By Jawar Siraj Mohammed*
Browse through any Ethiopian website, and you will discover that almost every article or commentary says something about the Tigrean domination of the country. The cyber world is crammed with statistics, testimonies, conspiracy theories and condemnations. Some of the fervent cases brought forth include;
- How Tigray disproportionally benefits under this regime,
- How 95% of all important military and security posts have been occupied by ethnic Tigreans,
- Reports over the TPLF-owned giant conglomerate known by its acronym, EFFORT
- Accounts of how the Tigrean-only Agazi commando force has been used to commit heinous crimes,
- The meteoric rise of Tigrean elites into the club of world millionaires,
- And denunciations of the unacceptable monopolization of the church and mosque leadership by rebels-turned-men-of-God.
Most of these allegations are true, while some are perhaps exaggerated. However, there is no doubt that they are indicative of the growing rift between Tigrean elites, who deny or defend their hegemonic and exclusive economic advantage, and their adversaries, who offer evidence after evidence to back up their complaints. I have been a keen observer of how the system actually functions under the shadow of the current regime. As I read arguments and analyses provided by different individuals and groups, I find a lack of revealing analysis of the true purpose behind the blatantly pro-Tigrean policies of the current regime. Therefore, in this article I will analyze the strategies, tactics and politics behind the transformation of the TPLF from a peasant revolutionary force into Africa’s richest oligarchy.
First encounter with a Tigrean Nationalist
My initial encounter with a Tigrean nationalist took place sometime in the mid-‘90s, at a time when the fight between TPLF and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was at its peak. A discussion between an older neighbor and a TPLF soldier called Manjus caught my attention. Manjus was passionately talking about how he joined TPLF. His story begins about ten years earlier, when the young Tigrean and his sister were attending high school in a town far away from their village. One day, they returned home for a mid-semester vacation and found their village virtually burned to the ground.
The two students came home to discover a completely demolished house, dead parents and whatever property the peasant family owned gone. In a tragic incident, the two siblings lost everything. They had no hope, no family or means of support that could help them go back to school. To make matters worse, they were told that the Derg cadres were hunting for them. As they tried to cope with the sudden shock, anger, and despair, they were met by TPLF recruiters who came with a promise of a means for revenge towards those who slaughtered their parents and also bring peace, justice and democracy to their oppressed Tigrean people. The helpless mourners and enraged youngsters could not resist the offer, so they joined the freedom fighters. A few years later, Manjus lost his sister to the war shortly before TPLF controlled Finfinne. Soon things turned upside down. When Meles replaced Mengistu, Manjus’ turn came to chase another rebel group and burn down many other villages, including mine.
I was a young boy back then. But it still baffles me why someone who picked up arms against an oppressive regime because his village was burned would come to destroy mine or someone who joined freedom fighters to free his people would suppress my people. It remains a question for which I still seek an answer. During my high school years, I read the history of TPLF in newspapers and magazines, listened to the radio and watched television during the Yekatit 11th and Ginbot 20th celebrations, when TPLF leaders would talk for days about the cause for which they had waged a fierce struggle, the hardships they went through and the glory of defeating the “murderous” enemy. As a young Oromo nationalist with grievances against the dominant culture, I understood why they rebelled against oppressive system. But none of their explanations ever answered my question as to why those freedom fighters turned into ruthless oppressors within such a short period of time.
As I grew older, the list of my questions has also grown. The Tigrean people suffered economic alienation under Haile Selassie and were subjected to ruthless suppression and persecution under the Derg regime. It was their grievances that gave birth to TPLF, and Tigreans supported and sustained the front through years of bloody struggle for their freedom. Then, how could such freedom-loving people remain loyal to a party that oppresses, kills, loots and destroys the lives of other ethnic groups? There is no easy answer to this question but one might begin to understand it by assessing the historic and contemporary relationships between the people of Tigray and the TPLF.
Politics of Entitlement: “I Earned It, so I Deserve It”
Rebels follow a common path in the power cycle. Imagine rebelling against repression— going to the jungle and fighting your way up the ladder of State power and reaching the pinnacle. Then imagine a classmate of yours who did not rebel with you but stayed in school, went abroad to study at some fancy college, got his PhD and returned to the country you liberated. Not only was your friend absent during the grueling years of the struggle, now he talks of democracy, and wants to share the power that you gained through sweat and blood. What a farce, you would think, this is not fair!
What about other organizations that fought in alliance with you against the same regime, but whom you now have to outrun to capture power before they beat you to it? While it’s true that they fought with you, you think, they were never effective, and your organization paid the highest price and contributed the most towards bringing down the enemy. Therefore, you deserve the maximum share of the power and that power sharing should be in accordance with contribution. After all, you have the power and you should be the chief decision maker. Other organizations either get whatever you give them or they don’t get any power.
This is a common path all rebel-turned-rulers use to rationalize blocking democratization and hold power exclusively. That is exactly what Meles Zenawi did. If we look back, first, organizations and individuals who did not participate in the war or whose political views contradict that of the TPLF were excluded from joining the Transitional Government. Some were labeled outdated or old revolutionaries; others were accused of being associated with the past regime, and many more were pushed away because they refused to organize along ethnic lines.
Those who were allowed to participate in the transitional government but refused to become subordinate to TPLF did not last long. For instance, Meles could not coexist with the OLF, which boasted a larger constituency but had weaker military strength. Literally, there was no difference between the leaders of the two organizations in terms of their alleged objectives, liberation of their respective nations. But Meles felt that it was unacceptable to allow OLF to remain in the coalition. OLF appeared to potentially win in the forthcoming election and take control of power through majority rule.
The sacrifices, hardships and violence involved in waging an armed struggle lead to development of a strong sense of entitlement that becomes a justification for holding exclusive power. In a multinational country such as Ethiopia, with several competing interest groups, holding exclusive power produces multiple enemies for the power-holder. As such, the new rulers have to use any and all means at their disposal to consolidate and defend the hard-earned prize. That is why so many freedom fighters turn into ruthless oppressors even before the blood of their martyrs desiccate. That was why Manjus came to my village.
As shown in the diagram, rebels capture state power after paying heavy sacrifices and immediately begin consolidating power by fending off real and assumed adversaries. Their attempt to hold power exclusively earns them opposition from those grieving for not being able to share a piece of the pie. Soon, the opposition groups start to organize themselves to contend for power which forces the new regime to move into defensive position.
The regime uses all forces at its disposal to suppress its emerging opponents and their supporters which radicalize the later and often leading to a violent confrontation. Increased repression and a tight political space not only delegitimize the system but also broaden and galvanize support for the opposition. When its power is seriously threatened, the regime uses excessive force in an effort to suppress and destroy its adversaries. In the process, it commits heinous crimes against the general population and reaches a point of no return that fighting is not just about holding onto power for its privilege but rather about safety and survival of the rulers.