MEKELLE, Ethiopia (Reuters) - In the birthplace of the armed struggle that propelled Ethiopia’s ruling coalition to power 27 years ago, there is growing anger as the country’s new prime minister stages a crackdown on the region’s once-powerful leaders.
Although the Tigrayans who inhabit these craggy hills are only a small minority in a country of more than 100 million, they have dominated its power structures since 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) drove a Marxist military regime from power.
Now many leading Tigrayans are being detained or sidelined as reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed attempts to draw a line under past abuses. One adviser to Abiy told Reuters that the prime minister has sacked 160 army generals for actions he said amount to “state terrorism”.
In Mekelle, capital of the Tigray region, and in nearby villages, a siege mentality is taking hold among people who say they feel under attack. The frustration could pose a threat to the 42-year-old prime minister as he urges people to back “reforms, not revolution”.
At street coffee stalls in Mekelle and in fields outside the city, Tigrayans said they would not stand by as national figures disparaged their region and history.
“There are efforts to corner the people of Tigray,” said Getachew Reda, a senior Tigrayan politician and EPRDF member who served as communications minister under Abiy’s predecessor. “But we don’t believe that’s going to work because we are steeped in the tradition not just of defending ourselves but also rising up to whatever challenge”.
He accused Abiy, a member of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, of selective justice.
Tigrayans were angered when 60 officials, many of them from their region, were detained for suspected human rights abuses and corruption, he said. These included senior executives at the army-run METEC industrial conglomerate.
“Abiy controls the international narrative but not necessarily the country,” Getachew said.
Abiy addressed the accusation in a statement on Wednesday, saying: “Just like we don’t blame a forest for what a single tree has done, we don’t blame or point our fingers at any tribe for the crimes individuals committed.”
Abiy too hails from the EPRDF. He served in the military in Tigray as a teenager and speaks the Tigrinya language. But he has taken a wrecking ball to the institutions the ruling coalition had used to control the country.
In a speech last month, he said the three years of anti-government protests that helped bring him to power in April showed that Ethiopians no longer tolerate “backwardness and injustice”.
“It is with this understanding that we have been continuously undertaking different reforms in the past months to change our political culture, system and institutions,” he said.
This is popular with many Ethiopians who resented Tigrayan domination of institutions such as the federal police, which violently repressed the protests. Other larger ethnic groups accused Tigrayans of imposing a federal system based on ethnic identity to “divide and rule”.
In the capital, Addis Ababa, and other cities, Abiy’s face is everywhere: on stickers, t-shirts and posters. But not in Tigray, where he is increasingly unpopular.
Although the political influence of Tigrayans has diminished under Abiy, they remain a force to be reckoned with.
Decentralized government has allowed the creation of large regional police forces, including in Tigray. The region also has a history of civilians, mostly farmers who own guns, joining militias to defend the group’s causes.
Officials in Mekelle said there was no attempt to build up these regional forces. But security is a growing concern, as seen at checkpoints where Tigray police search vehicles and people for weapons before allowing entry to the city.
Many Tigrayans said they were worried about a surge in ethnic violence elsewhere in the country that has forced more than 1 million people to flee their homes since Abiy took office.
Although Tigray has been largely unaffected – unlike other regions, it is not home to significant numbers of people from other ethnic groups – residents told Reuters that Abiy was not doing enough to stop the bloodshed elsewhere. Several said they had family members who abandoned jobs and businesses to return to Tigray for fear of reprisals, though there have been no reports of major attacks against the community.
Others see veiled attempts to blame Tigrayans whenever Abiy decries the way things were before he took the helm or accuses opposition forces of plotting against his reforms.
People packed a stadium in Mekelle earlier this month to vent their anger at a rally organised by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a former guerrilla movement turned political party.
“We were expressing that we are isolated, that we are experiencing ethnic discrimination, and that this has to stop,” said Gush Gebreselassie, a 55-year-old civil servant.
Meressa Tsehaye, a political science professor at Mekelle University, recalled Tigrayans’ sacrifices in the 1980s civil war that brought Abiy’s EPRDF to power.
He and others said Ethiopians were forgetting the achievements delivered by the coalition. Ethiopia’s economy has grown around 10 percent a year for the past decade, according to government statistics.
“We won them freedom. We brought them electricity. We built them roads,” said Fitsum Tekele, a 50-year-old farmer, as he crouched barefoot in a field outside Mekelle harvesting teff, the staple crop, with a sickle. “If they say they were in darkness for 27 years, their minds are not working.”
Two of his brothers left a car hire business in the Amhara region, Fitsum said. “They came home with nothing.”
Concern was palpable at city coffee stalls, where both the young and those who survived the war agreed that the region would not accept what one man called “humiliation”. Many did not provide their names out of fear of retribution.
“I can’t judge whether Abiy directly hates us Tigrayans or is just using techniques to get power over us,” said a 19-year-old woman who runs a coffee stall. “If he doesn’t accept to have discussions with our leaders, we know our history,” she said.
That history of armed resistance looms large in a society where many families lost members in the war. A museum to the “martyrs” recounts the bravery of local fighters, and local TV channels broadcast war footage of Tigrayans on the march.
“Nobody will kneel down here,” a tour guide said.
Reporting by Maggie Fick; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Giles Elgood