In early 2018, amidst incessant protests especially in Ethiopia’s Oromo and Amhara regions, Abiy Ahmed Ali became the new prime minister of Ethiopia. His ascent to power initiated an unprecedented series of reforms intending to democratize the country’s political system and liberalize its economy by embracing the capitalist mode of production. While the arduous reform agenda has gradually progressed, the sidelined former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had monopolized power for almost two decades, has remained the biggest obstacle to the new leadership’s vision to transform the Ethiopian political and economic reality.
On November 4 of the past year, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) launched a law- enforcement operation to subdue the defiant TPLF-led regional government in the country’s Tigray region. Stating that the TPLF had engaged in “a series of provocations” and aspired to “make the country ungovernable”, the prime minister explained that the objective of the operation was to restore constitutional order by removing the TPLF from power in Tigray and by bringing its senior leaders who had committed unlawful and outright criminal acts to justice.
The operation was led by the ENDF, which some observers had claimed to be too weak to defeat the TPLF on its own turf. However, the federal military was joined by the Eritrean troops and militias from the neighboring Amhara region where political and territorial disputes had for long generated animosity towards the TPLF. Counting on this support from the prime minister’s allies, the ENDF overtook the TPLF defenses, claimed the regional capital Mekelle, and installed a new regional government loyal to the country’s federal administration. Meanwhile, the much-weakened but still potent TPLF withdrew to the mountainous, hard-to-reach areas of Tigray to wage guerrilla resistance.
The military campaign and the TPLF’s bitter defense devastated the Tigray region which already suffered from chronic food shortages and hardships related to hosting almost 100,000 Eritrean refugees. In the course of the operation, there were allegations of violence and massacres committed against civilians, including the displaced, which according to news reports were attributed largely to the TPLF and Eritrean military. However, due to the federal government’s almost complete isolation of Tigray, and the conflict resulting in a communication war between federal government supporters and those backing the TPLF, including longtime scholars and observers, news agencies experienced difficulties in reporting reliable information. The government has also pursued TPLF leaders, associates, and sympathizers in federal institutions, the security apparatus, and international organizations. Although the federal authorities have targeted unlawful and anti-state activity related to the TPLF, this led the leaders of the group to erroneously declare that the government was ethnically motivated to persecute Tigrayans. By January, over 55,000 registered refugees had reached Sudan, the main destination out of otherwise isolated Tigray, while over 60,000 were internally displaced.
The military operation removed the TPLF from being a national-level threat to the federal administration and reduced it to being just one, albeit a prominent, player in Tigray. The government-backed political elements are now endorsed in the region, and they will be able to count on federal as well as tangible, in situ, Eritrean and Amhara support. As a reward for their involvement, Eritrean troops have now apparently been allowed to occupy the areas in Tigray allocated to Eritrea in the 2002 Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission decision and Amhara militias have taken over lands that were deemed stolen during the TPLF rule.
In the long run, a sustained political and territorial control by the intervening forces makes the TPLF’s resurgence very difficult despite its ethno-nationalist appeal in the region. The longer the TPLF remains an isolated guerrilla force the more it needs to focus on mere survival. Although the TPLF currently still has the power to destabilize Tigray, the group’s enduring domestic and international isolation in the long term is likely to result in its drastic weakening. Meanwhile, its defeat sends a message to other important ethno-nationalist forces, such as the Oromo Liberation Front, and those that have destabilized the troubled Benishangul-Gumuz region.
Moreover, the TPLF’s significant weakening is likely to open further ground for the federal government to implement its political and economic reform agenda. The leadership envisages a long-term shift from divisive ethno-nationalist politics to national unity through institutional changes such as the establishment of the Prosperity Party as a national merger of the three main and five minor legal political parties. By seeking to overcome the deeply engrained ethnic politics buttressed by the former Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the prime minister’s political philosophy of “coming together” (Medemer) envisions a new political reality overcoming division and restoring Ethiopia’s past glory through unprecedented unity. From this perspective, one of its most vocal critics, the TPLF, can be seen to represent old Ethiopia marked by ethno-regionalism in which ethno-nationalist sentiments and attitudes have been a paramount force in organizing politics. The TPLF’s removal from national politics can be seen to help undermine ethno-nationalist divisions even if the federal government is obligated to reward its ethnically organized allies. Advancing unity and ethnic harmony is a stated priority for the federal government, and weakening the TPLF has resulted in revived popularity and belief in a common national project which will be put to the test in the initially postponed general election in June.
However, a true coming together requires economic well-being, which transcends ethnic boundaries. Here, the developmental state model adopted and vehemently upheld by the former TPLF regime appears to have been relatively successful in producing sustained economic growth and maintaining a low level of inequality. Yet, it has not been a dynamic model generating jobs and general prosperity, leaving a large part of the population economically stagnated. The new administration’s strategy has been to open up the economy and shift control away from military conglomerates and public enterprises which have been in the hands of TPLF leaders. Prime Minister Aiby has expressed the importance of moving increasingly towards the capitalist mode of production, but this has been in part hindered by the TPLF’s remaining economic power. Removing the TPLF from a prominent role in national politics and the economy, and ensuring that it will not regain power in the process of economic liberalization, appears to have been crucial in the Abiy administration’s calculations. The gradual opening of the economy has been taking place and further progress in this regard is likely.
Regionally, the operation in Tigray has revitalized the somewhat stagnated progress of rapprochement with Eritrea which had been slowed down in part by the TPLF’s prominence in northern Ethiopia. A deepening alliance with Eritrea is likely to open prospects for wider regional reconciliation in which Ethiopia can play an important role. It has already been involved in mediation and peacemaking in Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan, as well as seeking to mend fences between Djibouti and Eritrea, and Kenya and Somalia. Keeping internal dissent and conflicts at bay by continuing to employ a mix of coercive and co-optive strategy is likely to minimize opportunities for destabilizing the federal government by regional rivals such as Egypt. In the end, an internally strong federal government in Ethiopia, which commands wide legitimacy and authority, will be able to play an even more dominant regional role in advancing peace and international cooperation in the chronically fragile Horn of Africa.