Ethiopia: From the Cradle of Humanity to the Abyss of 'Divides'
Ethiopia's familiarity and augury with India, runs deep
The descendants of the Biblical ‘Queen of Sheeba’ and the Solomonic dynasty till 1974, the Abyssinian or Ethiopian Empire was one of the only three countries in modern times to have the English title of ‘Emperor’ (along with Japan and Iran) afforded to its Regent Plenipotentiary, Emperor Haile Selassie (‘Lion of Judah’). Paleoanthropologists had discovered amongst the oldest fossilised humanoid skeletons (‘Lucy’) in the Awash valley of Ethiopia, that is estimated to be 3.2 million years ago. With such civilisational and cultural antiquity, it was only inevitable that the paths of these ancient lands would cross that of the other similarly rich, ancient and thriving civilisation i.e. the Indian sub-continental civilization, which had unmatched sophistication and development.
Amongst the most definitive examples of this societal intermeshing is the presence of quaint ‘Afro-Indian’ Siddhis (ethnically Bantu people from Abyssinian lands), who are believed to have arrived first in 628 AD at Bharuch, Gujrat. Later these people even established a small principality in Kathiawar region, called the Janjira State or Habshan (the vulgar distortion of which became ‘Habshis’). Later Siddhis were recruited as slaves and soldiers, most notably, by the Deccan Nawabs, amongst whom was the popular Military Commander, Malik Ambar.
Centuries later in 1867, the British Indian Army conducted its famous Abyssinia Expeditions – 13,000 Indian soldiers sailed from Bombay across the Arabian Sea to successfully attack the then capital, Magdala. The British Indian Army was to return again in WW2, when it famously fought Mussolini’s Italian forces – where the Indian soldier distinguished themselves with their fighting abilities (Naik Maula Baksh and Subedar Richpal Ram from the Rajputana Rifles won the Victory Cross, where the renamed ‘Rajputana Ridge’ in Keren sector, stands till date).
In 1974, a coup d’état by the Military Junta (‘Derg’) would end the Ethiopian monarchy and the former-soldier and dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, led the autocratic and brutal ‘Red Terror’ regime (1974-1991) which brook no opposition and suppressed all forms of regional/ethnic assertion. Amidst these cold war dynamics of 80’s, the author served as the Military, Naval, Air Attaché for over four years, based out the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. The implosion of the USSR in the late 80’s also weakened its vassal states like Ethiopia, where the Marxist dictators could no longer forcibly contain the ethnic and religious diversities which had been highhandedly curbed.
Strained by debilitating and recurring famines, purges and crushing of ‘identities’ – the weakened government of Mengistu was finally surrounded and deposed by ethnic militias, who later formed a restive coalition. The historically belligerent Eritreans in the North were the first to bolt out and carve their own country, leaving the cauldron of Ethiopia as the world’s largest landlocked country by 1993. The uneasy ethnic ‘divide’ within was composed of Oromos (35%), Amhara’s (26%), Somalis (6%), Tigrays (5.5%) and a host of the other smaller irreconcilable ethnicities – as also a religious divide of 63% Christians and 34% Muslims. Oddly enough, the coalition that assumed power after removing Mengistu i.e. Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was dominated by the Tigray minority group, headed by Meles Zenawi. The continued lop-sided tilt in favour of the Tigray leadership continued for over two decades, to the obvious discomfort of the others, notably the substantially larger ethnicities of Oromos and Amhara’s.
In a surreal development that almost sounded too good to be true (in terms of ‘inclusivity’), son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother with mixed Oromo-Amhara lineage (though denied later), Abiy Ahmed Ali, took over as the Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018. Then 42-year-old Prime Minister made all the reassuring noises of political and economic reforms, as also ending the draining Ethiopian-Eritrean war – enough to win him instant international accolades, including unprecedentedly and perhaps prematurely, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Meanwhile the diminishment of the Tigray say in the national leadership was mirrored by the controversial release of political prisoners, mostly from the Oromo region. Abiy’s anti-corruption drive by law enforcement agencies also targeted the previous power brokers and high-ranking officials, who mostly happened to be Tigrayans. The clear power shift was increasingly felt by the now-‘proportionalised’ Tigrayans who were left fuming that Abiy Ahmed was ‘doing too much, too fast’, and importantly, out of a sense of revenge. Abiy’s very public slur of ‘daytime hyenas’ onto the Tigrayans did not help optics, as independent observers also felt that Abiy did indeed target the Tigrayans, specifically. Soon the sense of bias, vindictiveness and dispossession felt by the marginalised Tigrayans assumed proportions of a full-blown armed revolt.
The once-powerful in the centre, Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), rejected Abiy Government’s mandate over the Tigray region and a violent civil war has broken out. To the discredit of Abiy, his initial claims of not specifically targeting the ethnic Tigrayans or about unilaterally blaming the Tigrayan rebels into deliberately drawing the Ethiopian Army into a conflict by supposedly attacking its Northern Command headquarters, are suspect? Abiy is increasingly looking like a regular African depot who exploits situational vulnerabilities, discriminates along ethnic lines and invokes toxic nationalism to suppress contrarian views – the man who won the Nobel Prize for ‘working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia’ is now ringing a bit hollow.
The UN Human Rights Chief has already warned that if reports of mass civilian killing are indeed true, then it tantamount to ‘war crimes’ – neighbouring countries like South Sudan and Eritrea have also been drawn into the bloody conflict. The besieged but battle-hardened Tigrayan forces (who composed the bulk of fighters against Mengistu’s ‘Derg’) claim to be fighting both the Ethiopian and the Eritrean militaries, simultaneously. Abiy has dug-in his heels and refused reconciliation against the relatively well-armed, well-trained and motivated Tigrayan paramilitary or militias who number up to 250,000 soldiers – substantial number enough, to keep the kettle boiling.
The truism of an inevitable chaos after the removal of any dictatorial regime e.g. Libya, Iraq etc. is proving right in the oldest country in Africa. Once the shining example of socio-economic progress, inclusivity and civilisational profundity – Ethiopia has reiterated the dangers of stoking latent ‘divides’ that are easy and tempting to arouse in the short term, but impossible to douse, in the long term. The situation also warrants introspection into the undue haste with which the international community built a Teflon-image around Abiy Ahmed, enough for him to buy-time and perhaps allow him to indulge in some old-fashioned score-settling?
Abiy’s critics have been quick to posit that ‘to dismantle is not akin to build’ – suggesting, that surely the Tigrayan dominance in the national politics would have led to individual misuse, excesses and corruption by its leadership, but to sleight the entire ethnicity, is fraught with risks. The internecine cracks are appearing amongst the other ethnicities too, including the Oromo and Amharas, who have tentative relationships, let alone the traditionally and geographically isolated Somalis. While the boorish intransigence of ethnic leaders is but to be expected, it is the dashing of the hope in what initially promised to be the transformational tenure of Abiy Ahmed, that has been disappointing.
Late Emperor Haile Selassie was an ardent admirer of the great product of the Indian civilisation i.e. Mahatma Gandhi, and the African Statesman had prophetically noted about the torturous corridors of civilisations, ‘In the history of the human race, those periods which later appeared as great have been the periods when the men and women belonging to them had transcended the differences that divided them and had recognised in their membership in the human race, a common bond’. Today Ethiopia the ‘land of origins’ that is synonymous as the cradle of humanity is struggling with its own ‘divides’ that once bonded and thrived, within – often restively, but rarely in so suspicious, polarised and violent manner, as now.
Few years back the usually reticent Manmohan Singh was given to a rare sentimental flourish, when he alluded to Ethiopia as the land with ‘often overlooked similarities’ and recollected Nehru’s stirring empathy towards Ethiopia, ‘We in India can do nothing to help our brethren in distress, for we are also victims of imperialism but we stand with them today in their sorrow as we hope to stand together when better days come’! Indeed, people of civilisations deserve better, and in the ensuing Ethiopian crisis - the lessons of fragility to peace by invoking and pandering to the regressive societal ‘divides’ and faultlines, are invaluable.
Lt Gen Bhopidner Singh served in Ethiopia for over 4 years, as India’s Military, Naval and Air Force Attaché for East & South Africa region, during the height of cold war dynamics. He is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.