By Mebrahtu Ateweberhan
I have heard people describe the Tigray conflict as a struggle for power between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Abiy’s Prosperity Party. There could be some grain of truth in that but it is also TPLF centric and neglects the history of uneasy relationship between Tigray and the central powers in Addis Ababa/Showa. It is a case of center-periphery relationship with a long history and diminishing loyalty that has morphed into an irredentist struggle. By waging a senseless war on Tigray, Abiy Ahmed could be burning the last bridge connecting Tigray with the center.
Alula’s generation: a case of absolute loyalty to central authorities
The counter-offensive by the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) Operation Alula, takes its name from the great Tigrayan and Ethiopian hero of the 19th century. The Operation has succeeded in dismantling the Ethiopian federal, Amhara and Eritrean forces that had occupied Tigray for the last eight months and caused an untold havoc in the region. If Alula’s name is being invoked to inspire and embolden the Tigrayan people and the TDF and terrorise and humiliate the invading forces, then it certainly has achieved its goal.
A humble peasant from Temben, Alula was extremely loyal to his masters, which made him rise to the rank of Ras, one of the highest positions at the time. Achieving that position amidst the intrigues and conspiracies of the Abyssinian feudal court is no mean feat.
In this article, I intend to write about the other crucial character of Alula – loyalty, and its importance in keeping Tigray close to the center and its meaning in the current context of Tigray.
Alula was a brave soldier, tactful diplomat but also ruthless and brutal to those that he considered as enemies. He was also obedient and loyal to his masters. As Emperor Yohannes’s loyal servant and the chief of Hamasien (now Eritrea), he routed invading Egyptians, defeated the Mahdists, ambushed Italian forces at Dogali. He was instrumental in defeating the Italians alongside Menelik at Adwa (1896). Equally controversial, he is accused of destabilising the political system in highland Eritrea, and his excessive brutality against the Kunama and Nara is narrated in local folklore to this day.
Following Emperor Yohannes’s death at Metema, the squabble among Tigrayan chiefs made it difficult for Mengesha, Yohannes’s son and heir, to take his father’s throne. Menelik, Yohannes’s archrival seized the opportunity and declared himself King of Kings of Ethiopia. Despite the detestation he had for Menelik, allegiance to king and country compelled Alula to travel south to Showa to pledge loyalty. Alongside young Mengesha, he approached Emperor Menelik carrying a pebble on his head, traditionally a gesture of submission. Here was the man who terrorised Hamasien and Mereb Melash and whose legends were talked about in the streets of Rome bowing to the feet of the old enemy. True to tradition, Menelik, a master of diplomacy and tact himself, pardoned Alula. With that he brought on his side one of the most loyal but also formidable fighters of the time.
In trying to explain why Ethiopia remained a united country for generations, especially during the tumultuous 19th and 20th centuries when it was attacked by European and Egyptian invaders, Mahdist incursions and later by fascist Italy, Haggai Erlich denotes loyalty of Tigrayan chiefs to central powers as the key factor. Erlich, who is also Alula’s biographer, specifically mentions Alula, Mengesha (Emperor Yohannes’s son) and Seyoum (the Emperor’s grandson). Despite their initial hesitation and even temptation to join the Italians in closeby Eritrea, Alula’s and Mengesha Yohannes’ surrender to Showa’s Menelik was the main glue that kept Tigray and the rest of the north close to the center (Showa). That allowed Menelik to consolidate his grip over the Oromos and extend his territories further south and west, and modern Ethiopia was born.
Alula’s and Mengesha’s submission to Menelik also signified the start of intensification of center-periphery dynamics. Menelik refused to give the title of King of Tigray to Mengesha and is seen as a traitor in Tigray for that and his deals with the Italians in undermining Tigray.
Woyane I: loyalty questioned
However, Tigrayan loyalty was not reciprocated by the south and provincialism and peripheralization persisted especially during Haileselassie’s reign. Although royal intermarriages played an essential role in maintaining elite Tigrayan loyalty, Tigray as a society remained marginalised. Mengistu Hailemariam once described it as ‘a region that doesn’t even produce writing chalk.’
Continued marginalisation of Tigray was the main trigger of the so-called First Woyane rebellion (1941-1943). Haileselassie crushed the uprising with the help of the British. Nonetheless, Seyoum Mengesha remained loyal to the sovereign, which ensured Tigray stayed connected to the center, at least at elite level. If Seyoum had followed in the footsteps of Haileselassie Gugsa (Emperor Yohannes’s other great grandson), the recent history of Tigray and Ethiopia, and perhaps Eritrea, would be different. Gugsa defected to Eritrea and conspired with fascist Italy when it attacked Ethiopia from the north.
Yet, the memory of the First Woyane never went away as living conditions continued to deteriorate across Tigray.
Woyane II: a case of divided loyalty
When the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) started its struggle against the Derg, its declared aim was the secession of Tigray from Ethiopia. Its 1976 manifesto even defined the areas that should be part of the Republic of Tigray. Not before long, it dropped its pro-independence manifesto for a self-determination struggle within democratic Ethiopia. However, various observers claim that the Tigray-Ethiopia duplicity never left the TPLF. Most importantly, the organisation officially called itself Second Woyane, which implies continuity with the past (Woyane I).
The fall of the Derg provided an opportunity for the TPLF to fill the power vacuum. Tigray was back in power and a strange paradigm developed where the periphery became the center as Mekelle controlled Addis. It took some time for the TPLF, whose raison d’etre was the emancipation of Tigray, to adjust to the new role. For Melles Zenawi and his close allies in Addis, it was crucial that the other center, Mekelle, remained loyal and obedient as it did during Menelik’s and Haileselassie’s times. That explains why Mekelle was made to stay under a tight disciplinary system while Addis and other cities enjoyed relative freedoms. The early post-1991 political activities, e.g. introduction of ethnic-based federal system, allowing regions the right to invoke article 39 and secede if they wished and new maps that go with it, indicate that the center-periphery dynamics was not over. Many observers believe that they were the signs that the 1978 TPLF manifesto was not completely discarded.
It was only after the end of the border war with Eritrea that a significant shift in policy was observed. Nevertheless, it was a little too late. By then discontent against Tigrayan domination had already reached a simmering level. Triggered by corruption, youth unemployment and lack of democratic reform, TPLF/EPRDF Ethiopia found itself at the verge of collapse. The mighty TPLF that entered Addis on the back of tanks and controlled the Ethiopian deep state for almost three decades was unceremoniously driven out of office. The TPLF found itself between the hammer and the anvil and it opted to leave the center for Mekelle. Provincialism was back in Ethiopian politics, with more vigor this time.
Woyane III: the end of loyalty
Even before the ousting of the TPLF from central power, Tigray was already in a deep conversation with itself regarding its future and its relationship with the south. Opinions varied from decentralised rule to the creation of an independent Republic of Tigray. This time, the narrative was outside the control of the TPLF. Out of favour in the south (center), it also found itself under heavy scrutiny in Tigray. It decided to be part of the discourse and personalities that held important ministerial positions and controlled the security and military of Ethiopia became part of it. It was a blessing in disguise for Tigray and at the same time a saving grace for TPLF top brass as they were to play a central role of leadership during the defence of Tigray.
If there were some that wanted to shape Ethiopia from the center, the heightened descrimination and blackmailing against Tigrayans, especially in the Amhara Region and by the Federal Government, did not help their cause. Outside Arena Tigray, many of the newly formed political parties, such as Tigray Independence Party, Baytona Tigray, Tigray Independence Movement and Salsay Woyane supported either complete independence from the country they called ‘empire’ or, at best, they wanted to stay very loosely connected to it.
The tolerance exhibited by the TPLF leadership on the pro-independence parties and the total focus on Tigray can be considered as a subtle declaration that the TPLF was closer to that camp. It conducted a regional election in defiance of the Election Commission’s ruling and started strengthening local institutions, including the regional army. Tigray was set on a new path. The Salsay Woyane generation proved that it is indeed different from that of Alula’s and its forefather’s generation.
Abiy Ahmed: burning the last bridge?
If Salsay Woyane was not like Yohannes, Alula, Mengesha or Seyoum, Abiy is not like Menelik either. With his approval rate more than 70% in Tigray when he came to power in 2018, Abiy squandered a great opportunity to bring the TPLF into the fold, if not the entire Tigray. Instead, he was in his own world shrouded by a great desire for personal grandeur, and to appease chauvinist forces and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, and resorted to tactics of isolating the TPLF. He was perhaps blinded by the massive popular support he gained initially and his quick success in quelling the rebellion in the Somali Region to think that Tigray was another pushover. What he started as a ‘law enforcement’ campaign culminated into an all out war, and has threatened Ethiopia’s existence.
Explaining his ‘unilateral withdrawal’ from Tigray, Abiy was heard saying that his army was fighting an invisible enemy and accused the people of Tigray of subversion. He said he had to withdraw because his army was very detached from its own power base. With those utterances, he has lost the entire nation of Tigray. But Abiy needed to gaze himself into the mirror first for it was him who turned the Tigray conflict into a people’s war by inviting foreign forces and attacking civilians wantonly, including committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Also, in what sounded like creating a wide rift between Tigray and the neighbouring Amhara Region, he said, “The Amhara are brave fighters and have a history of deterring any force that invades their land.” It looks like he has succeeded in doing that. The Amhara Region has declared a state of emergency and called on its people to mobilise and fight ‘the invading Tigrayan army’ by all means. With both ethnic regions having their own armies, there is a possibility that the Tigray war could turn into an ethnic fighting. The persecution of Tigrayans in major cities will intensify the crisis.
Another baffling statement from Abby was that Mekelle (Tigray’s capital) had lost its significance: “It is not more important than Beshasha (a small town in Oromiya Region).” It is not clear if he was referring to the destruction of Mekelle at the hands of the marauding invaders or if he was trying to state a fact that Mekelle would lose significance if cut out from Addis Ababa and the rest of the south.
For now, we can conclude with confidence that, unlike Alula’s, the new generation of Tigray has no vestige of loyalty left that makes it bow to the center. We can say that that vital ingredient that kept Tigray closer to the center, with it the whole of Ethiopia, has disappeared. Judging from his recent remarks, unlike Menelik and Haileselassie, Abiy has no capacity or desire to bring Tigray into line. He had an opportunity to embrace former TPLF leaders as he had done with former Amara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) leaders who were probably equally corrupt and human rights violators, if not worse. Abiy may not be responsible for starting the uneasy center-periphery relationship. As the TPLF is culpable for widening the ethnic divide through ethnic politics, Abiy could be remembered for stacking up the last straws that broke the camel’s back.
Many questions beg to be answered: Is this another phase in Ethiopia’s long cycle of violence that the country can overcome? Can Tigray be a viable republic that lives peacefully with its neighbours? What will be the regional implications?
Salsay Weyane is the official name of one of the new political parties in Tigray. I have used the term to describe the young generation of Tigray politicians.
Haggai Erlich (1986). Ethiopia and the challenge of independence. Lynne Riener, Denver, 265pp.
Knife Gebreyesus. The rise of Woyane Rebellion II or the TPLF – Part Two http://www.aigaforum.com/TPLF_II.pdf (accessed July 15, 2021).