IThe center of Tekray’s upland capital, Mekelle, is a complex of monuments and museums. During the hot day, old armored vehicles, planes and helicopters quietly rust. Statues on the city’s wide roads commemorate the “martyrs” and the victories of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). This gang of little rebels turned into a guerrilla army, launched a successful uprising and eventually ruled almost the second most populous country in Africa for almost 30 years.
This week, federal Ethiopian forces shut down Mekelle in the final phase of a bloody offensive launched earlier this month by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with the aim of ending the TPLF as a political force.
The rise of the TPLF lasted 16 years, and the dominance of Ethiopian politics lasted nearly twice as long, but if Abiy’s “policing operation” is successful, its fall will take less than 30 months. “It’s very shocking. The decline is very dramatic, ”said Yohannes Woldemariam, an American-based academic specializing in the Horn of Africa.
The TPLF was founded in 1975 when hundreds of millions demanded revolutions and liberations across Africa and the Middle East. In Ethiopia, a dozen young men from the mountainous northern Tigray region were called to both. Inspired by Marxist-Leninism, a deep sense of national identity, and contemporary utopian slogans, they envisioned a bold new world for their homeland.
Just a year earlier, Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, had been expelled and killed by hard-line Marxist army officers who immediately set about introducing strict authoritarian regulation. In Tigray, the power of the centralized Ethiopian state has long been resented. Many remembered the 1943 Tigray Armed Rebellion, which was brutally stopped. This time, the leaders of the TPLF have vowed to triumph.
In the late 1970s, TPLF grew steadily. The CIA at the time estimated that by 1978, the party had about 2,000 fighters. Two years later, he was able to mobilize twice as much, the agency said.
Among them was Debretsion Gebremichael, who was then a wireless service and propagandist for the insurgents and is now the leader of the group.
The success of TPLF could not be attributed to chance. His leaders were ruthless and talented. They fought and destroyed rival rebel groups in Tigray, taking care to downplay their own Marxist views, which would be unpopular with the conservative, devoutly Christian rural population that formed the initial support base for the TPLF. Instead, they stressed the threat to local traditions and regional autonomy posed by the socialist policies of the Addis Ababa regime.
In the neighboring province, an alliance with like-minded left-wing nationalist rebels from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) brought critical training and experience to the organization, enabling it to withstand the enormous firepower of the Soviet-backed system of government.
“Large-scale military operations in Ethiopia to crush [the insurgency] they failed, men and equipment suffered heavy losses, ”the CIA noted in a 1983 assessment. “The government has paid a high political and economic price.”
But the suffering in Tigray was enormous, with dull and brutal anti-uprising campaigns playing a significant role in the terrible famine of 1984. Television reports and Live Aid concerts of global concern were filmed in Mekelle.
By the late 1980s, the TPLF was by far the largest and most effective coalition of Ethiopian armed rebel groups united under the banner of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) against the ailing Ethiopian regime. On May 28, 1991, TPLF troops backed by Eritrean forces took control of Addis Ababa, the capital.
The fall of the regime left TPLF leader Meles Zenawi, 36, in power, dominated by the Tigers in the army and secret services, who moved quickly to consolidate control over other sectors. Jobs were found for former comrades. Debretsion, the one-time wireless provider and now a veteran close to Zenawi, was appointed deputy head of the national intelligence agency and later minister of communications and information technology.
Debretsion’s career spans two sides of Ethiopia since 1991 under the TPLF-dominated coalition government. It was the building of a carefully balanced ethnically-based federal state, rapid development progress, huge infrastructure investments, and impressive economic success that was close to the exile of hunger that once made the country infamous.
The Mekelle’s thriving, beautiful streets and power lines testify to the resources directed toward TPLF Citadel.
But there were also apologetic repressions that worried even the U.S., which considered Ethiopia a cornerstone of the region’s security strategy and was willing to tolerate the excesses of the TPLF leadership.
Meles died suddenly in 2012 and his national team successor, Halemariam Desalegn, proved too weak to deal with the growing tensions.
Dissatisfaction, especially among the two largest ethnic groups, Oromo and Amhara, threatened a delicate compromise on the 1994 constitution, and representatives of the two communities eventually joined forces to outbid the TPLF within the governing coalition, whose mixed Oromo -Amhara parents, in 2018 he was appointed prime minister.
Abiy moved quickly. Top TPLF officials have been fired from key security positions, generals have been arrested on graft charges, and changes have been introduced to counteract the Tigray dominance of the armed forces. Political prisoners were released from secret prisons, exiled dissidents were received at home, cumbersome state-owned enterprises were privatized, and media restrictions were eased.
Abiy’s peace treaty with Eritrea, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize, isolated the TPLF. By the summer of this year, the raging tension has continued to rise. The TPLF refused to hand over wanted fugitives or join the new political party set up by Abiy to replace the old governing coalition, and despite the postponement of a nationwide poll due to the coronavirus epidemic, local elections were held in Tigray.
Observers said the decision was a “provocation,” even though supporters claimed it was a necessary protection of federal rights. Abiy’s office said the prime minister tried to cooperate with the TPLF but was refused.
The spark that illuminated the treadmill came in early November when TPLF units allegedly raided Tigray federal military bases, killing several national army officers and seizing significant amounts of hardware. Abiy immediately launched his offensive.
It took the federal troops three weeks to fight within Mekelle’s artillery range. It is unclear whether Debretsion and the other TPLF leaders are in town. Analysts believe they are likely to have scattered, looking for distant hiding places from which to launch a lengthy and costly uprising.
“In the long run, they’re investigating and trying to bury Tigray for Abiy’s troops,” Woldemariam said. “It’s very tragic. Many people suffer. “