TPLF and the unsettled question of identity in Ethiopia

ethiopia nationalism
Written by Israel Fayisa

By Israel Fayisa

(OPride) – Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued the desire for fulfillment of human needs leads people to fight over material interests such as food, drink, shelter and above all the preservation of their own bodies.

Humans have fought over desires for the fulfillment of these material needs since antiquity. Imperial expansion and colonialism was inspired by a vision to as much resource as possible. A closer analysis of Ethiopian history shows a similar pattern at work.

But not unlike in other parts of the world, in addition to the quest for economy and political power, conflicts in Ethiopia typically take an ethnic dimension. In the scramble for scarce resource, successive Ethiopian rulers used ethnic identity as a mobilizing force. Wealth enables the group that accumulates more of it, allowing them to control and sustain political power. The interplay between identity, economy and politics is at the core of the current regime in Ethiopia. Destitute individuals – with good connections to power or from a favored ethnic background – have become millionaires overnight while others are seeing their millions evaporate at the same speed.

Prominent conflict analyst William Zartmanargues that without identity element, distributional inequality is unfocused and cannot be a mobilizing force. In the past, resource scarcity forced Abyssinian rulers to invade adjourning kingdoms inhabited by different identity groups. Subsequent accumulation of capital helped them sustain dominance over the rest of the people – for a long period of time. Ethiopia’s current rulers enhanced this formula by giving some semblance of recognition to different identity groups while still maintaining a tight lid over economy and politics.

In theory, the acknowledgment of ethnicity dovetails what Hegel calls man’s innate desire to be recognized as a human being with a certain worth or dignity with the quest fulfillment of material needs. Identity and recognition exists in a comparative relationship. Our humanity is interrelated in a way that our psychology desires recognition from others. A group’s identity does not become an issue until it is denied recognition or undermined by others. Wherever there is recognition for equal rights and opportunity, there is less identity related friction among groups.

In the 1960s, land ownership (economic) and ethno-national claims (identity) were the twin burning questions in Ethiopia. It fuelled an already debilitating economic situation and led to the demise of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last monarch. His successor, Mengistu Hailemariam ruled the country for 17 years by promptly addressing the land issue. His communist and militant approaches to the identity question shortened his Dergue regime’s days. Ethno-national rebels including the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), Ethiopia’s current rulers, and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) fled to the mountains to fight for the recognition of their respective groups by the ruling Amhara elite. In 1990, they ultimately orchestrated the Dergue’s demise by using group identity as the primary mobilizing force.

With Dergue’s downfall, for the first time in that country’s history, identity was championed as fundamental for organizing national politics in Ethiopia. Two decades after the adoption of ethnic-based federal structure, identity questions remain unsettled in Ethiopia.

What went wrong?

After Dergue, following a brief transitional period, the TPLF transformed itself into a new band of oppressors denying other ethnic groups the same freedoms they fought to win for their Tigrean constituency. They maliciously organized satellite organizations and individuals to control rival ethnic groups, especially the Oromo.

During the transition, the OLF and rebels from other ethnic groups joined the new political framework with the assumption that all identity groups in the country will have an equal voice on the fate of the nation. Soon, Tigrean elites unleashed their hidden Machiavellian agenda – concentrating political power in the hands of few and forming state-affiliated extractive economic powerhouses.

Once their material and political interests were fulfilled, the Tigrean elites began denying the existence of similar demands by other identity groups. To justify the ethnic hegemony of Tigreans, they noted 60,000 ethnic Tigreans died in the struggle against the Dergue.

Conscious men prefer death to slavery. That is why rebel forces such as the OLF and Ogaden National Liberation Front returned to armed struggle to challenge TPLF’s supremacy.

TPLF’s misguided policy relies on satellite organizations and captive military officials to control other people’s desire for equal worth and dignity. They installed captives and POWs from the war with Dergue who have serious rehabilitation issues. When the inefficiency of these officers became apparent, the TPLF turned to brainwashing other vulnerable members of the society. So far, these only served to incite further struggle against the regime. The political pursuit beyond recognition as equal is not only unsustainable but it also has an inherent natural fallacy. For its own sake, TPLF should remain loyal to its original cause – freeing Tigray or free all people of Ethiopia.

The current system has shattered the natural balance of equal relationship among men. The fight against such system will continue until subordination ends. Slowly but surely, non-Tigrean civil and military officials will continue to defect from the system. The next escapee could well be the prime minister himself.

Today Ethiopia is replete with intergroup conflicts because the identity question is over sensitized without getting proper recognition. Differences are promoted and exploited in ways it benefits the incumbent party. The Oromo maybe recognized as an Oromo but not as equal with the atse of the day. In essence, TPLF substituted systematic discrimination with Amhara’s patrimonial political tradition. Regional officials are equal among themselves. But when they work with TPLF personalities, they need to waggle their tails – some more than others. Mistrust among regional satellite organizations is rampant. As a result, resentment is deepening every day as a result of such denigrating relationship between Tigrean juntas and other elites. The Amhara ruling class used assimilation policies to undermine identity questions. The current regime manipulates intergroup relationships to maintain its grip on power.

TPLF’s laws are also creating insecurity around the country. A draconian terrorism law is instituted to silence any dissent against the regime. Pseudo regional officials send thousands of innocent citizens to jail in the name of security with a single clandestine order from a TPLF intelligence agent. They are putting innocent victims on trial based on invented terror charges. Legitimate questions of right are changed to questions of security. Absent an independent judicial mechanism, the regime maintains a status that is above the law. There are plethora of cases and evidence whereby officials refused to release prisoners sent free by the courts. People now seek refuge in TPLF officials’ armpits to avoid the wrath of their terror.

TPLF is determined to rule by any means irrespective of the lack of consent from the ruled. TPLF leaders proved their disrespect to the people of Ethiopia multiples of times. First, they invented satellite organizations instead of peacefully settling differences with genuine leaders of the people. Secondly, they resorted to rigging votes when the people showed their disapproval through ballot box since 1992. Ballot boxes are smuggled in daylight like their contraband businesses.

TPLF’s shrewd political goals contaminated the egalitarian Oromo democratic tradition to unparalleled degree. It trained Oromo individuals to become mediocre and give up dignity for limited and temporary gains. They robbed Oromo businesses, humiliated elders, ridiculed the educated, raped girls, tortured the brave, and persecuted and killed the wise so that no strong leadership could emerge to challenge their rule. TPLF tried to destroy independent thinking and independent economy among the Oromo without which freedom is unattainable.

This generation must not settle for a subservient status. TPLF should not be allowed to torture and kill those who seek equal recognition of everyone. In Ethiopia, political pursuit of equality is intractably linked to the question of identity. This should give those who seek to reverse even this limited recognition a pause. Democracy will only work if the rights of all identity groups are equally recognized. That is the road to permanent peace in Ethiopia – a road far too less travelled in this multiethnic nation.

*Israel Fayisa is a former Oromia Supreme Court judge currently living in exile. He can be reached at



About the author

Israel Fayisa

Israel Fayisa is a former Supreme Court judge in Oromia, Ethiopia. He can be reached at

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