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Tigrai’s Election: Sovereignty, Democratic Hopes in Dark Times

By Eyob Tadelle Gebrehiwot
Tigrai Online Sept. 6, 2020

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Tigrai’s times - its colors and its layers - are best objectified in its history.

And its history - narrated through the unending dialogue between its past and present - is long, yet engrossing, is very rich and riveting, yet as checkered as the history of any known ancient civilization.

There has never been - of the multi-colored facets of its times and history, however, so ambivalent, so precarious and so decisive a time as the present one - save a few historical precedents.

Hence, it is Tigrai’s best times, pari passu, the worst of its times!

It is Tigrai’s worst times: in an irony of history, and contrary to Tigrai’s rightful place and irreplaceable role in the historico-political process of state formation in Ethiopia, State- sponsored anti-Tigrianism is at its apogee. Tigrians are being killed, tortured, displaced, vilified and imprisoned en masse. Tigrai and Tigrians are being demonized to a point where they have become the bogeyman and a scapegoat for whatever wrong is in Ethiopia.

Anti-Tigrianism is being purposely and openly made to assume a new dimension – a form of political, economic and social movement.

Ethiopia, simply, has become anathema to Tigrai and inimical to Tigrians!

Yet, it is Tigrai’s best times: Tigrai stands firm against the currents of Ethiopia’s political perfect storm – against the re-emergence of dictatorship, unitarism and non-constitutionalism, ipso facto, which is dragging Ethiopia into the abyss.

When it rains, it pours, feast or famine!

Tigrai is poised to undertake a historic regional election - scheduled to take place on September 09/2020! It has amended its Constitution; established an independent Election Commission and over 2.7 million people have been registered for the election, inter alia.

Tigrai’s Timely and Timeless Questions

Apropos of and around Tigrai’s historic election and against the backdrops of a worsening politico-legal and Constitutional crisis in Ethiopia as well as an ever snowballing structural and State-sponsored Anti-Tigrianism, if anything, which is paradigmatically desideratum to pose, is the following intertwined questions: why is Tigrai, against all odds – including a series of threats by the Federal government, determined to conduct the election? Why is that the people of Tigrai wholeheartedly supported it? What will be its significance, implications and consequences? Would any measure by the Federal government further exacerbate the grudge, and push Tigrai to invoke Article 39 of the Constitution to exercise its right for independence?

In short: what is next for Tigrai?  

Equally important, is rampant State-sponsored Anti-Tigrainism adding fuel to the already reinvigorating Tigrai nationalism – which has been engulfing the whole region like a wild fire, and the resultant growing demand for an independent Tigrai? Would it pave the way for the rebirth, not birth, of Tigrai as an independent State?

Also, what does Tigrai want?

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Explaining the meaning of this historic phenomenon and addressing the aforementioned questions entails a parallaxes to see the current Constitutional and political upheaval beyond the currently held view that reduces and over-simplifies it to a sheer power struggle and schism of political ideology between the Prosperity Party (PP) and the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Beyond and above this over-simplification, it is an imperative to explore the role historical grievances; state-society antagonism; and the making of State–sponsored Anti-Tigrianism as a form of a political, economic and social movement as well as the reborn of non-Constitutional-unitarism have in exacerbating the Ethio – Tigrai feud, and the resultant growing demand for independence in Tigrai. And above all, we need parallaxes to see how Tigrians understand and give meaning to their history and identity - its link to their present state of affairs, to their future, and its role in shaping the Tigrai collective consciousness. And most importantly, it entails accepting the glaring reality that the Ethio-Tigrai feud should be, and can only be, solved through dialogue - and other options apart from dialogue are, and will be, counter-productive.

The Tigrai civilization and the birth of Ethiopia: A step back in time

Tigrai’s civilization, as it has been said ad nauseam, was an indigenous civilization sprouted around Da’emat and reached at its apogee in Axum - a period of Tigray’s golden age – a period of absolute political and military dominance not only over the present day Ethiopia but also over the Red Sea and parts of Southern Arabia – a period of vibrant trade with great powers of the day such as the Roman Empire, Persia and China, inter alia. An awe-inspiring civilization glaringly animated to this day by the resounding monuments and obelisks in Axum, the ruined castle in Yeha, the mysterious cave of King Kaleb, the Ezana Stone, the ruined city of Bete Sema’eti, the Geez alphabets and numbers, the minted coins and myriads of priceless archeologically unearthed artifacts, among others.

Tigrai’s ancient civilization was, simply, spectacular!

From a politico-sociological vantage point, however, there had never been so great a development, or rather a historical process, in the political history of this grand Tigrai civilization as that of the formation of one of the oldest indigenous States in the world – the Axumite Kingdom, having its capital in Axum, Tigrai, assuming such different names as Medre Ag’azian, also the Abyssinia Kingdom and later transformed itself to an Empire – the Ethiopian Empire!

From Tigrai and within Tigrai, an empire called Ethiopia was conceived, and with it, the abstract notion – Ethiopianism, was born. Tigrai, simply, is the birthplace of Ethiopia, and its resultant ‘nism’.

Starting anything in between the 9th and 10th centuries, slowly but surely, Tigrai descended to a dreadful dark age. Hence, with the vicissitudes of time and history, save its historical and cultural greatness, its politico-economic influence and significance in the region reached to near oblivion. Yet, Tigrai still remained an autonomous region well until the 19th century.

Nature – drought and plague, on the one hand, and historical facts – colonialism and a shift in geo-political power around the Red Sea, on the other, had conspired to crush Tigrai’s sovereignty, during the end of the 19th century.

Yet no other historical phenomenon has ever changed and determined the fate and history of Tigrai more than that of the unfortunate death of its one time strong King of Kings - Emperor Yohnnes IV. Encouraged by the untimely death of Emperor Yohannes IV and the absence of a centralized Tigrian force, and above all, the blessings received from Emperor Menilik II, who ascended to the throne right after the death of Emperor Yohannes IV and who wished a fragile and divided Tigrai, Italy occupied the northern part of Tigrai, the Mereb Melash and rechristened it Eritrea.

The ill-fated Tigrai was divided into two parts, the northern part doomed to languish under colonialism, and its southern part forced to decay as an underprivileged peripheral region in the Ethiopian Empire.

Hence, there is one conspicuous historical fact at the heart of the Tigrai collective consciousness: Tigrai had existed as an independent State for thousands of years before it was reduced to its present day status.

A rift in time, and Tigrai’s long walk for self-determination

As half part of Tigrai was languishing under Italian colonization and the territorial integrity of its remaining southern part under constant threat - some of its parts were forcefully taken and annexed to other regions, yet the Ethiopian Empire was expanding further south, east and west, to take its current form. The new Ethiopian Empire, though in reality an empty shell without the history of Tigrai and Tigrian identity, had become an enemy of Tigrai. Systemic alienation, national oppression and antagonism became its underlying features.

The recurrent tension and antagonism reached at its zenith when Ethiopia became more and more unitarist, and paved the way for a more organized form of resistance – the First Tigrian Revolution, also known as Kedamai Weyane. It was the first ever well organized resistance against the highly unitarist central government. The revolutionaries succeeded in controlling the whole of Tigrai, including its capital Mekele. With the help of military support from Britain – using its military base in Aden, Yemen, Britain’s air force bombarded strategic military positions of the revolutionaries and the main market place in the capital city, Mekele. Hundreds and thousands of innocent citizens were slain due to the disgraceful interference of one of the strongest powers of the world. The government, finally, succeeded in squashing the peasant revolution and controlled, again, much of Tigrai.

The aftermath of the First Tigrai Revolution only deepened the center-periphery crisis.

Some decades later, Tigrai intellectuals and university students, continued the struggle within the broader context of the Ethiopian students’ movement, and later established the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and headed to Dedebit, a small rural village in north western part of Tigray, to start an armed struggle in 1975.

A bitter struggle – seventeen years of armed struggle – a struggle that claimed colossal sacrifices – human and material - claiming the lives of more than sixty thousand Tigrians and leaving tens of thousands physically disabled – unmatched readiness to live and to die for one’s cause – for the Tigrai cause – to extricate it from the yoke of national oppression and systemic marginalization!

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The century old historical legacy of antagonism finally resulted in the defeat of the military regime by Tigrai liberation fighters in 1991, under the umbrella of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). A century after its consolidation as a unitarist modern state, Ethiopia’s governance structure has been changed upside down by establishing a federal system that gave ‘full recognition’ to ethnic autonomy, while maintaining the unity of the state.

Tigrai, therefore, decided to stay in the Ethiopian federation - as long as its right for self-determination, including its right for independence, is respected by the book!

Ethiopia enjoyed an electrifying overall socio-economic development; political stability; relative peace and a promising democratization process in the last twenty-seven years. The Grand Renaissance Dam, which is currently at the final stage of its construction, is a flagship of Ethiopia’s extraordinary development achievements under EPRDF. After nearly three decades of nationwide relative peace, unfortunately, unbridled violent protests imbued with ethnic conflicts rocked the largest region of the federation, the Oromia region and later spread to some other areas, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne on February 2018.

And the EPRDF elected Abey Ahmed as its Chairman, and the incumbent PM of Ethiopia.

Medemer, Anti-Tigrianism and Tigrai nationalism

Ethiopia, having a plethora of checkered history, is on the verge of repeating this checkered history, in fact, the darkest part of it, once again, in the name of Medemer!

Medemer has been propounded by its chief priest, none other than the megalomaniac and myopic Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself, as an ‘indigenous political ideology’ to accelerate the country’s transition to a democratic rule.

Despite the great expectations, Medemer has only dragged the nation from the sublime to the ridiculous - to an unprecedented socio-economic and political mayhem. One major turn of the Medemer screw, in fact, is the disdain its authors have towards diversity and pluralism – federalism and the self-determination of nations.

It has failed from the outset terribly and practically – the massive violent protests that have been claiming the lives of thousands of people in many parts of the country particularly in Oromia, Wolaita, Sidama and Benshangul-Gumuz, for instance, are protests mainly against the overt tendency of Medemer’s inherent political aim: its aim to reconstruct the pre-1991 unitarist Ethiopia from the dust bin of history.

Its “immutable” bedrock – the idea of unitarism and exclusionism, has become a quicksand in the face of Tigrai - the bulwark and champion of federalism. Hence, Tigrai has become Medemer’s archenemy.

As such, with the coming to power of PM Abey, all anti-Tigrai political specters – mainly remnants of the old regime, who were on the verge of gasping their last breath, have risen from the filth and joined forces to annihilate Tigrai from the face of the earth.

Ironically, contrary to the warm welcome he had received from the people of Tigrai - the pomp of ceremony upon his first official visit to Mekele is a case in point, Abey Ahmed has followed a completely destructive path and designed a dangerous policy – a policy based on the politico-economy of hatred towards Tigrai.

Abey’s government has done whatever is possible – economic pressure, psychological warfare and politico-legal conspiracies, inter alia, and it may also try the impossible to obliterate Tigrai. He has left no stone unturned to smear false accusations against Tigrians and vilify them using all available means, including a series of hate propaganda using the state and private media outlets as well as the social media. Moreover, thousands of innocent Tigrians have been languishing in prisons and thousands have also been dismissed from various federal government posts.  

Apropos the economic pressure, the main road that connects Tigrai to the capital city of the federal government has been closed for almost two years now. By closing the main road, the government is trying to create an artificial economic crisis; exacerbate the unemployment and poverty level there by create political instability in the region. Moreover, Tigrai is being deliberately omitted from major government funded projects, such as road construction projects. Investors – both local and foreign, are being discouraged to invest in Tigrai, just lately, for instance, a Chinese business delegation was prohibited from traveling to Tigrai. Also, the opposition from the PP members of the HPRs - at the legislative branch of the government, to the release of the loan secured some years back from the government of China for the construction of the Mekelle clean water project, is a telling example of how Abey’s regime is pushing the Ethio-Tigrai tension from the sublime to the ridiculous.  

How much of an issue is independence in Tigrai?

The reaction of the Tigrai people was at first passive – a kind of confusion, and then frustration and a sense of being betrayed; and then anger - anger not only at the Federal government but also towards the TPLF itself, and finally, the usual Tigrai way of addressing an unfolding national crisis - a just, rational and highly disciplined resolve to protect one’s sovereignty and dignity, and strike back, if necessary. By and by, the looming crisis and threat from Ethiopia – an existential and unfolding threat - has assumed a new form -  an opportunity for Tigrians to renew their social and political solidarity. It has now become their strength and a weapon with which to counter the enemies of Tigrai.

The multi-faceted colors of these reactions have found expression and have been best objectified in the number of political parties that have mushroomed in Tigrai in the last two years - and are registered to participate in the upcoming election.    

Yet, for the sake of convenience, it is better to pigeonhole the various political traditions and movements into four categories: the first one is the TPLF way - federalism; the second one is Confederation; the third and which is gaining currency is the independence option; and finally, the Ag’azian movement.

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The TPLF way is simply maintaining the status quo - ‘Tigrai in Ethiopia’ under federal arrangement. TPLF has for so long dominated not only Tigrai’s political power but also Tigrai’s political discourse and the ‘public sphere.’

Notwithstanding the severe resistance it has faced from Tigrai’s young generation, especially young intellectuals and the political elite, TPLFites have still a firm stance that Tigrai’s best interest can be secured through a federal state arrangement in Ethiopia. TPLFites have clearly stated their stance in several occasions. Two years ago, for instance, Getachew Reda, TPLF CC Member, openly and severely criticized the issue of independence as against the interest of the people and ‘stemmed out of ignorance by those who do not know the history and identity of Tigrai.’

At any rate, TPLF seems the thin thread that holds Tigrai together with the rest of Ethiopia as glue - whatever the quality of the glue is. A question, however, remains: can the TPLF resist the snowballing demand for the independence of Tigrai, given the growing Tigrai nationalism and TPLF’s dwindling dominance on Tigrai’s political discourse?

The Ag’azian movement and the movement for the independence of Tigrai have one fundamental thing in common: they opt for the independence of Tigrai. The Ag’azian movement, mainly propounded by Eritrean and Tigrean Diaspora, has been working for more than two decades to reunite Eritrea and Tigrai in order to realize the reborn of the Medre Ag’azian. This movement has its roots in the Tigrai-Tigrigne movement which had started right after the colonization of the northern part of Tigrai by Italy. This movement has strong support in the Diaspora community of both people.

The Ag’azian soul, simply stated is, Tigrai’s future lies in its past – in Greater Tigrai!

The last, yet the most potent and dominant political movement, which is gaining currency in the last few years especially among the youth, is the movement for the independence of Tigrai. The umbilical cord, according to this view, that links Ethiopia and Tigrai is severed. The rampant anti-Tigrai sentiment in Ethiopia has also greatly contributed to the huge support the independence movement has enjoyed.

Independence, they say, is the only way to save Tigrai from the ever vicious cycle of war and conflict with its protagonist – Ethiopia. As such, this year’s regional election symbolizes, or at least paves the way for, the REBIRTH or reincarnation - NOT the birth, of Tigrai as a State – an independent country!

At the heart of this movement lies the challenge from unitarist forces in Ethiopia – how can a peaceful independence of Tigrai be realized, without going to war with Ethiopia?  Their reply is quick: Tigrai has always been at war with the ultra-unitarist forces in Ethiopia – even today, it is at war – a cold war.

The looming political crisis in Ethiopia diagonally opposes and is a complete negation to Tigrai’s aspiration for peace!

No other people, perhaps, have ever experienced the gruesome effects of war than that of the people of Tigrai!

No other people, perhaps, have ever paid the ultimate price to avoid war than that of the people of Tigrai!

And, no other people, perhaps, have paid the ultimate price for peace than that of the people of Tigrai!

Peace, more than anything and beyond anything else, has always been at the heart of Tigrai’s political consciousness!

To cap it all, the meaning and significance of the election, therefore, is threefold: first and foremost, it is the ultimate expression of maintaining Tigrai’s sovereignty and its right to self-determination; second, it is an expression of Tigrai’s unwavering commitment to Constitutionalism and rule of law, and its incomparable yearning for peace and democracy as well as overall socio-economic development, inter alia. Third, and equally important, it is an expression of the people’s general will to reach at a common shared position in a bid to drawing a blue-print for its future and determine its destiny. The quest for self-determination means for Tigrian’s exactly this – a uniting idea of common agenda - a rallying point - an identity tag - part of a language of resistance against oppression and a symbolic call for re-finding a bygone national pride and determine its destiny!

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