Kalewongel Minale (PhD)
Following his appointments as AU’s special envoy and good officer to the Tigray Conflict, former Nigerian President Olesengo Obasango, the hero of the Biafra war, has lately intensified his effort shuttling between Mekelle and Addis Ababa. The greatest challenge to his endeavor, nonetheless, would come from TPLF who has defied all efforts of peace prior to the outbreak of the war and during the course of the war. In this short piece, I will explain why TPLF, is abhorrent to any efforts of negotiation and settlement of disputes through the peaceful approach. Before I jump to that, however, a few notes about the striking similarity of the Biafra war and the ongoing Tigray Conflict.
The Tigray and Biafra War
The appointment of former President Olesengo Obasango as AU’s special envoy and good officer in the search for peace to the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia is a very interesting coincidence. Colonel Obasango was the hero of the Nigerian Biafra war (1967-70) which incidentally shares a number of similarities with the ongoing Tigray conflict.
Nigeria is as diverse and populous as Ethiopia is. The three major ethnic groups in the country are Hausa Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. The former two are the largest tribes while the latter comes as the third major group in the country. In 1966, just six years after the independence of Nigeria, military officers from the Igbo staged a coup, assassinating the democratically elected Prime Minister, a number of army officers, and installing a military government led by an Igbo general, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. Ironsi formed an Igbo dominated government. In just six months, however, officers from the Hausa Fulani mounted a countercoup and took control of the government. The backlash that followed resulted in the persecution of Igobs all over Nigeria. As a result of this growing persecution and ethnic hostility, and responding to a constant invitation and calls from their own state, millions of Igbos all over Nigeria flocked into their homeland in droves. This concentration and the increasing confrontation with the federal government culminated in the declaration of secession and the formation of the republic of Biafra. The Nigerian army responded with a declaration of war against Biafra.
In the war that followed, the Nigerian army quickly overturned resistance from Biafra and took control of the region. Nevertheless, foreign intervention, notably the intervention of French government prompted the resuscitation of the war and the fighting was dragged for three years. Eventually, the war ended in 1970 with a total victory of the Nigerian Army and surrender of the Biafran state leaders. General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, who declared independence and led the war, fled to Ivory Coast leaving his deputy to negotiate the terms of surrender with the federal government. Former President Obasango made his name in this resounding victory of the Nigerian Army. He was the commander of the third division and led his forces which decisively broke up the last defenses of Biafra at the battle of Tail-wind. Highlighting his key role, Lasse Heerten (2017), in his book on the war, wrote:
One of the brigades under division commander Colonel Olesegun Obasanjo pierced through the secessionist lines to join forces with the federal first division in Umuahia, Biafra’s former make shift capital. The advance effectively split the Biafran enclave in two, isolating Biafra’s leadership from the last remaining food producing territories in the East.
The Biafra case holds a striking parallel with Tigray war. Like the coup, the TPLF brazenly and callously triggered war by attacking the Northern command assassinating a number of military officers and commanders. Plus, the Igbos in Nigeria and supporters of TPLF in Ethiopia have a view of themselves as uncommons, and thereof as people with a privileged role in society. As leaders of Biafra, the TPLF leadership attracted all ethnic Tigrayans to return and congregate in Tigray to foment an attack against the central government in a bid to restore their hold onto power. While they knew that they are the underdogs, they both inconsiderately and recklessly instigated a senseless war that dearly costed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and caused the dislocation and displacement of millions of civilians. In both regions, in the case of Biafra officially, in Tigray de facto had proclaimed secession. Both wars were fought with claims of blockade and a toxic propaganda campaign of genocide. After a swift military campaign and takeover of the territories by the federal defense forces, the wars were extended due to the involvement of external powers. In both cases, the diaspora played a very prominent role in the outbreak and continuation of the war. Both conflicts also stand out in the headlines and attention they draw around the world and the massive humanitarian relief and aid they prompted.
The Dialogue Path and TPLF’s Abhorrence to It
The consideration of dialogue to a cessation of hostilities, and thereby address all issues of incompatibility through negotiation shall be accepted, and it is important that this pathway to peace is also given the course to run. Such an approach will help cease the ongoing horrors of the war and provide an opportunity for a political settlement. Of course, this is not the first time such an opportunity has come about ever since the start of the war in November 2020. In June 2021, the federal government opened up a window of opportunity withdrawing its troops from the region – a move that was sinisterly responded by TPLF with more aggression and violence. It would be an uphill task to convince and bring TPLF to the negotiating table and this certainly leaves Prime Minster Abiy’s government with nothing else but the military action as a sole way-out.
First, TPLF as an organization is not socialized to the peaceful pathway. It is not in its ontological and genetical make up. As a former guerrilla movement, TPLF has a long, deep seated and embedded culture of violence, and all its preoccupation has been the employment of measures of coercion and violence. In Africa and throughout the rest of the world, former insurgencies, such as TPLF are known for their distinct organizational formation and politico-cultural pre-dispositions. Such organizations often operate along political norms of centralism, authoritarianism, militarism, and coercion. Though they commonly portray themselves as harbingers of democracy and defenders of civil liberties and human rights, their democratic credentials have been found to be tenuous and questionable. These organizations are widely known for their ingrained militaristic organizational structuring, embedded culture of violence and legacy of warfare.
Secondly, the track record of TPLF in its dealing with other protagonists in practice is filled with deceit, and actions of sheer violence. A recent analysis about the ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of TPLF that featured on the Guardian attributes TPLF’s success in capturing state power in 1991 to its ruthless and brutal demeanor: “The TPLF’s success owed nothing to chance. Its leaders were ruthless and canny. They fought and destroyed rival rebel groups in Tigray.”
TPLF fought against rivals mainly the Ethiopian Democratic Union (EDU) and Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) but also expelled and killed dissidents from inside the organization. TPLF’s hoodwinking position has also been illustrated in the London Peace Conference in 1991. In London while its leaders were negotiating peace, the TPLF, simultaneously, was mobilizing its troops to capture Addis Ababa and other parts of the country. In his book on the political history of the Organization, Aregawi Berhe, who served as the chairman of the group (1976-1979), wrote: “On 27 May 1991, the day the London conference was to convene, [TPLF] forces completely surrounded Addis Ababa and other contingents marched further south and reached Jimma and Gambella, deep in the southwest”. Simply put, TPLF does not subscribe to the theory and practice of the peaceful approach.
Thirdly, in its war against Ethiopia, TPLF is also acting as a proxy on behalf of its foreign supporters and sponsors, notably, the Sudan and Egypt and other western powers. The latter wish to see a divided and weakened Ethiopia to respond to their geopolitical interests of which TPLF has been viewed as a reliable partner to advance them. TPLF is thus restrained in its autonomy to make decisions on matters of negotiation in its own. These powers would insist for TPLF to go and try for a total military victory and are fully opposed to any ceasefire and negotiations.
Last but not least, TPLF has made so many sacrifices mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people using a toxic propaganda and promise to advance to Addis and recapture political power. With a negotiated settlement, TPLF is likely to face some tough questioning and public scrutiny about the very scarifications that have been made and if these were indeed worth making. Such scrutiny is likely to endanger a backlash against TPLF and may warrant the political death of the Organization. Consequently, due to this TPLF is likely to push for a total victory with all costs to avoid any such inspection.
In short, TPLF is not used to the peaceful way. The task of making the TPLF to revert back from its deep seated norms and praxis and come to the negotiating table will be a hugely painstaking endeavor for Obasanjo. With the current mounting military campaigns by the united Ethiopian forces and the huge momentum building, nevertheless, the end sight for the Tigray conflict seems hardly different from how the Biafra war has come to an end. All indications are that this senseless war which TPLF had waged against Ethiopia and Ethiopians would end with a humiliating defeat and surrender of its leaders – just as in the way the Biafra war has ended.
Dr. Kalewongel Minale is an Assistant Professor in Political Science and International Studies, Department of Political Science and International Studies, Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia. He holds a PhD in Conflict and Political Systems in International Relations.
Aregawi Berhe (2008) A political history of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (1975-1991): Revolt, ideology and mobilization in Ethiopia. Amsterdam: Virje University of Amsterdam
Burke, Jason (2020) “Rise and fall of Ethiopia’s TPLF – from rebels to rulers and back. The Guardian. Wed 25 Nov 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/25/rise-and-fall-of-ethiopias-tplf-tigray-peoples-liberation-front
Heerten, Lasse (2017) The Biafran war and post-colonial Humanitarianism. Spectacles of Suffering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Unlike Tigray, the Bifara region is rich in natural resources such as oil. Tigray is a poor and god forsaken region and can not be a viable state. As many say, resource poor Tigray has been parasitic on Ethiopia and its elites were on a looting spree. The relatively fertile and rich parts such as the Welqait and Raya regions have gone back to their legal owners. The rocky or stony republic of Tigray as an independent country will not be able to support its population and will be a constant source of conflict and instability in the region.