Raya: a category error, and a catalog of errors

Raya: a category error, and a catalog of errors

By Alemayehu Weldemariam, March 24, 2019

Legendary Rayan singer Mengesha Redae hugging de facto Tigray President Debretsion Gebremichael at Epiphany celebrations in Maichew; Jan. 19; social media

The people of Raya in northern Ethiopia have diverse origins and so defy simple categorizations. A more accommodating federation and responsive politics would help resolve their disputed administrative status.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it”— Karl Marx

I was born and raised in Alamata, the heart of what people now call the Raya area of Tigray and Amhara. My maternal great grandmother was a Muslim and an Oromo who married my great grandfather, a native Christian highlander with the title of a Qegnazmach.

On that side, my relatives are mostly Muslims with typical Oromo names such as Gamada and Fereja, but they are all Tigrigna and Amharic speakers. The other side is entirely people of Ofla origin, who only speak Tigrigna. My relatives live in those parts of South Tigray and North Wollo that comprise Raya in the popular understanding.

I grew up speaking Amharic, but listening to Tigrigna, as my parents spoke it at home. As a kid, I could entertain the thought that Tigrigna is the language of the old and folks from the countryside, while Amharic is young and urbanite. The situation poses a typical existential puzzle: Who are my people? Who am I?

I never cared much about ethnicity or politics until an incident at Addis Ababa University in 2001 induced some soul-searching. A sociology student from my hometown used a pejorative for Oromo. Angry Oromo classmates beat the student and instructor, and it escalated into conflict between Tigrayans and Oromo. Windows of dormitories and the iconic John F. Kennedy Memorial Library were stoned. Ironically enough, the offending student is now a leader of the Raya Identity and Self-Administration Grand Committee and identifies as Raya-Amhara. The Committee demands for the inclusion of the Raya people of southern Tigray into Amhara Region.

Put into a simple syllogism, such activists argue:

Raya is Wollo

Wollo is Amhara


Therefore Raya is Amhara

However, the argument is based on various fallacies. Raya did not become part of Wollo until 1957. And both Raya and Wollo give their names of Oromo sub-clans, which is testament to a complex history of intertwined peoples and shifting identities.

Raya has always been contested: some claim it is Amhara, others say it is Tigrayan, while still others say it is a distinct ethnicity. That dispute, which has flared dangerously in recent months, goes deeper when we realize that ‘the Raya’ are latecomers to the area.

Who are they then? What does it mean to be Rayan? Does it exclude being Tigrayan at the same time? How did the Raya manage to bequeath their name to a population that does not even speak their language?

Given the rise to prominence of anti-Tigrayan dog-whistle activism masquerading as identity politics, it is important to explore these questions, and to dispel some misunderstandings in the process. One of the first is that people are basing their identity on an essentialist theory that excludes social construction. Ethnicity is not purely genetic, insofar as it can change with experience. This is not only the case for those who are multiethnic by birth, but also for those who think they are in a pristine state. Therefore, as ethnicity is pliable, sometimes our administrative arrangements have not caught up with the latest shifts in identity.


Historian Bahru Zewde traces the rise of our identity politics to the creation of the Italian colony of Eritrea, which he describes as “the roots of the problem of secession.” But what accounts for the rise of identity politics in Tigray? Well, it began for real on May 2, 1889, when Menelik II established the Italian Colony of Eritrea, so dividing the Tigrigna-speaking people on the two sides of River Mereb. Harold Marcus writes: “We do not know why Menelik made this historic cession of territory—the first for an Ethiopian ruler.”

And while war over the Treaty of Wuchale ensued, it was not over this giveaway. Half a century later, Emperor Haile Selassie I compounded the insult when he took Alamata and other parts of Tigray into Wollo. The current vehicle for the diminishment of Tigray is the identity claim of the Raya. Does Tigray now face a similar territorial threat from Abiy Ahmed and his Amhara allies, or are current tensions a springboard for a more flexible interpretation of identity and accommodating federation?

Well, that depends on politics, of course, but a look back at an intertwined past illuminates a potentially more harmonious way forward—if only the bullheaded Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and their single-issue antagonists opened their eyes to start absorbing the light.

A 1976 Central Statistical Office E.C language map published in National Atlas of Ethiopia 1988

The Raya do not share a mutually intelligible language, as they speak Tigrigna, Amharic, Agawigna, Afarigna, and, only a few now, Oromiffa. A survey of its history since 16th century reveals Raya is a label for a diverse group of people that formed a collective identity of sorts due intermingling and intermarriage.

The idea of a biological Raya group, and dualisms such as Raya-Amhara or Raya-Tigre, are therefore category errors: Raya is a cultural community, not an ethnic group. It is not homogenous like the Erob or Kunama, who also reside within Tigray. Raya refers to the cultural area inhabited by a diverse group of people located south of the historic province of Enderta and North of Weldia.

Commenting on the demography of the population south of River Mereb, Merid Wolde Aregay, another historian, writes that in the “fertile plains” of Azabo and south of Wajarat lived the pastoralist Doba, who spread into the plains of the nearby provinces of Angot and Qeda. He says that in 1619 new age-sets to leadership among Oromo clans, the Baraytuma and the Borana, meant the intensification of raids. Part of the Marawa bands erupted into Tigre, where Takla Giyorgis resisted them.

Citing Manuel Barradas, who travelled through Enderta, Merid reports that by 1625 the Oromo threat had subsided. When four years later Takia became a rebel, Oromo clans from Azabo and Doba supported him. It should be noted here that a clan of the Oromo, be it the Raya or Marawa, has already settled in the area that we now call Raya-Azebo.

Wolde Sellassie harnessed anti-Oromo prejudice

Mohammed Hassen describes the Doba as “peaceful nomads and fine fighters” that were attacked by Oromo. He wrote in The Oromo of Ethiopia that when Takla Giyorgis resisted, the Oromo clans instead successfully targeted the Doba nomads. Apart from being lowland pastoralist pagans, unlike the highland Christian peasant Tigrayans, it seems the Dobas were Tigrigna-speaking like the Wejjerat and Enderta, given the similarities of the contemporary dialects.

Harold Marcus details how in the early 19th Century, Wolde Selassie, Tigray’s conservative Christian governor, repelled the Yejju Oromo expansionists: “He hit out at them by conquering the Azebo and Raya Oromo and by taking control over all the important passes in Lasta leading to Tigray.” Marcus says this was the result of two centuries of “helplessness before the Oromo advance” and attempts at power sharing. “Wolde Sellassie harnessed the general anti-Oromo prejudice to move against the Yeju.”

So, Raya came from the Baraytuma tribe of the Oromo that migrated to the area after the 16th century. The existing inhabitants were the Dobas that are essentially extinct now as a result of assimilation. After the 16th century, they fought and mixed with the Oromos and the neighboring people of Afar, Amhara, and Tigray, to form the Rayan identity.


Moving to significant events in the last century, which overlaid modern administrative maneuvering onto these tribal gatherings, Emperor Haile Selassie made two critical mistakes after his return from exile that still resonate through today’s anxieties. The first was ceding historic Tigrayan territory lying beyond the River Ala Wuha to Wollo Province. In 1942, Haile Selassie enlarged Wollo to include Yejju and Lasta, with Dessie as its capital. And in 1957, he enlarged Wollo again to include Raya, particularly, Alamata and Kobo towns, which were part of Tigray Province.

The second error was the abrogation of the federation with Eritrea and consequent annexation into his Ethiopian empire. These moves led to the emergence of the ethnic liberation movements in Tigray and Eritrea. The roots of the Tigrayan movement, though also found on campus, are traceable to the peasant rebellion of the Woyane of Raya and Wejerat of Tigray.

That resistance, of course, set the scene for the TPLF’s long and bloody journey south, and, eventually, a fully independent Eritrea and an autonomous and powerful Tigray; perhaps too powerful. As the TPLF has weakened in recent years, after decades of fervent opposition, Tigray’s internal contradictions have been increasingly exploited, leading to worsening tensions over Welkait and the Raya issue.


Districts and kebeles in South and Southeastern zones of Tigray region, 2016. Source

Under the current settlement, Raya is also more of a cultural group with an overarching identity than an ethnicity, as it includes the Amharic-speaking people of Kobo and its environs. With the advent of ethnic federalism post-1991, which built on Derg-era studies of nationalities, it was thus appropriate to include the Tigrigna-speaking people of Raya with Tigray, while keeping the Amharic-speaking people within Amhara region. But this neat differentiation masks festering divisions.

There was long-running dispute during the Derg between Kobo and Alamata towns, as Kobo demanded that the seat of the Raya and Kobo District be moved from Alamata to Kobo, which Alamata residents resisted. When TPLF-led rebels captured state power in 1991, Alamata, with a majority of Tigrigna-speaking residents, was incorporated into Tigray. The ‘loss’ of Alamata has never been accepted by some Amhara nationalists.

Now, making Amharic a second working language of the appropriate parts of the Southern Zone of Tigray—notice how the TPLF kept the names of sub-regional districts ethnically neutral—and allowing schools to run a bilingual program should be enough to accommodate the area’s diversity. But it is not clear that would satisfy today’s Amhara nationalists, who claim territory from four other regions, and wildly describe TPLF rule as fascist.

TPLF has an inability to learn from its past

Rayans, to call them by their borrowed name, of course have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed by the state government. The people resent the TPLF for appointing administrators and mayors without consultation, forcing smallholders to purchase fertilizers on credit, various rights violations, and maladministration.

What is disheartening is TPLF’s inability to learn lessons from its past and respond to such complaints in a constructive manner. It should refrain from throwing dissenters into jail. It must refrain from using undue force against protesters. It should withdraw charges and release political prisoners. Imprisoning ordinary people turns them into galvanizing symbols of resistance. How has the party not learned this?

The way the regional government is responding to Rayan activism is the same way TPLF hardliners responded from their federal perches to similar issues in other parts of the country in recent years. Look where that has left them. Then, the police and security services made deeply consequential decisions, instead of letting political leaders handle it, and taking direction from them. Security institutions should not be involved in resolving political grievances.


TPLF’s seemingly insatiable urge to micromanage is at the root of its undoing. Getting competent locals to run the city and towns should not be beyond the reach of its political imagination. TPLF/EPRDF has been guilty of systematically marginalizing and discrediting moderates in Ethiopia over the past 27 years, thereby helping set the stage for the advent of virulently parochial ethnic entrepreneurship. It is repeating that in Raya today. It must reach out and listen to its critics, not simply attempt to rubbish them and crush them.

TPLF support in Tigray right now is rooted in the strategic calculations of Tigrayans: they would rather support the devil they know than the angel they do not. An effective party would try to translate this strategic advantage into actual support through legitimate means. After de-escalation, Tigray could resolve these issues satisfactorily with a variety of tools, as long as, for once, they eschew the sledgehammer. Rather it requires soft skills and the time-tested traditional communal institutions for conflict resolution, such as the Abbo Ghereb.

Yet instead of treating the issue as rooted in legitimate local grievances, they have turned the entire affair into a pissing match with Amhara revanchists. Through rational politics, the TPLF could turn the table on their antagonists: If Rayans want self-rule, why is it only possible when they join the Amhara, but impossible while it is still under the State of Tigray? The multinational federalism that has been put in place since 1995 is designed to enable the self-rule of cultural communities. On that note, the Erob and Kunama should be able to send their children to schools taught in their languages. And in Raya, Tigray must allow schools in Waja, Timugua, Babo Korma, and Selen Wuha in Amharic. That is the point in having multinational federalism.

Eventually we will all meld into Ethiopians

Given that ethnicity is complex, fluid, and socially constructed—as the Raya story decisively illustrates—the system should accommodate people of mixed identities. This can be aided by dropping ethnicity, and religion, from local and the long-planned national identity cards, partly as such categorizations assists sectarian mobs. The upcoming national census will also allow for mixed ethnic backgrounds, when it finally occurs. But above all, all sides must cease the provocations and propaganda, and so create a space for the people of the area to choose their own destiny.

Such measures would encourage the system to evolve in accommodating ways towards a more perfect pan-Ethiopian union, which can only be achieved once the unfavorable conditions that prompted the existing federative arrangement have been definitively dealt with. The divisive anti-Tigrayan campaigning by my former fellow student perpetuates those conditions, and so delays integration.

Multinational federalism was not supposed to be a permanent arrangement for a well-ordered society. Eventually we will all meld into Ethiopians, just as the Rayan identity formed from disparate parts. Ethnic federalism was designed for a society afflicted by serious systemic discrimination. That too was the aim of the EPRDF ideology of revolutionary democracy, although, listening to recent TPLF rhetoric, it seems the party forgot that somewhere along the way.

Now would be an opportune moment for all of us to recall both our common past and our dreams of a collective future.