By Shiferaw Abebe
The August 2, 2021 edition of Politico carried an opinion piece penned by a certain member of the British House of Lords and titled “In Ethiopia, echoes of Yugoslavia” (https://www.politico.eu/article/ethiopia-echoes-yugoslavia-ethiopian-prime-minister-abiy ahmed/). In this piece, the author, named Arminka Helić with roots in the former Yugoslavia, made a rather feeble attempt to draw parallels between Ethiopia and the now defunct Yugoslavia on the basis of a single mistranslated statement from a July 18, 2021 Facebook post by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister (PM), Dr. Abiy Ahmed. In that post, the PM wrote (paraphrased):
The enduring threat of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) to the unity of the country won’t succeed because Ethiopians have from all corners of the country mobilized to thwart it. … Those who are intimidated by our unified stance [i.e., TPLF and its allies] will do anything and everything to divide us. They will plot to make us lift our eyes from them and target our own people [namely the people of Tigray]. We will never do that… We will work to uproot the weed [namely TPLF] but will be diligent not to harm the wheat [namely the people of Tigray].
Throughout the past three years, no government statement that referred to TPLF has failed to underscore the difference between TPLF and the people of Tigray.
Yet the miserably ill-informed member of the British House of Lords, shamelessly twisted the PM’s remark and stated the following:
[Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed] drew a chilling distinction between Tigrayan Ethiopians and others in the country, describing “the children of Ethiopia” as “wheat” and his Tigrayan opponents as “invasive weeds,” who “must be uprooted in a manner that will never grow again.”
I believe Mr. Helić does not read Amharic or Oromiffa, the two languages the PM used in the aforementioned FB post and therefore must have relied on someone for translation. More likely, Mr. Helić knew nothing about Mr. Abiy’s FB post until the intentionally mistranslated version was given to him by a TPLF hireling with a request to pen a piece that would put Ethiopia and its PM in a bad spot. Apparently, the honorable member of the British House of Lords didn’t think twice if joining the west’s chorus of disinformation on Ethiopia would be beneath his honor. This is clear evidence how underhandedly the west has handled the essence and the facts of the war in Tigray over the last nine months.
Foreigners writing terrible pieces on a subject matter of or a country they know very little about is very common. Ethiopians have witnessed tons of them in the last nine months. However, I found this piece particularly disconcerting because of the author’s astounding arrogance in writing a full piece just on the basis of one deliberately mistranslated statement made by a foreign dignitary. For someone who laments the disintegration of his birth country, Yugoslavia, to this day, making up a false and dangerous narrative of a non-existent plan by the Ethiopian government to wipe out Tigrayans is inexcusable.
For the record, aside from the gross mischaracterization of Dr. Abiy’s statements, Mr, Helić’s comparison of Ethiopia’s current situation to former Yugoslavia is very superficial and self serving. To begin with, historically speaking, Yugoslavia, a country that came into being after the First World War and went through further metamorphosis after the Second World War couldn’t have been more different than Ethiopia. If there is any similarity between the two, it is the fact that, like Ethiopia, Yugoslavia too consisted of several ethnic groups. But this is not a factor worth basing an entire comparative analysis on, because almost every nation on the face of the earth encompasses at least a few ethnic groups.
More importantly, the political, economic and ethnic conditions that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia are very different from the situation in Ethiopia today. In fact one can say what Ethiopia is going through today is the direct opposite of what Yugoslavia went through beginning the early 1990s leading up to its ultimate break-up into many states. In Yugoslavia, the inter-ethnic conflict was precipitated by one ethnic group, Serbia, taking up a disproportionate political and decision making power. This was resented by the Croats and Slovenes who declared independence in 1991. The wars that ensued were the result of the Serbs dominated federal government trying to keep the federation alive and, when this failed, the subsequent attempt to create Greater Serbia.
In Ethiopia’s case, TPLF, a front that represented less than 6% of the Ethiopian population, ruled the country for 27 years, dominating all political, economic and military power. What then happened in 2018 was the direct opposite of what happened in Yugoslavia in 1991. In Yugoslavia, the disenfranchised groups decided to leave the federation. In Ethiopia such groups formed a front and dislodged the divider. In Yugoslavia the politically dominant group on the eve of the federation’s break-up – the Serbia Communist Party – attempted to keep the federation alive while in Ethiopia TPLF recoiled to its base, Tigray province, and earnestly started working on dismantling the country.
What happened next in Ethiopia is also diametrically opposite to what happened in Yugoslavia. The atmosphere that emerged after TPLF was kicked out of its hegemonic power was one of unity and freedom among the rest of the political players and regions. Even in Tigray, initial sentiments about the political change were highly positive because Tigrayans knew of the wedge TPLF had created between them and the rest of Ethiopians and were therefore keen on re-calibrating the historically strong brothers and sisters bonds. This is not to say the political change didn’t face some resistance from other groups than TPLF. Some Oromo nationalists who thought they could steer the political change in a direction were frustrated when they realized that was not to happen. They subsequently engaged in creating instability in pockets of the southwestern region of Ethiopia by killing innocent civilians of other ethnicities so as to trigger interethnic warfare. It didn’t work.
What makes the Tigray situation different from the rest of Ethiopia is one and only factor: TPLF. The west don’t understand or willfully ignore this fact. TPLF is essentially a group. Not truly a formal party, but a group of individuals who left their schools to the rugged terrains of Tigray following the 1974 Ethiopian revolution with part socialistic and part ethnocentric ideals. While the socialistic ideals were meant to fit somewhere in the worldwide political divide between socialism and capitalism, TPLF’s most defining and enduring goal and rallying cry was the liberation of the people of Tigray from an alleged Amhara domination. Every TPLF fighter was subject to ongoing brainwashing that portrayed the Amhara as their enemy, an indoctrination that has continued to this day.
Since TPLF took power in 1991 by force of arms, it controlled the entire military and other security apparatuses and filled most all key government positions with Tigrayans while diligently observing that the two biggest ethnic groups – the Amhara and the Oromo – who combined represented over two-thirds of the Ethiopian population were kept at odds with each other so as to ensure its political hegemony was not threatened.
At the same time, TPLF leaders started publicly espousing a notion of a unique (exceptional) nature of Tigrayans, of their fighting prowess and higher intellect than the rest of Ethiopia. While it may be debatable how much of this bizarre notion has distilled into the ordinary Tigrayan, this mindset had convinced the Tigrayan political elite that they were the rightful rulers of Ethiopia forever.
One must also remember that, not only did TPLF control the political and security power, they also created and ran an economic empire solely owned by TPLF under the flagship of the so called Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT). EFFORT’s mega companies enjoyed unfettered access to credits and foreign exchanges from state run banks and enjoyed special favors in state procurements to become the largest corporations in all key economic sectors of the country. TPLF further embezzled state property and hard currencies, syphoning off the lion share of international loans and financial aid through various techniques and mechanisms to foreign banks.
TPLF crushed all viable opposition through arrests, tortures, killings and disappearances. It held five elections all of which it declared to have been won with landslide margins by the coalition it created and controlled. In the fifth national election in 2015, it took 100% of the parliamentary seats besting its 2010 “win” of 99.8% of the seats. Such was TPLF’s political excesses that a year later a widespread civil and peaceful uprising ensued that culminated in removing TPLF from its hegemonic power in 2018.
After all this, the west must be reminded that the political change of 2018 was all about ending TPLF’s hegemonic power at the federal level. TPLF’s continued participation in federal politics as representative of the people of Tigray or its rule over the Tigray region were not challenged in any way. The federal government had made every effort in the books to pacify and bring TPLF into the peaceful political process but TPLF would have none of it. Instead once recoiled to Tigray, it started recruiting and training additional military forces while at the same time sponsoring instability in other parts of the country. It agitated Tigrayans that the rest of Ethiopia, the Amhara in particular, are preparing to come after them to wipe them out of existence. TPLF fabricated stories of Tigrayans being targeted for their ethnicity and encouraged those living elsewhere in Ethiopia to return to Tigray.
Then it attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces stationed in Tigray igniting a devastating war that is still ongoing. The federal government didn’t go to Tigray to prevent a secession. If TPLF wanted to secede Tigray from the rest of Ethiopia, it could have put the request peacefully utilizing the constitutional order it created. Had that happened and the rest of Ethiopians raised arms to stop it, then one could have made a remote parallel with what happened in Yugoslavia. Far from it, today, the fight between TPLF and the rest of Ethiopia is not a fight between those who want to keep the federation by force and those who want to leave it. On the contrary it is a fight between the entire country who want to defend their right to live in peace, unity and equality and an entity bent on taking away that right. As simple as that.
Since the Ethiopian government declared a unilateral ceasefire and TPLF started offensive operations in four directions, what is left of the TPLF leadership are vowing not to stop the war until they settle a score with the Amhara elite whom they accuse of orchestrating the war to destroy Tigrayans. Unable to deny the widespread opposition they are facing – not just from the Amhara but from members of all other ethnic groups, they are defining the Amhara elite as anyone who has a mindset of an Amhara elite, which they say includes some Tigrayans. Why an Amhara elite or anyone else would want to destroy Tigrayans is beyond anyone else’s imagination. There is no single evidence whatsoever of an Amhara elite ever painting the common people of Tigray as enemies of Amharas or anyone else. In fact, the Amhara elite belabour the point, consistently and unfailingly, that TPLF and the people of Tigray are not one and the same in any form or shape. What scares TPLF most is the possibility of this truth trickling through the cacophony of its propaganda into the Tigrayans’ consciousness. That is why it works overdrive 24 hours of the day to make sure that message doesn’t filter through and reach the ears of Tigrayans.
To circle back to the Politico opinion piece, when PM Abiy Ahmed talks about the weeds amongst the Ethiopian society he is squarely and unmistakably referring to the TPLF leadership, not the people of Tigray or not even the rank and file members of the TPLF. It is true, some Tigrayans have been arrested in the past nine months, but this has nothing to do with their being a Tigrayan but with their covert or overt roles in supporting TPLF’s destructive and criminal activities.
Perhaps over a million Tigrayans live outside of Tigray in a country where TPLF cultivated tensions between all ethnic groups over the years. It is therefore fully understandable if some Tigrayans experience some angst about their safety today in view of the ongoing war TPLF ignited and refused to cease. Incidentally this feeling is not unique to Tigrayans. Thanks to the divisive work of the TPLF over the years, the Amharas, the Somalis, the Gedions, and many other ethnic groups share the same angst of being targeted by one or another ethnic group. It is only with the conclusive defeat of TPLF that such unwarranted anxieties can be removed from the land.
What most foreign analysts and commentators fail to understand is the fact that the Ethiopian society is highly intermixed. You don’t find this kind of reality in the former Yugoslavia, or anywhere else for that matter. Tigrayans are intermarried with Amharas more than with any other ethnic group in Ethiopia. It is not also uncommon to find intermarriages between Tigrayans and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Tens of millions of Ethiopians are the product interethnic marriages. Yet TPLF considers Amharas Tigrayans’ enemy number one. Why they do this is obvious: to isolate Tigrayans and keep them under their control. The rest of Ethiopians don’t and won’t harbour animosity toward the ordinary Tigrayan brothers and sisters.
Eritrea broke off Ethiopia after a 30-year war. Throughout those years Eritreans lived throughout Ethiopia without any threat to their safety. Sadly, five years after Eritrea became an independent country, another war broke out between the two countries that took a heavy toll on both sides. At the beginning of the war in 1998, at least tens of thousands of Eritreans lived in Ethiopia, whom TPLF gave short orders to leave the country with little time to get their businesses or assets in order. What surprised the departing Eritreans was the sympathy and the comfort ordinary Ethiopians showed them including by taking in trust the properties they were unable to sell in time. There are many heartwarming stories of Ethiopians transferring those properties back to their Eritrean owners once peace was struck between the two countries twenty years later, thanks to PM Abiy and President Esayas’s courage and faith in peace and brotherly and sisterly relationships.
This is the Ethiopia the west cannot wrap its head around.
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