Law enforcement operation against the TPLF Junta: Genesis and development
It seems that the time of the clique in Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is over. History manuscripts will present the life of TPLF's leadership as extending from 1975-2020. The writers can also say 'the vicious journey of rebels to rebels after three decades of political dominance.'
True, in 1991, Ethiopians across all corners of the country welcomed TPLF/EPRDF with the hope that the military brutal regime would end and aspiration for better days would start. However, despite the progress in terms of infrastructure, there were unremitting public discontents in the last three decades. The party couldn't read itself and the situation and finally failed into political decay.
It was certain that the journey of TPLF's inner core would be short after the heartbreaking incident on November 4, 2020 which occurred in Mekelle and other spot areas on the Northern Command of Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). This tragic moment can be considered and recorded as the most immoral, inhuman and repulsive illegal act in the modern political history of Ethiopia.
The TPLF inner core and their cliques organized the conspirators within the command and outrageously attacked the members of non-Tigrean ENDF military leaders, soldiers and officers. They crossed the 'red line' and sadly betrayed their own colleagues who have been guarding the nation. Initially, they have tried to deceive the international community as if the member of the Command decided to be on their side.
Lately, one of the rebel members (the senior spokesperson of the TPLF clique) disclosed that the TPLF's decision of to conduct 'a lightening preemptive attack' on the camps of Northern Command and loot its artillery. Therefore, TPLF committed suicide at the moment of attacking the Ethiopian troops in the Northern Command. Following that incident, the issue is only going to be resolved through law enforcement operation. At the end, the life of TPLF as a viable political force in Ethiopia is over.
After the start of the operation, the continuous rocket attacks at Bahir Dar, Gondar and the capital of our neighbor Eritrea marked the brutal nature of this group as a potential security threat in the Horn of Africa. Besides, the Mai-Kadra massacre of more than 600 civilian Amhara and non- Tigreans based on their ethnicity, the forced migration and humanitarian crisis, the atrocious act against the ENDF forces and other horrific acts of the TPLF demonstrated how this group is a perfidious force for the country as well as the regional peace and security.
All these shameless acts couldn't be erased from the modern political history of Ethiopia.
Initially, there were efforts to accommodate TPLF as a force in the ongoing political reform of Ethiopia. Yet, the old guards within the party pushed it into rigidity and showed a defiant behavior. This long-established internal party behavior led TPLF into political decay. They are still in the mindsets of the 1970s and 1980s.
They can't exist without creating the old narration of using ethnic identity as the only organizing instrument and used it as a shield for their own survival. They are always busy with making antagonistic narrations with the aim of continuation of extractive power in the country for economic dominance.
Mainly in a period between 2015-2018, Ethiopians demonstrated their grievances over TPLF's dominance of Ethiopian politics and call for reform largely in democracy and equitable economic development. The leadership change in 2018 following the ascent of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed paved a new era for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa which brought lots of reform agenda including the peace deal with Ethiopia and Eritrea which attracted the international community, the release of political prisoners, opening up of the economy to the private sector, widening up of the democratic space, strengthening the social institutional arrangements including religious cohesion.
These and many other outcomes are considered fruits of the ongoing reform. It has blown the winds of freedom, justice, humanity and Ethiopiansim.
However, due to the change-resistant behavior of TPLF's old guards, the countrywide reform process has been facing incessant challenges. While the country was busy with making the reform more profound and substantial, the TPLF old guards were preparing for waging war against their own country.
Their every step in the last two years directed into creating destabilization throughout the country and building their own offensive capability to fight with the reform led government. The prime coverage of their media was propagating hate speeches, misleading and false information and anti-reform messages to the public with the aim of using the people as a shield. As a result of their media's unremitting propaganda, the TPLF old guards transmitted the unsubstantiated accusation that the region is surrounded by enemies from all directions.
Prior to the operation, the recruitment of a large number of militia and Special Force members was also part of the effort to wage war against the Ethiopian Defense Forces. The orchestrated regional election held in August 2020 was a mechanism to alienate themselves from the federal government as if they are elected by the general public while they still fully controlled regional seat.
The separate regional election was an illegal act of defiance from the federal system. After all these developments, the November 4 attack on the ENDF Command base in Mekele and other spot areas is the straw point that drew the central government into enforcing the law after longtime patience. Consequently, the political life of TPLF changed from regional government to a rebel group.
Since November 7/2020 based on the Federal parliament's decision, Tigray is under Interim regional government. Despite the costs, the law enforcement operation brought a glimpse of hope for the people of Tigray, for all Ethiopians and the Horn of African region. The demise of this defiant group will accordingly erase the political role of TPLF in the Ethiopian political landscape.
Therefore, it is important to ask what possible scenarios will emerge after the end of TPLF. I believed that the annulment of TPLF from the Ethiopian multiparty system and political climate will possibly bring the following six key opportunities.
Future Scenarios after TPLF: Ethiopia and the Horn The first upshot would be the end of well-organized oligarchy in Ethiopia. TPLF since 1991 established an oligarchic state structure. The oligarchy controlled the political, economic and security of Ethiopia for about three decades. As Tefera Negash Gebregziabher (2019) in his article "The Party That Consumes the State: The Rise of Oligarchy in Post-1991 Ethiopia" in the University of Rotterdam well addressed the nature and development of TPLF's led wealth creation and abusive use of the country's resources.
In every aspect of the economic sector including the civil-military relations fell in the hands of few extractive groups for their narrow interests. Also Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson's (2014) profound work, 'Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty' well defined the role of extractive political and economic institutions in the least developed economies such as Ethiopia.
TPLF's oligarchic state structure misused the political dominance to benefit its own few affiliates while the general Tigrean population is continually suffering due to deep poverty and backwardness. Therefore, after the end of this law enforcement operation, the TPLF's led oligarchic structure would be gone for good. The big lesson for the future of Ethiopia is that it is vital to open up the economy fairly and equitability and avoid party dominance and affiliation in the market.
Secondly, the end of TPLF marks the loosening of ethnic-based polarized politics in Ethiopia. Ethiopians have been demanding national unity. They experienced the cost of the decision to divide the people exclusively based on ethnic lines. However, TPLF was the major hindrance for this growing public demand. TPLF's rejection of the invitation to join the nationwide multiethnic Prosperity Party in 2019 is a clear indication of the desire for the continuation of using ethnic differences for political gain.
Throughout its 27 years of dominance, a larger portion of the Ethiopian people was dissatisfied with the TPLF led ethnic-based system of governance. The quest for reform and to strengthening national unity became a major challenge for Ethiopia. Fragmentation among the elite occurred as a result of the ill-fitted ethnic-based federal system. Therefore, now it is the right historic moment to adjust the country's structural problems with meaningful consideration of the public demands.
Learning from its three decades of ethnic- based federal structure, Ethiopia needs to balance the narration of national unity and ethnic identity in a balanced approach. On the one hand, as a multiethnic state, people of various ethnic and religious groups need self-rule and the right to be fairly represented in the federal system, on the other, there is a demand to strengthen the national identity under a unified multinational system to bring strong and prosperous Ethiopia.
The territorial integrity and the country's continuity as democratic and economic potential is the most decisive question in the current politics of Ethiopia. Therefore, the narrative of PM Abiy Ahmed to balance these two demands will create stability and economic development in the future.
Thirdly, this historic turning point will pave the way for genuine democratization in Ethiopia. Democracies are not only about elections. In the last five consecutive elections, (in the post 1991 period), TPLF/EPRDF orchestrated elections and continually controlled the country without strong and well-organized opposition.
The exception was the 2005 election. It goes without saying democracy goes deep into creating a conducive environment to public participation, multiparty system and rule of law. Therefore, the country needs strong institutions and that is the only way to promote change and sustain its continuity.
Besides, in any federal structure, both shared rule and self-rule should coexist together. As a federal state, efforts of defiance like the case of TPLF should not be tolerated. The presence of a regional administration with a potential of launching rockets to other regions and provoking neighboring states, even if it is temporary, was the outcome of the imbalance and unhealthy construction of the federal system in Ethiopia.
Also, building heavy offensive military capacity with the potential of attacking other federal member states with the name of Special Forces should be legally restrained and properly regulated. This is a unique situation that gives important lessons for the country's future federal projects to build a legal and fair constitutional order.
Moreover, the TPLF's erroneous narration of correlating the public with the party structure should not be the case of modern Ethiopia. Political Party and the public could not and should not be one and the same. Some fundamental national groups, besides TPLF, have the same narration of presenting themselves as guardians of the public.
However, such kinds of longtime irresponsible rhetoric of presenting party and the public as an inseparable unit should also be democratically corrected. Above all, the multiparty system and genuine form of federalism is the only way to bring prosperous and unified Ethiopia.
Also, after the end of the law enforcement operation, Ethiopia should extensively focus on institution building based on meritocracy. The previous practice of building institutions based on patrimonial relationship and favoritism based on the lines of ethnic networks which are sources of rampant corruption should not be tolerated. Besides, TPLF's unconstitutional involvement in religious affairs eroded the social fabric of the country and separated religious institutions from important nation-building agendas. Therefore, institutionalization based on merit-based culture without any partisanship should be the government's priority and it would contribute to Ethiopia's future journey.
The fourth opportunity is that it heralds the beginning for national dialogue across the country. In the last three decades, TPLF/ EPRDF was continually rejecting a call for national dialogue in Ethiopia though various scholars, political parties, including the non-state actors were calling to reach consensus on key political and economic agendas in
the country. Due to its unique nature of state formation and journey, Ethiopia's elites have various polarized agendas and the nation-building project has lots of predicaments. Now, it is the right time to democratically discuss and decide on the country's future journey with the sense of creating consensus among major divisionary lines.
Once this transitional period is over, the country will miss the historic transition to decide on its fate. Therefore, the end of TPLF paves the way for creating an open environment to open up the national dialogue.
The fifth and significant opportunity is related with the Ethio- Eritrea peace deal. In 2019, the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea ended the 'no war no peace situation' between the two countries and this remarkable achievement got international recognition as PM Abiy Ahmed won the 2019 Noble Peace Prize. Though there are lots of changes such as the end of hostility between the two countries, beginning of air transportation and communication and normalization process, a lot remains to be done in the implementation phase.
Therefore, after the removal of TPLF, it would create conducive environment to enhance the relations between the two countries. It would result in tremendous benefits including the opening of the land routes, trade exchange, cultural relations through people to people relations and institutionalization of the peace process.
Ethiopia can use the Eritrean ports and mainly the nearby Tigrean and Afar youths could benefit from this trade opportunity so that it would minimize the illegal migration to the Middle East and Europe in search of a better life.
The sixth opportunity is its implication for the Horn of African region. The Horn of Africa is a volatile and geo-strategically contested region in the continent where there are lots of enduring challenges and emerging opportunities.
TPLF leaders unilaterally used the globally recognized war on terror operations and peacekeeping activities based on patronage network and party affiliations. Once the inner core of TPLF is gone, Ethiopia's vision of enhancing regional cooperation and integration would get further chances based on the opportunity of building mutual trust among the member states of the region.
The changing foreign policy of the post 2018 under the leadership of PM Abiy Ahmed gives proper emphasis to creating strong cooperation in the Horn of Africa. Therefore, once Ethiopia deals with its internal challenges, it would properly discharge its leading role in the region as well as in the African continent.
To sum up, the political history of the TPLF inner core is over. Now, it is the right time to think about the post-TPLF Ethiopia after few weeks of law enforcement operation in Mekele and some other pocket areas in Tigray. After the end of this operation, the public demands a peaceful and stable Ethiopia after two years of bloody and unstable situation.
The future is in the hands of all Ethiopians to bring prosperity and to create a positive image among the international community about our country's better futures. Therefore, in the short run, after stabilizing the region and managing the humanitarian crisis, Ethiopians need to focus on strengthening the social fabric of the people through reconciliation and national dialogue.
In the medium to long run, we should focus on development agendas to make Ethiopia prosperous. To achieve this dream, there is a need to create cohesion among the elite and get rid of polarized ethnic politics. This should be the principal focus of Ethiopia's political discourse.
Editor's Note: The writer is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at University of International Business & Economics, Beijing, China.