Friday, October 15

On the Origins Of The TPLF

the TPLF according to ethiopundit

The Mengistu regime was overthrown by the TPLF (Tigrayan People's Liberation Front) in 1991. The TPLF is ostensibly one of a number of ethnic political parties that make up the ruling government coalition called the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front). The leaders of the TPLF, once a liberation front and later a political party with a potent army, now rule Ethiopia.

The mid 1970s origins of TPLF have never been clear to party outsiders beyond the broadest sketches. As a consequence, those impressions probably reveal as much about observers as they do on the current Ethiopian government itself.

Much of this mystery was purposeful because liberation fronts worldwide have a marked tendency to be secretive just to survive in their early stages. In addition they often continually rewrite their own history as various revolutionary and ideological needs, personalities and events ebb and flow.

The movement began among the Tigrayan ethnic group in the northern province of Tigray. The Tigrayans remain an essential element in the current and historical existence of Ethiopia in any form but it has been TPLF policy to estrange them from their fellows so that its base is more secure.

The successful rule of the Tigrayan Emperor Johannes in the latter 19th century was cut short in battle by invading Mahdist forces from the Sudan. The centuries old competition with the Amhara and the Oromo, the other principal ethnic groups, for control of the Empire remained.

In the 20th century the relative disenfranchisement of Tigray by the central government was widely resented because other provinces such as Shoa, the center of rule, and Eritrea, the prodigal province returned from Italy, were the major targets for the national budget.

Regional grievances always abound in Ethiopia. However, in Tigray the combination of the above factors with grinding rural poverty on farmland long past its prime, famine, the brutal depridations of the Mengistu regime after 1974 and the adoption of Marxist-Leninist ideology led to the creation of a force rooted in both the old and the new that took over the center.

what does someone who intimately knows the previously unwritten history of the TPLF have to say?

Ever willing to learn ethiopundit will take a look at an important paper that has been written on this subject by Aregawi Berhe that goes far beyond the introductory paragraphs above. It is called, of course 'The Origins of the TPLF' (found via Ben's News Page).

Aregawi Berhe was recently a Visiting Research Fellow at the African Studies Center of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. According to the website of the University his research focuses "on the political history of the TPLF, its formation and struggle against the Derg and other rival forces. It also looks at the TPLF in power and offers general insight into the political situation in the Horn of Africa."

His insights may be particularly valuable because as a founding member of the TPLF leadership and a past military leader he can penetrate the culture of secrecy that remains a defining element of the Ethiopian government and governance. The entire paper is worth reading but below are some excerpts and piece summaries beginning from the end of the five year Italian occupation. With the leadership of Haile Mariam Reda
in 1942–43 peasants in central and southern Tigray began to rebel out of desperation, they were met with a harsh response. Haile Selassie’s government in collaboration with the British Royal Air Force (RAF) ... on 6 October 1943, devastated the region including Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, throughout the rest of that month. This quelled the Tigrayan peasant uprising, known as Woyane, meaning ‘revolt’[Woyane is the popular name for the TPLF]. Thousands of defenceless civilians lost their lives as a result of aerial bombardment.
Punitive measures included a sharply increased tax burden and the imposition of tighter central rule from Shoa that caused "(g)enerations of Tigrayans grew up with deep feelings of desperation".

In "The Consequences of the British Occupation of Ethiopia During World War II" Theodore Vestal has this to say
The "Woyane" revolt arose essentially out of dissatisfaction with imperial rule over Tigre province after the war. The Emperor's regime was faulted for maladministration, excessive taxation, official corruption, and consequent brigandage. Tigreans were traditional and historic rivals of the more numerous Amharas, the ethnic group of Emperor Haile Selassie. Tigrean nobility, who perceived their position as to be endangered by the central government's growth, were joined in armed insurrection by the peasantry, who felt victimized by government officials and their militias. The leaders aspired to separate from Ethiopia and unite with Eritrea, then under British military administration.

For almost five months, the Woyane movement blocked roads and controlled most of Tigre. Units of the new regular Ethiopian army with British advisors were sent to reinforce the territorial troops in the area. In the ensuing Battle at Amba Alagi, government forces were attacked by rebel forces of up to 5,000 men. The situation was serious enough for the British advisors to ask for bomber support for the 8,000 government troops and 6,000 territorials. Ammunition was in such short supply that the government forces nearly had to retreat. The British Foreign Office believed that this would probably cause the fall of the Emperor and judged it necessary to agree to the request for bombers. In addition the British military argued that the north road passing through Amba Alagi was vital to their communications in the continuing war against the Axis.

Three Blenheim bombers from Aden flew a number of missions. On the first runs, only pamphlets containing threats from the Emperor and the Ichege, the head of the Ethiopian Church, were dropped as the British originally refused to allow bombs to be used. Under pressure to relieve the British advisors and their troops, the RAF eventually carried out bombing raids, culminating in a raid on Makelle where seventy were killed and 200 wounded. Even so, most killed were in the market place and were not combatants. The air raids had the desired effect. Government troops were able to advance on Amba Alagi, and the opposition "melted away." Mopping-up operations were carried out on a broad scale by the Ethiopian military, and their harsh methods created further resentment of imperial rule. The Government exiled or imprisoned the leaders of the revolt, and the Emperor took reprisals against peasants suspected of supporting the Woyane. The Emperor had taken the Woyane movement seriously, due to the danger that an uprising of this type probably would have received British support if it had succeeded [what a strange tangled web this world is].

The Woyane of Tigre have never forgotten the ruthless, wide scale punishment inflicted upon their people by the Amhara rulers. When the Woyane came to power in Ethiopia as the TPLF in 1991, their resentment was manifested in official and unofficial discrimination and harassment of the Amhara. Indeed, one aspect of the ethnic federalism of the FDRE is but a thinly disguised license to encourage hatred of the Amharas. The role of the British in crushing the Woyane revolt and in bombing civilians remains in the collective memory too.
Popularly, the rebellion has also been partially understood as a competition for Ethiopian rule between the Amhara and Tigrayan nobility. The last hereditary governor of Tigray (whose role Aregawi Berhe de-emphasizes) was intimately involved in the rebellion and might yet lay claim to popular support in an unfettered Ethiopian or Tigrayan political system.

As we shall see, the role of 'modern' radical students matches the role of the 'traditional' nobility in highlighting the essential elitist nature of Ethiopia's history of internal warfare.

Several factors came into play to give impetus to the Tigrayan movement.

Gessesew Ayele (nickname or nom de guerre of Sihule) was one of several Tigrayans who had contacts with Idris Awate who founded the seccessionist Eritrean Liberation Front in 1961. Many Tigrayans appreciated the example of armed struggle that the Eritreans represented but often clashed with its aims.

The situation in Tigray worsened after the 1974 military takeover by the Dergue. The subsequent military regime "which adopted Marxism as its ideology, was even more brutal than the imperial administration in its dealings with" all Ethiopians and Tigrayans in particular. Soviet aid supported the Dergue in all its policies.

Beginning in the 1960s at the national university "many university students from Tigray played ... a prominent role in the struggle against Haile Selassie’s feudal regime. Their aim was not the restoration of Tigrayan hegemony over the whole of Ethiopia as some politicians have presented it".

Touche, except for the politician part ... but the TPLF did get hegemony in the end though

Different strains of dissatisfaction flowed together
The persistent call of the young educated class — basically students and teachers — for radical change, with the self-determination of Tigray as a rallying slogan, inflamed popular aspirations. The imposition of central control, domination by the Showan-Amhara ruling class, heavy taxation, and the failure of leaders to improve the wretched life of the people, including that of the Showan peasantry whose life was no better than that of the rest of the peasant population, were sources of complaint in every forum. It has been said that ‘The most painful cut of all was the banning of the Tigrai language in a region where, as late as the mid-1970s, only 12.3 per cent of the males claimed to speak Amharigna and only 7.7 per cent could read it’.

Marxist-Leninism came stealthily to the fore during this period.
clandestine groups were organized to study Marxist dialectics, the class struggle, the national question and other revolutionary issues of the time. These study groups used every legally permitted opportunity in their activities to disseminate their revolutionary ideas with the aim of raising the level of consciousness of the people as a whole. The dissemination of nationalist revolutionary ideas was carried out through leaflets, songs and informal discussions, which were carefully crafted so as not to antagonize the conservative peasant society of Tigray. No mention of Marxist rhetoric was made outside the young educated revolutionaries. In those days everyone seemed motivated to exchange revolutionary ideas advocating change. The call for armed struggle to get rid of the oppressive feudal regime was entertained more often than it was mentioned.
In a previous post ethiopundit had this to say about this ideology and its messianic overtones
Lost in a veritable supermarket of Traditional, Western and other ideas (some of which actually worked) much of a generation of educated Ethiopians never found their way past the ideological crap aisle.

It is tragic and terrifying that a glib catechism, itself the detritus of the West, could make so many otherwise bright people become utterly delusional. Ultimately, even opposition to the post-1974 Marxist-Leninist military dictatorship was largely an argument over who the 'true communists' were.
ethiopundit's reaction to Marxist-Leninism is like that of Van Helsing to vampirism. In every case countries that flirt with it are poor and undemocratic in direct proportion to how seriously they take it.

It is understandable why so many otherwise legitimate groups and individuals are drawn to Communism because its promise is like that of a conventional religion's heaven. It provides a logical and spiritual shortcut away from experience all the way to desire without stopping.

It is also a blueprint for getting and keeping power at any cost with absolute justification for any choice or policy already built in. After all, how can anyone compromise when reaching for paradise? Or at least saying you are reaching for paradise, anyway.

That visceral reaction out of the way for now let us return calmly to Aregawi Berhe. A number of organizations were formed in the early 1970s and drew the unwelcome attention of succesive security agencies. The TPLF evolved from the Tigray Nationalist Organization (TNO) one of many "Tigrayan ethno-nationalist groups unwilling to negotiate with such a regime, but determined to assert their rights through the ‘barrel of the gun’."

A fateful meeting took place in a small cafe located in the upscale shopping district of Piazza.
The TNO was established at a meeting held on 14 September 1974, attended by seven university students ... [including the author].

The aim of the 14 September meeting was, first, to reach a common understanding of the nature and disposition of the Derg’s regime with respect to the self-determination of Tigray and the future of democracy in Ethiopia; second, to reflect upon what form of struggle to pursue and how to tackle the main challenges that would henceforth arise; and third, to outline how to work and co-ordinate activities with the Ethiopian left which hitherto had operated according to much broader revolutionary ideals. These grand ambitions were not new. Those at the meeting had previously been reflecting on these matters informally. Thus, by the end of the day they had drafted a two-page general guideline.

The guideline declared that:
• The strategy of the movement is the formation of a democratic Ethiopia in which the equality of all nationalities is respected.
• A national armed struggle should be waged that would advance from the rural areas of Tigray to the urban areas.
• The movement should be led by an urban-based organization known as the Tigrayan National Organization until such time as the armed struggle could begin.

It was unanimously understood that the TNO was a preparatory stage for the armed struggle.
Again, without the ideological baggage and its compartmentalization and organization nothing might have been achieved. However, when people at the ends of the political spectrum use words like 'democratic' they really mean fancy words like 'revolutionary democracy' which in turn really mean 'dictatorship of the proletariat' which finally translates into just plain old totalitarian dictatorship.

Words like 'democratic' sound great but what about when used by ideologues usually mean the opposite.
As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of "freedom of discussion and criticism, unity of action". The democratic aspect of this methodology describes the freedom of members of the political party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction; but once the decision by the party was made (by majority vote), all members were expected to follow that decision unquestioningly. This latter aspect represented the centralism.
Don't trust the freedom of those debates chaired by Lenin either. Purges resulting in imprisonment at best and often death can result from disagreeing too often or even at all with revolutionary leadership at any point. Here is what Lenin had to say about the next stage of the 'democratic' program the honestly described dictatorship phase of building paradise on earth
The scientific concept, dictatorship, means neither more nor less than unlimited power resting directly on force, not limited by anything, not restrained by any laws or any absolute rules. Nothing else but that.
Submission to revolutionary authority must be total. In its embryonic stages, such as the cafe meeting, the proto-TPLF was likely an actually democratic organization but once its struggle had begun could not, by design, remain so.

Accomodation is made with tradition
The presence of the elderly Sihule as a leading figure also helped to popularize the nationalist stance of the movement and divert attention from the Marxist posture of the students. Almost every Tigrayan, even the feudal lords and the clergy,who might have to lose some of their privileges after the revolutionary struggle, seemed to approve of the call for self-determination, the vision of the educated young generation, and their efforts to realize it. It was in these circumstances that the TPLF emerged.
This article draws us deeply into the profound sense of injustice suffered and the call to arms felt by those founders and the thousands who followed ... and the article leaves us feeling that the 'revolution'was already being betrayed right there in Piazza with the invocation of best forgotten ghosts and demons of the past. Sure, any statement with the words 'betrayal of the revolution' is a sure cliche but it is clear that the Tigrayan people had no idea that they were part of a Communist Revolution in the initial stages. Later on the ravages of the Dergue and the strong arm of the burgeoning TPLF gave them no choice but to go along.

Marx, a ghost called upon by the founders, was a curious but deservedly obscure writer who attempted to come up with the unified theory of every aspect of humanity and succeeded as well as anyone would have expected such an endeavor to. When everyone owned nothing history would end and we would all live in eternal paradise ... yeah, right.

Lenin, the demon, took Marx and used him to begin a war against humanity. He saw men as pegs whose bodies and souls could be terrorized into unnatural shapes to fill whatever holes in realilty denied him absolute power. According to the author
The experiences of the Bolsheviks’ Russia, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam and Che Guevera’s internationalism were espoused as guiding precedents to redeem Ethiopia from its predicament. The revolutionary student generation of that time was, as it later proved, ready to make any sacrifice to undo the grip of imperialism and feudalism in the country. This revolutionary fervour was part of the international wave of the 1960s. Marxist revolutionary ideals were thought to be impeccable, the only appropriate guiding tenets through which the country was to be transformed from its backwardness.
How could those men at that table in piazza in 1974 or any even casual student of history not have known about the genocidal human cost of the Soviet gulag and Stalin's collectivization, of his purges, Mao's mass murder under the guise of the great leap forward that continued under his failed cultural revolution, of Ho Chi Minh's bloody North Vietnamese land reform or even of Che's lonely death in a Bolivian 'people's revolution' that the people wanted no part of?

At a minimum did they not see the obvious fact that streams of refugees never headed into Communist countries but rather out of them and that their might be some lessons to be learned from that reality?

A short answer is that reality, suffering and history did not matter as much as their collective vision of paradise and the role that they, as the vanguard of the anointed revolutionary class, would have in mankind's march to perfection . That such a scenario would guarantee absolute power to those who managed to survive the brutal Darwinian jungle of revolutionary politics must have been attractive as well.

Was there another way out besides defunct ideology and manipulation of ethnicity?

The author continues his analysis with an account of the role of leftist ideology in all aspects of the student movement including in particular the views of Marx, Lenin and Stalin on ethno-national movements. These ideas were used to redefine Ethiopia. The words of Wallelign Mekonen (an Amhara from Wollo region)in 1969 reflect the feelings of many of the era's educated youths "Ethiopia was not a nation, but a collection of nationalities ruled by the Amharas. To be an Ethiopian, you will have to wear an Amhara mask".

The ethno-national struggle was to have far reaching implications far beyond that envisioned from ideology alone.
Those who saw the ethno-national struggle as a tactic to achieve equality within a united Ethiopia and not as a strategy for secession were unaware of the turns and zigzags that ethno-nationalist mobilization could take. They were not able to see that ‘The more politicized ethnicity becomes, the more it dominates other expressions of identity, eclipsing class, occupational, and ideological solidarities’, and that ethnic struggles can become ominous. The young revolutionaries focused only on the positive contribution of ethno-nationalist mobilization as the most effective and shortest way to uproot the oppressive system. Their attitude was in conformity with Horowitz [?], when he wrote that ‘Ethnic affiliations provide a sense of security in a divided society, as well as a source of trust, certainty, reciprocal help, and protection against neglect of one’s interests by strangers’.
Remember how the Soviet Union fell apart in mere months as soon as its guns were holstered despite generations of Soviet 'solidarity'? This is rather obvious to the author and to the reader today but to ideologues at any time ethnicity is something easily toyed with by new definitions and interpretations of sacred texts.

Ethnicity is far stronger and more fundamental to all peoples than that ... and far more dangerous to manipulate.
At the foundation of the TPLF, ‘self-determination’ was understood to mean autonomy or self-rule for Tigray in a democratic, poly-ethnic Ethiopia. Later, in the early days of the struggle, self-determination was interpreted by an ultra-nationalist group within the emerging TPLF to mean secession from the Ethiopian nation-state, with the aim of establishing an independent republic of Tigray, as declared in the TPLF manifesto of 1976. This standpoint of an independent republic was included in the manifesto by the group that had been given responsibility for drafting and printing it, which incidentally happened to be the core of the ultra-nationalist section
The Dergue struck out viciously at all students and targeted the proto-TPLF which caused many to flee to rural areas where they began the next phase of the war. More informative discussion follows detailing early relations with the Eritrean movements and the first formal military training with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in January of 1975.

With the commencement of small scale military operations the TNO became the TPLF and armed struggle officially began in February of 1975. In addition to providing the first rifles and rations, Gessesew Ayele (Sihule)made crucial contributions to the struggle based upon the respect he commanded among peasants who had elected him to the Emperor's Parliament in the past.
From the start, Sihule gave the TPLF the legitimacy and popularity that none of its other members could provide. So it was that an organization with its roots in a provincial tradition of armed resistance was able to equip itself with a sophisticated political ideology and eventually to take over state power.
The author finishes with this analysis of one of the main points of criticism that many have of TPLF, namely is onetime call for Tigrayan independence and its current constitution guraranteeing seccession to all ethnic comers.
(A) wedge that was to emerge within the TPLF in the early 1980s was that caused by the development of an ultra-left ideological brand of Marxism-Leninism (Stalinism specifically) which culminated in the formation of a group called the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) in 1986. Although the MLLT seems nowadays to be out of sight, the ideology it extolled was the source of divisions and defections that by and large have been racking the organization from within to this day. The inclusion in the current Ethiopian Constitution of a right to secession for every nationality (article 39.1), and the adoption of ‘revolutionary democracy’ as a guiding ideology by the current government, are intrinsically linked to both the ethno-nationalist and ultra-leftist stances of the faction led by Meles Zenawi, who governs Ethiopia today.
We found this article to be a fascinating and essential history of modern Ethiopia. Aregawi Berhe deserves thanks for shedding light on this hidden subject.

The origin story also sheds light on the current government's climate of secrecy, of unforgiving often vicious reactions to criticism, of eternal intrigue / manipulation / suspicion and above all of the desperate need to see all Ethiopians everywhere formally to submit to its authority.

Yet again humanity has proof that the people who can create and lead revolutionary movements to victory are often the last folks that the 'people' need to have in charge when the struggle is over.

The harsh habits of ideological guerrilla struggle apparently die very hard and are not suited to the management of civil society in a time of peace.

One striking aspect of this history is the question of inevitabilty. The TPLF victory wasn't assured and was won by pure effort. Ethiopians owe much to the Tigrayan people for the battles they fought and for their bitterly won struggle against the Dergue.

The leadership, despite the presence of many well intentioned individuals, was part of a larger student movement of many groups from every tribe that formed a veritable alphabet soup of Marxist-Leninist fronts and parties(some of which may have been formed at the next table in that same piazza cafe) all with equally dedication to a 'glorious' future. Some chose to advise the Dergue on how to set up a communist state in Ethiopia. All the politically potent forces of that deluded generation shared the basics of ethnic division, absence of private property and the concentration of all power in the hands of a 'vanguard party'.

The TPLF is certainly an improvement over the Dergue but that is very far from enough to justify their rule at this late date. Indeed, given the Marxist-Leninist worldview shared by the Dergue and the TPLF, when both were established in the very midst of the Cold War, it is not clear how different TPLF policy would have been from the disastrous social and economic policies of the Dergue.

After all the decision to have even a minimal public relations level retreat from the the communist ideal was made by both the Dergue and the TPLF at about the same time in the setting of the collapse of the Soviet Empire and their shared appreciation that no one in the 'new world order' would tolerate their mutually treasured ideology.

Here is what Mao had to say about opportunistic political mutability
The concept of People varies in content in different countries and and in different periods of history in a given country... During the Japanese war all classes and social groups opposing the Japanese invasion were People; Chinese collaborators with the Japanese were the Enemy. During the war of liberation, US imperialists and their running dogs were the Enemy, those opposed to them were the People. In the present stage the social groups which favour the cause of socialist construction are the People, and those who resist are the Enemy.
One would hope that even today that the leadership could overthrow the long putrid dead weight of ideology that they have slung around their own necks and the necks of millions of other so that they can fulfill the promise that millions of desperate Tigrayans and other Ethiopians invested in them.

overall, ethiopundit has learned to see more in the TPLF than an incarnation of communism

A final thought ... the Anuak people of Southern Ethiopia can justifiably see the same history of oppression by the TPLF government that the founders of the TPLF saw in the Dergue and in Haile Selassie's government. This site and these links about the genocide of the Anuak makes their grievances clear.

The Anuak people aren't alone in their suffering. Is there a new Oromo / Amhara / Sidamo / Gurage / Tigrayan People's Liberation Front beginning its long march to war and power today? Surely that battle can be avoided.

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