Democracy: Liberty, Security, & Prosperity

Tigrean Nationalism: From Revolutionary Force to Weapon of Repression (Part IV)

Posted by Jawar on January 12, 2010

Part IV: Oppositions Falling into the Trap: A call for Reversing the Strategy

This situation of permanent threat and insecurity faced by the Tigrean peasants and elite in all sectors has allowed Meles Zenawi to prevent the possibility of loyalty shift amongst his ethnic support base. Predictably, his opponents have been playing their part of the game by waging anti-Tigrean rhetoric. During the 2005 election, for instance, certain opposition figures and supporters made insensitive accusations and remarks against Tigreans, which helped Meles to declare the possibility of interhamwee – genocide like campaign against Tigreans. Four years later, the opposition does not seem to have learned the fact that the dictator has been using their own words to strengthen his support amongst the Tigrean base. Denying the injustices that was committed in Tigray during the previous regimes, belittling the sacrifice paid by the Tigrean peasants during the struggle against Derg, and by exaggerating regional economic disparity to outright racist attack, opposition groups, especially those in exile, have been engaged in unhelpful campaigns that push away even progressive Tigreans. It’s important to understand that no matter how progressive, one cannot side with a group that wages generalized war on their ethnicity. To remove the tyrannical oligarchy, the opposition should devise a strategy that isolates the oligarchy from its support base.

The following diagrams.[i] show the political strategy of the ruling party thus far, and an alternative that could strengthen the opposition and weaken the oligarchic regime.

The regime used soldiers and elites largely drawn from Tigray to take power. Since they were a group that defeated the previous regime, Tigreans automatically become more powerful and closer to the new regime than other ethnic groups. However, at that early stage, there was no clear segregation between them and the rest of the people. For the party, as Tigrean grievance has settled and there was no longer an oppressive regime, nationalism would eventually loosened, therefore holding power required sustaining the support and loyalty of the people of Tigray through creation of new threat against them.

As discussed above the strategy of the regime is to isolate Tigreans from the rest of the population through creation of permanent insecurity. The pre-calculated favoritism offered to Tigray and Tigreans generates anger and resentment amongst other regions and ethnic groups which can be channeled into increased anti-Tigrean sentiment. This was exactly what the regime anticipated. So there is a pull factor, economic benefits; and a push factor, which is the increased anti-Tigrean sentiment. The insecurity, rejection and renewed fear-based nationalism forces Tigreans to become isolated and remain attached to the party.

As shown by the upward movement, the Tigreans were segregated from the general population and had to become loyal to the party. The regime uses security forces drawn from the Tigrean population to suppress its opponents. Opposition forces targeting the leadership have to fight all the way through the Tigrean civilians and elites before they get to the top. For instance when the regime rigged the 2005 election and used Agazi force to suppress the opposition, they were conveniently accused of attempting to commit genocide against Tigreans. The protestors retaliated by attacking Tigrean owned businesses. The Tigreans became the first line of defense against any opposition forces that target the leadership. Such a fight is difficult for the opposition, especially for those who would like to defeat the regime through nonviolent means. In addition to increasing and solidifying the Tigrean support for the regime, such ethnocentric attacks are often unpopular even amongst the general population. Here it is good to bring to attention that neighborhoods with Tigrean majorities, like ‘Popolare’ and “Teklehaymanot’ have given their support to CUD delegates during the run-up to the 2005 elections. Even though the government tried its best to present the CUD as ‘Interhamwe’, right up to Election Day the Tigrean dwellers of the city were not convinced by government propaganda. Or they might have felt that the regime could lose in the election and voting for a loser would not be in their best interest. What this instance should teach us is that, when the greater Tigrean public feels safe in the hands of the opposition, it can collaborate with them and even take side in opposition to the regime.

Alternatively, the democratic movement could adapt a strategy that can help them gradually isolate the top leadership as shown on the following diagram.

This strategy requires a reawakening of the Tigrean population towards a solidarity movement of all Ethiopians against injustice. It necessitates freezing anti-Tigrean rhetoric and focus on the criminal activities of the top leadership. When Tigreans begin to join the universal struggle against the dictatorial regime, the oligarchy would violently react showing its true nature. As tension between the regime and ordinary Tigreans, who now join others in opposing the regime, increase, elites will begin to waver in their loyalty. The social, economic and political cost of siding with a regime losing the support of its own ethnic group becomes high. Elites lose confidence in the endurance of the regime. The authoritarian regime would react by increasing repressive measures against the defecting elites, which widens the rift between the oligarchy and the elites. This hypothetical scenario is not easy to achieve, however, I believe it is the most efficient, sustainable and constructive way to fight an authoritarian that is using ethnic nationalism to insulate himself against his opponents.


This essay is not written to provide the Tigrean elites an excuse for their silence when the country is being robbed, and the fabric of the society is being destroyed in the name of their people. Neither is it meant to justify those who are engaged in generalized attack on the Tigrean people. The status quo is dangerous both for Tigreans as well as for the rest of the country. There are those Tigrean elites who have narrowly focused on reaping short term privileges rather than being concerned about the long term welfare of the Tigray peasants, who suffered the most to bring the elites to power. Such aggressive and blatant domination of the economy, security, bureaucracy and other institutions by a tiny minority cannot be tolerated forever. Sooner or later, the system will collapse, but the longer this regime remains in power, the higher the stakes and the more dangerous the outcome will be.

The Tigrean people paid an ultimate price to fight against state repression and injustice. Those young men and women who sacrificed their lives under the TPLF banner are myths of freedom, and will always be remembered as such by the Tigreans and all freedom loving people. They never anticipated that their blood that was spilt for the sacred cause of their people would breed tyrants who betrayed the promise of peace, prosperity and liberty. For a true Tigrean nationalist to support the dangerous project of ethno-racism being implemented by the narcissistic individuals is a betrayal of those innocent and brave martyrs.

The courageous effort by Seeye Abraha and other former TPLF leaders ought to be appreciated.  It takes two parties to affect a change in the situation; the opposition should work extra hard to ease the insecurity of the Tigrean people by differentiating the Tigrean mass from the oligarchy. This can happen through a development of a common vocabulary that is sensitive to Tigrean sentiments, in order to not give a pretext for the regime to exploit inter-ethnic tensions to its benefit. But the Tigrean elites should also realize the looming danger and educate their people thus isolating the ruling clique and to bring about sustainable regime change. Silence is not helpful. The ruling cliques are so narrow-minded that they will continue their ethno-racist policies until they are forcefully ousted. Unless this policy is challenged, the result will ultimately be in a violent overthrow of the regime. When that happens, Meles and his top loyalists will retire into a comfortable life in exile leaving the innocent Tigrean mass to suffer for the crimes committed by a few opportunists. As Edmond Burke famously said “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. It is my hope that the silent majority from all political spectrums would prevent the vocal, vicious and irrational opportunists of all sides from leading the country into further chaos.

[i] The diagram is adapted and modified from a presentation by Peter Ackerman at Draper Hill Fellows on Democracy and Development Program, Stanford University. August 3rd, 2009.

I can be reached at .  You can read my articles at

Consulted Works

1)      Abreham, Kinfe. “What led to the TPLF rebellion?” Ethioobserver. Web. <;.

2)      Berhe, Aregawi. A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Los Angeles: Tsehay, 2009. Print.

3)      Halvey, Robert L. On Startegic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking about the Fundamentals. Boston2004: The Albert Einstein Institution. Print.

4)      Hammond, Jenny. Fire From the Ashes: A Chronicle of the Revolution in Tigray, Ethiopia, 1975-1991. New Jersey: Red Sea, 1999. Print.

5)      Orwell, George. “Notes on Nationalism.” N. pag. May 1945. Web. <;.

6)      Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Expanding Horizons Books, 2005. Print.

7)      Wintrobe, Ronald. The Political Economy of Dictatorship. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

8)      Young, John. Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.


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