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  • Ethiopia, the TPLF, and the Roots of the 2001 Political Tremor1
  • Paulos Milkias

The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has its roots in the Marxist-oriented Tigray university students' movement organized at Haile Selassie University in 1974 under the name Mahber Gesgesti Behere Tigray, generally known by its acronym, MAGEBT, which stands for Progressive [Tigray People's Movement].2 The founders claim that even though the movement was tactically designed to be nationalistic it was, strategically, pan-Ethiopian.3

The primary structural document that the movement produced in the late 1970s, however, shows it to be Tigrayan nationalist and not Ethiopian oriented in its content. It was also pro-Eritrean independence.4 The original manifesto was drafted clearly as referring to a Tigrayan ethnic struggle for independence, not as one seeking the political liberation of Ethiopia from the dictatorship of the Derg.5 In fact, this stand did not change until 1984.

MAGEBT as a movement was based on the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. Politburo and Central Committee members were elected by a majority of the leadership, whose legality was watched by an auditing commission. As Lenin dictated in What Is to Be Done, factionalism was strictly prohibited.6 Ideas would filter upward but once policies were adopted, power was intended to flow only downward. Breaking this rule was punishable by severe penalties including death. As the struggle progressed in the countryside, the name of the movement was changed to Tegadlo Harnet Hizbi Tigray, the Tigray People's Revolutionary Movement.7 Later, it was renamed the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). [End Page 13]

In the 1980s, the TPLF received backing almost exclusively from among the Tigrayan population of northern Ethiopia. Nevertheless, it was said to be devoted to the structuring of one united national front standing for all classes and ethnic groups struggling against the Mengistu dictatorship. A proposal suggesting the formation of a united front grounded on a "minimum program" with the single purpose of smashing Mengistu's dictatorship was released on 8 May 1984. By this time, the TPLF had extended its reach into most of Tigray and adjacent parts of Wallo, Gondar, and Gojam. The guerrilla movement was very clear about the ideology it intended to implement in Tigray and Ethiopia: it was none other than the tenets of the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray based on the Albanian model.

During the two months following the 1988 New Year, the TPLF was engaged in a life and death struggle against the central government army. By 1989, the Ethiopian army had withdrawn completely from the province and the TPLF had seized the entire territory of Tigray, including major towns such as Makale, Aksum, and Endaselassie.

When, in 1989, Mengistu Haile Mariam slaughtered more than 200 officers on the battlefield, including the well-trained and most experienced generals that Emperor Haile Selassie's government had carefully trained in military academies, the TPLF moved quickly to develop a united front. In January 1989, it entered into an alliance with the Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (EPDM), a breakaway organization from the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) constituted mainly of Amharas from Gondar, Wallo, and Northern Showa. The EPDM military claimed to be in control of some 2.5 million people by the fall of 1989.

The EPDM and the TPLF had coordinated their military activities during the previous decade, but they had not formed a political unit. The EPDM's agenda, like that of the TPLF, recognized the right of all nationalities to self-determination, up to and including secession, and the establishment of a democratic Ethiopia once Mengistu had been defeated.

The TPLF also brought together military captives of Oromo lineage from the war with the Derg, and, together with defectors from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), created the Oromo People's Democratic [End Page 14] Organization (OPDO) to claim legitimacy in Oromia. Later, the Southern Ethiopia People's Democratic Front (SEPDF) was added to the group in order to expand into southern Ethiopian territories that are not populated by Oromos or Somalis.

The overall political party was named the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF's charter, which borrowed...


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