Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Tigrayans Are The Most Formidable People On The African Continent

NC |  There’s a simple lesson here: Tigrayans are the bulk of combat power in the Highlands of the Horn. You’d think that would lead to the conclusion that you shouldn’t mess with Tigray unless you’re ready to get in a long, nasty war, even when the conventional military wisdom is that the Tigrayans don’t have a chance. They weren’t supposed to have a chance against the Europeans in 1896, either–or the Ethiopian Derg in the 1980s. If you’re running a war-nerd bookmaking business, put a sign on the window: “No bets on wars in Tigray.”

One reason we all underestimated Tigray is that no one outside TPLF circles seems to have admitted to themselves how much of the combat power of both Eritrean and Ethiopian forces came from ethnic Tigrayans. Admitting that would be politically unwise, especially in Ethiopia. Officially, Ethiopia is a federal, multi-ethnic state in which all ethnic groups are equal. But that’s a polite fiction. The Ethiopian state is the product of 19th-c. conquests by the “Habesha,” which is what the Highland Orthodox peoples, Tigrayan and Amhara, call themselves. Ethiopia was created by Habesha armies pushing south and east, absorbing Somali, Afar, Oromo, Sidamo, and dozens of other peoples who became Ethiopian citizens, but had very little share in ruling the country.

The real struggle for power was always between the two Habesha peoples, Tigrayan and Amhara. Since Menelik II moved the capital southward to Shewa, the Amhara seemed like the stronger of the two groups. Amhara are a much bigger group, for starters. Tigrayans are only about 6% of the population, Amhara about 26%.

But after the Eritrean/Tigrayan insurgents destroyed the Derg in the late 20th c., it was the Tigrayans of the TPLF who really ruled Ethiopia. Their domination was so clear that the TPLF tried to minimize their power, dutifully talking about their multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). No one was fooled; it was the TPLF who had the power in Ethiopia.

The TPLF leader Meles Zenawi was the ultimate power in the country all through the first two decades of this century. Zenawi knew that the TPLF was so much better organized than the other members of the EPRDF coalition that he and his fellow Tigrayans could let the EPRDF make a show of ethnic equality while keeping Tigrayan control. Henri IV went through the motions of converting to Catholicism in return for the throne with the line “Paris is worth a mass or two,” and Zenawi seems to have decided “Addis and the whole GDP is worth letting those weaker militias from other ethnic groups share the credit.”

Zenawi’s PR campaign worked so well that Ethiopians forgot the hard truth that it was the Tigrayans who had the real combat power.

The Tigrayans’ only rival in terms of military power was the Eritrean army (EDF.) The “Eritrean” label made people forget that the EDF is also dominated by ethnic Tigrayans. Tigrinya-speakers are the majority in Eritrea, not only the dominant but the biggest ethnic group.

That has never stopped Eritrean Tigrayans from killing other Tigrayans. That shouldn’t be a surprise — when have people of the same ethnic group ever fretted about killing each other? — but it does underline what seems like the dominant fact at the moment: The Tigrayans are the most formidable people in the Horn.

The big news sites have finally started to do some serious reports on the war in Tigray, but there’s a funny tilt to their coverage: they’re not very interested in the war aspect of the war, if you know what I mean. There are a few honorable exceptions,   but looking back at mainstream coverage of this war, it’s odd how little there is about actual combat. This happens a lot with African war stories, as if the MSM can only think of African war as atrocities, not as strategy and tactics. I’m not minimizing the atrocities, but as I’ve said a lotta times, atrocities are part of war-fighting everywhere, just as publicizing and hiding them is part of overall strategy.

Most people by now understand that there’s been terrible suffering in Tigray. That too is true of every war. And though it’s a good idea to draw attention to civilian suffering, what happens on the battlefield still decides the outcome. In Syria, for example, the pro-‘rebel’ MSM won the media war, no contest. But the SAA/Hezbollah/Russian side went and won on the battlefield, nullifying the efforts of thousands of hard-working propagandists from NYC to Ankara.

In fact, it makes much more sense to fold atrocities and propaganda into the category of war-fighting than to take them as if they were just tragic events unconnected with real strategy. This is especially true in the Ethiopian wars of the last four decades, which have never gotten the respect they deserve for the sheer ferocity and brilliance with which they were fought.

That’s true for this latest episode of the Ethiopian long war, the one that flared when the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies tried to sandwich Tigray between them in November 2020. This war was a typical war in the Horn, with uniformed armies deploying infantry, artillery, armor, and aircraft (both piloted and drones.) Yet it’s hard to find stories about what happened on the battlefields. When the war started, I thought there would be more video of the battles, since everyone has a camera phone and a Twitter account. But the Ethiopian gov’t came up with a simple plan to stop anyone filming its wet work in Tigray, cutting off all wifi from Tigray and locking down the borders. I wrote about how well this worked in a newsletter for the Radio War Nerd podcast .

The short version is, it worked. Although, you can’t help but wonder if it would’ve worked quite as well if there’d been a lot of interest from the people who run the big news organizations. Bans like this work a lot better when the rich consumers aren’t very hungry for news anyway.

The mainstream narrative was simple: in early November 2020, the ENDF (Ethiopian National Defense Force) moved into Tigray and crushed the Tigrayan rebels within a few days. The Tigrayan leadership said they were retreating to the hills to fight a guerrilla war, but we’ve heard those stories too often to take them seriously. It was over and the ENDF had won.

So it was a giant surprise, the biggest military surprise in years, when on June 28, 2021—just seven months after the supposedly powerful ENDF rolled through Tigray–the Tigrayan Defense Force (TDF, formerly TPLF), the rebranded military force of the TDLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), reconquered the Tigrayan provincial capital Mekelle, marching in with thousands of Ethiopian and Eritrean prisoners.

How did that happen? Let’s go back to the Battle of Adwa, another shock victory that happened in Tigray in 1896. In that battle, an Ethiopian force cut an Italian army to pieces. That wasn’t supposed to happen either. An African army had destroyed a large European force. Many people remember Japan’s victory over Russia as the moment when the rest of the world realized European armies could be beaten by non-Europeans, but in much of the world Adwa meant even more.

Adwa is a Tigrayan town northwest of Mekelle so, as you might expect, it came back into military news as soon as the war began. On November 20,2020, Al Jazeera reported that the ENDF had taken both Adwa and Axum.

Adwa and Axum! You couldn’t imagine a more illustrious, familiar pair of cities to pop up in war news. They’re like those Belgian towns that were battle-sites every few summers during the 16th-21st centuries. The names of those Belgian towns came up so often, yet were so difficult for both British and French poets to use, that Matthew Prior, one of the war poets of 17th-c. Britain, mocked them in a poem on the British victory at Blenheim:

What work had we with Wageninghen, Arnheim,
Places that could not be reduced to rhyme?
And though the poet made his last efforts,
Wurts — who could mention in heroic — Wurts?

Prior’s poem is an apostrophe to his counterpart, Boileau. As you can see in the quoted lines, Prior is very collegial, basically having a post-game beer with Boileau, gloating but at the same time sharing the misery they both went through trying to find a way to incorporate un-heroic place names like “Wurts” into their bread and butter, which was providing patriotic verse as required.



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