Analysis Africa

The Tigray People's Liberation Front and the Ethiopian Conflict

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Several weeks of fighting culminated in the recapture of the Tigray region by Ethiopia’s federal government on November 28. Victory was declared following the capture of the region’s capital, Mekelle,[1] which had been under the control of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The pressing question now is what happens next.

Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace prize winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, now faces a fledging economy and a prolonged humanitarian crisis, as well as a protracted armed conflict that has ceased but not necessarily ended.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)[2] is an ethno-nationalist group that has fought with successive Ethiopian governments. It is the military wing of a nationalist movement of urban elites known as the Tigrayan National Organization (TNO). The movement is not likely to subside.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front

The TPLF has a history of armed resistance. Tigray’s terrain is mountainous and shares borders with Sudan and Eritrea. Moving between the three countries, in 1991 the movement used guerrilla warfare tactics to undermine the control of Ethiopia’s communist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam. Peace with the dominant Oromo people ensued, only for war to revive seven years later (1998-2000).

The Ethiopian government has made serious efforts to vanquish a potential rebellion by the powerful ethnically based party, known as TPLF[3], which dominated the central government for nearly three decades until Abiy came to power in 2018.

The election of Abiy [4] brought to the fore the hope of lasting peace in Ethiopia. Abiy campaigned on the promise of ethnic reconciliation, in a 115-million strong country that has made leaps forward in terms of economic development but is still entrapped in interethnic conflict. Indeed, the Ethiopian leader was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace prize for brokering a peace deal with neighbouring Somalia, ending a multiannual conflict.

But the resurgence of the Tirgay conflict[5] has carried a heavy toll in terms of casualties while there are more than 43,000 refugees who have fled to neighbouring Sudan. The location of the Tirgay region raises the spectre of destabilisation[6] across the Horn of Africa. TPLF’s rocket attacks in neighbouring Eritrea are a case in point.

Undoing years of good work

The conflict sets a dangerous precedent. The new Ethiopian government has sought to bolster its political capital by putting its weight behind a constitutional process that allows for greater autonomy within the Ethiopian Federation. For instance, following a constitutionally prescribed process, the Sidama people voted to form their own federal state last year.

Violent movements that undermine the constitutional process call into question the possibility of political accommodation. Civilians are being forced into existential dilemmas, having to chose between support for TPLF and the Federal government in a Tirgay majority region. The pattern of violent regimentation of ethnic lines is known from Bosnia to every corner of Africa, including Ethiopia. And the hope that Ethiopia is transcending its past to make a qualitative leap forward is called into question.



[1] Steven Feldstein (2020). Ethiopia’s Conflict in Tigray Presents Hard Decisions. [Online] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

[2] Aregawi Berhe (2004). The origins of The Tigray People’s Liberation Front. [Online] African Affairs. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

[3] Gabriel Negatu and Cameron Hudson (2020). Experts react: Understanding the conflict in Tigray. [Online] The Atlantic Council. Available at: [Accessed 12 Dec. 2020].

[4] Tom Wheeldon (2018). Tigray conflict threatens to ‘catalyse’ tensions elsewhere in Ethiopia. [Online] France 24. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

[5] Alex De Waal (2020). Tigray crisis viewpoint: Why Ethiopia is spiralling out of control. [Online] BBC. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2020].

[6] Reuters Staff (2020). Tigray forces claim to have shot down Ethiopian plane, taken town. [Online] Reuters.  Available at: [Accessed 12 Dec. 2020].