Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

A popular beer advertisement in my Country goes like this: “My name is Joe and I am Canadian!”

Molson, the company that produces the beer “Molson Canadian” has cleverly crafted a commercial that can appeal to many Canadians. This is the sort of nationalism I can drink for, hypothetically speaking of course. I might even put some money in the company’s stock so the dividends can help me pay for a continuous supply of two-fours (that is Canadian for caseta bira).

I also happened to be Ethiopian; and in between, for a few years, I had no citizenship status and was categorized as  “Stateless”. So I am thankful that I am now able to belong and exercise my citizenship rights. I am aware and saddened by the plight of many that are not fortunate enough to do so.

So, why am I saying all this?

Recently, I have been thinking about many people from the Horn of Africa who try to cross through war zones, deserts and violent seas where they suffered or perished. Why are our people running away now, decades after “liberation?” I have also been thinking about divisions, categories and labels that people choose to be associated with and the changing nature of the favourability of the attributes that people ascribe to over time.

This is not meant to be a philosophical treaties but individual attributes are just that a window into an aspect of the whole. Over the last few years many Ethiopians and Eritreans have been using labels on each other to undermine a perceived enemy, “the other”, in an attempt to drive a bigger wedge between the brotherly peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Unlike the Molson commercial, this type of nationalism kills my appetite.

The people of the Horn of Africa have been through a lot. It took the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea  decades of heroic toil to come to a referendum that envisioned a peaceable independent neighbouring state and a prosperous future and coexistence. And I submit that no other individual, be it Eritrean or Ethiopian, had defended the right of the Eritrean people to decide the fate of their country and their future more than the then President and later Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the late Meles Zenawi. Meles had put his life, the life of his comrades, his reputation and his political future on the line in defending his stand on the Eritrean question since his guerrilla days. He never wavered; all fair minded Eritreans would respect him for that. He has also admitted to some things that could have been handled differently during the border war and had taken corrective measures to make amends to those who suffered.

Despite all that unfolded since 1998, I believe Meles Zenawi was as good a friend to the people of Eritrea as one could hope for. For his outspokenness and unconditional support to the people of Eritrea, many Ethiopians, especially the outspoken Diaspora (X-patriot*) politicians who have no qualms working with Asmara, an entity whose independent existence they abhorred and blamed on the TPLF and the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and who have painted the Prime Minister as soft on Eritrea and unpatriotic. The government in Asmara however, did not seem to mind the X-patriot Ethiopian politicians as long as they can be used to weaken a government that Asmara believes to be untrustworthy and a danger to their government’s existence; and not necessarily to the state and the people of Eritrea.  Though a cliché, in this case politics indeed makes for strange bed fellows.


So I am writing to encourage a dialogue and to continue the conversation started among the people of the horn; especially along the lines of the conversations related to the news of the alleged death of the President of the State of Eritrea in the early months of this year and the recent passing away of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The times they are a-changing.


Some courageous Eritreans and Ethiopians have been coming out of the “proverbial” closet and breaking new ground in openly paying their respect and eulogizing the early departure of the late Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. I have been talking to old friends, Ethiopians and Eritreans, and going through the tributes to the Prime Minister from near and far including from many who contribute to It is obvious that there is a shift in the collective consciousness of the peoples of the region; many have started to speak from the heart, even if some (mainly the journo types, sorry) have chosen to balance their opinions and look objective. Who can be against “objectivity?” but we need to have more heart to heart talks. Look what we can do when we cross the fear threshold and stop talking in codes (qnie) or through middle men (delala’s). So in the sprit of new beginnings, I will start with self disclosure. In communications it is a commonly accepted wisdom that self disclosure by one often leads to a reciprocal disclosure by others and can be a catalyst for creating a clear communication channel and building trust.

I was born and raised in the Agame (āgāme)  region of Tigray, in northern Ethiopia. Over the years, I have assured many of my Eritrean friends that Agame is not a four letter word; some have confided to me they already knew while others have come to appreciate a new perspective. I must, however say that I have stridently tolerated many awkward situations; often at social gatherings, when the odd person tries to make a fool out of themselves by disrespecting the kind people of Agame or the “Agame Eritreans” responsible for the predicament Eritrea finds itself in. Usually, I try to use the opportunity as a teachable moment and move on but sometimes it is hard to be rational when talking to ignorant and unreasonable fools. But all is not lost, so here is a primer on Agame, Agametai and on possible ways to improve the intent and impact of our communications in order to increase understanding between our brotherly peoples.

The Royal House of Agame traces its lineage to the Solomonic line. In fact, tradition has it that the legendary N’gisti Makeda (a.k.a. Azieb, Sabha, Saba or the Queen of Sheba) was born and raised in this region. The inhabitants of this region also believe many of their ancestral districts and villages including Adi Sabha, Sabane, Sabhaya (Sabaya), and Golo Makeda were named after the famous queen. Agame was part of the Kingdom of D’mt that preceded the Kingdom of Axum and later part of Axum. During the medival times, Agame was the center of power for the province of Bur which included the lower Bur (Tahtay Bur) comprising the Afar lowlands and the Bur Peninsula and Upper Bur (LaElay Bur) which mainly consisted the eastern highlands of the present day Eritrea and Tigray. In fact, the Burta Hane, the aristocratic ruler(s) of Bur, are believed to hail from the majestic plateaus of GaE Bur in Adi Sabha,  Agame. Since then the descendants of the house of Agame had remained influential in various capacities including as governors (Shum Agame) until the end of the rein of Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974.  Even during the Italian attempt to re-conquer Ethiopia, the Italian generals and the Viceroy had in 1936 acknowledged that it was neither wise nor convenient to slight the local nobilities, members of the Ethiopian ruling class, (from Tigray to Shewa) and needed to be approached carefully and co-opted. That is respect!

So when did the word Agame start to be used by some Eritreans as pejorative. Some of the actions of zealots such as  “Barba”, trying to keep his Asmara Xaeda free from the poor dirty natives (whom he called Agame) is an explanation often heard repeated in many forums including Others have said it was an Italian divide and rule scheme to create animosity between kins on either side of the border after the Italians failed to realize their dream of Italian East Africa when Italy was defeated during World War II. The contention is the Italians have never forgiven many of the key nobilities and ruling families of Agame and Tigray for outright non-cooperation or betrayal; hence the slight against the good people of Agame by creating, a caricature of a proud people, the “porko Agame.”  This stereotype may have been reinforced when during the Italian period many landless and destitute villagers from Eritrea and Tigray particularly the Agame region migrated to the new bustling modern city of Asmara in search of better opportunities and a better life; possibly competing for resources and jobs with the locals who may have felt threatened by the new arrivals. Despite the repeated mistreatments, deportations and banishment from Asmara of the poor natives by the likes of “Barba”, many still believed Asmara Xaeda was Adi Dikha. I can only imagine how difficult life must have been in their localities, or they may have simply believed in the potential and economic promises of a modern city. Come to think of it how is the treatment of the “Agame” different from the discrimination many migrants, including millions of Eritreans and Ethiopians, face in all corners of the world to this day, and yet continue to migrate in droves looking for better opportunities and a better life? It is all a matter of perspective, where is Mr. Fishaye Woldu when you need him? Hope he continues to share his perspectives, I enjoyed reading his articles.

Another interesting aspect to the Italian saga comes from the kind of stories I heard about the good-nature of the Italian colonialists. I used to hear our neighbour and my father’s good friend Balambaras, a native of Adi Qeih in Eritrea, speaking highly of the Italians. He would say, “Tilian libu Xaeda, GeXu Xaeda.” Balambaras, of course, had been drafted into the Italian army and fought along the Italians in many fronts including Tripoli. After the Italians lost during World War II he settled in Adigrat, where his title, Balambaras, was not officially recognized. He still insisted on being called  “Balambaras” and many of the people obliged just to be polite. So it is clear, unlike the “Agame”, even the Italian colonialists had some redeeming qualities. The supposed flaw of the “Agame” must be innate or is it? So why does this stereotype of the “Agame” and lately “Woyane” persist? I hope many of the daring new breeds of Eritreans and Ethiopians would explore this question in depth.  (Hint: thesis, you are welcome).

It is sad to see such blatant stereotypes and mischaracterizations of a historic and proud people being allowed to persist in an information age. Clearly peoples ignorance and fears have been exploited by the elites to further their own agendas.  We need to do more to educate each other and restore the good name of the Agametai, for Agame is the name of a place. It has also been used as an informal collective name for the inhabitants of the region even though the people describe themselves as Deqi Agame or Tigraywot.  Let’s also do the same against other stereotypes.

Recently, here on, a daring Eritrean has declared “there I said it, I am Agame!” That must have taken some soul searching, an enlightened, bold and courageous leap forward in telling people that many among us indeed may have layered identities and there is nothing wrong about it. Some of my friends (Tigraywot) have disagreed with my assertion; they said “tracing your ancestry to a historic and noble people is not a matter of courage but a mere discovery. As far as I know it is not blasphemy to say I am Agametai.” Another added, “During the Asmara of the sixties, Agame bel kitdrer was as popular as Hama bel or Akele bel, so no biggie! ” This sort of pride and dismissive attitude from either side is not going to help us move the conversation foreward.

So in the spirit of brotherhood (Hiwnet) and subsequent to the recent discussions on that many of the people south of Deki Amhare and Dibarua share ancestry with their kin on the Ethiopian side. Consider the following facts (from and try to determine if the concept of the demonized “Agame” makes sense.

  • Shum Agame Wolde Leu’l [Woldu]. b. on the shores of the Red Sea, son of Shum Agame Enda Sebhat, educ. privately. Appointed as Shum Agame by his patron, Ras Wolde Selassie, before 1802. m. Woizero Sabana Giyorgis. He d. 1815, having had issue, six sons – including Dejazmatch Sabagadis [Abba Garrebar], Prince (Mesfin) of Tigray.
  • Dejazmatch Sabagadis [Abba Garrebar], Prince (Mesfin) of Tigray. b. 1770, son of Shum Agame Wolde Leu’l [Woldu], by his wife, Woizero Sabana Giyorgis. Baptised as Za-Manfas  Qedus. Succeeded his father as Shum Agame, 1815. Became ruler of Tigray, Semien, and the    entire costal plains of Eritrea, 1818-1831.
  • Dejazmatch Kassa [Kahssaye] Sabagadis. m. (first) a daughter of H.E. Ras Wube Haile Mariam, Prince of Tigray. m. (second) Woizero Aberrasc, second daughter of Dejazmatch Hailu, of Tsazzega, by his first wife, Woizero Eleni, daughter of Abeto Hagos, of Tsada-Chistan.
  • One of Sabagadis’s daughters (Woizero …). m. 1818, Kantiba Gabre Amlak, eldest son of Kantiba Karlan.
  • Woizero Sahlu [Walatta Giyorgis] (d/o Woizero Desta). m. (first) before 1814, Ato Gabre Kidan, of Salumte. m. (second) after 1818, Abeto Tawalda Medhin (d. after September 1834, bur. Tsazzega), son of Abeto Tasfa Seyun, of Nai’o, by his wife, Woizero Lette-Nob. She had issue, one son and two daughters.
  • Dejazmatch Mirtcha Wolde Kidane, Shum Temben. m. Woizero Sillas [Amata Selassie], daughter of Dejazmatch Dimtsu Debbeb, by his wife, Woizero Tabotu, daughter of Dejazmatch Woldu, Shum Agame. He was k. at Temben, 1863, having had issue, four sons and one daughter, the most prominent of whom was Reese Masafint Kassa Mirtcha, who ascended the throne as H.M. Elect of  God, Yohannes IV, King of Seyun, King of Kings of Ethiopia
  • Yohannes IV’s brother H.E. Ras Hagos Mirtcha, is believed to be the great grand father of the President of the State of Eritrea,  Ato Isayas Afewerki.

Think about your ancestry, you may be surprised to discover that you have entitlements: a  hereditary title (Fitawrari, Bahre Negasi, Abeto etc.,) or some other bragging rights. In all seriousness though lets discover and honour our common heritage just so we can live in peace as brotherly peoples. We need to recognize that the brotherly peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea will always remain kins. So all responsible citizens and people of goodwill from both countries especially the people straddling the borderline should reengage and renew their deep commitment to their historical ties and forge a new negotiated relationship that will lead our respective countries to a respectful and peaceful coexistence.

Let me forward a Canadian founding principle–an idea for creating a negotiated regional political enterprise, along the lines of IGAD, in which each member of the enterprise by its efforts and success will allow the whole enterprise to develop and prosper. We have to reinvent our politics and start building together for our collective future. Lets start breaking down barriers and taboos and strengthen our people to people relationships. We can’t keep the border issue as an excuse to separate us or continue funning a conflict among our peoples. The idea of the border line as link is more appealing to me. Look at the longest undefended border between the United States of America and Canada, that is an effective link between good neighbours and allies. Why can’t Eritreans and Ethiopians aspire to a similar arrangement? Borders should not become prison walls!

I have earlier indicated that I do not see a contradiction between my different identities as a Canadian, a formerly “stateless” person and an Ethiopian from the Agame region of Tigray. As a Canadian I am used to putting on and peeling off layers of clothing, to cope with the changes in the whether during our long winter months. So the onion principle or the idea of a layered identity appeals to me. The conceptual model is based on the premise that we all have layered constituent elements and attributes, much like the concept of layering in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), that define our identities and which can be optimized to maximize our potentials. The idea of the demonized individual or group such as the “Agame” are incompatible with the layered identity concept. I won’t be surprised if a significant number of Eritreans find the “Agame” layer, not the stereotypical one of course, as one of the layered constituent elements of their identity. They need to embrace it and use it to teach tolerance, diversity and respect (Andebet).

In Canada, nationalist agenda’s are often handled with care and respect. There is no problem with people being a Quebequa and a Canadian, both identities coexist within the Canadian federal arrangement. In the context of the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea however, despite amicably separating in 1993, we have not been able to move away from conflicts and narrow nationalistic interests. We can be and do better. Nationalism and the sovereignty slogans have outlived their purpose; it is now time for sober reflection.  We can start by thinking about common interests and better alternatives. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Jingoisms like “Hade hizbi, Hade libi” or any similar jingoistic values will only distract us from working together in promoting development, democracy and human rights, peace and security for our peoples.
  2. We have to remove or minimize barriers meant to separate us such as border lines and use them as a link to strengthen our relationships.
  3. Tone down nationalistic rhetoric, encourage open and honest conversations and strengthen people to people relationships between kiths and kin.
  4. Educate people  to recognize that many of their compatriots often have deeper and wider roots; however, none are any  better or less because of it.

Finaly, we all need to recognize that respect is like a boomerang, it always comes back. So we all need to R-E-S-P-E-C-T each other and all God’s children. Ezi We Dahan Kum!

P.S.  I have used the new word X-patriot* ( I am hopping for it to be adopted in the Oxford dictionary in the not too distant future, just kidding) to refer to people who often claim to be more patriotic than people who disagree with their propositions and prescriptions. It is meant to describe hypocrites and false patriots; i.e., the wrong kind of patriots.


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