“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953
“Balkanization.. had come to denote the parcelization of large & viable political units but also had become a synonym for a reversion to the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian.” ― Maria Todorova
On the eve of WWI, Winston Churchill uttered one of his brilliant wisecracks regarding geopolitics. He said, “The Balkan region has the tendency of producing more history than it can consume.” He was referring to conflicts between minor countries that nevertheless, were able to drag great powers towards a major confrontation, with disastrous consequences for humanity. Let us remember that Sarajevo’s spark lit the wick of WWI. This same geopolitical phenomenon is occurring right beneath our noses but is escaping the notice of most of our eyes. It is this phenomenon that I want to discuss in this week’s edition of “More than Meets the Eye,” especially in regard to the tragic current events taking place on the world stage, in the Horn of Africa.
On a remote corner tucked away in East Africa, another conflict stirs. It may seem insignificant in light of the on-going fiascos in Syria, the catastrophic violence in Yemen, the on-going conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Kashmir, and West Africa, specifically Burkino Faso, but its regional, and potentially global significance will not be lost on much of the developing world. While we continue to enamor ourselves with election results and the Coronavirus, the devastating impact of this conflict will be immediate and severe, on this relatively small tract of land in the Horn of Africa, and will affect the lives of tens of millions of people in Ethiopia. There is certainly much more than meets the eye in this unfolding calamity.
Let’s begin by reviewing the steeping conflict brewing between the central government of Ethiopia and the breaking away region of Tigray. Then we will review why this matters in our world today, as it has the possibility of becoming a replay of the balkanization of Southern Europe in the 1990s. Lastly, I want to demonstrate how this balkanization in Africa could become a catalyst for the balkanization of many countries in the world today, as technology, communication, education, and history are increasingly shaping entire population segments because they believe they have a right and responsibility to rule themselves according to the interests of their own people group.
Fighting has been going on for almost two weeks, destabilizing the populous country in East Africa, with reports of hundreds dead. The conflict started on 4 November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray.
I will not attempt to explain all the reasons that the central government of Ethiopia is fighting with the Tigray breakaway state, however, I plan to discuss some of the variables.
According to a Global Security intelligence report, fighting broke out in Ethiopia when the country’s government launched an operation against the northern region of Tigray and its ruling faction, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). An alleged attack on a federal government military base, attributed to the TPLF, was used as a pretext for the offensive. Tigray’s authorities, however, denied that such an attack took place. The TPLF used to rule the whole country for years, yet was forced to step down in 2018 after prolonged unrest that propped incumbent Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed into power.
The Ethiopian National Defence Force has up to 50,000 fighters in Tigray, with Russian T-55 and T-72 tanks. It possesses massive air superiority from Russian fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and missile systems. However, while the powerful Northern Command is notionally loyal, it is based in Tigray and its assets are under rebel control.
There is a host of uncertainty right now in the region, as all communications and internet have been terminated throughout the Tigray cities. What can be confirmed is the amount of civilian destruction and suffering that has been caused so far. UNHCR refugee camps in Sudan are reporting increasing numbers of refugees on a daily basis, fleeing from the areas of fighting in the Tigray region. So far, UNHCR is reporting an excess of 30,000 elderly, women, and children who have sought refuge in the UNHCR camps. The addition of Tigray refugees will only add to the heavy burden that Sudan already feels from hosting close to 2 million other refugees from around the region. UN officials are estimating and planning for a total of up to 200,000 refugees from the Tigray region.
Who are these Tigray people? The Tigray are one of ten distinct ethnolinguist groups living within Africa’s second-most populous country with a population of roughly 110 million, behind Nigeria with a population of 195 million. Tigrayans constitute approximately 6.1% of the population of Ethiopia, and are largely, small-holding farmers inhabiting small communal villages. They are also mainly Christian, and members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (approximately 96%), with a small minority of Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants. Along with the approximately 9 million Tigrayans in Ethiopia, there are about 3.2 million in Eritrea.
Tigray, also spelled Tigrai or Tegray, also called (in Eritrea) Tigrinya, people of central Eritrea and of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The Tigray speak Tigrinya, a Semitic language related to Geʿez and to Tigré, the language of a separate people (the Tigre) inhabiting northwestern Eritrea. The Tigray-Tigrinya (also referred to as Tigrean) people are descendants of early Semitic peoples who originally settled in the Horn of Africa about 1000 BC. It seems they are related to, or descended from the Sabaean (Sheban) people. According to their traditions they trace their roots to Menelik I, the child born of the queen of Sheba and King Solomon. It is thought that the Sabaean (Sheban) people began to settle on the west coast of the Red Sea, arriving from their homes in southern Arabia, about 1000 BC.
The historical narrative holds that Levitical priests moved the Ark to Egypt just before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. From there it was supposedly moved to Ethiopia, where it resides to this day in the town of Aksum, in the Tigray region, in the St. Mary of Zion cathedral. Only one man, a monk known as “the Guardian,” is allowed to see the Ark, and church authorities have never allowed it to be studied to determine its authenticity.
For certain the conflict in Tigray will not end soon. Ethiopian troops may storm the city and Tigray leaders may be executed, but it is unlikely that the Tigray people will be subjugated anytime soon. There is a reason for this, not often mentioned, nonetheless substantial.
The fact is, many of the smaller ethnolinguistic groups in the world are moving away from globalization and nationalism toward a much less understood geopolitical phenomenon called, “balkanization.” What is balkanization? Balkanization is the division of a multinational state into smaller ethnically homogeneous entities. The term also is used to refer to ethnic conflict within multiethnic states.
What we are seeing in Ethiopia is an African attempt at balkanization. The ethnically homogeneous Tigray people are attempting to pull away from the nation-state of Ethiopia and the central government of Ethiopia is determined not to allow the separation to take place.
As technology, education, communication, and history progresses and develops, some peoples are discovering that they have less need for large centralized governments, and are opting for smaller, less centralized governments. The larger countries with expanding populations are becoming increasingly complex, especially where there are multiple ethnolinguist groups present.
The danger has been that few of the balkanized states have done so, peacefully. In most countries, Ethiopia included, charismatic leaders often re-write history, creating a history of the conflict that possibly did not even exist before it was conceived by the antagonizing officials. It is this re-written history that creates tension, one that can only be satisfied by conflict and confusion. The problem is, as it has been before, that this kind of liberty comes at a great price, and many people suffer before it is eventually achieved. For an excellent article on this subject read: Dubravka Stojanović’s article in the TLS Journal entitled, “What is a Nation?” https://www.the-tls.co.uk
Watch closely over the coming months for smaller ethnolinguistic groups seeking to separate from their larger titular central governments. The following people groups are examples of this balkanization phenomenon.
The Kurds. They have an estimated population of over 30 million people, which makes them one of the largest ethnolinguistic nations without their own state. Multiple other stateless nations can reside in the same geographical region or country; for example, Cantabrians, Bercians, Catalans, Canarians, Castilians, Basques, Aragonese, Galicians, Asturians, Valencians and Andalusians within Spanish State, or the Brahui, Santhals, Assamese, Maithils and Balochs in South Asia, or Rohingya in Myanmar, and Kabyle people within Algeria in North Africa.
This has the potential for a major upheaval if peoples such as the Tigray are allowed to separate into their own states. The Ethiopian government has a huge problem on its hands and many geo-political specialists are watching closely to see how this unfolds. I encourage you to read Dubravka Stojanović’s article, “What is a Nation? https://www.the-tls.co.uk It really helped me understand the situation much better.
Fleshing Out the Libya Ceasefire Agreement… https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/libya/b80-fleshing-out-libya-ceasefire-agreement
Terror in the Terroir: The Roots of France’s Jihadist Problem… https:/www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2017-08-15/terror-terroir
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org