Is the Pretoria peace deal the beginning of the end of the TPLF?
Three months after its signing, a shattered Tigray is picking up the pieces. But not even the end of the siege can quell rising murmurs of discontent.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated the political, economic, and security landscape in Ethiopia and the Tigray region from 1991 to 2018. Despite Ethiopia’s successes under the TPLF-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rule, which included reviving the economy and introducing federalism, their human rights record was poor. The TPLF ruled Ethiopia, including the TPLF’s own Tigray region, with an iron fist, suppressing dissent, imprisoning leading opposition figures and muzzling the media. Tigrayans became hate figures for the TPLF’s opponents, targeted by Ethiopia’s politicians and blamed for all the ills associated with the TPLF. The demonisation campaign, which rose to the surface soon after the TPLF lost power in early-2018, intensified following the breakout of the war in November 2020. Epithets such as “cancer” and “weed” were used against them, even by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed. In January 2022, Daniel Kibret, PM Abiy Ahmed’s social affairs advisor called for the wiping out of Tigrayans.
The Pretoria peace deal, signed on 2 November, 2022, stopped, at least for now, the war that had killed, according to some estimates, 600,000 and put Tigray under siege. As a famine ravaged the region, the TPLF ran out of military resources, and Tigrayans were starved of humanitarian aid and cut off from electricity, communications and financial services. For two months, however, the Ethiopian National Defence Forces were still unable to capture Mekelle despite assistance from the Eritrean and Amhara forces. Ethiopia faced Western pressure to end the conflict as its economy collapsed, and as Western economic sanctions depleted the already limited foreign currency reserves.
I. The guns are silent; services are back, but not all is well
The signing of the Ethiopia-Tigray peace deal should, therefore, be understood in this context. While it has, importantly, brought about a respite from the war, including the resumption of communication and aid delivery, there are still major challenges ahead. Limited basic services such as electricity, banking, and telephone lines have been switched on in many areas. Some Tigrayans can now talk to their families, and a few can even make visits to their kin, having neither seen or heard from them in over two years. Flights have resumed between Addis and Mekelle and a few towns, but the cost of air travel is prohibitive, even for those who previously could afford it. In this regard, it might be significant that bus services to Addis and other cities have not resumed. In effect, those most impoverished by the war are still not being allowed to see their families. Young people are not allowed to travel for reasons unknown and undisclosed. A few private banks have opened, but they are short of cash. The queues are long, bank withdrawals for limited amounts going only so far. Trucks carrying commercial goods to Tigray are heavily taxed at check points in Amhara, as if they were en route to a foreign country.
In what might be another breakthrough in the peace process, on 3 February, Prime Minister Abiy met with Tigrayan leaders to assess the peace process and promised to inject more cash to the banks, increase flights to Tigray and resolve pending issues. There was no mention of Eritrean troops still in Tigray. It was the first such meeting since the outbreak of the war in 2020.
The détente has come at a cost for Abiy, who seems to be losing more of his Amhara base after he refused to intervene in the ongoing politically motivated schism in the Orthodox Church, which appears to have targeted Christian Oromo resistance to his government. He may now need to capitalise on his thawing relations with Tigray, but that will almost certainly put him in confrontation with Eritrea.
Since the cessation of hostilities, the government’s criticism of TPLF has been voiced by ESAT (an Amhara nationalist media outlet, and firmly anti-TPLF). TPLF’s criticism of the federal government has moved to Tigrayan Diaspora media. Ethiopians opposed to the deal claim that the TPLF only handed over mainly damaged heavy weapons as there is no inventory of the captured weapons from the Northern Command during the two-year conflict. The level of mistrust between both sides remains high.
II. Current Status of the TPLF
The situation in Tigray remains complex and challenging, with various armed groups controlling different parts of the region. TPLF controls only 35% of the territory, while the rest is under the Ethiopian army and its allies.
The peace deal has not brought complete stability to the region, with ongoing reports of violence and looting. Some 3,000 people have been killed since the signing of the agreement. The formation of the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) during the war has undermined TPLF’s authority, deepening a growing perception that it alone cannot lead the national struggle. The TDF has several military and civilian leaders who were purged from the TPLF in 2001 and several of them attended the Pretoria talks. Even members of the Tigray opposition parties are members of the TDF. It is seen as the Tigrayan people’s army.
Since the signing of the peace deal, Mekelle is no longer safe; organised groups of armed local thugs loot and kill in broad daylight. A sense of disillusionment, betrayal, and disappointment among the youth is widespread; more than any other demographic, they have borne the brunt of the brutal war in a society that has been under siege for over two years. The TDF leadership had promised victory and a quick end to the war, even almost capturing Addis once. However, the peace agreement shocked the youth when they were told that TDF had to disarm and the Ethiopian troops who had committed grave atrocities would be their protectors.
There is a need for international support to prevent things from spiralling out of control. The head of the Electricity services in the city told Tigray media that 200 out of 920 transformers were removed and looted. The Police Commissioner for Mekelle confirmed the looting of the transformers, which he attributed to organised and well-equipped criminal gangs.
III. Tough questions raised
The lull in the fighting has allowed a period of intense and collective soul-searching. What went wrong? Who shares responsibility for the predicament; what is to be done next, and how and who will manage the next transition phase? The TPLF leaders and the military leaders have been in closed-door sessions for the last two weeks, and there is much speculation on the future of the TPLF. There are loud calls for an all-inclusive interim administration not dominated by the TPLF. The majority are convinced of a need for fundamental changes that centre around the wishes of the Tigrayan people. The difference is only how that is to be done, stressing the importance of remaining united during those trying times. Sources close to the closed-door discussions and social media posts confirm this. Since the telephone lines were opened it has been easier to talk to witnesses inside Tigray.
In addition to mainstream Tigrayan opposition media, which has always been critical of the TPLF, some diaspora Tigray media have also weighed in. For example, in one interview, a known Tigray journalist mentioned the abuse of Tigrayans by cruel traders linked directly to senior officials of the Tigray regional government. He reported that cooking oil brought in as aid is sold in the market, and families whose sons did not participate in the war effort in Tigray are denied food aid. UMD media, which is run by a Tigrayan academic, is willing to name and shame Tigrayan leaders abusing the people. Tigrayans in the diaspora have become very vocal in various social media platforms since the start of the war, particularly when Tigray was totally isolated from the international media. They were very active in informing the world about the plight of their people.
Other Diaspora mainstream media, such as Tigray Media House and Zara Media, invite mildly critical persons who consider it not the time to talk openly about internal problems. People have started to ask tough questions, mainly on the topic of “how Tigray got here” and if the TPLF itself may take some blame for the start of the war. The Prime Minister of Ethiopia and his PP party may be watching for things to unravel in Tigray to their advantage.
Tigray Independence, which was high on the agenda during the war, is now shelved for the foreseeable future. The issue at present is preserving Tigray’s existence, identity and autonomy as guaranteed in the Ethiopian constitution. There is no more talk that the TPLF and the Tigrayan people are synonymous. Whether the fragile peace deal will hold or not, the TPLF’s role in Tigray or Ethiopia will never be the same again. Whether the TPLF, with its long history, organisational experience, influence, and with vast financial resources allegedly amassed during its 30 years of rule, may continue to have an essential say at the centre of power of Ethiopian politics in one way or another, is debatable. Still, Tigrayans, will have an important role to play.