Tigray People's Liberation Front

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Tigray People's Liberation Front

ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ
ChairmanDebretsion Gebremichael[1]
Deputy ChairmanFetlework Gebregziabher
FoundedFebruary 18, 1975 (1975-02-18)
NewspaperWeyin (ወይን)
Membership (1991)100,000
Revolutionary democracy
Tigray nationalism[2]
Political position1990–present: Left-wing
1975–1990: Far-left
National affiliationEPRDF (1988-2019)
ColorsRed and Gold
Seats in the House of Peoples' Representatives
38 / 547
Seats in the Council of Tigray Regional State' Representatives
152 / 152
Emblem of Ethiopia.svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) (Tigrinya: ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ; ḥəzbawi wäyanä ḥarənnät təgray, "Popular Struggle for the Freedom of Tigray"; popularly known as ወያነ Wäyanä or ወያኔ Wäyane in older texts and Amharic publications[6]) is a political party in Ethiopia, established on 18 February 1975 in Dedebit, northwestern Tigray,[7] according to official records. Within 16 years, it had grown from a few dozen men (11 men) into the most powerful armed liberation movement in Ethiopia.[8] It has led a coalition of movements named the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since 1989. With the help of its ally, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), EPRDF overthrew the dictatorial PDRE regime and established on 28 May 1991 a new government that has ruled Ethiopia ever since.[9] The TPLF and the EPLF are the only African liberation fronts which defeated an enemy whose military power is vastly superior: conducted as a "protracted peoples' war", the armed struggle against PDRE ended with a total military victory. They are also the only fronts that skilfully combined the struggle for national self-determination with radical socio-economic changes.[10]



The TPLF is, in a way, the product of the marginalization of Tigray within Ethiopia after Menelik II of Shewa had become emperor in 1889. The Tigrayan traditional elite and peasantry had a strong regional identity and deeply resented the decline of Tigray.[11] Memoirs of the armed revolt of 1942-43 (the "first [qädamay] wäyyanä") against the re-establishment of imperial rule after Italian colonialism remained alive and provided an important reference for the new generations of educated Tigrayan nationalists.[12]

At Haile Selassie I University (Addis Ababa University), from the early 1960s onwards, Tigrayan students created the Political Association of Tigrayans (PAT) in 1972 and the Tigrayan University Students' Association (TUSA). PAT developed into a radical nationalist group calling for the independence of Tigray, establishing the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF) in 1974. In TUSA emerged a Marxist trend favoring national self-determination for Tigray within a revolutionary transformed democratic Ethiopia.[13] Whereas the multinational left movements prioritised class struggle over the national self-determination of the Ethiopian nationalities, the Marxists of TUSA argued for self-determination as the launching pad for the ultimate socialist revolution, due to the existing inequalities among Ethiopian nationalities.[14]


In February 1974, the Marxists within TUSA welcomed the Ethiopian Revolution, but opposed the Derg 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 ብሔር ትግራይ; Mahbär Gäsgästi Bəher Təgray), also known as Tigrayan National Organization (TNO): Alemseged Mengesha (nom de gurre: Haylu), Ammaha Tsehay (Abbay), Aregawi Berhe (Berhu), Embay Mesfin (Seyoum), Fentahun Zeatsyon (Gidey), Mulugeta Hagos (Asfeha) and Zeru Gesese (Agazi). TNO was to prepare the ground for the future armed movement of Tigray.[15]

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, among them Mehari Tekle (Muse), to join the TPLF. The first batch of trainees was sent to the EPLF in January 1975.[16]

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 established the TPLF (original name Tigrinya: ተገድሎ ሐርነት ሕዝቢ ትግራይ; Tägadlo Harənnät Həzbi Təgray, "The Struggle for the Freedom of the People 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.[15] It then chose a formal leadership composed of Sehul (Chairman), Muse (Military Commander) and the seven TNO-founders. Berhu was appointed as political commissioner. Sehul played a crucial role in helping the nascent TPLF to establish itself among the local peasantry.[17]

Although some successful raids established its military credibility, the TPLF grew to only about 120 fighters in early 1976, but a rapidly expanding clandestine networks of supporters in the towns and support base among the peasantry provided vital supplies and intelligence. On 18 February 1976 a fighters' conference elected a new leadership: Berhu (Chairman), Muse (Military Committee), Abbay (Political Committee), Agazi (Socio-Economic Committee), Seyoum (Foreign Relations), Gidey, and Sebhat.[7] Meles became head of the political cadre school.[7]

The first three years of its existence were marked by a constant struggle for survival, unstable cooperation with the Eritrean forces, and power struggles against the other Tigrayan fronts: in 1975 the TPLF liquidated the TLF, in 1976-78 it fought back the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) in Shire and in 1978 it fought the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Party (EPRP) in eastern Tigray. Besides this the Front had to suffer heavy losses due to the Derg's offensives in the region.[18]

Although the TPLF, the ELF and the EPLF co-operated during the Derg offensives of 1976 and 1978 in Tigray and Eritrea, no stable alliance was formed. The ELF resented the liquidation of the TLF and viewed the relations between the EPLF and the TPLF as a serious threat. Since 1977 the ELF and the TPLF had conflicts over the issue of Eritrean settlers in western Tigray, who were organized under the ELF and rejected the TPLF-land reform.[18]

Relations with the EPLF also did not develop smoothly. Its material support was much less than the TPLF expected. Politically the EPLF preferred the multi-national EPRP to the ethno-regionalist TPLF with its then separatist agenda.[18]


Following the Derg's victory in the Ogaden War in February 1978, Mengestu Haile Mariam's new alliance with the Soviets and the revolutionary growth of his armed forces, the TPLF momentum seemed to slow.[19]

In February 1979 the TPLF held its first regular congress. It declared its struggle to be the second wäyyanä (kalay wäyyanä) and changed its Tigrinya name to Həzbayawi Wäyyanä Harənnätä Təgray. It adopted a new political program calling for self-determination within a democratic Ethiopia with independence as an option only if unity proved to be impossible.[20]

In retrospect, it is apparent that the 1978–1985 period further strengthened the TPLF. The Derg's increasingly alienating intervention, the Front's handling of the famine and of the refugee problems, as well as the foreign connections it built through its mission in Khartoum, all enabled the movement to mobilize and better equip more fighters and prepare for a change from guerrilla to frontal battles. Also, in the mid-1980s, developments within the TPLF led to a conceptual change from a struggle for the liberation of Tigray to that of all of Ethiopia.[21] They established their headquarters in caves in Addi Geza'iti, some 50 kilometres west of Mekelle.[22] The allied EPDM party used caves in Melfa (Dogu'a Tembien).

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

The TPLF succeeded in turning the catastrophic famine 1984–85 to its overall 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 of Tigray. Its humanitarian branch, the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), established in 1978, received large amounts of international humanitarian aid for famine victims and small-scale development projects in liberated Tigray.[21]

In July 1985, a congress of a few hundred selected cadres established the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT). The MLLT was conceived to be the nucleus of the future Marxist-Leninst vanguard part for the whole of Ethiopia. The MLLT invited the genuine revolutionaries within the ranks of Derg regime, which was then busy organizing its own communist party, the Ethiopian Workers' Party, to join it.[16]

After the congress, the TPLF and its mass organizations were ruthlessly brought under the control of the MLLT, dissenting cadres among them TPLF-co-founders Gidey and Berhu, were purged.

In December 1988, the TPLF and Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (EPDM, a TPLF-loyal splinter group from the EPRP, founded in 1980) founded the EPRDF as the nucleus of the envisaged United Democratic Front. In spring 1989 first the MLLT and then the TPLF held a congress. Abbay was elected Chairman of both but towards the end of 1989 Meles became the chairman of both organizations. In May 1989 the EPDM established the Ethiopian Marxist-Leninist Force (EMLF). In July 1989 MLLT and EMLF created 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 undercut the Free Officers Movement formed in 1987 by exiled Ethiopian officers in opposition to the Derg.[23] In May 1990 Oromo-members of the EPDM and politically re-educated Oromo-Prisoners-of-War founded the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO) to deny the Oromo Liberation Front the claim to be the exclusive representative of the Ethiopian Oromo.[9] In November 1990 an Oromo Marxist-Leninist Movement was established within the OPDO. Also in 1990 the TPLF created the Afar Democratic Union to undercut the Afar movements. Before 1985 it had already helped to establish liberation fronts in Gambella and Benshangul.

In early 1988, both the EPLF and the TPLF went on the offensive. The developing situation in both Eritrea and Tigray but also the shifting international context after the demise of the Soviet bloc induced the TPLF and EPLF to put their differences aside and to resume military cooperation. In 1989 the EPRDF formed a shadow government of Ethiopia administering the liberated areas under its control.[10]


Reflecting the changed international context after the demise of Soviet communism by 1990 the TPLF internationally avoided references to Marxism-Leninism. In February 1991 the EPRDF launched its offensive against the PDRE regime assisted by a large EPLF contingent. On 28 May 1991, the EPRDF entered Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and assumed control of Ethiopia. In July 1991, the EPRDF established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia.[24]

In May 1991, the TPLF had 80,000 fighters, the EPDM 8,000 and the OPDO 2,000. The total number of TPLF-members was well beyond 100,000.[7]

Reacting to the international political context after the demise of the Soviet Union the EPRDF/TPLF dropped all Marxist references in its political discourse, adopted a program of change based on multi-party politics, constitutional democracy, ethno-linguistic federalization and a mixed economy.[7] However, Ethiopia remains as a one-party dominant state.

In opposition: 2018–present[edit]

In November 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front Chairman 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.[25]

In September 2020, the TPLF asked the National Election Board of Ethiopia to help Tigray set up regional elections, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed canceled elections due to COVID-19. After the board determined that their request was denied, the TPLF worked with opposition parties in Tigray to set up its own election board to oversee their regional elections.[26] The election was open to international observers and 2.7 million people participated in the election. Prime Minister Ahmed has publicly stated that the federal government will not recognize the results of the election and has banned foreign journalists from traveling to Tigray to document the elections.[27]

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
152 / 152
152 / 152
152 / 152
2015 Abay Weldu 2,374,574
152 / 152
2020 Debretsion Gebremichael 2,590,620
190 / 190


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