The Tigre Question – Teodros Kiros (Ph.D)
In a beautiful spring evening, at a friend’s lovely apartment, a group of Ethiopians are chilling out and heartfully discussing Zernet (ethnicity), a hot topic, in these days of division.
A middle-aged man raised his Courvoisier, which he has been nursing, for a good while, and declared, “I remember fondly when it was more than enough to just be an Ethiopian. In the good old ways, all that one had to say to declare who he is that he is an Ethiopian, now it is all different.” He paused, and a young woman joins the discussion.
“Oh Yes. That is what my parents tell me, that they never had to identify themselves as Tigrean or Amhara, as they do now. Now,” she added emphatically, “the first question I am asked is what are you then. Amara Nesh?” She sighed and concluded, “Oh! How much I hate the question, but how pressured I feel to answer it.”
A young man bursts to say,” Worse still. Once I declare my identity as a Tigrean, faces change, and with drinks added, I am often told that Tigreans are running the country, and that resources are being moved to Tigray, when the rest of the country is suffering. I then control myself and try to explain that this is not true, that almost all the beggars in Addis are Tigrean; that a majority of Tigreans live in squalor; that most Tigreans are not free to express themselves; that only a handful of Tigreans are in top echelons of power, to no avail, my friend have already made up their minds.”
He stops in exasperation, and an older female declares that, in fact, certain key positions in Addis are reserved for Tigreans. The young man tries to break in to correct her, but she would not let him, and then he decides to nurse his pain with silence and lots of drinks. He shuts from the world and smokes away.
Home discussions of the variety I just summarized are typical now, and that the Tigre question in particular is getting out of control, and the regime in power is responsible for this deadly misunderstanding, which calls for a dispassionate analyses.
There is a serious problem of stereotyping with grave consequences, which we Ethiopians must correct, if we wish the motherland well. That not all Tigreans are beneficiaries of the wealth, the power and the connections that the regime in power has amassed for the members of its inner circle, some of whom happen to be Tigrean-Ethiopians. That is the first fundamental truth that we must own, that we must keep mind, when we meet Tigreans. That some of these Tigreans are dirty poor; others have comfortable incomes, and very few are conspicuously wealthy. Our scholars need to have the hard facts and disseminate them among us, so that we can think intelligently, factually, and truthfully. That is the fundamental feature of a genuine Ethiopian. We need not open our mouth, until we have the facts on our finger tips.
It is not the vagueness of the situation that alarms me, as much how entrenched these stereotypes are in our civil discourses, when we are expected to be at our best. Our politics seems to trail behind the divisive civil discourse that is ethnicizing and racializing our Ethiopianity, our ANDENET.
Our jokes are much better that our belligerent ethnic discourse. Our Ethiopianity is honey sweet when it is flavored by our ethnic jokes, which are done with great humor and lots of fun. That is when we Ethiopians are at our best, when we make light of being; lighter still is the way we poke fun at our ethnic roots. Thus the humor full descriptions of the Gurages, the Oromos, the Amharas and the Tigreans are typically and consistently civilized. These jokes are healthy and they spice up democratic life and make life light and bearable. The same cannot be said of our racist stereotyping of one another.
Our poisonous stereotypes belong to a totally different order. It is those that distress me here, and which I am openly presenting to the Ethiopian public. What we need to do immediately is think before we speak, when it comes to the Tigre question, and realize that we cannot put all the Tigreans in the same basket, as there are Tigreans who are part of the regime that is playing us against one another, and forcing us to stand behind Meles Zenawi each time we are ethinicized, denuded of our individuality, and disallowed to be first and foremost Ethiopians, and then only if necessary, declare our ethnic origin.
We must move beyond ethnicity towards unity. We must stop narrating, describing, and categorizing individual Ethiopians whom we do not know. Addressing the Tigre question is an important beginning as we refine the complex politics of ANDENET.