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History Repeats Itself

When the Ethiopian government on Monday 28th June 2021 announced that it was bringing into force a unilateral ceasefire in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and that the Ethiopian army would be withdrawing from the region, there was as sense of déjà vu to the whole proceedings.

One is taken back to the May Day celebrations of 1989 held in the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was in a speech marking the occasion that the then Ethiopian leader, Col Mengistu Hailemariam announced that the Ethiopian army had withdrawn from the province of Tigray as result of rebel activity there. The Ethiopian leader explained that the cost of staying in Tigray was too high, especially given the fact that the region made little or no contribution to the Ethiopian economy where even the tax collected from the region was not even enough to buy chalk for the schools in the region let alone contribute towards the Ethiopian economy.

It’s worth noting that the Ethiopian government of Mengistu Hailemariam did not conduct any major military offensives in Tigray, as it was far too busy trying to hold onto Eritrea where it had conducted several major offensives in the course of 17 years. To Mengistu’s government fighting Shabiya in Eritrea was worth the effort and sacrifices that he was willing to pay.

With the withdrawal of the Ethiopian government from the province of Tigray in 1989, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) had taken full control of the province. It was not long before the TPLF realised that the liberation of Tigray, a region without any significant natural resources or arable land, could not be an end goal by its self.

It was significant help of Shabiya/Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) that the TPLF was able to advance onto the Ethiopian capital which it took in May of 1991. After the TPLF had taken power in Ethiopia, over the course of thirty years it had diverted a significant portion of the resources of Ethiopia towards its home region of TIgray in order to make the region significant and the centre of gravity of Ethiopian and regional politics.

The TPLF had under the guise of a border war with neighbouring Eritrea managed to relocate nearly 80% of the Ethiopian army’s resources and military hardware to the region of Tigray — in effect turning the Ethiopian army into its own regional army.

The TPLF had tried to make the region of Tigray into an economic power house by building factories, airports and other significant infrastructure at the detriment of the rest of Ethiopia. One can cite the fact that during the era of the TPLF no less than three international airports were built in the Tigray region, Makele, Axum and Shire, while the airport at Nekemte in the Oromia region was decommissioned and the national airline had stopped flying there. On the other hand there were some thirteen flights a day to the regional capital of Tigray alone.

In 2018 the TPLF was forced out of power and it ended up barricading itself in its home region. In what turned out to be a massive miscalculation on the part of the TPLF, in November of 2020 it had tried to take control of the Ethiopian army stationed in its region and by extension had tried to regain the power it had lost.

By the end of November 2020, the TPLF had been completely destroyed and after all the bravado, posturing and sabre rattling of the past two years, it was left with egg on its face as many of its leaders were either killed or detained by the Ethiopian army in a campaign that lasted three weeks.

The TPLF’s gamble meant that in the three weeks of conflict, what it had tried to build over thirty years was completely wiped out. The infrastructure it had built by depriving other regions in Ethiopia lay in ruins.

There is no one else to blame but the TPLF for the disaster that has befallen the region of Tigray.

With the TPLF destroyed as military force, it had resorted to using human shields to fight the Ethiopian army. The people of Tigray either willingly or having been coerced to do so, began to attack the Ethiopian army. This was a bid to get the Ethiopian army to turn its guns on civilians.

The Ethiopian army rather than be bogged down trying to fight civilians and  seeing its efforts to rebuild the war torn region being spurned by the people, chose to evacuate the region for the second time in some thirty odd years.

In a repeat of history, the current Ethiopian Prime Minster echoed the sentiments of his predecessor when he said that region was not worth all the bother.

For the second time in a generation the TPLF finds out that it has painted itself in a corner after taking control of Tigray — a region incapable of feeding itself and has to rely food aid — but unlike 1989 it does not have Shabiya/EPLF to fall back on. As the Ethiopian prime minster pointed out, this is a period of contemplation where the people of Tigray will either choose to see the error of their ways or carry on with their folly.

No doubt that the stark realisation that even in the years of plenty under the TPLF, where nearly a quarter of the people of Tigray needed food aid to barely survive, will no doubt play a significant role in this period of contemplation that the Ethiopian government has announced.

Through its own making the TPLF has not only destroyed its home region, but has managed to turn the region of Tigray into an insignificant and impotent political entity.

Berhanu Abera

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