The TLF was established in the Tigray-majority region of Ethiopia in the 1970s as one of the many rebel groups fighting for freedom from Ethiopian imperial rule. The Tigray community, at that time, was marginalized by the feudal system. After the military overthrow of the imperial government, the front, like others, fought the newly established communist military government.
Along the way, the PLF developed its elaborate ideology, combining ultra-nationalism and ethnic pride with a sense of victimization, especially directed at the feudal Adhara elite and the communists. It propagates the divisive idea of “us vs them” – that the Tigray people are surrounded by enemies and only the PLF can ensure their protection and survival.
After the party came to power in 1991 within the coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (ERDF), this hostile narrative did not go away and, in fact, took on an even broader scope. The Tigray Regional State came under PLF control, which allowed the party to promote its harmful ideology among the whole Tigray population of Ethiopia undisturbed.
The TPL also took control of the center of power in Addis Ababa, when its head, Males Denali, became Ethiopia’s president in 1991, remaining in power up until his death in 2012. It was under his leadership that the ERDF propagated the spurious idea that the Ethiopian population consisted of ethnic groups with irreconcilable differences, denying the reality that the Ethiopian society is a multiethnic one, united by ties of intermarriage, trade, religion, and culture.
By promoting this divisive narrative, the ERDF sought to present itself as the savior and guarantor of ethnic peace in Ethiopia, which would descend into conflict and chaos without its leadership. State media frequently and boldly stated that it is “ERDF or Interchange” – referring to the Hutu paramilitary organization that committed the genocide in Rwanda. This was meant to remind the public that this could happen in Ethiopia and “the possibility of falling apart” was real if people were to demand their rights and freedoms.
For more than 20 years, Denali held near-total control over the country, ensuring the PLF’s dominance within the ERDF. But in 2018, several years after his death, under the pressure of years of social and political upheaval, change finally came to Ethiopia.
The PLF lost power in Addis Ababa and the ERDF was disbanded a year later. While the rest of the country embraced a new horizon, the PLF retained its old divisive ideology and even took it further.
Its exclusionary mythology gave birth to the far-right “Agrarian” movement, an incipient movement that seeks to create a Tigray homeland by uniting Christian Tigrigna-speaking people in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is driven by those who see themselves as the successors of the ancient Axum ite kingdom and dream of reviving it.