Teshale Tibebu on the national question in Ethiopia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Dec 31 06:38:17 MST 1999

[This is from the afterword to Tibebu's "The Making of Modern Ethiopia:
1896-1974", a book written in Wallerstein's world-systems theory tradition.
I quoted from it the other day on the "geber" system and it will also serve
as one of the primary sources for a report I am filing in a couple of days
on Ethiopia under Haile Selassie, along with Bahru Sewde's Marxist-oriented
"A History of Modern Ethiopia: 1855-1974". There is an interesting
difference of interpretation between the 2 over whether the term "feudal"
should apply to modern Ethiopia, which I will be elaborating on.]

The biggest mistake the Ethiopian left intelligentsia made on the national
question — with no intent of malice, but rather out of heroic, good-will
naivete — was to read Ethiopia as if it were Western Europe or America.
This has been the main problem in the discussion on the national question.
Yes, Ethiopia was seen as different from the West, as a semifeudal,
semicolonial entity. And yet, this was more of theoretical sloganeering
than an assessment based on a detailed study of Ethiopian history.

With this background in mind, and the distinction between the Ge’ez
civilization and the South as a constant given, I believe the national
question in Ethiopia should be addressed as follows.

There are two sets of national questions in Ethiopia. The first set is the
highland core of the country. The second set is the hot lowland areas along
Ethiopia’s international borders with the Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia.
These regions were more neglected than oppressed or exploited, since the
hand of the central government and the ruling class stretched thin. The
climate helped them as a protective shield against the power of the
highland dominant class. The highland has been the main source of the
ruling class’s power, and hence the main center of national oppression. We
can divide it into two main categories, with two different national
questions: Tigray, on the one hand, and the South, on the other. Although
there may be varying dimensions of national oppression in all, the
underlying factors in each are complex and encompass elements pertaining to
ethnicity, class, historical patterns of acculturation at the power center,
religion, the role of Amharic as a language of assimilation, etc.

The position of Tigray in the terrain of power arrangement was
qualitatively different from that of the South. Under Haile Selassie and
before him, Tigray was on average one among equals, sometimes more,
sometimes less equal than others. Contrary to the myth propagated by
Tigrayan nationalists (and, of course, there is no nationalism without
myth), Haile Selassie handled Tigray with deference and sensitivity. He
established political bonds with the Tigrayan aristocracy through royal
marriages. Tigray was left with a wider margin of regional autonomous space
than any other, save perhaps Afarland. It may seem paradoxical, but one of
the reasons why Tigray exhibited such nationalist passion is because it had
autonomous space for nationalist exercise. Addis Ababa might have ruffled
Tigrayan feathers sometimes, but a systematic policy of dismantling the
political and cultural foundations of Tigray was never a policy; nor could
it have worked had it been attempted.

Thus, when the leaders of the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF)
argue that class oppression can sometimes be manifested in national
oppression, they may have a point. Moreover, when they say that at certain
historical junctures, the national question can be more important than that
of class, they may be right also. The irony is that the former does not
apply to Tigray at all. It applies only to the South. And even there, there
were cases like Wallaga where the power of northern settlers was weak. It
is therefore not accidental that the area with the most pronounced Oromo
nationalism is Wallaga — the Tigray of the South.

As to the second claim, it is purely ideological. With equal passion and
justification, the national question can be replaced by religion, gender,
class, environment, etc., as the most important question to be addressed.
How else can a feminist, for example, be a feminist without putting gender
as the primordial question of all questions, or a "fundamentalist’
religion? Let us not forget that nationalism is patriotism, i.e., a male
domain. A starving peasant in Wallo does not give a damn about the ethnic
identity of the person sitting at Menelik’s throne.

What, then, is the nature of Tigrayan nationalism? It is a compound of
aspirations for hegemony and struggle against Amharic linguistic oppression.

For a good part of Ethiopian history, Tigray and Shawa were the two most
powerful regional rivals for power. Emperors from Shawa were coronated at
Aksum. The Ainhara invoke Aksum with pride. Aksum Tseyon has always been
the most revered shrine of Christian Ethiopia. The most heroic place in the
annals of Ethiopian defiance of European expansion is Adwa, which made
Ethiopia a symbol of black pride throughout the world. All these and others
have sustained in the Tigrayan a sense of superiority-in-seniority over
their historical juniors, the Amhara. The Tigrayans feel that they are the
direct descendants of Aksumite civilization, as opposed to the Amhara who
have been "bastardized.’ As Harold Levine put it, the Tigrayans are the
cultural aristocrats of Ethiopia. Whatever acrimony there may be between
Tigrayans and Amharas, it is a sibling rivalry, or a quarrel between
cousins. This can mean either skin-deep hostilities or ugly hatreds, since
in the culture of the Ge’ez civilization relatives are the best friends but
can also be the deadliest enemies. Although the TPLF has presented its
struggle in the new political language of fighting against national
oppression, what has been unfolding before our eyes is the resurgence of
the power of Tigray one hundred years after the death of Emperor Yohannes
IV. It should come as no surprise that after the collapse of Shawa power in
the South during the revolution, the most "logical" candidate for replacing
Shawa was Tigray.

The tradition of power struggle between Tigray and Shawa was also
complemented by competition between Aksum Tseyon and Dabra Libanos. The
Neburaed of Aksum was revered as that of the Echage of Dabra Libanos.

In the historical setting of the Ge’ez civilization, Tigray had acted as a
regional power broker, not as a national-ethnic entity. The competition
between Tigray, on the one hand, and Shawa, on the other, was not an ethnic
competition between Tigrayans and Amharas. However, two main factors — the
beginning of modern education, and centralization of power at Addis Ababa —
led to the transformation of Tigray from a regional entity into a
national-ethnic one; hence the rise of the national question in Tigray.

In the modern educational system, Amharic became the language of
instruction throughout Ethiopia. This was perceived as the language of the
Amhara becoming dominant over that of Tigrayans. And yet, Tigrayan
notables, including Emperor Yohannes IV, used Amharic as their secular
language, as the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic
Front (EPRDF) is doing now. Interestingly enough, in Church education,
Ge’ez was the language of neither the Amhara nor the Tigrayans but of the
Church. No qolo tamari complained about Ge’ez being the language of
instruction as opposed to his mother tongue, any more than a modern student
complains about English. It is the usage of Amharic as the sole language of
instruction in the modern educational and administrative system that
unleashed other vernacular nationalisms.

Furthermore, the autonomy of Tigray under Haile Selassie was eroded even
more by the ever-centralizing forces of the revolution, which in turn
alienated Tigray further.

So, on top of the base of the old regional identity of Tigray was imposed a
national-ethnic identity, a combined regional-ethnic awareness called the
national question. This is the origin of the national question in Tigray.
Tigrayan nationalism is articulated by the modern educated elite. As
elsewhere, nationalism in Ethiopia is the "invention" of the modern
educated elite; and as elsewhere, it flourishes on a systematic "invention
of tradition" (Hobsbawm and Ranger eds. 1983) and "imagined communities"
(Benedict Anderson 1991).

It is by looking at such historic aspects that we can address the national
question in Tigray. We should remind ourselves that no matter how much we
may think that history is behind us or that we have gone beyond it, it
always leaves behind a pattern, a residue. And in a country like Ethiopia,
where things move at a snail’s pace, the footprints of history are even
more pronounced. This despite the revolution. As the French love to say,
the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Louis Proyect
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