The Wisdom of Elders
In Eritrea, there is a popular Tigrigna proverb cautioning that, “ባዕልኻ ዝፈሓርካዮ ጎድጓድ ተመሊሳ ንዓኻ (balaka ze’faharkaya gud’gad, temelesa niaka)”. Roughly, this may be translated and understood as, “the ditch/hole that you dig for others, will actually end up swallowing you.” The first time I heard this proverb was years ago, as I sat with a group of elders under the cool shade of a large tree in the Debub (South) region of the country, not far from my mother’s ancestral lands. One by one, each of the owlish elders in the group shared a story, sometimes of an actual event from their own lives, sometimes fictional, but always entertaining, enlightening, and infused with a strong message.
Returning to the aforementioned proverb, it was actually delivered as the punchline to a particularly memorable story that one of the group members had shared about a crooked person who had lived in a surrounding village long ago. To briefly summarize, the individual, although relatively well off, was unscrupulous. He spent all of his time plotting mischievously against his simple neighbors, driven by a greedy attempt to acquire more land, a greater harvest, and more animals. In the end, however, despite – or rather because of – his well-laid plans and plotting, he was left destitute and with nothing.
I could not help but recall this story and the popular Tigrigna proverb that the elders had shared with me all those years ago as I observed the significant events that have been unfolding in our region in recent times. In particular, earlier this week, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive to subdue the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The move came after TPLF forces launched an attack on a federal army base, trying “to loot” military assets, according to the PM. “Our defence forces … have been ordered to carry out their mission to save the country. The final point of the red line has been crossed. Force is being used as the last measure to save the people and the country,” he declared. In a television address, the PM also added that the TPLF attack resulted in “many martyrs, injuries and property damage.” National authorities have shut down electricity, telephone, and internet services in Tigray, while the Ethiopian cabinet has also declared a six-month state of emergency in the region (to be overseen by a task force led by the head of the army). The recent situation is just the latest part of tensions that have been escalating for several years.
In many ways, the recent events in our region demonstrate the lessons and message of the Tigrigna proverb rather well. For one, consider how for years, the TPLF regime made loud and frequent calls for the overthrow of the Eritrean government and, through belligerent, threatening statements via government-owned media outlets, proclaimed its intentions to carry out “military action to oust the regime in Eritrea.” Of course, its policy of regime change and pattern of unrelenting aggression also extended to other governments in the region with which it did not agree or particularly get along with.
However, several years ago, it was the TPLF that would be swept from power, on the back of years of massive and widespread anti-government protests. Ethiopia is divided into ethnically-based states within a federal system. That system had long been ruled by a coalition of four parties, which was known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and was dominated by the Tigrayan minority, who make up approximately only 6% of the country’s total population of 110 million. In 2015, large protests about land seizures and evictions, unemployment, torture and human rights abuses, widespread corruption, and economic and political marginalization quickly spread across the country and threatened to bring down the government. Thousands were killed or arrested, there was large-scale displacement, and the country was put under an extended nationwide state of emergency. It was on this backdrop of turmoil, mounting discontent, and widespread unrest, that the EPRDF regime began to fall apart, and the TPLF would fall precipitously. In the end, like the plotting villager, the plans for regime change that the group had devised and set out for others would actually come to pass upon it.
Or consider the topic of isolation. Again, for years, one of the TPLF’s overwhelming aims, working closely with several international partners, was to isolate Eritrea and undercut its support. For instance, a leaked 2005 US embassy cable in Addis Ababa described how the TPLF-led Ethiopian government’s strategy was to, “isolate Eritrea and wait for it to implode economically.” However, along the lines of the proverb, the plans and aims ended in vain. The developments from recent weeks and years show that there is only one group that can accurately be described as isolated and alone. While most of the Horn of Africa wants peace and cooperation, recognizing it as the only viable way to ensure prosperity, progress, and better circumstances for the region, one group stands apart and alone in its view that peace and cooperation are negative, threatening, and dangerous.
Finally, consider the issue of terror. For years, the TPLF’s military and security apparatus concocted and spread false claims and information alleging that Eritrea was a destabilizing force and a sponsor of terror, while it also a branded any domestic opposition as terrorism. Yet, in another reflection of the profound proverb, it is the former ruling regime that has been shown to have ruled on a system of terror. Moreover, just this week, Ethiopia’s federal parliament – which the TPLF had once lorded over – criticized the TPLF’s destabilizing activities and proposed that it be designated as a “terrorist organization”.
Returning to the group of elders, not a single one had top academic credentials or boasted some fancy, high-sounding title. However, each was extremely wise and very intelligent. Their simple, yet powerful, stories and messages displayed a deep reservoir of understanding and great knowledge about life, the world, and their community. While many commentators and so-called experts are falling over themselves rushing to explain the regional developments that have been unfolding in recent times, the most perceptive, insightful, and astute understanding may actually be that of the elders: “ባዕልኻ ዝፈሓርካዮ ጎድጓድ ተመሊሳ ንዓኻ (balaka ze’faharkaya gud’gad, temelesa niaka)”.