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 as, “the ditch/hole that you dig for others, will actually end up swallowing you.” It carries a meaning that is somewhat of a cross or blend between the popular adages stating that, “you reap what you sow” and “what goes around comes around.” The first time that 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. 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, powerful message.
Returning to the aforementioned Tigrigna proverb, it was actually delivered as the punchline to a particularly memorable story that one of the group members had shared about a notoriously crooked person who had lived in a surrounding village long ago. To briefly summarize, the individual, although relatively well off, was unscrupulous. He had spent a lot of his time plotting mischievously against his simple neighbors, driven by a greedy attempt to acquire more land, secure a greater harvest, and obtain more animals. In the end, however, despite – or rather exactly because of – his well-laid plans, scheming, and plotting, he was left isolated, destitute, and with nothing.
In many ways, the recent events that have unfolded 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 a minority group. 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 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 main aims, working closely with several international partners, was to isolate Eritrea and undercut the latter’s regional and international participation and 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.” Additionally, in its unrelenting and dogged desire to isolate Eritrea, the TPLF regime engaged in shadowy backroom dealing and lobbying to block Eritrea’s participation in international organizations. However, along the lines of the proverb, all of its plans and aims ended in failure. In fact, the developments from recent months and years indicate that the group’s plans have actually ended up swallowing it. Today, there is only one group in the region that can accurately be described as isolated and alone. While most of the Horn of Africa wants to move forward together in a spirit of peace and cooperation, recognizing it as the only viable way to ensure prosperity, progress, and better circumstances for the people of the region, one group stands apart and alone in its view that peace and cooperation are undesirable, 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 branded any domestic opposition to its rule as terrorism. Yet, in another reflection of the profound proverb, it is the former TPLF regime that has been shown to have ruled on a system of terror. During the past several months, Ethiopia’s federal parliament – which the TPLF had once lorded over – have repeatedly criticized the TPLF’s destabilizing activities and described it as a “terrorist organization”. Now, the group’s remnants have remained busy through organizing terrorist cells and death squads to carry out sabotage, block humanitarian assistance, and conduct assassinations.
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 have spent the past few months falling over themselves in a rush to explain the regional developments that have been unfolding, perhaps the most perceptive, insightful – and indeed astute – understanding may actually be that provided by the elders: “ባዕልኻ ዝፈሓርካዮ ጎድጓድ ተመሊሳ ንዓኻ (balaka ze’faharkaya gud’gad, temelesa niaka)”.