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Tigray: A very Central European war

The Tigray War is being fought between the proponents of the ethnic federation of Ethiopia (similar to Yugoslavia) and those of the ethnolinguistic nation-state of Tigray (similar to Slovenia or Croatia).

March 31, 2021 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Statues of freedom fighters at the Martyr's Memorial Monument in remembrance of the civil war against communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in Mekelle, Tigray's regional capital city. Photo: panoglobe / Shutterstock

Wars, these bloody confrontations between groups of humans, happen. What differentiates one war from another is the contested object of conflict, be it religion, territory, scarce water resources or mineral riches. Yet a fact often overlooked is that what groups are ready to fight over is determined by the concept or ideology deployed for creating the group in question. Ostensibly, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was a confrontation between the Holy Roman Empire’s Catholics and Protestants. In reality, the root cause of this genocidal conflict was the idea that a “proper” human group must profess a single religion, that a person cannot profess more than one religion at the same time and that only “our religion” is the true religion. Hence, the empire was deemed too small to contain both religious groups, while individuals were hard pressed to choose Catholicism or Protestantism at the risk of expulsion or even death. The uneasy truce of 1648 (from the Eurocentric perspective seen as the beginning of modern international relations) resulted in a compromise governed by the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, their religion”), meaning that the religion of the ruler dictates the religion of his realm’s population.

Ethiopia in the mid-19th century. Source: wikimedia.org

Modern Ethiopia is a recent creation, despite the fact that the monarchical beginnings of the Ethiopian Empire go back to the 13th century, while the country’s mythological origins are traced to the union of the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba some 3,000 years ago. In the mid-19th century, the loosely connected regions of Abyssinia overlapped with the northern quarter of what is today Ethiopia. Ambitious Emperor Tewodros (1855-1868) subdued the rival warlords and centralised the polity, which prevented its colonisation when the imperialist scramble for Africa began following the Berlin Congress of 1884-1885. On this basis, at the turn of the 20th century, Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) embarked on a long series of military conquests that extended the country’s frontiers to where they are nowadays. Abyssinia’s territory increased threefold, and thus modern Ethiopia was created. In 1896 the Ethiopian troops defeated the invading Italian army, reconfirming the state’s independence in a world dominated by Europe’s imperial powers. This Ethiopian victory also gave the Japanese hope that a Western power may be defeated, finally leading to Japan’s victory over the Russian Empire in 1905.

Russia and Ethiopia compared

The price of Ethiopia’s military prowess was the Great Famine of 1888-1892, during which a third of the inhabitants perished. Furthermore, the country was transformed from the rather homogenous and closely-knit Abyssinia of Semitic-speaking Christians into a multiethnic and polyconfessional Ethiopia, where these Christians were living alongside Cushitic-speaking Muslims, and Omotic- and Nilo-Saharan-speaking practitioners of non-scriptural (local) religions. The manner of Ethiopia’s expansion reminds one of the likes of the rise of the Russian Empire. Muscovy expanded from the Slavophone core of medieval Rus’ south to the areas of Turkic-speaking Muslims and east to Siberia with its Finno-Ugric- and Turkic-speaking practitioners of non-scriptural religions. As a result, the realm was overhauled into the Russian Empire. At the turn of the 20th century, this striking similarity in imperial history between Ethiopia and Russia was not lost on the tsar’s government in St. Petersburg, who sought an imperial foothold in the Middle East. To this end, an alliance was also attempted with Menelik’s Orthodox Ethiopia.

Languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Source: The Language Gulper

Imperial Russia’s Orthodox Slavophone core was construed as the (Great) Russians, with the regional subgroups of “Little Russians” (Ukrainians) and “White Russians” (Belarusians). Likewise, in Ethiopia the Habeshas (or the demographic core of Semitic-speaking Abyssinians) were seen as composed of the Amharas, with the regional branches of Tigrayans and Tigreans. In the former country, Russian was the imperial language, while Belarusian and Ukrainian were disparaged as mere peasant dialects. In the mid-19th century, Emperor Tewodros made Amharic the imperial tongue of Ethiopia, while Tigrinya and Tigre were demoted to the status of unimportant dialects of Amharic. Unlike Russian, the closely-knit Belarusian and Ukrainian stem from medieval Ruthenian, or the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Similarly, the closely related Tigrinya and Tigre stem from the Ethiopian Church’s highly prestigious liturgical language of Ge’ez. Yet newly-created Russian and Amharic were the languages of the biggest and politically dominant groups of the population in both empires’ demographic cores. Ranked in accordance with the size of their population, the Russians were followed by the Ukrainians and the Belarusians. Likewise, the Amharas were followed by the Tigrayans and the Tigreans. After the 1993 independence of Eritrea, the Tigreans found themselves in this country, leaving the kindred Tigrayans and Amharas to their own devices in Ethiopia.

Choosing a modernity

In 1923, Regent Ras (“Duke”) Tafari Makonnen made sure that Ethiopia became a member state of the League of Nations. In 1930, he ascended to the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie. A year later he endowed Ethiopia with its first-ever Constitution of 1931, which was modelled on Japan’s 1889 Imperial Constitution. In this manner, Ethiopia chose the Central European model of a unitary ethnolinguistic nation state. It was so because, in turn, the Japanese had borrowed their own constitution from Prussia and Imperial Germany, alongside this type of statehood in which a language’s speakers (speech community) are seen as a proper nation. On the other hand, speakers of other languages who happen to live in a state of this type are either to leave or assimilate by adopting the language. A similar policy of ethnolinguistic unification was pursued in the European part of the Russian Empire beginning in the 1880s. Other languages were banned in favor of Russian, which became the sole medium of administration and education.

The interwar Empire of Ethiopia was consciously shaped in the form of an ethnolinguistic nation state for the nation of Amharas, that is, Amharic-speakers. Other Semitic-speakers (that is, the Tigrayans and the Tigreans) were to become Amharas, too, meaning they were to abandon their own languages in favor of Amharic. In the case of the recently conquered Cushitic-, Nilo-Saharan- and Omotic-speakers, at least the land-owning elites of these ethnic groups were to master Amharic for the sake of enforcing the imperial will of the Amharic-speaking north on the rest of Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, under the Italian occupation during World War II (1936-1941), the colonial administration demoted Amharic in favor of Italian and Ethiopia’s other languages, including Tigrinya. Arabic was also encouraged in public use to weaken the ideologically Christian character of Ethiopian politics, in which Muslims had no place.

The British forces helped the Ethiopians defeat and oust the Italian colonial armies. London also facilitated the post-war reconstruction of Ethiopia as an ethnolinguistic nation state. The broadening of the educational system and the introduction of universities to Ethiopia made the officially overlooked and de facto suppressed speakers of languages other than Amharic and their political movements an acute question of the country’s politics. It was one of the burning issues, alongside land reform and regional self-government. Protests and repeatedly delayed reforms created an explosive situation that erupted in the 1974 Revolution, which ideologically drew on the Soviet ideology of Marxism-Leninism. The revolutionary government pressed on with land reform but alienated many peasants through forced collectivisation (“villagisation”) that generated the Great Famine of 1983-1985 (so eerily similar to the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine). The nationalisation of industry, banks and “excessive” real estate decreased the already low output of the Ethiopian economy. Yet literacy campaigns, conducted in as many as 15 of Ethiopia’s languages, were a great success. However, the oft-repeated promise of the use of some of these languages in regional and local administration remained unfulfilled. The 1987 Constitution overhauled the country into the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, on a model known from the Soviet bloc. The Constitution pledged ethnolinguistically defined Soviet-style autonomy to communist Ethiopia’s 30 regions, but only five (including Tigray) obtained it.

These five regions were located alongside Ethiopia’s restive eastern frontier with Eritrea and Somalia. This area was often overrun and controlled de facto by ethnolinguistically based anti-communist movements, among them the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front). The ethnic organisations were fighting against communist Ethiopia from its inception until its fall in 1991. This long Ethiopian Civil War of two and a half decades tipped the scale in favor of ethnic federalism, as invented in Austria-Hungary and perfected in the Soviet Union. In 1989, the militarily successful TPLF convinced other anticommunist groups to form the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) in the final push to oust the communists. After 1991, numerous Tigrayans became members of the postcommunist ruling elite, including TPLF Chairman Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia as president and prime minister from 1991 until his death in 2012.

The TPLF and other organisations that joined the EPRDF remained unabashedly Marxist-Leninist in their programs and politics, but in a somewhat Chinese-inflected fashion, that is, with steady encouragement for a capitalist economy and entrepreneurship. This economic and political mix also translated into a de facto authoritarian system of rule executed by the TPLF through the EPRDF. The pro-market reforms and actual implementation of ethnic federalism, however, earned the government popularity and broad interethnic support. The 1995 Constitution officially turned the country into the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Ethnolinguistically-defined federalisation was not rapid, but progressed steadily. By 2019, half (that is 40) of Ethiopia’s 80 recognised “nations, nationalities and peoples” had received their autonomous territories of various ranks, with administrations run in their ethnic languages. As a result, at present, around nine-tenths of Ethiopians can use their own languages in administration and education.

Cracks appear

Meles’s dictatorial rule did not prepare an effective mechanism for power transition in this authoritarian Federation of Ethiopia. Obviously, Meles hoped to rule longer. Dictators often fail to factor in their own death in political calculations. Meanwhile, the government’s efforts to meet different groups’ ethnic aspirations made the Oromo elite realise that their Cushitic-speaking nation of Oromos, at 35 million, was the country’s biggest ethnic nation. The Oromos amount to one third of Ethiopia’s entire population, and are much bigger than the traditionally dominant Amharas, who number 20 million. The never fully finalised administrative borders that separate the country’s ethnic territories became the main bone of contention. That is why, in Ethiopia, maps of the country showing such territories are not published as a matter of course. An attempt at broadening the area of the region of Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa at the expense of the surrounding region of Oromia led, in 2016, to ethnically motivated protests and clashes that left almost 90 casualties and over 800 wounded in their wake. The tensions paved the path for the rise of Abiy Ahmed to power as a compromise prime minister, not least thanks to his Oromo origin and mixed Muslim-Christian confessional background.

Abiy’s legitimacy was bolstered by the conclusion of the Peace Treaty with Eritrea in 2018. It finally normalised relations between the two countries which two decades ago had waged a bloody border war (1998-2000). Banking on this all-Ethiopian support, Abiy transformed the EPRDF from a supra-organisation of ethnic parties into the unitary and ostensibly non-ethnic Prosperity Party (PP). The TPLF, dethroned from its informal king-making position in the EPRDF, did not join the PP, and withdrew to “its” ethnic region of Tigray in the north, on the border with Eritrea. Politically, the simmering tension came to a head in the summer of 2020. On the pretense of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abiy rescheduled the 2020 parliamentary elections to a still undetermined date in 2021. Many saw the decision as a ploy to strengthen Abiy’s increasingly dictatorial hold on Ethiopia, as successfully executed through the PP. Out of federal Ethiopia’s 12 regions, only Tigray, with its tiny population of 7 million, remained without the PP’s direct control. The TPLF disagreed with the delay of the parliamentary elections. Instead, Regional President and TPLF President Debretsion Gebremichael pressed on with the regional elections in Tigray itself as scheduled, namely, in September 2020. As a result, Tigray’s regional government now deems the federal government illegitimate, and vice versa.

War over statehood

In November 2020, the federal army attacked Tigray, and supportive Eritrea came to Addis Ababa’s succor. The TPLF forces caught in the Ethiopian-Eritrean crosshairs withdrew to the mountains. Tens of thousands of civilians fled to Sudan, thousands lost their lives, while over four million face famine. What is this war about? For sure about egos (people do not count). Abiy thinks he is right, while Debretsion must be wrong, and vice versa. Perhaps Abiy wants to emulate the late Meles, and now also Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled Eritrea since 1993, turning it into a unitary totalitarian state. But in essence, Abiy (aided by Isaias) and Debretsion fight a war that is not of their making. Their conflict is Central European in its character. Both sides differ in their preferred choice of a Central European model of statehood. Abiy increasingly sides with the model of unitary nation state, with a single official (national) language, that is, Amharic, despite his Oromo ethnic origin. On the other hand, Debretsion prefers ethnic federalism and more rights for Ethiopia’s ethnolinguistic regions, especially for his native Tigray, up to outright independence, as guaranteed by the 1995 Constitution. In Abiy’s eyes Ethiopia is to be as unitary and indivisible as Poland is. On the other hand, Debretsion perceives Tigray as a kind of wronged Ukraine, which at long last may have a chance to leave the divisible “Soviet Union” of ethnofederal Ethiopia.

At the same time, innocent people, Tigrayans, Amharas, Oromos, are dying … They have never heard about Central Europe, its history nor ethnolinguistic nations. Unfortunately, modern Central Europe’s divisive politics brushed off onto modern Ethiopia in more ways than one, with hardly anyone noticing this in Europe itself. During the short 20th century, the disastrous destruction of the ethnic federation of Austria-Hungary generated numerous casualties and streams of refugees, because they happened to speak a “wrong” language or profess an “incorrect” religion. Ethnolinguistically homogenous and unitary nation states, built on the ruins of the Dual Monarchy, such as Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Poland, went through their own cycles of forced assimilation, ethnic cleansing and genocide. This history repeated itself when, in the wake of the fall of communism, the ethnoterritorial federations of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia split, yielding more ethnolinguistically homogenous and unitary nation states. I fear that the palpable prospect of a years-long guerrilla war in Tigray makes it likely that the ethnic federation of Ethiopia may follow in the footsteps of Yugoslavia rather than Czechoslovakia before allowing any aspiring ethnolinguistically homogenous and unitary nation state (like Tigray) break free from Ethiopia.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

NB: The essay draws on the recently published monograph Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia: From Ethnolinguistic Nation-State to Multiethnic Federation (Routledge 2021) by Asnake Kefale, Tomasz Kamusella and Christophe Van der Beken. This study in the history of ideas is devoted to the transfer of Central European models of statehood via Asia to modern Ethiopia.


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