Today’s welcome announcement by President Isaias Afwerki of a delegation to be sent to Ethiopia was littered with derogatory references to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the ruling party in neighbouring Tigray.

Once close allies, it was Eritrean fighters who together with the TPLF liberated Addis Ababa in 1991. Indeed, Eritreans provided personal protection for Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi during the first years of his premiership.

Yet today President Isaias described the “destructive policies of the TPLF regime”…”the TPLF’s shenanigans…” “TPLF clique”.

So why the animosity?

The answer lies in the past: in the troubled relationship between the EPLF and TPLF which developed in from the 1970’s onwards.

This is an extract from: Unfinished Business: Ethiopia and Eritrea at war, which I wrote with the late Dominique Jacquin-Berdal.


By the early 1960’s Ethiopian repression was being met by armed resistance from the Eritrean Liberation Front. Despite this there was still considerable support inside Eritrea for unity with Ethiopia, particularly from among the Christian highlanders. In November 1962, after intense pressure from Addis Ababa, the federation was ended, and Eritrea was absorbed into Ethiopia. This served to spur on the opposition, led at first by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), whose origins can partly be traced back to the Muslim League of the 1940’s. It found most of its support in the Muslim community, although some Christian highlanders, including the future leader of Eritrea, Isayas Afeworki, were also drawn into membership. Disputes within the ELF, and particularly hostility towards Christian recruits, resulted in the formation of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) in the early 1970’s. The EPLF rejected ethnic differences and stood for a secular and socialist state. An uneasy truce between the two ended in a bitter civil war that the EPLF finally won in 1981, forcing the ELF out of Eritrea.


Despite these divisions, Ethiopia’s campaign against Eritrean self determination did not go well. Discontent inside the Ethiopian army over the conduct of the war and the handling of a devastating famine, led to the overthrow of the Emperor in 1974. Haile Selassie was killed and his rule was replaced by a committee, the Dergue. In time this came under the dictatorial rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam. After initial discussions with the Eritreans failed, the war was continued and intensified. But the events of 1974 led to a second, equally important development. Students from Tigray, angered by the lack of development of their province, and building on the ancient claims of Tigray to be the centre of the Ethiopian state, launched their own campaign to break Amhara rule. In 1975 the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was formed, and began waging its own war against Addis Ababa. 




On the face of it the EPLF and the TPLF had much in common, since they both opposed Ethiopian absolutism, whether exercised by Haile Selassie or Mengistu Haile Mariam. In reality, however, the forms of national identity that the two movements pursued, and in a sense embodied, were rather different. These factors contributed to the origins of the current conflict. The Eritreans saw their struggle as an anti-colonial movement designed to regain a lost political independence.  The Tigrayan leadership, on the other hand, moved from a Tigrayan nationalism to an acceptance that they were part of the Ethiopian empire. The TPLF came to see their rightful place as being at the heart of events in Ethiopia, as had occurred during the reign of the Tigrean Emperor, Johannes IV. They regarded the current regime as an oppressive state, which should be overthrown, although they reserved the right to self-determination up to and including independence.


Eritrean identity was more complex and more difficult to forge precisely because it reflected a more diverse population. Eritrea’s 3.5 million people are divided between two major religions and speak nine different languages. The Christian agriculturalists of the central highlands share a common language, religion and ethnic background with the mainly Tigrinya speakers inside the Ethiopian region of Tigray, south of the Mereb river. Intermarriage between Tigrinya speakers of Eritrea and Tigray has traditionally been common. As an Eritrean put it in 1994, “Tigrayans are our brethren, part of our soul.”[1]  These areas had been part of the Ethiopian Empire; the mainly Muslim lowland pastoralists, on the other hand, who live to the West, North and East of the highlands, had little in common with them. The lowlanders support for the ELF was predominantly motivated by a sense of alienation from a highland government, speaking a different language and espousing a different religion. The first decade of the armed struggle, from 1961 to 1974 was largely confined to the Muslim lowlands, and driven more by this sense of alienation than a positive sense of Eritrean nationalism.


The EPLF attempted to mobilise Eritrean opinion irrespective of religion, but came up against considerable difficulties. Not all of the Christians in the highlands supported the cause of independence, and as late as 1982 some were still willing to act as armed militia for the Ethiopian administration. Outside the highlands, despite the terror employed by the Mengistu regime, a majority within the Kunama and the Afar people were at best ambivalent about the EPLF, while some actually supported continued unity with Ethiopia. As a result the EPLF had to fight a vigorous campaign within its own community to win their support, or acquiescence.


While it recognised and even celebrated Eritrea’s ethnic diversity, the EPLF resolutely refused to allow ethnicity to undermine its campaign for an independent state. This is not to suggest that ethnicity did not play any part in the Front’s activities; great care was taken to represent the whole of the population within the leadership, even when they were not as well represented among its membership. The EPLF also spent a good deal of time and effort inculcating a wider sense of Eritrean identity in its new recruits.


For the TPLF mobilisation in Tigray was relatively simple, since it could call upon an existing concept of Tigrayan nationalism and a history of oppression common to all the areas in which it operated. They shared a common language, religion and mode of livelihood. The TPLF’s activities were an attempt to end Amhara rule. In Tigrayan eyes the Amhara had usurped the traditional power base of Ethiopian society, and transferred it from the ancient Tigrayan capital of Axum to Addis Ababa. In its first political programme, released in 1976, the TPLF specified that it was fighting for the independence of Tigray from Ethiopia.[2]  Shortly thereafter a TPLF congress repudiated the manifesto, but it was not publicly disowned for some time. This has been a recurrent issue for the movement, and has also been seized upon by its critics.


Since the TPLF’s war aims, at least in the beginning, centred on achieving power in Tigray itself, its successes against the forces of the Dergue posed something of a problem for the movement, and led to considerable internal debate. Would the movement be satisfied with capturing Tigray, or would a hostile government in Addis Ababa require them to fight for the control of all Ethiopia? By early 1989 the TPLF exercised almost total control over the Tigrayan countryside, and was having increasing success against Ethiopian troops in garrisons across the province. In February 1989 TPLF forces, bolstered by an EPLF armoured brigade, took the area around Endaselasie, in western Tigray. Within two weeks garrisoned towns across the province were abandoned, sometimes without a fight.


The TPLF had achieved its initial objectives, and held most of Tigray. The question now was whether to press on to Addis Ababa. The movement had by this time established the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), together with a number of other Ethiopian organisations, with the aim of taking power in Addis Ababa. Its leadership had ambitions to rule the whole of Ethiopia but were frustrated by many of its own supporters who, to use Lenin’s famous phrase, voted with their feet.  In 1990 some 10,000 TPLF fighters spontaneously returned home.[3]After months of protracted discussion the leadership managed to convince its followers that they should continue prosecuting the war. Tigrayan nationalism was, at least for the time being, to be subordinated within a wider Ethiopian identity.


The EPLF and the TPLF therefore relied upon completely different nationalisms. The Eritrean struggle, from 1961, generated a powerful sense of collective identity, as did the increasingly genocidal responses of the Dergue towards Tigrayans and Eritreans during the 1980s. It was nationalism forged in blood and with a clear objective in mind, namely an independent Eritrea.[4]Moreover, it was a nationalism that could justly claim that it was shaped by its own experience of colonialism. Italian rule had fashioned Eritrea just as other European colonisers had brought into being the other states of the continent, after the scramble for Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, Italian colonialism had brought with it some of the benefits of European rule, in the shape of modern port facilities, roads and railways. The city of Asmara had developed into a pleasant town, with coffee shops, an opera house and fine government buildings. Eritrea also had political parties and a labour movement, neither of which were to be found across the border. By the time the Italians were driven out by the Allied forces in 1941, they left behind a far more developed state than the feudal empire that existed in Ethiopia.


The Tigrayans also had much to be proud of. They could hark back to past greatness, including the rule of the last “Tigrayan” emperor and to a history of rebellions against imperial rule. The most important of these was the “woyane” rebellion of 1943 against Haile Selassie, from which the TPLF took its inspiration. But while Eritrean nationalism was clearly associated with a nation state, Tigrayan nationalism played a difficult balancing act – at once recognising the aspirations of the Tigrayan people, but within the framework of the wider Ethiopian state. It was a problem that was to dog the relationship between the TPLF and the EPLF.


Co-operation and confrontation


Opposition to the dictatorial rule exercised from Addis Ababa temporarily united the two liberation movements, but divisions existed on a number of grounds, including ideology, strategy and tactics. Over time these grew in importance.


In 1974 as the founders of the TPLF were preparing to launch an armed struggle, they made contact with the Eritrean movements, an obvious source of assistance. They sought support from the EPLF, rather than the ELF. This was partly because another group of Tigrayans (The Tigray Liberation Front) had been established in 1972 – 73 and had formed a prior alliance with the ELF. From the EPLF the TPLF obtained promises of military training as well as arms, and, significantly, two EPLF veterans. They were Mahari Haile (who took the field name ‘Mussie’ and went on to be the first military commander) and Yemane Kidane (who took the name ‘Jamaica’) who is a member of the present Ethiopian government. The first group of TPLF trainees, twenty in all, was deployed to Eritrea at the same time.


This co-operation was fruitful and they learned much from the Eritreans. However, not all of it was to their liking. Ideology came to play a significant part in their differences.  On the face of it both shared a Marxist analysis. In reality this was more of an impediment than a spur to unity. The EPLF’s Marxism tended to be mainly ‘third worldist’ – long on anti-imperialist rhetoric and slogans. It considered the Soviet bloc ‘strategic allies’, even though they never received direct assistance from Moscow.  States in the region that were close to the Soviets, like South Yemen provided some training and support in the initial stages. This disappeared after the Dergue seized power in 1974, since it had the backing of the Soviet Union.


The TPLF, on the other hand, was influenced by Maoism, and admired Albania as an example of an anti-Soviet socialist state. In the early 1980’s Meles Zenawi rose to authority in the movement, and in 1984 the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) was formed, as a vanguard party within the TPLF.  The MLLT established links with  what it saw as ‘genuine’ Eritrean Marxist groups, notably the Democratic Movement, later the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrea.[5]The Democratic Movement (itself a faction of the ELF which broke apart after its defeat by the EPLF in 1981) was allowed to continue to have bases in the Tigray region until about 1996, much to the annoyance of the EPLF.


The United States had openly backed the emperor, Haile Selassie, but his fall and the assumption of power by a military committee, known as the Dergue, led to a change in international support. Now it was Moscow, rather than Washington that backed the Ethiopian government. This tested the EPLF’s ideological commitment to Marxism. However, the EPLF resisted labelling the Soviet Union as imperialist, realising that they might one day need its support as a permanent member of the Security Council if they were to facilitate the emergence of an independent Eritrea. [6]  The Tigrayans had no such difficulties, and had no hesitation in condemning the Soviets as imperialist. Arcane as such arguments might now seem, they were an important source of friction between the two movements. [7]


Ideology was not the only issue to divide the movements. There was also the question of military tactics. While the TPLF’s military strategy was one of mobile guerrilla warfare, the EPLF combined mobile with fixed positional warfare, based on a securely defended rear area. In this base area they established a considerable infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and workshops. As the Eritreans moved towards more conventional forms of warfare, the Tigrayans became increasingly critical of their tactics.


Matters came to a head during Ethiopia’s ‘Red Star’ campaign of 1982. It was the most sustained offensive the government forces ever undertook and came within an ace of capturing the EPLF’s base area, and with it Nakfa, the last town in rebel hands. Tigrayan fighters training with the EPLF were called upon to go into action, apparently without the permission of the TPLF Central Committee, who were furious at not being asked. After heroic efforts their combined forces just managed to repel the Ethiopian onslaught. Casualties were heavy, however, and the TPLF was deeply critical of the tactics employed by the EPLF, accusing them of moving too rapidly from guerrilla warfare to positional encounters with the enemy.


According to senior members of the TPLF, the Eritreans wanted TPLF fighters to remain in Eritrea to defend Eritrean positions.  By this time, however, the TPLF leadership had become determined to overthrow the Dergue. Its strategy, therefore, was to make alliances with other Ethiopian opposition movements and to take the military struggle South to the gates of the capital. They therefore withdrew their fighters from Eritrea. This did nothing to endear them to their allies, but worse was to follow.


In the mid 1980’s the simmering differences culminated in a major public row. Insults were exchanged. The TPLF defined the EPLF as “social imperialist”. The EPLF in turn labelled the TPLF “childish”. This row masked a serious theoretical difference with major political ramifications for the national question in Ethiopia.[8]The issue was which of its peoples had the right to self-determination up to, and including, secession. It had been a critical issue for the student radicals at Addis Ababa university in the 1960’s and 1970’s – many of whom went on to lead the Eritrean and Tigrayan liberation movements. The TPLF recognised Eritrea’s unique status as a former colonial state. But they also came to promote the right to secession of the various nationalities within Ethiopia and – far more controversially – of those within Eritrea as well.   During its exchange of polemics with the EPLF in 1986/87, the TPLF stated that “a truly democratic” Eritrea would have to respect “the right of its own nationalities up to and including secession”. [9]


This appalled and infuriated the EPLF, which argued that it was precisely because Eritrea was a former colonial state that they had the right to independence. They argued that Ethiopian nationalities had a right to self-determination, but not to independence, as this was conditional on a colonial experience.[10]  The EPLF was aware that any widening of the definition of self-determination to include independence for Ethiopian nationalities would detract from Eritrea’s special status, as a colonially defined territory. Moreover, giving Eritrean nationalities the right to secede would also jeopardise Eritrea’s future cohesion, not least because the Tigrayan and Afar peoples live on both sides of the border.


The TPLF argued that the EPLF’s refusal to recognise the right of its own nationalities to secede was an example of its undemocratic nature. For this reason the TPLF regarded its relationship with the EPLF as tactical, rather than enduring, and consequently the TPLF provided support to other Eritrean movements, such as the Democratic Marxist League of Eritrea.


According to EPLF documents, the TPLF’s flirtation with other movements came as a surprise and a disappointment and led to a rupture in their alliance.


‘…the TPLF had concluded that the EPLF was not a democratic organisation and that its relationship with the EPLF was “tactical”. The EPLF had thought that its co-operation with the TPLF was genuine and not based on temporary tactical considerations. And so, when the TPLF’s secret stand became public the EPLF realised its naiveté and although it did not regret its past actions, decided to break its relationship with the TPLF and not enter into polemics with it.’ [11]


It was at this critical juncture, when relations were at their most difficult, that the movements sought to resolve the question of just where the border ran between Eritrea and Tigray. For a long time this had appeared of little real importance since both rebel groups ranged freely across the border, as did the Ethiopian army. Very little has been heard of the negotiations that took place in late 1984, but a founder member of the TPLF, Ghidey Zeratsion, has offered an insight into the negotiations.[12]He indicates why the issue became so critical for the Eritreans.


“The border issue was raised for the first time at the meeting between the TPLF and EPLF in November 1984. At this meeting, the EPLF raised the issue and wanted to demarcate the boundary based on international agreements and documents. The areas under consideration were Badme, Tsorena-Zalambessa, and Bada. The TPLF agreed that there are areas between Ethiopia and Eritrea where they are not clearly demarcated. At the same time it argued that it was not prepared for such discussion and had not made documentary studies on the issue. Furthermore, the TPLF argued that it was not in a position to sign border agreements on behalf of Ethiopia because it did not have the legitimacy to do so. And hence, the TPLF proposed to maintain the existing administrative areas as they are and prepare the necessary documents for the final demarcation after the fall of the Derg. The EPLF was convinced by the argument and both agreed to postpone the demarcation and maintain the existing administrative regions.

One may ask why the border issue was so important for EPLF while it was still trenched in the Sahel area?

The EPLF was very much constrained by its ability to get recruits for its army. It has been rounding up and forcefully recruiting people all over Eritrea. In such a situation, border areas like Badme were safe havens for people who wanted to escape recruitment. At the same time, there are a number of Eritreans living in these areas who were attractive for EPLF’s quest of recruits. As a result, the EPLF was intruding these border areas and provoking a reaction from the TPLF. At one instant the two fronts were at the verge of war if the EPLF had not withdrawn. The EPLF could not afford to open another front while it was confined in the Sahel trenches by the Derg’s army. [13]

By early 1985 relations between the two movements had become mired in distrust. As the relationship deteriorated the TPLF began providing assistance to Eritrean movements hostile to the EPLF. [14]


In June 1985 the EPLF decided to teach the TPLF a brutal lesson in power politics. The Eritreans cut the TPLF’s supply lines to the Sudan that passed through their territory. [15]This was done at the height of one of the worst famine in modern times, denying Tigrayas access to food aid at a crucial juncture. Nothing was said publicly about the incident at the time, but it is not hard to imagine the animosity that it generated. The TPLF responded with characteristic efficiency, mobilising 100,000 peasants to build an alternative route through to Sudan that did not go via Eritrea.


While the EPLF leadership still refuses to speak about these events, Tigrayans recall it with great bitterness. As one put it: “…the EPLF behaviour was a savage act…..I do not hesitate to categorise it as a ‘savage act’. It must be recorded in history like that!” [16]


Despite this rupture the imperatives of war continued to drive the two movements to co-operate with each other. By 1987 both Fronts had had considerable military success, but further advances required co-ordinated action. In April 1988, after four days of discussions in Khartoum, a joint statement was issued, indicating that their differences had been set aside. At the same time there was no suggestion that they had been resolved. This was a military pact, not an alliance of like-minded organisations – a point stressed by the TPLF’s Yemane Kidane. The two fronts were not reconciled ideologically or politically: “Never, never. Only a military relationship. Ideologically never, politically never. We maintained our differences. So we always say it is a tactical relationship, not a strategic relationship. If they call it strategic, it is up to them.” [17]


Military co-operation led to military success. By the time the Eritreans finally took Asmara in May 1991 and the Ethiopian rebels marched into Addis Ababa, supported by units of the EPLF, the movements had forged strong bonds.[18]Their members had fought side by side against appalling odds, while their leadership had come to know and rely upon one another, even if past differences had not been forgotten.  Divisions remained, but there appeared every chance that these could be overcome, given the goodwill that existed. Agreements were made in 1991 and 1993 allowing the free movement of labour across their common border; for Eritrea’s use of Ethiopian currency, the birr; for regulated Ethiopian use of the port of Assab to minimise the effects of its loss of a coastline, and so on. Above all, the TPLF honoured its promise to allow an Eritrean independence referendum in 1993, despite strong hostility from many sections of Ethiopian society.  When the Ethiopian Prime Minister went to Asmara to take part in the formal declaration of independence in late May 1993 in his capacity as an Ethiopian head of state, Meles offered a warning to his audience. Although the speech appealed for reconciliation, it went on to call for both sides not to “scratch the wounds” of the past.  At the time it struck an odd note, since both movements appeared firm comrades, having come through such difficult battles together. Nonetheless, the speech was well received in Asmara and relations between the two capitals appeared to be on a firm footing.


Indeed, co-operation between the two governing parties was so strong that a senior Eritrean could seriously look forward to the day when the two countries were united once more in a federal structure. [19]Extraordinary as such sentiments might seem today, they genuinely reflected the optimism of the time.

[1]Identity Jilted or re-imagining identity?Alemseged Abbay, Red Sea Press, 1998, p. 151

[2]Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia, John Young, Cambridge University Press, 1997, P99 – 100


[3]John Young,  The Tigray People’s Liberation Frontin ‘African Guerrillas’, Christopher Clapham [ed.], James Currey, London 1998, p 48

[4]The difficulty for the EPLF was that the original cradle of the liberation movement was the Muslim pastoral areas to the north and west of Asmara. EPLF support came primarlily from the Kebessa, the central Tigrean inhabited Christian agricultural areas of Eritrea – Akele Guzai, Serae and Hamasien regions. These had previously been an integral part of Ethiopia, sharing culture, history, language, religion and ethnicity with Tigray. The people of the Kebessa were slow to support the independence struggle against the Ethiopian government. The major factor, in the end, was the failure of the Ethiopian regime to produce an acceptable administration. See ‘Identity Jilted or re-imagining identity’, Alemeseged Abbay, op cit. ‘No medicine for the bite of a white snake: Notes on Nationalism and Resistance in Eritrea, 1890-1940’, Tekeste Negash, University of Uppsala, 1986.

[5]Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, 1975 –1991. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 157.

[6]In August 1977, the EPLF summed up its position. ‘The democratic forces of the Eritrean revolution led by the EPLF, while criticising and opposing the erroneous stands and baseless slanders of the socialist countries and democratic forces, have not wavered from its principled solidarity and alliances with these strategic friends.’ ‘Thepresent political situation’, Memorandum, August 1978. Selected Articles from EPLF publications (1973-1980), EPLF, May 1982, p. 44


[7]See John Young, The Tigray and Eritrean Liberation Fronts: a History of Tensions and Pragmatism.  Journal of Modern African Studies, 34,1. (1996) p. 115

[8]See Duffield, M and Prendergast, J. Without Troops and Tanks, humanitarian intervention in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Red Sea Press, 1994, p100.

[9]Peoples Voice, 1986, Special Issue

[10]Adulis, May 1985

[11]EPLF Political Report and NDP.  March 1987, pp. 148-9. Quoted in John Young, The Tigray and Eritrean Peoples Liberation Fronts: A history of tensions and pragmatism’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 34,1.1996, p. 115

[12]Ghidey Zeratsion was a senior member of the TPLF until he left for Europe in 1987 when he fell out with the rest of the leadership. Some Ethiopians suggest that a deal between the TPLF and EPLF was concluded as early as 1977, but offer little explanation as to why conflict between the two movements continued long after that date. Belai Abbai, Ethiopia betrayed: Meles and co. cede sovereign territory to Eritrea by secret agreements. Unpublished paper.

[13]“The Ideological and Politial Causes of the Ethio-Eritrean War. An Insiders View” Ghidey Zeratsion. Paper for the International Conference on the Ethio-Eritrean Crises, Amsterdam, July 24, 1999. Ghidey Zeratsion concludes:

“To understand why the TPLF reacted violently to the intrusions, let us see what TPLF’s policy was on the border issue (from my personal notes of the joint MLLT and TPLF leadership 03.01.1978 Ethiopian cal.). It states as follows (interpretation is mine):

1. Our knowledge of the border issue between Eritrea and Tigray is not well supported by documents. The TPLF should make an endeavour to have a clear knowledge and understanding of the border.
2. If the EPLF trespasses the present borders, even if we are not sure that the contested areas belong to Tigray, we will consider the EPLF as an aggressor and we will go to war.
3. If the documents for demarcating the border areas, which now are under the Tigrean administration, prove the contrary we will consider them as a Tigrean territory because they have been under ‘effective administration of Tigray’. The identity of a people is determined by the unity and common history created under the same administration. This type of areas, which are under the Tigrean administration (areas in Belesa- Muna and in Erob, which in the maps are shown within the boundaries of Eritrea) will be under common administration of TPLF and EPLF. If the EPLF rejects this and tries to administer it alone, we will consider the EPLF as an aggressor.”



[15]The Eritreans also shut down the TPLF’s radio station which had been operating from EPLF controlled territory.

[16]Tekleweini Assefa, Head of the Relief Society of Tigray, interviewed in Identity jilted or re-imagining identity?  Alemseged Abbay, Red Sea Press, 1998, p 129.

[17]Yemane Kidane in Brothers at war: making sence of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. Tekeste Negash and Kjetil Tronvoll. James Currey, Oxford, 2000, p. 20.

[18]Even this co-operation could be a cause of friction. ‘In the early years of its rule in Addis Ababa, from 1991 to 1995, the TPLF was still dependent on its ally to keep the rather hostile Ethiopian political and military situation under control. To many non-Tigrayan Ethiopians the presence of Eritrean forces in Ethiopia during those years was resentful and a cause of discomfort.’ Elias Habte Selassie. The Ethiop-Eritrean Conflict: Its causes and consequences. Life and Peace Institute, Nairobi, Kenya, unpublished paper, p. 4

[19]Eritrea and Ethiopia, from conflict to co-operation. Amare Tekle (ed.), Red Sea Press, 1994, p. 17