Ethiopia: where ethnicity trumps nationalism. Abiy's dilemma

Updated: Mar 9

by Dr Mark Nicholson

Thirty-six years ago this month (1977…yes, I can subtract, so be patient) I was driving south from Addis Ababa to my house in the Ethiopian Rift Valley lake region (Haykoch) when I caught up with the mother of all convoys going slowly the same way. Try overtaking 600 gigantic Russian trucks on a narrow road. It took well over an hour. We eventually pulled up alongside one that had broken down and tried to engage the driver without success: not only did we not have a language in common but he was probably under instructions not to talk to anyone. The epicanthic folds of almost all the truck drivers reminded me that the USSR covered eleven time zones and that the cheapest labour clearly came from several thousand miles east of the Urals.

Actually, the year was 1985 but the Ethiopian calendar is seven years and nine months behind the Gregorian calendar (Ethiopian New Year’s Day is 11 Sept in the Gregorian). In October 1984 I had flown with the RAF in a Hercules C-130 to experience how grain was delivered by air to the famine areas. Ferenjis (foreigners) were banned from the war zones in the north and so for the first time I saw the breath-taking northern mountain landscapes (Ethiopia has 80 percent of all upland areas in Africa above 8000ft – 2438 metres). The drop zone, shorter than a football pitch, was the flat top of an eroded mountain plateau. At each end was a sheer drop of about 5000ft (1524 metres). Once the load-master ensured we were all tied to safety leads, the back of the plane was opened, the plane dived to under 100ft and the nose was yanked up so we could push out the pallets. Within seconds the ground proximity radar spun back to six thousand feet and a ragged horde of hungry villagers ran towards the partially broken pallets.

In December of that year Band Aid came out with a song entitled ‘Don’t they know it’s Christmas?’. No, they didn’t know, because it wasn’t: in the Orthodox calendar Christmas Day is the 7th January. A lot more about Ethiopia is unique: it is the only country of the 53 in Africa never to have been colonized (the Italians tried twice, both times unsuccessfully). The Amharic alphabet has over 250 characters derived from Ge’ez (the ancient language with over 500 characters and still used in orthodox Bibles,). And the staple diet is derived from a grass called Eragrostis teff, or teff, a grain markedly superior to grains like wheat and maize.

The year is significant; it was towards the end of the Ethiopian famine that killed well over a million souls. The convoy was significant because it was laden with Russian wheat heading south to the storage depots. Why was it not heading north to the famine areas? The answer was that those in the extreme north, the Tigray, were fighting a civil war against the Communist regime, and were being denied food aid by the latter in order to crush them into submission. Overall, there was probably never a shortage of food in the country. Central and western Ethiopia is a fertile grain-growing land, and there was little sign of food shortage in the rest of Ethiopia. It is ironic that it is small farmers, the food producers, who suffer famines, not city dwellers (unless it is a siege during wartime), as George Bernard Shaw attested when he dined lavishly in Moscow during the Russian famine of 1931.

Fast forward six years and the northerners (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front or TPLF) from Tigray swooped down on Addis Ababa and overthrew the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who fled south to his pal Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The brilliant leader of the northern fighters was Meles Zenawi, known to be able to recite reams of Shakespeare in English. He then formed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and rewarded the country of his Tigrayan-speaking cousin and brother-in-arms, Isaias Ifwerki, an Eritrean, with independence, making Ethiopia a land-locked country. Eritrea and Ethiopia then fell out. Trench warfare on the border resulted in the death of another 100,000. The Tigrayans and their neighbours the Eritreans became enemies.

At the time of his death in 2012, Zenawi had transformed Ethiopia into one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. Understandably, arms, wealth and development also migrated north and corruption took over. In 2018, a new Prime Minister was appointed, Abiy Ahmed Ali, a Muslim Oromo who inevitably was forced to yield to pressure from the Oromo south. He brought all ethnic groups together by changing the name of the party from the EPRDF to the Prosperity Party. Democracy remains paper thin: in the 2015 election the EPRDF won 91% of the seats. In 2019 Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Eritrea after 20 years of hostility.

Ethiopia has always been a mixture of (mainly Orthodox) Christianity, Islam and Judaisim. In 1991, most of the Falashas (Ethiopian Jews) were airlifted to Israel. Religious tolerance has been widespread since the Muslim-Christian war of the 16th Century. In contrast, ethnic rivalries have persisted to the present day, as in many African states. The old name Abyssinia is often equated with Ethiopia but this is incorrect. The Abyssinians were Semitic in origin, contrasting with the Southerners (the Oromo), who are mainly Cushitic. Nevertheless, the nation state of Abyssinia existed centuries before the artificial carve up of Africa at the Berlin conference of 1884.

So where do we start with the Tigray question in relation to the history of Ethiopia? With Makeda, Queen of Saba (Sheba) 3000 years ago? With Moses’ Ethiopian wife? With the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant in 650 B.C and its reputed reappearance in Axum (now in Tigray) 1000 years later? Or the Jewish persecution of the Axumite Christians under Queen Yudit (Judith) in 1000 A.D.?

The traditional rulers of Ethiopia since the 17th century were from the Amhara group, the last one of the emperors being Haile Selassie who was murdered by the Communists in 1975. Let us begin with Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913). His empire approximated the boundaries of modern Ethiopia and encompassed many squabbling kingdoms (hence the other title of Haile Selassie as the ’King of Kings’). In the north were the Tigrinya-speaking provinces of Eritrea and Tigray. After the former’s independence, Tigray now makes up only 6% of Ethiopia’s population of 115 million. In the South live the Oromo (34% of the population), now eager for power, and in the south-east is arid Somali Ethiopia (Hararghe) with about 6%. The Oromo claim Addis Ababa (or ‘New Flower’), the capital, as rightfully theirs, as the Amhara moved their capital south to Addis in the 1880s. The once dominant Amharas make up 27 percent of the population.

Late last year the Tigray party (TPLF) illegally held its own regional elections, winning all contested seats in the region's parliament. In response, Abiy redirected funding from the top level of the Tigray regional government to lower ranks in a bid to weaken the TPLF party. Conflict broke out. The Ethiopian militia were joined both by Amhara forces and the Eritrean army to crush the rebellion. Abiy had got into bed with the Eritreans, and the Tigrayans continued to be enemies with the one group who spoke the same language (Amharic/ Amarigna is distinctly different to Tigrinya, even if they share the same script). The result has been destruction, bloodshed, refugees and accusations of genocide. But if Abiy had allowed autonomy or independence for the Tigray region, the Oromo might be next.

It may be unwoke to refer to a sovereign state as a failed state but if there were Olympic medals for failed states, they would be won by three of the last four new states in the world, South Sudan, Eritrea and Yemen (formerly North Yemen & Aden/ South Yemen), all neighbours of Ethiopia. The success rate of newly created countries is not high and Abiy is probably not keen to see his country broken up. On the contrary, his close ties with Eritrea may lead to reunification, which is clearly on the cards. Abiy is “damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t”. He has been vilified but I believe he had no option but to put down the Tigrayan rebellion.