By Messay Kebede, PhD
Despite the TPLF’s view of itself as the model of representation of ethnic interests and well-being, the growth of disenchantment is perceptible in Tigray. The proof is that non-violent Tigrean opposition to the TPLF is no longer negligible. Despite a tight control and continuous harassments, the movement known as ARENA is stepping up its criticisms of the regime and its attempt to organize and mobilize a credible popular opposition. Though the movement is ethnic-based, it is ideologically quite distinct from the TPLF, since its program includes not only the achievement of genuine democracy, but also the “restoration of Ethiopian Sovereignty.” The latter goal indicates a movement that counters the TPLF’s vision of Ethiopia as a mere collection of sovereign nations and nationalities.
Another countering movement is the TPDM (Tigray People’s Democratic Movement), considered by many observers as one of the strongest—if not the strongest—armed groups fighting to topple the EPRDF government. Even though I personally do not have any information about the actual strength of the movement other than what I read online, I note that their political program describes a vision of Ethiopia that it is antithetical to that of the TPLF. Indeed, the program denounces the TPLF system because it is “narrowly based on clan and family orientations.” It adds that the system “has endangered the collaborative culture and the historic unity of the people of Ethiopia . . . in the name of self-determination.” Unsurprisingly, the program says, the TPLF policy has created a barrier of “hatred” between the people of Tigray and the people of the rest of Ethiopia, a situation obviously fraught with ominous consequences for Tigreans as well as for Ethiopia.
The importance of these movements comes from the fact that they correct an anomaly, the very one that changed Tigray, the birthplace and the constant supplier of the guardians of Ethiopiawinet, into an initiator and proponent of ethnonationalism and secessionist movements. While the marginalization of Tigray under previous regimes by the hegemony of Amhara elite has understandably created resentment, the espousal of ethnonationalism and secessionism to the point of making Ethiopia landlocked directly contradicted the historic vocation of Tigray. The new path amounted to nothing less than the loss of its very soul. It is because many people were still counting on Tigray’s legacy of guardianship of Ethiopian unity that they welcomed the TPLF with open arms subsequent to the routing of the Derg’s army. The same reliance on Tigray’s traditional commitment to Ethiopian unity explains why the Derg was unable to convince people, despite repeated warnings, of the danger of a military victory of the TPLF.
We know when the turning point occurred: it was in the 60s and early 70s when a majority of Ethiopian educated elites turned against their own legacy and cultural identity through the instigation of the ideology of Marxism–Leninism. In one of my books, I describe the derailment as a “cultural dislocation,” one of its impacts being the measurement of revolutionary zeal by how far one is ready to deconstruct Ethiopia. When you add resentment against Amhara elite to the revolutionary zeal, you have a combination liable to produce estranged groups, the prototype of which is the late Meles Zenawi.
If people’s identity matters, then we should expect a retraction of the type that both renews and brings back the suppressed Tigrean commitment to Ethiopian unity. Is the opposition to the TPLF strong enough to change into a large movement of protest? It is hard to tell for the simple reason that many Tigreans, even though they are aware of TPLF’s derailment and its pernicious effects, are still apprehensive as to the future that awaits them if the TPLF is dislodged from power. The propaganda of the TPLF and its politics of fear have no doubt gotten into the head of many Tigrean elites, not to mention those supporting the TPLF out of greed or political ambition.
Still, the existence of an opposition, however small it may be, that is willing to confront the TPLF on the issue of Ethiopian sovereignty forebodes a change of heart that can further expand provided that favorable conditions upholds it. All the more reason for expecting the expansion of opposition is, as pointed out by Professor Mesfin in a recent article, the realization by ordinary Tigreans that the promise of rapid and all-out economic development of Tigray is far from being fulfilled. The realization contains the understanding that justice and freedom are indivisible, that you cannot have them in one place and not in others. If the system is just and democratic, it is so for everybody; if it excludes other ethnic groups, you can be damn sure that Tigreans too will become victims. Once you erect the wall of special privileges, you have a system that serves the few to the detriment of the many, regardless of ethnic groups.