The legacy of TPLF rule remains the most convincing explanation for the post TPLF unrest in Ethiopia
Megersa Tolera (PhD fellow in Peace and Development Studies, Haramaya University)
To an extent, the tragedy of South Sudan since independence is a consequence of colonialism. Under the colonial state, South Sudanese were subjects divided into chiefdoms with a fusion of legislative, executive, and judicial powers conferred from the colonial state to the ethnic fiefdoms. The colonial administration used a form of ethnic federalism, aligning cultural and political boundaries, to manage native populations, not dissimilar to the approaches of Ethiopia and Nigeria today. Systems of ethnic federalism align identity and territorial divides creating options for more local autonomy while still leaving room for manoeuvring by the federal government.
Under an independent Sudan, the dual legacy of the colonial state was reproduced in the Arab-African divide creating an ethnically diverse but unified opposition to the ethnic state. However, internal tensions within the liberation movement were easily exploited, and Khartoum could de-ethicised the conflict and split the opposition into an ethnically fragmented array of armed actors, some of which were co-opted.
Developed by the writer Comte Arthur de Gobineau in the mid-19th century, it became a mainstream doctrine of modern Imperialism. Hannah Arendt (1975) noted that this doctrine of race was not only uniquely European but was used to justify earlier European expansion into the non-European world. In a study of global expansion and conquest, she understood that race was one of the ‘two main devices of imperialist rule’. She argued that European understanding of race in Africa was divided into two subsections, the ‘scientific’ and the ‘bureaucratic’. The Imperialist projection of race in Sub-Saharan Africa was ‘scientific’; natives were thought of genetically and therefore were barbaric. In contrast Arendt describes the Imperialist attitude towards race in North Africa as ‘bureaucratic’. This meant that natives were at the least worthy of collaboration; indeed, they were in need of their ‘special [imperialist] protection’. This allowed the Imperialist to see North Africa in a more sensitive and human light. According to Mahmood Mamdani(2001) , this bipolarised understanding race had become the ‘marker dividing humanity… a few superhuman and the rest less than human’. Mamdani argues that this extreme division of humanity provided the rationale for ‘the elimination of entire peoples’, and therefore genocide.
This conception of ethnicity manifested itself as a factor of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide too. A divide was driven between Rwanda’s two main ethnicities, the Hutus and the Tutsis, after the Belgians moved in. It was the practice of colonial administrators to select a group to be privileged and educated 'intermediaries' between governors and governed. The Belgians chose the Tutsis, and their reasoning was rooted in race theory ( Hnna Arendit, 1975). They were influenced by what is known as the ‘Hamitic hypotheses’ (Mahmood Mamdani, 2001), a theory that separates Africans by two racial identities based on Biblical tradition. The first is the Hamitic race, which argues that Black Africans such as the Abyssinians were of Caucasian ‘Prophetic’ descent, and therefore separate from the rest of ‘Negro’ Africa. The Belgians viewed the Tutsis in this category. Considered African but not ‘Negro’, they were similarly treated in what Hannah Arendt described as ‘bureaucratic’ – worthy of collaboration. This was promoted by both the Belgians and the Catholic Church, who were sent at the time as missionaries (Mahmood Mamdani,2001). Father Leon Classe, the Belgian archbishop of Rwanda, explained this division by describing the Tutsis’ as ‘superb humans’, and argued that the tribe inhibited both ‘Aryan’ and ‘Semitic’ traits. Father Francois Menard added that Tutsi were merely ‘European[s] under black skin’ (Mahmood Mamdani, 2001). Rene Lemarchland argued that the ‘the church posed as the strongest evidence of Tutsi supremacy’. To the Belgians, the Tutsi’s been a ‘civilizing race’ and were set up as intermediaries between the colonizers and the natives.
The Ethiopia of today, not the ancient Abyssinia, as part of Horn of Africa, was born as a result of internal power struggles between Menelik II and forces competing to control additional territories during the 19th century. In the process of territorial expansion, regional lords who surrendered themselves to Menelik II were allowed to rule their areas by paying a certain amount of gibir (tribute or tax) to the ruler of Shoa (central government). Southern rulers, who peacefully submitted to Menelik II, were allowed to rule their territories by paying a fixed amount of tribute (Bahru 2002:87). One could take this as a historical justification for a federal system since Ethiopians have lived for longer periods under decentralized forms of government (Assefa, 2006:135). For most of its history, it existed as a de facto federal system in which the emperor exercised matters of national importance, while regional kingdoms had power to levy tax, guarantee local security and regulate trade.
That is, the regional rulers had some degree of autonomy to govern their respective regions, which is the modern essence of federalism. Thus, the nineteenth century Ethiopian emperor, Menelik, operationalised the federal system of government that was geographic-based, not ethnic. In light of this, Mesfin (1999:142) stated that the structure of the traditional Ethiopian state was federal, having many kings (governing their own provinces) but one king of kings (ruling the whole state). Emperor Menelik II was credited for being the first to implement a federal system before the concept of federalism flourished in the Western political market.
In view of the above, during the imperial periods, a central issue in Ethiopian politics was the struggle between regional and central forces. For example, during the imperial era, the struggle was expressed through continuous disputes between the central king or emperor and the regional lords and princes (Bahru 2002:61). The former power struggles between the central and the regional rulers changed from a struggle for territorial expansion into a class struggle. And the 1974 Revolution which was provoked by the Ethiopian Student’s Movement was a national class struggle. It was not an ethnic conflict. During the revolution, a pool of educated elites, mostly Marxists in orientation, formed a number of political parties and intensified the growing wave of change. The twentieth century Ethiopian elites, participating in the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), viewed the problems in Ethiopia as a result of class conflicts and not as an outcome of struggles between ethnic groups (Aalen 2002:4).
Among the members of the students’ movement, however, the most ethnically conscious students were invariably the Afan Oromo and Tigrigna speakers (Young 2006:82). Owing to this, the Oromo Liberation Front and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leaders asserted that the early 20th century students’ movement was a struggle among ethnic groups. In disagreement with the allegation of the TPLF leaders, however, a number of scholars teaching at the then Haile Selassie I University (HSIU) asserted that the reaction to the massive oppression and exploitation of the people of Ethiopia appeared to be a class struggle (Young 2006:81). According to Gebru, the peasants rebelled against the state not particularly because it was controlled and dominated by the Shoan Amhara, but primarily because it was oppressive (Gebru, 1977:215). This movement did not have an ethnic foundation (Mesfin, 2012); the main movement with ethnic-centered politics at the time was the one in Eritrea led by the Eritrea Liberation Front (ELF). It may therefore be said that the students targeting the ruling class were against human exploitation irrespective of the rulers’ ethnic background. Most student activists rejected the assertion that national divisions were designed to promote tribalism, and were comfortable with the regime’s policy of avoiding references to ethnicity in any context (Young, 2006:80).
It was in this context that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) appeared on the scene and was officially established in 1975. Their manifesto issued in 1976 called for the establishment of an independent republic of Tigray, but this was later modified to cultural and political autonomy for the region within a united Ethiopia (Aalen, 2002:6). With the support of the popular mass, TPLF, along with its allies in the form of parties and/or movements, took power in 1991 and the most nationalist regime in modern Ethiopian history was removed from power.
Whether we base our argument on historical evidence or the current political temperature in Ethiopia the question no longer is not “if” the wind of change and the popular discontent can be stopped, but it is “when” the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that ruled the country with a brute force for the last 26 years. The other question one must also consider is how far the regime would go in using violence and instigating intercommunal conflict to suppress the popular uprising that is engulfing the country.
All regimes that climb the ladder of power through violence and rule by institutionalized form of state-terror speed up their own expiry date, and TPLF is not exception. Such regimes are their own worst enemies more than anyone or anything else. Their inflated version of self-worth and ‘greatness’ along with extreme arrogance wrapped in a blinding hood of ignorance, prevents them from seeing the reality of their surroundings. They only listen to their own voices and see the fictitious image they created in their own mind. No other ideas, no dissent, no divergent views, which are of a significant value in the building of democratic culture, are tolerated.
While the demise of such an authoritarian rule brings a new hope and optimism to the people of Ethiopia, who endured so much suffering and hardship under the regime. This is also a delicate time that requires responsible navigation from political leaders, as well as the average citizens. The political discourse of the last 26 years under the TPLF has been one of extreme polarization and dangerous play with large group identity. In the process, the regime tried to create permanent fault lines between groups to advance its political agenda. By and large, this attempt hasn’t been successful, thanks to the long standing tradition of peaceful coexistence, shared sense of community and belonging.
At the same time, however, it is important to acknowledge the fact that, the divisive policies of TPLF have dislocated the social equilibrium of the society. Large group identity in Ethiopia has been manipulated with an objective of preventing inter-group collaboration and in the process eliminating centripetal political discourse. Hence, the post-TPLF political process must be strongly and clearly attach on a sustained and long term initiatives of political and social reconciliation agenda.
In conclusion, the legacy of colonialism was the dominant cause of the political and social unrest in Ethiopia. In the last three decades, it is observed that the salience of ethnicity in Ethiopian politics led to both necessary and unnecessary competition in various activities among ethnic groups of the country. With growing competition groups are becoming more aware of their relative worth and tension among them increases. The ethnic tension is unfolding on several fronts. Ethnic Amharas who were evicted and displaced from the Benshangul-Gumuz region, ethnic Oromos who were evicted in their hundreds of thousands from Ethiopia’s Somali region in 2017 remain displaced. The ethnic Somalis who were evicted from Oromia in retaliation are also still displaced. Ethnic Tigaru who were evicted from Gonder city are remaining displaced. Hundreds of innocent Ethiopians have died in the southern cities of Hawassa and Sodo because of their ethnic identity. Anyway, Ethnic intolerance grew and gained momentum, and ethnic violence became a permanent fixture of Ethiopian politics.
Additionally, the policies of the TPLF state were effective in the long-term; there is evidence that the TPLF’n socio-ethnic policy of identity cards was employed. Therefore, the legacy of TPLF intervention was the primary factor of the post TPLF epoch.