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What is wrong with the Tigreans?

What is wrong with the Tigreans?

S. Fitsum 06-05-20

The political debate in Ethiopia in the month of May was more heated than the preceding months. The debate was mainly driven by the anxiety of Covid -19, the extension of the elections, discussions of constitutional interpretation, and Prime Minster Abiy Amed’s threat against those who opposed his proposals. The PM’s threat, as always, was perceived to be against the Tigray People’s Libration Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the State of Tigray. Based on these and other news political leaders, intellectuals, journalists, and political commentators were raving against this or that group. However, the recurring theme as usual appeared to be the TPLF, and Tigray.

 

Although many commentators from different parts of Ethiopia discussed theTPLF, none was as passionate, as condemning, and as bellicose as those expressed by the political leaders and media personalities who claim to speak for the Amhara people and those Ethiopians who do not associate themselves with any ethnic group. Let us call the latter nationalists.

 

One such political leader is Ato Tahir Mohamed of  National Movement of Amhara (NMA). In his interview on Awlo media on May 26, Ato Tahir calls the TPLF a terrorist organization holding the people of Tigray hostage. Although his interview was refreshingly mature and appears to try to reach out to the people of Tigray, he does not recognize the TPLF as a legitimate political organization worthy of the support of the people. Granted this is his organization’s stated policy.

 

Around the same time, I listened to Ato Ermias Legesse of Ethio 360. Ato Erimias during  his appearance on the May 15 show seems to presume PM Abiy’s threat was against the TPLF and supports Dr. Abiy’s actions if they extricated the people of Tigray from the TPLF. As far as he was concerned Ethiopia’s future survival depended on it.

 

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The occasional veiled insults and attacks from Ato Demeke Mekonnen and Yohannes Buayalew wing of the Prosperity Party (PP) of Amhara State, as well as some prominent members of EzeMa, and the party’s organ, ESAT, are consistent with the views of the gentlemen mentioned above. It appears that there is a consensus of wishing away the TPLF and the constitutional rights of Tigray.

 

These political leaders and media outlets straddle alarger spread of the political spectrum of the Amhara and nationalist elites. This means the governing political view of these elites is that the TPLF is evil and the goal is to eradicate it.  Co-existing with it, does not appear to be an option. If this is so, how will this goal be accomplished? And most importantly is there cooperation from the Tigerean elites towards this end?

 

I would like to make the following clarifications before I proceed. First, please note in using Amhara, nationalists, Tigreans/Tegaru or similar names I mean no derision or praise.

 

Second, I do not claim Tigrean elites think the same. Neither do I assert that there is a monolithic view among the Amhara and nationalistgroups. This would be idiotic. After all the community these two groups mainly come from is made up of tens of millions of individuals.

I am aware that there are many Amhara and nationalist intellectuals and journalists who despise the current political rancor and believe we deserved a more elevated political discourse. There are also those who believe the Meles/Hailemariam reign was not that bad after all. However, currently the afro-mentioned group owns the stage as well as the baton and is conducting the orchestra.  And yes, I say “currently” because I recognize politics is dynamic.With time one can expect things to moderate or harden even further. If you told me 25 years ago President Isayas would be the darling of my brothers and sisters of these groups, I would wonder if you were smoking something. He was only the leader of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse that descended on Ethiopia. By the way, were we wrong about him then, or are we wrong about him now? Forgive me, I digress.

 

Third, I acknowledge many do not like the label Amhara, not because it brings any shame but because it gives credence to the current political structure of our country. I also recognize many nationalist elites genuinely cannot or do not want to associate themselves with any of the multitudes of ethnic communities that make up most of Ethiopia. Who are we to tell the third-generation resident of Harer he/she belongs to the Amhara ethnic group because he/she speaks Amharic or his/her grandfather hailed from the Amharic speaking parts of Ethiopia? Those Ethiopians who are raising children in the US, Europe or Addis Ababa know very well children will take their own identity.

 

My fourth point relates to why I am addressing these compatriots and not others. I assure you I am not seeking to concoct, some kind of, exclusive ethnic alliance. I am painfully aware of the existence of a political gulf between these groups on the one hand and most of the Tigrean elites on the other. I merely want to point out that their political rhetoric is eerily dangerous and seems to lead us to a more dangerous kind of conflict. I will revisit why I think we are heading there in the future.For now, I would like to discuss where these groups stand. And the following is where they stand politically.

The mainstream Amhara and nationalist elites seem to agree that the TPLF is evil and should be wiped out. But Tegaru are not catching on. On the contrary a simple observation of the politics in Tigray, the media as well as online chatter, appear to suggest that the TPLF enjoys a considerable support among Tegaru. I hesitated to make this claim without data, and I implore the universities, and research institutions in Ethiopia to conduct polls so that we discuss this and other political issues based on empirical data. If there is data that contradicts my claim, forgive me for missing it and consider my point and the subsequent arguments withdrawn.

If Amhara and nationalist elites believe the TPLF was a “terrorist” organization and that it should be eliminated, there must be something wrong with the Tigrean elites to support a“terrorist” organization? This of course is mostly implied. But why do most Tegaru support or are behind the TPLF?

 

 

 

Why do most Tigreans support or are behind the TPLF?

There are several reasons but the following five, I believe, seem to sum them up. The first two reasons are common to most people; the last three reasons are, rightly or wrongly, specific to Tegaru.

 

 

Reason 1: People under perceived or real security threat are less likely to change Leadership

 

This reason though limited explains why those Tegaru whose support for the TPLF is lukewarm. The spread of the Tigrean political spectrum contains, the TPLF’s ardent supporters, those who have high regard for the group’s history but do not care for its policies and those who hate it. At this point in time it is safe to say that those Tigreans who hate the TPLF are outliers.

 

The constant drum beat of anti TPLF and anti -Tigray propaganda spewed by the Amhara and nationalist elites and media outlets affiliated with them as well as the bizarre relationship between PM Abiy and President Isayas, have created a sense of vulnerability in Tigreans and their State.

 

There fore, most Tigreans consider undermining or changing the current leadership of Tigray suicidal.

 

The Amhara and nationalist elites dismiss the palpable sense of insecurity and argue that the security threat against Tigray was over blown by the TPLF to sustain its strong hold on the people. “That is preposterous,” some of them say, for instance, “how could one think PM Abiy would conspire with a foreign leader to attack his compatriots?” It is a valid point. But if a Tigrean told me that PM Abiy and President Isayas are putting their heads together with best intentions towards Tigray, I would call him/her a delusional fool. Anyone who pays attention to the politics of the Horn of Africa knows how those gentlemen feel about the TPLF and the Tigrean elites. “But the TPLF and the people of Tigray are not the same” they say. Yes, that is a correct statement too. But as unpalatable as this is to the compatriots we are addressing here, we pointed out earlier that the TPLF has huge support in and is a legitimate governing party of the state. This means they are on a collision course with the people too.

 

The security threat Tigreans feel is real and palpable. People are not known to changing their leadership under these circumstances. Many believe the embattled Derg breathed a sigh of relief when Siad Barre’s army invaded Ethiopia. Repulsing the invading army became the overarching priority of many Ethiopians. Americans re-elected President George Bush in 2004 as the country was in war following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A significant section of Americans considered his 2000 presidential win fraudulent and were looking forward to throwing him out office in 2004.

 

My compatriots, the moral here is if you want to win a constituency over to your side, consider showing it you can provide better security and prosperity than your opponents. Creating an atmosphere of threat to anentire constituency in order to dislodge it from your opponent, defies the ABC of politics.If the goal is to make Tigreans feel threatened, it has worked. It is a juvenile goal but slap yourselves on the back. But I refuse to believe that your goal is to create insecurity in Tigray. Despite the media personalities who have financial motives, the young Amhara and nationalist political leaders, are aspiring to carry the burden or honor of leading the country. You cannot continue to play the role of the rebel. So, if the goal is to win the Tigreans to your side away from the TPLF, you are failing badly.

 

 

Reason 2: People rebel when they are told what to do

 

Many people resent when “outsiders” tell them what to do or which political group they should support.Do not get me wrong, theTigreans are a stubborn lot. But it seems to methis is an Ethiopian attribute too. A century and some ago a Ethiopians with their peasant army destroyed a European army because they did not take kindly to those who wanted to tell them what to do. Recently, Oromos, Amharas and nationalists rebelled against what they viewed were TPLF installed leaders in Adama, Baher Dar and Addis Ababa. Amhara and nationalist elites are still pushing back against Ato Takele Uma, the Mayor of Addis Ababa. What, then, gave them the idea that the Tigreans will bend to theirwill?

 

You may say you were not “outsiders”; you were Ethiopians who recognized how dangerous the TPLF was for Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia. Unfortunately, outsider is relative and the current political fault lines in our country, whether created by the TPLF/EPRDF or has existed all along and your belligerent rhetoric disqualify you as benevolent liberators.

 

Please indulge me to say more on this issue since ethnic identity versus patriotic identity has been the feature of our national debate for a very long time. Is patriotic identity (Ethiopianism) so superior to ethnic or local identity that we should relinquish the latter for the prominence of the former? Promoters of patriotic identity argue that ethnic identities were anachronistic and have a higher propensity for causing political strife and violence.

 

But how do human beings create identities? One of the most brilliant writers and historians of our time, Yuval Noah Harari, tells us human beings evolved to create identities through myths. These myths enabled cooperation among strangers. He references studies conducted in animal’s on how impossible it would be to maintain cooperation between strangers numbering more than 150. Human beings (Homo Sapiens) were the only species that successfully managed to establish a form of cooperation among millions of strangers. He argues that we achieved this by creating myths, a trait we learned after what he termed as the Cognitive Revolution when Homo Sapiens learned a complex language that helped them explain their surroundings and even imagine what they do not see in front of them.

 

I found his book enlightening. Some myths may be bad but most of them have been useful, they helped us succeed and prosper as a species. For instance, the myth behind creating a country. Essentially countries including ours are made up. Natural law has not created countries. The physical and legal boundaries we established are not discernible for those lucky ones who see our planet from space. Wild animals cross “borders” without papers; migrating birds have no regard for air spaces.

 

Rather countries are created at the intersection of what lands we desired to own and what we could achieve militarily, politically, and diplomatically. If we were destined to have the lands we had at some point, we would have the Roman Empire instead of Italy, the Axumite Empire with Arabian lands in place of Ethiopia or the Ethiopia we had between 1952 and 1993 instead of the current Ethiopia. We establish some land and create a story around it, a story that help us cooperate with each other. The myths/stories we make up are based on truth and fiction, well sanitized, with the occasional atrocities and less sexy stories swept under the rug. But they are mostly beautiful stories that warm our hearts. They make us believe we have kin beyond the mountain range, across the lake, beyond the river banks. The kin we imagine would come to our aid in times of trouble. The stories make us believe beyond the horizon lie lands that are part of our lands where we can pack up and go to and have a better life if we are not happy in our village or small town. They give us a sense of security for ourselves, our families, and our“tribes”. The story of the country is a beautiful story that motivates the soldier to give his/her life for, the athlete to endure so that the flag that represent the beautiful story is flying amongst the flags of the winners. It is a beautiful story that motivates the astronaut to volunteer for a mission despite its potential to vaporize his/her body into oblivion. Without the beautiful story the people beyond the mountain range are strangers, potential raiders who will kill my family and rustle my cattle.

 

Similarly, the ethnic, communal, and local identities we create are based on stories that combine truth and fiction. But I believe they are even deeper.Obviously, they precede the stories of the country. They are built for thousands of years. They are made up from the millions of small and big stories, the images of the rivers, the valleys, the mountains, the plains, and the farms. They are stories of the images of the blue sky of the day and the stars of the night. They are stories of childhood friends, the high school sweethearts, the agonies, and the triumphs, observed and imagined experiences.What makes them even deeperand more attractive to the believers is that in most cases they are communicated with a shared language.

 

I am not saying they are superior to the story of the country. I am merely pointing out that they cannot be trivialized. One cannotsuddenly destroy them without causing a significant trauma to the believers.They can only be replaced by other beautiful, hopefullyinclusive stories that evolve gradually.

 

Tegaru’sstories of pride is that they are the origins of Axumite civilization with all its myths, are patriotic, brave, and industrious, in addition to other adjectives. Addis Ababans pride themselves as being the boys and girls of the melting pot city, immune from ethnic prejudice, more sophisticated, sleeker, and smarter than the rest. Why is the story of the Addis Ababan superior to that of the Tigrean? After all both are exaggerated versions of the true stories. How is organizing oneself as TPLF malignant and organizing yourself as Baladera Council benign to Ethiopia? Both have the potential for creating a democratic, pluralistic society or causing conflict.

 

Human beings can createn on ethnic stories, organize around them, and create mayhem as we have witnessed time and again.Ethiopians killed each other as Derg, EPRP and MEISON. The American carnage of 1960-1965 was between, a more or less, ethnically and racially homogeneous people that viewed the institution of slavery differently. So is the ever-cited conflict amongst our neighbors in Somalia.

 

Our problem is not whether we organize ourselves along ethnic or ideological lines. I submit to you the crux of the problem appears to be our inability to manage political differences in a nonviolent manner.

 

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece called “The Governing Cancer of our Time” in 2016. He was addressing the political tone of his country, the US. But it was as relevant a piece to the Ethiopian situation as it was for the US. The solution for managing huge political divisions, Mr. Brooks presented, were “Politics”. He defined politics as “an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests, and opinions.”  He continued to say politics “involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own.”

 

Reason 2: Tigreans see ethnically motivated attacks

 

Many Tigreans are convinced that the relentless demonization and attacks against TPLF by these groups and the Federal government are motivated by ethnic bigotry. Granted these elites strongly disagree. They argue that they have not directly threatened the people of Tigray or call Tigreans names. This of course is insincere. Attacks of bigotry are seldom explicit. They are almost always dog whistles and small doses of signals with the occasional blurt out from the fool who did not get the memo or the one who failed to maintain the act. The latter serves the purpose of waking up the conscience of those who are skeptical of the complaints of the victims and those who did not know their leaders harbored dangerous prejudice.

 

Whether prejudices are dispensed subtly through dog whistles or are directed explicitly, the result is the same in the end. Members of the target group are attacked, killed, their homes and business burned down. The only difference between the two kinds of bigoted attacks is that dog whistles provide the designers of the strategy some form of plausible deniability.

 

Reason 3: The “struggle” and the old TPLF

 

The TPLF has retained its strong brand in Tigray as the organization that led the people of Tigray through their struggle against the brutal Derg regime. Ethiopians know the brutality of the Derg but for manyit is hard to fully grasp the degree of magnitude of that brutality asexacted in Tigray. I am not saying Ethiopians minimize it. I am saying living it and hearing about it are two different things. After all it was not unfolding on YouTube and TV as the conflicts of today. The regime made sure that most of the country knew less of the atrocities in Tigray. Westerners who were exposed to TV footage thanks to the CNNs and BBCs of the world were horrified. If Ethiopians saw what transpired in Tigray, the regime’s reign would have been shorter. Many Ethiopians from Wello and Gonder who received some of the splash ended up joining the Tigrean rebels.

 

A significant proportion of the population who lived through the war is still alive. Even if you disagree with the TPLF’s political and economic policies, there is so much reverence for many of its leaders and the foot soldiers (tegadelti). That is why we are witnessing the emergence of Tigrean political organizations which recognize and embrace the historical role the organization played but oppose its policies.

 

There is also the matter of the old TPLF leadership who played a significant role in (or dominated) the previous administration. Amhara and nationalist elites love to portray them as an amalgam of plundering, denailing, arrogant, murderous old men. The Tigrean view of the old TPLF leadership is more complex than that. They concede the possibility of the existence of those few who enriched themselves and their families and those who are directly or indirectly responsible for torture andkillings, but they see many who genuinely worked hard to leave Ethiopia better than they found it in 1991. Tigreans point out to the economic transformation that the country experienced during the Meles/Hailemariam administration. For them they are the old men and women, who with all their imperfections, gave up power to the young leaders two years ago. Tigreans do not see any evidence to the allegation of TPLF leaders with the high rises or Swiss accounts.They see old men and women who live amongst their constituency.

 

The old TPLF for Tigreans are also the old men and women who were thrown out of the organization in 2001 during the TPLF’s leadership split.  These people are the like’s of Tsadkan, Seye, Jobe and many others who bettered their lives by going back to school and are still playing a constructive role in the national political discourse.

 

Reason 4: The new TPLF and its leadership


Tigreans support and are behind the new TPLF and its new leadership. Tigreans are puzzled why the Amhara and nationalist elites fail to see the current top TPLF leaders for what they are: younger, formerly middle level cadres of the organization who replaced the older generation. They point to the young men and women who make up the current executive committee members. Tigreans see promise in andwant to give a chance to the new TPLF leaders.

 

Finally, there is this new leader they call Debretsion, the face of the new TPLF and the Acting President of the State. He is prone to repeating himself in press conferences, but tegadalay (rebel) who is techy and extraordinarily effective administrator who is implementing many development projects in the State and addressing the administrative problems that plagued the State’s districts. He is humble but stern; he has a healthy dose of disdain for military conflict as one can hear him agonize about it during his interviews but is determined to establish forces that can defend the State. He seems to understand that his organization could not play the absentee father to the people of the State and expect the latter to continue supporting it. He has also successfully navigated the difficult relationship between his party and administration with the Federal government. He is arguably the most popular politician in Tigray since Meles. Tigreans want to see if Debretsion can deliver on the long-awaited promises of his party to the people of Tigray.

 

 

These are the reasons why the Tigreans are supporting and are behind the TPLF. I hope this article provides the Amhara and nationalist elites the Tigrean’s perspective and help them to choose the appropriate way of engaging the TPLF and the Tigrean elites.

 

References:

 

1.      Ato Tahir Mohamed’s Interview,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dv1Gz8ds_1A

2.      Ato Ermias Legesse’s interview,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PReywpEHiCA

3.      Brooks, David (2016, February 26). The Governing Cancer of our Time. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

4.      Harari, Yuval N. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: Harper, 2015 Apple Books Edition


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