In-depth

Raya: a category error, and a catalog of errors

The people of Raya in northern Ethiopia have diverse origins and so defy simple categorizations. A more accommodating federation and responsive politics would help resolve their disputed administrative status.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”— Karl Marx

I was born and raised in Alamata, the heart of what people now call the Raya area of Tigray and Amhara. My maternal great grandmother was a Muslim and an Oromo who married my great grandfather, a native Christian highlander with the title of a Qegnazmach.

On that side, my relatives are mostly Muslims with typical Oromo names such as Gamada and Fereja, but they are all Tigrigna and Amharic speakers. The other side is entirely people of Ofla origin, who only speak Tigrigna. My relatives live in those parts of South Tigray and North Wollo that comprise Raya in the popular understanding.

I grew up speaking Amharic, but listening to Tigrigna, as my parents spoke it at home. As a kid, I could entertain the thought that Tigrigna is the language of the old and folks from the countryside, while Amharic is young and urbanite. The situation poses a typical existential puzzle: Who are my people? Who am I?

I never cared much about ethnicity or politics until an incident at Addis Ababa University in 2001 induced some soul-searching. A sociology student from my hometown used a pejorative for Oromo. Angry Oromo classmates beat the student and instructor, and it escalated into conflict between Tigrayans and Oromo. Windows of dormitories and the iconic John F. Kennedy Memorial Library were stoned. Ironically enough, the offending student is now a leader of the Raya Identity and Self-Administration Grand Committee and identifies as Raya-Amhara. The Committee demands for the inclusion of the Raya people of southern Tigray into Amhara Region.

Put into a simple syllogism, such activists argue:

Raya is Wollo

Wollo is Amhara

_______________________

Therefore Raya is Amhara

However, the argument is based on various fallacies. Raya did not become part of Wollo until 1957. And both Raya and Wollo give their names of Oromo sub-clans, which is testament to a complex history of intertwined peoples and shifting identities.

Raya has always been contested: some claim it is Amhara, others say it is Tigrayan, while still others say it is a distinct ethnicity. That dispute, which has flared dangerously in recent months, goes deeper when we realize that ‘the Raya’ are latecomers to the area.

Who are they then? What does it mean to be Rayan? Does it exclude being Tigrayan at the same time? How did the Raya manage to bequeath their name to a population that does not even speak their language?

Given the rise to prominence of anti-Tigrayan dog-whistle activism masquerading as identity politics, it is important to explore these questions, and to dispel some misunderstandings in the process. One of the first is that people are basing their identity on an essentialist theory that excludes social construction. Ethnicity is not purely genetic, insofar as it can change with experience. This is not only the case for those who are multiethnic by birth, but also for those who think they are in a pristine state. Therefore, as ethnicity is pliable, sometimes our administrative arrangements have not caught up with the latest shifts in identity.

Assimilation

Historian Bahru Zewde traces the rise of our identity politics to the creation of the Italian colony of Eritrea, which he describes as “the roots of the problem of secession.” But what accounts for the rise of identity politics in Tigray? Well, it began for real on May 2, 1889, when Menelik II established the Italian Colony of Eritrea, so dividing the Tigrigna-speaking people on the two sides of River Mereb. Harold Marcus writes: “We do not know why Menelik made this historic cession of territory—the first for an Ethiopian ruler.”

And while war over the Treaty of Wuchale ensued, it was not over this giveaway. Half a century later, Emperor Haile Selassie I compounded the insult when he took Alamata and other parts of Tigray into Wollo. The current vehicle for the diminishment of Tigray is the identity claim of the Raya. Does Tigray now face a similar territorial threat from Abiy Ahmed and his Amhara allies, or are current tensions a springboard for a more flexible interpretation of identity and accommodating federation?

Well, that depends on politics, of course, but a look back at an intertwined past illuminates a potentially more harmonious way forward—if only the bullheaded Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and their single-issue antagonists opened their eyes to start absorbing the light.

A 1976 Central Statistical Office E.C language map published in National Atlas of Ethiopia 1988

The Raya do not share a mutually intelligible language, as they speak Tigrigna, Amharic, Agawigna, Afarigna, and, only a few now, Oromiffa. A survey of its history since 16th century reveals Raya is a label for a diverse group of people that formed a collective identity of sorts due to intermingling and intermarriage.

The idea of a biological Raya group, and dualisms such as Raya-Amhara or Raya-Tigre, are therefore category errors: Raya is a cultural community, not an ethnic group. It is not homogenous like the Erob or Kunama, who also reside within Tigray. Raya refers to the cultural area inhabited by a diverse group of people located south of the historic province of Enderta and North of Weldia.

Commenting on the demography of the population south of River Mereb, Merid Wolde Aregay, another historian, writes that in the “fertile plains” of Azabo and south of Wajarat lived the pastoralist Doba, who spread into the plains of the nearby provinces of Angot and Qeda. He says that in 1619 new age-sets to leadership among Oromo clans, the Baraytuma and the Borana, meant the intensification of raids. Part of the Marawa bands erupted into Tigre, where Takla Giyorgis resisted them.

Citing Manuel Barradas, who travelled through Enderta, Merid reports that by 1625 the Oromo threat had subsided. When four years later Takla became a rebel, Oromo clans from Azabo and Doba supported him. It should be noted here that a clan of the Oromo, be it the Raya or Marawa, has already settled in the area that we now call Raya-Azebo.

Wolde Sellassie harnessed anti-Oromo prejudice

Mohammed Hassen describes the Doba as “peaceful nomads and fine fighters” that were attacked by Oromo. He wrote in The Oromo of Ethiopia that when Takla Giyorgis resisted, the Oromo clans instead successfully targeted the Doba nomads. Apart from being lowland pastoralist pagans, unlike the highland Christian peasant Tigrayans, it seems the Dobas were Tigrigna-speaking like the Wejjerat and Enderta, given the similarities of the contemporary dialects.

Harold Marcus details how in the early 19th Century, Wolde Selassie, Tigray’s conservative Christian governor, repelled the Yejju Oromo expansionists: “He hit out at them by conquering the Azebo and Raya Oromo and by taking control over all the important passes in Lasta leading to Tigray.” Marcus says this was the result of two centuries of “helplessness before the Oromo advance” and attempts at power sharing. “Wolde Sellassie harnessed the general anti-Oromo prejudice to move against the Yeju.”

So, Raya came from the Baraytuma tribe of the Oromo that migrated to the area after the 16th century. The existing inhabitants were the Dobas that are essentially extinct now as a result of assimilation. After the 16th century, they fought and mixed with the Oromos and the neighboring people of Afar, Amhara, and Tigray, to form the Rayan identity.

Contestation

Moving to significant events in the last century, which overlaid modern administrative maneuvering onto these tribal gatherings, Emperor Haile Selassie made two critical mistakes after his return from exile that still resonate through today’s anxieties. The first was ceding historic Tigrayan territory lying beyond the River Ala Wuha to Wollo Province. In 1942, Haile Selassie enlarged Wollo to include Yejju and Lasta, with Dessie as its capital. And in 1957, he enlarged Wollo again to include Raya, particularly, Alamata and Kobo towns, which were part of Tigray Province.

The second error was the abrogation of the federation with Eritrea and consequent annexation into his Ethiopian empire. These moves led to the emergence of the ethnic liberation movements in Tigray and Eritrea. The roots of the Tigrayan movement, though also found on campus, are traceable to the peasant rebellion of the Woyane of Raya and Wejerat of Tigray.

That resistance, of course, set the scene for the TPLF’s long and bloody journey south, and, eventually, a fully independent Eritrea and an autonomous and powerful Tigray; perhaps too powerful. As the TPLF has weakened in recent years, after decades of fervent opposition, Tigray’s internal contradictions have been increasingly exploited, leading to worsening tensions over Welkait and the Raya issue.

Districts and kebeles in South and Southeastern zones of Tigray region, 2016. Source

Under the current settlement, Raya is also more of a cultural group with an overarching identity than an ethnicity, as it includes the Amharic-speaking people of Kobo and its environs. With the advent of ethnic federalism post-1991, which built on Derg-era studies of nationalities, it was thus appropriate to include the Tigrigna-speaking people of Raya with Tigray, while keeping the Amharic-speaking people within Amhara region. But this neat differentiation masks festering divisions.

There was long-running dispute during the Derg between Kobo and Alamata towns, as Kobo demanded that the seat of the Raya and Kobo District be moved from Alamata to Kobo, which Alamata residents resisted. When TPLF-led rebels captured state power in 1991, Alamata, with a majority of Tigrigna-speaking residents, was incorporated into Tigray. The ‘loss’ of Alamata has never been accepted by some Amhara nationalists.

Now, making Amharic a second working language of the appropriate parts of the Southern Zone of Tigray—notice how the TPLF kept the names of sub-regional districts ethnically neutral—and allowing schools to run a bilingual program should be enough to accommodate the area’s diversity. But it is not clear that would satisfy today’s Amhara nationalists, who claim territory from four other regions, and wildly describe TPLF rule as fascist.

TPLF has an inability to learn from its past

Rayans, to call them by their borrowed name, of course have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed by the state government. The people resent the TPLF for appointing administrators and mayors without consultation, forcing smallholders to purchase fertilizers on credit, various rights violations, and maladministration.

What is disheartening is TPLF’s inability to learn lessons from its past and respond to such complaints in a constructive manner. It should refrain from throwing dissenters into jail. It must refrain from using undue force against protesters. It should withdraw charges and release political prisoners. Imprisoning ordinary people turns them into galvanizing symbols of resistance. How has the party not learned this?

The way the regional government is responding to Rayan activism is the same way TPLF hardliners responded from their federal perches to similar issues in other parts of the country in recent years. Look where that has left them. Then, the police and security services made deeply consequential decisions, instead of letting political leaders handle it, and taking direction from them. Security institutions should not be involved in resolving political grievances.

Accommodation

TPLF’s seemingly insatiable urge to micromanage is at the root of its undoing. Getting competent locals to run the city and towns should not be beyond the reach of its political imagination. TPLF/EPRDF has been guilty of systematically marginalizing and discrediting moderates in Ethiopia over the past 27 years, thereby helping set the stage for the advent of virulently parochial ethnic entrepreneurship. It is repeating that in Raya today. It must reach out and listen to its critics, not simply attempt to rubbish them and crush them.

TPLF support in Tigray right now is rooted in the strategic calculations of Tigrayans: they would rather support the devil they know than the angel they do not. An effective party would try to translate this strategic advantage into actual support through legitimate means. After de-escalation, Tigray could resolve these issues satisfactorily with a variety of tools, as long as, for once, they eschew the sledgehammer. Rather it requires soft skills and the time-tested traditional communal institutions for conflict resolution, such as the Abbo Ghereb.

Yet instead of treating the issue as rooted in legitimate local grievances, they have turned the entire affair into a pissing match with Amhara revanchists. Through rational politics, the TPLF could turn the table on their antagonists: If Rayans want self-rule, why is it only possible when they join the Amhara, but impossible while it is still under the State of Tigray? The multinational federalism that has been put in place since 1995 is designed to enable the self-rule of cultural communities. On that note, the Erob and Kunama should be able to send their children to schools taught in their languages. And in Raya, Tigray must allow schools in Waja, Timugua, Babo Korma, and Selen Wuha in Amharic. That is the point in having multinational federalism.

Eventually we will all meld into Ethiopians

Given that ethnicity is complex, fluid, and socially constructed—as the Raya story decisively illustrates—the system should accommodate people of mixed identities. This can be aided by dropping ethnicity, and religion, from local and the long-planned national identity cards, partly as such categorizations assists sectarian mobs. The upcoming national census will also allow for mixed ethnic backgrounds, when it finally occurs. But above all, all sides must cease the provocations and propaganda, and so create a space for the people of the area to choose their own destiny.

Such measures would encourage the system to evolve in accommodating ways towards a more perfect pan-Ethiopian union, which can only be achieved once the unfavorable conditions that prompted the existing federative arrangement have been definitively dealt with. The divisive anti-Tigrayan campaigning by my former fellow student perpetuates those conditions, and so delays integration.

Multinational federalism was not supposed to be a permanent arrangement for a well-ordered society. Eventually we will all meld into Ethiopians, just as the Rayan identity formed from disparate parts. Ethnic federalism was designed for a society afflicted by serious systemic discrimination. That too was the aim of the EPRDF ideology of revolutionary democracy, although, listening to recent TPLF rhetoric, it seems the party forgot that somewhere along the way.

Now would be an opportune moment for all of us to recall both our common past and our dreams of a collective future.

Query or correction? Email us

Main photo: Legendary Rayan singer Mengesha Redae hugging de facto Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael at Epiphany celebrations in Maichew; Jan. 19; social media

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Alemayehu Weldemariam

Alemayehu has taught constitutional law and political theory at U.S. and Ethiopian universities. He served as a National Peace Advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs from 2010-11.

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10 Comments

  • *The Rayan student you mentioned in your article is not committee member of Raya-Amhara, he is rather that of Rayan- ldentity and Self Adminstratiion Committee.
    * Regarding the position of the committee, it was not just like you put it as a fallacious logic. The committee has a firm stand on the Raya identity issue. Rayan people has got its own distnict ethnic identity not just Amhara or Oromo. Actually, it is a combination (mixed) of different ethnic identities and speaks the commonly known as Rayan-Tigrigna (Rayigna), Amharic, and to some extent Oromiffa and Agew. And, there is no such assertion as ‘Raya is Wollo”, and thus Amhara”. You may be misled by the recently formed Raya-Amhara group. Actually, the issue of Wollo is raised when the committee was discussing administrative issues. The point is, after Raya successfully granted with its distnict Rayan identity, taking into consideration the current federal system ( and regional states), with which region the Rayan self-administration (special zone) better be administered? The point of arguement on which the committee finally reached consensus was like, “the rayan people has a strong pychological and cultural attachment with that of the Wollo people”. “And, with regards to regional state, Amhara region is more accomodative than the other as it granted self-administration to many identities such as Oromo, Argoba, Agew, and recently the Quimant peoples. Therefore, it would be convienent to put our position paper to be administered with Amhara region. How ever, the ultimate choice should be left to the people of Raya.” That is it!
    *Also you know that ethnic identity of a society is not based on past administrative history. Yes, Raya was administered as part of Wollo and Tigray at different times. I have also heard that the area once was rulled by Italians directly from Asmara. In fact, Berahle & Dalol was administered by Tigrian rullers but this could not prevented these to be incorporated with Afar regional state.
    *But after the 1991, TPLF annexed part of Raya and joined with Tigray without consulting with the local people nor asking for their choice. The grievances started here and had been aggravated by clear marginalization and maladministration as you put it right.

  • It is very difficult to dispel every subtly confusing argument and seemingly deliberate factual error given in this piece. Nor is it worth the effort. However, with due respect to the author, the proposed solution for the current Rayan problem is simplistic.

    The author must have known or should have known what the Rayan people have been through at the hands of the TPLF. Keeping aside, the dispossession of land and property, sale of fertilizer at the price that the TPLF agents set and the horrifying maladministration by central Tigray cadres, the author should have known how Rayans have gotten killed execution style in broad daylight at market places for doing nothing wrong. Even worse, loved ones of the dead were not allowed to mourn their loss. Rather, they were forced to stay put until the dead body of their relatives were eaten by hyenas. I am sure the author knows this evil act for he was in high school when all of this inhumane act was going on in Waja and Korem.

    The author asks, “If Rayans want self-rule, why is it only possible when they join the Amhara, but impossible while it is still under the State of Tigray?” The answer is very easy. The Rayan people want their freedom from their historic enemies since the day of Yohannes IV (who murdered 3,700 Rayans in one day at Engoye meda near Chercher). Furthermore, Rayans are culturally more related to Amharas than to Tigrayans. More importantly, the Amhara region is accommodating to different identities and hence preferable. On the contrary, the Tigray government is inherently parochial and fascistic and hence repulsive. Given these facts, the question itself is provocative and frivolous.

    The author said,” And in Raya, Tigray must allow schools in Waja, Timugua, Babo Korma, and Selen Wuha in Amharic. That is the point in having multinational federalism.” I am surprised that the author actually believed this will solve the Rayan problem. The author simplified the issue and lowed it to such a level and proposed such a ridiculous solution. These schools are located in the very small community of Waja area. How did the author fail to understand the cause of the protest in Alamata, Mehoni and Korem to state the least? Who is the author trying to deceive? For God’s sake, why would Rayans in these towns protest unless they have good reason to do so? Does the author believe all of the young people (14 of them) who got killed in Waja, Alamata and Korem got killed for nothing?

    In conclusion, the author is politically biased and does not seem to have understood the Rayan problem well. His relationship with Getachew Reda might have clouded his perception of the current situation in Raya. However, I appreciate the author for taking the time to write the piece and shine some light to the Rayan issue regardless of his intention or goal.

  • “Historian Bahru Zewde traces the rise of our identity politics to the creation of the Italian colony of Eritrea, which he describes as “the roots of the problem of secession.” ”

    I stopped reading after this. I can imagine what came after it is more intellectual dishonesty and bias fantasies.

    Before the Italians ever set foot in Africa and before Menilik ascended to power, Tigray Region and Mereb Milash, now Eritrea have never been together except once. Before the Italians, Emperror Yohannes/ Alula went to war with Mereb Milash led by Bahir-Negash (King of Sea). When Alula couldn’t beat Bahir Negash Weldemichael Solomon multiple times in battlefield, he swore on the Bible, in front of Priests telling them to go and tell him that if Woldemichael came for a peace negotiation, no harm will come to him. When Woldemichael arrived from Eritrea to Tigray, he was arrested and put in a house arrested – he died under house arrest. Alula went on to invade and occupy Mereb-Milash.

    As you can see, history never forgets if it’s preserve wisely. How did Eritreans made sure this history will never be forgotten? By naming the most dangerous and twisted road in Eritrea after Alula/Tigray, the road was named Libi Tigray. It means the heart of Tigray.

    Eritrea and Tigray didn’t separate because of external forces effort. They were just never one. Blaming it on Italia or Menilik is just, intellectual dishonesty if not a white lie.

    • Sami,
      Just because you “stopped reading” it does make your version of history is accurate. In fact it is self-deception, you are misleading readers. I am not sure what your intention is but you seem either you are from Higdef camp or Menelik camp. Remember that people who write in this site are well read individuals, they know what they are writing however they can make mistakes in that case try to argue your position with evidence if possible with reference. Unproven rhetoric isn’t that helpful. Twisting history for political reasons isn’t the measure of knowledge, it is the measure of weakness.

      Facts:
      Wuchale Treaty was signed on 2 May 1889 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Wuchale)
      Menelik II coronated (crowned) on November 3, 1889 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menelik_II), Note: check the coronation date.

      If you carefully look the timeline above, Menelik signed Wuchale Treaty before he was crowned as King of Kings of Ethiopia, he was King of Shewa but not King of Kings of Ethiopia. THIS IS FACT!! Why did he do that? There was no any single of Tigray King or Gondor King or Wollo King or Marab Melash Ras who have done this. Please let’s be honest on the facts of history, I understand that our interpretation could be different but this is exactly what happened.

      Regarding Ras Alula:
      • Asmara was his headquarter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ras_Alula)
      • He was an Ethiopian general and politician from Tigray. He was one of the important leaders of the Ethiopian Empire’s forces during the 19th century. Described by Haggai Erlichas the greatest leader whom Abyssinia produced since the death of Emperor Tewodros II in 1868. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ras_Alula)
      • Ras Alula was referred to by Europeans as “the Garibaldi of Abyssinia”. He led many battles for the independence of Ethiopia, including Dogali and Adwa. In service of the Emperor Yohannes IV, Ras Allula successfully defeated the Egyptians in Gundet 1875, Gura 1876, Aylet 1887, Senhit 1880, against the mahdists of Sudan, kufit 1885, Metema 1889 against Italians, Sahati 1887, Dogali 1887, Amba-Alaje 1889, Mekelle 1896 and Adwa 1896. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ras_Alula)
      • The Battle of Dogali was fought on 26 January 1887 between Italy and Ethiopia in Dogali near Massawa, in present-day Eritrea. Ras Alula was the general of Ethiopia
      • Ras Alula is the best general and strategist that Africa has perhaps produced in modern times. Augustus Wylde, The Manchester Guardian, 1901, p. 20

      If you observe the battles above most of them are in today’s Eritrea land, thus why would Ethiopian/Tigray general fought in Massawa (Dogali is 20 KM from Massawa). Just speak the truth, don’t talk rhetoric, speak facts only.

      Remember that because I said “Higdef camp or Menelik camp” don’t waste your response there, try to write a response supported with evidence. Rhetoric isn’t helpful. History can judge all of us but to be honest and rational is a value that we have to have for the sake of the next generation.

    • Are you saying that the two Tigringna speaking people residing north and south of Mereb River are not same people?

      • Solomon,
        Both Tigringna speaking people residing north and south are one and the same. They share common heritage and culture. Based on the facts I have read the division was created by Menelik but aggravated by:

        1. Haile Selassie regime: To make long history short, in 1952, the UN decided to federate Eritrea to Ethiopia, hoping to reconcile Ethiopian claims of sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. About few years later, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, triggering a thirty-year armed struggle in Eritrea. They fought and won their independence.
        2. Derg Regime: Continued the oppression and repression started by Haile Selassie.
        3. 57 years of colonization created a mentality of independent nation, specially the oppression by Selassie regime and Derg regime has contributed a lot.
        4. TPLF elites and PFDJ (Higdef) elites: The 1998 war has created so many divisions specially between both sides of the Tigrigna speaking people. Regardless who started it or why it started (I am not saying it is not important), however war shouldn’t have been an option at all, there was many options to avoid the war.

  • Well articulated and timely message if the rhetoric TPLF has hear and eye to listen and hear this message. I am confident that this will be by and large the best solution for the current Raya problem whereby it could be scale it up to the wider national problem. I want to thank you Alex my older brother for you genuine and scholastic contribution for me and your follows us well. Best

  • This is s very informative and provocative piece on one of the most intricate conflicts in today’s Ethiopia. Thank you for educating us