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Waging a War Against their Own History: Eritrea, Tigray, and the Rest of Ethiopia

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History _ Eritrea _ Tigray and the rest of Ethiopia
The Author

By Beyan Negash

Sometimes, a three minute-video clip can have a book size impact, the resonating effect of which refuses to silently be shelved in the memory; it demands to be unearthed in some shape or form of art. Such was a case in point recently. With the voice over on mute, the optics alone convey the powerful message. A viewer sees a horse stuck in a mud neck deep. Several men can be seen communicating trying to come to its aid, no claptrap. They seem to understand one another in what needs to be done. The screen darkens and when it brightens a group of horses can be seen galloping towards where the lonely horse is trapped. A viewer can imagine their hooves clip-clopping and the neighing as they simultaneously come to a grinding halt, seemingly in unison, giving this arousing impact. The immediate impact this would have to the horse when hearing such a familiar sound approaching as his ilk nears the scene is astounding to watch. Suddenly, a realization appears to kick in the trapped horse. It roars as it uses all the horsepower that was in rest gaining inertia, snarls out of the mud trap to the surface along with the rest of the horses*

Multiple morals of the story can be ascertained from this, applicable to different scenarios. For example, the translator of the clip had deeply personal reasons for sharing it with the public. It can also be used in what’s going on in the Horn of Africa today. War is unpredictable. War is ugly. The unintended consequences of war can linger for two decades and counting, ask Eritreans who are still struggling to recover from the remnants and the aftermath of the 1998-2000 war. 

The people of Tigray are grappling with that reality now. They came out roaring like that horse from the mud off the war footing, but the dustbin of war still hovers viscerally, psychologically, socially, politically, and in so many other ways. One thing going for them that might serve as an antidote, and it may be their savior is, unlike in the case of Eritrea, they are talking about their future as a society collectively. Naturally, elements of the fantastical, the surreal, the real, the delusions all are being sorted out in the open. What might prove to be a daunting task is that we live in a world where information – distorted or factual – is disseminated at a neck breaking speed.

We live in a world where data driven facts are questioned, where science is under relentless attack, humanity appears to be at a crossroads, faced with the fork in its path, which path it chooses to use will make or break the future of the people of the world. Our region is no exception. People would rather believe what they see or read on Facebook than what their professional doctors advise them to do. Sharp eyed individual activists like Saleh Gadi Johar* of deserve an accolade in tirelessly speaking truth to the relentless lies that are assaulting our gaze, our sensibilities. Distorting news to fit a certain mold, a certain narrative in the current civil war in Ethiopia has shown the ugly side to our humanity. 

Personally, staying away from it all for several weeks has allowed me to stay sane in an otherwise insane world. The other thing that keeps my sanity intact is reading.

Turning to literature provides a much-needed reprieve from the senseless sensory overload, logic-less world we live in.  In “The language of truth,” Salman Rushdie (2021)** goes on a literary journey of the personal kind. He surveys it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly that it took for him to become a writer. At the sunset phase of his life, the journey of life appears to be winding down, that’s what one senses as he delves deep in the recess of his being, the truth as he conceives of it. The power of his writing rests in his ability to weave the past, present and the future, how they are intertwined. Reading his essays, a reader senses rhapsodies of the highest order that have the power to draw the reader in. Truth, however, is in the eye of the beholder. There is this constant reminder that the author’s truth is meant to elicit the reader’s truth. And to find one’s truth one must be truthful to oneself which is a freeing endeavor that leaves a writer like Rushdie deeply satisfied with such a journey. Otherwise, the void is too disembodying and too powerful to ignore. 

Disembodied life bereft of any meaningfully truthful existence continues to jinx the people of the Horn. Their curse appears to rest in their fight with their own history. Waging – literally – a war against their own history; they attempt to subvert, malign, distort, so they may pick one that suits the narrative they have in mind aligned in perfect symmetry from the past to the present and to the future that they fantasize about. No immunity, even a statue of a certain leader from eons ago on horse’s back is fair game.  A citizen is heard in public demanding the removal of the horse and the man atop it; surgically separating the two so the horse can go to one region of the population and the man to another is the level of the summit we have reached in our absurdity.

History is not sought to serve a useful purpose for the future but as a tool to go to war in the present, to cause mayhem and destruction. Thanks to social media, there is a plethora of the fantastical presented as “the language of truth.” It is immaterial if there is any kernel of truth to what they preach, never mind that “history is a contested territory” to borrow from Rushdie. In these partly pseudo historians, partly pseudo political scientists’ world there is no inkling doubt that the history they speak of is as unequivocal as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Not even a hint of consideration to the people who have lived just as long, to the people who look just like them, eat just like them, bleed just like them, feel the pangs of history just like them. 

The truism that Rushdie quotes from a Japanese philosopher in there being “no wisdom in wisdom” and that “it is a grand illusion” rings so true with our self-acclaimed warriors who go to war in the name of resurrecting some parts of the past and burying other parts of the same past that belongs to the region. History becomes an item on the menu from which to select a plate with some dessert to boot. All that a leader needs to have is a name that sounds like one from the same region, and it matters not much of what was done at the time; it matters not in what century for what purpose was the war waged. It matters not if the entire region goes to hell in a handbasket. No qualms whatsoever of putting an entire region at the edge of the cliff, close to the abyss in the name of keeping political power from here to eternity. 

History becomes a tool toward a political end. “Aksum Civilization is solely mine and mine only” seems the mantra from one corner of Ethiopia. “Tedros and Menelik belong to me” quips in another corner. They all cannot possibly be the forefathers of the region that we can all collectively call our own. Can they not?  So, the fight becomes who owns parts of history. If we must go to war in the name of a contested past as elusive as history, by golly, it can be settled, no problem: War is there to be declared. The present doesn’t matter. The future is too far beyond our noses to even contemplate and imagine it being a space in which we can all live in its embrace. 

Fighting in the name of history is a fair game. When a fight is with history itself, the surreal nature of the fight becomes apparent. No discernable logic – Nothing to be ascertained. Give me war, give me death, who needs liberty. The latter is for the wussies. The brave and the courageous go to war, that’s what they do, to what end, it matters not. Parts of history are alway there in the menu to choose from to justify any war. That in a nutshell is the predicament of the Horn of Africa today.

Not even an inkling of this: That “You should never write history until you can hear the people speak” as uttered by Rushdie’s professor is worth invoking here. One can suppose it can also be said that history should never be spoken of nonchalantly until one is able to imagine the era in which it was spoken of. 

The main reason I started embarking to write the piece at hand was to write based on mourning in Eritrean culture that I read recently in academia and another one that dealt with Menelik’s seventh anniversary celebration of the victory of Adwa. Both written by scholars from our region. The mourning of Eritrean refugees in Europe is written by an Eritrean and the Adwa one by an Ethiopian scholar. They both will have to wait for another day.


*A lesson from a Horse Facing a Challenge:

** Rushdie, S. (2021). The language of truth: Essays 2003 – 2020. Random House: New York.

*** Johar, S. G. (2021). Negarit 145 – Moving Afarland To Yemen – ዓፈርን የመንን – ارض العفر واليمن

Author Bio (Courtesy of the author) :

Activist, a writer and a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Language, Literacy, and Culture at New Mexico State University (NMSU). Beyan holds a bachelor of arts in English and a master of arts in TESOL from NMSU as well as a bachelor of arts in Anthropology from UCLA. His research interests are on colonial discourse and post-colonial theories and their hegemonic impact on patriarchy, cultural identity, literacy development, language acquisition as well as curriculum & citizenship. The geopolitics of the Horn of Africa interests Beyan greatly. His writings tend to focus on Eritrea and Ethiopia. Beyan has been writing opinion pieces at since its inception (1 September 2001).


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