The Tigray War and the use and misuse of pan-Africanism

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It has been more than a year since a war broke out between the federal government of Ethiopia and the regional government of Tigray. Initially, the federal government framed the war as a “law and order” operation with the limited aim of removing the TPLF leadership and regaining control over the region. However, as internal resistance and external criticism grew, the government’s narrative changed to “defending the sovereignty” of the country and, more recently, to “resisting western neo-colonialism”. 

In particular, the government has responded to criticism from the United States by attacking Western powers, following the classic Mugabe-esque trope of seeking to delegitimise domestic opposition by claiming it is funded and directed by external forces. The recent call from Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for fellow Africans to stand in solidarity with Ethiopia in its war against western neo-colonialism needs to be understood in this light. It was designed to rally support both within Ethiopia and regional bodies, and cow foreign criticism.

While Western governments have not covered themselves in glory – and some blame them for supporting human rights abuses when the TPLF dominated the central government – this appeal was disingenuous on a number of levels.

First, ever since he came to power, Abiy’s major geopolitical decisions have consistently undermined the idea of pan-African unity. Whether we look at his refusal to take into account the concerns of neighbouring countries when it comes to the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam), or the rejection of African-led initiative to mediate for peace at the beginning of the war in Tigray, Abiy’s actions have undermined both the African Union and pan-African solidarity.

Second, against the background of the start of his rule, when he embraced Western endorsements (such as the Nobel Prize) and established a close relationship with the U.S., it is impossible to view his decision to cast the West as the “enemy” now that praise has turned to criticism as a stance based on principle. Instead, it appears to reflect little more than naked self-interest.

Third, Abiy’s failure to live up to Pan-African goals is not simply the product of his making pragmatic decisions, but rather reflects the ambivalent place Africa has in socio-cultural discourses of identity in Ethiopia. As others have already argued, Abiy appears has at times expressed what could be considered “anti-black” views. These have not emerged in a vacuum, but rather reflect the attitudes of certain segment of Ethiopian society, in which colourism and anti-black prejudice are entrenched norms.

Abiy is of course note the first leader to see Pan-Africanism and Anti-imperialism discourses as an expedient weapon that can be used to defend their domestic record and sustain support – and nor will he be the last. Former heads of states such as Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi laid down the template for this strategy, and its resonance with many African societies means that it remains a potent force for authoritarian leaders facing growing opposition.

The turn to pan-Africanism

In November 2021, when Tigrayan and allied forces were getting close to Addis Ababa, and the situation for the Ethiopian government appeared to be getting desperate, Abiy said “In the spirit of pan-Africanism, I call on all black people to stand with Ethiopia for the sake of the dignity and sovereignty of black people.” There followed a huge upsurge in pro-Pan-African and anti-imperialist discourse from his supporters on social media.

But despite this uptake, the rhetorical and symbolic value Ethiopia holds in the imagination of Africans and the Black Diaspora, and the fact that the African Union is hosted in Addis Ababa, Africa holds an ambivalent place in Ethiopian social and cultural identity. Historically, the founders of modern Ethiopia, Menelik II (1844-1913) and Haile Selassie (1982-1975) are known for denying their blackness and distancing themselves from other Africans.

In contemporary Ethiopia, the legacy of the past continues to shape the present. I grew up in a family of seven. My father and mother have skin colours that are on the different end of the colour spectrum. Among my siblings, I am the only one closer to the dark end and was quite often subjected to family jokes that I was mixed up in the hospital room when I was born. Growing up, when I was walking outside of my home it was normal to hear the word “barya” meaning black/slave, a word often used in reference to Africans and those “other” Ethiopians from the border regions of Gambella or Beni-Shangul Gumuz. 

Internalising colourism

By the time I became a teenager, I had already internalized the colourism I experienced as a child and my own prejudice against Africans was solidified. As a coping mechanism I grew up by defining myself against blackness and never identifying as an African. The neighbourhood I grew up in Addis Ababa was close to many of the residences of African ambassadors and their families. Every day, when we saw children of Ambassadorial families going to school in cars with diplomatic number plates, it was normal to point our fingers and shout “look at the Africans”. 

In a twist of irony, the realization that I was black and African came only when I left Ethiopia and moved to Europe for my studies. At first, I did not understand what was happening when I started to experience discrimination and prejudice from people and institutions. A series of painful experiences of being subjected to racial profiling and micro-aggressions at universities, airports, supermarkets, and hospitals jolted me to the realization that despite my internalised colourism, the outside world sees me as a black African.

The view from within

It is from this vantage point I am now watching the contradiction and paradox of Abiy’s invocation of Pan-Africanism to garner solidarity for its war effort against the Tigray region. I do not believe that this is premised on a deep commitment to a shared African identity – what was once called a common “African personality“. Instead, it seems more likely to be a calculated and cynical ploy to rally support among peoples with whom many government leaders feel no solidarity.

This raises the interesting question of why the appeal to pan-Africanism appears to have received a positive response among Abiy’s Ethiopian supporters. I believe that one reason for this is that it is compatible with an particular form of Ethiopianism, a pan-ethnic and pan-Ethiopian nationalistic ideology that has seen its resurgence under Abiy’s premiership – and is one of the main ideas behind his “Medemer” philosophy. Ethiopianism, as an ideological bundle constituted of historical and cultural strands like the victory of the Battle of Adwa, has a pan-African appeal for those who see Ethiopia as a beacon of Africa.

Not all Ethiopians subscribe to this notion of Ethiopianism, which has often been interpreted within Ethiopia as another way of expressing an exclusionary version of history and identity, but many Abiy supporters appear to hold supportive views. Tellingly, one of the core features of this brand of Ethiopianism is not the affinity of Ethiopians with other African peoples, but rather their supposed superiority

Another reason for the success of Abiy’s “pan-Africanist” strategy is that these statements have not come with any actual commitments to aiding other African states or people, and so there is no “cost” to supporting his pronouncements.

My own personal perspective experiences demonstrate that pan-Africanist ideals could do a lot of good in Ethiopia. But for this good to be realised it would need to be pan-Africanism from below – a movement that aims to bring Africans to stand in solidarity against all who seek to exploit them, whether they be at home or abroad. 

Temesgen Kahsay (@temesgen_kahsay) is an Assistant Professor at the Norwegian School of Leadership and Theology.


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