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Defining Heroism in Ethiopia

By Asghedom G. Michael, PhD
Tigrai Online Feb. 26, 2013

Defining Heroism in Ethiopia
In an attempt to force Tigrai into submission, Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s Derg committed horrifying terror and devastation on Tigrai over the 17-year period of armed struggle against its rule of terror (1974-1991). The most savage act it committed against humanity was at the market town of Hawzien


This is a historic narrative of an encounter. I met two American individuals of Ethiopian-Amhara origin at a prestigious international conference. From the abstracts of their papers, I had deduced that they were economists of high calibre. By age, they are my seniors. In our Ethiopian-traditional way, I introduced myself to each of them as a Canadian of Ethiopian-Tigraian origin. We arranged a dinner evening together. A lot of issues on sustainable development were glossed over during the casual-dinner-table conversations. But, they twisted the conversation into polemics that tended to demean Tigraians and to undermine Woyane’s contributions to modern Ethiopia’s nationhood. They tried, but failed. Knowing that chauvinism is a genetic disease that does not have a cure, I maintained my cool headedness and listened, with minimum interruptions.

During my turn, however, I invoked the causes of civil wars and the strategic importance of strong nationalism, determination, heroism, patriotism, perseverance, and sacrifice to make my points clear. I sensed that they were being irritated. They had difficulties to swallow the bitter pill of truth; because I had an answer to every argument they fabricated to undermine Woyane’s victories. They resorted to unnecessary arguments and asked me a seemingly elementary question: What is heroism? I took this question seriously and returned home.

But, my immediate reaction to their question was to highlight the contributions of Woyane I and Woyane II to the integrity and sovereignty of modern Ethiopia. I added why Lekatit 11 (Feb. 18) was being celebrated globally by Tigraians and their supporters. Then, I explained heroism in a clear language, the language they understand, Amharic: “Heroism means the miraculous and shinning victories of Woyenti Tigrai. They defeated and humiliated the most sophisticated army that was armed to the teeth by Soviet Union and Cuba. This army was described as invincible; the strongest army in black Africa. How did they do it? To the dismay of Derg, its sustainers, and the chauvinist elements, the Woyenti Tigrai created an Ethiopian multinational force and crafted a military strategy under the leadership of Tegadalai Meles Zemai, the hero of heroes. Hence, Derg’s strongest army in black Africa was annihilated from the Ethiopian landscape”. This was my short answer.

At home, I decided to extract the essentials of my previous piece that I wrote under the title of Global Solidarity Network of Tigraians for Development (GSNeTD), anonymously. I chose anonymity, because I was seeking balanced (unbiased) feedback from my compatriots and supporters. In that, I succeeded beyond my expectations. Many have volunteered to share the project’s burden of responsibility.

In this piece, however, I hope honest Ethiopian intellectuals, with in-depth knowledge of Ethiopian political history, will correct my errors and send a clearer message to the extremists who are spawning a variety of poisons of hatred against Tigrai. Mind you, they, the extremists, are conducting these evil acts just only to quench their material and political greed at any cost. They hate a true democratic system. Let me start with highlights of the tragic injustices that Tigrai had to endure for centuries:

Tigrai:  the land of all Ethiopia’s battlefields

Frequent wars that were fought in Tigrai’s soils against external invaders are the major historical events that perpetuated poverty in Tigrai. “… some twenty major battles were fought in Tigrayan soil between the Battle of Adwa and the Italian invasion of 19351 (emphasis added). Tigraian men and women, the peasantry, had to bear the brutalities of the wars. In addition to their bravery in fighting the foreign enemies, the poor households had to provide food, water, and shelter to the peasant armies from many corners of Ethiopia, because Ethiopia did not have salaried-national army until 1941. The rules of war during those years let “… soldiers to feed themselves at the expense of the peasants on whose lands they traversed. Indeed, pillaging (plundering, robbing) from the peasants and collecting war booty were the soldiers’ chief incentives for joining the army (emphasis added). Moreover, the Tigraian men and women provided topographic information, transportation logistics (donkeys and mules), and crucial intelligence about the frontlines. It is disgusting and bitterly annoying to observe Ethiopia’s writers and policy makers give demeaning lip-service to Tigrai’s sacrifices in protecting Ethiopia’s sovereignty and integrity. Have a look at the following historical facts:

The selfless patriotism of Emperor Yohannes IV

Against all Menelik’s machinations of deception, treachery, and betrayal, Emperor Yohannes IV demonstrated his patriotism, leadership skills, and military prowess against all Ethiopia’s enemies of his time. Of course, the brilliance of his trusted and famous general, Alula Aba-Nega, was imperative. Alula’s army routed well-equipped Egyptians, led by European and American mercenaries, in the following battlefields: in 1875 at Gundet; in 1876 at Guraé; in 1880 at Senhit; and in 1887 at Aylet. Again, on January 26, 1887, Ras Alula’s military prowess was put into a decisive victory at Dogali, where Italian invaders were annihilated. The Italians decried their humiliating defeat at Dogali as “The Dogali Massacre”.3  Note that all battlefields are part of today’s State of Eritrea. Do not ask; it is a long and complicated history.

We human beings are incapable to foresee our destiny. Emperor Yohannes IV died on Mar. 12, 1889 at Metema, in today’s Amhara Killil, while defending his beloved country against the Mahdists of Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed of Sudan. The Mahdists managed to snatch the Emperor’s body from the Ethiopian heroes, who fought to the last drop of blood to defend their beloved King’s body. They (the Mahdists) beheaded him and took his head to Omdurman to be displayed as a trophy. The Sudanese Muslims, the Mahdists, revealed their primitiveness and savagery through that act of cruelty. For the King, that was an enduring evidence of his selfless patriotism. Emperor Yohannes IV gave his life for the integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia. By doing that he instilled pride and heroism in all Ethiopian generations that followed him.

There is a legitimate-historical question the answer to which is very simple, but crucially important for Ethiopians to keep in mind:  Why did those all enemies tried to subjugate Ethiopia? Just because these enemies and their collaborators were and are interested in Ethiopia’s: (a) strategic location for their purpose of geopolitical and economic sphere of influence; and (b) unique ecosystems that embed the natural wealth of: in-tact natural forests, wetlands, extensive water bodies, precious minerals, fossil fuels, etc. In addition, the Muslims hated to see Ethiopia as an island of Christianity, although Ethiopia started to welcome Muslims to live freely as any Ethiopian citizen long time before the attempted invasions. These historical facts should remind the modern Ethiopian generation to remain vigilant, as their forefathers did, when dealing with friends and foes alike.

Now, how do we immortalize the enlightening patriotism of Emperor Yohannes IV? The answer is simple. We must erect monuments in Addis Ababa and in Mekelle. The one at Mekelle, at the top of Enda-Yesus hill, should face to the north frontier to where the Emperor’s armies marched to the battlefields of: Gundet, Guraé, Senhit, Aylet, and Dogali. These are the main battlefields where the Emperor’s most trusted general, Alul Aba-Nega, routed Ethiopia’s enemies, the Egyptians and Italians. I hope that the current Ethiopian government will not remain indifferent to this historical truth. Let it be known that this generation of Tigraians will not remain complacent to all the injustices that inflicted enduring harm on Tigrai. Justice must be served.

Menelik’s treasonous acts

While Emperor Yohannes was fighting all of the above highlighted wars, Menelik was making secret deals with the Italians and other enemies of Ethiopia to sabotage Emperor Yohannes’ efforts. Shortly after they were subjected to a humiliating defeat in 1887 at Dogali in the hands of Alula Aba-Nega, the Italians agreed in a secret treaty to supply Menelik with 5,000 Remington rifles and money; and to recognize him as a sovereign power in return for his promise to assist Italy’s colonial expansion. Between 1885 and 1895, a total of 189,000 weapons were imported into Showa. Very quickly, just within two months after the death of Emperor Yohannes IV, Menelik claimed the Ethiopian Imperial Throne; and he recognized the Italians’ sovereignty over our Red Sea frontier, Bahri-Negash, which they (the purchasers) named Eritrea, after the Treaty of Wuchale was signed on May 2, 1889.

Menelik’s strategic goal was to divide, weaken, and subjugate the Tigrigna speaking people of the whole northern frontier so that he expands his empire to the southern Ethiopian frontier. In that treasonous blunder, he succeeded. Because, we are now called Tigraians and Eritreans; Eritrea now is an independent nation state. But, that trick did not last long. Menelik had to fight the Italians at Adwa in 1896, when the historic Ethiopian victory, a pride of all Africans, was scored. Again, at the Battle of Adwa, Tigraian heroes and heroines played crucially determinant roles. They fought, used their knowledge of the topography to provide strategic intelligence on the enemy’s moves, and provided food, water, and shelter to most of the peasant army from other parts of Ethiopia.

It is bitterly disgusting and hard to believe, but it is true that some Ethiopian-chauvinist elements hate to mention Tigraian patriotism and the contributions Tigrai made to Ethiopia’s nationhood. With no mention of the human sacrifices, destruction of properties, including churches and mosques, and the extensive environmental damages Tigrai paid for the victory of Adwa, they (the chauvinists) attribute the shinning victory of the Battle of Adwa to Menelik, the traitor. To this day, they continue to glorify him. Truth will have to be revealed and told. To start with, a monument at an appropriate location in Adwa, in memory of those who paid the ultimate prices (their lives) for our freedom and for Africa’s pride and freedom, deserves an urgent attention of the current government.

Vindictive Haile-Selassie and the Woyane I patriots

Emperor Haile-Selassie, King of Kings, the Lion of Judah, from the Tribe of Judah, the Solomonic Dynasty (not funny, it was an official title), ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, with an iron fist of vengeance, most of it directed at the Tigraian people. Absolute political power was vested in him. Because the 1931 Constitution was deemed not giving enough power to him, a new constitution was enshrined in 19554. This constitution declared Haile-Selassie as a descendant of King Solomon of Israel and Ethiopia’s Queen of Sheba; his primacy was exercised through appointment of officials; control of the armed forces and foreign affairs; and oversight of the judiciary. Parliament was given power to approve treaties, but the Emperor had the final say: he was empowered to the extent of dissolving the Parliament.

In the 1930s, the Italians started to scratch their wounds they sustained in the hands of Ethiopian heroes and heroines at the 1896 Battle of Adwa, where they were humiliated decisively. As pointed out earlier, Menelik sold Bahiri-Negash, our Red Sea frontier, May 2, 1889 to the Italians through the Treaty of Wuchale.  To fill their egoistic attitudes, they named our Bahiri-Negash as Eritrea. On October 2, 1935, Mussolini declared, “We have been patient with Ethiopia for forty years; now our patience is exhausted 5”. By that Mussolini meant that Italy was ready to avenge the humiliating defeat it suffered at the Battle of Adwa. From their new colony of Eritrea, thanks to Menelik, the Italians started their vengeance the morning of October 3, 1935 with 100,000-man army. Adwa and Adigrat were brutally bombarded and occupied on October 5 and 6, respectively; and Mekele fell into the hands of the enemy on November 8, 1935. The rest is a long history.

The key point is that Haile-Selassie fled Ethiopia to London, leaving Ethiopian patriots at the mercy of Fascist Italy. After his return with the help of the British, fearful of the Woyane I Patriots, Haile-Selassie treated Tigrai in the harshest way possible. He did this because the Woyane I Patriots, Blata Haile-Mariam and his comrades, considered his action of fleeing to safety, while the war was raging, as a betrayal. They, the Patriots, refused to submit to his feudal order. They had expected him to lead the war like Yohannes IV did.

Haile-Selassie used various policy instruments of intimidation, humiliation, and assimilation against Tigrai. Some of the policy instruments included: (a) heavy taxes imposed on the peasantry to be paid in cash; (b) declaring using Tigrigna for any formal and informal communications (e.g., legal-justice processes, education, simple-local transactional contracts, and traditional wedding documents) as illegal practice that undermines the absolute power of the Imperial Throne; and (c) imposing a strict condition of learning and using Amharic as the only medium of communication. It was illegal to write a Tigrigna language even on simple placards to identify sports’ teams or any other organization from Tigrai at national events, such as sports and ceremonies. That was constitutionally enacted system of suppression.

This brutality led to the birth of a well-coordinated force of Woyane I. In January 1942, at the battlefield of Quobo, three British officers and hundreds of Haile-Selassie’s soldiers, trying to collect forced tax in cash, were killed. It took Haile-Selassie and his British advisors 30,000 Shewan soldiers, from April to July 1942, to regain the upper hand over the Woyane I Patriots. The whole region of Raya, Azebo, and Wejerat was devastated; and severe fines, in both livestock and money, were imposed to impoverish and to force the Woyane I Patriots and the peasantry into submission.

But, these Haile-Selassie’s punitive measures did not have any effect on the Patriots and the oppressed masses. The rebellion got stronger than ever before. Blata Haile-Mariam Reda, who was a gifted inspiring leader, used the rainy season of 1943 to organize his forces. After celebrating the Ethiopian New Year on September 12, 1943, the Patriots went on the offensive. They moved victoriously to the strategic locations of Quiha and Enda Yesus, overlooking Mekelle, which was quickly captured. Haile-Selassie’s officials fled. Blata Haile-Mariam declared victory over Haile-Selassie’s army at Mekelle with following motto:

Our governor is Jesus Christ
And our flag that of Ethiopia
Our religion is that of Yohannes IV
People of Tigray, follow the motto of Woyane 6.

After the humiliating defeats of his army, Haile-Selassie requested and received help of the Royal British Air Force to mercilessly bomb a marketplace at Mekelle during a market day in October 1943. This collaborative brutality with a foreign air force was a crime against humanity. It was beyond the capacity of the Woyane I Patriots. The human, animal, and material losses of that crime remain unknown and most likely were immeasurable.  Erecting a memorial monument for that massacre has become an overdue contentious issue. It has to be done soon!

Vindictive Haile-Selassie started punitive policies with vengeance. The unique Ethiopian feudalism started in earnest. It was declared that fertile lands were to be owned by: the royal, the elite, the patriarchate, the bourgeoisie, the comprador, and the Tewahedo-Orthodox Church, which were all the King’s instruments of pacifying the gullible masses. All these elite class-sectors of the society were not producers, but all extracted different benefits from the peasantry in terms of: (a) tribute, (b) products, (c) rents, (d) services, and (e) courvee labour. Thus, the classic feudal trinity of nobleman, priest, and peasant, was well entrenched; and prevailed up to the demise of the King in 1974. In short, Haile-Selassie deprived Tigai of all human capabilities.

Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s savagery versus the shinning victories of Woyane II

In an attempt to force Tigrai into submission, Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s Derg committed horrifying terror and devastation on Tigrai over the 17-year period of armed struggle against its rule of terror (1974-1991). The most savage act it committed against humanity was at the market town of Hawzien on June 22, 1988. “The Ethiopian air force bombarded the town for the whole day by airplanes and helicopters; and killed more than 2,500 civilians” 7. Moreover, the regime’s counterinsurgency and social control policies imposed on Tigrai turned the drought of 1984/85 into a tragic famine, starvation, and hunger. The final outcome, however, as it is well known worldwide, was the shinning victory of Woyane II. This was achieved against an enemy, which was armed to the teeth and was described as black Africa’s sophisticated- strongest army. We leave the historic details of the bitter struggle for our future discussions. But, the patience, the civility, and the magnanimity of the people of the Tigrai must be told and underscored. Although Tigrai paid the lion’s share of the total sacrifices to defeat and humiliate the fascist, Marxist-Leninist military junta, we are willing and happy to live in freedom, peace, security, prosperity, and harmony with all our Ethiopian compatriots in a democratically united Ethiopia, provided that our grievances are addressed. Tigrai has never been and never will be a vindictive society. We would like to be seen by our compatriots as civil, compassionate, and patriotic Ethiopians. But, it should be noted that our civility is not a sign of weakness; but, a sign of strength, confidence, and farsightedness.

Here, I close defining heroism until we meet with a topic on sustainable development and good governance.

1 Young, John. 1997. Peasant revolution in Ethiopia: the Tigray Peopleís Revolution Front, 1975 Ė 1991 (p. 46). Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.
2 Ibid.
3 http://www.historynet.com/first-italo-abyssinian-war-battle-of-adowa.htm , accessed on Oct. 09, 2012.
4 Henze, p. 2000. Layers of Time: A history of Ethiopia. St. Martinís Press, New York, 372 p. Note that as an American diplomat, Dr. Paul Henze lived in Ethiopia for several years. His book is extensively researched.
5 Ibid.
6 Dr. Paul Henzeís well-researched book, detailed in footnote 5
7 Human Right Watch/Africa, Nov. 1994, Vol. 6, No. 11, provides substantial details of the atrocities.

Eternal peace to our martyrs!

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