The New Tigray Follies

Jeff Pearce
12 min readMay 29, 2024

Mr. Magical Mystery Map Returns! And This Time He’s Got a Witness… Or Maybe Not.

Almost four years ago, I wrote a column on Medium titled, “How Historians Have Failed Ethiopia.” Funnily enough, Martin Plaut chose to… what is the euphemistic term for just swiping someone’s work and using it as click-bait for your own site? Aggregate it for his website, and since we were on far warmer terms back then, I was happy he gave the article a boost. After all, Martin was very kind to me in the past by letting me raid his online photo archives for my book, Prevail, and he came into London to be interviewed when my associate and I tried to make a documentary based on the book, which just never came together. I like to think Martin is basically honest, but just in case he feels like deleting the evidence, here is a screen shot of the article archived on his site:

Well, those days are gone, and the whole point of that column seems to have been lost on Martin, who remains irony-impaired. He still has a pinned tweet of a meme with Orwell’s words, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Except that Martin has repeatedly trolled Tiffany Haddish, trying his best to get Hollywood to drop her, because she expressed support for the Isaias Afewerki regime in Eritrea. I’m less concerned with whether Isaias is worth defending than the hypocrisy of putting Orwell’s words on your shingle and then trying to get the people you disagree with fired from their gigs.

His obsession with the Eritrean regime has led him these days to peddling the fictions of various TPLF cheerleaders, including the dubious geographer Jan Nyssen.

You remember Nyssen? The guy who thought we should trust Fascist Italian maps because apparently the Black Shirt thugs who slaughtered Ethiopians and put them in concentration camps are somehow more credible over the geography of Welkait than the people who live there.

And now Nyssen’s back. This time with a new fairy tale. I wrote a thread on this, but it’s not enough to leave a rebuttal on X, where many of us who believe in a tolerant, unified Ethiopia are shadow-banned anyway. Nyssen’s nonsense has to be tenaciously fought because Harold Marcus’s warning, which I quoted in that Medium column years ago, is still an urgent one. Those siding with the TPLF think they can create a ridiculous alternate historiography.

This can’t be tolerated. But it’s unfortunately gaining ground because the TPLF will bully, threaten, and smear any academic that dares to challenge its narrative. And the fiction gets reinforcing validation from what I like to call the “mutual blurb society.” How convenient that Alex de Waal of Tufts is there to gush praise on Martin Plaut’s book about the Tigray War, a conflict for which neither of them ever had the courage of their convictions and stepped foot on Ethiopian soil as it unfolded. Neither did Nyssen for that matter, but he was happy to appear at pro-TPLF protests. And how cozy that Jason Mosley of Oxford was involved in Martin Plaut and Sarah Vaughn’s Tigray book launch. The gang’s all here!

Okay, I’m not an academic, though my books have been cited and quoted by some, and I, of course, took part in several pro-Ethiopia protests. Yet somehow I got labeled “a notorious propagandist” by the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York, even as he and his journalistic colleagues went on interviewing the likes of Nyssen, de Waal, and their fellow TPLF partisan Kjetil Tronvoll. Meanwhile, genuine scholars such as Ann Fitz-Gerald and Jon Abbink, who wouldn’t have dared attend such political protests, were smeared as “biased.” Funny how academia and the news industry have their favorites.

None of this should be forgotten as we come to Nyssen’s latest trial balloon to rewrite history. This time it’s a “translation” of a supposed “eyewitness report on the horrors of war in Tigray in 1889” by a Fesseha Giyorgis. Now Nyssen is a professor, and I am not. As Nyssen is the one who translated the text, this presumes some fluency and literacy in Tigrinya. I don’t even speak French, one of the two official languages of my country, let alone Amharic or Tigrinya. But I was able to blow up this silliness with secondary source English language texts before I had breakfast (I’m a late-riser).

That’s not so much a brag for my own cleverness as a tribute to Nyssen’s desperate sloppiness.

Nyssen and His Tigrayan Friends

Those who have read my brief thread on X will hopefully forgive my reiteration of certain key points, and I’ve tried to add additional material to flesh out this article. Nevertheless, they need repeating.

For his introductory note, Nyssen writes, “I feel now I have a better understanding of why the average Tigrayan dislikes ‘Menilek’ [sic] so much, and how shocked they were to learn in 2015 that people in the Amhara region began promoting the Ethiopian flag without an insignia or ‘lumuts bandera’; at the time, some of my Tigrayan friends said, quite negatively, ‘that is Menilek’s flag.”

To which I feel compelled to say, Who gives a shit what your friends think, Professor? Who are they to tell people living in Amhara what flag they can wave? Especially given that in 2015 when the TPLF were in power, it had already stolen Live Aid funds and aid from its own people in Tigray, had torture centers based in different Addis neighborhoods, and as we know now, had ethnically cleansed scores of innocent Amhara civilians.

But of course, it makes for a cute, disingenuous lie to suggest these Amhara flew a tricolor without insignia in some vague, political identification with Menelik. More likely, it was an affirmation of Ethiopia as a whole or an outright rejection of TPLF.

To be clear, all you have to do to check out Fesseha Giyorgis is to turn to the indispensable Encyclopedia Aethiopica, which has a useful entry about him in its second volume. It confirms for us easily that Fesseha was in Massawa “as early as 1889” and already in contact with Italian officials. That year, he accompanied Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael “apparently on behalf of the Italians” from Massawa “through Asmara, Saraye, Adwa and Hawzen to Maqala probably as an interpreter or guide.” The EA is clear that after Ras Makonnen joined the “newly crowned Menelik II,” he returned to Massawa, “from where he went to Italy in 1890,” to teach at the Orientale Institute in Naples.

Fesseha, knowing which side his bread was buttered on, dedicated his first publication in 1895 to his Italian sponsor.

Why should we care? Because dates matter. Facts and details matter. And Mr. Magical Map Nyssen sure as hell ain’t the guy to bring them.

Nyssen gets into trouble right away as he informs us that he’s placing the events of Fesseha’s account in 1889. Big problem: Menelik, as emperor, didn’t reach Tigray in 1889. According to Chris Prouty’s Chronology of Menelik II of Ethiopia, which gives us an invaluable month-by-month, year-by-year record of just where Menelik was, he was at Begemder during the rains in July of 1889 and considered taking an army to Tigray to force Mangesha Yohannes’s submission, but he chose to go back to Shoa because of a lack of supplies and because his trusted right-hand man Gobana had died.

His coronation at Entoto took place in November, and he didn’t leave for Tigray again until December 17. He was still in Dessie, in fact, in January of 1890 to celebrate Christmas and Timket, and he didn’t get to Maqale until February 23 (and if you don’t like Prouty’s chronology, you can check the dates with Haggai Erlich’s biography of Ras Alula).

So much for Menelik being there for these “horrors of war” in 1889 or of Dejazmatch Sebhat Aregawi seeing them and turning to Menelik to allegedly say, “O, negus [sic], since my men are suffering damage because your Lordship’s men do not distinguish them from the other people of Tigray, allow me to encamp a little further forward.” Prickly grammar note: this should be farther, Nyssen.

What is particularly galling about such dubious scholarship is that once again, as he did with Fascist maps, Nyssen likes to conveniently ignore context or twist it for his own agenda. Nowhere, for instance, is there any explanatory background of what was really going on in the region, just a highly misleading line that “the Shewan army… led by Emperor Menelik, swept over the northern Tigray frontiers.” Why would they be there? We’re not told.

Let’s just ignore that Menelik’s army went north to intercept Mengesha Yohannes, who had a rival claim to the throne. Nyssen reminds us that Menelik got rifles from the Italians but leaves out that their forces were making incursions past the Marab into Tigrayan territory. He leaves out as well that it was the Italians who likely brought in the infected cattle that were the main spark for the Great Famine he mentions.

And of most importance, it’s funny how Nyssen leaves out the key role played by General Orero, Italy’s colonial governor in Asmara. Things make much more sense if we turn to Erlich’s biography of Ras Alula.

In it, Erlich tells us that Orero, in an effort to persuade Menelik into an “agreement to a modified frontier” pushed into Tigray and occupied Adwa on January 26, 1890. Here is a passage that is crucial to understanding the events:

“Menelik himself, pressed by a strong Tigrean party in his court, was not slow to express his disapproval of Orero’s invasion of Tigray, and the Italian general was subsequently urged by Rome to withdraw his forces back to Eritrea. Dejazmatch Sebhat, upon whose cooperation Orero relied, was deliberately slow in his march to Adwa. He was probably aware of Menelik’s disapproval of the Italian advance and was justifiably reluctant to join hands in such circumstances against Mengesha and Alula.”

There is a lot to unpack here. Nyssen wants to “ret-con” history to suggest the ethnic dynamics of today were those of 1889, but this passage blows it out of the water. If Menelik had a “strong Tigrean party in his court,” speaking up for Tigrayan interests, he cannot be the cartoon villain massacring villagers outside Maqale (especially when he wasn’t even there in late 1889). Erlich is quite clear on the point that the Italians thought of Sebhat Aregawi as their guy, and indeed, he kept playing all sides and even went into the Battle of Adwa for the Italians — then ultimately betrayed them there.

Knowing all this, we should be highly skeptical of anything Fesseha Giyorgis puts in Sebhat’s mouth.

But let’s be fair. Having used Prouty’s chronology to debunk Nyssen, we also have to keep the record straight. After Menelik entered Maqale, Tigrayan nobles performed the ceremony of submission, including Sebhat, and Prouty notes for February 23, 1890, “Tedla Ayba’s country ravaged by Menelik’s soldiers without his order [my emphasis]; they steal religious objects from monastery; Gebeyou ordered to see that all property is returned.”

Context matters.

There is nothing wrong at all with bringing out a new translation, but it sure is interesting how it’s a single, highly selective chapter of a book. Given the blatant animus in his introductory note towards Amhara, Nyssen’s agenda is clear, just as it’s been clear with other TPLF and Oromuma revisionists. Menelik must be made into a bad guy.

I can easily concede that Fesseha Giyorgis is worthy of more study, but it would be foolish to take one man’s single account of events as established fact, especially when he published it in Italy, where he could have felt the pressures to write what his benefactors in Rome wanted to hear. This is the guy who dedicated his first publication to his Italian sponsor, remember? Nyssen, perhaps mindful that others might go back to the source material, is forced to include in one of his notes that “Fesseha Giyorgis’s work is sprinkled with appreciations, either good or bad, which we have included in the translation.”

Well, one would hope so. Or are you in the habit of censoring your source’s evaluations?

The point is that Italy by this time was already working a “divide and conquer” strategy, and it was losing faith in trying to make Menelik into another stooge it thought it could manipulate and push around. Fesseha Giyorgis would have understood that very well.

The problem is that it’s easier to invent wholesale claptrap than do the actual homework. And if you can’t invent something persuasive, just treat Ethiopian history like an à la carte menu.

The Inconvenient Tigrayans

This approach, sadly, might even have its place with the old masters. Haggai Erlich has a new book out, Greater Tigray and the Mysterious Magnetism of Ethiopia, which I trust (hope) will be fairer and more insightful than anything hatched by Nyssen and his crowd. I need to give it a proper thorough study, but I think we all have a right to be alarmed that its celebratory praise comes from the usual suspects of the “mutual blurb society”: Alex de Waal, his protégé and pet, Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, Plaut’s writing partner, Sarah Vaughn, and journalist Andrew Harding, who would have to trip down an amba before he found any revelatory truth in Ethiopia. Since authors don’t always get to decide blurbs or sometimes don’t show interest in them, I won’t park this complaint at Mr. Erlich’s door.

But I do have a grouse to make. In his brief section on the infamous strongman Mikael Sehul, he wrote that Mikael was “defeated by a coalition of Amhara and Oromo armies.” Well, yes, that’s true up to a point. But with all due respect to Mr. Erlich, and I do have a lot for his works, he left out what to me are at least three crucial details.

One is that Mikael wasn’t above down-and-dirty race-baiting for lack of a better term, once trying to use the threat of Oromo cavalry in his own forces to quell dissent. Two, the coalition was yes, primarily Amhara and Oromo, but even Gurage were involved in the conflict, with two Gurage assassins trying to kill Mikael. And three, further to this point, in the final decisive battle that sent Mikael into retreat, a thousand Tigrayans led by the governor of Semien, Ayto Tesfos, fought the dictator’s forces. Though this army was small, Scotsman James Bruce — who was there — noted how “a despondency seemed to fall on all the Tigrayan soldiers, greater than if ten thousand men of Amhara had joined the rebels.”

In other words, it was a united Ethiopia that kicked Mikael Sehul’s ass, not just Amhara and Oromo winning against Tigrayans.

So, as I tuck into Mr. Erlich’s latest tome which suggests “there is an ‘Amhara thesis’ competing with a ‘Tigrayan thesis’ on what Ethiopia’s political and administrative system should be,” I will be quite skeptical — though I expect I’ll enjoy the book of a real scholar far more than efforts by Ghent’s leading propagandist.

Still, it is tragic enough that we have to deal at all with the phantom of an “Amhara thesis.” I contend there never was one. I believe I can prove it in case example after case example, the united efforts against Mikael Sehul being one of them.

But it serves certain interests to perpetuate the notion that there is a Amhara thesis. Those pushing the TPLF narrative are well aware that having launched their “franchise” first with gullible ferenji, Amhara victims of ethnic cleansing must swim against the rapids for any Western attention at all, let alone sympathy. The uninitiated and willfully ignorant write them off as imitators, their defenders as an “ethnic militia.” You want to throw up your hands and yell, My gawd, what is the TPLF if not an ethnic militia first? The answer, as Ethiopians knew for almost thirty years and still know well, is that it’s also a criminal oligarchy like Putin’s regime and a death cult.

And the TPLF fairy tale of “dueling ethnic narratives” plays perfectly into its hands. Those who support the Junta in Washington and Brussels can roll their eyes and speak in defeatist whispers over how maybe Ethiopia should just go the way of the Balkans.

Too bad many Ethiopians don’t want to buy what they’re selling.

You can bring out all the misleading books you like, and they can roll fresh off the printers in London and New York, and you can post all the silly “translations” and pseudo-scholarship you please, you’ll still find those who remember the coppery smell of blood in Mai Kadra, and you can still find those who made it out of the cave prisons of the TPLF.

This is why the most dangerous challenge to the Junta, to Abiy’s Oromuma fanatics and Prosperity Party backers, is a unified Ethiopia narrative. As it happens, it reflects the genuine history of the country. The truth is their enemy.

During the war, the TPLF called one of its great offensives “Operation Alula.” The pity is that Ras Alula spent his final days as an Ethiopian patriot. By 1897, Alula told his friend Augustus Wylde, that he considered Menelik a good man, one who had forgiven him for his past attacks made on the orders of Yohannes. “I then turned to King Menelik as the only man who could restore order, and since that time, I have thrown all my influence on his side, in order to unite Ethiopia once more.”

That great quotation somehow gets left out of the revisionist history. You have to bother to read more than one book or article.



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.