Unity By Gun

by Jaclynn Ashly

Illustration by Weronika Ziarek

Ethiopia’s war in the northern Tigray region has raged on for more than a month. Thousands have likely been killed, and tens of thousands of Ethiopians have crowded into refugee camps across the border in Sudan; scores have been internally displaced. An ongoing internet and communications blackout has prevented many families from confirming whether their loved ones in Tigray are alive or dead.

It is a conflict that has already caused irreversible damage in the Tigray region and uprooted the lives of numerous families—the effects of which could reverberate throughout the region, while throwing a wrench into any hopes of a democratic transition in Ethiopia. 

Both sides—Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the Tigray region—have pointed fingers at the other for causing the devastating and intractable war. 

But, according to Ethiopian scholars and activists, the war being waged in Tigray is the latest battleground for opposing visions of Ethiopian identity. It is a question that has plagued Ethiopians for decades—the root of which stems back 131 years ago, when Ethiopia was created as a state. 

Invention of Ethiopia

Ethiopia was established in 1889 by an Amhara king named Menelik II, who became Ethiopia’s first emperor after he expanded his territories to conquer and incorporate the surrounding regions into a unified empire amid Europe’s “Scramble for Africa.” Before Menelik, the area of land now considered to be Ethiopia consisted of various semi-independent kingdoms.

For many Amhara Ethiopians, especially those among the higher echelons of society, Menelik, along with the successive emperors, is reflective of a glorious Ethiopian past—tracing images of strong African emperors who proudly fought against the Italians to create an uncolonized African state. But for many non-Amhara Ethiopians, Menelik and his successors are regarded as colonizers who built a state in their own Amhara image and repressed non-Amhara ethnicities—the residue of which continues to define the present-day. 

Menelik II in coronation garb

According to Mohammed Hassen Ali, a professor at Georgia State University who specializes in the history of the Oromo people, the process of creating this unified empire was “very brutal.” It took Menelik about seven years to conquer the Oromo region, and in the final battle between Menelik and Oromo fighters—who unlike Menelik did not have access to firearms at the time—thousands of Oromos were killed and many other fighters had their right hands chopped off by Menelik’s forces. 

The Oromo, along with other ethnicities in southern Ethiopia, were forced into a position of servitude, Ali says. “Menelik’s settlers depended almost entirely on the labor and produce of the conquered people of southern Ethiopia,” he explains. “The relationship of the conqueror to the conquered was an unequal relationship, and the conquered people were reduced almost to the status of slaves.” 

From the time of Menelik up until 1974, non-Amhara ethnicities in Ethiopia were not allowed to openly practice their traditions, develop their cultures, or freely use their language. Ethiopia’s rulers, who were Orthodox Christian, adopted a policy of assimilation, in which the peoples of Ethiopia were forced to speak and write in Amharic. In doing so, they built Ethiopia’s image around the Amhara identity, culture, and language.

According to Ali, up until when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, writing, preaching, or broadcasting in the Oromo language was forbidden. Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia with a population of 35 million, were only referred to as “Galla”—a term considered derogatory and insulting to the Oromo people. 

In order to get a job in the bureaucracy, military, police force, or other government positions, Ethiopians were forced to adopt Orthodox Christian or Amharic names. Muslims, meanwhile, were not permitted to build mosques and Arabic was banned from their schools. Muslims were referred to as “Muslims who live in Ethiopia,” and Arabic street names were replaced with Amharic ones. 

While most ethnicities faced similar repression, “the Oromo were the most humiliated people in Ethiopia,” Ali tells me. “The reason for this is very simple,” he says. “The Oromo were very large in numbers, as they are now, and the Amhara elite feared that if they allowed them to continue their lives and culture, there would come a day when they would challenge the Amhara elites. So they took the approach of forcible assimilation.” 

But despite the Amhara rulers’ attempts to suppress non-Amhara ethnic groups through a process of “Amharization,” they continued to pass down their cultures in ways that went undetected by the imperial Ethiopian state. The Oromo, for instance, used poetry, music, and storytelling to express their experiences of marginalization and communicate resistance to their conditions within the Ethiopian state. To this day, the Harari people continue to paint the base of their traditional seating arrangements red to symbolize the hundreds of bridegrooms massacred by Menelik’s army in 1887, which marked their absorption into the Ethiopian empire. 

Beneath the surface, the more than 80 ethnic groups that were absorbed into Ethiopia began defining their identities in juxtaposition, and in rejection, to the Ethiopian state—as a reaction to this forced assimilation that denied them rights to their cultures, languages, and ways of life. 

In the 1960s, a popular revolution led by students in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa challenged the ruling monarchy and the country’s feudal land structure that had impoverished scores of Ethiopian farmers. For the students, the “national question” emerged at the center of their radicalizing discourse—envisioning an Ethiopia based on self-determination and pluralism for its dozens of ethnic groups and cultures. 

“One of the most important questions that came from that revolution was the question of nationality—the idea that the various identities that make up the Ethiopian state should have the right to self-determination and the right to be recognized as distinct groups with their own language and their own culture,” says Awol Allo, a senior lecturer at Keele University in the United Kingdom. 

In 1974, the Derg, a committee of low-ranking officers of the Ethiopian army, overthrew Haile Selassie amid mass protests and subsequently abolished feudalism and implemented radical land reform. However, the students’ dreams of building a pluralistic and democratic country were crushed, as the Derg consolidated power and established a one-party Marxist-Leninist state. 

Derg leaders Mengistu Haile Mariam, Teferi Bante and Atnafu Abate

The Derg regime brutally repressed any opposition. Between 1975 and 1977, army lieutenant—and later Ethiopian president—Mengistu Haile Mariam led a campaign known as the “Red Terror,” in which half a million Ethiopians were killed, including Muslims and Christians from all ethnic groups. Thousands more were permanently crippled from facing prolonged torture. 

Mengistu earned the nickname the “Butcher of Addis.” In a particularly barbarous policy, families of those who were victims of the “Red Terror” were forced to pay a “wasted bullet” tax to the government in order for their loved ones’ bodies to be released for burial. In 1984, the country experienced a famine, resulting in an estimated one million people dying of starvation.

Though vicious, the Derg regime did allow some space for cultural and linguistic rights for the various ethnic groups in Ethiopia, according to Ali. It recognized “Oromo” as the official name of the Oromo people, and for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, limited Oromo and other indigenous language programs were permitted. 

Soon after the Derg regime came to power, Ethiopia’s civil war broke out and continued for almost 20 years, as various ethnic-based armed movements waged guerrilla insurgencies against the government. The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front, the Gambela People’s Liberation Movement, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), among others, were all formed to demand independence and self-determination for their respective groups. 

The Derg, however, did not challenge the Amharic identity of the Ethiopian state or tackle the longstanding issue of nationality in the country. Almost two decades later, this question would be brought to the forefront of Ethiopia’s political landscape and dramatically transform the country. 

In 1991, the TPLF, which represents the Tigrayan people who make up about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, led a coalition of various ethnic-based rebel groups, alongside Eritrean separatists from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, to overthrow Mengistu’s regime. 

Keeping Ethiopia together 

The TPLF’s victory ushered in the “most dramatic change that took place in the country since Ethiopia’s creation,” Ali tells me. The new constitution, adopted in 1995, established Ethiopia as a multinational—or ethnic—federation with a democratic structure, consisting of nine ethnically based regions: Tigray, Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Somali, Gambela, Benishangul-Gumuz, Southern Nations Nationalities and People Region (SNNPR), and Harari. It also created two administrative councils: Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. 

Each of these regional states is governed by a parliament, which is divided into the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation. Along with constitutional guarantees of democracy and human rights, “every nation, nationality, and people in Ethiopia” was granted the “unconditional right to self-determination,” the right to speak, write and develop their own language and culture, and preserve their own history. They were also given the constitutional right to secede from the Ethiopian state. 

Each of the regions was granted autonomy to establish their own flags and decide on their region’s working languages. According to Yohannes Abraha, a former Ethiopian diplomat in the government’s ministry of foreign affairs, the Ethiopians in the Southern region, which consists of 56 nationalities, agreed to form one regional state and accepted Amharic as their working language. In the Oromia, Harar, and Dire Dawa regional states, officials opted for Afaan Oromoo, a traditionally oral language whose development as a written language had long been suppressed under Amharic leadership.

The multinational federalist approach was reflective of the resistance movements that ushered in the new system. More than a dozen ethnic-based secessionist movements, which had waged an armed insurgency against the Ethiopian government for nearly 20 years, were involved in the creation of the 1995 constitution to address the questions of self-determination and cultural rights that had plagued Ethiopia for decades.

Two resistance leaders, Meles Zenawi (far right) and Bereket Simon (middle) at a 1970s political meeting. Wikimedia Commons

The radical commitments to self-determination and democracy outlined in the constitution, however, have yet to be fully actualized—in part because of political corruption and continued resistance to the new multinational framework. Though the multinational federation was designed by leaders of various ethnic-based movements, Neamin Zeleke, a former opposition leader in the Patriotic Ginbot 7—which fought a decade-long armed insurgency against the TPLF from their base in Eritrea—believes that the federation was a ploy created by the TPLF to “rule over the majority” as a “divide and conquer strategy” that separated Ethiopians on ethnic lines. 

Also troublesome were the Ethiopian elite, often referred to as the “neftegna” or “neo-neftegna.” Meaning “gunman” in Amharic, the neftegna consists mainly of Amhara nobles or other urban elite who identify with the narrative of a unified and centralized Ethiopian state reflecting the Amhara identity. According to Ali, they “never accepted the changes that took place in Ethiopia in 1991.” Due to its size, the Oromia region was a particular threat to those elites who saw their power in the country threatened.

Trumpets of change 

While ethnic groups throughout Ethiopia were afforded unprecedented cultural rights never before seen in Ethiopian history, the TPLF, which headed the ruling coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), dominated the political structures of the multinational federation and ushered in another era of authoritarianism. 

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), along with other groups not affiliated with the ruling EPRDF, were declared terrorist organizations, and their actual or suspected members and supporters were arrested and tortured, often arbitrarily; many were also killed by security forces. The TPLF was accused of widespread corruption and using its dominant position in Ethiopia to enrich its high-ranking members.

OLF forces retreat into Kenya, February 2006. Photo by Jonathan Alpeyrie

During TPLF rule, a “fake federalism” was implemented, says Asafa Jalata, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where “Oromos were killed, their resources were looted, and the TPLF hand-picked [political] puppets in the Oromia region” through rigged elections. 

Between 2011 and 2014, it is estimated that at least 5,000 Oromos were arrested for their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government. The ruling party also focused on segments of the Oromo population they believed were more susceptible to developing critical views of the government. Oromo students, for instance, were constantly surveilled for any signs of dissent or political activity among the student bodies in schools and universities. 

In 2014, Oromo students led protests in the western Oromia region in response to a plan to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into Oromia territory, referred to as the Addis Ababa Master Plan. The plan would displace Oromo farmers to build residential, commercial, and industrial properties for a growing urban middle class from the capital—a continuation of previous forced evictions of Oromo farmers over the last decade and a half. 

In 2015, protests once again erupted, this time in response to a stadium being sold and a local forest cleared in the small Oromia town of Ginchi to prepare for the proposed expansion. The protests quickly spread to at least 400 different locations in Oromia and grew to include farmers, workers, and other citizens. The mass protests reflected ongoing tensions between the federal government’s centralized development strategy and the non-Tigrayan ethnic groups who desired more regional autonomy and democratization of the multinational federation. Security forces responded by killing hundreds of protesters—many of whom were under the age of 18—torturing detainees, and arresting tens of thousands of Oromos. 

Despite the repression, resistance continued, led primarily by the Oromo youth movement known as the Qeerroo. In 2018, almost every resident in the town of Adama in Oromia went on a three-day strike to demand the release of Oromo opposition leaders and an end to authoritarianism. The next day, the government released Bekele Gerba, a prominent Oromo activist; just 48 hours later, Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s prime minister at the time, abruptly resigned from his post.

TPLF cautiously agreed to hand over power to the Oromo Democratic Party and retreated to its home state of Tigray. Abiy, a former army intelligence officer whose mother is Amhara and father Oromo, was declared the EPRDF coalition’s chairman and became Ethiopia’s transitional prime minister tasked with leading the country toward economic liberalization and democracy. 

The trumpets of change reverberated throughout Ethiopia, as Abiy received widespread support among Ethiopians from all ethnic groups, including Tigrayans. The international community showered the then 41-year-old with praise. “We were all very hopeful that he would resolve the problems and challenges that Ethiopia was facing,” says Meaza Gidey, a human rights activist from Tigray and a researcher of international relations. 

Abiy released thousands of political prisoners, legalized political movements once deemed terrorist organizations, and allowed those who had gone into exile to return home. He also forged a peace agreement with Eritrea, which had fought a bloody two-year war with Ethiopia that ended in 2000, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Oromo were permitted to celebrate Irreecha, which marks the start of the harvest season, in Addis Ababa for the first time in 150 years. 

Abiy Ahmed delivering his acceptance speech after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 2019. Wikimedia Commons

However, the excitement around Abiy’s reform policies gradually dried up, even among his main Oromo supporters who brought him to power, and deeply-rooted distrust over Abiy’s intentions and motives crept to the surface. 

“Betrayed” 

Rather than embrace new strategies of democratizing multinational federalism, Abiy has shown a troubling propensity to laud Ethiopia’s Amharic past. In Abiy’s first official statement as prime minister, he described Menelik, who committed mass atrocities in the south of the country during the empire’s territorial expansion, as a “great leader.” 

“I have no doubt Ethiopia will return to its former national glory,” Abiy later said during a rally. These statements, which many perceive as a direct threat to Ethiopia’s multinational federation and a desire to return to a pre-1974 “united” Ethiopia in the image of the Amhara, have resulted in Abiy accumulating a strong base of support among the Amhara and urban elite and prompted distrust among historically marginalized groups across the country. 

Allo, who nominated Abiy for the Nobel Peace Prize, is now staunchly opposed to the prime minister. “The Oromos essentially felt betrayed by Abiy because he embraced this very hegemonic unitary idea of Ethiopia and Ethiopianness that historically marginalized and excluded the Oromo,” Allo explains. “He spoke about this old glory of the Ethiopian state. Oromos feel like they were humiliated and subordinated as part of this Ethiopia, where he sees greatness.” 

While most people’s support for Abiy dissolved over time, Allo says it was his creation of the Prosperity Party last year—which merged all of the ethnic-based parties of the EPRDF coalition into one national party—that decisively turned him against Abiy. Allo isn’t alone; the TPLF flat-out rejected the party’s formation and refused to join, alleging it went against the 1995 constitution. This disagreement set the stage for a protracted conflict and tug-of-war between the regional powers of the Tigray state and Abiy’s central government. 

Abiy’s ideologies, which are referred to as “Medemer”—Amharic for “coming together”—promote an Ethiopian national identity based on the perceived unity of the diverse ethnic groups in the country, which he has marketed as a solution to ethnic separatism. 

However, for many groups in Ethiopia, stripping—or even limiting—ethnic self-determination for the cause of national unity conjures up historical traumas of past attempts by Ethiopia’s leaders to forcibly assimilate them. The stripping of the ethnic component of the ruling coalition and collapsing it into a unified, national party was seen by many as an attempt by Abiy to project his personal “Medemer” vision onto Ethiopia and, in doing so, threatening the multinational federation. 

Zeleke, who is also half Amhara and half Oromo, denies these allegations. The accusation of Abiy attempting to create a unitary state is “a concocted narrative that has nothing to do with the reality,” says Zeleke, who is a former opposition politician but a strong supporter of Abiy and his ideas of “Medemer.”

But Zeleke, who espouses the same ideologies as Abiy, says he believes in reforming the system into a more generalized federation that is not based on ethnicity and is instead built on concepts of “pan-Ethiopianness.” He blames the dramatic uptick of ethnic-based violence seen in Ethiopia since Abiy’s rise to power on the “multinational” or “ethnic” framework of the federation and constitution. 

“The federalism that we have is creating all kinds of problems,” he says. “Ethiopian identity as a national citizen is important and central at the same time as ethnic diversity. We have to be accommodating and respectful to peoples’ ethnicity, language, and culture.” 

“We have to broaden the narratives and symbols of Ethiopia and its history to include the Oromo and other cultures,” Zeleke adds. “For example, the Gada [the indigenous Oromo democratic system of governance] can be part of national heritage and not just ethnic heritage. Street names can be in other languages [besides Amharic] so that people can see a reflection of themselves in the national narratives.” 

Harari Region of Ethiopia. Photo by Jaclynn Ashly

But for various ethnic groups in Ethiopia, culture and self-determination mean more than just seeing their language or culture reflected in Ethiopia’s national museums or street signs. It is about their existential struggle to maintain their belief systems, their ways of life, their attachment to land and community, and the complex ways they position themselves in the universe, according to scholars and activists. 

Having parts of their culture used to create symbols and narratives for a state that has long tried to suppress their identities generates feelings of suspicion and animosity. Any federalist system in Ethiopia that strips itself of ethnic self-determination—even for the sake of diversity—is perceived as a direct threat to the decades-long struggle for ethnic autonomy in the country. 

Allo believes that stripping ethnicity from the Ethiopian federal system is “code language” for an attempt to centralize power within one dominant ethnic group and limit the autonomy of the regional ethnic states.

“No one can argue that we don’t need federalism [in Ethiopia] or federalism must be dismantled because it’s not an argument that flies in Ethiopia anymore,” Allo says. “So the best they can do is say that a federal system based on ethnicity must be dismantled.” 

But Allo admits that there are clear weaknesses in the constitution and the country’s multinational federation, such as ensuring protection for minority ethnicities in the regional ethnic states. “These are legitimate questions that should be addressed, but that is not the same as claiming that the federal arrangement itself needs to be changed or based on something other than ethnicity,” he says. 

“It’s an attempt to present a manufactured desire for national unity and a country not divided on ethnic lines,” adds Allo, who is of the Oromo ethnicity. “But this debate around multinational federalism masks so much about the asymmetric relationship of power that existed in this country. It conceals a lot of hidden interests in which people who were formerly hegemonic— linguistically, culturally, and economically—again want to create those conditions to protect their privilege.”

City of Aksum in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo by Ron Waddington

In Ethiopia, many groups identify with their ethnicity over their nationality; therefore, what’s required is “a balance between unity and diversity,” according to Zeleke. “There has to be a national identity and a national consensus; people regardless of their ethnicity or their religion have to feel like they are first Ethiopian as national citizens and then, after, they have their ethnic identities.” 

However, this concept of a “unified” Ethiopian national identity, alongside the desire to strip ethnic self-determination from the federalist system, agitates deep traumas among Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups. It also challenges the decades-long struggle to decentralize the nation-state, which is dependent on the redistribution of power in terms of culture, politics, and economic development.

When I ask Jalata what he feels as an Oromo when he hears words like “unity” in Ethiopia, he responds: “When Oromos were colonized, millions were sold into slavery; they were commodified and their language was taken away from them. Many were mutilated; many had their hands chopped off. And when people talk about unity in Ethiopia—that’s the wound that comes to our mind. We are reminded of our pain.” 

A hero shot dead

Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was considered the “undisputed king” of contemporary Oromo resistance music, known as Geeresa. Allo describes the young musician as a “towering figure,” an “icon,” and a “hero” for the Oromo people. Hundeessaa is the result of a long line of Oromo singers before him who “originated from a deep well of Oromo tradition,” which used music as an expressive art form to “articulate marginalization” and resist “forms of knowledge and modes of interpretation used to legitimize their oppression,” Allo explains.

In 2015, Hundeessaa, who was also a former political prisoner during TPLF rule, released a single called Maalan Jiraa, meaning “What Existence is Mine” in Afaan Oromoo. The song “weeps for Finnfinne,” Allo says, using the Oromo term for Addis Ababa. 

The Oromo consider Addis Ababa to be their regional capital, and the 1995 Ethiopian constitution recognizes the special interest of Oromia in Addis Ababa, directing Parliament to “enact laws specifying the terms and conditions that respects and regulates this multifaceted relationship between the city and Oromia.” 

Haacaaluu Hundeessaa during an Oromia Media Network interview in July 2020

Hundeessaa inspired the “Qubee” generation, the term used for Oromos born after 1991 who were permitted to be educated in their mother tongue. Maalan Jiraa served as the soundtrack and “rallying anthem” during the 2015-2018 Qeerroo protests. “Had it not been for Hundeessaa and his incalculable musical ability to mobilize and mesmerize the Oromo youth, the change we saw in 2018 would not have happened,” Allo explains. 

This past June, as discontent with Abiy’s reforms and suspicions over his motives festered among Oromo activists, 34-year-old Hundeessaa was assassinated in Addis Ababa, sending shockwaves across Ethiopia and sparking mass protests in Addis Ababa and elsewhere. The violent unrest resulted in groups of youth rioting and looting businesses in Addis Ababa, deadly bombings, and ethnically motivated killings. 

In Adama, the site of the three-day strike that brought Ethiopia’s political elite to its knees in 2018, protesters set fire to the mayor’s office. In Harar, protesters toppled a statue of Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael, the father of Haile Selassie and the first appointed governor of Harar following its absorption into the Ethiopian empire. 

Abiy’s government shut down internet and phone communications in Oromia for months amid the protests, and hundreds were killed in the unrest. There were widespread allegations that security forces were responsible for the deaths of numerous Oromo protesters.

Jawar Mohammed, one of the main organizers of the Qeerroo protests and one of Ethiopia’s most popular and prominent Oromo leaders, was arrested after he and his supporters intercepted the convoy delivering Hundeessaa’s body for burial in his hometown of Ambo; the incident resulted in a police officer being killed. Mohammed was demanding that Hundeessaa be buried in Addis Ababa out of respect for his contributions to the Oromo struggle.

Jawar Mohammed during a street-naming ceremony in Asella, Ethiopia, October 2019. Wikimedia Commons

In September this year, Mohammed, along with over two dozen senior members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) were charged with terrorism over the unrest following Hundeessaa’s murder. Among those charged was Bekele Gerba, who was released from prison in 2018 to appease the Oromo protest movement. 

Federal prosecutors charged four members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), a splinter group of the OLF, for the murder of Hundeessaa in October, alleging that the plot was designed to spark ethnic tension and overthrow the government. The government has also blamed the OLA for a series of massacres in the Oromia state targeting Amhara communities, including last month when dozens of people were killed in the Guliso district. 

Reflecting deep apprehension of the central government’s motives, many in the Oromo community instead allege that Ethiopian security forces were behind Hundeessaa’s assassination and the massacres in Oromia—in order to create conditions that could justify Abiy’s supposed goals of dismantling multinational federalism by discrediting the Oromo movement. Activists have called for an independent investigation into the killings. 

Ethiopian security forces sent to manage the unprecedented uptick of intercommunal violence, meanwhile, have been accused of human rights violations in the Oromia and Amhara states including rape, extrajudicial killings, and forced evictions.

The unrest is not contained to the Oromia region. The Sidama, who number about five million, held a referendum last year that saw almost 99% of voters support the creation of a new regional state, separate from the SNNPR. This new state would allow them to establish their own local constitution, parliament, and security forces, in addition to giving them power over taxes, education, and land administration. 

Protests broke out in the Sidama Zone in the run-up to the referendum as the government delayed organizing the vote, causing Sidama activists to worry that the referendum would not be voted on within a year of their statehood request as required by the constitution. Activists threatened to unilaterally declare their statehood, and deadly clashes erupted between Ethiopian security forces and Sidama activists. Many Sidama leaders were also imprisoned before the government finally agreed to permit the referendum. 

Similarly, earlier this year, Ethiopian security forces killed over a dozen people in the Wolaita Zone of the SNNPR after protests erupted following the arrest of local leaders who sought to follow the lead of the Sidama and form an autonomous region for the Wolaita people. 

Is TPLF to blame? 

Tensions between the TPLF and Abiy’s central government have been simmering for at least two years now. For many, the devastating war that broke out last month was not surprising.

According to Gidey, who is Tigrayan, Abiy’s peace deal with Isaias Afwerki—the often brutal president of Eritrea who has been accused of sending thousands of Eritrean troops into Tigray to fight alongside Abiy’s government forces—had made the Tigray region feel sidelined. The TPLF continues to harbor hostility toward Afwerki, and Tigray borders Eritrea; however, the TPLF was not included in the peace negotiations, despite Abiy returning Badme—a contested piece of land located in Tigray—back to Eritrea. 

Tigray Region of Ethiopia. Photo by Ron Waddington

Jawar Mohammed, who wrote an insightful piece from prison on what went wrong in the transitional process for the country to erupt into civil war, noted that the TPLF’s “exclusion from the peacemaking process with their archenemy [Eritrea] made the TPLF feel the reproach was motivated by the desire to create an alliance against them, rather than a sincere effort to end the decades long hostility between the two countries.” 

Mirroring deep suspicions on both sides, Abiy’s rhetoric against the TPLF escalated. He often refers to them as “daytime hyenas” and blames the TPLF for the myriad of issues facing the country. The TPLF also intensified its rhetoric against the government, perceiving its policies as deliberately excluding them from the country’s political future. Meanwhile, Tigray state media outlets regularly aired military parades and mock-operations in an apparent show of force against the central government. 

Fomenting hostility between the TPLF and the central government only worsened when the TPLF went ahead with regional elections in September that Abiy had suspended in March due to COVID-19. TPLF’s move to defy Abiy’s decision to suspend elections was also a clear rejection of what many view as the prime minister’s attempts to centralize power and curb the autonomy of the regional states. The overwhelming majority of Tigrayans supported the TPLF’s decision. 

Gidey says she believes Abiy used COVID-19 as a pretext to unconstitutionally extend his mandate as prime minister, which officially expired in October. “We have the constitutional right to elect our regional leaders,” she argues. “We’re not going to be administered by a party that is imposing its leaders and ideologies on us. Our freedom and our right to self-administration was not a right that was given to us. It was a right we paid for with our blood and flesh. Over 60,000 Tigrayans died for this right to be respected.” 

Abiy claimed that the bombardment of Tigray—which began on November 4 and has included devastating aerial attacks and a more than month-long internet and communications blackout—was justified after the TPLF organized a deadly attack on the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force in Tigray. The TPLF in turn alleged that Abiy was already preparing for war and feared he would use the Northern Command to launch an attack within the Tigray regional state. 

The some 50,000 refugees who have crowded into camps across the border in Sudan have shared harrowing stories of violence they faced in Tigray; many of them were allegedly targeted by an Amhara militia allied with federal troops. Tigrayan refugees recounted seeing dead bodies of men, women, and children strewn along the roads of Humera, a small agricultural city in Tigray that was shelled by the army last month. 

Amnesty International, meanwhile, documented that scores, likely hundreds, of people were stabbed or hacked to death in Mai-Kadra town in Tigray last month. Witnesses claimed that the perpetrators were forces loyal to the TPLF. 

Mohammed, writing from his prison cell, says that all sides, including him, were to blame for the “mismanaged transition” that began with hope, celebrations, and optimism for a democratic horizon in Ethiopia, but which has ended in a civil war that threatens the stability of the entire Horn of Africa. 

“It’s a tragic collective failure of the country’s political leadership—all of us, not just Abiy and the TPLF,” Mohammed wrote. “There is enough blame to go around. One person or party could bear larger or lesser responsibilities, but we all played a role. Through our acts of omission and commission, we squandered this great opportunity for a peaceful democratic transition and placed the country at a horrible civil war that could rip it apart.” 

City of Adigrat in Tigray, Ethiopia. Photo by Ron Waddington

Despite Abiy’s claims of defeating the TPLF, which the TPLF has denied, Ali says that the TPLF will in all likelihood wage a protracted guerilla insurgency from the mountains in Tigray for the foreseeable future. He added that Oromo youths are now “flocking” to the forests to take up arms. “Abiy has sent a clear message to the Oromo, the Tigrayans, and many others, that peaceful protests and resistance won’t work,” Ali says.

While Abiy and his supporters have defined the country’s enemy as the TPLF and not civilian Tigrayans, in actuality, the overwhelming majority of Tigrayans in the Tigray region support the TPLF. “TPLF is not just a political party,” says Gidey, who resides in Washington D.C. and has not been able to contact her family in Tigray since the conflict erupted more than a month ago; she says she does not know if they are alive or dead.

“The TPLF is part of our identity. It’s a way of life of revolting against subjugation and against the imposition of any outside rule. The TPLF has a very special place in most Tigrayans’ hearts because of the brave struggle they waged in order to liberate Tigray from the dictatorial regime of the Derg,” she explains. “So when Abiy is saying he wants to eliminate the TPLF, he is implying that Tigrayans need to be eliminated.”

There have been widespread reports of Tigrayan civilians being racially profiled, arrested, and purged from their jobs in Ethiopia. Tigrayans say they are now scared to speak Tigrinya on the streets of Addis Ababa, while there are reports of raids being conducted on Tigrayan homes in the capital. 

There are also reports that the Ethiopian government has rounded up ethnic Tigrayan security forces deployed in United Nations and African peacekeeping missions abroad and forced them on flights to Addis Ababa, where some fear they could face human rights abuses. Last month, the Ethiopian police requested a list of all of the ethnic Tigrayan staff from the UN World Food Programme office in the Amhara region. 

For many Tigrayans, Oromos, and other ethnic groups that feel like they are being transferred from one authoritarian regime to another, the latest conflict in Ethiopia has once again raised the question of how they fit into a national Ethiopian identity. 

“I’m Ethiopian. But I’m also a proud Tigrayan,” says Abraha, the former Ethiopian diplomat. “If Ethiopia attempts to take my Tigrayan identity from me, then Ethiopia for me is finished. I am no longer Ethiopian because an Ethiopia that does not understand me or accept me as Tigrayan is no longer mine or something that I belong to.”

“This is the perception of every other ethnic group in the country—not just Tigrayans,” Abraha continues. “If Ethiopian is going to be my identity, then Ethiopia shouldn’t oppress me, shouldn’t kill me, and shouldn’t drive me from my country.” 

Abraha’s words encapsulate decades of revolutionary discourse surrounding Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups and their troubled relationship with a nation-state that has been the source of more than a century of pain. These still-unanswered questions over nationality in Ethiopia, passed down from the generations before who waged protests and took up arms against the Ethiopian government, have been in the making for more than 130 years. 

According to Ali, Abiy’s regime is just the latest in a long line of Ethiopian rulers who attempted to unite the country by force. “Since the creation of modern Ethiopia, all important issues were settled with the gun, and the war in Tigray is another example of this,” Ali says. “There has never been unity in Ethiopia that is based on equality. It is unity brought by gun and maintained by gun. But history has shown us that those who rule by gun will never last.” 

Jaclynn Ashly is an international freelance journalist who specializes in human rights, culture, and politics in East Africa.

Categories: Middle East & Africa