Ethiopia: Is It Time to Say Goodbye to Tigray?

by Gemechu Aba Biya

The author is a prominent Ethiopian diaspora individual who is offering this column under a pseudonym because of the severe threat, intimidation, and vilification strategies used against high-profile figures in media, academia, publishing, and entertainment.

Like most Ethiopians, I was stunned when the Ethiopian government announced on June 28 that it was leaving Tigray. Just as I was elated when the TPLF was defeated, I was disappointed to hear the news that the TPLF has reentered Mekelle.

I understand how the relentless pressure from the U.S. and the EU forced the Ethiopian government to declare a unilateral ceasefire. Many Ethiopians find the government’s explanation for the ceasefire unconvincing. Normally, when a ceasefire is declared, both sides of the conflict accept the ceasefire, but in this case the TPLF has rejected it and sworn to continue fighting the Ethiopian National Defense Forces. According to the TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda, “We want to degrade as many enemy capabilities as possible”.

This means the war will most likely continue for a while until the TPLF is exhausted, physically, psychologically, and materially. Exhausted, it shall be. If the TPLF goes through its belligerence and attacks the Ethiopian army, the war will no longer be guerrilla warfare; it will be conventional warfare again, and we have witnessed how badly the TPLF performs in a conventional warfare. It will be routed again.

Second, even if one were to accept the unilateral declaration of the ceasefire, some people wonder why the Ethiopian government withdrew completely from Tigray. By all accounts, the government was controlling most of Tigray, especially the major cities and towns. To suddenly leave the area it controls and hand it over to the TPLF seems unfathomable to some Ethiopians.

Third, many people argue the withdrawal was an irresponsible decision, irrespective of its tactical and strategic merits. The government had convinced thousands of Tigrayans to work with it and now it has abandoned them to be slaughtered by the TPLF terrorists. Media reports indicate that so far, the TPLF has executed 50 individuals in Mekele alone. The government should have taken the people who were working with it out of Tigray when it withdrew the army. There are also concerns that the TPLF may hold the thousands of non-Tigrayan students attending universities in Tigray as hostages to extort funds, to extract concessions, to demand political compromises from the federal government.

While these are legitimate points that some people have raised, the government had to withdraw from Tigray because the Ethiopian army was increasingly seen as an occupying force. It lacked the support of the population, in part due to the mishandling of the crisis by the government. The threat of economic sanctions by the U.S. contributed to the decision to withdraw. The crucial factor, however, was the shift in support from the government to the TPLF over the course of the crisis. Without the support of the populace, it was impossible to defeat the TPLF. In the conventional war, the TPLF was decisively defeated in a short time; in the guerrilla war, it became the victor.

Fifty years of preparatory work

The resurgence of the TPLF raises an important question about the future of Tigray within Ethiopia. Getachew Reda has promised that the TPLF will hold a referendum on the independence of Tigray, but I doubt it very much if the TPLF would hold such a referendum at this time.

The timing is exceptionally bad to declare independence. The TPLF is economically and militarily too weak to lead an independent Tigray, despite Getachew’s bravado. Its main supporter, Egypt, is not in a position to provide long-term financial support to the TPLF. If he expects the rest of the Ethiopian people to beg the TPLF to stay within Ethiopia, he is utterly wrong. No more. Today, the Ethiopian people would be glad to see a TPLF-ruled Tigray separate from Ethiopia. A TPLF-ruled Tigray is a cancer to Ethiopia’s body politic. It must be removed.

When the TPLF was in power for the last 30 years, it was preparing meticulously for Tigray’s independence by undermining Ethiopia’s national unity and by creating the favorable economic, political, and social conditions for Tigray’s independence.

To build its economic base, it created a middle class out of thin air by stealing Ethiopia’s resources and giving them to its Tigrayan supporters. It looted funds of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and the Agricultural and Development Bank of Ethiopia. It confiscated land belonging to farmers. It stole assets belonging to the Ethiopian state and transferred them to the Endowment Fund for Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). Using its ill-gotten physical and financial resources, EFFORT has been active in all sectors of the Ethiopian economy.

In a short period, the TPLF created millionaires out of Tigrayan street peddlers, taxi drivers, truck drivers, daily laborers, ordinary soldiers, and commissioned officers. A short visit to corruption village in Mekele would reveal the amount of wealth looted from the rest of Ethiopia, not to mention the high rises in Kebele 22 of Addis Ababa. The TPLF and the robbers it created smuggled more than US $1 billion a year out of Ethiopia since the TPLF came to power, for a total of US $30 billion, a UN study shows. In 2009 alone, the TPLF thieves stole US$ 3.29 billion dollars from Ethiopia.

The TPLF’s strategy has paid off handsomely. It is this middle class, the spoiled child of the organization, that has been instrumental in reviving the TPLF by waging a relentless propaganda campaign against the Ethiopian government and people, both inside and outside Ethiopia. Using the financial resources that it stole from Ethiopia, the Tigrayan middle class were able to persuade unscrupulous reporters like Cara Anna of the Associated Press and Nima Elbagir of CNN to mislead the Western public.

It found activists, masquerading as “experts”, like Alex De Waal of World Peace Foundation and Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council to do the TPLF’s propaganda work against Ethiopia. It paid two US lobbying firms to influence the Biden administration to take a hostile stand against the Ethiopian government. It financed the anti-Ethiopian army propaganda campaign, inside and outside Ethiopia. With its steadfast PR crusades, the Tigrayan elite successfully molded the media narrative of the Ethiopian soldiers as callous rapists, thieves, and war criminals.

The TPLF has also tried to expand its social and political base, beyond its members, by buying the support of ordinary Tigrayans. Using the resources it looted from the rest of Ethiopia and its dominant position in the government, the TPLF established more than 40 factories Tigray. Tigray has the largest number of manufacturing plants outside Addis Ababa. There are tens and thousands of Tigryans working for TPLF-owned companies and for foreign companies that were given special tax incentives to open shop in Tigray.

Similarly, the TPLF has attempted to buy the support of Tigrayan farmers by providing them with subsidized seeds, fertilizers, and social net programs, financed by the rest of Ethiopia. Tigray receives the largest amount of government-run social safety programs in Ethiopia. Tigray has the largest number of clinics, health stations, hospitals, elementary schools, secondary schools, and universities in comparison to the size of its population.

Many of the best institutions in Ethiopia are located in Tigray. The region has the highest density of road networks in Ethiopia. Despite the lack of natural resources, Tigray has the highest level human development index in Ethiopia. The claim that some politicians make about how the TPLF has neglected Tigray is patently false. It has not neglected Tigray; On the contrary, it has concentrated Ethiopia’s financial resources in Tigray.

It is not surprising that in the fight between the TPLF and the Ethiopian army, the majority of the Tigrayan people have sided with the TPLF. They have benefited materially from the TPLF’s stay in power and they have bought the ethnicist propaganda. After the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, in the short run, the TPLF will become even more popular than it has ever been before, but it is doubtful if the honeymoon will last for a long time.

The most opportune moment to declare independence

The TPLF has consistently maintained that unless it stays in power, it will destroy Ethiopia to create a viable independent Tigray. In 2018 when it was ousted from power, its leadership took refuge in Mekele and started its preparation to declare Tigray’s independence. Between 2019 and 2020, the TPLF declared that Tigray was a de facto independent country. It was waiting for the most opportune time to formally declare independence from Ethiopia. On November 3, 2020, it attacked the bases of the Northern Command to overthrow the Ethiopian government, hoping either to come to power or to declare independence.

Its foreign supporters were informed of the TPLF’s decision in advance. Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council appeared on BBC television in November 2020 and argued that ethnic federalism, the very system that the TPLF created, was no longer acceptable to the TPLF. He asserted that the TPLF was fighting for self-determination, the euphemism for independence. The European Union prepared a draft resolution that urged the Ethiopian government to respect article 39 of Ethiopia’s constitution and allow the TPLF to hold a referendum on independence.

Ethiopians should not be fooled anymore about the TPLF’s political objective: to destroy Ethiopia to create an independent Tigray. Getachew Reda has told us that he is “too intelligent not to destroy Ethiopia”. In 1976, one year after it was created, the TPLF declared that its main political objective was to create an independent Tigray Republic. It had to downplay independence because the people of Tigray opposed it, but the TPLF has never renounced its 1976 manifesto to this very date. Its name, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, says it all. It has been biding its time to declare independence, and it thought November 3, 2020 was the right time. We know what happened.

Getachew Reda, a man intoxicated with Amhara hatred, has stated that the TPLF will not accept Amharas even as neigbours, let alone live with them in one country. Others have echoed his vile hatred of the Amhara people and the Ethiopian state. He has announced that the TPLF is preparing to attack the Amhara people to reclaim the lands that have been liberated before declaring independence. We will see how far his war mongering will go.

The Ethiopian people have sacrificed a lot over the last 50 years to keep Tigray within Ethiopia. They have paid a lot in blood and treasure to prevent Tigray from seceding. The resources wasted and lives sacrificed in keeping Tigray within Ethiopia has been excessive. A TPLF-ruled Tigray is not worth the sacrifice of a single life.

Ethiopia needs to liberate itself from the TPLF, which has set the wrong, misguided, and destructive agenda for Ethiopians for the last 50 years. Ethiopians believe in the equality of all Ethiopians, while the TPLF harps on the golden people of Tigray. Ethiopians would like to see the transformation of the economy, the TPLF advocates the ethnicization of the economy. Ethiopians encourage inclusivity, the TPLF promotes exclusivity. The contrast between what Ethiopians want for their country and what the TPLF stands for could not be any greater. Frankly, the Ethiopian people are sick and tired of talking about the TPLF and its agenda. It is time to move on.

In Ethiopia there are more serious problems than accommodating the destructive agenda of the TPLF. There are many more Ethiopians than Tigryans whose problems have been neglected because of the preoccupation with the TPLF political program. Ethiopians must reject this platform along with the TPLF-ruled Tigray once and for all.

Over the last 50 years, the main source of political instability in Ethiopia has been the TPLF. And as long as the avowed enemy of the Ethiopian state remains active within Ethiopia, there will never be peace and stability in Ethiopia. It will be much easier to deal with it as an external enemy than an internal one. The lines will be clearly drawn, and it will be easier to take decisive action. Ethiopia has nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting rid of a hostile, ungrateful, and Ethio-phobic TPLF-ruled Tigray.

Hold a referendum in Tigray

The federal government should not wait for the TPLF to hold the referendum on independence in Tigray. It should hold its own referendum immediately, under the auspices of the UN, on the independence of Tigray. Just as the TPLF has been waiting for the favorable occasion to declare independence, this is the most opportune time for Ethiopia to say goodbye to the TPLF-ruled Tigray.

The “Greater Tigray” that the TPLF created has now shrunk to little Tigray. The TPLF-occupied fertile lands of Wollo, Gondar, and Affar have been liberated and returned to their rightful owners. The TPLF’s military capabilities have been downgraded substantially; it can no longer launch rocket attacks on Bahir Dar or Gondar. If it tries to do so after independence, Ethiopia can respond in kind and even more. The TPLF has lost its most important sources of revenue, the companies owned by EFFORT. The remaining companies, for example Wogagen Bank, should be nationalized.

The heavy military equipment that it had amassed has been repossessed by Ethiopian forces. The alliance between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been strengthened. The relationship between the Ethiopian and Eritrean people will become stronger, especially if the TPLF remains in power in Tigray. It has lost its strategic border with Sudan through which it would have been to import heavy military weapons. If there ever was the best time to say goodbye to the TPLF-ruled Tigray, this is it.

Many people, I am sure, will respond to this article by saying it is only the Tigrayan elite that wants independence, and that the majority of ordinary Tigrayans would prefer to live peacefully with the rest of the Ethiopian people. I have absolutely no doubt that this is the case, and yet it has always been a small section of the elite that play a leading role in any historical trajectory of a nation, for good or ill. We have also witnessed how ordinary people in Tigray have sided with the TPLF during the war.

Let the TPLF feed the Tigrayan people. Let the TPLF provide them with subsidized oil, gasoline, sugar, wheat, fertilizers, seeds, and other goods. Let the TPLF provide them with education, employment, foreign exchange, fertile land, health care services, and business opportunities. The people of Tigray do not seem to appreciate that the rest of the Ethiopian people have been subsidizing the development of Tigray for far too long.

As brothers and sisters, the rest of the Ethiopian people have no problem sharing their scarce resources with the people of Tigray, but they are under no obligation to embrace the avowed enemy of Ethiopia. It is time to go our separate ways.

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.