The Pitfalls of TPLF and EPLF leadership: A Retrospective Analysis

March 2012, By Zerihun A Woldeselassie,University of Bergen, Department of Social Anthropology, Norway

When they demolished the Derg-regime in the early 1990s, through a collation of ethnic or nationalist movements, the TPLF (Tigray Liberation Front) and EPLF (Eritrean Liberation Front) (and other) political movement leaders had the ostensible and impetuous dream of establishing peaceful and friendly countries through two short and long term plans. The short-term plan was driven by the impulse to let Eritrea secede from Ethiopia while trying to make it legitimate in any way possible. This was facilitated through a) the characterization of “the Eritrean question” as colonialism against the existing academic consensus, and b) the immediate and formal recognition of the Eritrean independence, by the TPLF-led Ethiopian government even though TPLF, with its coalition was not an elected Ethiopian government at the time.

The long term but furtive plan was the obstinate desire to control, for some years to come, state power in Ethiopia and Eritrea using Ethnicity and Nationalism as legitimizing ideologies. The Eritreans felling into the clutches of the EPLF can only be explained by the promotion of a ‘nation-state’ style nationalist ideology by the EPLF in which ordinary Eritreans were told how they were different if not unique from other Peoples in the horn, especially from their former co-citizens, Ethiopians. Moreover, an independent Eritrean state, they were promised, would end oppression and suffering and bring prosperity, welfare, democracy and peace. TPLF in its turn legitimized its state control of the Ethiopian empire state through ethno-nationalist ideologies characterized by contradictory political moves. On the one hand, this is accomplished by marginalizing and excluding other competing ethno-nationalist movements (such as the OLF for example, which for various reasons, I do not discuss in this paper). On the other TPLF had also legitimized its power by institutionalizing what many commentators characterize as pseudo-federal state system through the practice of “encadrement” in which the elites of the various ethnic groups in the country (which are now nation, nationalities and peoples) are accorded access to state power and resources in as much as they are not subversive to the regime or power of the ruling elites.

To the dismay of some of the leaders as well as the majority ardent followers of the two parties, after almost 20 years of Eritrean independence and control of state power in Ethiopia and Eritrea, not only are they yet trying to be stable political communities, there is also no friendly or plausible political relationship between the two states. In fact, the relationship between the two countries is not something they can ignore or avoid without putting in place some legal and political arrangement that consider the geographical, cultural, historical and political relationships of the two respective populations. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that as pro-secessionist and communist oriented movements they did not care about the possible and future effects of creating a new state and a new boundary in the eastern african region. In addition to the growing migration, sufferings, inequality, the bloody war that broke out early in 1998, despite the fact that when TPLF and EPLF came to power, they arrogated to themselves the wisdom of establishing a stable and peaceful political orders was a major evidence. Not only the war claimed the lives of many human beings from both sides but also there is still a hostile relationship with erratic military raids and other incidents that show no avail.

For a neutral and critical observer the leadership of the two parties have so far preferred to avoid accountability by pointing finger on each other. The EPLF-led Eritrean leaders blame their TPLF counterparts for their failure to enforce the Algiers Agreement and the Boundary Commission ruling. They reduce everything to the nature of TPLF: its psychological, political and cultural motive, ‘behaviour’, history and organisation. The TPLF-dominated Ethiopian leaders in their part do the same but emphasize the dogmatic position upheld by the EPLF leadership and consequently adopt a policy, which they think could contain and isolate Eritrea while at the same time insisting that there should be further talks before any enforcement of the ruling of the Commission.

Such dispute, however, does not deal with the very basis of the conflict in the first place. It rather eschewed those structural questions that should have been dealt, from the very outset, by pragmatic, responsible and rational political leaders, who should have thought seriously not only regarding the consequences of this on the two populations, but also about their future relationship in respect to lasting regional and national peace, equality, democracy and rule of law – an important issues which is still not considered by the OLF and ONLF leaders and supporters, particularly in the diaspora, who romanticized secession as if it would necessarily end suffering/opression and bring peace to the region or the peoples they claim to represent.

Considering the current strained relationship, it is fair to argue that rather than rushing into the business of expediting Eritrean secession and controlling of state power, the TPLF-leadership, who claimed a self-ascribed moral and revolutionary authority of “liberating Ethiopian Peoples”, could at least have addressed the following main issues with their EPLF counterparts. First, was Emperor Haile Selassie’s annexation of Eritrea in 1962 and the subsequent union with the Ethiopia empire-state colonialism? What was and is the consensus or suggested points regarding this by the existing majority academics? Second, how can we legally and politically maintain the interest of the two Peoples, in situation of secession, in a way that does not favour one at the expense of the other? Third, how can we incorporate the different ethnicities, identities, voices, at different levels, of the two peoples in such processes? Fourth, does EPRDF have a (legal or political) legitimacy of power to facilitate and officially recognize an independent Eritrea? Howe does that relate to the question of Ethiopian sovereignty, as a state?

Neither TPLF nor EPLF leaders had rational and scientifically supported explanations for such questions. They probably had already raised and discussed some of these issues. Yet it is now self-evident that like most if not all secessionist movements, they had not dealt with them with the will and strong desire of seeking long term peace and political stability in the region. First, there has been an overwhelming consensus among the academics that Eritrean annexation of Eritrea was not colonialism. Second, following the secession of Eritrea, the elites of the latter openly attempted to (unfairly) benefit their newly formed nation through illegal means. Third, as a party not yet elected by any kind of election EPRDF had no any legal and political mandate to facilitate the secession of Eritrea. For example, it should have suspended the recognition and passed such issues to the responsibility of the Ethiopian people themselves, as Ethiopia and the world did to the state of the Somaliland. In that, EPRDF did not protect Ethiopian sovereignty. Fourth, neither TPLF nor EPLF allowed the establishment of free civil society that help to negotiate for peace from below. Both fronts supressed, controlled and politicized any genuine local and grass root level independent organisation for their political ends. Fifth, it is now evident that as peace demands solidarity, empathy and mediation across linguistic and religious boundaries, self-determination does not necessarily lead to peace, stability and freedom.

In addition to Eritrea, Somalia and S.Sudan are case in points. I want my readers, here to understand that by raising such questions, I am not longing for the returning to the status quo ante bellum. The main point rather, though in hindsight is to demonstrate the political mistake of the TPLF and EPLF leadership in properly dealing with the most fundamental issues that affect the long-term relationship, political and economic interest as well as historical and cultural ties of the populations in the two countries. And this has immensely contributed to the current hostile, volatile and fragile nature of their relationship and the failure in establishing sustainable peace and security in the region.

Referring to the Eritrean case in his work entitled Nation Building, State Construction and Development in Africa, Andebrhan Welde Giorgis, an Eritrean writer recently (2010) argues that “the state in Eritrea, … has failed to provide for the needs, promote the well being, cater to the aspirations and safeguard the security of the people. It is characterized by a crisis of legitimacy, delivery and relevance.” pp. 1. “The promise to create a modern, advanced and competitive economy within two decades has failed to materialize, leaving the Eritrean economy in tatters.” pp.13. Such statements not only clearly imply that the very reality on the ground is far from what is envisaged through secession or rather embellished by EPLF’s nationalist ideology but also indicates that the fundamental question is whether Eritrea is a viable state to its citizens without any good and friendly political, legal and economic relationship with its immediate neighbour, Ethiopia.

Regarding the Ethiopian situation, one recognized academics, J. Abbink (2009), in his recent article entitled The Ethiopian Second Republic and the Fragile ’Social Contract’, Africa Spectrum, 44, 2, wrote that – ”In post-1991 Ethiopia ethnic identities, mainly in the form of linguistic-cultural background and based on Stalin’s conception of “nationalities” (originally in his work The National Question and Marxism, 1914) were recognized politically and made the basis of regional and local administrations, to be filled by local people (often to the exclusion of so-called “non-natives” despite their job qualifications). As such this was a new answer to the problems of multi-ethnic Ethiopia, but the tensions between population groups on the national and local level were far from solved by it. Ethno-political competition emerged, also exclusionist discriminatory practices, and conflicts on power and budgets” pp. 13. The argument of Abbink clearly indicates that notwithstanding some achievements especially in respect to use of local language and economic growth, the TPLF re-configuration of the Ethiopian empire along ethnic lines has only created a fragile political order that failed to solve ethnic tension and competition contrary to what the TPLF-led EPRDF leaders flaunt.

One shouldn’t therefore wonder why after promoting “self-determination” through a long history of “liberation” movement and coalition of “liberation struggles”, the TPLF and EPLF “liberators” failed to create a lasting peace and stability between Eritrea and Ethiopia to the satisfaction and aspiration of their respective citizens. This is instructive as to how we should see the claims of similar movements like OLF and ONLF, whose true aim is to finally get referendum and promote secession as the best political solution, even though experience reflects the contrary. I argue that rather than aspiring for sustainable peace and devolution of power (which should be the primary goal of any liberation movement, of course theoretically) to the various Ethiopian and Eritrean populations, the main aim of the TPLF and EPLF leadership was controlling state power and achieving their eccentric objectives. These objectives had varied natures that could be personal and collective, appealing to individual as well as group motives. In the meantime, several unforeseen circumstances had in fact emerged and today’s situation needs a different analytical framework than stipulated here. Nevertheless, considering the present scenario retrospectively one can conclude that both TPLF and EPLF leadership had only pursued their respective party interest against what is plausible and common to all Ethiopians or both Ethiopians and Eritreans.

This political behaviour is still evident in TPLF-leaders who use all the power at their disposal to punish or marginalize (rather than negotiate and create national consensus) any dissent voice that doesn’t directly support or at least sympathize with what they politically or ideologically think is the only and better political idea and practice to the Ethiopian population. Similar demeanour is still observed in EPLF-leaders who resorted to Machiavellian tactics in order to achieve their short-sighted end of holding to power, even if that is immoral, oppressive or inimical to the long-term interest of Ethiopian and Eritrean populations.

On the other hand, the TPLF-led Ethiopian government now seems to have the firm stand that the only solution regarding Eritrea is negotiations, which I suspect, set to correct, if possible, past-mistakes by addressing any lingering issues and re-defining the future political and economic relationship between the two Peoples. In its weekly publication A Week in the Horn, the Ministry of Ethiopian Foreign Affairs publish a briefing entitled “Talking, not shooting is the only choice for Eritrea” seems to imply this position by noting that “the Ethiopian Government still upholds its determination that the problems between Eritrea and Ethiopia can only be resolved through negotiations and dialogue”. Whether the two leaderships will come to a table and begin to sort out and discuss their issues to reach a rational and legal consensus regarding not only the border case, but also other vital matters that have greater implications to the lives of ordinary Ethiopians and Eritreans is not clear, at least to the near future. However, we now know for sure that the negotiation and dialogue, the EPRDF is now insisting should have been desired and pursued 20 years ago in good time and condition.

One may of course ask why the TPLF leadership failed to negotiate with the EPLF from the very outset? The evident explanation is that notwithstanding their limitation of fully understanding the peace and conflict dynamics, when they organized themselves based on ethnic and nationalist ideologies and finally were able to succeed (because of in fact different factors) in removing the Derg-regime in the early 1990s through a solidarity of struugle, the TPLF and EPLF-leadership either were driven by sentiments of grievances, competition, irrelevant ideology or they didn’t have the will to foresee and negotiate for a lasting, all inclusive and sustainable peace considering the long term ramification of most of their political decisions on the lives of the ordinary human beings in that region.

Needless to say that the interest or foreign policy of global powers especially that of the West in general and the USA and regional forces in particular had played their share directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, at the end of the day the various social and political elites of the two parties including their ardent supporters, as the main actors and decision-makers personalities, cannot elude responsibility for the post-socialist conflict, sufferings, predicament and generally plight of the peoples of the two countries. Any reconciliation, transformation of conflict should therefore consider political accountability and discussion then dialogue and rational consensus if there would in the future be a desire to move to long term peace and political settlement both within and between the two populations.

Therefore, had the leadership of the two parties were willing and not merely motivated by grievances and implausible ideology they could have consulted neutral academics and all other voices or stake holders that have been subsequently and consciously marginalized and excluded from the processes of creating peace and stable political order in the two countries. By doing this not only they could have possibly avoided the war and the current deadlock (no peace/nor war policy) but also the now anti-EPRDF and anti-TPLF (so called opposition groups or) forces would have allied with them and share the responsibility and burden of building Ethiopia and bringing peace, equality, democracy, the rule of law and development in that troubled region. In fact, we could have seen a different political discourse or scenario than what we are now witnessing. Generally, what we are now experiencing between Ethiopia and Eritrea is the unforeseen and embarrassing pitfalls if not pratfalls of the elites of TPLF and EPLF leadership.


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