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Home ENGLISH In Defense of Tigrai’s Federal Autonomy

In Defense of Tigrai’s Federal Autonomy

Despite some tangible problems, Ethiopia had made tremendous strides in various metrics during the  25 years in which EPRDF was at the helm. In the sphere of the economy millions of people were lifted from poverty.  Life expectancy for Ethiopians rose to over 60 years. Infant mortality has declined tremendously;  maternal mortality during child delivery declined ; and health institutions during this period reached into every corner of the country.   Tertiary education including elementary and secondary schools reached places, hitherto untouched.  Numerous universities and similar institutions of higher learning have been established. Physical and Institutional infrastructure, roads, bridges, including dams have been built. Direct foreign investment increased. More importantly and in contrast to the current conditions in the country, under the EPRDF government, people went on their daily routine and returned home safe.  That is to say that  law and order were maintained. 

However, despite these great achievements that the country made during this time, internal and external forces coalesced to create dissension among the Ethiopian people. More or less, they were successful in creating social unrest and tumult in most parts of the country.  This condition, however, led the economy to a grinding halt. It was on this occasion that the newly minted “reformer”  burst into the political scene and occupied the position of the PM of the country. Under Abiy Ahmed Ethiopia faces enormous problems.  The regime now cloaked in a new party garb suffers from the destruction of the middle class and shattered economy. The internal diversity which was acknowledged and settled is now in disarray.   Further, Abiy’s tenure in office has been marked by repeated bouts of violence and series of assassinations of high profile individuals that began with the chief engineer of the Renaissance dam to the military chief of staff to the  president of the Amhara region and recently of a popular  Oromo singer. The federal government has not  conducted any  credible investigation to solve the mystery killings.  

Thus, the public’s  distrust of the federal authorities  increased as the PM accused the TPLF for the Oromo singer’s murder before any investigations were undertaken and at the same time the authorities arrested Oromo leaders  in the immediate aftermath of the incident.  Recent events indicate that the political climate of the country is rapidly deteriorating.  Hundreds have been killed in the aftermath of the Oromo singer’s assassination.  According to the government’s statistics 7,000 people have been detained including famous Oromo leaders.  Even worse over three million Ethiopians have been internally displaced. Mass killings of one sort or another are occurring in various parts of the country.  These series of events indicate the government appears to be unwilling or unable to restore peace and order.  Consequently, people have become suspicious if indeed the PM Abiy administration is behind these series of killings and turmoil.  

Yet the western media continue to present or describe the situation in simple and shallow terms as a transition from an authoritarian state to a reformist government headed by Abiy Ahmed.  They repeat the same mantra in spite of clear patterns of abuse of power and human rights violations. Ironically, there is a rich and fascinating political development in the country that needs to be examined.  A good segment of the Ethiopian people feel threatened that ethnic based federal arrangement that has been enshrined by the constitution of 1995 is in danger of being abolished.  

The second important factor is the Chinese role in financing the projects that propelled the country’s economy forward and the fear it created in the western world for putatively losing Africa.  So Ethiopia in essence is the pawn in the western particularly U.S. fight against the Chinese and the role Abiy is playing in this tragic drama.  Nevertheless, either these issues are beyond the capacity of most reporters or they have been ignored deliberately to protect their perceived interests.  The easy and inflammatory thing for them is to repeat endlessly that Abiy, the new boy in the block, is the reformer out there to save Ethiopia if it were not for the hurdles placed on his path.  Whereas the huge political and economic reforms of the previous regime that lifted Ethiopians from the shackles of poverty and disease is conveniently forgotten.   

Abiy is walking in a circle not knowing where to go without any vision or compass.  Abiy’s closest friend and advisor is President Isaias Afeworki  of Eritrea whose country is known for its political prisons, detention centers and labor camps which stretch across the country.  His Prosperity Party is  at his side  to establish a centralized state that Ethiopians more than once fought against and completely rejected.  His recent political saber rattling with the Tigrai regional state because among other things the Tigraians  wanted to conduct a regional election mandated by the Constitution reflects this reality.   Ethiopians from north to south fully appreciate  the economic and social benefit of the federal structure of government established by EPRDF.  Current unrest and protest  in the country suggest that  Ethiopians want to maintain that system of government.  In contrast to this, the tactical and strategic goal of prime minister Abiy is to reverse the concept of decentralized statehood as well as cultural diversity in order to facilitate the formation of a centralized or unitary state led by an Amhara elite who provide core support for his venture. The first centralization experiment led to economic stagnation and political instability.  The second centralization experiment as Abiy is staggering to install reminds the reader of Marx’s often quoted statement that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as  farce.   

The Introduction of Centralized State and Its Danger

Centralized state in Ethiopian polity was a brief twentieth century phenomena. Emperor Yohannes IV who ruled Ethiopia between the years 1872 to 1889,  for example, ruled the country respecting the customary laws of society.  He left local nobility in charge of their indigenous territory as long as they continued to pay  annual tribute to the imperial coffer and contribute troops to the sovereign in times of conflict. The emperor bestowed the title of king to Ras Adal of Gojam who assumed  the regal name of Teklehaimanot leaving him in charge of the territory loosely attached with the empire.  In the same token, the emperor affirmed Menilik’s title of king over Showa.   

The reversal of traditional norms of decentralization first began with Menilik and was intensified  by Emperor Haile Selassie who pushed the process further to the chagrin of regional nobility.  Menilik is believed to be the founder of the modern Ethiopian state whose vision was to establish a single society based on centralization and cultural homogenization.  Amharic and Orthodox Christianity were imposed as the basic tools in the formation of this goal.  In reaction to imperial centralization various regions of the country showed their distaste by protest and rebellion as evidenced in the following examples. 

Weyane Rebellion of Tigray

Haile Selassie’s government, who had neither constitutional nor practical constraint to his power, enhanced centralism even further .  Gebru Tareke made a correct observation in his book,  Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century  ( p.xiv),    when he wrote  that imperial concentration of power through centralism encroached  on the rights and privileges of local nobility whose subsequent reactions endangered the entire country.  The Woyane peasant revolt of Tigrai in 1943, for example,  is rightly a strong opposition to centralization under Showan hegemony by Tigraian peasants.  Gebru Tareke further argues Haile Selassie’s centralization agenda effectively divested the state of its regional autonomy and ushered in a new era where the Tigraian nobility became a shadow of their glorious past. 

The Bale Rebellion 

 Another rebellion against centralism and Showan hegemony came into rude awakening  twenty years later in 1963 when the Bale movement fired its initial salvo to  herald the beginning of anti- christian Amhara settlers’ vision of centralism.  And the conflict trudged slowly but surely until 1970, when it finally collapsed when President Siad Barre of Somalia withheld the  assistance his country was giving to the rebellion.  The cause of this movement may hark back to the end of the 19th century empire building  of Emperor Menilik. But the immediate triggering point was the administrative changes instituted after the return of Haile Selassie from exile.  This administrative reform resulted in the divestiture of the local gentry that comprised Oromos and Somalis from their traditional autonomy in order to benefit Chrisitan Amhara settlers.   In essence it was some form of centralization established to the disadvantage of the Oromos and Somalis of Bale who are entirely muslims. 

Peasant Uprising in Gojam

Emperor Haile Selassie’s agenda of centralization that helped to form the Showan hegemony did not spare even the Amharic speaking people of Gojam. After the death of King Teklehaimanot in 1901, his dynasty was not formally abolished. However, it was partitioned into three regions in which a Showan was appointed to govern one of the regions by way of weakening the power of the local nobility and advancing the goal of  “centralization through dilution” to borrow Gebru Tareke’s  phrase.  Moreover, Emperor Haile Selassie’s rise to the Ethiopian throne in 1930 ended the hereditary rule of Gojam, which also meant the end of political decentralization. In a vain attempt to reverse centralization, the lords of Gojam like Ras Hailu found it viable to collaborate with the Italian occupiers.  

Gojam was riven in social unrest all with the whole mark of anti-centralization agitation. In 1942 through 1944 this core region of the Abyssinian Empire was engulfed in a rebellion against land measurement and taxation reform in favor of the traditional land holding system of rist, although the government’s purpose was not to abolish it.  Another rebellion with similar causes erupted in 1950, although at this time the vigor and duration lasted longer since it was accompanied by Belai Zeleke’s revolt against the government.  On both occasions the government was forced to retreat in a way as a rare example of provincial  success over the forces of centralism, although Haile Selassie did not spare Belai Zeleke’s life.   Still another rebellion erupted in 1968 in protest against land tax levied by the centralizing state. However, there were indications that an exploitative state led by  a Showan aristocrat, Dejazmatch Tsehayu Enque Selassie, who was the governor of Gojam exacerbated the conflict (Gebru Tareke, p.169).

The Collapse of Eritrean Federal Arrangement

The most consequential and far reaching abuse of a federal system and headlong rush toward centralism in Ethiopia is a case of Eritrea. It is consequential because after a long guerilla war, Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia and established a separate state, which eventually evolved into a rigid totalitarian regime.  Historically, Eritrea was founded by Italian colonialists in January 1890 after having carved off the coastal region of Ethiopia.   After 50 years of Italian colonialism and 10 years of British protectorate, the region was first federated with Ethiopia in 1952 and then eventually reunified with the latter  in 1962. 

Among other reasons, Eritreans felt that their region was unjustly united with Ethiopia in violation of the terms of federalism carefully crafted  by the United Nations in 1952. Paul Henze in his book “Eritrea’s War” -written in reference to 1998 Eritrean invasion of Ethiopia- persuasively argues “in retrospect, it is clear that the concept of federation represented an opening which could have been exploited, overtime, to reconstruct the entire Ethiopian state on a more modern, viable, federal basis. But neither the Emperor nor the Ethiopian political elite had reached a stage where they could comprehend this possibility.” (p. 216) Instead of doing the right thing of pulling Ethiopia to the level of Eritrea where the latter exercised the right to free expression and practiced to be governed by free competition of political parties, the Ethiopian political elites chose to choke the nascent political freedom that Eritreans started to enjoy.  

Abiy’s Recent Foray

 Henze lamented in stating that “the Eritrean-Ethiopian Federation never became functional.”  And we know where that led.  I am not going to dwell on this issue as it is not the theme of this paper. However, as the Eritrean federal system eroded, the opportunity for Ethiopia to modernize its governmental structure was lost.   It appears again Abiy’s march toward destroying the federal structure established by the EPRDF sounds an alarm that he is repeating the tragic error that his predecessors committed. 

Emperor Haile Selassie abolished the Eritrean federal structure in his bid for centralization and destroyed internal autonomy of various regions some of them stated above.  Abiy’s petulant nostalgia for the formation of  a  unitary state is facing strong resistance in the country but he believes Tigrai posed a formidable threat to his vision and power grab.   It is unlikely that he would declare a full-fledged war on Tigrai not because they empathize with the potential loss of life and property but because  they don’t have the military prowess to do so. I am aware that Abiy is bluffing when he declares that he would take a measure if Tigrai proceeds with conducting the regional election.    However,  I am also aware that he is the head of a government that has multiple assets that could be brought to bear on the region.  It is also important to remember that  the prime minister  enjoys western support.  How long that support is going to last in the face of strong internal opposition only time will tell.  One thing is obvious, however, that Abiy and his cohorts will not let up from attempting to stir chaos in Tigrai. Ethiopian Government owned and managed mass media are  spewing anti-Tigraian propaganda round the clock. Thousands of people of Tigrai origin are detained and languishing in prison because of their identity.  

Tigraian Response

Tigrai was virtually an independent state within the Ethiopian Empire before or after the Gondarine period  (A Social History of Ethiopia, Richard Pankhurst, p.170). Indeed, when the center became strong and stable, the Ethiopian emperors appointed the governor of the Region   On the contrary, at times when the centrifugal forces gained prominence,  Tigraian leaders  like Suhul Mikael selected  the king for the empire.  That was the reason he was dubbed a “kingmaker” during the second half of the 18th century. Due to its proximity to the coast, and its exercise of  autonomy, Tigrai at that time was rich and powerful.  This exercise of undiminished internal autonomy lasted until the coming of Showan hegemony in the last decade of the 19th-century.  At the time, as Tigrai was divided, its leaders were appointed by Showan emperors with the intent to ensure Showan control.  Accordingly, it gave rise to the warfare of various Tigraian traditional rulers pitting against each other, Ras Sebhat against Dej. Gebreselassie and Ras Hagos against Ras Alula, Dejach Seyoum against Ras Mengesha and Dabab against all, the list goes on and on. Thus, the internal division and the weakness of the traditional aristocracy  led to an unchallenged Showan hegemony which concomitantly led to the impoverishment of the people of Tigrai. It was  completely in disarray and unable to control its destiny.   Once again this is the kind of opportune moment the current adversaries led by Abiy Ahmed are hoping for.  

Its weakness led to the situation in which some of its territories were ceded particularly after the June 1894 formal submission of Tigraian traditional rulers to Menilik.  For example, among other terms of submission, Tselemti was intended to be removed  from Tigrai and would be given to Empress Taytu, the consort of Emperor Menilik (Chris Prouty, Empress Taytu and Menilek II, Ethiopia 1883-1910, p.113).  However, this transfer actually did not take place at that time.  Instead it was taken away from Ras Seyoum’s domain in 1934. (Hagai Erlich, Ethiopia and the Challenge of Independence, p 146)  Gradually, in the 1930s and 40s under Emperor Haile Selassie, the disunited Tigraian traditional aristocracy undermined each other in their attempt to ingratiate themselves with the Emperor.  Thus the province lost its glory and its independence; half of its people living  under Italian colonial yoke, while the rest fell into unprecedented poverty under Amhara state domination.  The circumstances continued to deteriorate as the mid-20th century embarked.  

Conditions in Tigrai in the mid-20th Century   

The socio-economic condition of the region deteriorated further. The situation  would be characterized as the nadir of Tigrai’s unprecedented poverty.  It was around this time that modern education was finally introduced much later than other cities and regions.  At this time elementary schools were established in most of the districts.    Circumscribed Tigrai had eight districts.  Each school had a limited capacity for enrollment. Only a small fraction of the total number of children had the opportunity to access modern education. To get that coveted opportunity of schooling a child had to be the son or daughter (mainly male) of someone important or at best they had to be residents of the town in which the school was located.  Meanwhile, the rural peasantry that comprises over 90% of the total population had no educational opportunity to speak of.   Tigrai for many years had only one high school in Makale; teenagers who were lucky enough to pass their 8th-grade general exam would travel to the provincial capital to continue their education.  

Vocational schools and post-secondary institutions were nowhere to be found in the entire region of Tigrai. In contrast, the city of Gondar had its shot toward development when it was selected in 1953 as a site for Ethiopia’s first public health college.  “The existence  of this college, with its enthusiastic staff of WHO and AID personnel, has stimulated the improvement of transportation, and public utilities as well as local medical services”  (Donald L. Levine, Wax and Gold, Traditional and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, p.46).  In addition, a nearby Bahir Dar polytechnic institute was opened.  Awasa had its social work institute whereas Jimma had its agricultural institute.  Harar had more than its share, teacher training institute, college-level military officers training, Alemaya College, and some more. As people of my age clearly remember, Harar was privileged since it was the birthplace of Haile Selassie. As noted above in reference to Gondar, these higher institutions of learning established in those places  created job opportunities for people who live in their vicinity. Thus, the unequal treatment in the times of Haile Selassie was glaringly obvious, but its history goes further back.

It appears the anti-Tigraian sentiment in  Menilik’s court was in its initial phase.  The following story unfortunately gives credence to our fears. According to Chris Prouty in her book Empress Taytu and Menilik II (p.290) Ferdinando Martini, the Italian governor of Eritrea during his visit to the Emperor asked the latter permission to establish Italian commercial agencies in Ethiopian towns. Menilik permitted the Italians to work at Gondar, Borumeda, and Dessie, but not in Tigrai. “Frankly” Menilik reasoned that “Tigrai people are bad”, if tomorrow they killed one of your agents, you would declare war on me.” 

The  anti-Tigrai smear campaign in full swing in Addis Ababa these days may trace its origin to Afework Gebreyesus. This man was close to the Menilik court.  In his book (sort of biography of)   Atse Menilik II published in Rome in 1901 Ethiopian calendar, he wrote denigrating and demeaning  Emperor Yohannes who laid his life defending the sovereignty of the country.  According to Bahru Zewde citing Italian sources, Afework “was born in the district of Zage,  the peninsula on the southern shores of Lake Tana on July 10, 1868” (Bahru Zewdw, Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia, p. 52)   On page 26 of his Atse Menilik book, he stated “wherever Menilik and his retainers passed, the land bloomed.” In contrast,” whatever the Tigraians trod, it turned out as if it was devastated by a swarm of locusts” (translation mine).   For example on page 31, he wrote “after exhausting the bounty of Begemdar, the people of Tigrai flocked toward Showa, thinning the ranks of Yohannes’ military. Although Yohannes tried to stop the out flux, he failed to do it because the hungry Tigraians are like a beast who smelled gunpowder.  Both of them are unstoppable” (translation mine).   ችጋር ፡ ያባረረዉ፡ ትግሬ፡ ባሩድ፡ የሸተተዉ፡ አዉሬ፡ አንድ፡ ናቸዉ፤ እንደ ቡኸር ፡በሄትም፡ እየዘለለ፡ ሸዋ፡ ለመግባት፡ አልቦዝን፡ አለ።  

Gebrehiwot Baykedagn in his seminal work, Atse Menilk and Ethiopia, has summed up the Tigrai-Menilik relations aptly.  He did not blame Menilik for the fall of Tigrai from its distinguished place in Ethiopian social and political topography.   He correctly put the blame where it belonged, the traditional rivalry among the Tigrai ruling aristocracy for fighting each other and thereby opening opportunities for others to exploit.  But he did not spare Menilik either. Gebrehiwot Baykedagn in this important work categorically stated that Menilik did not consider the people of Tigrai as his own citizens. እንዲሁም፡ ትግሬ፡ ባጤ፡ ምንልክ፡ ተጐዳ፡ ቢባል፡ ሐሰት፡ ነዉ፡እርስ በርሱ መስማማት ስላጣ ተበላሸ እንጅ። ትግሬን የሚያህል ትልቅ ያርበኞች ነገድ እርስ በርሱ ከተስማማ ዘንድ ሊጐዱት አይቻልም። አጤ ምንልክ ግን ባንዲት ነገር ሊታሙ የተገባ ነዉ። የትግሬን ሕዝብ እንደ ሕዝባቸዉ አልቆጠሩትም። (The works of Gebrehowot Baykedagn, Addis Ababa University Press, p.11).  

Gebrehiwot Baykedagn continued to share his sense of grief on the lamentable economic and political situation of Tigrai during the reign of Menilik. He observed the realities of our land close by as he was the translator/interpreter in the Emperor’s court before he moved to higher government  positions.   This illustrious man, who passed away at the age of 33 in 1919, described the socio-economic situation of Tigray  in the following manner:  “Wherever you traveled, [in Tigrai] you would not find a single village developing; rather than teeming residential villages, you would encounter ruins that witness the heyday of its past” (p.10)  He went on to say that at this period of time, the youths of Tigrai are not found in their land. Like a hive of bee shorn of its Queen bee, they are scattered into the four corners of the planet (translation mine). Moreover, his quintessential analysis of the conditions of Tigrai has been supported by A.B. Wylde, British vice-consul at Jidda, and later correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, who pointed out that when he visited Adwa in 1884: “it was a flourishing town of about 15,000 inhabitants, the commercial center of the district. Now it is a ruin and charnel-house. War and pestilence have done their work, leaving their mark in ruined houses and blackened walls. I don’t think there were a thousand people left in Adowa” (quoted by Haggai Erlich in his book “Ras Alula and the Scramble for Africa”, p.194). 

The migration story that Gebrehiwot Baydagn sadly referred to continued unabated. Thus, in the 1950s, when I became vaguely aware of it (since my relations were taking the road) the popular destination was Asmera. Paul Henze in his book, Eritrea’a War, p.54  has this to  say:  “While many Tigrayans migrated to Eritrea to seek employment when it was an Italian colony and during the post-war period of British military administration, Eritreans came to consider themselves more sophisticated than Tigrayans and looked down on them as ‘country cousins’ “ . What these migrants found more often was jobs  as maidservants. And lots of young women were engaged in  prostitution.  Young men on the other hand were deployed in all kinds of menial jobs such as porters, shoe shining, plucking, and selling Beles and other odd jobs that the locals were unwilling to perform. However, we have to keep in mind that these job opportunities were unavailable in Tigray. Nevertheless, the hard work of Tigrayan migrants to eke out a life-sustaining employment earned them various pejorative terms.  

The migration of Tigriyans during this period was not limited to the north.  Thousands of them also moved to the south, probably reminiscent of the Axumites who pushed southwards after the decline and fall of the Axumite kingdom.  This route of migration might have been driven by dire circumstances, far from home with or without sellable skills.  All classes of people took the road, old and young, men and women including beggars most of them women, easily identifiable because of their corn rows. Thus,  Tigriyans were on the receiving end of downright insult “Kimalam Tigre” (meaning, lice-infested Tigriyans).  Donald Levine wonders about the incorrigible behavior of the Amhara when he stated  “ Amhara parochialism has been expressed in which the Tigrean has been depicted as flighty, irresponsible and ‘dry’ (p.245)  During this period, however, more and more people were being pushed from their homes by periodic famines that occurred as a result of mismanagement of resources, locust devastation, drought, soil erosion, or a combination of all these factors. Also, the pejorative terms and or insults took a toll in the Tigrayan pride.  No wonder this process led to self-denial; some of them began to claim that they were Eritreans or Amharas. More often they spoke in Amharic or in the Eritrean accent when they spoke Tigrigna.  

The trajectory of downward descent of Tigriyan social and economic conditions began to change in the last twenty years as the federal system was inaugurated. The sacrifices of thousands of young men and women have not been in vain.  Territories once taken away piece by piece through time have been partially restored.  According to Merid Wolde Aregay in his PH.D dissertation submitted to the University of London in january 1971, quoting Almeida, a  Portuguese Jesuit, who visited Ethiopia in the seventeenth century wrote that Wegera was the western border of Tigray. In addition, Rev. Michael Russell’s book, Nubia and Abyssinia, (p.75) published in 1854 confirmed Almeda’s description when he wrote that “on the western side of the province now described are Shire, Samen, Wogera, Walkayt and Waldubba.”  Despite this historical truth, it is ridiculous and astonishing to hear that Amhara politicians claim these areas belong to them. 

During my visit to the region last summer, I saw a number of hopeful aspects.  Although it was the rainy season and fields, in general, ought to turn green, it is unmistakable that much has been done in terms of reducing soil erosion, planting of trees, terracing, etc.  The number of cottage industries I witnessed springing up in various places is encouraging as well. Networks of road construction across the region are underway.  No doubt much has been achieved; For example, Makale has grown rapidly. It has acquired beautiful modern buildings, paved streets, a jet airport, and of course,  the ugly face of urban congestion.  But a lot remains to be done;  the basic life-sustaining supply of water is in dearth.  I am aware that a Chinese firm is at work to address the problem.  But I wonder what the authorities were doing in the last 25 years.  One can readily observe the ineptness, incompetence, and corruption among the former officials, including lack of policy guidance from the center.   If this were not the case, much more could have been achieved.  

There is a long list of investors and highly educated Tigrayans who wanted to help in rebuilding the Region, but were unceremoniously rebuffed from doing so.   We must draw a lesson from our neighbors to the north, a rigid authoritarian system approaching a police state is unraveling the society.  However benevolent the system of government might be, economic development could not be achieved by a state alone.  No doubt experience has shown that progressive governments have a crucial economic role to play.   

Thank goodness the current leader seems reform-minded or at least he does not appear to be intimidated by a bunch of educated people.   During my stay in Tigray (that I referred to above) I had the chance to attend the Tigray Scholars conference held at the University of Makale. What I observed was that the scholars seem to tread a safe ground of broadly generalizing.  They seem to have felt unsafe to particularize how the Regional State governs,  its method of  collecting taxes, how its governmental structures functions, presence or absence of accountability and transparency, were kept at bay. 

This is not the time or the place to study the contributions or there-lack-of the leading organization that has inarguably brought immense changes in the country.  In the last two years, the country is going in the wrong direction. Most of the blame for its misfortune is heaped upon the TPLF and the people of Tigray.   The huge sacrifice paid by the people of Tigray and the economy built as a result is now steadily, gradually being undermined.  Various tactics have been designed with a deliberate intention to take away the federal autonomy that the Constitution has mandated.  It is being undermined every day. If Abiy and his retinue got their way, the conditions of Tigray would be frightening to contemplate. Remember the mass media (ESAT) that the Ethiopian authorities and their minions own; it has time and again promoted propaganda to carry out genocide against the people of Tigray.   If they had the chance, they would not hesitate to wash their hands in the blood of the Tigrayan people.  

The antidote for all the scary stuff that the Abiy gov’t and its cohorts are concocting is to cultivate and maintain the unity of the Tigrayan people.  It is folly to assume that once built, unity will remain cemented for ever.  For one reason or another, it can be eroded.  People tend to forge unity through mutual trust and it is maintained when they see tangible success and recognize a stake in it for themselves.   Remember Ras Alula was deserted by his own brother, Dejach Tessema,  and by his own nephew, Basha Tadla Fanja, because the tide was against the house of Tigray, the house of Yohannes, that Alula fought and stood for decades.  If it could happen to Alula, the current leaders might not have any magic wand to repel human inclination to betray some lofty ideals in pursuit of narrow individual interest.  

Ways to maintain internal cohesion:

  As a starter, here is how:

1. Officials and Party Leaders need to increase their capacity for trust, cooperation, and shared sacrifice. Hitherto, experience has shown that these essential qualities are in short supply.  

2. Open up the system to include the nascent party organizations which have sprang  up of late, Salsay Woyane, Baytona, Independence for Tigray Party, etc. If the controversial election is held any time soon, these parties must receive government assistance to participate in a free and fair election.  In the same vein we have to come out denouncing division /regionalism/ networks and form a united opposition against the status quo and put alternative policy options. The diaspora needs to help them both intellectually and financially.  

  3. Taxation is a controversial subject probably everywhere.   I  live in the United States of America where the Republican Party has always advocated lower taxes for the haves. This advocacy for a lower taxation is also loaded with the ideological myth of supply-side economics in which when the rich get richer, they tend to create jobs for the masses to have.  Be that as it may, taxation in Ethiopian history and society has always been onerous on the peasantry from which it was extracted.   Peasants were fleeing from their homestead to avoid the taxman.  “One levy of tax by Dejazmach Wube, the ruler of Tigre, was so onerous ‘the greater part of the people’, according to Parkyns, actually ran away from their villages  (A Social History of Ethiopia, Richard Pankhurst, p.142) Our own Suhul Mikael was “violent in the pursuit of riches” (Pankhurst, p. 298), According James Bruce, (quoted by Pankhrust) the Tigray governor “in his own province “he spared no means, nor man to procure them”. But on coming to Gondar, he was lavish in his spending.  Current taxation method in Tigray echoes the rapacious nature  of that of Suhul Mikael.  

         4. Reform your bureaucracy; train your employees to make them responsive to the needs of their customers. Lack of transparency makes them susceptible to corruption and bribery.   Even with serious reform efforts, corruption may not be abolished once and for all, but its impact on citizens could be reduced.  


KJetil Tronvoll has written an article regarding the postponement of the elections, and the danger that it potentially entails. It was posted on Addis Standard on May 14, 2020.   The gist of the article is that the Prime Minister’s action  has peaked Tigrayan nationalism and desire for independence.  His conclusion was posed in the form of a question that the people and some political elites are marching toward secession and formation of an independent Tigray. He is not the first European to raise this question. European powers in the second half of the nineteenth century (France) and as recently as the  first half of the twentieth century the British and the Italians had formulated concrete plans for independence of Tigray and offered it to Ras Seyoum Mengesha.  But the plan was rejected outright since the Ethiopian-ness of Tigray is well founded.

On an individual level another European, Carlo Conti Rossini, the Italian scholar, who has an “impeccable academic” ( to use Dr. Merid’s phrase) record and erudite had entertained such presumptions. Writing about the 1578 Abyssinian Turkish war that was precipitated by Bahr Nagash Yeshaq and his turkish allies, he concluded that the people of Tigray have a deep sense of independence  and  that they don’t want to be ruled by Showa and  Amhara.  

Equally a scholar of Conti Rossini’s reputation and with an “impeccable academic” record and erudite, Merid Wolde Aregay disagrees rather severely on the motive of Bahr Nagash Yeshaq’s rebellion against Emperor Sarse Dengel.   In  his Ph.D thesis titled “Southern Ethiopia and the Christian Kingdom 1508-1708 with Special Reference to the Galla Migrations And Their Consequences” submitted to the University of London in January 1971, Merid argued (p.264) that the “bahr nagash’s attempts at king-making could not be said to have sprung from a separatist motives. The facts of his rebellion or his associations with the Turks do not, therefore, warrant the conclusion  ‘quale profondo senso d’independenza sia pur dall Scioa e dall Amhara’ that Conti Rossini made in his celebrated book La Guerra Turco-Abissinian del 1578  Furthermore, Merid believed that the bahr nagash knew he could not ascend the throne, but he surely wanted to be a major influencer behind the throne.   

Similarly, the end of the nineteenth century rebellion of Tigrayan nobility must be seen in light of Merid’s argument that Tigray attempted to maintain its internal autonomy within a loose Ethiopian federation.  That was the case for Ras Mengesha Yohannes’ repeated rebellion against Menilik only because the title of Negus was not bestowed on him. Tigrayan struggle then or now is to maintain Ethiopian sovereignty without compromising its freedom to determine its destiny.  The sooner Abiy and his cohorts understand the history of Tigray and the motivation of its people, the better it will be for the entire nation.   Therefore, I close my essay with a quote from Nagadras Gebrehiwot (p.11)  whose quintessential points are illuminated above: እዉነትም በትግሬ ነገድ ልማትና ጉዳት ምን ቸገረኝ የሚል ንጉሥ ለራሱ ይጐዳል። ትግሬን የምያህል ትልቅ ነገድ ቢጠፋ ለኢትዮጵያ ታላቅ ጉዳት ነዉ። ቢለማና ቢመቸዉ ግን ታላቅ ጥቅም። የኢትዮጵያ መሠረት ትግሬ ነዉ።


Marx, Karl, “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon”, 1852

Aesop,”Political Warfare”, 2020, Aigaplatform, Ethiopian website

Pankhurst, Richard, “A Social History of Ethiopia”, 1990

Prouty, Chris, “Empress Taytu and Menelik II: Ethiopia 1883-1910”, 1986

Zewde, Bahru, “Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia”, 2002

Erlich, Haggai, “Ethiopia and the Challenge of Independence”, 1986

Levine, Donald, “Wax and Gold, Traditional and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture”, University of Chicago Press, 1965, 

Gebreyesus, Afework, “Atse Menelik II”, Rome, Italy, 1908

Baykedagn, Gebrehiwot, “Atse Menelik and Ethiopia”, 1912

Erlich, Haggai, “Ras Alula and the Scramble for Africa”, 1996

Henze, Paul, “Eritrea’s War”, 2001, Shama Books, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2001

Wolde Aregay, Merid, “Southern Ethiopia and the Christian Kingdom 1508-1708 with Special Reference to the Galla Migrations And Their Consequences”, unpublished Ph.D thesis submitted to the University of London, January 1971

Donald L. Levine, Wax and Gold, Traditional and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, p.4.


  1. Dear Gebre Habtu,
    I have just completed reading your article. It was a remarkably well- researched and well-written article. I particularly liked the fact that the essay gives background to the root cause of today’s Ethiopian political predicaments.
    Well done, Thank you!
    Eshetu B.

  2. This is such an enlightening read. Thank you very much for the contribution.
    Dear all at North Star Tribune, please keep writing. It will quickly gather wide readership and thank you for the service.

    Much respect.

  3. A thought-proving essay! It really helps connect the dots from historical perspective. Great article! Thank you Gashe Gebre!

  4. Thank you for the article Dear Gebre Hafte.
    I liked you warning “[After death of Yohannes IV] Tigrai was completely in disarray and unable to control its destiny. Once again this is the kind of opportune moment the current adversaries led by Abiy Ahmed are hoping for.” which the new generation has taken well into account. You three recommendations to maintain internal cohesion are also spot on. But I don’t like your conclusion. Identity is fluid. There is no such a thing as marriage to Ethiopia. If Ethiopia is destructive towards us, we shall respect our autonomy and forge our own destiny. This doesn’t mean we wish ill of Ethiopia because the property of our neighbors [Be it Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Sudan] Is economic opportunity and source of stability to us. Carlo Conti Rossini, the Italian scholar, you qouted was right in stating/ concluding that ‘the people of Tigray have a deep sense of independence’. We, the young generation, will keep that independence and we do not wish to neither will we allow our Tigrai to be ruled or Tegaru alienated by Ethiopia or anyone else for that matter.

  5. Thank you for the article Dear Gebre Hafte.
    I liked you warning “[After death of Yohannes IV] Tigrai was completely in disarray and unable to control its destiny. Once again this is the kind of opportune moment the current adversaries led by Abiy Ahmed are hoping for.” which the new generation has taken well into account. Your three recommendations to maintain internal cohesion are also spot on. But I don’t like your conclusion. Identity is fluid. There is no such a thing as marriage to Ethiopia. If Ethiopia is destructive towards us, we shall ensure our autonomy and forge our own destiny. This doesn’t mean we wish ill of Ethiopia because the prosperty of our neighbors [Be it Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Sudan] is economic opportunity and source of stability to us. Carlo Conti Rossini, the Italian scholar, you quoted was right in stating/ concluding that ‘the people of Tigray have a deep sense of independence’. We, the young generation, will keep that ‘ deep sense of independence’ and we do not wish to be subjugated neither will we allow our Tigrai to be ruled or Tegaru alienated by Ethiopia or anyone else for that matter.

  6. A well-researched article, which gave me a perspective on the historicism of the current Ethiopian situation.Well done!

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