Law Enforcement in Ethiopia’s Northern Tigray Region

“I recognize that, in the end, everyone is entitled to their opinions. Only history will judge whether the Federal Government under my leadership could have done anything else to resolve the existential crisis my old and proud nation faced on that fateful night of 03 November and its aftermath.” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, December 2020.

Basic Facts on the Law Enforcement Operation in Tigray Region of Ethiopia

  1. The political context of the recent conflict in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia? 

 On March 27, 2018, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected Dr. Abiy Ahmed as its Chairman who was sworn-in as a Prime Minister of Ethiopia on April 2, 2018. PM Abiy immediately began political, social, and economic reforms. Political prisoners were released, press freedom and rights to speech and assembly restored. Major reforms were made in the security, police, and defense sectors. A peace initiative with Eritrea leads to the thawing out of two decades of hostilities. In December 2019, PM Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

On December 1, 2019. PM Abiy helped establish a new Prosperity Party (PP) by merging three EPRDF member parties, the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and five other regional parties. The new party is set to run for the first time as a unified party in the general election in mid-2021. One of the partners of erstwhile EPRDF, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) declined to join the Prosperity Party. Instead, TPLF launched covert and overt campaigns to undermine and weaken PM Abiy’s Administration. TPLF leaders orchestrated violence and destruction in different parts of the country by recruiting, training, and financing disaffected individuals to instigate regional and inter-ethnic violence. Over the past 2 years, TPLF-sponsored attacks resulted in untold deaths and destruction and left millions of people internally displaced.

In May 2020, the Ethiopian House of Federation (HoF), citing constitutional authority, decided to postpone the general election set for August 2020 because of the Covid-19 emergency. The TPLF rejected the HoF’s decision outright and conducted its own unconstitutional regional election on September 9, 2020, in defiance of the Constitution of the country. The TPLF further claimed the current Ethiopian government is illegal after September 30, 2020. The TPLF claimed to have won 98.2% of the seats in the regional parliament. The HoF declared the TPLF election illegal. TPLF leaders countered by questioning the legitimacy of the prime minister, the Parliament, and the Election Board. They demanded the resignation of the entire Federal Government. PM Abiy sought to solve the disagreement through peaceful dialogue. Recounting his efforts to resolve the problem peacefully, PM Abiy recently “when the TPLF leadership rejected my personal invitations to engage with my administration in constructive dialogue on the future of our nation, I encouraged the country’s most senior religious and community leaders to travel to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray Region, and help federal and regional political leaders resolve the differences peacefully. Regrettably, these most revered community and religious leaders were rebuffed by the TPLF leadership, treating them with the utmost contempt and sending them back with nothing.”

  1. Who is responsible for the onset of the conflict in Tigray?  

 On November 3, 2020, the TPLF leadership planned and orchestrated a large-scale attack on the Federal Northern Command base in Tigray. In a coordinated attack, the TPLF simultaneously attacked various military barracks. Scores of Ethiopian soldiers were massacred and heavy military weaponry looted. Thousands of non-Tigrean soldiers and many high-level officers were taken, hostage. The TPLF proudly claimed responsibility for these actions.

On November 4, 2020, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed informed the nation and the Ethiopian Parliament of the unprovoked TPLF attack against the Northern Command by TPLF forces. He ordered the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) to protect the sovereignty of the country, enforce the law, and round up the ringleaders of the criminal act. He stated the objective of the ENDF operation is to preserve the constitutional order and enforce the law. The Council of Ministers declared a six-month state of Emergency in Tigray and the House of Peoples Representatives (HPR) unanimously approved the decision. 

 Despite TPLF admissions, they had started the attack as a preemptive measure, some in the international media and TPLF foreign supporters have alleged that the Federal Government of Ethiopia “started a war in Tigray to punish the TPLF for conducting regional election”. This is a deliberate disinformation campaign aimed at misleading the international community. Here is a fact-check:  

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    • On November 13, 2020, TPLF propaganda chief, Seku Toure Getachew, proudly claimed responsibility for starting the attack against Northern Command on TPLF official TV “Dimtsi Woyane Television”. He said, “We had to take this preemptive action as anticipatory self-defense. We had to incapacitate the threat of this force. It was a preemptive and blitz operation that took only 45 minutes. It was similar to   Israel’s surprise attack against the Arabs in 1967. There is no force called Northern Command in Tigray Region anymore”. 
    • At a Press Briefing at the US Department of State on November 19, 2020, US officials asserted that “from the first attacks on November 3rd by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) on Ethiopian National Defense Force bases in the Tigray region, we have publicly and privately highlighted our grave concern.” 
    • In the interview with BBC Radio on December 1, 2020, Ambassador Tibor Nagy, US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs “made his stance clear again saying TPLF waged war on Ethiopia to restore its lost power.”
    • Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described the situation as follows: “Using traitors recruited from within the army along ethnic lines, not only did the TPLF leadership cause the massacre of unarmed soldiers in their pajamas in the dead of night, but they also took possession, illegally, of the entire military arsenal of the Northern Command. I was thus left with a decision only of how, not whether, to fight to defend the integrity of my country and restore the constitutional order.”
  1. What were TPLF’s objectives in attacking the Federal Military Base in Tigray?

While the reform program is in full swing throughout Ethiopia, TPLF leaders entrenched themselves in Tigray and began organizing their own military force by recruiting and training a so-called Tigray Special Forces and militia. By some estimates, by the end of summer 2020, the TPLF had assembled a 250,000-strong military force to engage Ethiopian federal forces. The TPLF effort completely failed as Ethiopian Federal troops defeated the TPLF in three weeks, secured the regions, and established a provisional government.

Informed commentators have shared their perspectives on why the TPLF sought a military solution. At a Press Briefing organized at the Department of State on November 19, 2020, US officials noted that “… it seems like they (TPLF) were doing this more to depose the prime minister from power and to reassert themselves into the prominent position that they had atop the Ethiopian political spectrum for the last 27 years.” At that Briefing, it was also noted that “TPLF chairman told the Financial Times at some point this week that a breakup of Ethiopia could be one of the consequences of this.” 

  1. Who is fighting in Tigray? Is this a civil war? How long will the operation take? 

A law enforcement operation in Tigray is a domestic issue for Ethiopia. The Federal Government’s operation in Tigray is aimed at restoring peace and constitutional order and bringing those responsible for the attack to justice. There is no civil war in Tigray. The Tigrayan people are not a party to this treasonous crime committed by the TPLF leadership. The people of Tigray are not fighting Federal Forces. The Tigrayan people are equally victims of the TPLF’s aggression as the ENDF troops in Tigray. Because of the Tigrayan peoples’ support, the Ethiopian army is now in full control of all towns and cities including the regional capital, Mekelle. TPLF special forces and militia have surrendered to Federal Forces by the thousands. The TPLF leadership is in disarray. Many of the top leaders are reported killed resisting arrest. Others are hiding or on the run. The law enforcement action in Tigray concluded in three weeks and the establishment of a provisional government until elections are held in Mid-2021.

  1. Are there foreign forces fighting in Tigray? Is this a regional war? What is the reaction of the international community?

TPLF leaders have tried to regionalize the conflict hoping to attract international attention. They have launched missiles in Eritrea to provoke retaliatory action. They have issued many press statements and made repeated accusations of involvement against Eritrea, South Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates.  The TPLF has launched rocket attacks at Gondar and Bahir Dar cities.  Many countries, including the U.S., have denounced TPLF rocket attacks against Eritrea and civilian targets. There is no evidence of foreign involvement in the Tigray law enforcement action.  

According to Xinhua Net report on December 15, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that “there is no proof of Eritrean troops inside Ethiopia, where government forces are fighting rebels in the northernmost region of Tigray.” 

  • While addressing the 38th IGAD Extraordinary Summit of Heads of States and Governments held in Djibouti on December 20, 2020, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat commended the Government of Ethiopia for its bold steps to preserve the integrity of the country. He stressed the need to sustain efforts to help solve the issues of affected people in the aftermath of the operation.
  • In solidarity with Ethiopia, many countries including Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Uganda, Eritrea, Russia, Turkey, and many more nations have expressed their support to the Ethiopian Government’s efforts to defend Ethiopia’s sovereignty.  
  1. Are civilians targeted in Tigray? What is the situation in humanitarian relief distribution?  Have crimes against humanity been committed in Tigray?

TPLF’s foreign supporters, lobbyists, and some media outlets have sought to falsely depict civilian atrocities by the Government of Ethiopia. Among the wild accusations include bombardment of civilians by Ethiopian government forces, destruction of infrastructure, and widespread killings and lootings in liberated cities and towns. Such propaganda campaigns are designed to mislead and divert the attention of the international community from learning the truth about TPLF’s crimes against humanity. 

On November 12, 2020, Amnesty International released a report “confirming that scores, and likely hundreds, of people, were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra (May Cadera) town in the southwest zone of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region on the night of 9 November.” Amnesty International based its report on the testimonies of eyewitnesses “who said forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were responsible for the mass killings, apparently after they suffered defeat from the federal EDF [Ethiopia Defense Forces].”

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an independent agency, conducted intensive field visits and published its preliminary findings on November 24, 2020. The Commission reported an initial death toll of at least 600 people in Mai Kadra and confirmed the massacre was a series of ethnic cleansing and mass murders targeting Amharas and non-Tigrayan migrant workers who came from different parts of Ethiopia. 

TPLF supporters including reporters from Thomson Reuters have presented one-sided interviews of Tigrayan refugees in Sudan who alleged that Tigreans were killed in Mai Kadra. The only sources of these allegations thus far are selected, refugees. Many sources have separately explained that many Samri’s members who participated in the Mai Kadra massacres have disguised themselves among Ethiopian refugees in Sudan. 

Reputable international media organizations and human rights groups should be aware TPLF supporters are staging interviews in refugee camps in Sudan in order to create counter-narratives about the Mai Kadra massacre and sow confusion. International news agencies must fact-check and corroborate their stories. 

  1. Why are TPLF’s foreign supporters calling for negotiations and international intervention? 

TPLF leaders have launched a campaign to lobby foreign governments to pressure Ethiopia to negotiate with them. TPLF’s foreign supporters, many of them masquerading as Horn of Africa experts, are preaching the gospel of “all-inclusive national dialogue” and “an immediate cessation of hostilities” between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF. 

  • Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegne in his recent oped in Foreign Policy observed “Ethiopia’s Government and the TPLF leadership are not morally equivalent”. He argued the TPLF “triggered an armed confrontation with the federal government so that the current leaders would be able to secure immunity for their past and present misdeeds and a power-sharing scheme through an internationally brokered deal.”  
  • PM Abiy concluded, “If the TPLF leadership is guaranteed the impunity it desires through an internationally brokered deal, the cause for justice and sustainable peace will be severely harmed. Above all, it creates a precedent for other groupings within the Ethiopian federation to learn the wrong lesson: that violence pays off.” 
  1. What is the current situation in Tigray? 

The Law Enforcement Operation in Tigray was completed in three weeks. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has explained the law enforcement operation in Tigray has three phases: 1) bury those killed by the TPLF, reassess the situation, reorganize the Northern Command units, strengthen the Command’s fighting capability; 2) engage and transition the region on all fronts, stabilize the region and return the region to normalcy; and 3) liberate Mekelle and bring the TPLF leaders responsible to justice.

The Tigray Interim Administration has been established with the full cooperation of different political parties in Tigray. Dr. Mulu Nega and his cabinet are working with local officials to restore law and order and restore public services. Telephone and internet services have been restored to most parts of Tigray. Businesses, banks, and transportation services have been restored. The Ethiopian Federal police continue its search for criminal suspects in the attack on the Northern Command and other crimes.

  1. What is the future plan for the Tigray Region? 

The HoF has established the Tigray Interim Administration which is currently operating fully in Tigray. The Hof has suspended the status of TPLF members in the Federal Parliament. TPLF military and civilian officials suspected of criminal involvement have been identified and arrest warrants issued. 

Brief Background on the 27-year TPLF rule in Ethiopia

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is an ethnic organization based in Tigray Regional State in Northern Ethiopia. It was founded in 1975 as an ethnic Marxist- Leninist guerrilla group to fight the Military Government (DERG) in Ethiopia. It came to power after the military DERG regime collapsed in 1991. To gain Western acceptance, the TPLF adopted a vague policy of multi-party democracy and a free-market economy. However, behind its mask of liberal democracy, the TPLF kept its ideology of “revolutionary democracy” and “democratic centralism”. The TPLF remained the leading and dominant party within the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) between 1991 to 2019. The history of the TPLF is marked by violence, secrecy, excessive brutality, and vengeance against its political opponents. The TPLF ruled Ethiopia for twenty-seven years with an iron fist. The TPLF has committed unimaginable crimes against humanity in Ethiopia. After TPLF was forced out from power in 2018, its leaders vowed to resist the reform agenda of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and relentlessly worked to derail the country’s peaceful transition to democracy.  One of such efforts was the attack of the federal army on November 3, 2020, to create havoc and instability throughout Ethiopia. After TPLF was decisively defeated by the Federal Army, its leaders are on the run to avoid justice for the despicable crime they committed against Ethiopia.  

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