by Jérome Lagersie

Across Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, while Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) troops slept on the night of November 3rd, 2020, communications were secretly cut. Few would have imagined that their security would be at question within their own borders. These troops, known as the Northern Command, were stationed in Tigray as a legacy to one of Africa’s bloodiest wars in recent memory. From 1998 to 2000, Ethiopia, and its northern neighbor Eritrea, fought a “hot” war which subsequently turned into a “cold” war between 2000 and 2018.

The following day, ENDF troops were roused to calls for surrender by their former colleagues from Tigray, who had kept strict loyalty to their local political leadership. Ethiopia is configured as a federation of regional authorities, each region hewing closely to ethnic lines. The leadership of the Tigray region, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led the Ethiopian National (federal) government from 1994-2018 as leaders of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). During this period the TPLF disproportionately focused development resources in their home region, committed Ethiopia to an occupation of a swathe of land, including the town of Badme in western Eritrea after an international court ruling in 2002, and subdued opponents as they became increasingly authoritarian. They were ultimately ousted by a new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed who aimed to move Ethiopians towards a national identity versus one focused on ethnicity alone.

ENDF troops were forced to surrender to TPLF militias which seized their bases and equipment or flee. Non-Tigrayan ENDF troops – Ethiopian government official figures put the number to around 6,000 –  that fled were pursued and killed before they could make it to safety while others were able to flee across the border to Eritrea.

Elected Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed noted achieving peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia is a key goal. After Abiy Ahmed’s election, a flurry of diplomatic contacts led to a comprehensive treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia, although it also alienated the former leaders of the Ethiopian government, the TPLF. When the Ethiopian Prime Minister convinced the EPRDF to merge into a single national party – the Prosperity Party – the TPLF refused, eschewing a pan-Ethiopian identity. The following year between the creation of the Prosperity Party and the attack on the ENDF, the TPLF leadership paraded their regional militias and equipment while threatening secession to become an “independent nation”.

Across the border in Eritrea, fleeing ENDF soldiers were sheltered and hospitalized by their former enemies. Since the comprehensive peace agreement in 2018, the Eritrean Defense Forces (EDF) and ENDF had become accustomed to seeing one another without fear of imminent fighting. In spite of the comprehensive peace agreement, the TPLF harbored a historic and fundamental grudge against Eritrea and its leadership. In 1976 when the nascent TPLF allied itself with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF; the EPLF would later become the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice or “PFDJ” after Eritrea’s independence in 1991), it published a manifesto which declared its intent to create an independent country comprising “Greater Tigray” – which included significant portions of neighboring provinces in Ethiopia particularly in the Amhara and Afar regions and also in Eritrea.

The EPLF argued to the TPLF that Tigray had no historical basis (in colonial boundaries) to claim independence and establish borders, according to the Organization of African Unity (the OAU later became the African Union) principles. As a result of the EPLF’s strong opposition to the TPLF’s manifesto of independence from Ethiopia the relationship between the EPLF and TPLF was tense for many years. In spite of this, towards the end of the 1980’s the, EPLF and TPLF continued to cooperate until the Ethiopian military government (known as “the Dergue”) was overthrown and the TPLF and its junior partners formed a government in Ethiopia.

Similarly, in the early 1990s, as Ethiopia was writing a new constitution, the Government of Eritrea counseled the TPLF not to enable ethnic regions to secede as it would harm Ethiopia’s national integrity and unity – these entreaties failed. In spite of Ethiopia’s allowance for secession – Eritrea has desired to engage with a unified Ethiopian polity versus a balkanized Ethiopia. This desire seems consistent with the Prosperity Party’s pan-Ethiopian focus. It seems therefore the EPLF that later established the government of Eritrea was consistent on its stand for a United Ethiopia starting back in 1976 opposing the call for independence of TPLF from Ethiopia and in 1994 when the TPLF dominated government of Ethiopia divided Ethiopia along ethnic lines and allowed the self-determination up to secession of the ethnically divided territories.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the ENDF, the Ethiopian Prime Minister announced “a Law Enforcement” action to bring the perpetrators to justice. As the TPLF came under attack by the ENDF, it launched missiles into Eritrea over a period of two weeks in November 2020, targeting at least the capital and largest city, Asmara. The TPLF seemingly sought to internationalize the conflict with the Ethiopian national government by provoking a reaction from Eritrea.

The TPLF, after war with Eritrea in 1998, consistently characterized itself as a victim of Eritrea – which the TPLF represented as a war mongering pariah.

Eritrea, throughout its Struggle for Independence was largely ignored by the international community and recognized that “self-reliance” (distinct from autarky) was the only way to ensure its success. As such, during the 1998-2018 “hot” and “cold” wars with the TPLF-dominated Ethiopia, Eritrea was able to meet certain development goals (while making significant progress towards others) while subjected to sanctions by leveraging its natural resources, hardworking and highly industrious people. Periodically between 2000-2018, the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian military would launch provocative assaults into Eritrea, without drawing a strong response from the international community. Similarly, in spite of the missile attacks on Eritrea in November 2020, the TPLF did not suffer a strong rebuke from a broad range of international actors – instead Eritrea was asked to show restraint in its response.

Nearly one year from the attacks on the ENDF’s Northern Command, the United States issued its first sanctions resulting from the conflict in Ethiopia. The protagonists, the Ethiopian National government and the TPLF – were not the targets, rather the scapegoat of conflicts in Ethiopia, Eritrea was targeted for sanctions.

The sanctions are aimed at the EDF and important elements to the Eritrean economy. Eritreans have suffered economic isolation due to the efforts of the TPLF and its western government backers in the past, and although these sanctions are broader than previous sanctions, it is clear that efforts to demonize Eritrea are no longer successful. Recent leaks of various meetings of high-level, current and former, diplomats from many leading “Western” powers and the United Nations have revealed clear biases among this leadership class to the will of Ethiopians and Eritreans. Although the TPLF has continued ravaging neighboring Ethiopian regions, as it marches towards Ethiopia’s capital in an attempt to overcome the will of latest Ethiopian election by force of arms, the international community has not issued sanctions (or even issued any redlines).

In the meantime, the dynamics of domestic politics in Ethiopia has gone a sea-change in recent times.  This critical parameter seems lost to TPLF’s key Enbalers and closely-knit “pundits” who seem to have a stake in rolling back the positive developments in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region as a whole. 

The fact is Ethiopian national identity has re-emerged, and the TPLF’s antagonism to the national identity in preference of its narrow ethnic identity has fallen out of favor. Observers of the conflict that maintain that ‘TPLF will defeat the ENDF and establish a government in Addis Ababa’’ are misreading Ethiopia’s vox populi. Indeed, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has mobilized Ethiopia’s population to protect the country against ethnic balkanization and maintain national unity.

The lack of action against the TPLF, the instigator of the conflict, from attacking the ENDF on the night of November 3, 2020 to launching missiles into Eritrea for two weeks in late November 2020, has caused undue suffering. What should be abundantly clear however, is that it is not just the people of Eritrea who are suffering as a result of this conflict and sanctions, but the people of Ethiopia – including the people of Tigray. Strong action by the international community, against the TPLF in general and its leadership in particular, would ease the suffering of all parties.