Why The Tigray People’s Liberation Front And Putin’s Russia Are Strikingly Similar, By Jon Abbink

The TPLF leaders, like Vladimir Putin, are seeking to return their iron grip on the country, reversing a nation’s democratic transition

For nearly a month the attention of much of the world has been on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We have all watched in horror as an authoritarian regime invaded a democratic state — seemingly in an attempt to reverse the freedom and self-determination the people of Ukraine have held dear since the 1990s.

While this war has rightly drawn global attention, we should not forget that elsewhere others are still engaged in a struggle to secure their democracy, freedom and safety from former dictatorial regimes. In Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which held the country in an authoritarian grip for nearly 30 years, continues a military operation against the democratically elected government of Ethiopia. TPLF forces are still present and fighting, shelling, kidnapping and killing locals in Afar and northern Amhara region along the entire border of Tigray.

This is even though the Ethiopian federal army has said, after it had pushed the TPLF forces back to the border of Tigray regional state in December 2021, that they will not enter and fight in Tigray. In fact, there has not been any ground fighting in Tigray since June 21, when the federal government offered a ceasefire and withdrew — a ceasefire the TPLF rejected.

Throughout this conflict we have also seen a mass propaganda exercise by the TPLF, designed to garner Western support for its insurgency. Even today TPLF propagandists are trying to present themselves as the equivalent of Ukraine in this conflict.

The TPLF is, in fact, analogous to Putin’s Russia. Like Russia, it is the TPLF that began this war. Like Russia, it is TPLF aggression that has kept the conflict going. Like Russia, the TPLF has been found to have committed vast human rights abuses; and like Vladimir Putin it is the TPLF leaders that are seeking to return their iron grip on the country, reversing a nation’s democratic transition. Attempts by the TPLF to establish “administrations” in the parts of Afar they have occupied are also akin to what is happening in Luhansk and Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.

And there is a striking similarity between how the two wars have been presented to the world by those who started them. Claims of aggression and threats by democratic governments have been made by both Russia and the TPLF. Both Putin’s cheerleaders and TPLF mouthpieces have made unfounded claims of “genocide”. The only divergence is how successful such propaganda has been.

While Western media and political leaders have rightly rejected Russia’s baseless claims, sadly this has not been the case with Ethiopia. Too many have been and continue to be taken in by TPLF claims — up to and including elected officials in the US.

The Western world can be proud of the support it has given Ukraine in defending its democracy. To secure democracy, freedom and stability in Ethiopia similar support should be offered to its democratically elected government. The TPLF, like Putin’s cronies, must no longer find a safe haven in the US and elsewhere.

Throughout this conflict Ethiopia, its diaspora around the world and its allies have been on the side of democracy. This must continue. There is a clear common cause between Ethiopians and Ukrainians as they both strive to defend their homeland against tyranny. Friends of both nations and diasporas must make this case and ensure those who are on the side of democracy stand together.

Abbink is professor of politics & governance in Africa at Leiden University and chair of the Researchers’ Assembly of the African Studies Centre in Leiden.


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