Events in Ethiopia continue to rapidly develop. Ethiopian federal forces have taken control of a string of major towns and cities in Tigray Region in recent days, and they are now reported to be on the outskirts of Mekelle, the regional capital. Meanwhile, high-level delegations from both the Ethiopian government and the TPLF have reportedly flown to South Africa for much-awaited peace talks.
Like all conflicts, the one that has been raging in northern Ethiopia during the past two years has been fought both on the ground and along the information front. Within the latter battle, a recurring, ever-present element has been disinformation. In fact, disinformation has remained central and dominant since the very beginning of the conflict. For instance, mere hours after the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) initiated the conflict with its unprovoked November 2020 attack on Ethiopia’s northern command outposts, the group’s supporters launched the #TigrayGenocide hashtag campaign.
While there have been numerous other examples of disinformation throughout the duration of the devastating conflict, one of the most persistent and harmful surrounds the claims that the TPLF is genuinely “committed to peace”. The historical record, spanning recent years and past decades, clearly shows that this frequently propagated notion is a total inversion of truth.
Blocking peace and violating international law
Between 1998 and 2000, Eritrea and TPLF-led Ethiopia waged a bitter war. While the conflict was partly based on a dispute over the precise location of extensive parts of the boundary between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the fundamental root cause was, in the words of the eminent regional historian Alemseged Tesfai, “[the] TPLF’s persistent incursions into Eritrean territory, an act that can only be explained in terms of the expansionist tendencies of that Front’s leadership”.
Ultimately, the war led to the deaths of tens of thousands on both sides, caused large-scale displacement of civilians, and was highly costly for both countries and the wider region. In June 2000, the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities in Algiers was signed, and then in December 2000, President Isaias Afwerki and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi signed the Algiers Peace Agreement. Inter-alia, the agreement called for both parties to permanently terminate hostilities and refrain from the threat or use of force, established an independent and impartial Boundary Commission to delimit and demarcate borders based on pertinent colonial treaties (from 1900, 1902, and 1908) and applicable international law, sought to determine the conflict’s origins, and established a Claims Commission to assess damages and losses caused by the conflict.
Subsequently, in 2001, the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) was formally established in accordance with the terms and conditions of the Algiers Peace Agreement. After a lengthy investigation and litigation process, the Commission rendered its decisions on 13 April 2002 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, with the entire process guaranteed by the United Nations (UN) and the OAU/AU and witnessed by several international parties, including United States (US) and the European Union. Importantly, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) was charged with guaranteeing the EEBC ruling and enforcing implementation without preconditions.
The EEBC ruling presented both countries with gains and losses; however, one of the EEBC’s most significant decisions saw the flashpoint of the 1998-2000 war, the rural border town of Badme, awarded to Eritrea. While Eritrea accepted the EEBC’s decisions in their entirety and generally sought to uphold the integrity of the Algiers Peace Agreement, and although Article 4.15 of the agreement clearly stipulates that both parties “agree that the delimitation and demarcation determinations of the Commission shall be final and binding,” the TPLF completely failed to abide by its international legal obligations and responsibilities. Instead, it persistently sought to obstruct or reverse the EEBC’s decisions, continued to militarily occupy large swathes of Eritrean territory (including Badme), and sustained a policy of unremitting aggression and hostility toward Eritrea.
Shortly after the verdict, TPLF leadership actually appeared to accept the EEBC ruling; both the Foreign Minister and the parliament made statements proclaiming their “satisfaction” with and wholehearted “acceptance” of the decision, and the TPLF also expressed gratitude to the Commission for delivering a “just” verdict, even calling on the international community to “compel Eritrea to agree to a speedy demarcation.”
However, this line of approach was quickly and dramatically reversed. In 2003, TPLF officials denounced the ruling as “illegal, unjust and irresponsible,” while castigating the Boundary Commission and seeking to reopen the EEBC’s decisions through an “alternative mechanism.” Subsequently, in 2004, the TPLF vacillated again, this time shifting its position to claim that it accepted the ruling “in principle,” but within the context of various and numerous reservations, qualifications, and preconditions prior to implementation.
Importantly, the TPLF also began to establish illegal settlements within sovereign Eritrean territories (an international crime), and in 2006 the Foreign Minister, the TPLF’s Seyoum Mesfin, sent a highly-publicized letter to the President of the EEBC, Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, again criticizing the EEBC and even assigning blame to the Commission for the TPLF’s own failure to meet its international obligations under the agreement.
Beyond its outright military occupation of sovereign Eritrean territories and rejection and obstruction of the EEBC ruling, the TPLF also maintained a policy of unrelenting military aggression toward Eritrea. In early June 2016, for instance, the TPLF directed a large, unprovoked attack against Eritrea on the Tsorona Central Front, leading to the death of hundreds of Ethiopians and 18 Eritreans. Notably, the region, located along the tense, militarized border, was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the TPLF’s 1998-2000 war of aggression. It is important to note that such aggression, described by the Nuremberg Tribunal as “the supreme international crime,” was not only a grave breach of fundamental international law and the UN Charter, but also a clear, direct violation of Article 1.1 of the Algiers Peace Agreement. Rather than an isolated incident, however, the mid-2016 attack was only one in a long series of deadly provocations by the TPLF after the end of the destructive 1998-2000 war. In total, the TPLF attacked or launched incursions into Eritrea on no less than 12 occasions.
The TPLF not only oversaw the occupation of sovereign Eritrean territory and engaged in frequent illegal incursions into and attacks against Eritrea, it also regularly made calls for the overthrow of the Eritrean government and, through belligerent, threatening statements, boldly proclaimed its intentions to carry out “military action to oust the regime in Eritrea,” – again violating the UN Charter (e.g., Article 2.4), international law, and the Algiers Peace Agreement.
Sadly, although the entire EEBC process was guaranteed by the UN, UNSC, and OAU/AU, and witnessed by several international parties, the international community effectively ignored the TPLF’s complete failure to abide by its international legal obligations and responsibilities for demarcating the border. Instead of condemning the group’s illegal military occupation and repeated aggressive actions or calling for the immediate, unconditional implementation of the EEBC ruling, the international community, principally led by the US, turned a blind eye, abdicated their responsibility, and remained acquiescent to the TPLF’s persistent violations and aggressive behavior.
Smothering a region’s hopes for peace
In April 2018, Dr. Abiy Ahmed took office in Ethiopia. His appointment came on the back of years of widespread protests in Ethiopia against TPLF rule. Ethiopia is divided into ethnically-based states within a federal system that was ruled by a coalition of four parties – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which was dominated by the Tigrayan minority, who make up approximately 6% of the country’s total population of 110 million. In 2015, popular protests, spearheaded by the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group (constituting about 35% of the population), and later the Amhara, the country’s second largest ethnic group (27%), about land seizures and evictions, unemployment, human rights abuses, widespread corruption, and economic and political marginalization quickly spread across the country and threatened to bring down the regime. Thousands of civilians were killed or arrested, there was large-scale displacement, and the TPLF put the country under an extended nationwide state of emergency.
Additionally, although TPLF-led Ethiopia was hailed as a “development darling” and one of the top performing African economies, regularly posting impressive economic growth figures (albeit ones that were clouded by widespread skepticism about the validity of reported figures), the country was also plagued by high levels of poverty and inequality, heavy foreign debt, rising inflation, a rapidly growing trade deficit, and a critical shortage of foreign currency, all of which put the economy in a perilous state. (Recent empirical research has compellingly shown that much of the socioeconomic growth claimed under the TPLF’s rule was a mirage and based on cooked data.)
It was against this backdrop of turmoil, mounting discontent, and widespread unrest, with the TPLF regime beginning to crumble, that Hailemariam Desalegn, who succeeded Meles Zenawi as prime minister, resigned in February 2018. Dr. Abiy Ahmed, then a relative unknown, was soon appointed to the post. With the pressing need for fundamental changes and dramatic reforms abundantly clear – even Desalegn acknowledged as much in his much-publicized resignation letter – Abiy got down to work quickly. He loosened the state’s tight grip and control on the economy, privatizing key state-owned enterprises, pledged multi-party elections, publicly denounced the TPLF’s use of torture and apologized for the killing of protestors, released thousands of prisoners and opposition leaders, and promoted reconciliation with exiled dissidents and critics.
The PM’s wide-ranging reforms also extended to dramatically shifting the country’s longstanding policy toward Eritrea, with Abiy announcing that Ethiopia would finally unconditionally accept and fully implement the UN-backed EEBC ruling of 2002.
Abiy was by no means perfect and his government made many mistakes. A lot of his reforms stalled, security forces were heavy-handed, and the government often fell back into a number of troubling old habits. At the same time, however, many developments were greeted positively by the people of Ethiopia (and the region) and much lauded by the international community.
In stark contrast to the general sense of optimism and change, the TPLF, brooding and intransigent, began doggedly working to scuttle the positive developments, both in Ethiopia and across the region. The group, which had maintained power for nearly 30 years through absolute force backed by the unconditional support of a small, yet extremely powerful and influential, group of Western states, sought to block the positive developments and stymie any efforts at reform or genuine change.
Deeply bitter and resentful about its loss of power and control over looted state resources, the TPLF retreated from Addis Ababa to its base in Tigray Region. From there, it worked relentlessly to promote conflict, tension, and chaos, including supporting subversive groups, inciting ethnic violence, and sponsoring assassinations, all in the hopes that the resultant instability and insecurity would prevent and roll back the reforms underway and ultimately topple the Ethiopian government. This would, according to the group’s calculus, allow it to evade accountability or justice for its decades of crimes and even help it restore its former dominance, both in Ethiopia and across the wider region.
Almost immediately after its precipitous fall, the TPLF began actively preparing for war: digging trenches, stockpiling weapons (even hiding huge caches in civilian areas), and training over 250,000 militias and special forces (by embezzling and diverting development funds). As well, it refused to vacate occupied Eritrean territories and directed groups to physically obstruct Ethiopia’s troops as they sought to move away from the border. The TPLF also rejected any and all proposals to establish and institutionalize cross-border socioeconomic and peaceful processes with Eritrea. Instead, it amassed troops and moved heavy weaponry toward sensitive areas alongside the border, dug and fortified trenches, and even attempted to slip armed criminals, intelligence agents, and sleeper cells into Eritrea.
Alongside all of this, the TPLF was stoking tensions and dangerously ratcheting up violent, extremist, and hateful speech. While the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea were looking forward to consolidating peace, the TPLF completely dismissed – and even derisively mocked – all peaceful overtures or offers for constructive dialogue, including mediation efforts from officials, respected elders, and community leaders. On an almost daily basis, high-level TPLF officials conducted interviews and made speeches boasting about the TPLF’s military prowess and capabilities, while parades and displays of troops and military hardware were frequent.
Keeping with established precedent
On 3/4 November 2020, the TPLF launched a surprise, unprovoked attack across all outposts of Ethiopia’s Northern Command. According to different estimates, between 3,000 and 6,000 federal troops were callously slaughtered in the attack (many as they were sleeping and defenseless). Thousands more were maimed and forced to desperately flee.
The premeditated act of unprecedented scale and gravity was fully endorsed by the TPLF Central Committee in its meeting in the preceding days. The TPLF’s objectives – which its officials and high-level cadres openly boasted of on several occasions – were to take control of the Northern Command (which possessed some 80% of Ethiopia’s entire weaponry) and then march to Addis Ababa in order to topple the federal government. The plan also involved the goal of invading Eritrea to carry out “regime change” and to incorporate large swathes of sovereign Eritrean territory into Tigray Region. (If things did not go according to plan, TPLF officials publicly vowed to resort to destroying the nation outright.)
Ethiopia’s Northern Command was the largest of the country’s four territorial military contingents and one-third of its personnel were ethnic Tigrayans with political affiliation and loyalty to the TPLF. The “command and control” hierarchy was also disproportionately dominated by loyalist officers. Relying on these, and with almost a quarter of a million militia and special forces of its own, the TPLF was thus highly confident that its operation – which its officials dubbed a “pre-emptive blitzkrieg or lightning strike” – would succeed in a matter of days. Completely contrary to all of its plans and expectations, the TPLF failed.
Yet in keeping with its longstanding precedent, established over several decades, the TPLF has spent the two years since it sparked the war repeatedly rebuffing offers for peace and breaking ceasefires. Contemptuously, it dismissed goodwill gestures toward peace from the Ethiopian government as “a sick joke” and a “PR gimmick”. All the while, it used these periods to forcibly conscript soldiers (including thousands of children), establish military bases and arms caches within civilian areas, and then launch attacks against neighboring regions, such as Amhara and Afar, and Eritrea.
Even now, as TPLF leaders arrive in South Africa under the supposed banner of peace, one should not be quick to assume that the group, which crows regularly about war being its “traditional sport”, has suddenly turned over a new leaf. Rather, the move must be viewed within the context of the utter failure of its latest round of attacks (launched in late August and breaching a ceasefire that had been in effect since March 2022) and Ethiopian federal forces rapidly closing. Instead of being driven by a genuine search for peace, it could be that the TPLF move is borne out of sheer desperation and the group is seeking to secure exile, buy more time, or pursue its war on Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the region through other avenues.
The opposite of truth
As this broad sweep of regional history clearly demonstrates, the constant claims and portrayals about the TPLF being “committed to peace” are laughable and can only be regarded as the opposite of truth. The reality is that the TPLF has been an obstacle to peace and the central cause of so much of the tension, violence, and instability that have plagued the entire region. In addition to disintegrating under scrutiny, however, the widespread claims and portrayals about the TPLF being “committed to peace” are a sharp, bitter insult to the many, many people in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and across the rest of the Horn of Africa who have been victimized by the group in recent years and over the past three decades.
Now, as the region and international community look forward hopefully to the possibility of peace, it is important that the history and continued actions of those who have obdurately blocked it are not obscured.
Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion is a researcher and analyst based in East Africa.