Zola Moges’ portrayal of Tigrayans as chronically rebellious, minority oppressors, and warmongers is false and dangerous.
Narratives designed to ‘other’, dehumanize, and stoke resentment against targeted populations are widely recognized features of genocide. These fall under “polarization” and “classification” per the popular schema for identifying the stages of genocide.
Claims that a certain ethnic group—often a minority—is disproportionately privileged and characterizes itself as superior are common elements of such narratives.
In the Ethiopian context, the Tigray minority has been a target of such false allegations, which have grown and evolved to attain widespread acceptance over the last three decades.
One narrative that continues to be amplified is the myth of ‘Tigrayan exceptionalism’.
Recently, this dangerous idea was promulgated in an article published on Ethiopia Insight, titled, “Tigrayan exceptionalism has led to the war, and is now hindering peace.”
Its central contention is that Tigrayan elites, going back to at least the first Weyane rebellion in the 1940s, inherently believe in their own exceptionalism and therefore demand “differential treatment and special entitlement.”
The author, Zola Moges, supports this by framing his argument in three sections that portray Tigrayans as chronically rebellious, as minority oppressors, and as warmongers.
Zola starts by suggesting that the cultural history and identity of Tigrayans are the sources of Tigrayan exceptionalism.
As he admits, Tigray is home to the ancient Axumite and pre-Axumite civilizations, and where most ancient temples, churches, and mosques are found.
This historical reality predates the modern Ethiopian state and the Tigrayan people have been proud participants in subsequent processes of Ethiopian state-building.
However, there has never been a time when Tigrayans have used this to claim “differential treatment and special entitlement” in an organized political form.
To try and make this case, Zola removes the three Weyane resistance movements from their proper historical and ideological contexts and claims that they are rebellions inspired by a sentiment of exceptionalism.
The first Weyane or “revolt”, in 1943, was a resistance against Emperor Haile Selassie’s efforts to consolidate a centralized governance structure via selected governors in the aftermath of the liberation of Ethiopia from Italian occupation.
This rebellion is akin to the Wello revolts in the pre-World War II era and revolts in Gojjam in the 1950s-60s.
All of these uprisings speak to the traditional contestations in feudal Ethiopia—particularly among and between the northern highlanders, such as the Amharic- and Tigrigna-speaking peoples—both for regional autonomy and a share of power at the center.
In fact, far from being anti-Ethiopian, the first Weyane included as a core tenet an allegiance to the Ethiopian flag and unity.
The second Weyane, led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), arose from dramatically different political circumstances—the 1960s student movement.
Ideologically grounded in Marxist thought of the era, this movement was founded based on the acknowledgment that imperial Ethiopia was an oppressive structure on multiple fronts, including ethnicity and class.
Later, this turned into an armed struggle against the Derg military junta. The TPLF was one of many liberation movements in different parts of the country that resorted to armed struggle against this violent and oppressive regime that utilized a range of deplorable tactics, including weaponizing famine.
Exceptionalism was most definitely not the motivation of the tens of thousands of Tigrayan women and men who sacrificed their lives in the 17-year struggle against the brutal Derg regime.
This is apparent in the very name of the TPLF (ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ), where “Harnet” represents the quest for liberation from oppression. The struggle was for liberation, peace, and equality, not for “differential treatment and special entitlement.”
By extricating the Weyane resistance movements from their historical context, Zola is attempting to use tropes of Tigrayans as rebellious to justify the ongoing civil war.
The second trope that he amplifies is that of Tigrayans as minority oppressors.
Because such claims have served to substantiate much of the anti-Tigrayan rhetoric, they deserve a closer look.
This narrative emerged in the era of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government. During this period that was plagued by undemocratic practices, opposition parties focused their ire on the TPLF, the founding member of the coalition.
According to Zola, it is particularly repugnant that the TPLF represented a minority ethnic group and yet “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”; in other words, that it dared to presume equality.
That the TPLF wielded considerable influence in the EPRDF leadership is a fact. This was due to its role in the armed struggle, its victory over the Derg, and the new political dispensation that emerged after 1991.
Given that TPLF led the armed struggle against the military junta, the revamped national army that emerged following its defeat had many Tigrayans in its higher echelons. This was progressively reduced, however, as the “revolutionary-democratic army” was gradually transformed into a national army.
During the 1990s, the Prime Minister’s cabinet and inner circle were populated by many TPLF members. This was also reduced, after the Ethio-Eritrea war in the early- to mid-2000s, as the EPRDF began to emphasize a more pan-Ethiopian national vision.
While much is made of Meles Zenawi being from the TPLF, it must be noted that his successor Hailemariam Desalegn, who had served as Meles’ deputy PM and foreign minister, was not.
Moreover, nearly all of the leaders in Abiy Ahmed’s rebranded ruling elite, known as the Prosperity Party, are not Tigrayan and many were high-level officials during the EPRDF era.
So, while the TPLF was indeed influential in the coalition, and its officials wielded considerable control in the intelligence and security apparatus, Oromo, Amhara, and other regional politicians ran their own state governments and controlled powerful federal ministries.
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By focusing on the power dynamics within the EPRDF, claims of disproportionate TPLF power are then extended to suggest that Tigray as a region or Tigrayans as a people have claimed or been awarded privileges.
In reality, Tigray has a proportion of seats commensurate with its population size in both houses of the Ethiopian parliament. It has 38 out of the total 547 seats in the House of Representatives and has seven out of the total 112 seats in the House of Federation.
Contrary to another pervasive narrative, Tigray was not developed more than or at the expense of other regions. Budget allocation was determined by population size and each region’s specific needs and resources, along with certain political calculations.
Finally, the claim that the TPLF was “the first among equals” has made it possible to blame it—and by extension all Tigrayans—for everything that went wrong under the EPRDF while, ironically, not crediting it for the positive gains accrued during that period.
In this vein, Zola claims that the EPRDF government’s repressive tactics were a ploy by TPLF to retain power but fails to remark on any of the positive gains of that era, especially in terms of improved security, economic development, infrastructure, life expectancy, infant mortality rate, education coverage, gender equality, and access to health care.
In his final line of argumentation, Zola turns to look at the current period and, in doing so, misrepresents the escalation of tensions between the Tigray authorities and the federal government through a carefully curated summary of events.
Abiy was appointed as chairperson of the EPRDF and confirmed as Prime Minister in 2018 as part of the commitment by all members of the coalition to redress shortcomings, such as human rights violations, and initiate democratic reforms.
TPLF leaders initially supported this process, as noted by Zola, and so did the broader Tigrayan community, as was evidenced by the warm welcome Abiy received in Tigray.
Soon after coming to power, however, Abiy focused on consolidating his control over the state apparatus by promoting his own image and that of his allies at the expense of the TPLF. He pursued his agenda by demonizing and criminalizing the party, and implicating all Tigrayans in TPLF’s real and perceived misdeeds.
When describing these challenges that caused the relationship between the Tigray and federal authorities to break down, Zola solely blames “Tigrayan impunity”. In reality, Tigray was insisting on retaining regional autonomy as per the Ethiopian constitution.
Similarly, Zola assigns sole responsibility for the ongoing civil war to Tigrayan leaders by focusing on the allegations surrounding the “pre-emptive strike” against the federal military in Tigray on 3-4 November 2020.
This retelling of events discounts two years of escalation and a military build-up prior to Tigray’s move to neutralize the Northern Command. Rising tensions involved isolating Tigray by blocking the roads through the Amhara region and culminated in an agreement between Ethiopian authorities and Sudanese authorities to close off the border.
Nor does Zola mention the threat that came from the opaque arrangements between Abiy and Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki, who explicitly declared a political cleansing was needed in Tigray.
Zola simply dismisses these realities as “perceived provocations.”
The article then devolves into a series of statements that are impossible to substantiate about the motivations and desires of the “Tigrayan elite” at this time. In this narrative, TPLF is singularly to blame for starting the war and did so in an effort to return to power in Addis Abeba.
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In reality, the war against Tigrayans had been brewing for a long time, as demonstrated by pervasive rhetoric dating as far back as 2016 that the battle was between 95 million—the Ethiopian people minus Tigrayans—and five million Tigrayans.
This type of rhetoric adopted during the Abiy-era culminated in what was evidently a well-prepared assault on Tigray by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Eritrean Defence Forces, regional special forces and militias, and drones supplied by foreign powers.
The author reveals his bias by brushing off the possibility of this war being genocidal despite the reality that it is being waged by a majority population with the assistance of foreign allies against an ethnic minority.
Another example of the knee-jerk reaction to any positive attributes associated with ‘Tigrayaness’ seen throughout the piece is Zola’s resentment towards media depictions of Tigrayans’ battle acumen.
Ultimately, the article reflects the author’s quest to rid complex historical, political, and social realities of all nuance to create a simplistic portrayal whereby Tigrayan elites alone in Ethiopian politics are chronically and irrationally warmongers.
The myth that Jews are inherently malevolent, intransigent, conspiratorial, and treacherous as a result of rejecting the Messiah has been central to historical anti-Semitism.
In much the same way, Zola’s piece utilizes the myth of Tigrayan exceptionalism to extricate the Tigrayan story from the broader narrative of the Ethiopian people’s fight against oppressive structures and it imbues everything associated with Tigray with rebellious traits and malevolent motives.
In the last eighteen months, the Tigrayan people have been subjected to grave atrocities. Reports, videos, and personal testimonies have revealed scores of massacres, sexual violence on a massive scale, brutal ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, and horrific killings by security officials and vigilantes.
Tigray has been cut off from the rest of the world by a medieval siege and a near-total electricity, communication, and media blackouts.
Tigray’s health system and economy have been purposely destroyed and a humanitarian blockade imposed by the federal government has created terrible conditions, with millions driven into starvation.
That many Ethiopians continue to turn a blind eye to this terrible situation is partially explained by the resentment and hatred fostered through corrosive narratives. In this context, the myth of Tigrayan exceptionalism serves to blame the victim and to cleanse the perpetrators of responsibility for these terrible atrocities.
In light of the precarious situation of Tigrayans across Ethiopia, such insidious claims are the foundations of more hate speech. If there is any hope of ever healing the political ruptures in Ethiopia, such narratives must be identified and condemned without reservation.
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Follow Ethiopia Insight This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: Women fighters of Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) celebrating capturing Mekelle; June 2021; France 24.
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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.
“..roof to the heard” should read “roof to their head not “heard” “un regard”…” should read “in regard to…”
From GETACHEW REDA
As Ph.D. student, it seems you are wasting your time stashing your precious study on TPLF’s false propaganda as face value.
To begin with, your argument is full of fallacy, denial, and partisan. Leaving your large unsupported argument aside to Zola’s response, where your writing lacks the knowledge to identify why Tigrayan supremacy is so vivid out there for the public to see it for the last 47 years, sourced from the politics of fascism majority Tigrayans worshipped. Definitely, there is no question that Tigrayan exceptionalism was a problem for 27 years and still is a problem to the Tigrayans and to Ethiopians and to others as well/`. You can deny it all you want, all you need to do is search many of the arts, the drama, the books, the speeches openly preached all over in public stages. You are young now, you will get it later after you build yourself through “different” readings and observations when that age followed by gray hair comes to reality.
Un regard to the First Weyane you addressed, please read outside reading Weyane authors to educate yourself to free yourself from being partisan.
In regard to the denial you deny on Tigrayan exceptional beneficiary. I can give you plenty of evidences- where this space is not adequate to address it; but if you insist, I will be glad to address it to you.
Coming to the point where I want to focus. I like to ask you, why you want to address selectively only on your Tigrayn ethnic’s atrocity leaving aside what the Tigrayans also did similar atrocity to the people of Amhara and Afar?
Let me quote you;
“In the last eighteen months, the Tigrayan people have been subjected to grave atrocities. Reports, videos, and personal testimonies have revealed scores of massacres, sexual violence on a massive scale, brutal ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, and horrific killings by security officials and vigilantes. Tigray’s health system and economy have been purposely destroyed with millions driven into starvation.”
Shockingly, you surprised me you as female intentionally disregard the rape of Amhara and Afar women by the undisciplined hooligan Tigrayn fighters for reason of your hate of the Amhara and Afar people. You of course definitely is aware that the Amhara and Afar people were subject to the same atrocity you addressed.
Reports, videos, and personal testimonies have revealed scores of massacres, sexual violence on a massive scale, brutal ethnic cleansing, and horrific killings, rape of 13 and 80 years old kids and mothers families forced to watch the act, all carried by Tigrayan fighters inside the Amhara and Afar “Kelil”.
Amhara and Afar infrastructures health system, schools, factories, churches destroyed and looted by plan and by order. Mind you, millions displaced from their home and their farm leaving in remote refugee camps with no food or roof to the heard.
The following link is the tip of the iceberg. Can you able to read this from Amnesty’s report?
It isn’t too much to expect a coherent and cohesive article from a Ph.D. candidate and master’s level student. What you produced is confusing and contradictory in its own right, let alone juxtaposed with reality. It isn’t Zola that you are confronted with, but instead almost 3-decades worth of documented evidence. Attempt addressing those.
You can’t help anyone to unlearn HATE. The Amara have HATE in their hearts and minds and homes for Tigray. It took 27 years to build and another 4 years boil over. You can’t ask a people to reason. They have to do these when they realize that HATE is only a burden and that HATE blinds & continue to impact their own wellbeing. Amara, you have my permission to continue making HATE your motto
Sorry, it looks minor,typo corrections is in order in my two cents
I am afraid that the current exceptionalism sentiment and perception rightly or wrongly leveled against rightly
Tigrayans isn’t necessarily first kind nor would it be the last accusation against of any ethnic group in the unti-modernization and reform-adverse empire. It is here to stay and it is growing now into monstrous and unristrained group teragninet entitlement deology: a merry-go-around of vicious ethnic political cicles. Not unless some serious democratization processes , fundanental institutional reforms, fair decentralization of political power sharing through credible federalism formula and equitable national resources allocation scheme are put in place. Not as long as despotic minded leardership persona or small clique in the name of ethnic group affiliation or underpretext of overbearing and holier-than-thougb single political party controls the political system.. Again, the group exceptionalism trend, whether real or imagined , is not something new and has never been. Remember the feudal era and its unparalled Amhara corrupt exceptionalism heydays ¡ If it wasn’t mentioned so often back then, perhaps people weren’t’t aware of their fudemrntal rights as citizens and were less demanding to have it or because they were far less enlightened and imaginative than they are today. Note that also Amahar’s current political push for extremism ideology, though majority seem still moderate, and urealistic demands to make an absolute political power comeback and by any means necessary . The sentiment case for Tigaru ia differen: it has more to do with their failure to manage expectations of the masses , if not perpetuated more the old abuses while in power nearly for hree decades than any widespread of historcal animosity or antipathy.. Nations and nationalitie expected from them to stand for what was right and justice by implementing a fair and equitable federalism model since themselves were among marginalized groups and airing simular grievances against the centre for decades Alas, it wasn’t to be it., not by any stretch of imagination. As for current Oromo/oromamuma’s creepy group teragninet case, no one knows yet what the future holds for the empire , but as things stands now, the future isn’t promising.
I am afraid that the current exceptionalism sentiment and perception leveled against , rightly or wrongly,
Tigrays isn’t necessarily the first nor would it be the last accusation against any ethnic group in the modernization and reform-adverse empire. It is here to stay and it seems growing now into monstrous and unristrain group teragninet entitlement deology: a merry-go-around of vicious ethnic political cicle. Not unless some serious democratization processes , fundanental institutional reforms, fair decentralization of political power through credible federalism formula and equitable national resources allocation scheme are put in place. Not as long a despotic minded leardership persona or small clique in the name of ethnic group affiliation or underpretxt of overbearing and holier-than-thougb single political partt controls the system.. Again, grouo exceptionalism trend whether real or imagined , is not something new and never been Remember the feudal and its unparalled Amhara corrupt exceptionalism haydays ¡ If it wasn’t mentioned so often back then, perhaps people weren’t’t aware of their fudemrntal rights as citizens and were less demanding for it or because they were far less enlightened t and imaginative than they are today. Note that also Amahar’s current political push for extremism ideology, though majority seen still moderades, and urealistic demands to make for political power comeback and by any means.. The sentiment case for Tigaru is more to do with their failure to manage expectations of the masses , if more abuses , while in power over in three decades than any widespread historcal animosity or antipathy.. Nations and nationalitie expected them to stand for what was right and justice by implementing fair and equitable federalism model, since they were among marginalized groups and airing simular grievances against the centre for decades Alas, it wasn’t to be by stretch of imagination. As for Oromo/oromamuma’s creepy group teragninet case, no one knows yet what the future holds for us, but as things stands now, the future isn’t promising.
I was wandering when a rebuttal to Zola's piece was going to appear. Seeing the kind of engagement he illicited, i can tell his article stroke some right chords..however, i have my misgivings.
In my opinion, the authors of this well articulated response have done some right in correcting some of the points conveniently glossed over by Zola M. Namely, that this war is not about restoring an "endagered" constitutional order, but about the deliberate attempt to purge the political, economic, social and cultural assets of tigray. As contentious as this statement might seem, for an analyst with the benefit of hindsight (since Nov 2020) & the continued unfolding of the said crimes, zola should have figured this out. HE DENIED THE APPARENT.
That being said, he nevertheless did raise some intresting points, wherin i believe, the gist of his article lies
If i may play the devil's advocate, he points out a contradiction, what he termed 'Vulnerability and invincibility '. Seeing the vulnerable state tigray is in today, though not without agency, we still have to grapple with the question that, could it have been averted ? Coudn't tigrayan elite took a reconcilliatory posture, understanding that a signigicant portion of Ethiopian society have rejected the TPLF-EPRDF model ? and that this rejection can easily be wielded into the racist undertones that was (& continues) to be directed against tigrayans at large ? Especially in Ethiopia's current ethnic based organization, this was forseable. But no. Sadly, tigrayan elite couldn't overcome their seeming 'invincibility' and had to go on and face-off in the poltical and later military domains. Tigrayans (and friends alike) have to question the wisdom of this. Going further, i wonder, is it really necessary for tigryans to contend for the center, and be among those vying for greater visibility ?
I say no.
I'm fully aware that such power feuds are a natural product once a country is set up on a rather rigid ethno-lingustic lines. In such exclusivity, every one wants to be at the top. Thus, as long as the current system reigns, its valid to imagine an Amhara, Oromo or any single ethnic group's ' Exceptionalism '.
In today's Ethiopia, If ' Exceptionalism ' is a crime, then all is guilty,
Food for thought i hope. And please, do excuse my monologue.
For 27 years TPLF and its coalition labored in good faith on a nation-building project with some considerable success. Thank you for writing this essay to refute the distortions and falsehood in the portrayal of TPLF and Tigray people that has culminated into a war of atrocities.
Well done Meron and Saba. Zola’s piece of trash article required a response. And please ignore those hatefilled comments from others, but then, you knew what’s coming. Obviously Ethiopians do not want Tigrayans as part of their country, but do they really have to starve them to death after committing untold atrocities? Could have just nicely asked them to leave 2 years ago. Result is a recipe for centuries of warfare – there is no reconciliation possible, especially considering how much misinformation is out there on Ethiopian side.
Correction: Redwan should read Sekoutre in comment above.
The madman and war monger Debre Saytan, excuse my french, I mean, Debra Tsion has been on video record prior to the start of the war, threatening Ethiopia, threatening the Amhara region in particular, and calling for a “people against people” war. Redwan is on video record stating that TPLF has started the attack against the Northern Command, calling it anticipatory defense and “mebrekawi tikat” or blitzkrieg.
How can anybody defend TPLF against these types of evidence, clear cut, unequivocal and that originated from none other than TPLF insiders and members in the first place. It is morally repugnant, and intellectually shameful and dishonest to violate the truth, neglecting the suffering, displacement, death and marginalization of millions. It is unconscionable to be a tool of political party ideologues with no compunction, no humanity, no ethics,no responsibility, and no accountability.
The objections against TPLF are not exclusive to TPLF, the current government of Abiy Ahmed and his Prosperity Party too should be and will be held accountable for the marginalization, displacement, murder and mayhem occurring on their watch. Abiy has failed to protect the lives, security and freedom of Ethiopians all over the country, and must be held accountable together with his PP cadres and sycophants.
Can you please share links to sources that indicate the aggressive stance of TPLF before the war? I understand the Amhara people have been dreading attack by TPLF since 2018. Please list any sources where Debre Tsion and his party made remarks of aggression and such.
“That the TPLF wielded considerable influence in the EPRDF leadership is a fact. This was due to its role in the armed struggle, its victory over the Derg, and the new political dispensation that emerged after 1991.”
So, since it fought against the Derg regime it was TPLF`s right to wield overwhelming power. Does anything scream “exceptionalism” more than the above paragraph????
“So, while the TPLF was indeed influential in the coalition, and its officials wielded considerable control in the intelligence and security apparatus…”
What else do you wanna have control of??? This is what you call shooting yourself in the foot. Since the TPLF had nearly 100% control over everything. So, any regional politician was TPLF`s puppet and anyone that dared to say a word against it was silenced. So the country maintained an appearance of a free and democratic country but it was nothing more than an illusion.
“In the last eighteen months, the Tigrayan people have been subjected to grave atrocities. Reports, videos, and personal testimonies have revealed scores of massacres, sexual violence on a massive scale, brutal ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, and horrific killings by security officials and vigilantes.”
As opposed to TPLF that sent Easter bunnies with eggs into the Amhara and Afar regions. How did this garbage of an article was even published on this media outlet. ?♂️
The main cause of internal chaos since Zemene Mesafint has been the likes of Ras Mikael who come from that northern part of the country. Since that time, every generation rises up against the government to talk about “tigray, tigray, tigray..”
Ethiopia has now waken up to the fact that peace cannot be achieved as long as that region is in Ethiopia. It is time for both parties to peacefully separate. Eritrea has done it. So now is the time to think about separation.
Do you need to bombard a university with mortar, bury dead on the premises, destroy 4 000 schools, defecate in hotels, do so many diabolical atrocities on innocent farmers, dislocate so many households….and you want me to believe the tplf is innocent?? No way, someone has to be accountable and such essays will not absolve the perpetrators.
IS there any evidence or were all atrocities committed by Shabia to amend for their dirty deeds in Tigray. It neefs to be investigated is my view
Author is an obvious Tplf sympathizer.
Dear Meron and Saba,
This essay you have written comes from a severely under-informed and/or misinformed vantage point, and as such falls short of adding helpful insight in understanding our troubles. Quite the contrary.
“…there has never been a time when Tigrayans have used this to claim “differential treatment and special entitlement” in an organized political form.”
What you do next is, instead of refuting Zola’s points, you attempt to rationalize and justify them. Without saying much about Zola’s article, you are proving his points. For instance, you say ENDF “had many Tigrayans in its higher echelons.” Why? What did TPLF do to all those that fought bravely, professionally, and honorably against the likes of TPLF under the banner of Ethiopia? Why did TPLF need to completely disband and dismantle our soldiers, without so much as pension, hard won medical and social services? Is it because TPLF was scared they might start fighting against it again?
Then comes war with EPLF in 1998, who did TPLF call for? Exactly, the same officers and enlisted of Ethiopia’s prior national military for their defense. Only to turn around and send them on their way empty handed, again, after using them that wasteful war.
And no, the positioning of TPLF loyalist Tigrayans in higher echelons of ENDF did not “progressively reduce.” It increased. After TPLF saw threats democracy poses to its visions in 2005’s elections, TPLF made it a point to replace majority of ENDF’s top commanding leadership with TPLF loyalist Tigrayan ones. Tell me, how did that play out come November 2020 up to now?
If you care an iota for Tigray, please inform yourself of the facts first. This is no time for willful ignorance (unless your article is for non-Ethiopians). Reality and truth always comes on top.