Tigray People's Liberation Front

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Tigray People's Liberation Front
ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ
ChairmanDebretsion Gebremichael
Deputy ChairmanFetlework Gebregziabher
SpokesmanGetachew Reda[1]
Founded18 February 1975
NewspaperWeyin (ወይን)
Membership (1991)100,000
Ideology Historical:
Political positionLeft-wing[citation needed]
National affiliationEPRDF (1988–2018)
CEFF (2019–2020)
UFEFCF (2021–present)
Regional affiliationTigray Defense Forces
ColorsRed and Gold
House of Peoples' Representatives
0 / 547
Council of Tigray Regional State' Representatives
152 / 190
Party flag
Flag of the Tigray People's Liberation Front.svg

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF; Tigrinya: ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ, lit.'Popular Struggle for the Freedom of Tigray'), also called the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, is a leftist ethnic nationalist[2][8][9][5] paramilitary group,[10] a banned political party, and the former ruling party of Ethiopia[11][12]. It is classified as a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government[13], in older texts and Amharic publications it is known as Woyane (Tigrinya: ወያነ) or Wayane (Amharic: ወያኔ).[14]

According to official figures, the TPLF was founded on February 18, 1975, in Dedebit, northwestern Tigray.[15] Within 16 years, it grew from about a dozen men to become the most powerful armed "liberation" movement in Ethiopia.[16] From 1988 to 2018, it led a political coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It fought a 15-year-long war against the Derg regime, which was overthrown in 1991. The TPLF was at the forefront of the Derg's defeat primarily because of its martial prowess.[17]

The TPLF, with the support of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), overthrew the government of the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) on May 28, 1991, and installed a new government that remained in power[18] until the TPLF was removed from federal government control in 2 April 2018.[19][20]

On 18 January 2021, the National Election Board of Ethiopia terminated the party's registration, citing acts of violence and rebellion committed by the party's leadership against the Federal government in 2020, as well as a lack of representation.[21][11] On 6 May 2021, the Ethiopian House of Peoples' Representatives formally approved a parliamentary resolution designating the TPLF as a terrorist organization.[13]

In 2 November 2022, the African Union in Pretoria, South Africa, brokered a deal between the two parties to end the war.[22]



In a way, the TPLF is the product of the marginalization of Tigrayans within Ethiopia after Menelik II of Shewa became emperor in 1889. The Tigrayan traditional elite and peasantry had a strong regional identity and deeply resented the decline of Tigray.[23] Memories of the armed revolt of 1942–43 (the "first [qädamay] wäyyanä") against the re-establishment of imperial rule after Italian occupation remained alive and provided an important reference for the new generations of educated Tigrayan nationalists.[24]

At Haile Selassie I University (Addis Ababa University), Tigrayan students formed the Political Association of Tigrayans (PAT) in 1972 and the Tigrayan University Students' Association (TUSA) beginning in the early 1960s. PAT evolved into a radical nationalist group that called for Tigrayan independence and formed the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF) in 1974. A Marxist current emerged in TUSA that advocated national self-determination for Tigray within a revolutionary, democratic Ethiopia.[25]

While the multinational leftist movements prioritized class struggle over national self-determination for the Ethiopian nationalities, the Marxists of the TUSA argued for self-determination as the starting point for the final socialist revolution because of the existing inequalities among the Ethiopian nationalities.[26]


In February 1974, the Marxists within TUSA welcomed the Ethiopian Revolution but opposed the Derg (the military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991), as they were convinced that it would neither lead a genuine socialist revolution nor correctly resolve the Ethiopian nationality question. Three days after the Derg took power, on 14 September 1974, seven leaders of this trend established the Association of Progressives of the Tigray Nation (Tigrinya: ማሕበር ገስገስቲ ብሔረ ትግራይ, Maḥbär Gäsgästi Bəḥer Təgray), also known as the Tigrayan National Organization (TNO): Alemseged Mengesha (nom de guerre: Haylu), Ammaha Tsehay (Abbay), Aregawi Berhe (Berhu), Embay Mesfin (Seyoum), Fentahun Zere'atsion (Gidey), Mulugeta Hagos (Asfeha), and Zeru Gesese (Agazi). The TNO was to prepare the ground for the future armed movement in Tigray.[27]

It secretly approached both the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) for support, but the ELF already had relations with the TLF. In November 1974, the EPLF agreed to train TNO members and allowed EPLF fighters from the Tigrayan community in Eritrea, including Mehari Tekle (Mussie), to join the TPLF. The first group of trainees was sent to the EPLF in January 1975.[28]

On the night of 18 February 1975, eleven men, including Gesese Ayyele (Sehul), Gidey, Asfeha, Seyoum, Agazi, and Berhu, left Enda Selassie for Sehul's home area of Dedebit, where they founded the TPLF (original name Tigrinya: ተጋድሎ ሓርነት ሕዝቢ ትግራይ, Tägadlo Ḥarənnät Ḥəzbi Təgray, "The Popular Struggle for the Freedom of Tigray"). Welde Selassie Nega (Sebhat), Legese Zenawi (Meles), and others soon joined the original group, and, after the arrival of the trainees from Eritrea in June 1975, the TPLF had about 50 fighters.[27] It then elected a formal leadership consisting of Sehul (the chairman), Muse (the military commander), and the seven TNO founders. Berhu was appointed political commissar. Sehul played a crucial role in helping the nascent TPLF establish itself among the local peasantry.[29]

Although a few successful raids bolstered its military credibility, the TPLF grew to only about 120 fighters in early 1976, but a rapidly growing clandestine network of supporters in the cities and a support base among the peasants provided vital supplies and information. On February 18, 1976, a conference of fighters elected a new leadership: Berhu (chairman), Muse (military committee), Abbay (political committee), Agazi (socioeconomic committee), Seyoum (foreign relations), Gidey, and Sebhat.[15] Meles became head of the political cadre school.[15]

The first three years of its existence were marked by a constant struggle for survival, unstable cooperation with Eritrean forces, and power struggles against the other Tigrayan fronts: in 1975, the TPLF liquidated the TLF; in 1976-78, it fought the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) in Shire; and in 1978, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in East Tigray. The front also suffered heavy losses from Derg offensives in the region.[30]

Although the TPLF, the ELF, and the EPLF cooperated during the 1976 and 1978 Derg offensives in Tigray and Eritrea, no stable alliance emerged. The ELF resented the liquidation of the TLF and considered the relationship between the EPLF and the TPLF a serious threat. Since 1977, there had been conflict between ELF and the TPLF over the issue of Eritrean settlers in western Tigray, who were organized at ELF and rejected the TPLF's land reform.[30]

Relations with the EPLF also did not develop smoothly. Its material support was much less than the TPLF had anticipated. Politically, the EPLF favored the multinational EPRP over the ethnoregionalist TPLF with its separatist agenda at the time.[30]


After the Derg's victory in the Ogaden War in February 1978, Mengistu Haile Mariam's new alliance with the Soviets, and the revolutionary growth of his forces, the TPLF's momentum seemed to slow.[31]

In February 1979, the TPLF held its first regular congress. It declared its struggle the second wäyyanä (kalay wäyyanä) and changed its Tigrinya name to Həzbawi Wäyyanä Harənnätä Təgray. It adopted a new political program calling for self-determination within a democratic Ethiopia, with independence an option only if unity proved impossible.[32]

Gaining and maintaining the support of the local population was at the core of the TPLF's strategy in the 1970s and 1980s. TPLF leaders knew that the goodwill of the population would sustain their movement and ultimately lead them to victory over the Derg. Consequently, any fighter caught mistreating locals was punished or even executed by TPLF authorities. As a result, local support for the TPLF was consistent and invaluable. The local population shared food and resources with the fighters, provided them with safe havens, and, most importantly, provided the TPLF with up-to-date information.[17]

In retrospect, it is evident that the 1978-1985 period further strengthened the TPLF. The increasingly alienating intervention of the Derg, the front's handling of famine and refugee problems, and the foreign connections it built through its mission in Khartoum, enabled the movement to mobilize and better equip more fighters and prepare for the shift from guerrilla to frontal attack. Moreover, developments within the TPLF in the mid-1980s led to a conceptual shift from a struggle for the liberation of Tigray to that of all Ethiopia.[33]

They established their headquarters in caves in Addi Geza'iti, some 50 kilometers west of Mekelle.[34] The Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (EPDM), a TPLF-loyal splinter group from the EPRP, used caves in Melfa (Dogu'a Tembien).

A signboard for the EPDM/ANLF headquarters in Melfa (Dogu'a Tembien) during the Ethiopian Civil War.

The TPLF managed to use turning the catastrophic famine of 1984–85 to its advantage. In early 1985, it organized a march of over 200,000 famine victims from Tigray to Sudan to draw international attention to the plight in Tigray. Its humanitarian arm, the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), founded in 1978, received large amounts of international humanitarian aid for famine victims and small-scale development projects in liberated Tigray.[33]

In 1984-1985, the TPLF diverted Western aid money intended for starving civilians to purchase weapons.[35]

In July 1985, the Marxist–Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) was founded at a congress of a few hundred selected cadres. The MLLT was to be the nucleus of the future Marxist-Leninist vanguard party for all Ethiopia. The MLLT invited the genuine revolutionaries in the ranks of the Derg regime, which was then busy organizing its own communist party, the Ethiopian Workers' Party, to join it.[28]

After the congress, the TPLF and its mass organizations were ruthlessly brought under MLLT control, and dissenting cadres, including TPLF co-founders Gidey and Berhu, were eliminated.

In December 1988, the TPLF and EPDM formed the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as the core of the planned United Democratic Front. In the spring of 1989, first the MLLT and then the TPLF held a congress. Abbay was elected chairman of both organizations, but toward the end of 1989 Meles became chairman of both. In May 1989, the EPDM formed the Ethiopian Marxist-Leninist Force (EMLF).[36]

In July 1989, MLLT and EMLF formed the Union of Ethiopian Proletarian Organizations. In April 1990, the TPLF formed the Ethiopian Democratic Officers Movement from politically re-educated captured Ethiopian officers to undermine the Free Officers Movement, which had been formed in 1987 by exiled Ethiopian officers in opposition to the Derg.[36] In May 1990, Oromo members of the EPDM and politically re-educated Oromo prisoners of war founded the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organization (OPDO) to deny the Oromo Liberation Front's claim to be the exclusive representative of the Ethiopian Oromo.[18]

In November 1990, a Marxist-Leninist Oromo movement was established within the OPDO. Also in 1990, the TPLF formed the Afar Democratic Union to undermine the Afar movements. It had already helped build liberation fronts in Gambella and Benshangul before 1985.

In early 1988, the EPLF and the TPLF went on the offensive. The evolving situation in both Eritrea and Tigray, as well as the changing international context after the end of the Soviet bloc, prompted the TPLF and EPLF to put aside their differences and resume military cooperation. in 1989, the EPRDF formed a shadow government in Ethiopia to administer the liberated areas under its control.[37]


In February 1991, the EPRDF began its offensive against the ruling regime with the support of a large EPLF contingent. On May 28, 1991, the EPRDF captured Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and took control of the country. In July 1991, the EPRDF established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia.[38] In May 1991, the TPLF had 80,000 fighters, the EPDM had 8,000, and the OPDO had 2,000. The total number of TPLF members was well over 100,000.[15]

Reacting to the international political context after the demise of communism, the EPRDF and TPLF dropped all Marxist references in their political discourse and adopted a program of change based on multi-party politics, constitutional democracy, ethno-linguistic federalization, and a mixed economy.[15]

Under the EPRDF, Ethiopia was governed as an ethnically federal, dominant-party state. Meles Zenawi, a member of the TPLF, served as Prime Minister until his death in 2012.[39] During EPRDF rule, Ethiopia retained authoritarianism and shifted from a one-party state to a dominant-party state.[citation needed]

In opposition: 2018–2020[edit]

In November 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the chairman of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front unified the constituent parties of the coalition into a new Prosperity Party. The TPLF viewed this merger as illegal and did not participate in the merger.[40]

From the start of January 2020, the TPLF was involved in activities that were criticized by the federal government.[example needed] In June 2020, the Ethiopian parliament—to which the TPLF was a party—voted to postpone the 2021 Ethiopian General Election, which was originally scheduled to occur in 2020.[41] The TPLF defied the parliamentary vote and held regional elections anyway.[42]

The 2020 Tigray regional election was held on 9 September 2020. It was open to international observers[clarification needed], boycotted by Arena Tigray[43] and the Tigray Democratic Party[44] and 2.7 million people participated in the election. Prime Minister Ahmed stated that the federal government would not recognize the results of the election and banned foreign journalists from traveling to Tigray to document the elections.[45]

2020–2021: Tigray War[edit]

In November 2020, a civil conflict erupted between the TPLF and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) when the TPLF attacked the ENDF Northern Command headquarters in the north of the country in what TPLF spokesman Getachew Reda described as a "preemptive strike".[46] In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the TPLF.[47] Other sources suggested that the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) controlled only about 70% of the Tigray region. Many TPLF members joined the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF).[48] The conflict has created a humanitarian crisis in many parts of the country, and the death toll is in the thousands. As of March 2021, approximately 2 million people had been displaced by the crisis, but the full extent of the crisis was unknown.[49]The TPLF has accused the ENDF and Eritrean forces of war crimes, but it is difficult to independently verify these allegations because of the media blackout imposed by the federal government under Abiy.[50] On March 23, 2021, in response to international pressure, the prime minister admitted for the first time that Eritrean forces had been in the Tigray region.[50] In July 2021, after the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral cease-fire and withdrew from much of the Tigray region, the TDF entered neighboring Afar and Amhara regions.[51][52][53] The ENDF then launched its own counteroffensive and recaptured these regions by December 2021.[54] By March 2022, the war had come to a virtual standstill.[55]

The TPLF is accused of forcing recruitment into the TDF, including minors. According to several witnesses and Tigrayan administrators, every household in Tigray was required to enlist a family member in the TDF. Those who refused were arrested and imprisoned, including the parents of minors who refused to enlist.[56][57]

Election results[edit]

Elections from 1995 to 2015 were conducted under the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front banner.

Election Leader No. of Votes No. of seats won Government/Opposition
1995 Government
2000 Tigray regional election
152 / 152
40 / 547
2005 Tigray regional election
152 / 152
38 / 547
2010 Tigray regional election
152 / 152
2015 Tigray regional election Abay Weldu 2,374,574
152 / 152
2020 Tigray regional election Debretsion Gebremichael 2,590,620
152 / 190

Linkage with terrorism[edit]

The United States government removed the TPLF's classification as a Tier III level terrorist group when the group came to power in 1991.[58][59] However, an analysis by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) also classified it as a terrorist group dating back to 1976. According to the TRAC:

The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) is a political party in Tigray, Ethiopia that has been listed as a perpetrator in the Global Terrorism Database, based on ten incidents occurring between 1976 and 1990 (see GTD link).[60]

In 2021, the Ethiopia federal government passed a parliamentary resolution classifying the TPLF as a terrorist organization. According to Article 23, "this decision applies to organizations and individuals that collaborate with, have links with, or are associated with the ideas and actions of the designated terrorist organizations, as well as others that have undertaken similar activities".[61] Individuals or organizations that carry out " humanitarian activities," however, are exempt under Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation 1176/2020.[62]


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