, Tigray Development, Saba Marble, Adwa Floppy, Tiemit Biruh Tesfa Plastic, Desalegn Anbessa and Maichew Particle Board.

On November 20, Ethiopian spokesmen announced that they had taken over Axum, Adua and Adigrat, cities in Tigray. Dr. Debretsion went so far as to say that the fall of these cities was only a tactical maneuver of the TPLF.

On November 22, Ethiopian forces liberated Idaga. The interim government of Tigray announced that it would change the regional and local administrative bodies. The CEO of the interim government, Mulu Nega, together with the spokesman of the State Emergency Command Redwan Hussein, said: “Both the executive bodies and the regional and local legislative bodies will be dismantled and replaced by new ones, according to the criteria set out in the new charter. Mulu stated that the elections held in Tigray on September 9, 2020 were illegal according to federal institutions. Mulu stated that the interim government has four main mandates: organization of regional executive bodies, appointments at regional and local level, ensuring public order in the region, facilitating the conduct of national elections according to law and implementation of the tasks assigned by the federal government. The new charter provides for a change of political conduct in the region. Therefore, the interim government will have to ensure peace and security, conduct rehabilitation work in cooperation with the government and other humanitarian agencies, ensure justice, provide suspended social services. In the interim administration, according to Mulu, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) will not be admitted. Meanwhile, Redwan announced that the government is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Ethiopia for humanitarian assistance to war zones. The government informed that “In areas that are not free, there should be a secure corridor to allow organizations to deliver food and medicine”.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e3/Eritrean%E2%80%93Ethiopian_War_Map_1998.pngPremier Abiy Ahmed ruled out any international intervention, arguing that the conflict “concerns internal law enforcement” to bring criminals to justice. In addition, Eritrea’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), which had been sanctioned by the UN from 1998-2000 when it fought a bitter border war with Ethiopia; a war triggered by the power struggle in the leadership of the TPLF, had always been in conflict with the TPLF. The TPLF supported the Eritrean opposition forces in a proxy war with Eritrea, with the declared aim of overthrowing Isais Afewreki. Eritrea also supported Ethiopian forces that started the armed struggle against the TPLF. As said, when Abiy Ahmed started the peace initiative with President Isaias, the TPLF considered it an unholy alliance of its enemies to marginalize him. The leadership of the TPLF, in an effort to sabotage the Abiy government, divided on tactics and strategies to be followed against Eritrea. The group was led by Generals Gebretsadekan and Abbebe T. Haimanote, veterans of the 1998/2000 war, demanded the invasion of Eritrea, thinking it was weak and isolated. The other tactic, decided by the old guard of the party, preferred to sabotage the peace process. In particular, on the demarcation of the border, a key aspect of the peace agreement. Since the State of Tigray borders Eritrea, Tigray’s rulers demanded that the negotiations with Eritrea be assigned to the TPLF, which at the same time actively supported the Eritrean opposition in an attempt to destabilize the PFDJ. In fact, the Eritrean opposition became very active after the opening of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, and then Eritrea closed it abruptly. In fact, the Asmara Peace Agreement, signed by President Isaias and Prime Minister Abiy, was blocked by the TPLF in its implementation. However, a testimony of the trust developed between the two states was when, after the TPLF attacked the northern command of the Ethiopian forces, the bulk of the Ethiopian soldiers managed to escape the sudden attack, retreating with heavy equipment in Eritrea, rather than surrendering to the TPLF. In Sudan, where the ruling coalition government formed between Islamist officers and secular mass organizations and progressive parties, the TPLF was looking for a way to connect to the outside world, but the Sudanese government closed the border to the TPLF, after the PFDJ managed to convince the Sudanese coalition government to ignore the TPLF’s attempts.

Today the TPLF is demanding to negotiate for the sole purpose of being acquitted of crimes committed since they came to power in 1991. And while the Ethiopian constitution guarantees the right to secession for “nations, nationalities and peoples,” this remains a controversial issue in Ethiopia, as there is no interest on the part of the TPLF leadership to invoke this right, because it knows that the people of Tigray have no such interest. Tigray is where the State of Ethiopia was born, it was the center of the Kingdom of Axum and the seat of the ‘Ark of the Covenant’. As the Ethiopian proverb says, the branches of trees can detach from the trunk, but the trunk cannot unless the tree dies. The TPLF loses on all fronts against the Ethiopian defense forces, while its special forces and militia are on course.
https://www.swissinfo.ch/resource/image/46186022/landscape_ratio16x9/1920/1080/9cc3df010e5d8baad51fd20939d78bd5/eq/image_kbn2860hb.jpgEthiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Premier Abiy Ahmed set three preconditions for the negotiations: 1) Release all hostages, including federal troops and kidnapped citizens and other illegally detained prisoners. 2) Hand over weapons and equipment stolen from the Northern Command. 3) Arrest the junta. In fact, as already mentioned, Sekuture Getachew, leader of the TPLF, publicly admitted that the TPLF conducted a “pre-emptive attack” against the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, “Israel carried out surprise attacks against the enemy forces defeating their troops to defend itself successfully. A similar strategy is being used now,” Getachew said. The TPLF had carried out a “surprise attack” against soldiers of the nation to which it belongs, to take up arms to subvert the state to which it belongs and to form its own separate state, against the Constitution of Ethiopia, which the TPLF itself drafted. In addition, according to eyewitnesses, there were gruesome terrorist attacks on Mai-Kadra, massacring Amhara citizens, and the survivors said that those responsible for the massacre were soldiers of the TPLF.

The Ethiopian socialist government, given the growing tension in relations with neighboring countries, formed the popular militia beyond the regular armed forces. The army was created on the basis of the progressive component of officers and soldiers, and paramilitary formations of workers and farmers, became the main force that defended the independence of the country and put it on the path of social progress. The leadership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, which came to power in 1991, developed a program that identified the main tasks in the reform of the armed forces, based on the formations of the front. Currently, Ethiopia’s armed forces have 80,000 troops and consist of the army, air force and air defense.

The Air Defense in Ethiopia was established by Colonel Mengistu, who created it by detaching it from the Air Force and modernizing it. The Air Defense received radar and missiles from Russia. The first long range system was the Volga, a very powerful missile that weighed 2395kg and reached targets 50km away, then followed the Pechora missile system, with a range of 37km, and the 9K32 Strela-2 short range system. Ethiopia then purchased the Spider missile from Israel and the Pantsir from Russia, first seen on Defence Day. Because of the war with Eritrea, many missiles were deployed in Tigray. The Spider on site near Abay to protect the Nile dam. Some of the Pechora missiles were deployed in Tigray.

The military equipment consists of 350 T-54/55 and T-62 tanks, 200 BRDM, BMP, BTR-60 and BTR-152 armoured tanks; ZIS-3, D-30 and D-44, M-46, M-1, M-1937 and M-1938 mortars, ZU-23, ZSU-23-4, M-1939 and S-60 anti-aircraft artillery. The Ethiopian Air Force includes 2000 troops, and 80 MiG-21, MiG-23, Su-27 and Su-30 fighter planes, and 20 Mi-24 helicopters. In addition, Ethiopia has territorial militias (65000 troops) and the National Security Service (25000).

Translation by Internationalist 360°