Tigrai and People of Tigrai

Imperatives of the Strategic Geopolitical History

INTRODUCTION

Tigrai is the northern most Regional State of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. With an estimated population of 5 million, it is located between latitudes of 12º 15’N and 14º 50’N, and longitudes of 36º 27’E and 39º59’ E. The region stretches from the Sudan border in the west and Eritrea in the north. The Ethiopian regions of Amhara and Afar in the south and east border it, respectively. From climatic and agro-ecological perspectives, Tigrai belongs to the zone of African Drylands, which is often called the Sudano-Sahelian region. This is a region that presents distinctive challenges to development.

The time to rise-up in unison to eradicate poverty out of the Tigraian landscape has come. Our victorious heroes and heroines of Woyane II, our Tegadelti, those legends who perished in the battlefields and those who made it to see victory, have built the path we can walk through. Our children must learn the extensive wealth of history and culture of their origin. This knowledge will instill high self-esteem in every one of them to be successful in their own respective lives. We should never hesitate to tell them the historical forces that forced their parents to flee the Motherland. Socio-cultural, economic, and political injustices subjected our people to a poverty trap. In effect, history matters very much for development, because where we are and where we are heading depends on what happened to our forefathers and subsequently to us. Life is a function of time. It is time that wounds; it is time that heels; and it is time that teaches lessons that we should never forget. Clear knowledge of the historical events our people went through for centuries, the dynamics of our cultural norms and values, and the social, economic, and political institutions (rules and regulations) that were imposed on us externally is the greatest impetus we have to learn from and to act on to chart the future of our people and, of course, of ourselves.

Poverty is a multidimensional deprivation of all human capabilities[1]. This deprivation is manifested through the horrors of: (a) susceptibility to various diseases; (b) inaccessibility of social services (e.g., law of the land, healthcare, education, information, and political freedom); (c) lack of socio-political power and knowledge to control and manage natural capital, (i.e., local ecosystems that embody natural resources, such as forests, fish, water, and wildlife); (d) absolute submission to higher social and economic classes; (e) extreme vulnerability to sudden weather and climatic changes; and (f) utter insecurity in the face of changing adverse circumstances, such as civil conflicts, wars, and famines.

Consequently, poor households remain in a poverty trap, which is a kind of poverty that persists from generation to generation, through self-reinforcing positive feedback loops of adverse effects until effective policy measures are taken to break its vicious cycle. Tigrai, like any other nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia, had to endure the adverse impacts of poverty for centuries. What are the specific historical and present events and circumstances, which continue to perpetuate poverty in Tigrai? What are the short-term and long-term solutions? What specific contributions can we make to potential solutions? The Global Solidarity Network of Tigraians for Development (GSNeTD) is a multipurpose organization. Its overarching goal is to help governmental, non-governmental, and business organizations in creating enabling conditions for and approaches to poverty eradication through enhanced knowledge of the pathways to sustainable development.

The purpose of this piece is to inform Tigraians and friends of Tigrai that dedicated Tigraians, residing abroad and in Ethiopia, have launched GSNeTD on October 31, 2012. Membership is free. What is required is willingness to contribute to the success of GSNeTD’s goal in any way possible. Please read the following background information. No doubt, you will be motivated and inspired to be part of this humanitarian campaign: Wofri Tigrai! After reading this motivational background, we encourage you to read the GSNeTD’s MISSION page.

TIGRAI: THE LAND OF ALL BATTLEFIELDS

Background

Frequent wars fought against external invaders in Tigrai’s soil are the major historical events that perpetuated poverty in Tigrai. “… some twenty major battles were fought in Tigrayan soil between the Battle of Adwa and the Italian invasion of 1935[2] (emphasis added). Tigraian men and women, the peasantry, had to bear the brutalities of the wars. In addition to their bravery in fighting the foreign enemies, the poor households had to provide food, water, and shelter to the peasant armies from many corners of Ethiopia, because Ethiopia did not have salaried-national army until 1941. The rules of war during those years let “.. soldiers to feed themselves at the expense of the peasants on whose lands they traversed. Indeed, pillaging (plundering, robbing) from the peasants and collecting war booty were the soldiers’ chief incentives for joining the army (emphasis added).[3] Moreover, the Tigraian men and women provided topographic information, transportation logistics (donkeys and mules), and crucial intelligence about the frontlines. It is disgusting and bitterly annoying to observe Ethiopia’s writers and policy makers give demeaning lip-service to Tigrai’s sacrifices in protecting Ethiopia’s sovereignty and integrity. Have a look at the following historical facts:

The Selfless Patriotism of Emperor Yohannes IV

Against all Menelik’s machinations of deception, treachery, and betrayal, Emperor Yohannes IV demonstrated his patriotism, leadership skills, and military prowess against all Ethiopia’s enemies of his time. Of course, the brilliance of his trusted and famous general, Alula Aba-Nega, was imperative. Alula’s army routed well-equipped Egyptians, led by European and American mercenaries, in the following battlefields: in 1875 at Gundet; in 1876 at Guraé; in 1880 at Senhit; and in 1887 at Aylet. Again, on January 26, 1887, Ras Alula’s military prowess was put into a decisive victory at Dogali,where Italian invaders were annihilated. The Italians decried their humiliating defeat at Dogali as “The Dogali Massacre”.[4] Note that all battlefields are part of today’s State of Eritrea. Do not ask; it is a long and complicated history.

In any case, we human beings are incapable to foresee our destiny. Emperor Yohannes IV died on Mar. 12, 1889 at Metema, in today’s Amhara Killil, while defending his beloved country against the Mahdists of Mahdi Mohammed Ahmed of Sudan. The Mahdists managed to snatch the Emperor’s body from the Ethiopian heroes, who fought to the last drop of blood to defend their beloved King’s body. They (the Mahdists) beheaded him and took his head to Omdurman to be displayed as a trophy. The Sudanese Muslims, the Mahdists, revealed their primitiveness and savagery through that act of cruelty. For the King, that was an enduring evidence of his selfless patriotism. Emperor Yohannes IV gave his life for the integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia. By doing that he instilled pride and heroism in all Ethiopian generations that followed him.

There is a legitimate-historical question the answer to which is very simple, but crucially important for Ethiopians to keep in mind: Why did those all enemies tried to subjugate Ethiopia? Just because these enemies and their collaborators were and are interested in Ethiopia’s: (a) strategic location for their purpose of geopolitical and economic sphere of influence; and (b) unique ecosystems that embed the natural wealth of: in-tact natural forests, wetlands, extensive water bodies, precious minerals, fossil fuels, etc. In addition, the Muslims hated to see Ethiopia as an island of Christianity, although Ethiopia did welcome and continues to welcome Muslims to live freely in peace and security. Thus, these historical facts should remind the modern Ethiopian generation to remain vigilant, as their forefathers did, when dealing with friends and foes alike.

Now, how do we have to immortalize the enlightening patriotism of Emperor Yohannes IV? The answer is simple. We must erect monuments in Addis Ababa and in Mekelle. The one at Mekelle, at the top of Enda-Yesus escarpment-hill, should face to the north frontier where the Emperor’s armies marched to the battlefields of: Gundet, Guraé, Senhit, Aylet, and Dogali. These are the main battlefields where the Emperor’s most trusted general, Alul Aba-Nega, routed Ethiopia’s enemies, the Egyptians and Italians. We hope that the current Ethiopian government will not remain indifferent to this historical truth. Let it be known that this generation of Tigraians will not remain complacent to all the injustices that inflicted enduring harm on Tigrai. Justice must be served.

Menelik’s Treasonous Acts

While Emperor Yohannes was fighting all of the above highlighted wars, Menelik was making secret deals with the Italians and other enemies of Ethiopia to sabotage Emperor Yohannes’ efforts. Shortly after they were subjected to a humiliating defeat in 1887 at Dogali in the hands of Alula Aba-Nega, the Italians agreed in a secret treaty to supply Menelik with 5,000 Remington rifles and money; and to recognize him as a sovereign power in return for his promise to assist Italy’s colonial expansion. Between 1885 and 1895, a total of 189,000 weapons were imported into Showa. Very quickly, just within two months after the death of Emperor Yohannes IV, Menelik claimed the Ethiopian Imperial Throne; and he recognized the Italians’ sovereignty over our Red Sea frontier, Bahri-Negash, which they (the purchasers) named Eritrea, after the Treaty of Wuchale was signed on May 2, 1889.

Menelik’s strategic goal was to divide, weaken, and subjugate the Tigrigna speaking people of the whole northern frontier so that he expands his empire to the southern Ethiopian frontier. In that treasonous blunder, he succeeded. Because, we are now called Tigraians and Eritreans; Eritrea now is an independent nation state. But, that trick did not last long. Menelik had to fight the Italians at Adwa in 1896, when the historic Ethiopian victory, a pride of all Africans, was scored. Again, at the Battle of Adwa, Tigraian heroes and heroines played crucially determinant roles. They fought, used their knowledge of the topography to provide strategic intelligence on the enemy’s moves, and provided food, water, and shelter to most of the peasant army from other parts of Ethiopia.

It is bitterly disgusting and hard to believe, but it is true that some Ethiopian-chauvinist elements hate to mention Tigraian patriotism and the contributions Tigrai made to Ethiopia’s nationhood. With no mention of the human sacrifices, destruction of properties, including churches and mosques, and the extensive environmental damages Tigrai paid for the victory of Adwa, they (the chauvinists) attribute the shinning victory of the Battle of Adwa to Menelik, the traitor. To this day, they continue to glorify him. Truth will have to be revealed and told. To start with, a monument at an appropriate location in Adwa, in memory of those who paid the ultimate prices (their lives) for our freedom and for Africa’s pride and freedom, deserves an urgent attention of the current government.

Vindictive Haile-Selassie and the Woyane I Patriots

Emperor Haile-Selassie, King of Kings, the Lion of Judah, from the Tribe of Judah, the Solomonic Dynasty (not funny, it was an official title), ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, with an iron fist of vengeance, most of it directed at the Tigraian people. Absolute political power was vested in him. Because the 1931 Constitution was deemed not giving enough power to him, a new constitution was enshrined in 1955 [5]. This constitution declared Haile-Selassie as a descendant of King Solomon of Israel and Ethiopia’s Queen of Sheba; his primacy was exercised through appointment of officials; control of the armed forces and foreign affairs; and oversight of the judiciary. Parliament was given power to approve treaties, but the Emperor had the final say: he was empowered to the extent of dissolving the Parliament.

In the 1930s, the Italians started to scratch their wounds they sustained in the hands of Ethiopian heroes and heroines at the 1896 Battle of Adwa, where they were humiliated decisively. As pointed out earlier, Menelik sold Bahiri-Negash, our Red Sea frontier, May 2, 1889 to the Italians through the Treaty of Wuchale. To fill their egoistic attitudes, they named our Bahiri-Negash as Eritrea. On October 2, 1935, Mussolini declared, “We have been patient with Ethiopia for forty years; now our patience is exhausted [6]”. By that Mussolini meant that Italy was ready to avenge the humiliating defeat it suffered at the Battle of Adwa. From their new colony of Eritrea, thanks to Menelik, the Italians started their vengeance the morning of October 3, 1935 with 100,000-man army. Adwa and Adigrat were brutally bombarded and occupied on October 5 and 6, respectively; and Mekelle fell into the hands of the enemy on November 8, 1935. The rest is a long history.

The key point is that Haile-Selassie fled Ethiopia to London, leaving Ethiopian patriots at the mercy of Fascist Italy. After his return with the help of the British, fearful of the Woyane I Patriots, Haile-Selassie treated Tigrai in the harshest way possible. He did this because the Woyane I Patriots, Blata Haile-Mariam and his comrades, considered his action of fleeing to safety, while the war was raging, as a betrayal. They, the Patriots, refused to submit to his feudal order. They had expected him to lead the war like Yohannes IV did.

Haile-Selassie used various policy instruments of intimidation, humiliation, and assimilation against Tigrai. Some of the policy instruments included: (a) heavy taxes imposed on the peasantry to be paid in cash; (b) declaring using Tigrigna for any formal communication (e.g., legal-justice processes, education, and simple-local transactional contracts) as illegal; and (c) imposing a strict condition of learning and using Amharic as the only medium of communication. It was illegal to write a Tigrigna language name even on simple placards to identify sports’ teams or any other organization from Tigrai at national events, such as sports and ceremonies. That was constitutionally enacted system of suppression.

This brutality led to the birth of a well-coordinated force of Woyane I. In January 1942, at the battlefield of Quobo, three British officers and hundreds of Haile-Selassie’s soldiers, trying to collect forced tax in cash, were killed. It took Haile-Selassie and his British advisors 30,000 Shewan soldiers, from April to July 1942, to regain the upper hand over the Woyane I Patriots. The whole region of Raya, Azebo, and Wejerat was devastated; and severe fines, in both livestock and money, were imposed to impoverish and to force the Woyane I Patriots and the peasantry into submission.

But, these Haile-Selassie’s punitive measures did not have any effect on the Patriots and the oppressed masses. The rebellion got stronger than ever before. Blata Haile-Mariam Reda, who was a gifted inspiring leader, used the rainy season of 1943 to organize his forces. After celebrating the Ethiopian New Year on September 12, 1943, the Patriots went on the offensive. They moved victoriously to the strategic locations of Quiha and Enda Yesus, overlooking Mekelle, which was quickly captured. Haile-Selassie’s officials fled. Blata Haile-Mariam declared victory over Haile-Selassie’s army at Mekelle with following motto:

Our governor is Jesus Christ

And our flag that of Ethiopia

Our religion is that of Yohannes IV

People of Tigray, follow the motto of Woyane[7].

After the humiliating defeats of his army, Haile-Selassie requested and received help of the Royal British Air Force to mercilessly bomb a marketplace at Mekelle during a market day in October 1943. This collaborative brutality with a foreign air force was a crime against humanity. It was beyond the capacity of the Woyane I Patriots. The human, animal, and material losses of that crime remain unknown and most likely were immeasurable. Erecting a memorial monument for that massacre has become an overdue contentious issue. It has to be done soon!

Vindictive Haile-Selassie started punitive policies with vengeance. The unique Ethiopian feudalism started in earnest. It was declared that fertile lands were to be owned by: the royal, the elite, the patriarchate, the bourgeoisie, the comprador, and the Tewahedo-Orthodox Church, which was the King’s instrument of pacifying the gullible masses. All these elite class-sectors of the society were not producers, but all extracted different benefits from the peasantry in terms of: (a) tribute, (b) products, (c) rents, (d) services, and (e) courvee labour. Thus, the classic feudal trinity of nobleman, priest, and peasant, was well entrenched; and prevailed up to the demise of the King in 1974. In short, Haile-Selassie deprived Tigai of all human capabilities.

Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s Savagery versus the Shinning Victories of Woyane II

In an attempt to force Tigrai into submission, Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s Derg committed horrifying terror and devastation on Tigrai over the 17-year period of armed struggle against its rule of terror (1974-1991). The most savage act it committed against humanity was at the market town of Hawzien on June 22, 1988. “The Ethiopian air force bombarded the town for the whole day by airplanes and helicopters; and killed more than 2,500 civilians”[8]. Moreover, the regime’s counterinsurgency and social control policies imposed on Tigrai turned the drought of 1984/85 into a tragic famine, starvation, and hunger. The final outcome, however, as it is well known worldwide, was the shinning victory of Woyane II. This was achieved against an enemy, which was armed to the teeth and was described as black Africa’s sophisticated- strongest army. We leave the historic details of the bitter struggle for our future discussions. But, the patience, the civility, and the magnanimity of the people of the Tigrai must be told and underscored. Although Tigrai paid the lion’s share of the total sacrifices to defeat and humiliate the fascist, Marxist-Leninist military junta, we are willing and happy to live in freedom, peace, security, prosperity, and harmony with all our Ethiopian compatriots in a democratically united Ethiopia, provided that our grievances are addressed. Tigrai has never been and never will be a vindictive society. We would like to be seen by our compatriots as civil, compassionate, and patriotic Ethiopians. But, it should be noted that our civility is not a sign of weakness; but, a sign of strength, confidence, and farsightedness.

OUR WAY FORWARD

The above sections highlighted the facts that the adverse impacts of civil conflicts and wars on human, social fabric, economic well-being, natural resources, and environmental quality of Tigrai are so enormous: they are immeasurable. Consequently, Tigrai remains trapped in an abject poverty. This is a challenge every one of us must face now so that our next generations will be a little bit better-off than us.

Wars, civil conflicts, and drought have created a Tigraian landscape characterized by: denuded farm lands and barren hills; huge gullies that reduced farm lands into fragmented plots; expanses of lands exposed to desiccation and to wind and runoff erosions; huge protruding rocks on sides and tops of mountains and hills; drying up rivers due to irreversible ecological damages inflicted by excessive anthropocentric activities and grazing animals for thousands of years; valleys that divide rural towns and villages long distances apart; and deep and dry gorges, through which clean water used to flow springing from surrounding catchments; and dried-up wetlands. This landscape requires massive repair operations, i.e., environmental rehabilitation campaign is a must. Although the State (Killil) Government is doing commendable job, a lot remains to be done in environmental rehabilitation and sustainable management of ecosystems.

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  • [1]For far reaching interpretations of poverty as deprivation of human capabilities, refer Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom (1999). Amartya is winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences. Have a look also at his inspiring autobiography at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1998/sen-autobio.html, accessed on October 21, 2012.
  • [2] Young, John. 1997. Peasant revolution in Ethiopia: the Tigray People’s Revolution Front, 1975 – 1991 (p. 46). Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] http://www.historynet.com/first-italo-abyssinian-war-battle-of-adowa.htm , accessed on Oct. 09, 2012.
  • [5] Henze, p. 2000. Layers of Time: A history of Ethiopia. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 372 p. Note that as an American diplomat, Dr. Paul Henze lived in Ethiopia for several years. His book is extensively researched.
  • [6]Ibid.
  • [7]Dr. Paul Henze’s well-researched book, detailed in footnote 5.
  • [8] Human Right Watch/Africa, Nov. 1994, Vol. 6, No. 11, provides substantial details of the atrocities.

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