Part II: Nationalism, Mixed Heritage and Its Consequences
Individuals of mixed heritage – those born to parents of two different ethnic, racial or religious backgrounds – often face an identity crisis due to the difficulty of choosing between either side of their lineage, particularly if the two groups are in conflict. Let there be no confusion that it’s a blessing to be born from two different cultures for many different reasons. But in transitional societies, since such individuals are not the “full-blooded” members of any particular group, they are rarely accepted and trusted in either camp – particularly during conflicts and tensions. In an effort to win trust, they may attempt extreme identification with one side and express extreme distaste for the other. Unfortunately, even such efforts rarely help them gain long term acceptance. This seems to be the case with Meles Zenawi. He was born from a Tigrean father and an Eritrean mother. To some extent, these facts seem to have shaped his views, actions and roles within the TPLF movement and in Ethiopian politics.
Ethno-nationalism, perhaps helpful as a mobilizing force, has major deficiencies due to its over- emphasis on bloodlines and ethnic purity as a measurement of membership, loyalty and level of nationalism. Close reading of some literature written by Meles’ opponents indicate that behind his back his loyalty was closely scrutinized, from the very beginning, due to his mixed heritage. To overcome this challenge, he adopted the extreme form of Tigrean nationalism, as shown with his fervent support for independence during the early stage of the movement. Even during the early years of his rein in Finfinne, when the legitimacy of his power was challenged by the “full-blooded” Tigrean nationalists, he repeatedly emphasized the greatness and uniqueness of the Tigreans, as evidenced with his expression of Tigreans as a “golden” people. Such tactics were aimed at boosting his nationalistic credentials within the party’s rank and file.
The Ethio-Eritrean war seems to have intensified Meles’ identity crisis. As a leader of Ethiopia, he had to defend his power and the country’s sovereignty against an attack by his maternal relatives. His adversarial faction made his identity a major issue, and publicly questioned his loyalty both to Tigray and Ethiopia. The EPLF, which earlier thought that it was installing a friendly regime in Finfinne, felt betrayed by Meles’ willingness to succumb to Tigreans’ pressure and refused to submit to Asmara’s demand.
The identity crisis he faced at every political turn seems to have desensitized Meles making him a rationally calculative individual. He came to terms with the fact that he can fit neither into Tigrean nor to Eritrean or even Ethiopian nationalist camps. Contrary to popular belief, he is neither a Tigrean nationalist as he claims, nor is he the undercover Eritrean nationalist as charged by his opponents. Knowing that neither of the two groups can trust him and provide him a long term and sustainable support, Meles does not rely on or trust any of them. Thus, we see him constantly shifting his loyalty and priorities between the two groups to advance his personal interests.
His own experiences as a person of mixed heritage involved in nationalist or identity-based struggles have helped him to clearly understand the difficulties and opportunities of mixed people. Thus, it is not without reason that he surrounds himself with such individuals. Many of his loyal surrogates are those of mixed heritage with bitter experiences of identity crisis. In fact, from those at the top of the ruling oligarchy to those at the bottom of the food chain, the system is filled with individuals whose identity, character and loyalty has been questioned by “true” nationalists. These individuals understand that, even if one side of their lineage takes power in the ongoing power struggle, they will always be ostracized and sidelined by the “full-blooded” nationalists. Therefore it is in their best interest to support and safeguard Meles’ rule. In short, unlike nationalists who are subjected to “group” loyalty, those of mixed heritage within the system act in their own self-interest.
Thus, it’s a mistake to assume that ethno-nationalism guides Meles’ actions and decisions. True nationalists tend to be passionate and emotional, which clouds their rational judgment. They often fail to differentiate between rhetoric and interest. What we see with Meles is a man who is cold-blooded, calculative, and one with a façade of rationality who uses nationalism and ideology to advance his personal interest and dumps it when it gets in his way. For instance, he is accused of agitating Eritrea’s independence because his mother was Eritrean. In my view, he did so simply to eliminate a powerful contender, EPLF, from competing against him in Finfinne. If he really cared about Eritreans, he would not have committed a crime against humanity by kicking out thousands of Eritreans, snatching them from the land they were born and raised, simply to save his power. He had the means and the ability to prevent this, but he executed the decisions happily and without reservation, even justifying his actions by saying “we are entitled to deport anyone even for disliking the color of their eyes.” His current move to allow Eritreans to return and reclaim their property should also be seen as a strategic preparation for a possible shift of alliances.
Attributing Meles’ policy of disproportionally benefiting the Tigrean elites to narrow nationalism, therefore, is a mistake. A careful review of his track record also negates this belief. For one, he has eliminated most of the “true” Tigrean nationalists. In fact, the strongest nationalist wing of the TPLF has been effectively forced out at different stages. This group was gradually weakened by dividing them across regional (awurajja) lines, depleting their support and popularity, and eventual purging or outright physical elimination of the leading figures one after another. Therefore, the Tigrean People Liberation Front has ceased to exist in its truest sense and has been replaced by a powerful, tightly organized business oligarchy made up of individuals acting in self-interest. The nationalist rhetoric and ethno-centric policies are simply smoke screen tactics to divert attention and maintain the political support of the Tigrean people.
Narrow Nationalism or an Effective Business Oligarchy
Ever since the TPLF came to power, there has been a greater attempt to economically develop the Tigray region before the rest of the country. It is a common belief that the economic, bureaucratic, security and religious institutions of the central government hierarchy have been monopolized by Tigrean elites. Although there is insufficient statistical data available to show the extent of the disparity, the domination of the central government’s agencies, institutions and the economic sector by Tigrean elites is an undeniable fact. However, by dwelling on these disparities, I believe critics of the regime have missed one critical point. Why do Meles Zenawi and his oligarchy promote such a blatant and visible favoritism towards the Tigray region and Tigrean elites?
One popular theory is that the leadership is so ethnocentric that they prioritize their kin and home region at the expense of others. Another theory alleges that Tigreans, as a minority group, believe that they cannot hold on to exclusive power forever. Hence, they are building a strong economic foundation to position themselves against their adversaries – either to use their economic power to influence any regime that will replace them – or if things get worse, to establish a self sufficient, regional super power, an independent Tigrean state. These two theories cannot be discounted, given the fact that Tigrean elites, despite controlling central power, refuse to integrate themselves into the larger population and often warn about the possibility of breaking the country apart.
In my view, Meles Zenawi and his top confidants are in it for themselves, and it is all about protecting their personal power and economic interest. To me, TPLF has long become a business oligarchy serving and protecting the interest of Meles and a few individuals around him. The oligarchy has been using the Tigrean people to insulate themselves against their opponents. Thus, disproportionally favoring the Tigray region is a calculated move not only to increase Meles’ nationalist credentials, but also to agitate the rest of the Ethiopian people, and create a sense of insecurity among the Tigreans so that they remain loyal supporters of the regime. Similarly, Tigrean elites have been made to monopolize the center in order to propagate tension and hostility from the elites of other ethnic groups. As a result, in order to retain their economic privilege, power and sense of security, the Tigrean elites have to defend the regime at any cost.
The Strategy: Isolate, Scare and Secure the Support Base
Meles Zenawi and his oligarchy have been able to effectively execute these plans so far for the following reasons. One, as a leading member of the group that articulated Tigrean nationalism and transformed it into revolutionary force, he was aware that maintaining the loyalty of the Tigrean base after the fall of Derg required the presence of permanent and imminent threat to their livelihood. Two, the oligarchy realized that in addition to the historic Amhara-Tigrean power struggle , when such a small minority group dominates the polity, it would be unacceptable to the majority. Thus, any opposition would have to take such monopolization of the state by minority as a major issue and propagate anti-Tigrean rhetoric – which scares Tigreans and keeps them loyal to the ruling party even if they disagree with some policies of the regime.
To increase the nationalistic aspect of the rebellion, the TPLF used effective propaganda that focused on emphasizing the glorious history of Tigray from Axum onward, recreating the memory of the glorious past to create a sense of pride. The discrimination and humiliation faced by Tigreans under the Amhara domination also served to create anger against the Amhara led central government. However, once the TPLF took power, there was no longer a central government to oppress the Tigray peasants. Therefore, the front had to facilitate conditions that could help maintain the loyalty of the Tigrean people. This came in two phases. The first was favoring the region economically and popularizing this favoritism. This served two purposes. One, it made the Tigrean peasants believe that they were reaping the fruits of their sweat. Two, it helped create jealousy and furor among other Ethiopians which created an anti-Tigrean sentiment. The goal of this first phase was to isolate the Tigrean peasants and create permanent fear so that they would remain loyal to the regime for protection. Once isolation and continuous loyalty of the Tigrean peasant was secured, the second phase was domination of all institutions (administrative, security, economic, and religious) by loyal Tigrean elites. This was done to fuel resentment among the elites of other ethnic groups. Gradually, the power and privilege of Tigrean elites became dependent upon supporting and maintaining the regime by being loyal defenders of the oligarchy.
TPLF’s excessive favoritism of the Tigray region is systematically “exposed” to the opposition and to the general public. TPLF’s own homemade satellite parties (PDOs) were created to debate and defend the disproportional growth of the Tigray region. Public debate was deliberately orchestrated to expose the level of disparity to the rest of the country in an effort to make the issue a major topic of discussion amongst the general public. In other words, the ruling party was framing the agenda for the opposition. Therefore, during the early years of Meles Zenawi’s reign, the opposition was obsessed with the rapid “Europeanization” of Tigray. Newspapers and politicians of all stripes cried the slogan of “Tigray sitlema lelaw ager yidma” – let Tigray prosper while others bleed. At the same time, the regime assured Tigreans that they were harvesting the fruit of their struggle. Those in the opposition, the Tigreans were told, are Tigre-haters who want to use excuses to bring back the old regime. Geographically isolated, facing accusation and threat from the opposition, provided comfort and assurance by their party, the people of Tigray had to remain loyal to their vanguard.
Once the collective loyalty of the Tigray peasant was secured, the regime intensified its effort to grab the unconditional loyalty of the Tigrean elites who reside outside the region, allover Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. These elites were offered power and privilege over their counterparts, and the latter began to show resentment against this discrimination. For Tigrean elites, suppressing such dissent became a matter of protecting their own privilege. While acting on their own self interest, they indirectly defend the regime.
The issue of the military being exclusively commanded by Tigreans at every level is an excellent example. Military coup is one of the worst nightmares of authoritarians. Appointing Tigreans at every level of the command structure ensures the presence of permanent tension within the military. Since any coup by dissenting officers requires coordination, the atmosphere of tension at every level of the structure makes it more difficult to conspire.
In a similar fashion, Tigrean students in universities across the country have been separately organized. The regime fears that if Tigrean students are allowed to integrate into the larger student body, they would learn about the injustices, crimes and repressions committed against other ethnic groups, and they might expose the regime when they return home to Tigray. To prevent such integration, Tigrean students are provided perceived or real favoritism in the form of allowances, better job offers upon graduation and so on. This infuriates students from other ethnic groups, as evidenced by periodic conflict between Tigrean and Amhara, or Tigrean and Oromo students. It is even rumored that the Tigrean students have been armed all across campuses to defend themselves against “haters”. The rage by other ethnic groups against Tigrean students makes the latter so insecure that they support the regime at any cost even if they disagree with its policies. They become blinded to the crimes of the oligarchy and are often dismissive of even obvious issues they witness.
Unlike the peasants in Tigray, Tigreans in Finfinne and other towns are more integrated into the mainstream society and did not directly experience the brutality of the Derg’s campaign against TPLF. Therefore, they did not have such a strong bonding to TPLF, which makes it harder to isolate them from the rest of Ethiopians and insure their loyalty to the regime. Creating their insecurity requires facilitating a direct threat to their own interest and lives. To that end, their economic advantage under this regime has to be so visible as to create rage amongst their neighbors. Tigreans who showed loyalty were provided with easy credit, low interest rate loans, and etc. so that they could ascend the economic ladder very quickly. This was successful in producing suspicion and jealousy among their non-Tigrean colleagues, friends and neighbors who began accusing them of ripping unfair benefits by virtue of their ethnicity.
Appointing a Tigrean as a patriarch of the Orthodox Church was another effective move aimed at weakening the religious bond between Tigreans and non-Tigrean Orthodox Christians. From the early days of the struggle, TPLF has made relentless effort to break the religious bond Tigreans have with the Amhara through the institution of the church. This culminated in the removal of the former patriarch and replacing him by a Tigrean loyal to the oligarchy. The intensified effort to make ethnicity more important than religious solidarity has resulted in ever increasing tension within the institution and among the followers, and official split is prevented only because the incumbent patriarch is been backed by the state. Therefore, by openly favoring Tigreans and agitating the rest of the country, a condition of fear and insecurity has been created.