By undermining self-determination, and allying with Isaias, Abiy is pushing Tigray towards independenceAlthough the peoples of northern Ethiopia have had some form of statehood for millennia, it was at the turn of the nineteenth century that the country achieved most of its current shape, though the former Italian colony of Eritrea was only incorporated after 1952, and first as a federation.
More than 80 ethnic groups were included within the state’s boundaries but it was dominated by Amhara elites, whose language became the national language, and the Coptic Orthodox Church, the national church to which most Amhara and Tigrayans belonged, and led by clergy predominantly from Amhara.
The net result was the emergence of an Ethiopian state with “a profound identity of its own” but inherently discriminatory between its different peoples and regions. (See, e.g, Alemseged Abbay, Identity Jilted, Or, Re-imagining Identity?: The Divergent Paths of the Eritrean and Tigrayan Nationalist Struggles) Unsurprisingly, this manifested itself in various ethno-nationalist conflicts and upheavals: the first Weyane Movement in Tigray, with the goal of autonomous self-administration, against Emperor Haile Selassie in 1943; the Oromo Bale revolt in the 1960s, and the armed struggle in Eritrea, which began in 1961.
Although Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, the revolution was subverted by the Derg’s military dictatorship, which continued to ignore the problems of ethno-nationalism in the interests of a centralized Ethiopian state. While armed resistance from ethnically-based opposition groups across the country multiplied, it was the Eritrean and Tigrayan effort that largely defeated the Derg. Eritreans and Tigrayans, the Trans-Mereb elites, fought against a common enemy—an oppressive Amhara ethnic state, but although cooperating in armed struggle, they retained divergent political identities and very different aims.
A valuable theoretical framework model suggesting different ways of analyzing situations of conflict is Albert O. Hirschman’s EVL offering three options: Exit’, ‘Voice’ and ‘Loyalty’. `It argues unsatisfied groups can choose to leave, choose to speak out in protest and express grievances, or simply remain loyal as ‘happy slaves’. There are various additional levels of possible action suggested, including ‘neglect’ or ‘boycott’.
As presented by Hirschman these options can be associated with cases of secession as defined by Buchanan in Theories of Secession. In Ethiopia, after 1991, following their separate political paths, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) chose ‘exit’, creating a new state in Eritrea; the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) remained in Ethiopia under the multinational federal structure they devised, establishing their ‘voice’. Their divergent paths further developed irreconcilable interests between the two countries, leading them into bloody war in 1998 and augmenting the agony of the Trans-Mereb people.
The concept of a Tigrayan ‘exit’, or independence, had little currency in Tigrayan nationalism, before and after emergence of TPLF. The first Tigrayan party that openly advocated for conventional nationalism and Tigray independence, Tigray Liberation Front, was attacked and destroyed by TPLF in its formative years, for TPLF to become Tigray’s exclusive force, as noted by John Markakis in Class and National Conflict in the Horn of Africa. The TPLF, though did briefly consider independence in its formative years, it quickly rejected it, and claiming to be fighting for self-determination not independence and stressing the choice must depend on the struggle of oppressed nationalities and classes in Ethiopia. A positive outcome would result in integration within a multinational Ethiopian state. Independence was only an option if all possibilities for unity based on equality were exhausted.
The result of its victory over the Derg was the creation of a federalism with other Ethiopian nations and nationalities, underpinned by a constitution that granted an “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession”, as the organizing principle. This did much to ensure relative stability and economic development, though the federal government remained heavily centralized in substance.
Most seriously, it failed to deal with the aggravations and concerns of the Oromo nation, the largest in Ethiopia, for recognition and a fair share of governance. These were increasingly exploited by Oromo and Amhara, eventually leading to Abiy Ahmed becoming Prime Minister in April 2018, and subsequently to the increasingly volatile situation now threatening to lead to Tigray’s ‘exit’.
Death of the federation
Massive protests and strife were the hallmark of Abiy’s ascent to power, instabilities in the Oromia and Amhara states being the epicenter. A central element in this were attacks on ordinary Tigrayans living and working in different parts of the country, especially the Amhara region. And in effect, these can be labeled “state sponsored”. Documentary (fakumentary) films, emotionally sensitive fabricated propaganda, released on state media, implied “Tigrigna speakers” were looters and abusers, provoking hate and anger against them.
Abiy’s new Prosperity Party, set up in 2019, blamed almost every misdeed in Ethiopia on the TPLF and Tigrayans. Inevitably, arrests of Tigrayans on trumped up charges, the assassination of the Chief of Staff and a retired top general and other episodes have given rise to a bitter sense of betrayal, resonating with Tigrayans and leading them to question if it is worth living in the federation under such humiliations. “Wefri Harinet”, Global Movement for the Liberation of Tigrayan Political Prisoners is among the endeavors that requests release of Tigrean political prisoners languishing behind bars for a consecutive second year without verdict. TPLF state that a political and constitutional crisis is looming.
Self-determination is the organizing principle of the current constitution created after the EPRDF victory in 1991, when nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia were institutionally granted regional administrative governments intended to harness, contain, channel and control regional nationalism by providing national-territorial administrative structures. Anne Stilz in The Value of Self-determination argues a people is born only when members engage in institutionalized political cooperation and see themselves as joint authors of their institutions.
This occurred in Tigray under the TPLF’s leadership of the armed struggle and its victory cemented the region’s self-realization and nation-building process, building on the long and rich legacy of organized political cooperation in Tigray. Tigrayan nationalism, strongly attached to Ethiopia, is a very powerful sentiment and remained so under the new integrative approach of a federal system that enshrined “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” with the right to self-determination. John Young in Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia noted that Tigrayan nationalism, though deeply conscious of Amhara dominance, was a rallying cry. Tigrayans used to regard themselves as core Ethiopians; as such, ‘Tigrayanness’ was inseparable from Ethiopianism.
Abiy’s arrival in power in 2018 was greeted with euphoria, including in Tigray. He released prisoners, allowed Asmara- and Diaspora-based opposition groups like Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front to come home, liberalizing and opening a stifled political space. However, his ‘reformist’ moves targeted TPLF as the scapegoat for all ills.
The dissolution of the EPRDF, a move whose legality was questioned, and rejected, by the TPLF, and its replacement by his own Prosperity Party, intensified the contradiction. The TPLF, removed from federal coalition, was confined to Tigray. His move to cancel countrywide elections, on the pretext of COVID-19 pandemic, criticized in this very website and many others as unconstitutional by legal experts and rejected by TPLF, seemed to indicate an end to any possible engagement of Tigray under TPLF leadership with the Abiy-led federal government.
The indefinite extension of the current parliament was slammed by opposition figures, like Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba, who played a decisive role in bringing Abiy to power. They are now on trial, the promised democratic space is nowhere to be seen, and the prospect of countrywide protest and political turmoil is looming.
The building of GERD was regarded as a flagship project, a symbol of TPLF and Meles Zenawi-led policies of poverty eradication and economic emancipation for Ethiopia. Following Abiy’s takeover, the dam became a bone of contention between Prime Minister Abiy and TPLF. The violent death of the project engineer, arrest of MeTEC generals, who were in charge of the mechanical works of the dam project, on corruption charges, (detained for more than a year now, no credible evidence of their guilt has yet produced), and allowing the US Treasury to direct the tripartite negotiations have been questioned by TPLF leadership as amateurish or even an outright concession of sovereignty.
These and similar actions make it difficult, if not impossible, for Tigrayans to rally behind Abiy’s leadership on GERD and other major Ethiopian issues. In fact, Tigrayan people in general, and the elite in particular, appear to have exhausted their ‘voice’ of support and are now in ‘neglect’ mode. Belonging, after all, depends on status, and expecting Tigrayans to rally behind a prime minister who offers little more than continual prospect of humiliation is hardly realistic.
Eritrea was created by Italian colonizers. Tigrayans, south of the Mereb River, and highland Eritreans in the Kebessa, north of the Mereb River, are ethnically one people, tied by common history, political economy, myth, language and religion. Until the arrival of Italy in the 1880s, both shared a common identity; and during the more recent armed struggle, leading to Eritrean independence they fought against a common enemy, an oppressive Amhara-dominated state. However, they retained divergent political identities, and after military victory in 1991, they followed separate political paths-Eritreans created the new state in Africa and Tigrayans established federal arrangements in Ethiopia.
Their historic unity, wrecked by colonialism, continuous wars, and the divergent paths of the EPLF/EPDJ and TPLF, was followed by the terrible war (1998-2000) and subsequent decades of stalemate. The ascendance of Abiy and his bringing Eritrea in from the cold was applauded by Ethiopians and Eritreans alike, and by the Trans-Mereb people in particular. It brought Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, but it didn’t take too long for the glow of the accord to fade and the borders to be closed again extending the people’s suffering Despite re-closed borders, Eritreans have continued to flee to Tigray and other places; anywhere but Isaias’ Eritrea.
The agreement between Abiy and Isaias, made behind closed doors under the hands of the Saudis, has resulted in Abiy apparently listening far more to Isaias than to the TPLF in Ethiopian matters, and raising questions as to his intentions. Debretsion Gebremichael, TPLF chair and acting president of Tigray, has even claimed to elders and religious leaders of Ethiopia that Abiy is jointly training soldiers with Isaias to attack Tigray, one of Ethiopia’s regional states.
Certainly, Isaias lately downplayed the importance of elections in Ethiopia, and made it clear he would not remain on the sidelines over matters threatening Abiy’s changes and reforms. The indefinite postponement of elections in Ethiopia, alarming human rights violations in Amhara region (Qimant) and in Wellega, suggest Abiy has been learning from Isaias, who is regarded by the international community, which has imposed multiple embargos on Eritrea, as a force of destruction and instability in the region.
In the last two years, the pan-Ethiopian sentiment of Tigray and Tigrayans has collapsed, hitting rock bottom. According to the Hirschman evaluation, the longtime historic sentiment of Tigrayan consciousness can be regarded as “loyalty” or worse, “dumb faithfulness”. It was the TPLF that came up with an alternative mutual coexistence for Tigray with other Ethiopian nations, creating a federal state. It has been the TPLF which has been making repeated efforts to save the federal constitution in the face of the efforts to undermine it, defamatory propaganda against Tigrayans, the arrest and assassination of Tigrayan generals and delayed justice, and the naïve and dangerous relationship with Isaias, widely believed to be a relationship designed to attack Tigray. Abiy’s vow (although since backpedaled) to attack Tigray if it undertakes its own regional election, makes it clear that the ‘voice’ card is lost; ‘exit’ is the only option left.
The EVL model suggests that when sufficiently antagonized and outraged, even diehard loyalists opt for ‘exit’. ‘Voice’, of course can function more effectively if backed by the threat of ‘exit’, typically made by loyalists before they resign themselves to actually take the painful decision to withdraw. The support for ‘exit’ among Tegaru, a paradigm shift in the Tigrayan ‘voice’, is being strongly encouraged by Abiy’s actions, and, strikingly, gaining currency among the younger generation.
Self-determination (‘exit’) must be applied with due regard for circumstances. It can, of course, be avoided by settlement or negotiation. The TPLF, hasn’t yet resolved its position, but nor have there been any negotiations. Today, the TPLF is situated somewhere in ‘boycott’ status, between ‘exit’ and ‘voice’. As an organized political body, it has resigned (boycotted) from the federation, but has yet to take any firm steps towards ‘exit’.
New parties emerging in Tigray (Salsai Weyane and Baitona) and gaining youth support, are pushing Tigray’s interests and see a loose federation or confederation as a bare minimum for remaining united with the rest of Ethiopia; ‘exit’, and the formation of an independent Tigray state, is the only other viable option. The newly established Tigray Independence Party (TIP)calls for outright ‘exit’, invoking Article 39 of the constitution. Political elements that support Abiy’s views, in the Tigray PP or “Fenqil (youth stationed in Addis Ababa privileged in the state media to instigate riot/color revolution in Tigray ) have failed to gain any meaningful support in Tigray.
Abiy’s “reformist” and “peacemaker” roles have failed to live up to expectations for Tigrayans, if not all other Ethiopian nations down south, with a history of marginalization in the Ethiopian imperial state, including the Oromo. His policies are increasingly perceived as defending the hegemonic position of the cultural Amhara, carrying the risk of fueling national liberation, and ‘exit’ claims from Tigray and other nations. Abiy is now being seen by some cultural Amhara scholars as a nation-builder in the tradition of Menilek II and Haile Selassie and as a defence against the ethno-nationalist movements they see as forces of disintegration.
Some cultural Amhara supported the Derg on this basis, taking the country into a dark political landscape that destroyed a generation and unleashed a long and destructive civil war that culminated in the secession of Eritrea and the birth of the multinational federation. We can only hope the signals of dissolving the federation and the unfavorable developments driving Tigray towards ‘exit’ can be addressed by means other than violence.
The omens, however, are not good.
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Editor’s note: Corrected date of Ethio-Eritrean war in second paragraph of ‘Anti-Tigray coalition’ section.
Main photo: TPLF anniversary celebration at Mekelle Stadium; 19 February 2020; social media
Editors: Patrick Gilkes, William Davison
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