“Who exceeds you as little as a grain of taff reduces you to that triviality” — Tigrayan proverbMany Tigrayans are wondering why Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration has taken such a morally questionable turn against their region. They believe the stance reflects poorly on the leader’s political acumen and undermines his otherwise welcome reform agenda.
This is how an unseemly affair has unfolded so far.
Following his confirmation as Prime Minister on April 2, Abiy quickly arranged a trip to Tigray. At that news, there was no shortage of Tigrayans bursting with hope that the new premier would bring change while valuing the constructive elements of the system that they have paid so much for.
In a paper presented at a mid-December conference in Mekelle, former senior government official Bereket Simon explained: “The new leadership’s reception was initially good as the people were ready to try any change that came their way.”
Abiy’s welcome at Alula Aba Nega airport was colorful and respectful, the sort of thing leaders crave. Regional dignitaries lined-up in a red-carpeted parking lot with a marching band and choir. Abiy was hailed with blissful smiles, chants, and ululations, sprayed with grass and petals. On the way to the conference, he was saluted by a parade of school children.
The vehicle has come to a shuddering halt
At the Martyrs’ Memorial Monument, Abiy placed a bouquet as a gesture to the region’s government and people. Next, to nationwide amazement, he made his speech in Tigrigna. Moreover, it was so flowery that it sent an already giddy audience into ecstasy. Every sentence was accompanied by thunder-like applause from a full house in Tigray’s biggest hall. But bringing excitement to a confused and desperate people was not such a difficult task.
The most widely repeated remark was Abiy comparing Tigray to Ethiopia’s engine. But since then, instead of cruising in top gear, the vehicle has come to a shuddering halt.
After the speech, the Prime Minister switched to Amharic to answer questions—and that seemed to trigger a change in his mindset too, as he forgot sugary sentiments and derided the ruling party: “The TPLF appears as a lion only in old images.”
This verbal slight was barely noticed, however, as the ovations cascaded into one another. Tigrayans were also at fault here. Most likely, Abiy would not have dissed his hosts if they had been more cautious in their reception. But, as Bereket pointed out, the people were longing for a change, and so welcomed its embodiment with open arms.
With a covert ambition to degrade the TPLF, and therefore debase the Tigrayan people, detectible in his first visit, Abiy then showed his hand by openly assailing the region’s ruling party. This encouraged the state- and party-affiliated media to slam the 27-year administration in which the TPLF, and by extension Tigrayans, are perceived as the main actors and beneficiaries.
The first piece of verbal violence came in a television briefing that immediately followed the Meskel Square blast at the Abiy support rally. He alleged “day-time hyenas” were responsible for attempts to reverse reforms.
It was an underhand reference to the dead hand of the TPLF. And traditionally, if a hyena is caught during the day, it would be strung up; hence Abiy’s use of the expression hinted the same. This shocked many, and arguably paved the way for an escalation of mistrust and mob justice—as several grisly incidents then evidenced.
Next was Abiy’s comment in parliament that appeared to try and drive a wedge between the party and the people: “TPLF and the people of Tigray aren’t one and the same. The people are poor and have nothing and would never deserve such denigration together with the malefactor.” This angered TPLF leaders, who viewed it as an effort to undermine them, and it didn’t go down well with regular folk either.
When Abiy was in the U.S. at the end of July, his uber-casual reaction to the death of Semegnew Bekele, the project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, was alarming to many Ethiopians, especially Tigrayans, who are highly supportive of the project. But it was another reported comment by Abiy on the trip that marked the height of the antagonism: “If we must die, at least we wouldn’t die in a local beer house.” This was taken as a reference to the death of the most respected Tigrayan hero, Major General Hayelom Araya, who was assassinated in 1996 in a bar restaurant in Addis Ababa.
This slur was too much for any proud Tigrayan
We may have our own issues with TPLF veterans and their ways, but this slur was too much for any proud Tigrayan to take. The nation’s motor seemed to have morphed into a drop in the bucket. But what is not clear is why; therefore we must speculate.
Most recently, when the government mounted a purge of the security apparatus, Tigrayan officials were considered selectively targeted for prosecution, a perception enhanced in Tigray by the state propaganda documentaries that accompanied the crackdown: “Tigrigna-speaking prison officials and guards were the abusers of Amhara and Oromo prisoners,” it said. Such gratuitous provocation enraged many.
In the circuitous backwardness of Ethiopian politics, which is plagued by personal and communal grudges, is Abiy perhaps playing out an internal dispute? We know a decade ago he clashed with his former boss at the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Tekleberhan Woldearegay, a Tigrayan and TPLF veteran. When Tekleberhan stepped away from his INSA perch to study in the U.K., Abiy became lord of his manor.
The upstart deputy faced a grilling from party colleagues for his impetuous ambitions. An early sign of this feud’s ongoing significance was the little-reported arrest six months ago of Biniam Tewolde, a senior INSA figure, although this securocrat’s superficially inconsequential fate became something of a cause célèbre in Tigray because of the perceived persecution.
It is conceivable that Abiy’s past feuds gained new momentum when they were coupled with the concerns of the Amhara elite, and their struggles to regain influence. That is to say, maybe he became more receptive to Amhara claims to Wolkait and Raya the more irritated he got by TPLF intransigence.
In an even more historic contest, the protests allowed the Oromo elite to assume a long-aspired position dominating Ethiopia, so it made sense for Abiy to ensure the TPLF was not just dead, but also buried as the nation’s most powerful single political entity.
And what about the armed prophet theory, the Machiavellian musing that claims a leader should be militaristic and force their will upon his subjects? According to this strategy, in order to shape the course of history, and for the sake of building the leader’s reputation, Abiy and allies had to remove regional governments, and therefore felt compelled to encircle the TPLF. After Tigray falls, the entire nation can plunge together through the medemer process.
So Abiy is perhaps influenced by low politics of personal feuds, as well as the great game.
A major faultline is the tendency, particularly strong among those Amhara elites, but pervasive nationwide, to equate the TPLF and the Tigrayan people. This tactical and theoretical misstep has been the main reason for TPLF’s survival; hence the Tigrayan people continue to suffer from the excesses of its repressive rulers.
Tigray may perhaps eventually succumb
Needless to say, TPLF long ago succeeded in convincing Tigrayans to treat the party with respect. But that strong bond was used to manipulate and stifle instead of producing a more democratic society. Now, to the disappointment of progressive Tigrayans, Abiy’s squeeze on Tigray is allowing the TPLF to regenerate its popular support, effectively exonerating the party of its failures and trespasses.
To subdue the formerly dominant actors of the EPRDF, dangerous tactics have been employed. There has been the media harassment and psychophysical encirclement of Tigray. For example, the Mekelle-Addis Ababa highway was blocked for several months until it was recently opened by the military. Abiy has even embraced the clout of regional countries against one of his own regional states, as the antagonism of Isaias Afewerki was brought to bear.
These moves seem to spring from a frustrated ambition to replace and control, as happened in other regional administrations. Replacing Tigray’s government has not proved easy, partly because Abiy’s administration has little acceptance among Tigrayans. Can he eventually win back their admiration that he fleetingly enjoyed? Worryingly, unless there is a fundamental rethink, it does not look like it.
The soft warfare through party organs and out of the Attorney General’s Office seem set to continue, and perhaps they will be supplemented by more ruthless tactics. The tension with Amhara is worsening, with both sides seemingly dedicated to destabilization. Will it all help subdue TPLF and the people it rules over? Maybe. With almost the entire state resource at its disposal, the Abiy administration can place them both into its giant maw. Tigray may perhaps eventually succumb, although surely at huge material and spiritual cost to the nation.
But by the same token, the TPLF will not simply surrender, and, above all, Tigrayans will not cave either—and this is not simply the empty bravado of the party line. Former chief of staff Tsadkan Gebretensae, who fell out with the TPLF almost two decades ago, said at the conference: “If there will be war, as that is what seems at the zenith of the chaotic situation, I don’t believe Tigray will fail to defend itself militarily. And if we enter into war the result will be an equally assured destruction. Therefore, we have to do everything to avoid it.”
Abiy’s moves look like the result of an erroneous calculation. The reality is that Tigray is not and never has been a drop in the Ethiopian bucket, both in terms of its power and its role in the nation-building process. Rather, Tigray, with its history of resistance and resolute people, is an iceberg smack bang in the middle of the path of a coercive medemer process.
The current trajectory damages hopes of reconciliation and socio-political integration, as Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil recognized in a tearful speech to the Annual Conference of Women’s League of the EPRDF in Mekelle recently: “We Ethiopians, members and officials in our party, are living as a country due to sacrifices made by our fathers. So we are indivisible: I am in you and you are in me. So how did we desire to look down on one another with pride, despising, staring at one another, wishing for one another to kneel down?”
Reform should come from within
Clearly, if our elites do not get their act together, as Muferiat beseeched them to, and conflict ensues, history will register that occurrence in its darkest pages. And Abiy’s record, especially in the Tigrayan version of history, will be tainted.
So, how shall we work things out? Will there be a change of policy to propagate the positive aspects of medemer, and help bring on board Tigrayans? Is there not a better way to facilitate positive reforms in Tigray? The answer is that the reform should come from within, as the most durable change is the one that is brought by its own inner force. Just as the viability of a nestling increases if the power of life and change inside the egg orchestrates its hatching.
Otherwise, if the inept calculations of retaliatory forces continue to depict Tigray as a drop in the bucket, and hence the mad dogs of aggression are unleashed, the Tigrayan proverb that says: “who exceeds you as little as a grain of taff reduces you to that triviality” will have held true.
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Note: Article amended on Jan. 19 to correct spelling of Muferiat Kamil and alter paragraph order
Main photo: Part of Mekelle Martyrs’ Monument; Nov. 24, 2015; William Davison
This is the author’s Viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight is responsible for clear factual errors.
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