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While the Tigray War began at the end of 2020, the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Tigrayan people is enmeshed in political dynamics that have existed for decades. Ayantu Tibeso and J. Khadijah Abdurahman explicate how the relationship between Tigray, Oromia, and other oppressed regions is entangled in the imperial origins of the state of Ethiopia.
On November 3, 2020, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali instituted a telecommunications blackout in the northern region of Tigray. The following day, he took to Facebook to announce a war against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). True to his roots as the founder of Ethiopia’s intelligence agency, Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Abiy launched the war under the cover of a blackout and amidst the pandemonium of the U.S. presidential election, ensuring a distracted international community and controlled political narrative. Just seven days later, he tweeted that the “law enforcement action” against “the criminal junta” would be “rapidly coming within reach.” His assurances of efficient policing against a rogue political party quickly unraveled as images of mass atrocities against Tigrayan civilians bled through the curtain of state-sanctioned silence.
Over 63,000 Tigrayans have fled into Sudan: an estimated 400,000 people are suffering from famine with 1.8 million others on the brink. This man-made famine is both a result of the war’s disruption of the harvest season in a region reliant on agriculture, as well as the targeted destruction of livestock and crops by Eritrean troops in collaboration with the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). Almost 2,000 people in Tigray have been murdered by Eritrean and Ethiopian state forces, as well as by Amhara regional militia. Alongside summary executions at gunpoint, systematic rape, and starvation, the government has tried to functionally erase the Tigrayan nationality. The Amhara regional government mandated that Tigrayan refugees fleeing violence accept new identification cards written in Amharic (as opposed to Tigrinya, the language spoken by most of the displaced) declaring their identity as Amhara.
Thirteen months prior, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Abiy published his first book, Medemer,meaning “to merge together.” This unifying national ideology rejects multinational federalism and asserts a singular Ethiopian identity built on Amhara supremacy. The Amhara ruling class led Northern Abyssinian rulers to create Ethiopia in their image, and they remained in power from the late 19th century — when the borders of today’s Ethiopian state were established through conquest led by Emperor Menelik II — until 1991. Amharaness was elevated to “national identity” to such an extent that in his influential 1969 article “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia,” student activist Wallelign Mekonnen concluded that “to be a ‘genuine Ethiopian’” was to “wear an Amhara mask.”
Since the 1960s, the “question of nationalities,” a euphemism for the anti-colonial demands of Indigenous groups within the Ethiopian Empire, has animated political and social movements. A compromise was needed to prevent the breakup of the Ethiopian state after multiple armed liberation groups brought down Mengistu Hailemariam’s government in 1991. A coalition of forces from the north and south (including the TPLF) negotiated an agreement recognizing Ethiopia as a federation and instituted a transitional government committed to rewriting a constitution that recognized multinational federalism. During the interim period between 1991 and the formal adoption of multinational federalism in 1995, the TPLF jailed, exiled and executed significant portions of the political opposition, mirroring the actions of the Prosperity Party over the last year.
Although the TPLF subverted the spirit of multinational federalism by replacing regional political groups that had a popular mandate with their own satellite parties, the system went a long way towards addressing the demands of historically marginalized groups. The multinational federal constitution officially recognized Ethiopia as a country consisting of a plurality of nations, peoples, cultures, religions, and languages. It decentralized political control and granted nominal regional autonomy to Indigenous communities over their territories. The qeerroo, Oromo protesters whose grassroots organizing ousted the previous regime (and led to Abiy coming to power), are known as the qubee, or the alphabet generation, because they were the first to be educated in the post-1991 schools that delivered instruction in their mother tongue. Abiy and his supporters are fiercely opposed to the multinational federal system because of the way it codifies recognition for peoples who would otherwise remain a nameless geography for state extraction. Many Ethiopian nationalists erroneously attribute multinational federalism to former TPLF chairman and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and it is in this vein that they decry federalism — and by extension the TPLF — for “creating” this political dissent. Divergent positions on the multinational system’s legacy and future is part of what drives conflict between Abiy’s Amhara elites, Tigray’s leaders, and the southern nations who fought for its vision.
Abiy’s political maneuvers are driven by a re-investment in the imperial ideals of Menelik II, Haile Selassie, and Mengistu. Medemer resurrects Mengistu’s nationalist ideology known as “Ethiopia Tikdem” (“Ethiopia First”). His Derg regime denounced student activists and other opposition challenging his rule as “narrow nationalists” and “anti-revolutionaries,” justifying the killing of more than half a million of them in what is remembered as the “Red Terror.” As Derg leader and head of state, Mengistu was convicted of genocide in abstentia by the Ethiopian High Court in 2007. Abiy and Mengistu share more than a penchant for enforced unity and the targeting and elimination of those who hold different political perspectives. They share the legacy of bombing Tigray, starving its people, and producing generations of refugees fleeing across the border to Sudan: the flight of tens of thousands of Tigrayans has revived Um Raquba, the same refugee camp in eastern Sudan that their parents and grandparents inhabited decades earlier during the devastating famine in the mid-1980s. It is not a coincidence that the Ethiopian state invokes unity while committing genocide.
Despite the government’s attempt to prevent images of mass atrocities from circulating, the scale and intensity of the violence in Tigray has resulted in a flurry of international coverage. But in-depth analysis of both the historical and contemporary political drivers of this conflict has been elusive. The first set of challenges to understanding the war on Tigray has been the limitations on accessing information on the ground. African services at major media outlets are often dominated by white westerners who lack an understanding of local contexts. Further, state challenges to press freedom and persistent underfunding for Global South coverage have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Many diasporans rely on the U.S.-funded Voice of America where several current African Division staffers complained that “VOA Amharic soft-pedals reports of atrocities by government and allied forces” while it also “fails to republish reports of atrocities that VOA Tigrigna manages to get on the air.” This selective reporting is occurring at the same time that INSA targeted domestic Ethiopian audiences with disinformation through a coordinated inauthentic behavior network taken down by Facebook in June of this year.
The second set of challenges to understanding the war on Tigray and the conflicts unfolding throughout Ethiopia pertains to the various, and competing, ideological positions. The hegemonic myth of Ethiopia as the pinnacle of Black Pan-African freedom makes it difficult to write about Tigray, Oromia, and other subjugated regions. In his 1994 book Race Rebels, historian Robin D.G. Kelley describes how “the defeat of the Italians by the Ethiopian Army was a catalyst for internationalism among the American Black Left.” But Ethiopian exceptionalism both invisibilizes and flattens the struggles of differently situated oppressed people within the Ethiopian Empire. This exceptionalism is further embellished by Rastafarian mythology, which depicts Haile Selassie as a God-like prophet with dynastic lineage tracing back to biblical King Solomon. Ironically, the allure of this mythic Black conquest reproduces the same colonial ontology it galvanizes Black western audiences to oppose. How does a state imagined as a lodestar for Black freedom mobilize its entire arsenal of power to annihilate a segment of its population, as has been the case for Tigray?
In his song “Maalan Jira” (meaning “do I even exist”), Oromo singer Haacaaluu Hundeessaa taps into a rich oral archive, rejecting the dominant scripts of Ethiopian history for Indigenous counter-memory. These oral traditions recall how Emperor Menelik II established the Ethiopian Empire through military conquest and the confiscation of Oromo and other Indigenous peoples’ land. The dispossession of the Tulama Oromo, in particular, has intensified due to their proximity to Addis Ababa, the capital and center of Ethiopian state power. A development plan to expand Addis Ababa’s city limits into nearby Oromo villages and towns was seen as the acceleration of the state’s removal of Tulama people from their lands: this triggered the massive uprising known as the #OromoProtests movement. When Menelik II conquered the Tulama and dismantled their governance structures, he not only massacred and displaced the population, he also symbolically built his palace on the homestead of his most staunch opponent, Oromo leader Tufa Muna—this is also referenced in “Maalan Jira.” He built Ethiopian Orthodox churches on sacred Oromo lands to further signal his dominance. These relations of domination are neither exceptional nor solely of the past: they represent the experiences of most colonized peoples in Ethiopia. “Maalan Jira” unsettles how conquered peoples and their memories of and within the Ethiopian Empire are disappeared by Ethiopian exceptionalism. Our conceptions of the white supremacist global order unduly forecloses the possibility of an honest confrontation of intra-racial violences and the legacies of African empires. Here, the enduring figure of the white colonizer occludes recognition of Black Indigenous peoples and the agency of an African state committing genocide in the name of unity rather than engaging with the messy entanglement between white supremacy and the particularities of Ethiopian state formation.
The genocide in Tigray cannot be divorced from a wider ongoing crisis at the heart of the Ethiopian state. Between the summer of 2019 and 2020, Abiy eliminated political opponents across the country through disappearances, assassinations, and imprisonments, including key organizers of the #OromoProtests movement that brought him to power and former allies such as Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba. Haacaaluu was assassinated in 2020 just a few days after criticizing Prime Minister Abiy’s policies in an interview on the Oromia Media Network, the region’s sole independent media platform. The subsequent closure of the network amidst the state’s crackdown against Oromo protestors seemed to represent the kind of violent suppression of counter-narratives that has always been necessary to sustain imperial myth-making.
In the context of Ethiopia as a loosely stitched federation of Indigenous peoples and settler class elites, “unity” is a byword for a hyper-nationalism seeking to make Ethiopia great again. This is not just a semantic parallel to the political project of the 45th President of the United States; it is yet another part of a collage of American and Abyssinian imperial legacies. Abiy’s brutality is often attributed to the influence of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki since brokering the peace treaty that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize — an additional dimension of the violence in Tigray is the attacks on Eritreans who sought refuge in Tigray prior to the beginning of the war. The conflation is not completely wrong as Afwerki similarly discarded the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front that brought him to power in order to maintain his authoritarian hold on the country. However, the combination of George W. Bush’s appeal to evangelicalism and the exported “War on Terror” configures much of the Ethiopian present as well.
Abiy’s pentecostal Christianity has been marshaled both to ordain the righteousness of his ascension to Prime Minister absent an election and to demonize Tigrayans as possessed by the devil. The operational capacity to unleash military terror onto Tigray can be traced to the massive amounts of U.S. military aid given to Ethiopia during Meles’ tenure as Prime Minister under the auspices of fighting terrorism in East Africa. The international community was aware that U.S. funding to “fight terror” was being appropriated to violently suppress domestic political dissent. But Ethiopia’s strategic geopolitical location in the Horn combined with Meles’ alignment with western developmental goals incentivized silence about his administration’s human rights violations.
In a November 22, 2020 press release, Abiy claimed the war was almost over and called “upon the people of Mekelle [to] play a key role in bringing this treasonous group to justice by standing in solidarity with the national defense force.” The operational logics of his ultimatum were that any Tigrayan who failed to collaborate with the federal government in locating the TPLF — they had fled into the mountains as the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle was seized —were enemy combatants. This deliberate conflation of millions of Tigrayan citizens with the TPLF is used to justify the collective punishment of Tigrayan civilians through, for example, mass detentions. The climate of intense political repression uniquely directed at Tigrayans must be understood in a broader context of the state’s violent elimination of grassroots movements perceived as barriers to a “unified” Ethiopia.
There are no discrete events in the Horn: November 4, 2020 did not mark a tidy transition from peace to war, but rather the unleashing of war upon Tigray while war in western Oromia had already been underway for over a year. Consistent with the historical dynamics of Ethiopia, the brutality unleashed onto Tigrayans was developed through the subjugation of Oromia and southern peoples. Recently, it was punctuated by the broad daylight public torture, maiming and execution of 17-year-old Amanuel Wondimu Kebede.
In the eyes of the Oromo and southern peoples, the history of political transitions in Ethiopia is marked by vicious battles between northern Abyssinian elites — the Tigray and the Amhara — and their allies over who will control Oromia and other territories by taking state power. These elites have attempted to consolidate and centralize political power in Ethiopia since the 19th century in order to access the fertile lands and resources in the southern parts of the country. Whomever is pushed out of the seat of power allies themselves with the Oromo and the south, and then abandons them when an opportunity to rule presents itself. This unceasing cycle may shift power from one set of rulers to the next, but it has never created an opportunity to build political infrastructure through which demands for cultural, economic, and political autonomy could be realized. Somali scholar Hassan Keynan has described this cycle as “signature terror regimes” intent on containing the dominated peoples who resist their exploitation. At this juncture, however, it is important to clarify differences between the wars in the north and the south.
State violence against the Oromo in Ethiopia is a taken for granted non-event whose intensity and frequency often goes unreported. Its purpose is to accomplish a specific outcome: quelling grassroots resistance while maintaining control over land and resources for use by the central government. Oromo songs, proverbs, and stories told by elders remember the political system established by Menelik II as “Sirna Gabruma,” which translates to “colonial system.” These archives encoding narratives of forcible incorporation and resistance to Gabruma are central to the Oromo memories of Ethiopia. Similar historical memories also live in the oral traditions of the Wolayita, Somali, Sidama, Hadiya, and other peoples, but they have been banished from dominant cultural institutions, which circulate narratives that glorify emperors and elide the violence of conquest. On July 25 of this year, the President of the Amhara regional government, Agegnehu Teshager, announced on national television that Tigrayans “are an enemy to all Ethiopian people.” The speech was given in the context of a frenzied nationwide mobilization of youth to join the war. The attempts of the Ethiopian state to manufacture consent for the demonization of Tigrayans comes up against the force of the collective memory of oppressed southern peoples. They remember how the state exploits and sacrifices them as cannon fodder: how, for example, Oromia regional opposition parties insist that the “voluntary recruitment” of young Oromo men into the ENDF is actually conscription. Echoing Mengistu’s rule, poor young men are enticed to go to war and promised land and jobs upon their return. It is likely that many will not return.
How do we consider this deadly repetition in the context of white consumption of Black death, where the precursor to the current famine was memorialized in American consciousness by the South Park character Starvin’ Marvin? Even as a satire of western humanitarianism, the controlling images of Ethiopianness as perpetual hunger and emaciation, eternal victory over western colonialism, or as an ancient Amhara Christian kingdom, forcelose liberatory possibilities by positing citizen-subjects as moldable objects within the limited political imaginary of the viewer. These dynamics are exacerbated by the design of social media where novelty and recency take precedence and lamentations for the dead are ephemeral by design.
In a country where more than 78% of the population is rural and social media penetration is relatively low, narratives are skewed towards and by the urban populous and the diaspora. Reimagining coexistence in the Horn of Africa beyond the nation-state also requires a critical examination of the infrastructure, both cultural and technological, where we negotiate our collective meaning-making. The implications of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reaching its goal of being the world’s largest multinational biometric database as of 2020 is beyond the scope of this essay. But the displaced people entering their iris scans and fingerprints into the biometric register of refugee intake systems are those who simultaneously refuse the symbolism of Ethiopian exceptionalism used to justify the Tigray genocide. They are largely excluded from public contestation of narratives around the war on western social media. This invitation to collectively remember must reject the hybrid colonial grammar of corporate technocracy, humanitarian intervention, and imperial glorifications that discipline our conceptions of catastrophe. As Sylvia Wynter posits in dialogue with Bedour Alagraa: “We need to re-initiate ourselves, a symbolic life through death, and create ourselves anew!” In the context of Ethiopian empire, this compels us to return to Haacaaluu’s query: Do we even exist? ■