Biher-Tigrinya and Tigray people: The war of Identities.
Written by Hassan Adem, M.T., Tekle B.
This article examines the problematic relationship between Eritrea's Biher-Tigrinya and Ethiopia's Tigray people. It focuses on the recent western concept of "ethnic identity" and how it can be mobilized for political gains. It also focuses on the deep animosity that runs between both ethnic groups and tries to shed some light on how they may have originated. This piece does not assume a certain degree of prior knowledge of the horn region's ancient and recent history among its readers, so a great deal of information in this paper is dedicated to the historical aspect of these groups.
When Eritrean civilians of the Biher-Tigrinya ethnic group were asked on their feelings of Tigray people, many responded with: "Tigray" or "Agame", (as Eritreans sometimes contemptuously refer to them )— cannot be trusted and never could" (2003, Africa, volume 73, p.377). While one informant, who was an EPLF veteran told professor Richard Reid, how in 1991, upon the winning of Eritrean independence, 'our grandparents' had warned against trying to improve the relationship with Tigray, saying, "Be careful, these people are dangerous, we know them well!" (2003, Africa, volume 73, p.377) So how did these deep resentment begin? For starters, many Tigrayans regard the Biher-Tigrinya to be part of the same ethnicity as them, while as innocent as this may sound, this seems to be at the root of the problem. It is clear the Biher-Tigrinya do not regard the Tigray people to be the same ethnicity and go out of their way to make this clear. But before we begin, we must try to understand the concept of ethnic identity.
What is Ethnic Identity?
There is yet no acceptable single word in English for the phrase "ethnic group", no one word equivalent to "class," "caste," or "family" to describe a group self-consciously united around particular cultural traditions. Ethnicity or ethnic group is relatively a new 20th century concept brought upon by Europeans. There are many factors involved in the concept of "ethnicity." Each society or tribe of humans gives different value to the various aspects of relationships and social order. Among the first to bring the term "ethnic group" into social studies was the great German sociologist Max Weber, who defined it as:
“Those human groups that entertain a subjective belief in their common descent because of similarities of physical type or of customs or both, or because of memories of colonization and migration; this belief must be important for group formation; furthermore it does not matter whether an objective blood relationship exists…ethnic membership does not constitute a group; it only facilitates group formation of any kind, particularly in the political sphere. On the other hand it is primarily the political community, no matter how artificially organized, that inspires the belief in common ethnicity.” (1978, Max Weber, p. 389)
Max Weber also adds on:
“ethnicity can be broadened or narrowed in boundary terms according to the specific needs of political mobilization. Ethnic identities re-articulated by interest-seeking individuals when it is appropriate and advantageous to do so and ignored when other wise. Ethnic groups are thus conceived as arbitrarily created, temporarily sustained, situation-responsive, goal-oriente groups.” (2009, Miguel N. Alexiades, P.168)
So where does the word "ethnic" gets its origins from? The following paragraph sheds some light on this subject:
The word ethnic has a long history. It is a derivative of the Greek word Ethnos, meaning nation. The reference, however, is not to a political unity, but to the unity of persons of common blood or descent: a people. The adjectival from, ethnikos, eventually entered Latin as ethnicus, referring to heathens, those "others" who did not share the dmoninant faith. This is more or less the meaning that the word carried when it first found English usage around the 15th century. In English, "ethnic" referred to someone who was neither Christian nor a Jew---in other words, a pagan or heathen. The matter of belief is less important in this usage than the drawing of a boundary. "ethnic" clearly referred to others, to those who were not "us". (2001, Harry Goulbourne, p.77)
In fact it was not till 1945 that the word ethnicity specifically started representing "a member of a particular ethnic group" (The American Heritage® Dictionary, 4th edition). So before this period, we can conclude with certainity that the concept ethnicity or ethnic group did not exisit in human interactions. Before this period, people associated their group name with their clan, regional or villages.
Arguably the most important factor of determining ethnicity is the psychological aspect of it, as professor Joshua A. Fishman illustrates:
The psychological dimension of ethnicity is perhaps the most important because, regardless of variations in the biological, cultural, and social domains, if a person self-identifies as a member of a particular ethnic group, then he or she is willing to be perceived and treated as a member of that group. Thus, self-ascribed and other-ascribed ethnic labels are the overt manifestations of individuals' identification with a particular ethnicity. (2001, Joshua A. Fishman, p.115)
In addition to the psychological aspect of ethnicity, there are also many layers of ethnicity. For example, a Bedouin man from Saudi Arabia will adhere to a larger Arab identity, while at the same time, still professing to his Bedouin ethnic identity and in most cases, going down to his clan and sub-clan identity.
Sometimes ethnic groups that adhere to the same religion, language, and culture view themselves completely separate from one another. An example of this are the Austrians and Germans. Both speak German, both predominately follow Roman Catholicism, and both share many cultural similarities, yet they view themselves as completely separate ethnic groups. Some like the Hutus and Tutsis speak the same Central Bantu language, follow predominately Catholicism and have similar cultures, yet they view one other as separate ethnic groups as well. Other times, ethnic groups such as the Dinka of Sudan speak a range of dialects in five distinct languages, with cultures and religions that vary, yet they consider themselves to be one people, despite their linguistic, religious, and cultural differences. Thus, determining ethnicity is not as clear cut as some would like to believe, it’s a process of discovery involving many aspects.
With all these many factors in making the recent 20th century concept of an ethnic identity, it remains puzzling to see the extent Ethiopian authors, particularly, the Tigrayans and the Tigrayan dominated Ethiopian government in claiming the Biher-Tigrinya people of Eritrea as being Tigrayans. For example, a Tigrayan author by the name of Alemseged Abbay wrote an entire book dedicated on his perceived Tigrinya peoples “jilted identity”. In his book, which is titled, “Identity jilted, or, Re-imagining identity?” he argues that Tigrayans, south of the Mereb River, and Kebessa (Biher-Tigrinya) Eritreans, north of the Mereb, are ethnically one people. Much of his claims are bold and seem emotionally driven, if not politically motivated. The books title alone suggests the Tigrinya people are not capable of knowing who they are and anything that goes against his belief is either a “jilted” or a “re-imagined identity", even though the very concept of ethnic identity is always an ever evolving one, and one that boils down to self-inclusion perception of "us" and "them".
For the Biher-Tigrinya ethnic group, the Tigrinya is the name of their language and the source of their ethnic name as well (Biher means "tribe"). In official papers distributed by the Eritrean Government, the 'language' (Tigrinya) is used as an ethnic term of the group (1998, Kjetil Tronvoll, P. 30). Nearly all the ethnic groups in Eritrea are also named after their language, including the Tigre, Kunama, Afar, Nara, Saho, Hedareb, and Bilen. Languages being the source of ethnic name is a common practice. Many ethnic groups share the same name as their language, like the English, Spanish, German and Somali people to name a few. In contrast to the Biher-Tigrinya people, the Tigrayans named themselves after their region of Tigray (the Tigrinya peoples' region is named Kebessa). This too is a common practice by other ethnic groups.The Tigrinya people at times still regard themselves by their regional name of “Kebessa ” as their ethnic name, and to a certain extent; some still do as Kjetil Tronvoll came to find out in the early 1990s.
"However, people from the highlands do not speak of themselves as "Tigrinyans." When asked they would usually reply as did Tewolde, a 60-year old villager from Mai Weini: "Tigrinya is just the language, it is not the tribe (aliet). The tribe is Kebessa (highland). Or, when in the highlands, the tribe is Akele-Guzai, Seraye or Hamasien"(1998, Kjetil Tronvoll, P. 30)"
Biher-Tigrinya or Kebessa
Tigrinya (Asmara Dialect)
Tigre; also known as Tigrayit
Tigray or Tigrayans
Tigrinya (Tigray Dialect)
So what does the word Tigrinya mean? Tigrinya means "Tigre language". The "inya" in Tigre-inya is the suffix that denotes "language", while Tigr[e] is the speaker (1998, Kjetil Tronvoll, P. 30). The earliest written Tigrinya is from the 13th century AD and was found in Logosarda, Eritrea (UCLA Studies). It is important to note however that language alone is neither constitutive of culture nor of ethnic identity (2006, André Gingrich, Marcus Banks, P. 149). The Tigrinya language also has two distinctive dialects called Asmara and Tigray dialects. Asmara is the dialect of Tigrinya spoken in Eritrea and Tigray is the dialect spoken in northern Ethiopia (UCLA Studies). There are regional sub-dialects of both Asmara and Tigray dialects, but no study has systematically mapped out the boundaries of these (UCLA Studies). Interestingly enough, the Asmara dialect, over their own Tigray dialect, has become the de facto Tigrinya “standard” for Tigrayans in northern Ethiopia as the following quote illustrates.
"The Asmara variation with its recent development both in the spoken and written aspect has incontestably become on its own right the de facto "standard" in the Tigrigna speaking areas of North Ethiopia. (1988, Anatoliĭ Andreevich Gromyko, p. 21)"
The Asmara dialect and the Tigray dialect of Tigrinya have many distinguishable differences and these differences often lead to some linguistic estrangement as the following quote demonstrates.
".. the Asmara variation widely used in Eritrea, and the Tigray variation (generally used in Mekele, Adi grat, adua and Axum) as the two main dialects of north Ethiopian* Tigrigna, we can easily distinguish notable phonlogical, morphological, syntaxical and lexical diferences which may lead to some linguisitc estrangement among their users. (1988, Anatoliĭ Andreevich Gromyko, p. 21)"
*this book was created when Eritrea was under Ethiopian annexation.
The following is a chart showcasing samples of phonlogical, morphological, syntaxical, and lexical differences between the Asmara dialect and tigray dialect of the Tigrinya language.
I Would Have Eaten
Click on the numbers for sources:
6-10 comes from The search for peace, by Leenco Lata, p.37
6-10 comes from The search for peace, by Leenco Lata, p.37
A common theme that stands out among the Biher-Tigrinya, Tigre, and Tigray ethnic groups is the root word “Tigr” at the start of their ethnic names and languages. From this root word, three ethnic groups base their languages and ethnic identity from it. The oldest reference to the ancient word Tigr[e] comes from the Tigretes of Adulis. In 523 AD, Cosmos Indicopieustes reported that the people near Adulis were of the Tigretes (1989, Appleyard, Pankhurst, p. 43) The Tigretes are an early reference to the Tigre people of Eritrea who have and still occupy the Eritrean coast (Appleyard, Pankhurst, P. 45). These ancient Tigretes of Adulis could have been culturally influential, because today, we have three separate ethnic identities having their names and language resembling that name.
One factor that’s drastically overlooked is the influences other ethnic groups have had on the Biher-Tigrinya and Tigray ethnic groups. For the Tigrayans, it's important to mention that the Amharas and Oromos have shaped their people to a certain degree. For example, during the reign of the Tigrayan King Yohannes of Abyssinia (1872-1889), he did not end the cultural dominance of the Amhara. Amharic as it seems remained the language of his court, and Ploweden, a 19th century contemporary British observer noted,
"Teegray is now almost universally acquainted with the Amharic language, and their customs, food and dress have become so assimilated to those of the Amharas, as not to require separate description, though their hatred of that people is undiminished."(1997, John Young, Page, p. 44.)
Although at times the Tigrayans are regarded as homogeneous people, a close examination of the origins of some of their populations shows otherwise. For example, the Raya and Azebo are the descendents of Oromos (1997, John Young, p.51). The Raya and Azebo still maintained more elements from their pastoral way of life, and Oromo traditions . They wear kilt like pants and are largely Muslims who assimilated with Tigrayans and adopted the Tigray dialect of Tigrinya that's heavily laced with Amharic words (2007, Bereket H. Selassie, p. 287). Another group are Tembien Tigrayans, they also dance in a uniquely fashion called “Awirs”, which is completely different from the traditional Kuda dance found among the Biher-Tigrinya people.
For the Biher-Tigrinya people, the Beja ethnic group, particularly the Belew people, have had the most profound impact. From 750 AD to the early 14th century AD (1988, Cliffe, Davidson, P.12), the Bejas ruled supreme in most of Eritrea; including the Eritrean highlands. This period in Eritrean history is regarded as the Beja Kingdoms.
"The Zenafidj people, under pressure from a more northerly Hedareb Beja tribe and the early Arab settlements, began the expansion into Eritrea. It appears, according to Muslim historian and geographer Al Ya'qubi's account of this period, and other sources, to have encompassed the whole coast north of Arkiko, Sahel, the Barka and Anseba valleys, and most of the highlands. They established five kingdoms: Nagic, Baklin, Bazen, Kata'a, and Giarin. There are still traces of this migration in the local traditions, eg: the Begathay of Bilen, the Dina Fana of Hamasien highlands, and certain Sahelian traditions. (2007, Denison, Paice, p. 9)"
As a result, many places in the Kebessa ( Eritrean highlands) are named after Bejas, many of them are even identifiable today, suggesting close interactions with the Belew people and the forerunners of the Biher-Tigrinya people. Arguably, the most famous of these Beja place names is Belew-Kelew.
"The 9th century Arab geographer Al-Ya'qubi wrote of six Beja kingdoms located in what is today Eritrea. Beja place names are found throughout the central and northern highlands of Eritrea, suggesting widespread Beja interaction with other communities (2008, Schmidt, Curtis, Teka , p. 284)"
In fact, the Belew kingdom of Eritrea (12th -16th century AD) have impacted many Eritrean ethnic groups, particularly the Biher-Tigrinya; who have oral traditions of being of Belew ancestry (people of half Arab and half Beja ancestry). These Belew (or Balaw) ancestry oral tradition are only found among the Biher-Tigrinya and other Eritrean ethnic groups; who were impacted by the Belew people.
"...between the 12th and 16th centuries CE peoples of mixed Beja and Arab ancestry known as the Balaw (Belew) seem to have been politically dominant in much of Eritrea (Conti Rossini 1928; Munzinger 1 864; Zaborski 1 976). The Beja were known to be in the Asmara area (see Conti Rossini 1928) and are remembered in the oral traditions of people residing in the Hamasien region that includes the Asmara Plateau. (2008, Schmidt, Curtis, Teka , p. 284)"
As European travelers entered the region from the 16th century AD and onwards, they often used Amharic pronunciations of ethnic group names and territories. For many centuries, Tigrayan people and their region of Tigray were incorrectly labeled as "Tigre" due to Amharic pronunciation. The Europeans also referred to Medri-Bahri as BaharNagash. BaharNagash is the Amharic pronunciation for the Bahri-Negassi (Sea King) of Medri-Bahri. European travelers often used the Bahrngash title to refer to the King and the country of Medri-Bahri as well. When describing the Tigrinya ethnic groups, they often used district names, such as Hamasien, Akele-Guzay and Sareye which all three made up the Kingdom of Medri-Bahri. Another issue that's also confused or often misinterpreted are the terms of "Abyssinia" and "Ethiopia". These terms, as professor Richard Reid points out in the following quote below, were 'frequently used in their broadest and most generic sense, as a mere Geographical expression' and certainly were not used to denote a recognisable political territorial state.
"A further, and connected, problematic issue in contemporary sources lies in the usage of the terms ‘Ethiopia’ and ‘Abyssinia’, something which has continued to influence the perception of the region up to our own time in quite dramatic fashion. In this context, we need to consider the influences brought to bear on the production of the ‘knowledge’ that appears in contemporary European texts, and what certain knowledge actually meant in the local context. ‘Ethiopia’ and ‘Abyssinia’ were frequently used in their broadest, most generic sense, as mere geographical expressions in much the same way as the entire eastern African littoral, including much of the Horn, was once encompassed within the term ‘Azania’. As geographical expressions, they were at once convenient and representative of deep-seated ignorance of the region as a whole, although they may also have been informed by local indigenous ‘knowledge’. (For example, such expressions were often used on the approach to the central Ethiopian highlands, and may have been picked up from local informants whose geographical gestures were fairly generalised.) Certainly, the expressions were not always used to denote a recognisable political territorial state, but this is how they have usually been interpreted by subsequent writers and scholars, wishing to support the concept of a continuous and ancient regional imperium with all the romantic connotations such a concept implies." (2007, Richard Reid, p.242)
An important historical event of the Biher-Tigrinya people is the rise of a democratically-like kingdom called Medri-Bahri. After the fourteenth century, Eritrea came to be known as the country of Medri-Bahri (Land of the Sea) (1988, Cliffe, Davidson, P.12-13). Medri-Bahri was ruled by Bahri Negassi; and Debarwa became the capital of his kingdom (1988, Cliffe, Davidson, P.12-13). The Bahri-Negassi was independently elected to power by the people of Medri-Bahri and it’s boundary with Abyssinia (Tigray and Amhara) was marked by the Mereb River (1988, Cliffe, Davidson, P.12-13). Medri Bahri comprised the area around the present day Biher-Tigrinya districts of Hamasien, Akele-Guza and Seraye (Robert Mchida, p. 9). Strategically, the area was an entrance to the interior and a gateway to the coastal region. Thus, because of its location, the people of Medri-Bahri had to fend off invasions by the Turks, Egyptians, Amharas and Tigrayans (Robert Mchida, p. 9).
By the year 1517, the Ottoman Turks had occupied the whole northeastern part of modern-day Eritrea extending from Massawa to Swakin in the Sudan (1998,Roy Pateman, p.32). They had even conquered Medri-Bahri and occupied it for twenty years (1998, Roy Pateman, P.32). During this occupation, the Ottoman Turks appointed Abbas Afra (a Muslim Beja) as the Bahri Neggasi and he ruled from the Gash (Mereb) river to Massawa on the Behalf of the Ottoman empire (1998, Roy Pateman, P.32) . After being driven out of Medri-Bahri in the later years of the 16th century (Roy Pateman, P.32), the Ottomans nevertheless continued to occupy the Eritrean coast for a total of 349 years. We may never know the full impact of the Ottoman colonial occupation of Eritrea or how significantly they may have impacted the native populations. No serious degree of study on them has ever been conducted, however, their legacy still lives on in their architecture in Massawa and in oral traditions among the Biher-Tigrinya, Tigre, Saho, Hedareb, Bilen and Afar ethnic groups. Even during these distant times, the author and historian Roy Pateman suggests that Biher-Tigrinya people of Medri-Bahri were “distinct” from people of Tigray, as the following quote illustrates:
“Even in those distant times, however, it is clear that the land and people of highland Eritrea were distinct from people of Tigray, even though they spoke the same language-just as the Austrians, Swiss Germans and the Germans of today are very different people (1998, Roy Pateman, P.33).”
These difference were made even more clearer when Portuguese missionaries of the 16th centuries started entering the region. In the early 1500s AD, a Portuguese missionary named Francisco Alvarez reported that Tigray’ s border with Medri-Bahri was the Mereb River, which till this day shapes much of Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia.
"Here; this river, the Mareb, separates the country of the Bahar Nagash from that of Tigray" (1970, Francisco Alvarez, P. 91)
Francisco Alvarez continues with his description of differences with,
The men (of Medri-Bahri) wear different costumes; so also the women who are married or living with men. Here (Tigray), they wear wrapped round them dark coloured woolen stuffs, with large fringes of the same stuff, and they do not wear diadems on their heads like those of the Barnagasi (Midri-Bahri people)". -(1970, Francisco Alvarez, P. 91-2)
The Portuguese were so convinced of these clear distinctions between Medri-Bahri and Tigray people, that they published a map in 1660 that showcased Medri Bahri as being separate from not only Tigray, but Abyssinia all together.
A Portuguese map of 1660 shows Medri Bahri as covering most of the three highland provinces of Eritrea and distinct from Ethiopia. (1998, Roy Pateman, p. 36)
In 1680, Medri-Bahri’s political process was described by the German scholar J. Ludolph as being a “Federal Republic“. This democratic “republic” political process was found no where else in the horn of Africa and was distinct to the Biher-Tigrinya people of Medri Bahri.
"J. Ludolph, the Great German scholar whose studies on the East are known all over the world, described the Medri Bahri as a Federal Republic." (1977, Forschung, P. 38)
In 1770, the Scottish researcher James Bruce even gives the boundary of Tigray, which does not include the Biher-Tigrinya (Kebessa) people. According to Bruce, Tigray’s border with Medri Bahri (or BahrNegash) was indeed the Mereb river.
"The greatest length of Tigre (Tigray) is two hundred miles, and the greatest breadth one hundred and twenty. It lies between the territory of the BaharNagash (which reaches to the river Mareb) on the east, and the river Tacazze on the west." (1860, James Bruce, p.83)
James Bruce also reported Medri Bahri and Abyssinia were two “distinctly separate political entities who were constantly at war with each other” . This shows us without a doubt that the Bhier-Tigrinya people of Medri-Bahri had a different political process from Tigray and Abyssinia all together.
"In 1770 the Scottish traveler James Bruce also reported that Medri-Bahri and Abyssinia were two distinctly separate political entities constantly at war with each other." (1991, Okbazghi Yohannes, P. 31)
In 1805, Henry salt, who was a British Egyptologist and a historian of his era stated the Tigrinya people were allied with the Funj empire. This is important because we know Tigray people at no time were allies with this Sudanese kingdom, which shows clear differences in political allies between the Tigrinya and Tigrayans.
"The inhabitants of Hamazen (Eritrean Highlanders) are said to bear a very distinct character from the rest of the Abyssinians, and seem in many respects to be more nearly allied to the Funge, who reside in the neihbourhood of Senaar (modern Sudan)" (1816, Henry Salt, p. 240)
In 1830, the Swiss mercenary by the name of Dr. Samuel Gobat described the Eritrean highlands as being ruled by a Bahri-Negassi (sea king), who leads “a life entirely independent of the Ras of Tigray". Dr. Gobat makes a clear distinction between “baharnagash” (Medri-Bahri) and “Tigray” - He also shows us that the Tigrinya people of “Baharnagash” were ruled by their own rulers and these rulers were independent of Tigray and "Abyssinia" all together.
"The whole of this north-east coast, which is called Barharnagash,* and which is under the dominion of a chief of the same name, is divided into fifteen petty districts, each of which is governed by a perfect, or rather, a chief of brigands, who leads, in his own district, a life entirely independent of the Ras (chief) of Tigre (Tigray). The traveler who wishes to penetrate the interior regions of the country, must obtain, and usually by the payment of an unreasonable sum, the consent, as well as the protection of this last-mentioned prince. By this means, he will be able to traverse successively the territories of these petty chiefs with more or less security. (1850, Samuel Gobat, P. 37-8)
In 1838, the traveler John R Miles describes the Mereb river as being the border between Tigray and the Kingdom of Medri-Bahri.
“the Mareb, which forms the boundary between Tigre (sic, Tigray) and the Kingdom of Baharnagash.” (1846, John R. Miles, P. 131)
Ploweden, the 19th century contemporary British observer, also stated in the 1870s that Tigrayans did not regard the Tigrinya people as being the same as them.
“The people of Hamazain and Serowee, since the time of Ras Michael, though speaking the same language, are still scarcely (hardly) considered by the people of Teegray as a portion of that country whose governors, since that period, have made war on them….” (1868, Walter Chichele Plowden, P. 39)
According to professor Richard M. Trivelli, 'separate' ethnic identities were already there between the Biher-Tigrinya and Tigray people long before the Italians entered the region.
Separate regional identities began to emerge in the 18th century, a development accentuated by the establishment of colonial borders and the social and economic differentiation under Italian rule. Social differences between the populations of both areas were concurrent with the development of negative stereotypes about the respective other group. (1998, Richard M. Trivelli, p. 257-8)
This view becomes more evident when the expansionist Tigrayan Yohannes came to power. Yohannes would end up coming to power after he collaborated with British colonial forces to allow them to pass through Tigray unopposed in order to defeat Tewodros, who had taking British hostages. After the colonial British forces defeated Tewodros and his troops, they rewarded Yohannes for his cooperation and loyalty with large amounts of modern weapons and military training of his troops. These advanced weaponry would lead to his subsequent rise to power. After quelling much of the Amhara regions with his newly aqquired fire power, Yohannes then turned his attention to north of the Mereb river, where he sent a massive force to occupy Medri-Bahri; which had been independent. What then followed was a long protracted guerilla warfare-type engagement that lasted for several years. Yohannes then appointed his trusted “right hand man” Ras Alula to govern Medri-Bahri (Mareb Mellash).
During his brief occupation of Medri-Bahri, Ras Alula conducted many raids that caused the extinction of two-thirds of the Kunama and the Nara people(2003, Lyda Favali, Roy Pateman, p. 36). He also pillaged Tigre people in Keren and Sahil areas, taking “7000 to 8000 sheep and goats, almost as many cattle, and some 15000 Thalers (Maria Theresa dollars)” (1996, Hagai, Erlikh, p.35) He excluded all local leaders of Medri-Bahri from political life and attempted to confiscate ten percent of the land. He was "fiercely and successfully" opposed by the local inhabitants of Medri-Bahri (1998, Roy Pateman, p. 40). According to the historian Richard Ried, it was the land not the people that was the driving strategy behind Yohannes and Alula's invasion and breif occupation of Medri-Bahri. British observers who accompanied Alula noted to his harsh brutality:
When Portal passed through it, it contained a garrison of around two hundred of Alula's soldiers who "behaved with great hauteur and even brutality to the Arab inhabitants". "The land, not the people" was the underpinning approach to the "Eritrean problem" of successive Ethiopian regimes in the mid- and late twentieth century: such an approach is evident in the age of Yohannes and Alula. Indeed, Alula's occupation of Asmara demonstrates part of the same strategy (Richard Reid, P. 245).
This disastrous brief occupation ended after Yohannes was defeated and his head decapitated by the Sudanese Mahdist (2004, Prouty, Prouty, ofcansky, p.411). Do to Yohannes’ defeat, Alula understood that Tigray was now vulnerable to Shewan domination. In order to preserve this short lived Tigrayan hegemony that they’ve enjoyed under Yohannes‘ reign, Ras Alula then made a deal with the Italians to offer the “whole Mareb Mellash” to the Italians in return for an independent Tigrayan state free from Menelik's rule (2005, Milkias, Metaferia, p.69). Although by this point, it was evident that Ras Alula had already crossed the Mereb river and retreated back into Tigray, which completely ended his brief occupation over Medri-Bahri or Mareb Mellash as the Tigrayans called it. This following quote made by Ras Alula shows us without a doubt, the leaders of Tigray of the late 19th century, viewed the Biher-Tigrinya people of Medri-Bahri as separate from their territory and people.
“You want the country to the Mareb (Eritrean highlands/Medri Bahri) to cultivate your gardens, to build your houses, to construct your churches....? We can give it to you. [And not menilek.] Let the Italian soldiers come to Adwa, I shall come to meet them like a friend." (1996, Ḥagai Erlikh, P. 164)
Ras Alula desperately continued to solicit the Italians, confirming that they can occupy all the lands up till the Mereb River, which is the historical and modern border between the Biher-Tigrinya of Medri Bahri/Eritrea and Tigrayans of Tigray/Ethiopia.
"And you (Italians), why do you need to look for distant friends? We are neighbors (meaning Medri Bahri and Tigray) and can serve each other. You want the road to be open and I want the road to be open. You should guard to the Mereb River and I will guard it to Gondar and even beyond Gondar. We must be able to go to the coast to trade in order that our country (meaning Tigray) would flourish, with the help of God, Menelik is too far to be of any use to you. Let us make friendship between us. (1996, Ḥagai Erlikh, 164)"
Despite these desperate pleas made by the Tigrayans Ras Alula and Yohannes’ adopted son of Mengesha, the Italians sided with Menelik and acknowledged the Shewan leader as the new ruler of Abyssinia. Although Menelik is regarded as fighting colonialism by Ethiopian scholars and others alike, it was Menelik himself who worked alongside with Italians colonialist, going as far as stating that he himself felt Italian and wished no greater desire then to visiting Italy. Menelik told then Italian representative to Abyssinia, Count Antonelli:
"Menilek told Antonelli that he loved Italy so much that he felt "half Italian," and had no greater wish than to go there and see it...(1996, Chris Prouty, p.57)
Menelik himself viewed the Italians as close allies and at times, his protectors. In a letter written to the then Italian King Umberto, Menelik begged the King of Italy to protect him from his enemies; namely Yohannes, and he reassured the Italian king that his region was theirs to share with.
"I beg Your Majesty to defend me against everyone ... as I don't know what European kings will say about this ... let others know that this region is ours (1986, Chris Prouty, p. 54)
Just like the Tigrayan leaders of Alula and Mengesha, Menelik of shewa had asked the Italians to occupy Medri-Bahri (Eritrean highlands) as well.
"Via Antonelli's courier, Menelik informed the King of Italy that he would like the Italian soldiers to occupy Asmara, in order to discourage the imperial pretensions of Mengesha Yohannes (the son of Emperor Yohannes)." "There after," added Menelik, "God will give me the throne that for many years I have had the right to have. (1986, Chris Prouty, p.61)"
By the late 19th century, Medri Bahri was often used as a political tool to gain leverage with the Italians when it was convenient for their survival. According Richard Ried, Even the Tigrayan created and Amhara adopted term of “Mareb Mellash" for the Eritrean highlands; which means “land beyond the river Mereb” indicates a clear differentiation in the southern Tigrayan and Amhara minds.
The intervention of colonial powers, particularly Italy, may be considered as a major element in the construction process of the nation and in the Eritrean transformation. From 1890 to 1941, the Italians ruled over Eritrea and brought the different ethnic peoples, kingdoms and districts under one adimistrative rule. They would have a lasting impact in terms of transforming the infrastructure, the roads, the railway, ports, airports, small-scale industries, factories, the introduction of a modern-type agriculture: all these factors transformed the communities that were under the same colonial administration, creating its own dynamism. Like most parts of Africa, the people were transformed during colonial administration. The cultural influence is very strong, especially in regards to the identity issue. According to the historian Ibid:
"Cultural, economic, and administrative develpments under Italian colonial rule from 1890 to World War II gave Eritrea an identity distinct from that of the Amhara ruled Ethiopian kingdom of Haile Selassie, based in part on a multi-ethnic, partly urbanized working class." (2005, Edward D. Mansfield, Jack L. Snyder, p. 238)
One of the most profound impacts of Italian rule is the conscription of Eritrean troops. From 1905 onwards, Eritrean soldiers were continuously present in both Somalia and Libya (2009, Poddar, Patke, Jensen, p. 278). By 1914, out of a population of just 300,000 Eritreans, "recruitment had reached a peak of 23,000 men, including 6000 stationed in Libya." (1994, Zegeye, Siegfried Pausewang, P. 49). The Italian war with Ethiopia in 1935 siphoned off about 40 per cent of the Eritrean labour force, the highest recruitment of colonial army per capita in the Topical Africa (2009, Poddar, Patke, Jensen, p. 279). In 1935 alone the Italians conscripted 65,000 Eritreans for their colonial war (1991, Okbazghi Yohannes, p. 11). A 1938 Italian study even suggested that up to 70,000 Eritreans were conscripted for war and the subsquent occupation that followed (1991, Okbazghi Yohannes, p. 11). Allthough the Italians had racial laws in place they nevertheless grandted a number of privileges to Eritreans in the East African empire and this "further strengthened the growth of a separate Eritrean identity." (1998, Roy Pateman, p. 56)
On the eve of World War II, the Italians in Eritrea constituted about 12 per cent of the entire population of Eritrea. In comparison, the British community in Zimbabwe, another colony of settlement, was 6 per cent (2009, Poddar, Patke, Jensen, p. 279). By 1937, there were some 35,000 Eritrean and Italian mixed races, known as the "half-caste" (1998, Roy Pateman, p. 58). According to the Italian ambasdaor to Eritrea, there are 100,000 Eritreans today with atleast one Italian grandfather and grandmother or great-grandfather.
Since the extensive military conscription and the rapid industrialization affected almost every ethnic group in Eritrea to some degree; particularly with the Biher-Tigrinya and Tigre ethnic groups, these members of the colonial army and the working Eritrean class came to fight and work under one roof or colonial adminstration, they shared a common experience of exploitation, subjugation, and victimization. But that process of working together in war time situation and industrial plantations helped them to develop their own means of communication, as a result, ethnic and linguistic barriers began to crumble, and new modes of existence and expression were asserted. Professor Trivelli regards the colonial period as "deepening the differences" that were already there between the Biher-Tigrinya and Tigray people.
"The impact of Italian rule on Kebessa society was at first only marginal but with the passing of the years, the Kebessa as well as the other peoples of Eritrea were intergrated into a different socio-economic and cultural setting thereby greatly deepening the differences between the Tigrinya-speakers on both sides of the Mereb. Even though the Kebesa subjects of Italian colonial rule were treated in many ways as second-class cononial subjects, they still had unquestionably more access to modern education and professions than the inhabitants of Tigray which had become a marginalised Ethiopian border province viewed with suspicion and mistrust by its Amhara rulers.(1998, Richard M Trivelli, P. 266)
Trivelli points out that once Tigray migrants entered Eritrea, new elements of class and distinctions were asserted:
The arrival of a large number of Tigray migrants introduced a new element into the colonial situation, paving the way for a development that continues to bedevil relationships between Tigray and Kebesa until the present day. The labour demands of the colonial economy not only drew a large number of rural Eritreans into the new economic centres but also attracted numerous poor Tigray migrants, particularly from the impoverished Agame province of Tigray. These migrants came as day labourers into the towns and took over jobs that the Kebesa found unattractive. In many villages, families whose sons were working for the Italians adopted the practice of taking on Tigray migrants as tenant farmers to work the lands for their absent sons. These tenants were not given land titles or local citizenship rights like the indigenous members of the village community but remained second-class citizens within the local communities. (1998, Richard M Trivelli, P. 268)
As a result of poor Tigrayan labors and the social, economic, historical differences between the Biher-Tigrinya and Tigray populations the development of negative stereotypes about their respective groups emerged. The Biher-Tigrinya started to regard all Tigrayans as "Agame", since the first Tigrayan migrants to flood into Eritrea looking for low paying jobs were from the Agame region of Tigray. This stereotyped image of the Agame persisted within Biher-Tigrinya people's society and formed a major theme in the relationships among the two groups.
According to Trivelli, he describes the Biher-Tigrinya people's patronising attitude and "cultural arrogance" over Tigrayans resulted in Tigrayans adopting an inferiority complex.
The cultural arrogance and patronizing attitude of the Kebesa regarding the Tigray was matched on the side of the latter with the development of an inferiority complex loaded with envy, smouldering resentment and mistrust. (1998, Richard M Trivelli, P. 268)
This description of trends in the relationship between the two communities is, of course, generalizing. There were many individuals within both communities who did not develop such attitudes. These remarks were also not as a result of colonialism, because many ethnic groups in the horn of Africa have stereotypes of one another. For example, Gondar and Gojjam regions regard Amharas from Shoa as inauthentic, and Amharas from Gondar refer to Shoans as 'Gallas' -a derogatory term formerly applied to the ethnic group now called Oromos (2001, Matsuoka, Sorenson, p.29). However, these ethnic slurs are at the forefront of social relations between the two ethnic groups. These attitudes were accentuated when the Biher-Tigrinya people started joining the liberation war. As Trivelli illustrates, most Tigrayans sided with the Ethiopian government against the Eritrean people in order to retaliate for what they deemed as suffering under Biher-Tigrinya arrogance:
"When the Eritrean war of liberation in the late 1960s spread to the Eritrean highlands, Tigray migrants living in Eritrea did not follow a uniform attitude towards the Eritrean liberation movement. Many tried to remain neutral and simply to carry on with their work and their life. A few, mainly from urban families who had grown up in Eritrea and attended school together with young Eritreans now fighting in the fronts, joined the liberation war. A substantial number, however, actively sided with the Ethiopian government. In the rural areas the Ethiopian army actively recruited Tigray migrants settled there as informers and guides. After 1975, when the large-scale exodus of the urban population of highland Eritrea set in, the Ethiopian government settled many new migrants from Tigray. The Ethiopian security stepped up its recruitment of Tigray migrants to penetrate into the urban networks of the liberation movements. Many of the Tigray migrants apparently saw their participation on the side of the Ethiopians in their fight against the Eritrean liberation movement as an opportunity to retaliate for long years of suffering under Kebesa arrogance." (1998, Richard M Trivelli, P. 269)
Trivelli adds on:
The involvement of Tigray on the Ethiopian side left a deeper imprint in the perception of Kebesa society than the involvement of Tigray migrants with the Eritrean Liberation Fronts. It tended to reinforce the commonly held perception of the Tigray not only as backward, shifty, and stingy, but also as treacherous. The common saying among the Kebesa "twisted like the heart of a Tigray" acquired a new sinister colouring. (1998, Richard M. Trivelli, p. 269 )
This common saying 'twisted like the heart of Tigray' is also used to describe the two-hour drive between the Eritrean capital, Asmara, and the town of Keren, which is regarded as a particularly challenging stretch of road. Torturous and twisted, the stretch of road is known as the "Heart of Tigray" or "libi Tigray", after the Tigray ethnic group of Ethiopia.
As Eritreans joined rebel movements in the 1960s, the Biher-Tigrinya people, like other Eritrean ethnic groups joined ELF and later EPLF. Both Eritrean fronts stressed the unitary character of the Eritrean nation. In contrast, as many Tigrayans joined the TLF and TPLF in the mid to late 70s, they based their struggle on ethnic identity. At first, the TPLF also viewed their struggle as a colonial issue, which conflicted with both the ELF and EPLF's political stand on Ethiopia. This political disagreements and ideologies almost ignited into a war due to the1976 TPLF congress. In that congress, the TPLF stated that all Tigrinya speaking people, including the Biher-Tigrinya (Kebessa) people of Eritrea, were part of their "greater Tigray" independence manifesto. This infuriated the Eritrean rebel movements, which viewed the Tigrayans as separate ethnicity and as domestic issue that should be taken care of within the political framework of Ethiopia. As a result of the 1976 TPLF manifesto, all relations between the EPLF and TPLF were suspended.
TPLF and the EPLF was dictated on both sides by the necessities of the political and military situation and did not reflect a genuine reconciliation based on the assessment of past differences and the wider socio-psychological context within which both fronts operated. The TPLF in claiming the Biher-Tigrinya people of Eritrea brought about anger, suspicion and mistrust from Eritreans, who clearly had regarded Tigrayans as separate people. Nevertheless, the smaller TPLF continued to cling on to this political view, even though the circumstances on the ground were more than a little inconvenient. In addition to claiming the Bher-Tigrinya people, the political manifesto of "greater Tigray" also incorporated the Saho, Kunama and parts of Afar, who were also separate ethnic identities that were not Tigrayans ethnically, nor did they speak Tigrinya. This TPLF political view stayed in place up till the second TPLF congress of 1979, when the TPLF made a complete change in political goals as Trivelli points out:
While the TPLF’s relations to the ELF rapidly deteriorated from early 1979 onward, relations with the EPLF improved equally rapidly. The second congress of the TPLF had amended the political program, defining the Tigray question now as a national question within Ethiopia and dropping the call to make Kebesa Eritrea part of a Greater Tigray. This change undoubtedly reflected a debate within the TPLF itself and marked the victory of the Ethiopianist interpretation of Tigray history over the Tigrinnic one. At the same time, however, this change was hastened by the need for reconciliation with the EPLF in view of the growing rift with the ELF. (1998, Richard M. Trivelli, p. 271 )
Wars of any kind often shape a society. For the Eritreans, the long colonial wars they were sent out to fight in Libya, Somalia and in Ethiopia would give birth a distinct unified Eritrean identity that would later give rise to the Eritrean revolution. The Eritrean independence war, which lasted for 30 years has significantly shaped nearly all Eritreans drastically. In additions to these wars, the two and half year border war with Ethiopia and the ongoing no peace, no war situation that Eritreans are currently facing has played another role in sharpening the distinction between the Biher-Tigrinya from the Tigrayans. For over a decade, the Eritrean border has been sealed off from Ethiopia and even among the Eritrean diaspora, the Biher-Tigrinya are reluctant to be seen or interact with Tigrayans in any events. These implemented isolation of the communities has been noted by many observers such as Dorina Akosua Oduraa, to which see stated in her book:
The ongoing war between Ethiopia and Eritrea appears to have further sharpened the identity of Eritrea's Tigrigna as distinct from that of Ethiopia's Tigrigna (sic, Tigrayan). (2006, Dorina Akosua Oduraa, p. 96)
She goes on to add:
Eritrea's Tigrigna have increasingly distanced themselves from their Ethiopian counterparts to the extent that the two communities now seem to regard themselves as distinct. (2006, Dorina Akosua Oduraa, p. 89)
All in all, few ethnic groups in Africa have had a more turbulent historical relationship than those you'd find among the Biher-Tigrinya and Tigrayans. The hostility and animosity that occurs between the two groups is unprecedented in the horn of Africa. These ethnic distinctions between the Biher-Tigrinya and Tigrayans have been expressed through popular and insulting stereotypes, music, or through the adoption of a haughty and arrogant attitude, or through angry ‘chip-on-the-shoulder’ rhetoric focusing on perceived past injustices. These polarised positions and well-defined lines of argument which resemble the trenches across which so many physical battles have been fought between the two countries has its roots in history, and in different historical experiences each ethnic group endured.
Biher-Tigrinya and Tigray people: The war of Identities. Reviewed by Admin on 9:48 AM Rating: