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Rise and fall of Ethiopia’s TPLF – from rebels to rulers and back

Bloody offensive aims to eliminate Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which dominated for nearly 30 years

In the centre of Mekelle, the highland capital of Tigray, is a complex of memorials and museums. Under the hot sun, old armoured vehicles, jets and helicopters rust quietly. On the city’s wide avenues, statues commemorate the “martyrs” and the victories of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a small band of insurgents who became a guerrilla army, launched a successful rebellion and eventually ruled Africa’s second most populous country for almost 30 years.This week federal Ethiopian forces have closed in on Mekelle in the final stages of a bloody offensive launched earlier this month by Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, with the aim of eliminating the TPLF as a political force.

The TPLF’s rise took 16 years, and its dominance of Ethiopian politics lasted nearly twice as long, but if Abiy’s “law enforcement operation” is successful, its fall will have taken less than 30 months. “It is really shocking. The decline is very dramatic,” said Yohannes Woldemariam, a US-based academic specialising in the Horn of Africa.

The TPLF was formed in 1975 at a time when hundreds of millions of people across Africa and the Middle East were demanding revolutions and liberation. Among those in Ethiopia calling for both were a dozen young men from the mountainous northern region of Tigray. Inspired by Marxist-Leninism, a profound sense of national identity, and the utopian slogans of the time, they imagined a brave new world for their country.

Only a year earlier, Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, had been deposed and murdered by hardline Marxist army officers, who immediately set about imposing a harsh authoritarian rule. In Tigray, there had long been resentment at the power of the centralised Ethiopian state. Many remembered the Tigrayan armed revolt of 1943, which had been brutally put down. This time, the TPLF leaders vowed, they would triumph.

Through the late 1970s the TPLF grew steadily. By 1978 the party had around 2,000 fighters, according to CIA estimates at the time. Two years later it could mobilise twice as many, the agency said.

Among them was Debretsion Gebremichael, who was then a wireless operator and propagandist for the insurgents and is now the group’s leader.

The TPLF’s success owed nothing to chance. Its leaders were ruthless and canny. They fought and destroyed rival rebel groups in Tigray and were careful to downplay their own Marxist views, which would be unpopular with the conservative, devoutly Christian rural populations that made up the TPLF’s initial support base. Instead, they emphasised the threat posed to local traditions and regional autonomy by the socialist policies of the regime in Addis Ababa.

An alliance with like-minded leftist nationalist rebels from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in the neighbouring province brought the organisation critical training and experience, which allowed it to resist the massive firepower of the Soviet-backed government regime.

“Ethiopian large-scale military operations to crush [the insurgency] have failed, with heavy losses of men and equipment,” noted the CIA in a 1983 assessment. “The government has paid a high political and economic price.”

But the suffering in Tigray was immense, with blunt and brutal counter-insurgency campaigns playing a significant role in the appalling famine of 1984. The TV reports that prompted global concern and the Live Aid concerts were filmed in Mekelle.

By the end of the 1980s, the TPLF was by far the biggest and most effective among the coalition of Ethiopian armed rebel groups that had united under the banner of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to fight the ailing Ethiopian regime. On 28 May 1991, TPLF troops backed by Eritrean forces seized control of Addis Ababa, the capital.

The fall of the regime left the TPLF’s leader, 36-year-old Meles Zenawi, in power and the army and intelligence services dominated by Tigrayans, who moved swiftly to consolidate their control in other sectors. Jobs were found for former comrades. Debretsion, the one-time wireless operator and by now a veteran close to Zenawi, was made the deputy head of the national intelligence agency, and later the minister of communications and information technology. Read more.

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