The Pitfalls of TPLF and EPLF leadership: A Retrospective Analysis

By Zerihun

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 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 then TPLF-led Ethiopian government, despite the fact that 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 are told how they are different if not unique from other Peoples in the horn, especially from their former co-citizens, Ethiopians. And 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 in Ethiopia 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.But it seems obvious that as pro-secessionist movements they didn’t care about the possible and future effects of creating a new state and a new boundary. 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 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 continued and erratic military raid 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. The Ethiopian leaders in their part 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, doesn’t deal with the very basis of the conflict in the first place. It rather eschews those structural questions that should have been dealt, from the very outset, by 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, who romanticize secession as if it would necessarily bring peace to the region.

Looking into 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 legal authority of “liberating Ethiopian” populations, 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 Ethiopian 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 doesn’t favor one at the expense of the other? Third, how can we incorporate the different (diversities of) voices of the two peoples in such processes? Fourth, does EPRDF have a legitimacy of power to facilitate and officially recognize an independent Eritrea? Does winning a war necessarily lead to peace? Howe does the position of TPLF relate to the question of Ethiopian sovereignty as a state?

Neither TPLF nor EPLF leaders had rational, pragmatic 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 hadn’t dealt with them with the will and strong desire for conflict transformation and seeking long term peace and political stability in the region. First, there is and was an overwhelming consensus among the academics that Eritrean annexation of Eritrea was not colonialism. Second, the referendum as well as the subsequent relationship was driven by the logic of resentment and constructing/marginalizing the political others. Third, as a party not yet elected by any kind of election EPRDF had no any legal 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. In that EPRDF didn’t protect Ethiopian sovereignty. Fourth, neither TPLF nor EPLF allowed the establishment of free civil society.

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 not properly dealing with the most fundamental issues of peace and political stabilities in the region which have affected 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 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, 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 neighbor, 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 re-configuration of the Ethiopian empire along ethnic lines has also created a fragile political order that failed to solve tension and competition among ethnic-elites contrary to what the 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 parochial movements like OLF and ONLF, whose true aim is boundary marking and political closure through referendum while romanticizing  secession as a good solution, despite the fact that experience (from Somalia for example), reflects the contrary.

I argue that rather than sustainable peace and devolution of power (which should be the primary goal of any liberation movement, of course theoretically) to the Ethiopian and Eritrean populations, the main aim of the TPLF and EPLF leadership were 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 a number of unforeseen circumstances had in fact emerged and today’s situation needs a different analytical framework than stipulated here. Nevertheless, looking into the present scenario in retrospective one can conclude that both TPLF and EPLF leadership had only pursued their respective interest and motive (in a dogmatic rather than pragmatic manner) against what is plausible and common to all Ethiopians or both Ethiopians and Eritreans.

This political behavior is still evident in TPLF-leaders who use all the power at their disposal to punish or marginalize (rather than negotiate and engage) 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 behaviour is still observed in EPLF-leaders who resorted to a Stalinist style and tactics in order to achieve what they think is the right way to build Eritrea as a nation-state, even if that is 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. This has to be seen partly in the context of local demand and political mobilizations that challenges Eritrean claim of Ethiopian territory as per Algers arbitration. 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 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, the TPLF and EPLF-leadership either were driven primarily by sentiments of grievances and competition for political and economic resources while essentialsing lingustic differences. Moreover, they didn’t have the relevant political competence and will to foresee and negotiate for a lasting 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 in particular had played their share directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, at the end of the day the various elites of the two parties including their ardent supporters, as the main actors and decision-makers personalities, cannot elude responsibility for the post-socialist predicament and plight of the peoples of the two countries. Any reconciliation, transformation of conflict and creating consensus should therefore consider this if there will in the future be a genuine  and pragmatic desire to move to long term peace and political settlement both within and among the two populations.

Therefore, had the leadership of the two parties were not merely motivated by grievances, competition for potical power through “oppression 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 forces (so called opposition groups who are also mimicking both  TPLF and EPLF) would have allied with them and share not only their right to protest but also the responsibility and burden of building and bringing peace, equality, democracy, the rule of law and development to populations of that 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.