By Temesgen Kahsay
My parents, both from Tigray, migrated and settled in Asmara, Eritrea, in the early 1960s. The first few years of my childhood were spent under the Derg regime, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia between 1974-1991. My father was a soldier who served in the army under the Derg army that was fighting against the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) and Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF).
Growing up in Asmara, as a Tigrayan, whose father served in the army, I was profoundly shaped and affected by the politics of the time. My childhood was a precarious experience overshadowed by the question of belonging. As far back as I can remember, I grew up hearing ethnic slurs like pediculus or grasshopper/cactus eater Tigrayan thrown from the Amhara-dominated Derg army and its supporters who always suspected all Tigrayans were spies and agents working for the “Woyane” (TPLF). Among Eritreans, we were called the poor Agame (a common term used to refer to Tigrayans in Eritrea) who came from the backward Tigray, and although we were considered close cousins we were always held at arm’s length. (Ethnic slurs were not unique to Tigrayans only but were also directed against the Oromos, Wolaytas, Somalis, and other ethnic groups from the south, west, and east. This goes against the idea that ethnicity became an issue in Ethiopia after 1991, which is widely promoted by some. However, ethnic hierarchies and negative categorization have always been part and parcel of Ethiopian political and social discourses.)
Sandwiched between these labels, the nation-building the Derg implemented with its policy of language and education centered on Amharic ensured that I assimilated to its dominant ethos, values, and worldviews. Even though both my parents spoke Tigrinya and we lived in Asmara where the main language is Tigrinya, the Derg followed a policy of assimilation imposing Amharic as a lingua-franca for work, education, media, and the army. I was taught to reject my Tigrayan identity – its language, culture, history, and heritage. Ironically, the history of Ethiopia I was taught in school drew heavily from Tigray – the Axum civilization and the Battle of Adwa – yet it was a history that was stripped of its distinctive Tigrayan root and repurposed to fit into the pan-Ethiopian nation-building. As a result, I was so thoroughly ‘Amharicised’ that I became a self-hating Tigrayan and an ardent supporter of the wars of the Derg: singing its songs, claiming its heroes, writing poems, and dreaming to annihilate its “enemies”. I was so patriotic that as a child my only dream was always to become a military pilot and join the army.
When the Derg regime fell in May 1991, the EPLF that controlled Eritrea confiscated their properties and deported families of the Derg army. My family settled in Addis Ababa starting life from scratch in a refugee camp. For most of my life under the EPRDF regime, survival was the only thing that mattered to my family and politics took a backseat. When the occasion came, I never identified myself as a Tigrayan. I just wore the Amhara mask and passed as an Amharic-speaking, apolitical, EPRDF-sceptic Ethiopian, and an early supporter of Abiy Ahmed, until the war on Tigray, began in November 2020.
It is now more than a year since the start of the war in Tigray. Tigray is sandwiched between the Eritrean army in the north and the Ethiopian regular army and the Amhara and Afar regional forces and affiliated militias in the west, south, and east. The violence against Tigrayans is accompanied by hate speech, ethnic profiling, mass arrests, massacres, rape, ethnic cleansing, displacement, and destruction of critical infrastructure and cultural sites aiming to wipe out Tigrayans. Moreover, the Ethiopian government has imposed a siege on Tigray blocking humanitarian help and withholding vital services, and using starvation to accomplish what it could not militarily.
The Root of the Root Problem
From within the context of this war, I can’t help but reflect on previous wars and the symbolic and psychological precursors to the genocidal tendencies fully revealed now, which I failed to perceive at the time. My specific and differentiated experiences aside, Ethiopia’s past and current wars reveal the cyclical, structural, and perennial problems baked into the foundation of modern Ethiopia.
As a beacon of freedom and symbol of defiance for Africans and the Black Diaspora, as well as being the only Black African power that participated in the Scramble for Africa, Ethiopia remains an enigma. Though it existed in different shapes, the modern Ethiopian state took its current form in the second half of the 19th century. Its emergence, paralleling the European colonization of Africa, was accompanied by a brutal and violent expansion to the east, west, and south of the country. Right from the start, Ethiopia was besieged by the incongruity between the nation-building paradigm followed by the central state and the complex diversity of its inhabitants.
The pan-Ethiopian nation-building policies realized by the fathers of modern Ethiopia Menelik II (1889-1913) and Haile Selassie (1930-1974) were built around the assimilation of the country’s diverse ethnic and cultural minorities into a core dominated by Amharic-speaking Orthodox Christian national identity. While the Derg (1974-1991), being anti-religious, truncated the religious element from the national identity it promoted, it continued with the same assimilationist policies of the monarchical regimes of the past.
In 1991, the emergence of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in which the TPLF was the dominant party, brought some redress to historical ethnic and cultural injustices meted against the country’s diverse ethnic groups. The EPRDF devised a new constitution and reconstituted the country into ethnic federal regions that granted them limited freedom and self-governance. However, despite the economic growth and achievements, much of the EPRDF’s reforms remained at the surface level and were undermined by its authoritarian and highly centralized power structure that failed to build strong institutions. However, despite the cultural and ethnic rights granted, under the EPRDF regime, the Ethiopian state remained as authoritarian and at times as brutal as its predecessors. Starting from 2015, popular protests about coalescing and diverse issues like land and corruption led to the downfall of the EPRDF and the emergence of Abiy Ahmed Ali in 2018.
Abiy Ahmed Ali – From Dawn to a Nightmare
The euphoria and Abiymania that gripped the country when Abiy came to power was palpable and was felt by millions of supporters. But in the midst of fast-paced changes, there were telltale signs that not all of Abiy’s “reforms” were taking the country forward. In fact, the country is now gripped by the nostalgia of the old days. Pictures of past kings and dictators appeared on taxis on the streets of Addis Ababa. The writing of the book Medemer (synergy and unity), the renovation of the imperial palace in Addis Ababa, and the subsequent installation of a life-size waxwork of Haile Selassie were indicative of the resurgence of the country’s unitarian and imperial past. The dissolution of the multi-ethnic party of the EPRDF and the creation of a unitarian Prosperity Party became the final nail on the coffin confirming that Abiy’s reforms are geared more to centralization of power and re-entrenchment of past regimes.
It is within the context of such developments that the current war in Tigray, as well as conflicts and outbreaks of violence in other parts of the country including Oromia, Beni-Shangul Gumuz, etc, should be analyzed. Old fissures and cleavages resulting from competing and conflicting narratives of identities, history, and politics that had dominated much of the modern history of Ethiopia are back with a ferociousness that had not been seen before. The old question of nations and nationalities and the search for the elusive but optimal political configuration is back at the forefront of the current conflict.
The Path Forward
The eleventh chapter of the Bible narrates the story of the Tower of Babel can serve as a metaphor illuminating the futility of contemporary efforts to build a nation-state based on one language and culture. The story illustrates that centralized efforts aided by technology and statecraft to create homogenous societies where one language and culture dominates are doomed to fail from the get-go. As Jewish scholars comment, Babel was the first “totalitarianism”, where linguistic differences became an antidote against uniformity.
The history of nation-building of modern Ethiopia parallels as well as re-enacts the Babel story in its attempt of homogenizing diverse ethnic groups and making a nation-state. Often, the Ethiopian state-employed assimilationist policies and violence to erase differences while eliminating those who stood in its way. As the history of Ethiopia in the second half of the 20th century illustrates, a highly centralized state accentuating one culture and language and imposing its will on its subjects failed and led to the overthrow of a government and the creation of Eritrea as a new country.
The current war in Tigray with all its characteristics of a scorched-earth policy of war and use of hunger as a weapon is a replica of past regimes. As in the past, the war has galvanized Tigrayans of all political persuasions to resist the genocidal campaigns waged against them and sparked a strong yearning for a state and political community where their individual and collective rights are respected and valued. It is not yet clear what sort of political configuration will emerge, but there are three concrete emerging realities. First, the genocidal campaigns have failed, Tigray is going nowhere. And second, the fate and destiny of Tigray will not be subject to the whims of Addis Ababa or Asmara but to the will and aspiration of Tigrayans themselves. Third, Ethiopia is at crossroads; failure to imagine a new political configuration that reckons with the past, that addresses grievances, and creates an inclusive society that respects the individual, as well as the collective rights of its nations and nationalities, will not stop the country from its path of disintegration.