Tigray’s political elites’ claims of exceptionalism based on the region’s glorious history and strong military posture is problematic.
Ethiopia has been bleeding from a self-destructive civil war for eighteen months now. Tens of thousands or more have died, millions have been displaced, the country’s international standing is severely weakened, national security is threatened, the economy is in shambles, and social cohesion is at an all-time low.
While the war has had devastating consequences in Afar and Amhara since July 2021, Tigray has shouldered most of its brutal effects for a protracted period.
Millions of Tigrayans have close to no supply of electricity, water, medicine, and banking services, and the region is almost entirely disconnected from the world. It is a miracle—and a testament to the tenacity of ordinary Tigrayans—that they are getting by under such horrible conditions.
The causes of this crisis include several historical, ideological, socio-political, and economic factors.
However, in my view, the war in Tigray has been caused and perpetuated to a large extent by one self-serving belief among Tigrayan political elites. I call this belief “Tigrayan exceptionalism,” something akin to what is commonly known as “American exceptionalism.”
Tigrayan exceptionalism is essentially marked by contradictory myths, narratives, and interests, which all boil down to a demand for differential treatment and special entitlement. This attitude from the elite contributed to the current crisis and is now among the obstacles to peace.
Glory and rebellion
Sentiments of Tigrayan exceptionalism appear to have stemmed from the historical narrative that portrays Tigray as a source of ancient civilization, the gatekeeper of Ethiopia, and the biggest contributor to the country’s nation-building project.
After all, Tigray is the home of the ancient Axumite civilization, the cornerstone of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and its traditions, the birthplace of great Ethiopian warriors and emperors, and the vessel through which Islam first came into Ethiopia.
Whether the Axumite civilization and other glorious historical records in Tigray were exclusively ‘Tigrayan’ or rather the collective achievements of various groups, including Agews, Tigrayans, Amharas, and Arabs, is something to be left for historians.
Nonetheless, the common view among Tigrayan elites is that Tigray made the foremost contribution to Ethiopia’s early state-building process, Tigray is the core state of Ethiopia—its birthplace, so to speak—and others are peripheries which became part of Ethiopia in time.
Some even claim that Tigray is the home of a once advanced polity that has failed to maintain its great civilization as a result of its unsuccessful mission of civilizing a backward Ethiopia.
This exceptionalist attitude by Tigrayan elites has led them to embrace, perhaps unconsciously, the position that Tigray needs to always be at the center of Ethiopia’s state power—anything less is deemed unacceptable.
Indeed, in modern Ethiopian history, there is no time when Tigrayan elites have not rebelled against whoever is at the Ethiopian center—except when Tigrayans are the center, of course.
The two Woyane rebellions are cases in point. The first, in 1943, was a strong yet unsuccessful uprising in Tigray against Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime, which was viewed as a ‘Shewan’ center by Tigray elites. The second was the successful armed struggle waged against the Derg by the TPLF in the mid-1970s that culminated with Tigrayan elites capturing state power in 1991.
The view among Tigrayan elites is that these rebellions were justified resistance against injustice and oppression.
Sadly, however, Tigrayan elites have often subjected others to the same injustice and mistreatment that they claimed to have fought against. Accordingly, many see Tigrayan insurrection as a fight for dominance and exceptionalism based on the elite’s belief that they are always entitled to rule or significantly control rulers, but never to be ruled.
Alongside the desire to overthrow an oppressive regime, Tigrayan exceptionalism, as the bedrock of Tigray nationalism, was among the driving forces behind TPLF’s seventeen-year armed struggle against the Derg regime.
Initially, TPLF’s stated aim, as presented in its 1976 manifesto, was Tigray’s secession. The principal goal of this project was said to be returning Tigray to its “glorious past.”
When TPLF and its allied forces defeated the Derg, it was portrayed as a Tigrayan feat, the defeat of a giant Goliath by the small David. This gave TPLF both a self-assured certainty and clout of legitimacy that stemmed from the barrel of a gun. Thereafter, TPLF advanced a narrative of its own exceptionalism—that it is invincible and entitled to dominate the country.
Consequently, the allocation of key military and political positions to members of the new Tigrayan ruling class was justified as ‘deserved’. Elites from other ethnic groups were allowed to hold political or economic power only as long as they had TPLF’s blessing.
Within the EPRDF ruling party, TPLF further arrogated to itself an equal number of representatives in the Executive and Central Committees as its coalition partners from Oromo, Amhara, and Southern regions, despite Tigray not having even one-third of the populations of the other regions.
Loyalist political elites were also put in place within each region. This was done because, if fully implemented, the new constitutional design would make Tigrayans a permanent minority. However, Tigray’s elites manipulated the governance structure to avoid such a situation, on the apparent assumption that they would always stay at the helm of power.
As a way to overcome their constant fear and insecurity as a minority ruling class, Tigrayan elites also oppressed other groups by various means. This created a sense of resentment and alienation among other ethnic groups, making TPLF a much-loathed group in the country.
The ultimate result was that Tigrayan political elites created multiple sworn enemies, both within and outside the EPRDF coalition.
At no time in the past has Tigrayan exceptionalism been as visible as in the last four years.
When Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018, TPLF initially appeared to have welcomed the inevitable change. Unfortunately, this lasted briefly, and TPLF went back to Mekelle and resumed advancing rhetoric of its own and Tigray’s exceptionalism.
In both mainstream and social media, Tigrayan political elites began to paint war not as an internecine project with consequences of human suffering and destruction but as “Tigray’s cultural sport”, as if the art of war is an exclusively innate gift of Tigrayans.
The elites also proclaimed that Tigray is a de facto independent nation and TPLF’s mass mobilization of resources was justified as a necessary measure to fight against Abiy’s hidden plan to subdue Tigray.
Such rhetoric insinuates that only Tigray has not been subdued—while the rest of Ethiopia is—and that its forces alone can stand in Abiy’s way.
Tigray’s elites described the simmering disagreement with the federal government as a clash of visions between forces of centralization and decentralization. In this narrative, Tigrayan elites portrayed themselves as the guardians of federalism and, domineeringly, the spokespeople of “nations and nationalities.”
The open rejection of their authoritarianism and domination by Somalis, Sidamas, Gurages, and Afaris—groups who satisfy TPLF’s definition of “nations and nationalities”—were all considered the work of Abiy and his Amhara supporters, not the true voice of the said people, who, according to Tigrayan elites, still need help to know what’s in their best interest.
Most hypocritical was TPLF’s accusation that Abiy’s administration is ‘unitarist’ and adamant to centralise power, as if its own 27 years in charge were not marked by centralization in the name of ‘revolutionary democracy’ and ‘democratic centralism.’
As divisions with the federal government grew, TPLF frequently made two demands: negotiated political solutions and respect for the constitution.
But, what its leaders eventually did was the exact opposite.
Overtures for peace and negotiation were rejected by the TPLF, claiming that it didn’t want to talk with the central government alone and instead preferred an all-inclusive dialogue.
It then rejected the House of Federation’s ruling to postpone the general elections, alleging the decision was unconstitutional, despite the House having the sole authority to adjudicate such constitutional matters.
This sent the clear message that TPLF’s leaders would only accept negotiations on their terms and felt entitled to disregard the constitutional order at their whim.
And then came 4 November 2020, the fateful day the war erupted following Tigrayan forces attacking the Ethiopian National Defence Forces’ (ENDF) Northern Command.
According to the TPLF, the attack was a ‘pre-emptive’ strike. But, once again, this is another testament to the elites’ exceptionalist attitude.
Regardless of growing disputes, how could a regional force legitimately engage in a pre-emptive strike against a national army base? Also, how would the TPLF-dominated EPRDF have handled an identical situation? Surely, TPLF would have engaged in a brutal mission to restore the constitutional order.
According to its elites, however, Tigray can do this legitimately.
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This, of course, is not to say that the war began on 4 November. Indeed, the sense of insecurity created among Tigrayan elites due to growing irredentism in Amhara, the purported threat posed by Isaias Afwerki, and other perceived provocations by the federal government have all significantly contributed to the escalation.
After the war broke out, Tigrayan exceptionalism took on a somewhat different form, but still had its core building blocks such as indomitability, omnipotence, and intransigence intact. In addition, the international media’s frequent reference of Tigrayan forces as ‘battle-hardened’ was taken as a global recognition of the exceptionalism.
Initially, TPLF’s military adventure did not go as planned. The federal government, assisted by Eritrean soldiers, Amhara forces, and military drones, managed to dislodge the Tigrayan regional administration in a matter of three weeks. This sent the first shock to the self-assurance of Tigrayan elites, creating temporary self-doubt and fuelling a desire for vengeance.
It also led the TPLF to go underground, regroup clandestinely, and, following months of preparation, wage a successful counterattack in June 2021.
Following the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by the federal government and the ENDF’s withdrawal from Tigray, TPLF marched onto Afar and Amhara regions and unleashed vengeful military operations. The operations led to the death of many innocent civilians and widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure.
TPLF’s subsequent ability to cause disturbance in neighboring regions and advance on town after town towards Addis Abeba was again seen as a demonstration of Tigray’s army exceptionalism as being capable of defeating a national army and toppling a central government. To a large extent, the international community also bought into this narrative.
Vulnerability and invincibility
All this ended abruptly when the federal government relaunched successful offensives, which forced Tigray forces to retreat to their home region in late December 2021. However, this military setback has not changed TPLF’s narratives of exceptionalism and bravado.
TPLF now portrays Tigray as being invincible, but also vulnerable.
On the one hand, the horrendous suffering of ordinary Tigrayans is used to show to the world Tigray’s vulnerability—a small minority under a “genocidal” attack by an evil majority. On the other hand, the partially successful military operation and the army’s strength are presented as proof of Tigray’s indomitability.
Tigray’s elites also continue to play with the idea of Tigray’s independence.
At the same time, they request that the federal budget be released and disputed lands—which were seized by force at the war’s outset and are now administered by Amhara’s government—be returned to Tigray.
These, of course, may be considered sensible constitutional demands. However, if Tigrayan elites are to rely on the constitution when it comes to solving the land dispute with Amhara or the release of the federal budget, they also need to show a willingness to accept the constitutional order.
The constitution recognizes only one defense force—ENDF—and not a regional defense force such as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF); the constitution allows secession only in accordance with legally prescribed procedures under Article 39, and not through the de facto statehood entertained by Tigrayan elites.
Furthermore, they must accept the legitimacy of the federal government and its institutions such as the houses of parliament and the National Election Board. Accordingly, if the need emerges, they should be willing to conduct federally mandated regional elections or a referendum that is overseen by the Board.
However, at least up until now, there is no desire to respect the constitutional order, and the thinking amongst the elite is that Tigray is not bound by the constitution.
In short, the current state of Tigrayan exceptionalism could be summed up as a blend of fear and courage, vulnerability and invincibility, omniscience and willful ignorance, and the desire to be free and in control.
The exceptionalism does not know any sort of compromise—something inherent in the general political culture of Ethiopia but particularly so among the Tigrayan elite. Persistence and stubbornness are viewed as coveted virtues, regardless of the net outcome.
As a result, no matter how many people die and how huge the destruction, all is justified as martyrdom and sacrifice, and such sacrifice is encouraged irrespective of the devastating consequences it has on the long-term interest of Tigray.
Ethiopia needs healing and this can be achieved only through dialogue and compromise. But, this requires humility from all sides.
Tigrayan elites ought to therefore change their priorities for the sake of innocent Tigrayans currently going through unimaginable suffering. They should conduct honest introspection, put aside exceptionalism, and demonstrate that Tigray is indeed the home of Ethiopia’s civilization and ancient wisdom by coming up with dynamic plans to facilitate a peace process.
At the end of the day, Tigray’s salvation depends more on its elites’ ability to make peace with their neighbors than waging and winning war over them. Peace, of course, entails a painful compromise; but, whether one wins or loses, the cost of war is much higher than that of peace.
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Main photo: TDF fighters on a pickup truck in the outskirts of Mekelle; Finbarr O’Reilly for NY Times; July 2021.
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