The repercussions of the military conflict that erupted on the 4th of November 2020 between the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Force in Tigray Region are so daunting, and the search for its causes so wide-ranging that I think it is time to recall the TPLF’s long history of deceit. I hope this will help the Ethiopian as well as the international public to better understand what is happening in Ethiopia at present. What I try here is to recall the beginnings of the long history of deceit the TPLF movement has built up since at least 1991 when it assumed power – a record that we partly witnessed and experienced as academics. The voices and assessments that I present below come from three eminent Ethiopian anthropologists: One of them – Dr. Makonnen Bishaw – was head of department at Addis Ababa University, and two of them – Dr. Fekadu Gedamu and Dr. Negasso Gidada – were at times presidents of the Ethiopian state.
In 1989, Dr. Makonnen Bishaw invited me – and others – to help launch an M.A. program in social anthropology. It was to be the first of its kind in Ethiopia.
Shortly after the fall of the Derg regime in May 1991, our MA batch went in three cars on an excursion to southern Ethiopia. I had four students in my seasoned Land Rover. By the time we had crossed the highlands of Kambata and Hadiya we had begun to talk to each other more openly than before. So I broached to them a topic that was close to my heart.
“When I grew up in Germany”, I said, “the Allied Forces had just liberated my country from the inhumane rule of the NAZIS, like the TPLF have now freed you from the Stalinist regime of the DERG. Now I can see from the new Ethiopian constitution that the TPLF will help implement a new Federal Republic of Ethiopia just like the Allied Forces helped implement a new Federal Republic of Germany. Isn’t this marvelous?”
This remark was met with silence and bewildered smiles until one of the students asked,
“Don’t you know that all this is to deceive the foreign donors and supporters of Ethiopia?” Once I had expressed my disbelief, they explained:
Today’s fighters from Tigray can be called the “Sons of Yohannes”, for just like in the middle of the nineteenth century Emperor Yohannes IV used the vast lands extending south of Tigray to hunt for ivory, lion skins and slaves, the TPLF has now come to rule and exploit this very same territory. At the end of the nineteenth century the armies of Emperor Menelik II conquered ‘Greater Ethiopia’, which later consolidated under the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie in the twentieth century. Menelik and Haile Selassie were seen as ‘Amhara’, and ever since the ascendance of the Amhara the Tigray elites have grudged them their dominance. They felt that Tigray, with its ancient Axumite temples and palaces, needed to once again rule all of Ethiopia.
Instances of Deceit
My first examples stem from interviews with Dr. Makonnen Bishaw, published April 1993 in an informal paper entitled “Addis Ababa University under Siege”. In the foreword I asked,
“Who are the teachers that were dismissed from Addis Ababa University on Good Friday, April 9th, 1993? What are their academic careers, their functions at the university, their activities as citizens of Ethiopia, their present teaching and research activities, and, above all, what are their political views that may have led to their sudden dismissal from the university? As soon as I heard of the summary dismissal of more than forty of my esteemed colleagues, I felt the need to answer these questions. This is why I decided to go and listen to them. Perhaps my listening was also meant to express my solidarity with the teachers who had become close friends, over the past three years that I had been teaching at Addis Ababa University. And it was an expression of my belief in ‘international democracy’. By this I mean the kind of globally shared agreement in what the rules and maxims of democratic practice look like. These rules and maxims are also rights, even duties, and they can not be confined to any single domain.”
Makonnen had much to say about the TPLF’s strategies of deceit. Therefore I quote him here at length as he addresses three different yet related topics.
Incrimination of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee.
“While in the US, I continued to be a member of the Ethiopian Students’ Union of North America. I was a secretary of one of the branches of that union in the east coast and this was a time when people in the students movement felt that it was time for many of us to return to the country and actively be involved in the radical changes we thought were taking place in the country.
So quite a few of us returned and what we found in Ethiopia was a very heated debate as to the future directions of the country in terms of ideology and political and economic direction and so on. A few months after my return, the Derg declared ‘Ethiopian socialism’, and many of us at that point were arguing that a military regime that was mainly composed of junior officers would be unable to really carry out the socialist programme. This again emanated from what we thought was a Marxist class analysis, and many of us continued to be critical of the Derg.
Then the Derg moved into repression of opposition and a very cruel repression indeed, killing the young and most educated. Many fled the country and many more were put into prison. So, for most of the Derg period many of us were so terrorized that we could not continue to play an active, critical role. But I think the oppositions and criticisms were simmering underneath, and towards the end of the Derg area the university again began to activate itself, mounting its criticism against the Derg and its policies.
Just a few months before the actual fall of the Derg there was the international conference of Ethiopian studies which was held at Sidist Kilo campus where, on the basis of a paper presented by Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, people that had attended the conference and particularly his presentation decided to form a committee which was later on called ‘Peace and Reconciliation Committee’.
This was a time when chaos seemed to be imminent in the country and particularly in Addis Ababa. The Derg was losing at various fronts, was losing the battle with the liberation movements, and our immediate concern became one of really making sure that there would not be bloodshed in Addis. We were concerned that the army that was guarding Mengistu and his colleagues would put up a fight, last fight, and that would be in Addis. We thought there was a desperate need to see to it that the various conflicting groups would get together and avoid that kind of armed confrontation where we thought things similar to Mogadishu would happen.
We started appealing to all groups to get together, put down their arms and resolve their differences and maybe establish a transitional government. We suggested that a council of elders would be the most suitable to take over temporarily and make sure that there would be a peaceful transition. I happened to be a member of that committee that was established just before the fall of the Derg, and many of our colleagues, friends and relatives were really scared because they knew what Mengistu was capable of doing. They were concerned that our lives were on the line, that Mengistu perhaps in his last desperation would eliminate us how he did in the past. Because in actual effect our demands or recommendations were that Mengistu step down.
But interestingly, the EPRDF and the various liberation fronts that were fighting the Derg thought that we were in effect appealing to prolong the life of the dying Derg, that we were recommending a council of elders when they were ready to take over. They felt that we were in fact supporting or standing behind the Derg. That’s far from the truth, and I am sure, they themselves, the leaders of the EPRDF or of the Transitional Government knew this.
I think the intention at that time on their part was to really water down the kinds of recommendations that were coming from this committee and similar other committees outside the country, so that these recommendations would not appeal to the public. And the easiest way was to incriminate us or implicate us with the Derg.”
Manipulation of the Ethiopian National Conference.
“When the EPRDF soldiers moved into Addis in May 1991, they established a provisional government, which lasted about a month. Towards the end of the month they called for a national conference as they had promised. It so happened that the university was to participate in this national conference, and they asked us to elect two representatives to go to this national conference, the July conference. It was not really the university alone but instructors from all higher education that were called through the media to come to the main campus of Addis Ababa university and elect their representatives.
So those that were in Addis and around Addis assembled in the main campus, and after a long debate and discussion two representatives were selected, one of whom was to serve as an active participant in the national conference and the second one to be an observer. I was one of those two people, Professor Asrat [Woldeyes] was the other. He got the higher number of votes, so he was elected to participate as an active participant, while I was to serve as an observer. So I attended that conference.
Immediately after that conference President Meles Zenawi invited us, myself, Prof. Mesfin Wolde-Mariam and Prof. Andreas Eshete who had come from the United States to attend the conference as an observer, to a panel discussion on the media, tv and radio, where we discussed the general process of the national conference, its democratic nature and the specific provisions of the charter that was adopted by the national conference. And that was an interesting panel discussion where some of us expressed some of our reservations about particular provisions and particularly our expectations of what the provisional government would do immediately after the conference.
In my view, which I expressed in that panel discussion, I had been led to believe by statements made by President Meles that none of the participants of the national conference represented any definite constituency, that they were not really elected directly by the Ethiopian people to represent them at that national conference, and because of that the charter that would be adopted by that conference could not really be called a charter that has been adopted by the Ethiopian people. Therefore legitimacy would only be derived from the public, that the charter would be presented for an open and honest discussion by the public, and that modifications, suggestions that would come from the public would be as much as possible incorporated into the final charter.
So, the point that I wanted to make sure at that panel discussion with President Meles and other colleagues was that this in fact was essential, that none of us really represented the Ethiopian people.
We may have expressed our views on certain provisions of the charter, particularly this question of national self determination of the various nationalities in the country, but we felt this issue should be, as well as other provisions of the charter, openly debated and discussed by the public in order to avoid any groups developing that oppose even the charter. And I was hopeful that this would be really the process through which we would be passing during the transitional period…n: “My criticism of the conference I brought out in one of my interviews with one of the news magazines. The charter was rushed through the conference in much too great speed. In fact, the charter must have been prepared already by the Eprdf and perhaps its supporting liberation groups, and it was presented to participants in piece-meal fashion. In fact many of us that were participating, including those who were actively participating in the discussions, were never really given an agenda for each day’s discussion until we actually met at the conference hall. Some papers that were going to be discussed were actually thrown under our hotel room doors in the middle of the night, and many of us did not get those papers until the morning when we were leaving our rooms. So there was not really enough time for participants to get together and either over coffee breaks or even before the meetings opened to discuss the various issues that would be raised at the conference.
And at the discussions themselves it appeared that some of the groups would have discussed some of the issues beforehand and would come into the meetings with opinions formed and all that was required to rush the particular meeting into voting without adequate discussion. This was done repeatedly by the chairman who was the president of the provisional government, and is also the president of the transitional government now. So this was very skilfully and manipulatively done and the charter in a way was passed without very serious modifications.
At one of the discussions the representative of higher educational institutions, Prof. Asrat Woldeyes, was the only one who stood up and debated this critical issue of self-determination of nationalities, which subsumed under it the Eritrean question that is the Eritrean referendum. And because of this I feel Prof. Asrat remained to be a target of political attack even to this day.
After the national conference and our panel discussion with president Meles, the provisional government transformed itself almost over night into the transitional government, which was to suppose to last for two years, at the end of which would be national elections.
The cabinet was established, and that is when I felt that the present leadership in the Ethiopian Government were not really committed to what they had promised. They failed to keep their word to us, especially at the conference and at the panel discussion where President Meles had repeatedly pointed out that the participants of the conference were not representatives of the Ethiopian people and therefore whatever their decisions, the charter that they would have adopted would be presented for public discussion, and it was only after that, according to our expectation, that the transitional government would be formed, – which never happened.
In fact a few days later ministers started to be appointed and the provisional government was transformed into a transitional government. That’s when some of us started expressing our objections, our criticisms that this transitional government was an imposition, that it wasn’t really representative, that the public did not have the opportunity to participate in the adoption of the charter which was going to be the basis under which the transitional government would be governing, even if it was only for two years.
We felt that it was necessary and that it was possible within the time that was available for the public to discuss it. Perhaps not all Ethiopians would have been able to do that, but at least an effort could have been made.
The structure was already there. The Derg had left kebeles, urban dwellers associations, rural peasant associations, and those structures could have been used to allow the public to have its input in the provisions of the charter, and even into the selection of the council of representatives.
What was interesting was that the participants in the national conference were just like the provisional government transformed into representatives of the people for those two years. We will see whether or not that council of representatives would change after two years, but anyway, the way this was done was to us dishonest and highly manipulative. It is an underestimation of the intelligence of the Ethiopian people, and we felt, to a large extent, it was really a continuation of the tactics and strategies of the Derg.
That’s when I came out in public, expressing my views through one of the independent news magazines where I argued that neither the council of representatives nor the charter were really products of popular participation, and therefore they are not really Ethiopian in that sense, that they were imposed, just like the Derg imposed its will on the people. This was simply another seemingly democratic way of imposing the will of those in power.”
False promise of autonomy for Addis Ababa University.
“What the new regulation does is to really narrow the free links the university could potentially create, with both governmental and non-governmental institutions that it perceives to be relevant for its teaching, learning, research activities. The new board does not only narrow these contacts, perhaps the greater damage is in the even greater control that the board will create, greater than what prevailed during the Derg’s period. It’s a very direct link with the prime minister’s office, and the prime minister’s office could have very easy control over what goes on at the university.
What is interesting is to go back only five months ago. Then the university officials were told, and this was reported at the senate, by the then president of the university, that the government was insisting the university develop its own charter, that it was essential that the university gain its independence, it’s autonomy, because this is an institution in which free discussions, free research, teaching, learning should go on, and that in order to achieve this, the university should immediately formulate its charter, develop its charter and submit it for government approval.
I happened to be one of the people who was actively involved in the write-up of that charter. The draft proposal of that charter was distributed among the staff in all campuses for discussion and comments and suggestions. Once these were collected, the senate had a series of discussions adopting many of these recommendations that came from the various faculties that the senate felt would provide the university with the kind of autonomy that it needs in order to freely engage in its activities. Such a charter was developed, and the aim of that charter was to establish what kind of rules and regulation, what kind of structure would really facilitate, as much as possible, within the resources that are available, that kind of atmosphere for scientific enquiry. So, on the basis of that, we identified the structure of the university, which again included the board, senate, the academic commission of the faculties and so on, and the various officers of the university.
In the debate in the senate there was an interesting issue that was raised: How autonomous should this university be, taking in consideration that our society is a developing society, one of the poorest in the world. That it cannot really divorce itself from government plans, policies and so on. It cannot ignore these responsibilities, and the kind of the support the university could give to these responsibilities of the government. In addition this is a university, which is almost fully funded by the government, and therefore people argued that it is really not rational to expect a complete autonomy. If the government provides the funds and expects us to play a certain role then we need to recognize the kind of link that should exist between the university and the government.
This argument was shared by the majority of senate members, and the link that the senate felt should exist between the government and the university was to be reflected in the composition of the board. We did not want to risk the kind of situation that existed during the Derg and the Haile Selassie period in which the board was almost fully dominated by government officials who want to directly run the university. We tried to avoid that, to decrease that as much as possible by limiting the number of government officials that would be members of the board, and instead we raised the participation of the university community in the board by making provisions for membership of a certain number of really senior academic staff that has been with the university for a long period of time. And we provided for the election of these people by the university community.
Then, of course, at the level of the senate, we in fact insisted that there was no need for any external official to be in the senate because the senate was concerned mainly in the day-to-day or year-to-year activities of the university. One other thing: on the level of the board we also provided for membership of non-governmental institutions like the chamber of commerce, which we though might have an important role to play in the development of the university.
So at various levels we tried to make sure that the university community would enjoy a reasonable amount of autonomy and independence. In fact, we thought that since the initiative had come from the government, we had the impression that they did not want to repeat the repression of past governments and that once the university was given a greater autonomy and independence, it would play a much better, creative role in providing the kind of critical support that the government really needs.
But we never suspected that anything would happen like what we have experienced now. So we prepared the charter and submitted it in both English and Amharic to the minister of education who assured us that it would be submitted to the government and would in fact be soon approved as a proclamation of the council of representatives, maybe with some minor modifications that they would perhaps suggest.
So we were surprised that the student demonstration could change a fundamental conviction like we thought existed in the minds of the leadership of the government, and that now we are even further back than during the Derg or even Haile Selassie’s time, in the sense that what the transitional government seems to want to do now is to have full control of what goes on in the university. At least this is what the new regulation does now.”
A deceitful federal order
Conversation with Dr. Fekadu Gedamu, Vice-President of Ethiopia (1992)
Fekadu had studied social anthropology at the London School of Economics like myself, and like Makonnen Bishaw he was at one time head of the Department of Social Anthropology and Social Administration at Addis Ababa University. Now he had become Vice-President of the Ethiopian Transitional Council and lived in a high-rise building opposite the stadium where I occasionally visited him. As over the years we had become good friends I felt free to ask him seemingly awkward questions considering the fact that now he occupied a high position within the government.
When I told him that currently Alula Pankhurst and I were running a graduate seminar on the problems of a new federal order of Ethiopia, he sighed and told me how worried he was by the devious course the TPLF was taking. Being himself a politician from Gurage, he and his friends from other regions of the South (Kambata, Hadiya, Wolaitta, Gamo-Gofa, Maji, etc.) had sounded an alert when the question of a new federal order of Ethiopia came up. “Once we have been split up into many tiny states”, they said to each other, “we must form a southern alliance that equals in strength other possible alliances, especially that of the Oromo, and also the powerful northern states of Tigray and Amhara.”
“When the TPLF heard of this plan”, Fekadu said, “They soon went ahead with the implementation of just one state, which they gave the name ‘Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR)’. They have done the same with the various regions predominantly inhabited by Oromo speaking peoples. So now they have created two states that are – given the existing infrastructures – too vast and unwieldy to organize them selves properly from below but are ideally suited to be ruled from above. What a setback! So you see, we will soon return to imperial rule, only under disguise and a different name.” When I answered Fekadu’s lament arguing that he was the right man to change this dismal course taken by his TPLF colleagues, he laughed and said, “so you want to visit me in prison next time?”
Apology for deceiving the Ethiopian public.
Dr. Negasso Gidada, President of Ethiopia 1995 – 2001
Like Makonnen and Fekadu, Negasso was a social anthropologist whom I knew well, and who during his time as chair of the Democracy and Justice Party (2009 – 2013) visited me now and then at my chalet above Bela on the Entoto mountains where we mostly did small talk trying to forget our disappointment with Ethiopian politics.
After Negasso’s death in 2019, Dr. Sophia Thubauville of the Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt/Main wrote an obituary that was published the same year in the anthropological journal Paideuma. It is very revealing and provides an example of authentic disappointment and disapproval of the devious ways that characterized TPLF politics. Sophia begins by recalling Negasso’s youth, studies abroad in Germany, and return to Ethiopia after the fall of the DERG. From here on I quote her at some length:
“Back in Ethiopia politics eventually became Negasso’s main profession. He became a member of the central committee of the OPDO and was appointed first Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and later minister of Information. Under this transitional government he was also made a member of the electoral commission and chairman of the constitutional committee. In drafting the new constitution, he was guided, among other things, by the German constitution, the Grundgesetz.
At the end of this transitional phase all the parties belonging to the EPRDF agreed to nominate one presidential candidate … Negasso was persuaded to stand as candidate because of his loyalty to his party, subsequently being elected and becoming president on 22 August 1995. Negasso became not only a somewhat reluctant nut also unconventional head of state … (and) Negasso soon discovered that there was a gap between EPRDF dogma and practice: While the EPRDF called itself a leftist coalition, the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, followed a policy of purest capitalism. Negasso therefore decided to leave office when his term expired on 8 October 2001. Even before then he had been expelled from both the OPDO and the EPRDF.
Now Negasso found himself the ex-president of an increasingly authoritarian state. He was still young enough to become politically involved. In order to prevent him from doing so, a proclamation was immediately drafted stating that if a former president involves himself in politics, he will lose every benefit the government provides him with. However, this did not deter Negasso, who in 2005 was elected as an independent candidate for the Dembi Dolo constituency in the elections to the House of People’s Representatives.…
During his time in opposition, it seems to have been important for Negasso to apologize for actions that had taken place during his term as president. Speaking at an Oromo Human Rights Conference at the University of Minnesota in 2007, he apologized to exiled Oromo for government decision he had supported during his presidency and assumed responsibility for human rights violations committed at that time, especially against Oromo.
In November 2009, when he announced that he had joined the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, he also officially asked forgiveness from Ethiopians for deceiving them into thinking that Ethiopia’s current constitution had been ratified in 1995 in a democratic manner and with the full agreement of all political parties. The shortcoming of the constitution, not only the process of its ratification, but also unresolved controversies over, for example, the form of federalism and the question of sovereignty, seem to have been his main worries in his later years. He hardly missed an opportunity to apologize for such mistakes and, as in the case of the constitution, to plead for change and more generally for a democratic transition in Ethiopia.”
Having provided these critical voices of the past, I now finish with two examples of how the present TPLF leaders still do not aim at peace but on the contrary deceive the people of Tigray into thinking that they will be ‘victorious’ in a fight which they can not possibly win.
Getachew Reda, spokesman of the Tigray Command Centre, proclaimed: Every Tigrayan, whether they are carrying a gun or not, will defend even with spears and knives (25.11.2020).
Debretsion Gebremichael, leader of the TPLF, sent out the following calls (abbreviated) [January 30, 2021]:
- To our most valued farmers: I call upon you to send your children, as you have so gallantly done in the past, to join the struggle against the invading enemy forces.
- To our people in towns and villages in enemy territory: Continue to resist and support our struggle bravely. You have proven to the enemies that no matter the cost, you will never forcibly submit to the invading forces.
- To our Tigray Defence Forces: I say move on with our struggle for a just cause. I do not doubt as to its outcome. You will be victorious!
- To the youth of Tigray: You are awe-inspiring. I call upon you all to join the struggle.
- To the Women of Tigray: I call upon you to send your sons and daughters to join the struggle
SURELY IT WOULD BE BETTER TO GIVE THE COMMON PEOPLE OF TIGRAY A CHANCE TO RECONNECT WITH THE REST OF ETHIOPIA INSTEAD OF CALLING UPON THEM TO FIGHT!
- Jon Abbink: It is great that you have kept this record of the conversations with Makonnen, Fekadu and Negasso! I appreciate your initiative to have this valuable record of past events and discussions known. Your text helps to understand some of the darker antecedents of the present crisis.
- Alula Pankhurst: It may be that this kind of contribution can help to bring things out, and may in the end be cathartic if it can be a prelude towards truth and reconciliation approaches.
- Marco Bassi: In this way we can show how the current crisis is rooted in the past practices.