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Ethiopia: Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) going strong at 40

By Demessie Fantaye

The 18th of February this year marked the official anniversary of the founding of the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front)[1]. Beginning from December 2014, a range of events and extensive media coverage has been taking place to mark the Front’s 40th anniversary. Newspaper articles, programs covering events on television and several radio stations and interviews with veterans of the struggle—have all been a feature of the celebrations. The anniversary is not only important to Ethiopia but also has regional significance.

The TPLF has achieved important successes in its 40 years of existence. It overthrew the military junta and has overseen an impressive process of political and socio-economic changes in Ethiopia since 1991. The consistently high rates of economic growth registered in Ethiopia and all the concomitant changes are impressive testimony to what it has done right during its rule.

TPLF has also weathered difficult tests such as the war with Eritrea, domestic opposition to its hold on power and the passing away of its former leader and prime minister, Meles Zenawi.

Evolution of the Front

The TPLF has its roots in the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) of the 1960-70s. In its four decades of existence, the TPLF has evolved substantially. It emerged as an insurgent movement in 1975 during the height of the Cold War and formally adopted a hard line Hoxhaite[2] Marxism as its ideological framework in 1984[3]. Already prior to 1984, the TPLF had emerged as the most important insurgent movement against the military junta in northern Ethiopia by defeating other insurgent movements operating in Tigray/northern Ethiopia. It had also managed to establish collaborative relations with the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front). The relationship with the EPLF, while occasionally going through rocky patches, was by and large maintained until and beyond the downfall of the Derg (the Amharic for the ‘committee’). A few years before the downfall of the junta, the TPLF formed a front, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) with other likeminded organizations.

The TPLF’s policies such as land reform, the provision of basic services and measures to assure the security of rural inhabitants from the depredations of bandits, coupled with the brutal counter insurgency campaign and the shortsighted socio-economic policies pursued by the military junta, allowed the TPLF to win widespread support in Tigray and later other parts of northern Ethiopia[4]. The extreme pragmatism (some would even say opportunism) exhibited by the TPLF should be understood as a key factor in explaining many of its successes during the armed struggle and, after the victory, its continued hold on power. With the capture of power, it incrementally backtracked from its ideological premises and initiated policies and changes (e.g. economic and political liberalization) that contradicted its initial world outlook.

The 2000-2001 split in the TPLF is also an important event in the evolution of the TPLF. The split led to the departure of many of key senior figures in the TPLF and ascendancy of the late former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in the party and state apparatus. More substantively, it marked the further erosion of the TPLF’s albeit diluted ideological legacy. It also heralded a shift from the culture and practice of collective leadership that had characterized the TPLF in the past.

Continuity and change

The TPLF is also in many ways no longer the same organization that overthrew the military junta. While its core leadership and figures are still veterans and leaders dating back to the era of the armed struggle the TPLF, similar to the other components of the EPRDF, has experienced a substantial expansion of membership coupled with a conscious effort to bring up a new generation of leadership[5]. This will have unforeseeable effects in the future. Some observers opine that a newer generation of leadership and a more expanded membership could over the long run translate into greater willingness to experiment with further economic liberalization.

The TPLF no longer occupies the office of prime minister, which is held by another component of the EPRDF. But the continued preeminence of the TPLF in the security apparatus and its hold on some key ministries means that it still remains the core of the power structure in today’s Ethiopia even if its dominance has diminished to some extent.

There are elements of continuity, however, that should not be discounted in understanding the TPLF at its 40th anniversary. Certain principles and modes of behavior seem to be ingrained in the movement. One could point to the ‘State Capitalist’ model of development that the Ethiopian government is following—so far successfully—which could be a vestige of the Marxian legacy of the TPLF. In this regard, one could also mention certain elements of the constitution and the federal system in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia under the TPLF-EPRDF has made impressive strides in the socio-economic sphere. Sustained economic growth involving large scale investment in a context of gradual economic liberalization, coupled with a strong state role in the economy, have created a distinct model of economic development, according to some observers. Ethiopia’s model of development has also been touted as being ‘pro-poor’ due to its emphasis on the education sector and infrastructure development. One of the most striking developments has been the Ethiopian government’s all-out effort to develop Ethiopia’s hydro-electric power generation capacity. Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan 1 envisaged that by 2015 Ethiopia will be generating 10,000 MW of electricity.

The Ethiopian model of federalism has also been regarded as fundamentally transforming the nature of the relations between the centre and the regions in the country and has also been regarded by some as a possible model for handling the issue of diversity in the broader African context.

In the aftermath of the overthrow the Derg in 1991, the TPLF-EPRDF introduced a multiparty system and recognized both in the Transitional Charter and the FDRE (Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) Constitution, basic civil and political rights, which marks a fundamental advance in Ethiopian political history. But some critics, citing the record of the ruling party’s interactions with the private media and the opposition over the past decades, remain doubtful about the prospects for democratization in Ethiopia.

An incident that occurred in the context of the anniversary celebrations brought home to the public the above mentioned aspect of the TPLF. In December in relation to the anniversary celebrations, a large delegation of artists (singers, individuals involved in the film industry etc) travelled to Dedebit and had a meeting with key figures in the EPRDF comprising high ranking officials and veterans.

During the course of the meeting a film producer and director, Aster Bedane, asked a question that shocked the audience and left her interlocutors speechless. She said that the struggle was begun to overthrow a dictatorship and usher in democracy, and asked the assembled dignitaries (rhetorically) whether they would give up political power electorally[6].

Becoming a regional power

Since the end of the military junta, Ethiopia has also undergone a radical shift in its regional role and standing. The socio-economic changes in Ethiopia has meant that in the past 23 years, it has managed to transform itself into a hegemonic state regionally with far reaching influence and impact in the Horn of Africa region. The Ethiopian state has become a linchpin of regional stability and potentially of future regional integration in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia’s expanding hydro-electric power generation has already led to a situation where it is exporting electricity to Kenya, Djibouti and the Sudan. Economic links with the member states of the IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) are also expanding.
Ethiopia’s transformed regional role also derives from the intent of the TPLF-EPRDF to put the country’s relations with its neighbors on a new footing. It is premised on the necessity to depart from the old adversarial and confrontational orientation to inter-state relations with neighbours in the Horn of Africa, which is supposed to have characterized Ethiopia’s conduct of its regional relations under the past two regimes. The stress on ‘economic diplomacy’ and the perspective that underdevelopment constitutes the biggest threat to Ethiopia’s national security has led to an emphasis on the socio-economic realm and not a single-minded focus on the pillars of ‘hard security’.

The approach preferred by the TPLF-EPRDF was tested during the Ethio-Eritrean war. The war was costly and some analysts argue, involved the antagonists also in a proxy war in Somalia which is still ongoing. But, in hindsight, it could be argued that the strategy of the TPLF-EPRDF has been proven right. The Ethiopian government has managed to isolate the Eritrean regime while, at the same time, fostering closer relations with Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan.

Ethiopia under the EPRDF has become and is widely regarded as a foundation for regional security in terms of its contributions to peacekeeping operations in Africa and the Horn of Africa, in particular. Ethiopia has also played a central role in holding off and rolling back the advances of al-Shabab in Somalia. Ethiopia is also currently leading the IGAD mediation effort in the South Sudan conflict.

Overall however, it is undeniable that the TPLF can justifiably point to many successes over the past 40 years. Together with its allies in the EPRDF, it has put the Ethiopian state which many believed was on the point of collapse in 1991, on a new and much stronger footing. Economically and politically, Ethiopia is no longer a synonym for conflict and poverty. If the TPLF-EPRDF can continue to maintain the present momentum and direction of transformation, the positive effects will accrue not only to Ethiopia but also the larger region.

While the opportunities are clear cut, the challenges are also present. The tensions with Eritrea remain and the potential for their escalation constitutes an ever present danger. The successes of the TPLF-EPRDF in further deepening democratization in Ethiopia will over the long run constitute a key test of the historical legacy of the TPLF and the continuity of its achievements so far.

Demessie Fantaye is a researcher, political analyst and a former lecturer at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University. His research interests focus on local conflict resolution mechanisms, party politics and maritime insecurity in the Horn of Africa. He can be reached at


[1] The date, according to some sources, marks the beginning of the armed struggle not the formal launching of the organization, which is held to have occurred some 4 months later. See, for instance, Finote Gedil (2011) by Bisrat Amare.

[2] Named after Enver Hoxha, the leader of Albania and its communist party during much of the Cold War.

[3] The formal adoption of Hoxhaite Marxism by the TPLF is associated with Meles Zenawi ascending to the leadership of the TPLF and emerging as its preeminent intellectual. It was Meles who was the main driving force behind this shift and he became the general secretary of the TPLF and the newly formed MLLT (Marxist Leninist League Tigray) in this period.

[4] Several works have covered the early history of the TPLF. One could refer to the works by Aregawi Berhe, Peasant Revolution in Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991): Revolt, Ideology and Mobilisation, 2009. and John Young, Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, 1975-1991, 1997.

[5] The process is formally referred to as ‘Metekakat’ in Amharic and was initiated under the former PM.

[6] The event drew attention because it was so unusual. In the Ethiopian political context and more specifically in the context of events such as these, such an occurrence is interpreted as a major embarrassment and is equivalent to an ‘emperor is naked’ moment.

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