The Scar of TPLF on the Tigrayan People

Ethiopia is in a serious war operation to bring peace and unity for all of its citizens. This article is a preview of what will happen to the Tigrayan people, regardless of the war’s outcome. My assessment is based on verified information about what happened to German citizens living outside of Germany after World War II. For clarification and to understand the terms used, Tigrayans are a native people originating from the Tigray Regional State in northern Ethiopia. Their language is called Tigrinya, or simply the Tigray language.

Creating a common enemy

Creating a common enemy is the most frequent way to divide people. For 27 years, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) maintained its ruling power over the Ethiopian government by generating tension among other ethnic groups, so that they could not unite in opposition. TPLF is the ethnic Tigrayan political party that ruled Ethiopia for 27 years from 1991 until Dr. Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018. During TPLF’s rule, central features of life in Ethiopia included cultural lines and social division between groups, defined in terms of race and ethnicity. The ultimate objective of TPLF’s divide-and-conquer strategy was to gain and maintain power by breaking up ethnic groups into smaller and less powerful groups, which often fought amongst themselves. Using this strategy, TPLF was able to maintain ultimate political, economic, and military power for 27 years in Ethiopia.

Racial ideology and superiority were the main reasons that could have contributed to TPLF’s attitudes toward Ethiopian ethnic groups, especially toward the Amhara people. TPLF has successfully created a fictional reality or illusion of Ethiopians by blaming the Amhara ethnic group as an enemy of the other groups. TPLF used every opportunity to feed anger and violence among families, neighbors, and border villages. As a result, TPLF created the myth of Amhara as a mutual enemy of the nation and led a crusade to conquer it.

The Amhara and Tigray Border

The Amhara and Tigray regions share a long border; land has always been the main battleground of racial conflict in the region. After TPLF gained power, it incorporated some Amhara land into Tigray (See picture 1 below). Amhara people along the border with Tigray have long been suppressed and denied basic rights. The TPLF-led Ethiopian government began relocating Amhara people and also settling Tigray natives into the border area, particularly around the fertile-soil border region. Owners of small Amhara farms everywhere have long been buffeted by larger TPLF economic forces. Amhara farmers were forced out not only by economic change but also by TPLF generals and those holding local Tigray power. Picture copied from ©Von Daniel Passport (2020)[1].

Tigrayans View About TPLF

During the 27 years of TPLF power, Tigrayans and other ethnic groups held distinctly different views. Except for the Tigrayans, all ethnic groups in Ethiopia received harsh treatment at the hands of the TPLF authorities.

Throughout all those years, a majority of Ethiopians felt that the Tigrayan people greatly benefited from political power or economic advantages that other Ethiopians did not have. In the capital city of Addis Ababa and other big cities, wealth was unequally distributed by race—and went particularly to TPLF party members and other Tigrayan households. While TPLF was in power, Ethiopians inside and outside of the country rallied to oppose the TPLF regime, but the Tigrayan people were strongly in favor of the ruling party.


 The legacy of TPLF

In the TPLF era, the Tigray population maintained extensive control over the country’s economy. Despite claims to the contrary, non-Tigrayan ownership on the Addis Ababa Stock Exchange clearly remained small. In addition, land ownership and occupancy are particularly important to understanding the Ethiopian plight. The Tigray-origin TPLF regime used expropriation to remove people from their land. The regime then used this stolen land to accumulate capital through land development and agriculture. Another cornerstone of the TPLF strategy was to deny all non-Tigrayan people to higher political leadership opportunities and to limit their scope in the military ranks.

The legacy of TPLF can also be seen in asset ownership. Tigrayan people own houses, hotels, resorts, shops, restaurants, savings, cash, foreign assets, and other forms of complex financial products. They leverage their ownership and control in order to extract rents and increase their wealth, while the majority of non-Tigrayans are still poor. These developments have had severe implications and generational effects.

The defeat of TPLF

Despite the severe and drastic levels of anti-Ethiopian ideology that the TPLF party had caused, Ethiopians united and stood against the TPLF party. After 27 years of dictatorship, Ethiopians successfully separated fiction from reality, and this awareness defeated TPLF and brought an unexpected power change.

Multiple blood-shedding mass protests against TPLF caused the removal of TPLF officials. For many Ethiopians, the defeat of TPLF came with a hope of healing and democracy, while the majority of Tigrayan people were against the change. As a result, negative comments about Tigrayan in general and TPLF in particular had begun to appear in Ethiopia. Tigrayan people who live in Europe and Western countries came out for the first time opposing the new Ethiopian government, led by the young prime minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Some groups of Tigrayans even denied their nationality as Ethiopian and vowed to fight against Abiy’s leadership[2]. Such acts of opposition caused more division and criticism against Tigrayan people.

TPLF leaders have since lost positions within the central government, and several officials have fled to their home region of Tigray, fearing arrest for corruption and human rights abuses. For the past 3 years, TPLF clashed with the federal government in various situations. Despite its lowest approval rating among Ethiopians, TPLF still wants to regain power to control the central government.

Military Intervention Against TPLF Leaders

On November 4, 2020, TPLF killed hundreds of Ethiopian federal soldiers camped in the northern region of Ethiopia. Following the massacres, the Ethiopian government launched a military intervention against TPLF leaders. Since Dr. Abiy Ahmed ordered a military intervention 3 weeks ago, mass casualties have been reported in different parts of Tigray. Thousands of civilians have fled to neighboring Sudan.

Since 2018, many TPLF-supporting Tigrayans began to consider the creation of a homeland, generally referred to as “Tegaru.” After the 2018 power change and the defeat of TPLF, the hope of creating a separate nation was in progress. Some Tigrayan natives and TPLF members say they are not seeking independence, yet they insist that any political settlement to end the conflict in Ethiopia must include legal guarantees recognizing Tigrayan autonomy. Such hopes were dashed 3 weeks ago when the fight between the Ethiopian government and TPLF erupted.

The nature of the recent operation is targeted to control TPLF officials who are responsible for regional unrest. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has vowed to bring TPLF leaders to justice by military force. His government has also rejected TPLF demands for negotiations. All Ethiopians except the Tigrayan people have condemned the barbaric acts of TPLF. Such acts caused fears among the nation, and a majority of Ethiopians have come to view the Tigrayan people with suspicion.

The Scar of TPLF on the Tigrayan People

The escalating distrust and hatred of TPLF had a deeply negative impact on a large number of Tigrayan people who live outside of the Tigray region. Among the Ethiopian diaspora community in Europe and South America, there is a growing anti-Tigray sentiment. Tigrayan people are practicing their own politics instead of “assimilating” into the rest of the Ethiopian ethnic groups. Tigrayans represent a minority in Ethiopia, counting for only 6% of the population. As a result, the Tigrayan people, culture, and language will be in danger.

The Ethiopian government’s military operation to capture TPLF leaders has created a backlash against Tigrayan leaders in various military and political positions. When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a military operation against TPLF on November 4, 2020, anti-Tigrayan sentiment rose across the nation, and Tigray-owned institutions came under attack. The attack was not due to their ethnicity, but to their direct and indirect involvement in support of the TPLF party.

After the military operation ends, anti-Tigrayan hostility will last much longer; and the Tigrayan people will be the most isolated, untrusted, and unwelcome ethnic group in Ethiopia. Currently, the number-one Ethiopian term for Tigrayan leaders who have a connection with TPLF is “Banda,” which means traitor. Some in the right-wing media often refer to Tigrayans as “traitors,” after the barbaric TPLF killings of more than 600 civilians in the town of Mai Kadra.

“The commission said at least 600 people were killed in the town of Mai Kadra in western Tigray on Nov. 9 when local youths known as Samri, aided by the then-local administration, went door to door killing those they identified as from the minority Amhara and Wolkait ethnic groups”[3].

All of this anti-Tigrayan sentiment will cause two things. First, it will motivate other ethnic groups to push back against the Tigrayan people. Tigrayan culture and language will be removed from many regions outside the northern part of Ethiopia. Secondly, in response to this, the Tigrayan people will begin intentionally “assimilating” to avoid becoming targets. Some of Tigrayan descent will avoid speaking the language in public and practicing Tigrayan cultural traditions, and they will assume the non-Tigrayan ethnic traditions wherever they reside. In an attempt to conceal TPLF ties and to disappear into the rest of the Ethiopian ethnic groups, some Tigrayan people will change the names of their businesses, or even their own names, to names that sound like those of other ethnic groups.

Despite TPLF’s many selfish acts, the labeling of all Tigrayan people as a threat to the Ethiopian values of peace, democracy, and unity must stop. Unless the Ethiopian central government creates legal protections for Tigrayan civilians, their security and long-term survival will be compromised. The government needs to monitor the extensive propaganda attack targeted against all Tigrayan people.

In addition, the Ethiopian government needs to do more to address widening inequality, and deliver on the promises of development for all and not just a few. It needs to prove that its pursuit of radical economic transformation for prosperity fulfils the promise of addressing the country’s skewed economic ownership patterns.


[1] Von Daniel Passport (2020). Tigray’s border conflicts explained. Online published November 11, 2020. Accessed November 28, 2020. “”Tigray’s border conflicts explained – Passport Party

[2] BBC News (2020). Ethiopia crisis: Tigray leader vows to keep fighting as government advances Online published Nov. 18, 2020. Accessed Nov. 28, 2020.

[3] The Washington Post (2020). Ethiopia Mai Kadra massacre: 600 civilians killed by Tigrayan youth, commission reports. Online published Nov. 24, 2020. Accessed Nov. 28, 2020

Dr. Adam Tulu is a native Ethiopian who came to live and work in the United States in 2002.