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Birds of the same feather?

Birds of the same feather?

The seemingly unorthodox friendship between Abiy and Isaias are expressions of long lasting regional and socio-political interests.

Tenbite Yonas  06-18-20

To most observers of east African politics, the unlikely friendship that has emerged 2 years ago between PM Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afeworki may have seemed like a conundrum. If Abiy and Isaias' reconciliation, as representatives of their respective countries, was motivated by a sober desire for compromise in the spirit of peace and mutual interest, it would indeed have been lauded by all. But, even the most unsuspecting of Abiy's followers, who have enthusiastically defended the rather ambiguous peace deal with Eritrea, would be left a bit uneasy at the sight of the little too intimate relationship between Abiy and Isaias.

In line with that, the hero like welcome Abiy received in Asmara and the manner in which similar over-enthusiasm has been reciprocated to Isaias in AA and Bahr Dar, was incongruent, to say the least, with prior sentiments of both societies. The whole situation does not seem to add up. A little while ago The Eritrean struggle for independence has been portrayed as 'treasonous' among the die-hard advocates of "Ethiopiawinet"; And Isaias, as leader and physical embodiment of that struggle, was seen as 'the banda/traitor' par excellence. Similarly, EPLF and later the Eritrean government has always held Ethiopia as a colonizer and subsequently worked towards inculcating a feeling of hate and enmity among Eritreans especially towards 'one Ethiopia' advocates. So what prompted the people of these cities, who are known to be hotbeds of these mutually irreconcilable ideologies, to suddenly abandon their long held 'misconceptions' and glorify their villains?

Some may say that the over-enthusiasm of the people of these cities was the outcome of the exhaustion they felt by the tediously protracted enmity with their fellow brethren and their subsequent yearning for peace. Accordingly, the intense adoration that Abiy and Isaias received is supposed to be perceived as a gesture of gratitude for making it happen. But loving peace and rushing for reconciliation is one thing; but turning a villain into a hero and worshipping him as such is another. As for the 'exhaustion' part, it may explain the reaction of the people on the immediate vicinity of the border conflict (and indeed, we have seen what true enthusiasm looked like in Zalambessa) but the argument would be overstretched to include the rapture in Addis and Bahr Dar. Watching Isaias accompanied by a citywide parade and making speeches at the inauguration of public service buildings he'd been working hard to demolish was bizarre to say the least.

All in all, call it whatever you want, but seeing Abiy and Isaias going around in each other's arms like new lovers on a honeymoon and the mass euphoria that follows them seem a little too unrealistic and one is bound to take it with a pinch of salt. One cannot help but wonder if this show was also some sort of a gibe aimed at another party.

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But this bromance between the two ended up being more than just a fling. Detractors, who may've had played it down by suggesting that eventually, this unorthodox relationship is going to come down to earth and face political realities, seem to have got their calculations wrong. It has persisted for more than two years. Neither the sarcasm of skeptics nor the corona outbreak was able to keep them apart as is testified by Isaias' recent visit amidst the heat of the pandemic. So it would be timely to ask: "is the relationship serious?"

Again, had their career and ideology not been so different, even this would not have provoked unusual attention. But here are two leaders who, on the surface, have absolutely nothing in common. At face value, their difference couldn't be more stark. One is depicted as an archaic despot who seems determined to hold power to his last breath. The other, in contrast, is often portrayed by certain medias as a young, progressive and charismatic leader, who quickly developed a reputation for opening 'the gates of democracy' hitherto unheard of in Sub-Saharan Africa. What has a Nobel peace prize winning, democracy preaching, locally 'supported', internationally courted, leader like Abiy in common with a tyrant of Isaias' proportions?

But moving beyond stereotypical portrayals, and cursory level inspection of their political character as well as ideological convictions, soon reveals that they have much more in common than meets the eye.

Ideological similarities: Medemer – a leaf out of EPLF's manifesto?

Abiy's administration has been striving for the past two years to popularize the 'Medemer' ideology. While many aspects of this ideology remain vague and baffling even to its very advocates, the actions and speeches of its prominent leaders provide acute observers with clues as to what lies beneath its bewitching cover. Among these (i) an emphasis on unity and (ii) a stern refusal to take sides in the left-right political spectrum stand out.

Medemer as Unity: Abiy's initial effort was focused on selling his new ideology as some sort of a bridge between the two extremes of 'Unitarianism' and the so-called 'ethnic sectarianism'. The very word Medemer, literally meaning 'to be added', and translated as 'synergy' was perhaps cautiously chosen to find a reconciling middle ground between the two extremes: i.e (a) those whose political ideologies were crafted to vigilantly resist what they perceived as assimilative uniformitarian tendencies aimed at 'robbing' them of their ethnic uniqueness and (b) those who strove to put an end to what they saw as divisive ethnic tendencies that caused discord and national instability. Putting a stress on the term 'addition', in place of 'unity' is, of course, meant to console supposedly 'paranoid' ethnicists by recognizing plurality in Abiy's endeavor towards unity. After all, 'to be added' inherently admits the presence of 'many' that are to be brought together into unity.

But, over time, whether initially intended or otherwise, and perhaps out of a practical need to bolster support, Abiy seems to have chosen a side and 'Medemer' has since been correctly understood by many to have come to mean just a less traumatic label for the age old 'andinet/unity'.

Leaving aside the exhausting debate of whether 'Medemer' is or is not a repackaging of the extremist Unitarian ideology of the Derg and the emperors, we can at least agree that Abiy's catch-word is aimed at reversing the gear of the previous 2 decades by 'de-emphasizing' ethnic uniqueness and autonomy and re-establishing a common 'Ethiopian' identity as the foundation for building a nation state.

This, of course, harmonizes with EPLF's stance, which had long rejected the idea of giving recognition to the 'national question' and opted for implementing a strongly Unitarian model on pluralist Eritrea.

Medemer as advocating eclecticism: On the other hand, regarding the Left-right spectrum, 'Medemer' has been lauded by Abiy's followers for its marked divergence from the customary tendency, commonly evident among most local parties, of choosing to embrace either Marxist or neoliberal categories and for preferring instead to remain eclectic, choosing whatever works without dogmatic attachment to either side. To drive this point home, Abiy's manifesto goes to great length to criticize and at times, even confer unrestrained contempt on political movements of the 60s for their archaic bigotry and superficial adoption of alien concepts.

Moreover, 'Medemer' was also portrayed by its preachers as having been founded on indigenous political wisdom which is supposed to possess, through inward introspection of one's socio-political history, an arcane formula that enables it to resist categorization and exhibit self-reliance. At the same time, this mighty and exclusively local philosophy, is to occupy indisputable position on the political arena judging the validity of foreign ideologies while, itself, remaining inscrutable.

Interestingly such alarmingly dogged resistance to scrutiny and adamant insistence to be considered as a unique and indigenous philosophy has been one of the most consistent traits of EPLF's and later PFDJ's political orientation of the past four decades.

While for practical reasons, EPLF may have started out as an adherent of Marxism and Maoism, it had soon produced its own distinct course that was not confined to formal ideological categories:

Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the EPLF was (at least in theory) a Marxist-Leninist organization of the kind common throughout the lands of the old colonial empires… Adopting a purely 'toolbox approach', the EPLF selected from an array of left-wing revolutionary ideologies to forge its own… Waging a lonely anti-colonial struggle where the colonial was not identified as such, transgressive to the logic of Cold War by its positioning against the Soviet-backed Ethiopian Derg regime, aligned with secular Arab nationalism and yet waging its own civil war against Islamic sectarianism, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front … resisted facile categorization. The EPLF itself fostered Eritrea and its own organization as both isolated and inscrutable, insisting on pragmatism as its main ideological thrust, and turning inward to foster a strategy for national liberation. (O'Kane & Hepneer, 2009)

This may imply that 'Medemer', although it could be claimed to merit consideration as an authentic reflection of the PM's personal beliefs, it is nonetheless, neither original nor exclusive. The fact that, as we have seen, it shows evident signs of EPLF's aura, may mean that it is, in turn, difficult to ignore the possibility that it was hugely influenced by, or at least got its inspiration from, Abiy's friendship with Isaias. Abiy's recent antics, when he claimed that elections are not mandatory, wherein he cited countries that have not carried out elections for several decades, shows that he has indeed been beguiled by Isaias' sinister influence.

Isaias Afeworki descent from heroic liberator to grim oppressor

Many believe Isaias Afeworki and his party, EPLF, have undertaken a radical shift since their guerrilla years. During the liberation struggle, EPLF accomplished remarkable feats of bravery in battle, as well as social mobilization and development initiatives, which would have seemed impossible given its scanty resources. These deeds subsequently enabled it to be enshrined in the hearts of Eritreans.

But since Eritrean independence, EPLF completely 'reversed' gear and embarked upon unprecedented levels of oppression; or so it would seem. And Isaias Afeworki, once perceived as a young and dynamic leader of EPLF, who was poised to transform this new nation into Africa's Singapore, soon, seemingly out of the blue, turned evil and acquired a reputation, both locally and internationally, as being a stubborn, and narrow minded dictator whose actions defy reason and political sanity.

Although it is undeniable to all that EPLF, and its leader Isaias, since their arrival in Asmara, have brought about innumerable suffering and oppression to Eritreans, upon close examination, it becomes apparent that their actions and policies are neither deviations from their guerrilla years, nor are they irrational.

In fact, these same traits that served to bring success during EPLF's guerrilla years have since come to cripple it.

"The apparently positive aspects of that revolution were accompanied by the centralization of power in an unaccountable authoritarian leadership, and purges of those who threatened nationalist "unity"… the light and dark sides of the Eritrean revolution, therefore were always locked together … (O'Kane & Hepneer, 2009)

Similarly, Martin Plaut, a seasoned analyst thoroughly acquainted with Eritrean politics, says of Isaias: "His forceful personality and intolerance of opposition were arguably critical to winning the war against Ethiopia, but when independence came, it was another story".

Indeed, as we shall see later, even Isaias' most questionable actions such as starting the border conflict or the non-stop conscription of youth into the never ending 'national service', are ruthlessly rational.

The Eritrean Dilemma: a façade of unity hiding inner turbulence

The border war and the intensified control are not just parts of a struggle for political power or the preservation of independence from the outside threat. These two goals were achieved at the official end of the struggle in 1991. But there is one struggle that was not won at that time, and which continues today. That is the struggle for the political idea of Eritrea as a nation. (O'Kane & Hepneer, 2009)

Popular account of the independence struggle, often retold colorfully during Eritrea's Independence Day, and repeatedly propagated by the national media, tells of how Eritreans, in the face of imperialist forces, which relentlessly sought to subdue and diffuse their nationalistic spirit, endured unbearable hardships and fought body and soul to liberate their beloved country from the claws of colonialist Ethiopia. Consequently, in a short time, the people, under the guiding hand of EPLF leadership, transformed Eritrea into the most united and self-reliant nation in Africa; "one nation, one leader and one heart" as the saying goes.

The truth, however, was quiet different. Indeed, Eritreans have shown remarkable unity of purpose and courage in their struggle for independence. But, what happened after independence was entirely different. Similar to other post-colonial countries multi-ethnic Eritrea inherently harbored identity crisis as its peoples lacked a unifying historical and cultural narrative.

And although the liberation struggle had succeeded in igniting nationalistic sentiments and a sense of common brotherhood among its constituent nationalities, especially among the urban folk, its roots were neither deep nor unanimous.

According to one study conducted in rural Eritrea, apart from the educated elite and the bourgeoisie, the commoners never saw Ethiopia as a colonizer. Neither did they see the EPLF as the liberator; just another government, perhaps a better one. To be fair, EPLF had near unanimous support during its liberation struggle, but not as an "anti-colonial" force as is often portrayed in its national media, but more as bringer of peace and fairer administration. More curious is the finding that the Ethiopian governments, although remembered for all the wrong reasons, were nonetheless, not perceived as alien invaders.

There was no geopolitical imagination to support the idea that legitimate claims to power originated within the borders, little more than lines drawn on a map. The political aspirations of EPLF appealed to villagers simply because they were seen to be capable of better, and more just governance. They were supported for pragmatic and not nationalistic reasons…

The time after liberation is known in Asmara, among the government and the urban educated elites, simply as dehri natsenet (after libration). To the government and the educated elite, the time now is simply the time after the pivotal event of liberation. To the villagers, however, this is the time of a particular government that has replaced the previous government

Although it was a time of hardship, violence, and life indeed was a struggle, the term is not used by the villagers because they do not perceive the nation as an entity in the way that the nationalist discourse objectifies it. (O'Kane & Hepneer, 2009)

Moreover, Eritrean nationalism also suffers from deep divides between the Tigrigna speaking highlanders who largely practice Orthodox Christianity and the Arab influenced lowlanders who are Muslims. Even during the inception of the independence movement, in the 1950s, such fissures lead to bloody conflicts and threatened to paralyze the armed struggle.

The ELF, the first liberation movement and mother party of the EPLF, had structured its leadership to mirror the different regions of the then Eritrean province. This ethnically conscious decentralized approach had nevertheless created discord and hostility within its leadership calumniating in its decline. Such 'bad affair' with the ethnic experiment, essentially not so different from the way their neighbor, TPLF-EPRDF, had been set up, was to lead to their utter hostility to and perception of threat from such an ideology[1]. EPLF, thus, which was born out of this deeply bruising conflict of identity, resolved to stamp out any form of ethnic identification from among its members.

Trouble from next door

Ethiopia's political system further complicated things. The fact that a neighboring country, with whom Eritreans share so much history and culture, promoted an ethnic federalist arrangement, must have been perceived by Eritrea's leadership as destabilizing.

… their views of administration were diametrically opposed. The new Ethiopian government reformed the state along ethnic lines. The constitution of 1995 allowed for 'a voluntary union of the nationalities of Ethiopia' and included the right to secession. It was the position the EPLF had rejected years earlier. By contrast, the Eritreans built on their vision of their country as a product of colonialism, and opted for a unitary state. They opposed any notion that the state should be ethnically defined. (Plaut, 2016)

But even more disconcerting was Tigray's autonomous existence, which posed a permanent threat to Eritrea's nation-building project. Before being separated by mutual agreement of Menelik  II and Italy, the Bher-Tigrigna people of Eritrea and Tigray people of Ethiopia were essentially one people. Both people on either side of the Mereb were conscious of this common heritage and, especially during the Haile Selassie's era, their educated elites had sought reunification. Of note, in this regard, was, the Tigray-Tigrign movement to create the nation of 'Abay Tigray' (Greater Tigray). Moreover, TPLF founded on ethno-nationalistic ideology, naturally sought, initially at least, to build a state that included all Tigrigna speaking people (including the Bher-Tigrigna in Eritrea). This aspiration obviously conflicted with EPLF's ambitions of creating a united Eritrea that subjugated ethnicity to national solidarity.

… they [TPLF] 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”.

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.

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 jeopardize Eritrea’s future cohesion, not least because the Tigrayan and Afar peoples live on both sides of the border. (Plaut, 2016)

For Isaias to Lead Eritrea into anti-Tigrayan and anti-Ethiopian confrontation, at least when examined from this perspective, made sense since it served to contain the ideological threat his government faced from the other side of the Mereb, while at the same time helping to create a common history this fondling new nation badly needed.

Thus, Isaias Afeworki and Co, acutely aware of their new nation's lack of common historical-cultural narrative as well as increasingly disconcerted by their neighbor's pursual of an ethno-nationalist system inherently hostile to its 'one people' unionist ideology, resolved to follow a path which started with reinforcing the colonial identity initiated by Italy and culminated in the Ethio-Eritrean border war.

Eritrean Colonial identity and its complications across the border

Italy created Eritrea by an act of surgery: by severing its different peoples from those with whom their past had been linked and by grafting the amputated remnants to each other under the title of Eritrean (Plaut, 2016)

Eritrea was essentially a colonial creation. Prior to being carved out of Ethiopian northern territory, the tribes and ethnic groups in its domain had nothing that uniquely held them together and apart from those around them.

On the contrary, most of its constituent communities were deeply tied culturally and historically to their neighbors. Consequently, to combat anti-colonial resistance and rebellions that had already started to cause mayhem, Italy's colonial administration proceeded to inculcate an 'attitude of superiority and exclusionism' in its colonial subjects over their un-colonized brethren. Thus being a 'civilized' Eritrean implicitly came to entail suppression of ethnic and historical roots in favor of superficial yet potent colonial identity.

Eventually, mutually hostile narratives of labeling the un-colonized as primitives and the colonized Eritreans as bandas (traitors) developed on both sides of the Ethio-Eritrean border, which effectively severed, momentarily at least, their psychosocial ties. The identification with colonial Eritrea and subsequent perception of privilege in being a colonial subject was even more apparent among the Bher-Tigrigna. Apparently, Tigrigna speaking Eritreans, rooted in highlander tradition were more suited to adapt to Italy's colonial institutions, and thus, were able to acquire greater benefits from the colonial administration. That their fellow Tigrigna speaking neighbors, impoverished by intermittent wars and famine, came to flood Eritrean towns in search for manual labor further enforced the sense of privilege and superiority. So much so that the word 'Agame' – referring to the poverty stricken region in Eastern Tigray – came to be synonymous with ignorance and thrift and served to further highlight the distinction with their northern kinsmen.

EPLF, largely the creation of Tigrigna speaking highlanders, thus came not only to embody this colonial identity, but also, after independence, to impose it forcefully through state sponsored social engineering and assimilation project.

The main difference EPLF's imperialistic nation-building project had with Ethiopia's Monarchial project of the same kind, was that while the Amhara-based elite sought to assimilate other nationalities by Amharization (forcing them to be more like themselves), EPLF's project involved ,cultural deconstruction of all the nationalities including the Bher-Tigrigna. Unlike the 'one Ethiopia' model, the EPLF sought to expose the Tigrigna people to doses of cultural alienation much more strongly than the other ethnic groups. The idea was to melt all ethnic groups by completely alienating them from their origins and recast them as homogenous members of Eritrea.

…EPLF … assumed absolute control of the state. Ever since then, nationalist leaders and state-controlled single party have propagated a form of nationalism that is increasingly aimed at controlling the culturally plural Eritrean society, bringing it under the party's firm hegemonic control so that society can be reconstructed in ways the party leadership considers desirable. (O'Kane & Hepneer, 2009)

Within this context then, the decision to put Eritrean youth to indefinite national military service in Sawa camp becomes at least comprehensible (if not reasonable). After all, Sawa indeed possessed the ideal qualities, which enabled the state to have complete control over the young minds of Eritreans wherein they would be molded into assuming a new identity:

Militarism and developmentalism thus remain intensely biopolitical phenomena… the introduction of modern military technology and organization, as well as the introduction of the new goal of national economic development, required the remaking of subjects themselves. This triggered what has been described as "a process of 'civilizing' people as a nation, a class, a race and a gender, specifically through control of 'individually coded bodies – where they work, how they reproduced, even the language they dream in… (O'Kane & Hepneer, 2009)

But, The tactical shrewdness of this assimilation project lies in the rather correct assessment, by the EPLF, that the Tigrigna, convinced of their perceived hegemony over Eritrea's future, as its cultural and historical aristocrats, would go along with the project bearing the huge price. At least in theory, cultural oppression, applied to all, was assumed to warranty compliance among the various ethnicities of Eritrea. And it has succeeded in the sense that the Bher-Tigrigna, the subgroup whose rejection of the system would have been the most fatal, have so far avoided open and organized rejection by preferring rather to flee the country than risk committing this 'heresy'. To this day, voices of dissent even in the diaspora remain disorganized and hesitant.

EPLF's nation building effort can thus be understood as indistinguishable from and a continuation of the Italian colonial project. But in order to deeply understand the historical and cultural fibers that have served to foster Eritrea's troubled relationships with Ethiopia, one needs to go further down the rabbit hole and dare to confront skeletons in the closet.

Wuccali: The beginning of an unholy alliance

Wuccali treaty has often been glossed over historical treatment merely as a precursor to the Battle of Adwa. But a deeper examination reveals that it is also the event that crystallized the unorthodox marriage between two unlikely parties: Italy and Shewa. And only few are aware that Eritrea is, in fact, the illegitimate child of this unconventional marriage, conceived in the treaty of Wuccali and born in the treaty of Addis Ababa.

A few years back Negus Menelik had sought to court Italy as a foreign ally in his attempt to wrestle the imperial throne off his northern adversary, Yohannes IV. His promises to exact revenge on his compatriot, on behalf of Italy, for its defeat at Dogali, were subsequently viewed as mere stratagem to receive arms and support from new European ally as Yohannes had similarly done with England[2].

Be that as it may, what made Menelik's 'diplomacy' unusual (among Ethiopian leaders) was his recklessness in gifting large chunks of northern Ethiopian territories to Italy in return for recognition and military support. And with the martyrdom of Yohannes at Metema and subsequent emergence of Menilik as the undisputed claimant to the throne, Italy patted itself on the back for having backed the right guy and came to collect on those promises.

Consequently, in May 1889, in the treaty of Wuccali, Emperor Menelik willingly ceded northern Ethiopian territories of Bogos, Hamasien, Akale-Guzay and Serae, which hitherto had remained in Ethiopian control. In return, Italy promised financial assistance and military supplies.  But more importantly, it recognized Menelik II as the rightful Emperor of Ethiopia. However, what is not mentioned in popular accounts is that this treaty was in fact, at least partially motivated by mutual desire, by both sides, to nullify the perceived threat coming from Tigray.

The new emperor [Menelik II] concluded nevertheless that Mengesha's pretensions needed to be blunted, first by the Italian occupation of Bogos, which would render Ras Alula impotent ….

We do not know why Menelik  made this historic cession of territory, the first for an Ethiopian ruler. The decision may have stemmed from Menelik 's political anxiety about the north and the empire's continuing economic crisis. Since he believed his army's shortage of supplies and draft animals precluded an expedition to Tigray, he might have concluded that he had to rely on the Italians to control Rases Mengesha and Alula. The Europeans were, of course, content to be Ethiopia's policeman …

In December 1889, the Eritrean command unilaterally decided to move troops into Tigray, ostensibly to fight Menelik 's enemies … (Marcus, 2002)

This unholy alliance between two unlikely friends is often shelved by Ethiopian historians because they run against the popular narrative of Menelik  II's patriotism and his international reputation as the 'black pride of Africa'.

Yet, this 'atypical' alliance, although it seems at first glance, out of character for the two partners in crime, was in fact, solidly grounded in their mutual political interest. And thus, in such a manner, a third geopolitical pulse started to beat in Asmara, which came to redefine the role and interaction of the two previous power centers of the horn: Tigray & Shewa.

Interplay of the three geopolitical centers: Asmara, Shewa & Mekele

Shewa, the province from which Menilik rose to prominence, was found at the fringe of the ancient Abyssinian Empire. This made it liable to infusion of southern tribes and thus ended up to be the most heterogeneous of the empire's regions. This must have been behind policy of assimilation consistently advocated by the Shewan elite. And with Sahleselassie's (Menelik 's grandfather) rise to power as the negus of Shoa, it was able to expand southwards primarily using forced assimilation enabling it to become the centre of a huge empire whose territory came to extend roughly equidistantly into the periphery. Thus, Shewa's geo-political position as well as its heterogeneity enabled it to function as the heart of centripetal forces of the empire consistently advocating unity through assimilation. Menelik II, himself reputed to be of mixed decent, could be portrayed as the natural fruit and embodiment of this process.

Shewa's certifying tendency was naturally at odds with the other major socio-cultural center, Tigray. Tigray presented a dilemma to the ancient Abyssinian Empire. On one hand, Abyssinia traced its religious, cultural and historical origin from Axum. And thus, later leaders of the Empire, mostly from Amhara areas were forced to pay superficial homage to that ancient region as represented by symbolic travels by emperors to Axum for coronation. However, historical and political factors had eventually relegated Tigray's significance and it had been shoved aside to the political periphery. Thus an instinctive  feeling of illegitimacy by the southern nobility, in the face of the more ancient and thus arguably more 'legitimate' Tigryan counterpart must have invoked a passive sense of threat by and subsequent hostility towards Tigray and its history. This may explain the effort, perhaps unconscious, of many among the Shewan elites, to undermine and devalue the contributions of Tigrayans to Ethiopia. At least that's how Tigrayan scholars have come to interpret the recent wholesale rejection of anything that had the hand of Tigrayans in it. Why else, they ask, would the 'Andinet' intelligentsia otherwise go to extremes to vilify, among other things, the legacy of Yohannes IV or blindly batter such obvious positive contributions of TPLF is the GERD and other infrastructural development projects?

This, of course, did not sit well with Tigryan elite, and made the region the source of frequent instability. Moreover, Tigrayans saw themselves as direct heirs to the Geez socio-linguistic and cultural heritage. This naturally led them to be uniquely proud of their ethnic identity and thus actively resist any attempt to assimilate them into the Amhara culture. And the coming to power of Emperor Yohannes IV, itself a culmination of centuries of resilient efforts by Tigrayan nobles of carving a stake on the political pie, further awakened and stratified their belief of entitlement. This has made Tigray to embody and spearhead centrifugal movements towards ethnic autonomy.

It should be noted here that, when TPLF upheld the 'national question' as its foundation, it was not randomly picking an ideology from Marxism's toolbox. Similar to EPLF and EPRP, who, when embracing Marxist ideology, did so by selectively picking the aspects that harmonized with the geo-political undercurrents and history of the people they represented, so also we see TPLF emphasizing those Marxist thoughts which resonated with its roots. Thus, TPLF, in upholding the ethnic flag, an ideology both the Marxists of Shewa (EPRP) and that of Asmara (EPLF) conveniently ignored, was in effect channeling the centuries old Tigrayan political persona of independence and autonomy the same way the respective parties were tapping into theirs. The fact that it was able to mobilize, to such an overwhelming extent, the Tigrayan people, where others failed, is testament to the fact that it embodied the Tigrian spirit.

Thus historical and immediate factors have contributed for Tigray to become, and remain to be, a threat to Shewan assimilative empire building efforts. Similarly, as we've seen earlier, a huge chunk of Eritrean population were of Tigryan origin and having an emboldened Tigray across the border, actively trying to reclaim its territories, was perceived as a source of threat by Italy as well. So both Italy and Menelik II saw Ras Mengesha, the son and heir apparent of Yohannes IV, who represented Tigray's defiance, as mutual enemy. Their subsequent alliance to squeeze the Ras into submission evokes current alliance between Isaias Afeworki and Abiy Ahmed, as representatives of Asmaran and Shewan interest, to sandwich TPLF led Tigray into submission. This shows that while the actors may have changed over the century, the political interests and fault lines have remained ever more relevant.

The treaty of Wuccali[3] and its ambiguous clause also echoes current ambiguities in the Ethio-Eritrean alliance over the much heralded peace treaty. And the implicit willingness by the Abiy led government to give up Bademe, in exchange for political gains invokes a déjà vu like moment in the Tigrian mindset, recalling Menelik 's similar decision to gift the Kebessa territory to Italy. Both events in fact indicate the desire of both Asmara and Addis Ababa to gloss over crucial issues for immediate political gain. Moreover, it also implies that the two big boys are bound to be on each other's throats over hegemony once their immediate interests (overcoming of their mutual enemy) are satisfied.

After all, Eritrea, even from its inception as envisioned by Italy, was never meant to be an end in itself. Its political and economic foundation was built as a springboard for the subjugation of Ethiopia. Italy's striking investment in Eritrea, extending over the 1920s and 30s was aimed at making it the industrial and economic gateway into which the agrarian outputs of Ethiopia was to flow. Hence, for Eritrea, which, as we have seen, seems adamant on continuing the Italian project, it would be a sin against its identity not to fight for hegemonic control of the Ethiopian market and resources. In fact, that was exactly what it tried to do immediately after its independence in 1993.

Similarly, Shewan political interest also remains imperialistic and will inevitably refuse to yield to Eritrean dominance. That was again what led to the Ethio-Eritrean conflict of 1998. Even TPLF, with its anti-centrism rhetoric, when assuming the Shewan shemma/Cloak (ሸማ) of authority, was unable to shrug it off and thus was ultimately seduced into traveling in Menelik's footsteps to defend Ethiopia's ambitions of dominance in the horn. The vivid images of the passing of the Ethiopian flag from local elders to youth that preceded the 1998 war (the same flag the EPRDF sought to quietly tuck away earlier) not only establish the continuity between Adwa and Badime but also hint that even fierce anti-centrists like TPLF, upon arriving at Addis, are bound to be swayed by Pan-Ethiopian imperial ambitions. Is that what happened to PM Abiy as well?

General Teklebirhan Wolde-Aregay, former high level operative, in a recent interview (which caused much controversy), may have been referring to this when he remarked that TPLF, soon after taking control of Ethiopia, had abandoned its centrifugal tendencies and had since been 'bearing Menelik 's burden' and strengthening his institutions. But lost between its initial ethnicist roots and its later pan-Ethiopian cloak, it seems to have eventually failed in satisfying either sides and ended up losing its influence.

With Abiy Ahmed, Shewan geopolitical center seems to have found an 'emancipator' who is poised to realign its policy to its historical position. Abiy's mixed Amhara and Oromo ancestry naturally inclines him to lean towards assimilated unity, which in turn harmonizes with Shewa's centripetal politics. Moreover his natural adeptness at using linguistic sophistry enables him to garner popularity among Amharized urban folk who are reared with Qene based culture of celebrating oral shrewdness[4]. In Addition Abiy's messianic self-portrayal, no doubt, also played an important role in appealing to habesha audiences who were religiously conditioned to await for a strong messiah-type monarch (Tewodros III?). 

Near unanimous support Abiy succeeded in getting, at least in the beginning, in Addis Ababa, the Shewan geopolitical epicenter, seems to vindicate this assertion and indicate that his popularity stems from that fact that his image has successfully resonated with the Shewan elite. The contrast between the manner in which Abiy received quick and widespread support, among most Addis Aabans, especially contrasted to their apathetic and categorical rejection of the introvert Meles Zenawi is very striking. In the mean time, Meles remains the hero in Tigray whose popularity seems to grow with the proportion of their denouncement of the new PM. Eritrea, for better or for worse, also seems to reluctantly tie its fate, with its disgraced hero, Isaias Afeworki. This shows the extent to which the politics of the horn is influenced by the interplay between primordial geo-political archetypes: Shoa, Eritrea and Tigray; and the leadership figures which are honed to embody them. Thus Abiy's alliance with Isaias, goes beyond personal intimacy to represent long standing inter regional alignments and the fact that this is so is evidenced by remarkably euphoric mass rallies in Asmara and Addis Ababa which indeed were validations, to the respective leaders, that they were in harmony with their respective political centers.

What next…

Abiy's flirtations with Asmara, which have been going on for the past two years, are testament to the fact that he is scheming to bring about the re-enactment of the Menelik's alliance with Italy against their common foe: Tigray. Back then, Menelik had succeeded in subduing the spirit of Tigray (for the time being at least) by squeezing it between two fronts. They had done so, first by voluntarily handing over Bogos (then a part of Tigray) to paralyze Ras Alula and then by conspiring with Italy to 'punish' Tigray while at the same time isolating it from the south[5]. This unholy alliance had pretty much guaranteed that Ras Mengesha would be subdued.

Swallowing his pride, Mengesha decided to make his peace with Menelik  and arrived in Addis Abeba on 2 June 1894, ready to submit. Within the Grand Palace's newly constructed reception hall, the emperor awaited, seated on his throne, a large crown on his head. Mengesha and his three major lieutenants, including Ras Alula, approached, each man carrying a rock of submission on his shoulder, then prostrated themselves, and asked for forgiveness. Menelik simply declared them pardoned, thus bringing Tigray back into the empire. (Marcus, 2002)

But the Tigray of Mengesha's time is radically different from the Tigray of today. So far, contrary to expectations, the two-frontal political and psychological attack on Tigray to break its will has actually strengthened the people's unity and resolve. Moreover, the inheritor of Italy's colony has increasingly turned out to be a far less formidable ally than what Menelik got from Antonelli. Indeed, Isaias' regime has long deteriorated into a one-man show and gradual rejection from its own citizens is pushing it to a brink of collapse.  Thus it's more likely that the highly organized and defiant Tigray is going to wither the storm and emerge stronger. Consequently, it would be advisable to Abiy & Co. not to repeat past mistakes and opt for genuine round table discussions in order to resolve longstanding tensions between the three geopolitical centers that have been the cause of instability in the horn. Any other decision, regardless of its immediate outcome, is bound to simply entrench hate and hostility and pave the way towards Ethiopia's eventual disintegration.



Works Cited

Jonas, R. (2011). The battle of Adwa: African victory in the age of empire. The belknap press of Harvard University Press.

Levine, D. (1965). Wax and gold: Tradition and innovation in Ethiopian culture. University of Chicago Press.

Marcus, H. (2002). A history of Ethiopia. University of California Press.

O'Kane, D., & Hepneer, T. (2009). Biopolitics, militarism and development: Eritrea in the twenty-first century. Berghahn Books.

Plaut, M. (2016). Understanding Eritrea: inside Africa's most repressive state. Oxford University Press.

Young, J. (1997). Peasant revolution in Ethiopia: The Tigray People's Liberation Front, 1975-1991. Cambridge University Press.


[1] From the early 1960s onward, the respective nationalisms of Eritrea and Tigray were fundamentally on a collision course with one another; the forms they would ultimately take rendered a deep-rooted alliance not simply impossible but actually inherently contradictor vis-à-vis Eritrean aims. … war did indeed resume, and the question should be – as it often has been – why did the two countries go to war?, but rather why did they not go to war sooner? [citation]

[2] The Italians were preparing another challenge for Yohannes… Italian agents were in the south, at Addis Ababa, wooing Menelik with the promise of firearms and a tacit alliance against Yohannes in exchange for land in the north and a special relationship with Italy. Menelik, for his part, courted the Italians by observing that while avenging Dogali would cost Italy millions, he himself might be useful in that regard – a gift of rifles and cartridges could easily do the job. For different but complementary reasons, Menelik and the Italians were hoping that Yohannes would stumble and fall. They would soon get their wish (Jonas, 2011)

[3] Raymond Jonas, author of "Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of Empire", in fact believes that Menelik was aware of the controversial clause and had preferred to go along for the time being until he could strengthen his military and political position in the country.

[4] …Amhara culture cannot be complete without acknowledging the substantial place it has traditionally given to what may be called a "cult of the individual"… A cult of the individual obtains, in addition, with respect to the man with a genius for outsmarting others. Men who have beguiled their foes with particular cleverness, in litigation or in political intrigues are scarcely less celebrated than religious virtuosi or heroic warriors. Anecdotes about great feats of shrewdness are the beloved stuff of Abyssinian folk history and are twice told around the fireplace. Some lords have enjoyed great reputations simply for being such successful and gifted scoundrels.

Cleverness in words counts as much, if not more, than clever deeds. Here we confront once more the phenomenon of wax and gold, but appearing in this context as a sort of finesse in personal relations. It is a question here of individuals made memorable because of their memorable lines, their talent for swiftly and surely employing the ambiguities of Amharic to satirize, at the right moment, some personality, or social type, or aspect of the human condition. Military or political events are often remembered more for the witty verse composed by some personage on the occasion than for their historical significance. (Levine, 1965)


[5] Once established, however, Menelik took a dim view towards Italian involvement with local leaders in his northern province of Tigray; while the Italians, for their part, felt bound to involvement given the regular Tigrayan raiding of tribes within their colony's protectorate and the Tigrayan leaders themselves continued to claim the provinces now held by Italy (Marcus, 2002)


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