What Held Tigray Resistance Back?
By: Belay Tedros Gebreabzgi
In 1973, a military Junta took power via a coup in Chile, toppling President Salvador Allende, a leftist who had been in power since 1970 and was so ambitious to institute a Marxist government by democratic means. Broadly, the coup was welcome by Chileans, including the centrist and rightist political actors. The root cause of the coup wasn’t Allende’s dictatorial reign. The real cause was a critical economic collapse and diplomatic breakup with the liberal world, especially the United States.
In his book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis” , Jared Diamond summed up Allende’s character as follows: “Many Chileans admired Allende and viewed him almost as a saint. But saintly virtues don’t necessarily translate themselves into political success”.
Following the coup, the orchestraters of it, led by General Augusto Pinochet, immediately started to detain, kill and torture members of the leftist party and other non-partisan civilians (including university lecturers and students) who were perceived as leftists. By 1976, three years after the coup, 130,000 Chileans had been detained and thousands killed barbarically.
Enter Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Although Abiy came to power in slightly different circumstances in 2018, what he went on to do against Tigrayans are not that different from what Pinochet did to the people whom he perceived as leftists, with one caveat: the atrocities committed on the people of Tigray were based on their ethnicity, while the Chileans suffered based on their ideology.
You might be wondering what this outdated and ostensibly un-relatable story has to do with the current crisis and political situation in Tigray. A close inspection of the two phenomena shows that the failure of the Tigrayan leadership leading up to 2018 closely mirror to the failure of Allende prior to his toppling. Namely, the Tigrayan leadership, just as the Allende leadership then, had failed securing strong ties with countries who support Tigray’s cause in accordance with their national interest. (Allende had Cuba on his side.) Throughout the last two decades and a half the economic policies and overall political culture of the TPLF/EPRDF were perceived as more dogmatic than those of the so-called reformist Abiy.
Antony Blinken the new Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger was one of most influential political actors of the 20th century. Not only because he served as a top diplomat in the state department for the U.S., but also due to his involvement in different diplomatic arenas, such as the cold-war politics, the Israeli-Arab war and the Vietnam war. My particular interest is not to write his biography here, but to discuss how he viewed the atrocities committed by the barbaric Pinochet and his clique as high-profile U.S. diplomat, so that we will have a clearer insight into how his tribute act, Antony Blinken, sees the suffering in Tigray engendered by Abiy.
Pinochet’s barbaric deeds were tolerated by the U.S., even when he tortured or killed America’s own citizens. Many American officials, including Kissinger, were reluctant to act on the human rights abuses. Why? What mattered most to the U.S was whether his economic policies were aligned to their national interest or not. Human rights concerns played a second-fiddle role, if they did at all. As Henry Kissinger expressed it, “… however unpleasantly they [the junta] act, this government [Pinochet’s] is better for us than Allende was.” That’s how the U.S viewed the communists and any group associated with them. As long as Pinochet didn’t threaten America’s supposed national interest, American politicians were happy to look the other way as he committed atrocities, including against their own citizens.
Some very optimist opinion-leaders of the Tigrean diaspora community are working hard to help Tigray’s diplomatic relations with the western world, through public diplomacy. Though I do have huge respect to their patriotic spirit, I would like to remind them that the key to the lifting of the Tigray-siege is with our self-proclaimed elected government. It was, and it still is, our leaders’ responsibility to know that the U.S. remains the U.S. no matter who is running it, whether the 20th century’s Henry Kissinger or the charming Antony Blinken. They both would choose Pinochet over Allende and Abiy Ahmed over TPLF.
The world has abandoned the guardians of revolutionary democracy and chosen to stick with the “reformist” Abiy Ahmed. The Tigrayan leadership and diaspora have failed to acknowledge this hard, cold reality. They Tigrayan diaspora community has been barking up the wrong tree. Rather that push for the Tigrayan leadership to make itself amenable to the West, Tigrayans have been trying to convince the West to support Tigray without articulating what the incentives for the sought support are. It has proven to be an exercise in total futility. Tigray has paid dearly for this failure.
The overstated cause
A couple of weeks after the Ethiopian and Eritrean forces captured Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, I left the capital for my home-town to check the whereabouts of my family and relatives. My trip was probably one of the first “daring” and risky trips. Because the Eritrean troops were all over Adigrat to Adwa, Aksum, Shire, and Sheraro and there were skirmishes in some areas. At a check-point around Enticho, one of the Ethiopian soldiers, suspecting I might be a member of the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF), threatened to shot at me. Luckily, I arrived safely to my home-town and shared what I had been through to my childhood friends. That incident was so humiliating to me and to many Tigrayans who had experienced it. One of my childhood friends, whom I shared the story with, expressed his lament as follows: “The enemies raped our sisters and mothers, even our nuns, killed our relatives, displaced our fellow Tigrayans and relatives, shelled us indiscriminately, and invaded our land. Moreover, it left us defenseless, stateless and without administration…” and encouraged us to join the TDF. He then joined the TDF the next week.
Let me share with you a short story about that friend of mine. He was in his early Twenties. He was a graduating class at Sheba University College and his mom has been living in Germany since 2008. After graduation his mum was planning to take him to Germany for further study. He was politically conscious and was pro-independence. In our phone conversation, he told me that he was happy to be part of the historic developments in Tigray and promised to me that the TDF at least would ensure independence and democracy in Tigray. He could have moved to somewhere safer than Tigray, such as to the capital, Addis Ababa, where he could start his visa process to Germany, but he had something stronger to hold him back home. The reason was a stronger cause to fight for his people and to promote nationhood than to leave for his comfort.
On the 28th June, 2021, after the TDF reoccupied the capital Mekelle and liberated some parts of Tigray, most of Tigray political leaders and main stream media started saying breaking off the siege was the main cause of the struggle. In my opinion, framing the siege as the main cause for the resistance in Tigray is; one, a political naivety which undermines the political aspiration of majority of the middle-class (like my childhood friend) and giving them a reason to leave tigray by paying for smugglers, when they had to stay here and play a vital role in the resistance. And, second, it is a political failure which proves that the political leaders in Tigray have failed in creating a strong rationale for the people of Tigray to fight and die for. As Dan Ariely said, “people tend to fight for a cause than money-oriented rewards”.
So, selling the Tigray siege as a main cause will never convince the majority of urban dweller Tigrayans to keep the resistance. One can pay some 50,000 ETB and be in Addis-Ababa by the other day, or people like my childhood friend could have booked a plane ticket to Addis-Ababa, year and couple months back and saved themselves from the Tigray siege.
The Misguided homogeneity
In Tigray, there is one broadly accepted fact, which most of the elites and political actors agree on; that its people have all the necessary elements to be considered a nation and that its solid national identity was a critical tool in defending its territorial integrity, against all invaders and aggressors, throughout history. According to the prominent political scientist F.Fukuyama’s book, political order and political decay , nation-building is illustrated as “…the creation of a sense of national identity to which individuals will be loyal, an identity that will supersede their loyalty to tribes, villages, regions, or ethnic groups…” . In this regard, over the course of time, we, the people of Tigray, have developed all the features and there is a national consensus on that.
However, our political culture has failed in accommodating pluralism. In the last three decades, we have developed a one-party state sentiment that portrays individuals in the black and white dichotomy. This TPLF-sponsored culture is deeply ingrained into our daily activity. The sentiment of labeling individuals in accordance to their loyalty to the party (TPLF) has made some unfairly rich, popular and forced others to flee from Tigray, be detained and labeled as a traitor of the state. In my view, it is the result of the TPLF’s irresponsible party propaganda. Unluckily, it has made it hard to differentiate the positions between the state, the party and the people, for the mass.
Our homogeneous national identity is being driven by design to a one-party people mentality. Even in this atrocious situation, where our people are suffering under genocidal war, there is no any viable room for alternative options raised by the political parties. Most are being classified as traitors (bandas) regardless of the viability of their agenda. In general, the state sponsored, anti-pluralism political culture that we have developed in the last decades has worsened the sufferings of our people by abolishing the potential ideas that Tigray could get from different political actors and moreover it made it difficult for Tigray to build strong institutions. For instance, the opinion-leaders who are leading the public diplomacy in the western world are more loyal to the party than the state.
“I was born in 1990s, sustain my future“
In the 1960s there was a broad student revolts all over the free world such as the U.S., France, Britain, Japan and Germany. In 1968, West Germany had experienced a wide student revolt which represented a revolt of the younger generation against the older generation. Back then, young Germans said “Ich bin Jahrgang 1945,” roughly translated to “I was born in 1945”. Expressing themselves by their year of birth meant; one, that they were not alive and did not serve in the Nazi’s fascist government. And secondly, they had suffered in the post-Nazi era as a children.
The 1970s students’ revolt in Ethiopia was a part of a was a global trend which started in the 1960s. The students of Addis Ababa University, influenced by intensifying Marxist movements across the globe, started a revolution against the emperor and later against the Derg regime. The TPLF was created by a group of Tigrayan students. One can view the idea of creating a party named TPLF — Tigray People’s Liberation Front — from different angles, but one pertinent fact of personal interest is that the majority of the founders were from a middle-class or upper-class family members. Despite their relatively well-off beginnings, they were courageous enough to stand against their parents or grandparents. In my view, the revolt initiated by the founders of the TPLF was as generational as it was class and national struggle. And I strongly believe, if we, Tigrayans, have to learn something from TPLF, this must the first and foremost: generational resistance. To summarize, let me paraphrase the 1968s Germany’s way of telling about their selves and represent the agony of my generation by saying: “I was born in 1990s,” to express, both, that I was too young to contribute for the genocidal war in Tigray and I was also too young to fix and rearrange the political culture of Ethiopia, in a way that it wouldn’t be such a threat to my people. Fatefully, it is me and many youngsters of my generation who are paying the cost for the failure of the former generation. In the meantime, the leaders in the ruling party are claiming to have the legitimacy of governance, citing the 2020’s election result (98.2%) over and over. If so, as Francis Fukuyama articulated it, for any government to be considered as legitimate one, it actually has to deliver better results and need to be more flexible and responsive to changing public demands. As part of this generation, my only demand is: “I was born in 1990s, sustain my future”.