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De Facto State of Tigray: Hasn’t it always been so?

De Facto State of Tigray: Hasn’t it always been so?

Yohannes Aberra, PhD 11-17-19

The talk of town this week is the “declaration” of Tigray as a de facto state. Some are calling it illegal. Yes, it is not legal; that is what de facto means. De facto state is not declared; it just happens and is real. The question is, why should it be more surprising now than it was before? Isn’t Tigray made to be a de facto state for over a century? Isn’tthe long overdue worry, being expressed now, based on the inconvenient fact that this time,Tigray could be more politically and economically viable than it has ever been, paving the way for a de jure state formation? The bottom line is, no one in Tigray would want to see the formation of a separate statehood independent from Ethiopia as long as Ethiopia remains motherly enough. However, that has never been the case. Ethiopia has always been like an unsympathetic stepmother. What has been troubling politicians and ordinary people in Tigray alike is that being Ethiopian for a Tigraian is something which is claimed but not accepted full heartedly by the rest. However much they serve Ethiopia they are not appreciated. It would be much easier for a foreigner to do a tiny bit (take the rest) and be glorified beyond proportions. This is putting a lot of pressure on the psyche of Tigraians about how much more they must pay to earn genuine Ethiopianess and why this has become costlier for them than for the rest of Ethiopians. 

It is unfortunate and also evades reason why the Ethiopianess of Tigraians is taken too lightly and disapprovingly. It is easy for anyone, young or old who claims “genuine” Ethiopianess, to tell Tigraians to move out to their “home”. From where? Obviously from Ethiopia. When around the 2005 elections a young boy shouted at the peak of his voice “Tigre wede Mekele”, the million-strong crowed just cheered! Ethiopians chasing out non-Ethiopians to their de facto home country’s capital: Mekele. It reminded me of the 1974Ethiopia when we chanted in the streets of Addis Ababa “Yankees go home!”. Yes, Yankees have a home! Ethiopia is not their home. How about Tigraians? Where are they required to go home to unless it is implied that Tigray is another country (a northern neighbor of Ethiopia) whose citizens immigrated to Ethiopia. Although it is well known that the alienation hurts the feelings of Tigraians so deeply, no one bothers to apologize or exercise restraint! Tigraians are de facto non-Ethiopians. So, a defacto state of Tigray is not something the people of Tigray would like to declare but it is forced upon them with impunity.

Tigray is a de jure part of Ethiopia because the constitution includes it; and also because Tigray is included in the ‘physical map’ of Ethiopia the UN endorsed. However, Tigray is absent from the ‘mental map’of Ethiopia which is more real and more potent than the physical map.A de facto state is born when that state is absent from the mental map of the larger country. Gebrehiwot Baykedagn blamed Minilik II for not considering the people of Tigray as his own people. The latter made little effort to pacify the Region. He was rather aggravating the conflicts by pitting one against the other. The long reigned Monarch that followed found it easier to violently crush grievances in Tigray, just like dealing with a foreign enemy, rather than talk to them as compatriots who bled for Ethiopia with little help from the Center. The Military continued the tradition more brutally. How is a Tigraian child born and brought up in this context of hate and marginalization expected to feel genuinely Ethiopian?

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The last thing Ethiopians need to be obsessed about is the preoccupation with the history of monarchs and noble men. The future is sitting idle waiting for Ethiopians to wake up from their deep sleep with history and work for the following generations to come. Yet, whenever there is a need for the monarchs, noble men, and other heroes to be praised for whatever good thing they did for Ethiopia the queer selection of kings/leaders for glorification evades explanation. The selection almost invariably leaves Tigraian heroes out. This is done more likelyby design rather than by accident. In a chronological line of portraits of leaders of Ethiopia Yohannes IV is always missing. The only possible message is either Ethiopia had no leader for two decades or Yohannes IV was the leader of Tigray not of Ethiopia. In fact, Debebe Eshetu said this during the Kinijit years. I remember to have responded to such an unwarranted statement made by this popular man as follows (see:, 2005): “I feel Minilik is my King; but if Yohannes is reduced to being the king of Tigray, then I will have to say Menilik is only the king of Shewa”. I asked Debebe Eshetu: “Have we shared the kings by region rather than having them in common?”The truth is, there was an Emperor who appointed kings to various sub-kingdoms (benevolently allowing self-rule), saved Ethiopia from Egyptian rule, paid with his life to defend northwestern Ethiopia from Mahdist invasion, and consolidated the unity of Ethiopia inherited from Tewodros II. This was much more than any leader in Ethiopia contributed to safeguard Ethiopia. If Yohannes IV is not at least mentioned as one in the series of leaders of Ethiopia the only possible explanation is he was an outsider (Tigray) who colonized Ethiopia for so many years.

A de facto state is the result not of the will of people but a logical outcome of alienation: an apparent consensus about Tigraians as outsiders.If there is anyone to blame for any eventual separation of Tigray from Ethiopia it is no doubt the rest of Ethiopia. How could alliance with a foreign country (Eriteria) be sought against Tigray unless otherwise Tigray is considered as a more unfriendly neighboring country than Eritrea is? How is friendliness defined? EPLF led by Isaias Afeworki separated Eritrea from Ethiopia and turned Ethiopia into the most populous landlocked country in the world. Meles Zenawi, a leader of Tigraian origin, brought Ethiopia into the world attention not as a hungry but as economically vibrant country. What is the parameter for removing the name and images of Meles from wherever they were and replacing them by Isaias’s, a crafty politicians who always has his tricks deep in his pocket while smiling broadly in public and fooling people and their unsuspecting leaders.

It is only whenever the issue of separation of Tigray from Ethiopia is raised that Tigray suddenly becomes a dear Ethiopian region. Those who are busy with pushing Tigray away also know that with Tigray gone the rest of Ethiopia cannot remain in one piece. That is why they are “rudely” awakened by an unfavorable reaction from Tigray to their torment. Being Ethiopian for Tigray is not a gift to be given or denied by anyone. There is no one else more Ethiopian than Tigraians are. Although it may sound indecent Tigraians are the founders of Ethiopia. I don’t think it is too late to put things right.It is as simple as this: Those suffering from ‘Tigrophobia’ and are using Tigray as a comma for every ugly phrase they make must be treated for this dangerous ailment. Numerous political analysts have become stuck in scapegoating craze on Tigray rather than broadening their skills of analysis to explore their own untidy mentalities.

In the last three days ETV was very busy belittling the late prime minister by repeatedly airing what he said about the exclusion of the parties operating in the dominantly pastoralist regions. There is nothing wrong with what he said; but for ETV this was only a part of the huge campaign to obliterate the image of Meles Zenawi from the minds of Ethiopians. Another victim: a leader of Tigraian origin! It could have been much easier and personally more rewarding for Meles Zenawi to fully introduce liberalism in Ethiopia and please the West.Those who befriended Italy benefited those who didn’t lost bitterly. This is the ugliest part of the history of Ethiopia in black and white. Didn’t the cruel and corrupt Mobutu, Pinoche, and other stay in power as long as they wanted by fully accepting the dictates from the USA? Challenging neoliberalism in the 90s, when the political-economic ideology was at its peak led by the most powerful state and the most powerful financial organizations in the world, was politically suicidal for any aspiring African leader. Meles Zenawi chose a different path in spite of the possible dangers from the West he was fully aware of. He succeeded in making Ethiopia a friend of the USA, not its puppet! This is what loving Ethiopia means. Patriotism is not only saving Ethiopia from direct external rule but also from a more debilitating indirect rule. Meles Zenawi’s efforts were always viewed with suspicion. Why? What is wrong with saving Ethiopia from Egyptian invasion in the 19th century and saving Ethiopia from neo-colonialism? The wrong is that both were done by the “wrong” people! What Meles Zenawi fought against is the smiling imperialism of the present which has tactically replaced the growling imperialism of the past. Fortunately the West loves heroes. Susana Rice came to Ethiopia to pay her condolences, on behalf of the USA, for the death of Meles Zenawi. USA knows that there is no LDC leader who challenged the full fledged adoption of liberalism other than Meles Zenawi. They know he was doing it not with stubbornness but with sound analysis which they found hard to refute. In her speech at the Meskel Square Susana Rice admitted that USA had differences with Meles, but she could never hide her admirations for him for doing things in his own brilliant way.

Revolutionary democracy based on the agrarian societies of Ethiopia was what was agreed upon by all EPRDF member parties. The four parties were all based in predominantly agrarian societies which form the majority of rural residents in Ethiopia. All the four parties defended their programme for the last three decades. Unless programmes/ideologies are changed those political parties based in other societies and other programmes cannot technically be included in a front founded on a single agreed programme. This is not discrimination. There has been no one else than Meles Zenawi who paid more attention to the life of pastoralists in Ethiopia as opposed to the utter neglect these people have been experiencing in the past. Genuine leaders of the pastoralist societies know this fact very well and they appreciate it from the bottom of their hearts. Inculcating, in a Goebbels style repetition, the feeling of hate for the TPLF/Tigray in the minds of pastoralists does not help those who are doing it. It only serves a short-term purpose which may have a boomerang effect in the long term. Promoting the unification of the EPRDF should not make use of issues that could pit one people against another.

TPLF has a right to refuse to be part of the unification if it sees no logical ground for it. There is no need for a barrage of criticism for a party that preferred to go its own way. Those in the TPLF are human beings like any other. They have feelings thatcould be hurt. A year ago TPLF, its leaders and its hundreds of thousands of members were considered as good for nothing; a party loaded with bandits who took Ethiopia through dark ages; anyone who tried to defend them was criminalized; every body else turned into becoming TV and radio interviewee with the only expertise at their disposal of condemning TPLF in an obscene language. Now in a surprising U-turnwhat TPLF says, declares, opposes, or supports became critically important and decisive. Mind you, TPLF members are expected to happily rejoin their “dear old friends/comrades” in the other member parties of the EPRDF. After the unceremonious and uncaring removal of the TPLF leadership from Federal positions, followed by a persistent campaign of degrading insults and defamation, there has neither been any sign of regret nor any attempt to apologize.

There is no like father-son relationship in political life. A father became angry with his son for the right or wrong reason and chased him out of the family home. The father told everyone in the neighborhood how bad his son is. The father furiously said: “He will never come back to this house”. Contrary to what the father thought the son starts to adjust to life outside his home and feels more comfortable. The infighting in the family home became worse than it was before. Some family members started to feel that it is better for the son to move back home for the sake of relative peace in the family. The father invited his son back home without publicly apologizing for the defamation he carelessly committed on his son in the neighborhood.  Isn’t it reasonable and dignified if the son refuses to return home? Actually, this is for the family home where the father may not have to apologize and the son may have to tolerate his father’s actions. Whatever the fathers wrongdoings on his son he still will have to be tolerated, as per societal moral values. However, in politics dumping an ally as unimportant and even as a burden, and next realizing that that ally is a key missing link, is sheer immaturity in handling sensitive politics?

A young man, who led a mass rally as part of the campaign to save the ETOC from harassment, was heard saying “the people of Tigray failed us by not joining in mass rallies against the tormentors of the ETOC. The young man did not realize that entire people cannot be pushed away first and then pulled in next at will and whim. Tigraians are the original ETOC members. They cannot be in second position to defend the Church; but when such grievances and rallies are mixed with anti-Tigraian sauce Tigraians cannot eat from the same plate. For the last thirty years Tigraians have been deeply disappointed by the campaign against popes of Tigraian origin as if it is a religious offence to be a “pope while Tigraian”. This is an expression I took from how black people in USA express their predicament as blacks. They say, it is both a criminal act in the USA to “drive while drunk” and to “drive while black”. Tigraians are not sitting idle when their Church is in trouble. They are defendingit in their own ways with out panic and hurting innocent others in apossible stampede that could follow.

All Tigraians like to see Ethiopia in peace and prosperity. As people who make most of their living away from home having a separate state of their own is only the last option and the last resort to survive as people. They should not be carelessly pushed into that option. The hate of Tigray is evolving into the inadvertent destruction of Ethiopia. The separation of Tigray is not going to be a clean break. Nothing would ever be the same afterwards. It will never be like “lived happily ever after!”. Those who seem not to be bothered by the separation of Tigray, considering it as a big historic relief, are failing to realize that they cannot plan their lives for the next day let alone for a year after the separation. It is not the fact that Tigray is economically the least important for Ethiopia and its separation would not harm Ethiopia significantly. What matters most is that Tigray is arguably the pulling end of the social fabric in Ethiopia. The entire social fabric could turn to be a pile of thread once that end is pulled out. Tigray will survive somehow and even thrive because it will do it consciously. Readers should not consider this as an unwarranted expression of Tigraian superiority. To understand what I am saying fully one has to avoid being blinded by emotions and think with patience and objectivity. 

There is nothing wrong with holding elections in Tigray. The Region/state has the peace required to conduct the election as dictated by the constitution which is still functioning. TPLF cannot be blamed for observing rules enshrined in the constitution which is still valid. It is illegal to take actions that are not allowed in the constitution with future changes of the constitution in mind. It should not take being a Tigraian to be wrong for something which is right. Changes in laws have effective dates. If a law is to be changed tomorrow, somebody could be sentenced to death based on that law today (which is going to be changed tomorrow)! Let’s say the constitution is to be changed next year after the elections. The change may allow elections to be postponed at the discretion of political leaders who are not sufficiently prepared or perceive the mood of the country as inconvenient for holding elections. No problem with this law if the law is accepted by majority of Ethiopians and approved by a representative parliament. The next election, and all of those after it, could be postponed a hundred times if the prime minister or other parties wish it to be so. The current election, scheduled for June, is based on the current laws not on the laws that might be changed next year. A court cannot sentence a person based on a law scheduled for next year to be approved by parliament. It is sheer impunity if this is done. There could be violence after the elections based on claims and counter claims of victory. That may be milder than postponing elections and trying to maintain peace in Ethiopia without an unelected government. No election means no parliament next near. It is well known that the parliament is not as effective as it should be; but its symbolic presence is important to keep people united. Lamenting and cursing Tigray for settling in for a de facto state does not help in solving the problem. A more lasting solution is to deal with the cause rather than fight the symptom.

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