The detention and imprisonment of ethnic Tigray is not a just a recent phenomenon but has gone on for most of the duration of current Ethiopian Tigray conflict. The soaring number of Tigrayan(Tegaru) detentions in Addis Ababa in recent months reported by the Globe and Mail in detention camps in Afar and outside Addis Ababa is just the tip of the iceberg. Much more has been going on for the past year.
After the occupation of Tigray by Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Amhara militias completed by the end of November 2020 already thousands were forced off their farming homes and many were placed in concentration camps in Western Tigray. Numerous video clips taken by these occupying forces taken as trophies of their orders from superiors to rape, destroy, and kill Irob and Tigray especially in the Western region and border have been documented. In Northwestern Tigray we know that multiple concentration camps were occupied by hundreds with daily rape and execution.
As the Abiy Ahmed government began to permanently shut down universities in Tigray it offered many of the Tigray a false chance to go to Addis Ababa and transfer to institutions there. This was a lie for many who instead found themselves not meeting relatives in Addis but ending up in prison camps in the Southern Regions and Afar. Many photographs have emerged falsely claiming them as captured Tigray fighters. Like those reported in Globe and Mail some of them have managed to pay thousands of birr to leave the camps.
Even in Addis, Tigrayan faculty members at universities and employees in government offices were offered special trips to discuss “peace proposals”. They were to show up for bus pick up which turned out to be to detention camps. Many physicians became wary and avoided this ploy. Unfortunately now Addis Ababa police have began just showing up at these same facilities over the past two weeks and taking custody with no discussion allowed.
We know that thousands of Tigrayan businessman had their businesses closed down, assests confiscated, and many also imprisoned. Official government reports that there may be in excess of 80,000 individuals affected by this process.
Although these activities have been ongoing the past year the progressive defeats of the Eritrean and Ethiopian forces have accelerated this human rights violations exponentially. Some estimates reach as high as 50,000 or more currently detained. Some analysts ponder whether Abiy Ahmed wants to use them as abargaining chip.
Whatever you might believe about the Tigray, the Oromo, or the Amhara the current situation has basically been about two armies and especially their leadership. The Ethiopian federal government under Abiy Ahmed had all the cards in his favor or so he thought. He professed that his intent with the invasion of Tigray was to do “enforcement”. His goal was to capture the rebel leaders to “liberate” the Tigray who like to be called the Tegaru.
I have never met Mr. Ahmed but I have had the pleasure many times to share airplane trips with Mr. Debretsion who is a quiet contemplative man who has an enormous intellect but at the same time understands the common man of Tigray. We always talked about what we were doing at the University and the hospital for the farmers.
The Tigray Defense Force has captured Dessie and now seems unstoppable while the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, says today from Bahir Dar that Ethiopia cannot win militarily over the Tigray. Rather than thousands dying in weeks of battle, the humanity of the Tigray Defense Force avoided extensive civilian causalities and offered humanitarian care of prisoners which encouraged the Ethiopian defense forces to surrender rather then die for nothing in Dessie. There is no doubt that what has happened in Tigray and northern Ethiopia is a human tragedy. Those who mostly suffered have been poor farmers whose lives are tied to a constant struggle to just survive even in times of peace. Years from now historians and political analysts will try to cast light on what lead to this catastrophe.
However, Abiy Ahmed’s hidden agenda, which was to annihilate the Tigray people soon become obvious. Instead of trying to compassionately motivate the people of Tigray that they had their interest by securing food, power, internet, medicine, education, and personal security they unleashed barbarous savagery of rape, thief, deprivation, destruction and hate.
In his mind and in his pronouncement to his followers, Abiy Ahmed, belittled the Tigray to subhumans incapable of doing anything well. He seemed to forget their history of being capable of elite light infantry campaigns in guerrilla and conventional warfare. The Prime Minister put his faith in military leaders who had previously been defeated by the Tigray in the Derg war. Finally, his cruelty to the Tigray people motivated her population to sustain a war effort not for domination but for survival. Meanwhile much of Ethiopia outside of the main combatants realized that the war was an instrument of destruction not unity. The old story of Amhara expansion that characterized the 18th and 19th century domination of Abyssinia over the Cushitic and Southern peoples is over. Medemer was exposed as lie. Apparently Abiy Ahmed has sent his family to Switzerland. I hope a new era will emerge.
Thousands are dead yet still the world will do nothing significant about the Ethiopian crisis. Diaspora influence and foreign government hesitance to see the real Abiy Ahmed greatly empowered Ethiopia’s descent into hell. The world cannot escape its responsibility in fomenting disaster. The world has to learn to not just to listen to words but also to measure the man who speaks them. To hold leaders accountable when they stray from their promises.
The impetus to finally fulfill the Ethiopian dream of a democratic state promoting ethnic unity and escape from poverty obscured the world’s view of the real Abiy Ahmed. Medemer, a promise of the blending of Ethiopia’s many cultures into a new national unity with equality for all, quickly deteriorated following the Prime Minister’s victory tour in the United States. During this visit and subsequently Abiy Ahmed progressively became influenced by the Amharic clerico-fascist movement that believed the greatness of the Ethiopian state lied in returning to the time of Amharic expansion and dominance of the 19th century. This metamorphosis of Abiy Ahmed was mostly sparked by the influence of diaspora Amhara who greatly also influenced domestic supporters.
This foreign diaspora influence is important to realize because it very much goes against the idea that what was happening in Ethiopia was all the result of beliefs and actions of domestic “Ethiopians”. Promises of aversion to war, new economic development, freedom of the press, release of political prisoners, and open dialogue about the future of the state were quickly retracted. Instead, references to the troubled time of “princes without a king” of the 18th century Ethiopia from which Amharic leadership provided “rescue” in the 19th century became the dominant theme of government forward looking policy. Medemer was a camouflage for the return of Amharic dominance, expansion, and repression of other Ethnic groups.
In the period of a year Ethiopia went from a booming economy with high levels of economic growth, foreign investment, improving educational and health care services to a devastating war that has killed thousands, displaced millions, genocidally declared Tigrayans (Tegaru) as needing extermination, bankrupting the economy, and the world view of Ethiopia as a pariah of the likes of Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea.
As I and others have written before, the function and the will of the United Nations and the African Union to to reduce the harm from this crisis is almost nil. Part of it is the disbelief that the Abiy Ahmed the world wished to see is not the evil man that ultimately emerged who kills, starves, and destroys. Now his victims are not just the Tigray but include all Ethiopians whose dream is now became a nightmare. The only recourse is to hope that the opposition forces of Tigray, Oromia, and others will be able to topple the evil.
Religious leaders, Esaias, and Abiy Ahmed together created a cruel plan for genocide incorporating common Ethiopian Orthodox Church folklore and belief of the Tigray people. The human atrocities committed by Eritreans and Ethiopians on the people of Tigray were part of a deeper psychological warfare to encourage Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers to commit atrocity while creating fear and panic among the Tigray involving hyena and Christian resurrection.
The attempted complete conquest of Tigray involved devious input from Amhara religious leaders, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Recent revelation about how Eritrean dictator Esaias Afwerki was the mastermind while Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was the puppet on a string was revealed in Eritrea Hub. Esaias it is claimed is now directing all policy of Ethiopia towards Tigray as well as taking over intelligence functions and propaganda.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church which makes up 90% of Tigray places great importance on the promise of the resurrection of both the soul and the physical human body after death by their faith in Christ. The start of Christianity in Ethiopia began in what is now Tigray but only after centuries of being Jewish. As a result in Ethiopia the Orthodox Church uniquely follows many Jewish customs.
They believe that the dead must be buried in consecrated natural ground to allow it to return to dust. Remembering that Christ upon his resurrection showed Thomas his wound as told in the Gospel of John to prove his identity as well as the idea that the body is a holy creation of God there is a great fear among the common folk that disfigurement or dissacration of the body before or even after death will affect one’s resurrection. For example, in the hospital in Mekelle, many would refuse amputation even if it was necessary to safe life because they feared resurrection without a leg or arm.
The corruption of the body starting soon after death as well as the body being unclean makes it necessary to be interred quickly usually within a day or two after death. This is why you see, for example, the sense of urgency given by those recovering dead bodies from the Tekeze River in Western Tigray to bury them quickly.
Killing civilians or soldiers then burning them or leaving them unburied is done to convince the Tigrayans (Tegaru) that Ethiopia and her ally Eritrea have the unholy evil power to effect afterlife. This for what is commonly referred as the countryside people is quite terrifying. At the same time the Amhara and Eritreans are encouraged that they are killing a nonhuman entity.
The use of term hyena has two specific meanings when used in propaganda by Abiy Ahmed’s religious supporters. Many Orthodox believers see the world as having significant mystical components including evil and good magic as a part of their faith. The hyena is seen as a potentially supernatural being who can transform from beast to man and has evil magical powers called buda. Having lived in Amhara for almost two years some time ago, I witnessed how whenever a hyena was killed on the highway local people would often come to harvest its gallbladder which was is said to have magical powers.
The hyena is a powerful scavenger that finds it prey or carrion at night. The powerful jaws it possesses can easily crush bone so that it if finds a human corpse the whole body may be consumed without a trace. If the body is not placed in holy ground then folklore would say that resurrection may not occur. Hyenas can attack not only the body but the soul in Ethiopian folklore. Those attacked by hyena may require religious exorcism says local folklore.
In a recorded interchange between a captured Amhara soldier and the avenging Tegaru farmers in Hawzen in March of this year this exact fear was told to the farmers. The enemy soldier feared he would be executed and consumed by wild animals without burial. He requested at least to be killed by a church so he could be buried in one piece on consecrated ground. This also shows how the attacking Amhara where propagandized as well to see their enemy as unholy and evil. Ultimately the farmers did not kill the captured soldier but he was sent to a POW camp in Mekelle.
Referring to Tegaru as hyena is also dehumanizing them. Werehyena are hyenas that can camoflage themselves as man and carry out death and destruction. Convincing Amharas and others that Tegaru have an inherently evil nature that must be destroyed and can only be by death of the whole population. In other words they are giving an excuse for genocide. When they kill Tigray they are killing evil not men.
Recovery of Tigrayan genocide victims downriver from Humera shows how they were likely targeted by cultural markings and suffered horrible murder.
Over the past week increasing numbers of dead bodies have been found floating in the Tekeze river which borders between Western Tigray and Sudan. At least 40 bodies have been recovered in area downriver from the Tigray city of Humera which is under control of Eritrean and Amhara militia. It is the rainy season there and the current is quite swift making recovery difficult for local fisherman so only a few bodies have been able to be collected which have been buried by the local Sudanese.
According to reports by AP and others many have been found to be bound with hands behind their back and suffered burns before death. Tewodros Tefera, a Tigrayan general surgeon refugee who is helping Tigrayan refugees in Sudan and Sudan doctors examined the bodies and recognized the characteristic Tigray facial marking on some of the bodies and identified another with a tattoo in the Tigrinya language. Some of the bodies have suffered gun shot and axe wounds.
For centuries at least the Tigrayans often called the Tegaru have practiced ritual face marking. This is not unusual in Africa although the specific way the Tegaru do it is unique. In early childhood two parallel small incisions are made lateral to the eyebrow. Locally it is called the “eleven”. Sometimes this was done at the time a child showed febrile illness. There is a cultural belief that this mark protects health. Unfortunately this mark is known to those committing genocide in Tigray such that those bearing it become the targets of abuse or murder. In previous times the Derg regime and bands of Amhara militia have gone on hunting parties to kill those with these facial scars. These markings leave no doubt that it is Tigrayans who are being killed.
The methods and motivation of the Tigray Defense Force are analogous to the Biblical hero, Gideon, in the victory of the Midianites in ancient Israel. Gideon is a venerated saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with a connected legacy to the Tigray. They are using a method of strategic encirclement of intended targets and showing their tactical superiority in night attack followed by negotiation with local leaders to bring surrender leaving the local authorities in charge. In this way they have captured much equipment and prisoners but with minimal civilian casualties. Like the ancient Israelis they are making alliances to make their former potential adversaries see who is real enemy.
The Tigray people or Tegaru trace their heritage to the ancient Saba people who lived around the Red Sea who would give rise to the Semitic peoples including the Arabs and Israelis. Thousands of years ago the Saban Queen of Sheba bore a son from King Solomon of Israel who went on to form the Axumite Empire based in what is now the city of Axum in Northern Tigray. The early Tigrayans were followers of Judaism until they converted to Christianity under King Ezana. Their particular form of Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is similar to Eastern Orthodoxy and still follows many Jewish customs such as dietary restrictions. The story of Gideon who is recognized as a saint for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is found in Chapter 28 of the 1 Megabyan book of their Bible.
In the Old Testament following the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt there were many ups and downs in trying to become established in Israel. Early in their history they had strayed from following God and built an altar to the false god, Baal. As a result of this God had rendered them to be constantly besieged and attacked by the Midianites who would take their crops and occupied their land. The Midianites were relatives of the Israelis, in fact Moses wife Zipporah had come from this tribe, but over the years the Midianites never accepted the covenant the Israelis had made with God. The king of the Midianites rather than having his people worship God wanted the people to worship him in a cult. God sent a prophet named Gideon to help the Israelis find their way and punish the Midianites.
The Israelis where vastly outnumbered in the tens of thousands so Gideon had recruited more than 22,000 fighters for battle. However, God said they had to be righteous so he tested with with how they would drink water from a pond. Only 300 passed the test. In order for the Jews to win the battle they had to follow God’s instructions. Gideon’s army was well trained and disciplined. Using trumpets and torch proclaiming their righteousness they were victorious in a disciplined night attack against the Midianites.
The government of Ethiopia while claiming a law enforcement operation has committed genocide to the people of Tigray and turned Tigray into a concentration camp.
What is the definition of a concentration camp?
According to the highly respected encyclopedia Britannica a concentration camp is “defined as an internment centre for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment, usually by executive decree or military order”. What the Ethiopian government has done to the Tegaru, Irob, Agaw, Kunami, Afar, Orthodox, Catholic, Christian, and Muslims who live in Tigray meets every requirement stated in this definition of a concentration camp and in every way just a deadly as those recalled from previous examples when evil predominated a society.
Actions of Ethiopia against Tigray are more than law enforcement
When the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and Eritrean Army units invaded the Regional National State of Tigray in November 2020 the leadership of Ethiopia specifically stated that was being undertaken was a law enforcement action to capture the leaders of a “terrorist group”, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and that there was no intent to take action against the civilians of Tigray. In fact they explicitly stated they were proceeding with this invasion to not only capture the leadership but also to protect the security and life of their “brother” Ethiopians.
At the time of invasion I was Chief of Neurosurgery and on the faculty of Mekelle University, a federal university not under the Tigray state, which had medical students and specialty trainees from almost every regional state in Ethiopia as well as surrounding countries. Additionally it administered Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital which served a population of about 10 million including not only Tigray but also Afar, northern Amhara, and recently even Eritrea intermittently when the border was open. Additionally we occasionally cared for patients from Addis Ababa and the SNNP (Southern Ethiopia).
Following the complete take over of Tigray we were initially told by the Interim government and military commands that the government, medical, and educational services would be quickly restored. But instead they quickly deteriorated well before the reorganization and re-emergence of the Tigray Defense Forces. Except for a very short time of a few weeks early on the following have been cut-off and never restarted including banking services, electricity, telephone and cell, internet, water, civil infrastructure management, hospital supply, schooling, etc.
Although the Federal government claimed it was giving 70% of the trickle of very basic aid that was coming in reviews by well established international authorities revealed it was less than 3% of the total which was in itself dramatically less than required.
As the weeks progressed the undeniable evidence was increasingly seen that sexual abuse of women now estimated to be in the thousands, extra judicial killing of whole villages, routine execution of males even those below or above that generally considered to be militarily capable were reported even by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Although there may be a possibility of some actions by Tigray militia which also require investigation the exponentially greater magnitude affecting hundreds of thousands of violation of human rights and killing by soldiers under the direct command of the Ethiopian government cannot be denied. If not stopped the number being threatened will rapidly accelerate to millions.
Instead of taking corrective action to improve the humanitarian situation which would possibly yield the benefit of making the civilian population of Tigray more peaceful instead new arguments surfaced from mouthpieces of the Prime Minister’s advisors that due to previous claims of unfair treatment by the TPLF that justified the violations of human rights currently underway. Videos emerged stating that every Tigray should be killed at birth. Eritrean and ENDF soldiers have stated to neutral third parties that they were instructed to rape women to destroy the chance for Tigray to have children.
Religious institutions, artifacts, and worshipers were targeted for destruction which had nothing to do with a “law enforcement” action. One of the most important Mosques in the world in Negash where the followers of Mohammed took refuge from prosecution from pagan Saudi rulers at the invitation of a Christian king was intentionally bombed and ransacked. What does that have to do with “law enforcement”? Monasteries in Western Tigray with religious texts hundreds of years old were attacked with their treasures destroyed and clergy assassinated. The ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its roots to the early Jewish religion of Menelik I and then the Christian kingdom of Ezana in Axum was desecrated with the murder of at least 80 unarmed worshipping civilians. What does that have to do with “law enforcement”?.
It is well documented that Eritreans, ENDF, and Somali mercenaries destroyed factories and businesses including those of foreign investors who generated income for the Ethiopian government and provided employment for civilians. Many pieces of equipment of not only these but also the national Ethio-telecom company were taken by Eritreans as war bounty to Eritrea. How does this destruction of Ethiopian federal property qualify as “law enforcement”?
The invading forces were instructed to destroy seeds and prevent farmers from planting crops. Many livestock were killed to be consumed by no one or taken to Eritrea in trucks. Both aid and commercial food supplies where blocked from entry to Tigray. Gradually both the Federal Government and the government of Amhara began to change their tune to explain this by saying that the population of Tigray was too supportive of the TDF and that NGOs were smuggling weapons with the aid. They accused organizations with much greater long standing reputations of wrong doing with no evidence instead trying to cover their own genocidal intent.
The government of Ethiopia as late as 2019 was a signatory to the Genocide Convention of the United Nations which states verbatim any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The treaty recognizes the following two elements of the crime
A mental element: the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”; and
A physical element, which includes the following five acts, enumerated exhaustively:
Killing members of the group
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
Updated 9/4/2021 Killing thousands of innocent villagers, raping thousands of women and girls, as well using starvation as a weapon in the name of Jesus Christ does not justify war as claimed by Amhara President Agegnehu Teshager. Instead more than a thousand years of history and theological tradition for both Christianity and Islam about what constitutes a just war supports that the Tigray regional state is the righteous party.
When is conflict a just war (Jus ad bellum)?
Both the Bible and the Qu’ran both say that war is a condition that will always afflict mankind. Jesus Christ said that man will always suffer calamities both natural and war between states. The Apostle James said that wars are caused by the “lust” of what the other party has obtained and selfishly wishes to take through violence.
The ancient Jews, the Babylonians, and the Romans believed that a violent response to war was appropriate if it was of an appropriate measure to the offense suffered. A principle known as lex talionis.
There has always been a Christian disagreement on whether Jesus called for complete pacifism in responding to violent offense which would theoretically best diffuse malintent and prevent a sinful response. Ultimately the righteous would be rewarded for their suffering in this world or the next. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century German theologian, advocated complete pacifism which led to his execution.
For centuries beginning just a few hundred years following Christ an alternative theory has been that war was justified under specific circumstances. Jesus’s call to “love thy neighbor” and that “giving up one’s own life to save another” are acts of faith as well as his “righteous” anger at the money changers in the Temple have been interpreted to mean violence can under certain conditions be responded to by violence.
Discussions of just war began with classical Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato and Cicero and were added to by Christian theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Continuing to contemporary times Catholic Pope Benedict XVI said that “defending oneself and others was a moral duty and obligation”.
The following are principles which have been generally agreed upon by Christians for a just war
1. The war must have a just cause – such as against invasion, or for self defence – and not to acquire wealth or power.
2. The war must be declared and controlled by a proper authority, such as the state or ruler.
3. The war must be fought to promote good or avoid evil, with the aim of restoring peace and justice after the war is over.
4. The war must be a last resort when all peaceful solutions have been tried and failed, such as negotiation.
5. The war should be fought with “proportionality”, with just enough force to achieve victory and only against legitimate targets, i.e. civilians should be protected.
6. The good which is achieved by the war must be greater than the evil which led to the war.
Islamic law allows the use of force in self defence and in defence of those who are oppressed and unable to defend themselves.
1. Only under certain conditions allow anticipatory self defence.
2. Only the head of a Muslim state (a ruler or caliph) is allowed to declare jihad.
3. Islamic law imposes certain restrictions on the use of force in self defense, i.e., military necessity, distinction, and proportionality.
4. Accepting an offer of peace and humanity are also relevant conditions. If an enemy stops fighting then the war must stop and peace immediately sought.
The onset and course of the conflict
After the selection of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 he began to diminish the power of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Being just 6% of the population they had little representation in the Parliament. Although there was a brief honeymoon, the PM began to decrease their power by cutting the regions budget, labeling them as terrorists, and removing them from positions of authority in government. There existed a bitter feeling of resentment especially in the Amhara region against the TPLF for claims that the TPLF had illegally taken land from the Amhara region and carried out violations of human rights on Amhara in past decades. Ultimately the Parliament under the PM’s direction labeled them a “terrorist group” unable to hold any position in government. No formal actions called specified in the Ethiopian constitution were carried out which were created to settle disputes between member regional states. Action by fiat was carried out without attention to legal remedy for accused wrongs.
Several attempts were made to land Federal police forces in Mekelle to arrest prominent TPLF members which were repelled. Then on the early morning hours of November 4th the Ethiopian National Defense Forces in Tigray and the regional Tigray police and militia forces went into conflict. The exact circumstances are unclear although it seems to may have been a pre-emptive attack by the TPLF.
The Tigray region was overrun by Amhara militia, ENDF, and invading Eritrean forces causing a retreat by the TDF(Tigray Defense Force). There have been reports of atrocities by both sides although clearly the enormity of starvation, extra-judicial killing, prisoner execution, raping of women, killing of children, theft of property, destruction of medical facilities and utilities, ransacking of schools, etc. is overwhelmingly evident to be by the Ethiopian forces and their allies.
The TDF has rebounded and is now almost at the gates of Addis Ababa having basically decimated the Ethiopian forces whilst the Tigray civilian population has no water, no food, no electricity, no hospitals in good shape, no medical supplies, ransacked schools, no phone, no internet, and an ongoing siege against supplies except for a small trickle.
The government of Ethiopia has maintained that it is performing a law enforcement action against Tigray while maintaining that there is no hunger problem and that they are acting on the best interests of the Tigray people despite the fact the TPLF won more than 9o% in an election shortly before the war started and by the words of the Prime Minister that the people of Tigray were too supportive of the TPLF.
By any reasonable measure the evidence is clear as to the aggrieved status of the Tigray
While at the same time saying that the Tigray people(Tegaru) are somewhat innocent of wrong doing the government of Ethiopia has not recognized that they have any standing or rights in persecution driven by ethnic identity. The elected government of Tigray acted in self-defense against egregious acts of failing to provide basic human services which threatened the security, livelihood, and lives of over 7 million Tigrayans. There are constitutional and federal proclamations available which could have been used to address the grievances against the government of Tigray. It is glaringly obvious that the savage military campaign carried out and continuing by the Ethiopian government is really a lust for revenge and power. There was no threat to Ethiopian government evident until the situation escalated by the unconstitutional actions of the Ethiopian government.
Recently the world was stunned when the very small region of Tigray managed to retake most of its territory back from the federal forces of the Ethiopian national government who has one of the largest armies in Africa. To those who know the past 100 years this is not so surprising. A look at the recent history of the Ethiopian empire, a collection of many ethnic groups struggling for dominance, over the past century lends insight to current events.
How Western Civilization Has Looked at Ethiopia
Many scholars had looked at what had happened to Ethiopia in the 19th and 20th centuries trying to understand its evolution and how it would progress. Donald Levine wrote in his work Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society that Ethiopia would develop a national identity due to experience of war, famine, religious conflict, trade development etc. The dominance of Amharic emperors during this time period until the late 1960s favored the development of an idealistic concept of Amharic elitism as a central theme as well.
Although many languages both Cushitic and Semitic are spoken in Ethiopia, for hundreds of years the Amhara leadership of the country (beginning with the monarchy) as well as the Ethiopian orthodox church essentially mandated that the Amhara language would be the official language of commerce and government. Elite schools and universities taught in Amharic thus its speakers were seen as superior to the non-speakers of Amharic. Those wishing to become “educated” had to learn Amharic. Political ideas and policies thus became mostly associated with this Amharic elitism. Until just the past two decades attendance of the prestigious Addis Ababa University was limited to the Amhara.
What is the Tigray Identity
The Tigray people claim their ancestry to the Axumite empire which was started by the Queen of Sheba, a Biblical figure, who lived thousands of years ago ( an aristocrat of the ancient Saba people who lived about the eastern and western areas bordering the Red Sea and spoke a Semitic language). Legend has it she conceived a son with King Solomon of Israel and converted to Judaism. Centuries later the Axumite empire converted to Christianity under King Ezana. Although early kings of Northern Ethiopia were Tigray they eventually lost power to the Amhara whose background is also related to that of the Tigray. The Tigray have a long tradition of being a warrior clan. In fact going back centuries in both domestic battles and battles against foreign invaders their abilities as fighters and commanders of armies were always sought. At same time these qualities have always fostered suspicion by other ethnic groups especially when the military services of the Tigray were no longer needed. Most recently the term Tigray is most often used to describe the region while the term Tegaru is coming more into use to describe its people and now even being used to differentiate them from Eritreans.
The Rise of the Tigray
The rise of the Tigray who make up only 6% of the population of Ethiopia to lead an alliance that would topple a powerful government without any outside assistance starting from essentially no resources was unexplainable to scholars. Daniel Young a journalist with the Sudan Times began to follow their rise in 1988 and eventually wrote the definitive scholarly work “The Peasant Revolution of Ethiopia”.
He did numerous interviews with peasants after gaining their trust. He noted then as did others that although there has always been talk about a greater nation for the most part over the past century there have always been nationalist movements within Ethiopia. Ethiopia has always been a empire and not a nation. Although the goal of the Tigray (Tigray Peoples Liberation Front) was primarily to overthrow the Derg (a quasi communist-socialist multiethnic movement which included many military leaders and was supported by the Russian communist party) the TPLF developed the concept that to be successful they had to gain great support from the countryside peasants. One important component was they incorporated educated Tigray women into leadership roles. The Tigray were remarkable for developing and sticking to their ideals and goals, creating alliances, strong action against dissent for which they have been criticized, and finally for basing their strength from a bottom up approach which is significantly different then the Amhara elite model which is a top down scenario.
Bottom Up versus Elitist Lead Revolution
From a social science perspective there has always been controversy over whether a revolutionary movement can be driven by perceived peasant led initiatives (bottom up) or by elitist lead initiatives. The successful revolt of the Vietnamese against French Colonialism and American interference is often demonstrated as a model of the bottom up approach. Thus what we are seeing now is a repeat of this ongoing struggle in Ethiopia of peasant based vs elite based focus and empire vs nation identity once again. How will it turn out?