Tigray People's Liberation Front
|Deputy Chairman||Fetlework Gebregziabher|
|Founded||February 18, 1975|
|National affiliation||Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front|
|Colors||Red & Gold|
|Seats in the House of Peoples' Representatives||
38 / 547
|This article is part of a series on the|
politics and government of
The Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) (Tigrinya: ሕዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ; Həzbayawi Wäyyanä Harənnät Təgray, "Popular Struggle for the Freedom of Tigray"; popularly known as Wäyyanä), according to its official history, was established on 18 February 1975 in Dedebit, western Tigray. Within 16 years it grew from a few dozen men into the most powerful of the armed liberation movements in Ethiopia. Leading a coalition of movements named the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since 1989, and with the help of its ally, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), it inflicted a total military defeat on the Derg regime (Provisional Military Administrative Council) and established on 28 May 1991 a new regime that has ruled Ethiopia ever since. The TPLF and the EPLF are the only African liberation fronts whose armed struggle against a military vastly superior enemy, conducted as a "protracted peoples' war", ended with a total military victory and skillfully combined the struggle for national self-determination with radical socio-economic changes.
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. 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.
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. Whereas the multinational left movements subordinated the national self-determination of the Ethiopian nationalities to class struggle, the Marxists of TUSA argued that due to the existing inequalities among Ethiopian nationalities for self-determination as the launching pad for the ultimate socialist revolution.
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.
It secretly approached both the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and the 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.
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. 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.
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. Meles became head of the political cadre school.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In retrospect however, it is apparent that the 1978-85 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 Khartuom, 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Reflecting the changed international context after the demise of Soviet communism by 1990 the TPLF internationally avoided references to Marxism-Leninsim. In February 1991 the EPRDF launched its final offensive against the Derg regime assisted by a large EPLF contingent. When on 28 May 1991 the EPRDF entered Addis Ababa and took power as the Provisional Government of Ethiopia, the TPLF had 80,000, the EPDM 8,000 and the OPDO 2,000 fighters. The total number of TPLF-members was well beyond 100,000.
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 democratic change based on multi-party, democracy, ethno-linguistic federalization and a mixed economy.
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