Genocide is a terrible phenomenon that has occurred at diverse times in human history. From the massacres of Greeks by the Roman Empire to the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany and the ongoing annihilation of the people of Tigray by the Ethiopian people. One of the common threads in this history is that victims could at times be victims of their own virtue. Greeks created politics and military strategies that, after their fall, the Romans adapted. In the meantime when the Greeks lived under the Roman empire, they never felt like aliens due to the accomplishments brought by the Romans. The Greeks were content and knew their heritages and contributions to the Roman empire and by extension the world. However, the Romans were determined to appropriate and fully own the history and all of the accomplishments that came with it. Hence they waged war to destroy the Greeks and to force them to submit to the Romans permanently. The Greeks prevailed by protecting what was theirs and utilizing it for the survival of their nation and their heritage. As a result, millennia later they are still recognized as the source of modern civilization.
Similarly, the fate of the Jews in the hands of Nazi Germany. Nazi ideology centered around the perception of the German (Aryan) race as superior and Germany the innovation hub of European science, music, philosophy, and other disciplines in the world. Meanwhile, Jews living in German territory were as proud of European civilization as the Germans. The Jews lived among the German in their own communities, practicing their religion and culture proudly and taking part in scientific and economic ventures, in spite of being relatively few. This contradicted the Nazi ideology of Aryan superiority and ultimately the Jews were destined for the “final solution”, i.e., genocide.
The Case of Tigray
Tigray is a nation with linguistic and cultural identity drawn from pre-Axumite civilization, and a melting pot of diverse cultures, religions, and ancient civilizations. As a result of this long and rich history, Tigrayan society has evolved with a complex identity that respects plurality while protecting the integrity of its fundamental values. For instance, a Christian Axumite king gave shelter to the descendants of Prophet Mohammed, who were fleeing the Quraish in the First Hijra. Just as the Greeks gave to the Romans, after the fall of Axum, the civilization, including the Geez literary tradition and its history were adapted by the succeeding dynasties. But like the Romans with the Greeks and Nazi Germany with the Jews, this has resulted in successive efforts to subjugate the Tigrayan people. Tigrayan heritage and history were re-packaged as Ethiopian and even the Geez Alphabet became known as the Amharic alphabet.
Deceitful narratives were promoted lionizing leaders with problematic histories like Emperor Menelik who chose to give up access to the sea in order to consolidate power. The people of Djibouti and Eritrea were abandoned/sold to colonizers; the Italians and French and many other peoples now within the modern Ethiopia state were subjugated and suffered many atrocities under his reign. Meanwhile, Tigrayan heroes like the great general Alula and their role in keeping colonizers at bay were all but forgotten.
Contemporary Tigray is progressive; strives to build itself from scratch by recognizing the shortcomings of previous rulers, revolutions and trusting its own capabilities. While contemporary politics in Ethiopia is controlled by elites who center their values around the imperial territory of the Abyssinians, mainly the Shewan empire. More particularly, Tigray, once the core of the Abyssinian empire and modern-day Ethiopia moved on to modern ways of nation-building and rejected the imperialist narrative.
The long struggle in Ethiopia by various classes of society was amplified in the mid 20th century by a new class of educated elite. This movement came together under historically immortalized banners such as ‘land to the tiller’ and ‘down with Feudalism’. By the early 70s, the large coalition of movements built enough momentum to threaten the Ethiopian monarchy. Unfortunately, however, this momentum was hijacked by elements in the military leading to the brutal junta, the Derg, which brutally butchered Ethiopians including todays’ Eritreans.
Almost two decades of armed resistance later, this brutal regime was brought down finally allowing the opportunity to platform a new political dispensation striving for a common good and a constitution that will enable the nations and nationalities to live in harmony.
The hope was that the new constitution will offer a revolutionary response to the complex and diverse experience of the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia under the Ethiopian Empire and imperial state-building. More specifically the new arrangement recognized Eritrean independence and brought Ethiopians a new opportunity to work towards economic development, justice, and equality.
This process retained the narrative of the Ethiopian state which claims a history that goes as far as three millennia to the Axumite Empire, with a vast array of literature, religion, war, astronomy, philosophy, architecture, and many other additional pre-medieval civilizations. Considerable effort was, however, to accommodate a multiplicity of narratives and experiences and to recognize anti-colonial struggles in the process of nation-building. In order to reconcile the past with the future; the language, culture, and history of each community were considered as fundamental pillars to build states/regions of the country as a whole. This effort to “fix” the inherent contradictions of the Ethiopian empire through a constitutional arrangement was interpreted by some as an effort to preserve the empire they fought against and others as an effort to dismantle the empire. Tigrayans were particularly demonized and dehumanized as agents of these misinterpretations but there was never any real to correct this deliberate manipulation of facts because it was not perceived as a threat.
Almost three decades of relative peace and economic development under this new dispensation, undertaking large-scale infrastructure projects, expansion of education, healthcare, that benefited the wider public followed after the introduction of the new federal arrangement. Meanwhile, however, the people of Tigray got the shorthand of the stick, living in a militarized region, for most of the three decades, as a result of the “No War No peace” with neighboring Eritrea. This resulted in migration across the world in search of education and economic development and poverty to those who remained in Tigray. It also needs to be mentioned here that many ethnic Tigrayans live in Eritrea forced, coerced, and tortured to forget their close neighbors south of the border. Even so, Tigray focused on liberation from poverty, illiteracy and didn’t see genocide coming.
Ethiopia is now undergoing a self-destructive attempt to reassert a singular narrative and centralized governance at the expense of its people. What the Greeks and the Jews experienced, Tigray is facing now. The same perverse identity crisis the Romans raised, the same jealousy that surfaced in Hitler are now reflected in Abiy Ahmed. An aspiring king who believes: he’ll never get the country to fear and trust him until he annihilates the people of Tigray, the revolutionaries. The people whose leaders refuse to succumb to Abiy Ahmed’s neoliberal ideology, the people of Tigray who can see past his act of a Messiah, are to pay dearly for their resistance.
Like the Jews, Tigrayans are dehumanized as worthless burdens and set up as targets of resentment as corrupt and elite at the same time. Regardless of the facts on the ground that point against it, Tigrayans have been portrayed as pagans worse than the devil itself. Social media campaigns, especially on Facebook, called Tigrayans, rapists, murderous, thieves, bastards of history, cancers, burdens, settlers, weeds, and beggars. Mainstream media documentaries, news reports, and other programming characterized Tigrayans as treasonous and called on the people of Ethiopia to fight against them just like they did against foreign invaders at the battle Adwa. Of note, not only is Adwa itself found in Tigray, but the battle was also among many others fought against Italian invaders and won by the leadership of Tigrayan military excellence. Ironic, but only to those who pay attention to the details.
This effort to deny the existence of Tigrayans included the systemic erasure of historical and religious heritages that belonged to Tigray and has continued to this day. Following the invasion of Tigray in November of 2020 by Ethiopian and allied forces ancient churches and other historical heritage sites were damaged and looted. Books and artifacts were burned. Today, many stolen artifacts are being sold online robbing the people of their historical identity.
There are nuances in every political reality, but no genocide has likely never been made this obvious. The elites call it a numbers game; what are 6 million Tigrayans to the 100 million Ethiopians? This horrible arithmetic is used to force the international community to choose between humanity or their own benefits from “Ethiopia”. To exert this influence countless campaigns mobilizing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people demanded the world hear the people’s voice, asking for internal matters to be respected by the international community and sovereignty to be honored – in other words asking for the world to stay quiet until they finish off Tigrayans. They loudly and shamelessly discuss the extermination of Tigrayans with full military support from global powers. Tigray, home of the progressive, fell victim to self-destructive vengeful governments whose only interest is to exploit others.
The people of Tigray do not have superpowers, they are neither treasonous nor rebels; they are victims who are fighting back. Failing to identify the root cause of this war in the right context will only benefit the aggressors and assure a complete erasure of the people of Tigray. The world needs to know Tigray is not just a number, not defined only as a minority in the horn. Tigray is a center of the Ethiopian state whose destruction could only bring far worse consequences to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa as well. Tigray is not a tribe or a village; Tigray has always been a magnetic force with people whose determination to live free is evidenced by their will to fight for it.
The world is given yet another chance to protect the vulnerable, but it appears it is missing the point. Tigray is under siege and it is the responsibility of all to protect those that need protection.
Which side are you on, the powerful, who are fighting to subjugate or the weak who are fighting for survival? It’s not too late to save lives.