Why Erasing Tigray to Build a Modern Day Babel Fails?

By Temesgen Kahsay

My parents, both from Tigray,  migrated and settled in Asmara, Eritrea, in the early 1960s. The first few years of my childhood were spent under the Derg regime, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia between 1974-1991. My father was a soldier who served in the army under the Derg army that was fighting against the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) and Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF). 

Growing up in Asmara, as a Tigrayan, whose father served in the army, I was profoundly shaped and affected by the politics of the time. My childhood was a precarious experience overshadowed by the question of belonging. As far back as I can remember, I grew up hearing ethnic slurs like pediculus or grasshopper/cactus eater Tigrayan thrown from the Amhara-dominated Derg army and its supporters who always suspected all Tigrayans were spies and agents working for the “Woyane” (TPLF). Among Eritreans, we were called the poor Agame (a common term used to refer to Tigrayans in Eritrea) who came from the backward Tigray, and although we were considered close cousins we were always held at arm’s length. (Ethnic slurs were not unique to Tigrayans only but were also directed against the Oromos, Wolaytas, Somalis, and other ethnic groups from the south, west, and east. This goes against the idea that ethnicity became an issue in Ethiopia after 1991, which is widely promoted by some. However, ethnic hierarchies and negative categorization have always been part and parcel of Ethiopian political and social discourses.)

Sandwiched between these labels, the nation-building the Derg implemented with its policy of language and education centered on Amharic ensured that I assimilated to its dominant ethos, values, and worldviews. Even though both my parents spoke Tigrinya and we lived in Asmara where the main language is Tigrinya, the Derg followed a policy of assimilation imposing Amharic as a lingua-franca for work, education, media, and the army.  I was taught to reject my Tigrayan identity – its language, culture, history, and heritage. Ironically, the history of Ethiopia I was taught in school drew heavily from Tigray – the Axum civilization and the Battle of Adwa – yet it was a history that was stripped of its distinctive Tigrayan root and repurposed to fit into the pan-Ethiopian nation-building. As a result, I was so thoroughly ‘Amharicised’ that I became a self-hating Tigrayan and an ardent supporter of the wars of the Derg: singing its songs, claiming its heroes, writing poems, and dreaming to annihilate its “enemies”. I was so patriotic that as a child my only dream was always to become a military pilot and join the army.   

When the Derg regime fell in May 1991, the EPLF that controlled Eritrea confiscated their properties and deported families of the Derg army. My family settled in Addis Ababa starting life from scratch in a refugee camp. For most of my life under the EPRDF regime, survival was the only thing that mattered to my family and politics took a backseat. When the occasion came, I  never identified myself as a Tigrayan. I just wore the Amhara mask and passed as an Amharic-speaking, apolitical, EPRDF-sceptic Ethiopian, and an early supporter of Abiy Ahmed, until the war on Tigray, began in November 2020. 

It is now more than a year since the start of the war in Tigray. Tigray is sandwiched between the Eritrean army in the north and the Ethiopian regular army and the Amhara and Afar regional forces and affiliated militias in the west, south, and east. The violence against Tigrayans is accompanied by hate speech, ethnic profiling, mass arrests, massacres, rape, ethnic cleansing, displacement, and destruction of critical infrastructure and cultural sites aiming to wipe out Tigrayans. Moreover, the Ethiopian government has imposed a siege on Tigray blocking humanitarian help and withholding vital services, and using starvation to accomplish what it could not militarily. 

The Root of the Root Problem

From within the context of this war, I can’t help but reflect on previous wars and the symbolic and psychological precursors to the genocidal tendencies fully revealed now, which I failed to perceive at the time. My specific and differentiated experiences aside, Ethiopia’s past and current wars reveal the cyclical, structural, and perennial problems baked into the foundation of modern Ethiopia. 

As a beacon of freedom and symbol of defiance for Africans and the Black Diaspora, as well as being the only Black African power that participated in the Scramble for Africa, Ethiopia remains an enigma. Though it existed in different shapes, the modern Ethiopian state took its current form in the second half of the 19th century. Its emergence, paralleling the European colonization of Africa, was accompanied by a brutal and violent expansion to the east, west, and south of the country. Right from the start, Ethiopia was besieged by the incongruity between the nation-building paradigm followed by the central state and the complex diversity of its inhabitants. 

The pan-Ethiopian nation-building policies realized by the fathers of modern Ethiopia Menelik II (1889-1913) and Haile Selassie (1930-1974) were built around the assimilation of the country’s diverse ethnic and cultural minorities into a core dominated by Amharic-speaking Orthodox Christian national identity. While the Derg (1974-1991), being anti-religious, truncated the religious element from the national identity it promoted, it continued with the same assimilationist policies of the monarchical regimes of the past. 

In 1991, the emergence of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), in which the TPLF was the dominant party, brought some redress to historical ethnic and cultural injustices meted against the country’s diverse ethnic groups. The EPRDF devised a new constitution and reconstituted the country into ethnic federal regions that granted them limited freedom and self-governance. However, despite the economic growth and achievements, much of the EPRDF’s reforms remained at the surface level and were undermined by its authoritarian and highly centralized power structure that failed to build strong institutions. However, despite the cultural and ethnic rights granted, under the EPRDF regime, the Ethiopian state remained as authoritarian and at times as brutal as its predecessors. Starting from 2015, popular protests about coalescing and diverse issues like land and corruption led to the downfall of the EPRDF and the emergence of Abiy Ahmed Ali in 2018. 

Abiy Ahmed Ali – From Dawn to a Nightmare

The euphoria and Abiymania that gripped the country when Abiy came to power was palpable and was felt by millions of supporters. But in the midst of fast-paced changes, there were telltale signs that not all of Abiy’s “reforms” were taking the country forward. In fact, the country is now gripped by the nostalgia of the old days. Pictures of past kings and dictators appeared on taxis on the streets of Addis Ababa. The writing of the book Medemer (synergy and unity), the renovation of the imperial palace in Addis Ababa, and the subsequent installation of a life-size waxwork of Haile Selassie were indicative of the resurgence of the country’s unitarian and imperial past. The dissolution of the multi-ethnic party of the EPRDF and the creation of a unitarian Prosperity Party became the final nail on the coffin confirming that Abiy’s reforms are geared more to centralization of power and re-entrenchment of past regimes. 

It is within the context of such developments that the current war in Tigray, as well as conflicts and outbreaks of violence in other parts of the country including Oromia, Beni-Shangul Gumuz, etc, should be analyzed. Old fissures and cleavages resulting from competing and conflicting narratives of identities, history, and politics that had dominated much of the modern history of Ethiopia are back with a ferociousness that had not been seen before. The old question of nations and nationalities and the search for the elusive but optimal political configuration is back at the forefront of the current conflict. 

The Path Forward 

The eleventh chapter of the Bible narrates the story of the Tower of Babel can serve as a metaphor illuminating the futility of contemporary efforts to build a nation-state based on one language and culture. The story illustrates that centralized efforts aided by technology and statecraft to create homogenous societies where one language and culture dominates are doomed to fail from the get-go. As Jewish scholars comment, Babel was the first “totalitarianism”, where linguistic differences became an antidote against uniformity. 

The history of nation-building of modern Ethiopia parallels as well as re-enacts the Babel story in its attempt of homogenizing diverse ethnic groups and making a nation-state. Often, the Ethiopian state-employed assimilationist policies and violence to erase differences while eliminating those who stood in its way. As the history of Ethiopia in the second half of the 20th century illustrates, a highly centralized state accentuating one culture and language and imposing its will on its subjects failed and led to the overthrow of a government and the creation of Eritrea as a new country. 

The current war in Tigray with all its characteristics of a scorched-earth policy of war and use of hunger as a weapon is a replica of past regimes. As in the past, the war has galvanized Tigrayans of all political persuasions to resist the genocidal campaigns waged against them and sparked a strong yearning for a state and political community where their individual and collective rights are respected and valued. It is not yet clear what sort of political configuration will emerge, but there are three concrete emerging realities. First, the genocidal campaigns have failed, Tigray is going nowhere. And second, the fate and destiny of Tigray will not be subject to the whims of Addis Ababa or Asmara but to the will and aspiration of Tigrayans themselves. Third, Ethiopia is at crossroads; failure to imagine a new political configuration that reckons with the past, that addresses grievances, and creates an inclusive society that respects the individual, as well as the collective rights of its nations and nationalities, will not stop the country from its path of disintegration.

Temesgen Kahsay

Temesgen Kahsay is an assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Leadership and Theology. His area of research is the intersection between religion and society, religion and culture and the role of the religion in the contemporary local and global contexts.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Turkey, Iran & UAE are responsible for their part in Tigray Genocide and mass starvation

    Thus far, TPLF has been destined to cause the falling and rising of the people of Tigray, our beloved people(Luke 2:34). During the past TPLF era , we have risen to the top fastest growing countries, and unfortunately we have fallen to the lowest level of poverty and destruction and subjected to the highest level of genocide and mass killings ever recorded in our history even if the actors of the destruction, and the Tigray genocide are Amhara fanos, amhara militia , Eritrean regime(higdef) and involved foreign mercenaries like Somalia, UAE, Iran and Turkey. Contemptible silence of western powers and international organizations , along with US, has played a huge role in continuation of the genocide perpetrated against our beloved people .

    Silence is the sovereign contempt. – Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuv

    Eritrean regime, Amhara youth organized to execute mass killings, robbery and rape named “Fanos”, and prosperity party dominated by amhara elites are found guilty of triple sin of rape , genocide, and land theft. Anonymous
    If we do a little bit of insight into history, how many times have there been people doing hate discourse, such as Amhara elites and their cult like party, prosperity party, blaming everything on a certain group of people. That really is the genesis of genocide, where it kind of sparks. Gael Garcia Bernal

    Turkey , stop killing Tegaru and stop repeating your genocidal history: over 350,000 Greeks were killed by Ottoman Turkey between 1913 & 1922, Turkey “entirely rejects” US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the 1915 Armenian events as “genocide,”and now again involved in Tigray genocide by supplying genocidal machines and handing its experts specialized in massacring innocent civilians randomly .

    “Some argue that recognition of the genocide has become even more problematic now, when the world is at war with terrorism and the United States cannot afford to offend the sensibility of our Turkish(&UAE ) ally.” ~ Adam Schiff

    “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
    – Mahatma Gandhi
    “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” — Dr Martin Luther King Jr
    We still hopefully beseech the international community to condemn the genocide in Tigray, Oromia and else where in Ethiopia and act accordingly to save further loss of lives, halt continued mass arrest, rape, arrest , robbery, and destruction based on ethnic and political view.
    Blocking a humanitarian corridor eagerly seeking massive death from your man made famine is potentially a war crime to rank with Nazi genocide.

    https://www.thetoptens.com/most-evil-leaders/

    https://www.grunge.com/infamous-dictators-history-fooled-people/

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/why-do-people-follow-bad-leaders

    Historians are ready to expand their list of evil and narcissist leaders to include the infamous Turkish leader, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is leaving a genocidal history to his successors and his revered people of Turkey . Turkish people should condemn his genocidal act . No one will doubt Abiy Ahmed, and the arch-terrorist Isyas of Eritrea, will be added to the list of the most pugnaciously evil leaders . BTW, Abiy Ahmed and his supporters, amhara elites and Fanos, never ever determined to engage in peaceful talks , not even displayed their desire for reconciliation, but deceptively used words like « ceasefire», & « national dialogue », as a fig leaf to create confusion and buy time and perpetrate a well-prepared and premeditated genocide as shown in their actions contrasting with their words .

  2. Turkish leaders inherit genocidal history to their people once again

    Thus far, TPLF has been destined to cause the falling and rising of people of Tigray, our beloved people(Luke 2:34). During the past TPLF era , we have risen to the top fastest growing countries, and unfortunately we have fallen to the lowest level of poverty and destruction and subjected to the highest level of genocide and mass killings ever recorded in our history even if the actors of the destruction, and the Tigray genocide are Amhara fanos, amhara militia , eritrean regime(higdef) and involved foreign mercenaries like Somalia, UAE, Iran and Turkey. Contemptible silence of western powers and international organizations , along with US, has played a huge role in continuation of the genocide perpetrated against our beloved people . Silence is the sovereign contempt. – Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuv

    Eritrean regime, Amhara fanos, and prosperity party dominated by amhara elites are found guilty of triple sin of rape , genocide, and land theft. Anonymous

    If we do a little bit of insight into history, how many times have there been people doing hate discourse, such as Amhara elites and their cult like party, prosperity party, blaming everything on a certain group of people(revered people of Tigray and their leaders). That really is the genesis of genocide, where it kind of sparks. Gael Garcia Bernal

    Turkey , stop killing Tegaru and stop repeating your genocidal history: over 350,000 Greeks were killed by Ottoman Turkey between 1913 & 1922, Turkey “entirely rejects” US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the 1915 Armenian events as “genocide,”and now again involved in Tigray genocide by supplying genocidal machines and handing its experts specilized in massacring innocent civilians randomly .

    “Some argue that recognition of the genocide has become even more problematic now, when the world is at war with terrorism and the United States cannot afford to offend the sensibility of our Turkish(&UAE ) ally.” ~ Adam Schiff “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” – Mahatma Gandhi “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people(internatinal community ).” — Dr Martin Luther King Jr

    We still hopefully beseech the international community to condemn the genocide in Tigray, Oromia and else where in Ethiopia and act accordingly to save further loss of lives, halt continued mass arrest, rape, arrest , robbery, and destruction based on ethnic and political view. Blocking humanitarian corridor eagerly seeking massive death from your man made famine is potentially a war crime to rank with Nazi genocide. https://www.thetoptens.com/most-evil-leaders/ https://www.thetoptens.com/most-evil-leaders/

    Historians are ready to expand their list of evil and narcissist leaders to include the infamous Turkish leader, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is leaving genocidal history to his successors and his revered people. Turkish people should condemn his genocidal act .

  3. Iran, Turkey and UAE stop supplying your genocidal machines to Ethiopia

    It is good to know your limit, and we admire your decision made upon the consideration of your failed attempts to subjugate People of Tigray and the destructive experience that your genocidal army underwent while facing TDF, African Lions. TDF will surely foil your staggering moves to enter Tigray , and you will sadly sacrifice lives in vain. Hence, better not renter nor pondering over it ?

    We all agree with your conviction that all Tegaru are one and support our leaders. As opposed your redundant rhetoric delivered for the past 30 years , no one in Tigray is compelled or brainwashed by any political party like your people from so-called Amhara region who sacrifice their family members to protect political elites..
    Amhara people are now became victims of the genocidal and territorial expansion theory of their repulsive leaders who befriend with Arab mercenaries from Turkey, UAE, and Iran to massacre innocent civilians based on their ethnic and political views.

    You are mounting the same propaganda against our people claiming “Tigray is not homogeneous and minorities in Tigray do not support the existing parties, and have no political representation etc

    does anyone among these minority members asked you , men of lies, to obtain a political or sociocultural representatives from Amhara elites or Eritrean war criminals massacring Irobs and entire people of Tigray ?

    Thus far, what were you doing to Kimant, Agew, Gumuz, Shinasha who are living in Amhara region ? Did they find a representative among Ibin or any Amhara party ? Do they even live peaceful, let alone finding a political representation ? Why are you forcing them(esp Agew, and Kimant ) to accept Amharanized identity and massacring them when they refuse to submit to your satanically egoistic ideology of territorial expansion and dictatorial ruling of one tribe ?
    People of Tigray has respected the rights of women, minorities and any social group who were underrepresented in the history of Ethiopia , and did their best to create a respective administrative and political entity for the forgotten people. This was the major reason you amhara elites objected the federal system by which every ethnic member retain a political and administrative representation in the nation, accommodating the federal system.

    You have been heard of rejecting and denying the rights of people living in Gambela region as if it’s inappropriate and illegitimate because it is not created by unitary and monarchical leaders from your tribe existing before 1991. What the people of Tigray had generously and fairly endowed and granted is inadmissible to you.

    In a heterogeneous society or a multi-ethnic nation, federalism is the best system of government to practice because it brings about a peaceful political association between people of different tribes, languages and beliefs. In a unitary(Ahadawi and limutawi) system of government , favored by Amhara elites who run one language, monarchical like ruling, where powers are only concentrated in the hands of a central government, if not in one person, the fear of the majority can lead to crisis.

    Glad to hear, once again, that you decided not to advance and enter Tigray whatever fabricated reason you gave : Tigray is not homogeneous, minorities are in tough situation, TDF is supported by Western powers etc We are happy for you since Amhara people will still be happy receiving their children safe and sound. We never had problem with ordinary citizens of any ethnic member, including your own people who were living in harmony and intermarried with every ethnic member but only and only with you goons who invite foreign mercenaries to massacre our people and destabilize Ethiopia and make Ethiopia an example of poverty, war and destruction in our planet. Last but not least, none of our leaders has expressed the desire for revenge against ordinary peaceful innocent civilians of Amhara or any other nationalities. It is you , amhara elites and supporters of prosperity party , who involved in random massive killings of Tegaru felt that Tegaru will do the same to you and your family. Upon considering that, you fled to the nearby towns and forests. If TDF had planned that, they could have taken revenge on those who directly took part in the war crime and remain captives later . Your fears, misconceptions and views could not replace anyone’s view or do not be taken to mean that of any other person or political figure.

    People of Tigray never marched to kill any ethnic member but to unblock humanitarian corridor , bring war criminals to justice and set up a new multi-ethnic administration . Historically, people of Tigray didn’t take revenge on former military regime and their supporters as opposed these oppressive mass murderers treat Tegaru and rest of Ethiopians , because Tegaru believed “The best revenge is to show them that your life is getting better after they’re gone.”– Nishan Panwarand made Ethiopia the fastest growing land in Africa.

    What Eritrean genocidal regime did is comparable to the saying: “Revenge is not worthy of you. If you concentrate on revenge, you will keep those wounds fresh that would otherwise have healed.”—Adeline Yen Mah Therefore, Revered people of Tigray ,through their leaders, again showed their profound desire for peace and national dialogue, but your amhara elites and Eritrean genociders showed your refusal to the world except mounting pretexts to veil a defeated mentality . It would be great if the international community reach the people of Tigray and rest of nationalities who are stranded in the war affected areas and unable to acess basic supplies by any possible means . It is an inhumane act to hinder military advance aimed at unblocking humanitrain corridors in an attempt to prolong the days of genocidal regimes of Eritrea and Ethiopia . Some are telling that the advance of TDF to the capital was halted , because there were US citizens still remaining in Ethiopia. And for these contemptible reason made by US leaders to African lives, over 5 million people spent over 13 months without food, and water in war torn region, in favor of a single party which can’t be compared with the total collapse of Ethiopia . All precious lives lost who died reach Addis to unblock humanitarian corridor to their their revered people of Tigray and bring war criminals to justice is now devalued by US authorities who halted the advance of TDF .

    Stop killing our people, and let them breath in peace and heal from their wounds !

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