Facing the Challenge of Extreme Nationalism in Ethiopia

Abay Beneberu Qeneni

March 2002


Slogans of Two Eras:

Dergue - “Revolutionary Ethiopia or Death!”… an Ethiopia where we must be above the law

Woyané [TPLF] - “Freedom up to and including secession or…” a country where we must be above the law and where the choicest goes to the region of Tigray.

-------- “Independent Oromia or …” even for a single day so far as we alone can be at the helm.

-------- “Ethiopian Unity or …” exclusively centred on our vision.

We know from experience that a slogan is an instrument in a struggle. It is a concise means of articulating the grievances or desires of a people or a group in a manner that galvanizes them. The shape and content of the slogan are indicators of the depth or shallowness as well as of the longevity or brevity of the struggle. ”Land to the Tiller” was a lead slogan of Ethiopian students during the reign of Emperor Haileselassie, ”Ethiopia First without Bloodshed” in the first years of the Dergue and ”Today Germany Tomorrow the World” in Nazi Germany had similar roles.

As relates to Ethiopia, while the students’ slogan has since been a popular demand that still awaits satisfactory resolution, the progress of Ethiopia without bloodletting has remained utopia. Blood streamed like a river and the country fell deeper into underdevelopment. It is not for us, therefore, to discuss what has become of the Dergue and its slogan, borrowed from Mussolini and exclaiming inevitable death. To our dismay, we are today confronted with slogans of the Woyané that are embarrassing and unworthy of a quote. Protestations to the contrary aside and though they claim to have differences in goal, we know from the slogans of these extremist nationalists, that they are traveling along the fatal road traversed by the Dergue.

What concern us most are the consequences of their policies and actions to innocent citizens, the dangers facing the very existence of our country and the continued prolongation of the suffering of our people. It is, therefore, appropriate to exchange views and also redouble our efforts in search of a way out, in a manner that takes into account our capabilities and limitations. 

It is my belief that the Amharic and Oromifa speaking sections of our society can, for various reasons, have a larger share in shaping the future of Ethiopia better and at a faster pace, providing mutual trust and political tolerance between themselves. In so doing, I do not mean to underestimate the role and contributions of the other sections of our society; I am rather focusing on the softest spot/ weakest link in our problems, hoping that it would help us in the search for common solutions before it is too late. With this urgency in mind and considering the fact that efforts at individual and group levels to make the struggles conducted in the names of the Amhara and Oromo mutually reinforcing have not yet borne fruit, it is high time that the positions of different sides be discussed in depth and openly, without any game of hide and seek. In this connection, I propose for public discussion:

1)     five points with regard to secession and 

2)     six other points concerning the benefits of give and take, all of which are based on my own experiences and on discussions with friends for whom the plight of their country is of the utmost concern.

The biggest and urgent task in this connection is the need for us to draw a strategy, based on our experiences, for strengthening the unity of our people. The unity of the people in itself is not enough. Political work can barely lead to results without organizational work. And hollow organization is futile and can only delude us. Only co-ordination between the two (strategy & organization) can help us achieve the desired results. We have wasted years blaming the inability of opposition movements to emerge united and strong. How on earth can the movements emerge strong and united without their source of unity and strength, the people, showing mutual political trust and closeness as in the realm of social interactions? Can one harvest what one has not sown? Here one may wonder as to which of the two should come first, strategy or organization, but we should have no problem accepting the fact that the two are inseparable.

Regarding secession, the fatherly words of a Metcha-Tulema gentleman are a good piece of advice: ”Who does Ethiopia belong to in the first place for you to talk of the Oromo seceding from Ethiopia?” I remember the shameful affront to which extremists subjected the gentleman. Do you realize that you are staining the history of the Oromo and violating their identity and integrity by questioning their Ethiopianness?

By relying on our positive experiences so far, by correcting our weaknesses, and modifying our tactics, we can, on the one hand, build bridges among our people by removing the hurdles. Simultaneously, on the other hand, we have to forge ahead by educating the extremist nationalists about our long-term goal and by strengthening the existing civic and political organizations or even by establishing new ones, if need be.

As we know from the experiences of the developed democratic countries, it is such civic, professional and employee organizations that emerge from societies (peoples) intertwined with mutual national concerns and respect for differences, that serve as corner-stones for democratic systems where respect for human rights prevails. It is from such a sea of people that respects mutual differences and provides the foundation for support that political organizations emerge with trust for each other and for the people, with respect for the people as a source of power and the ability to lead the country. We are today witnessing that individuals and groups that are unable or unwilling to accept this reality are impeding our people, in no less measure than the Woyané themselves, from coming together and resolving their problems. It is such people and organizations that I call extremists in this article. Our people know who is who and what action to take, though stifled by powerful forces. They have both the power and the ability, providing that they embark on the right track. We have already witnessed excessive mutual denials of existing problems, evasions and self-righteousness about one’s views/political stance. We have to realize and then put into practice the fact that reinstating or partaking through mutual agreement of the usurped wealth and rights of others and retrieving what was once lost are marks of civilized peoples. I do not believe that we should doubt that this is decisive in shaping the long-term peace and development of our society.

In this regard, we dare find the answer to as to why the Amhara and Oromo played less prominent roles in their country’s affairs and in those of their own than expected of them, particularly in the last decade. Other issues aside, we have not seen from these giant sections of our society any thing comparable to the history that has been in the making in the last three years by our brothers and sisters in southern Ethiopia. Rather than being aggrieved with the fascistic deeds of the Woyané and show any meaningful solidarity with our southern kin, against whom the Woyané have dispatched their regular troops, they are absorbed in mutual hate-mongering, which is destroying the basis for coexistence. I presume that many observers agree the weakness emanates from the lack of (an) organization (s) with leadership qualities. There is no doubt in my mind that the divisive views and the helpless roles played by extremists from the two respective groups are also the causes for the weaknesses of existing organizations. It is safe to assume that about 90 per cent of these extremists are entrenched and camouflaged within the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the All Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO). One has to respect the formation of associations meant to defend mutual interests and rights. By the same token, the associations /organizations have the obligation to respect the basic human rights of others in the process of fulfilling their mission. One has to respect the rights of nations, nationalities, multinational societies, believers, village communities/ self-help associations, irrespective of their size, and even of individuals, to be part of the decision-making process in the administration of their country and in the mutual determination of how the latter’s resources are used. It is only a matter of time before the sun sets on any movement that fails to accept this principle.

History is proof to the fact that national unity founded on respect for individual rights and responsive to group demands, as well as on mutual interests and historical and social bonds is of decisive importance to achieving the desires of people for peace, development and respect. In countries like Ethiopia, where ethnic groups, nations, nationalities and communities have such diverse cultural, religious and linguistic values and happen to share, by mere fact of history, common citizenship, political organizations at the helm need either to be multinational or work closely with multinational forces. Neither theoretically nor in practice is it acceptable for one to emerge from one particular social base and genuinely claim to be or represent every one else.

The question is: what is the position of our extremists on these points? We have reached a point where we can no longer eschew the matter but have to openly and critically take stock of it and draw lessons thereof.

While admiring the call by EDP (Ethiopian Democratic Party) for national reconciliation and coexistence with a view to fulfilling the unanswered demand of putting an urgent end to the misery of our people, I believe that a reply is expected of those who claim to represent the masses of Oromo and Amhara. I know that civic, professional and workers’ organizations that have relative organizational freedom can play a prominent role in realizing this goal of national reconciliation. I also believe that these organizations are fully aware that their members’ problems will be resolved and their professions respected only when the country’s problems are resolved and a political system based on the will of the people established. The sacrifices they have been paying in the preparations to reach that goal are by no means lost on the people of Ethiopia. However, national problems cannot be resolved by the efforts of certain groups alone, which is why every one has to contribute their share.

If we on our part succeed in the work of promoting the cause of national reconciliation, I do not doubt for a moment that the Woyané, brought up on a diet of stolen slogans, will change their tune accordingly. We know the Woyané deceive and brag saying ”there cannot be reconciliation where there is no conflict. Are they asking us to make peace with red terror veterans?” But we also know that they can continue to deceive and brag so long as they are certain that we remain divided by the intrigues of extremists. They will certainly do every thing in their power to prevent us from coming together, and they are already doing that, with a view to not sharing with others the power and national wealth that is not proportionate to their real size. It does not take a genius to see that Woyané’s twisted objectives will be defeated and its racist rule ended if the rest of us stand united. If, for instance, the people choose to unite at a national level and decide not to avail themselves of the services of Woyané businesses created through unscrupulous pillage and deceit, the Woyané will become toothless (in that area of their operations). But it is the extremists that have become the nemesis to this kind of unity.

These extremists are so worried that their existence and influence would be no more unless the people are at each other’s throats. There is no denying the fact that there are people, ranging from sympathizers and ordinary members to those in leadership positions, who are serving with genuineness and honesty in both camps (Oromos and Amharas) that I have chosen for discussion in this article. Unfortunately, their influence so far is limited. They are troubled by the fact that leadership is exercised in a manner that is too general and not detached from emotions. It is essential that these friends of the people be assisted and respected.

The aim of this article is to try and convince the extremists by pointing out to them their weaknesses, encourage them to make amends and/or to force the reluctant ones to retire from the game. Further more, the central points of this article are the exposition to the extremists themselves of the harmfulness of the views and actions with which they confuse the people and, to tear down the curtain behind which they are hiding if they refuse to change their old ways. This can in no way be harmful. What feat have we achieved so far by mutual hatred, gossiping, or by sulking at each other or cajolery? If any thing we brought humiliation on ourselves, suffering for our people, longevity for the Woyané and derision in the eyes of foreigners. That is why we will have to rise up to the challenge of dealing with the extremists amongst us with a view to resolving our urgent national problems.

First and foremost, I would like Amhara and Oromo extremists to realize that the Woyané are using them in no less measure than they are using their regular army, Tigringa speaking spies and their satellite organizations, to prolong their stay in power. Note that the Woyané pay these servants of theirs for the services they provide!  They have to feed, train and arm them from the resources they are controlling as a government or they pillaged. For the extremists, though, they do not need to do more than facilitating conditions, at their own expense, in which they continue to ’live’ in limbo- between life and death. Woyané has repeatedly made a lot out of the punitive and experimental measures its forces are taking against individuals it wants for incarceration or execution; these individuals are suspected of taking part in the movements conducted in the name of the people the extremists say they represent. The latter are fulfilling what is required of them by the Woyané without pay or gratitude! They cannot deny that Woyané shades crocodile tears citing the extremists’ irresponsible deeds as cogent evidence. To the Oromo it says: ”The Oromo are finished without me (Woyané); the Neftegna are trying to dominate you as in the past; you won’t be able to benefit from the self-determination bestowed upon you by federalism; your children won’t be able to learn in their mother tongue and the dream of the Oromo remains just that- a dream.” To the Amhara, it exclaims: “Alas Amharas! Remember the massacre at Bedeno, Arba Gugu, etc; your children will be able neither to go to school nor to get employment; you have no country; Ethiopia is no more!”

Because the extremists are persisting in sawing discord among the people with their empty words and intangible hopes, the people have difficulty totally discarding Woyané threats, even though paying heed to the latter’s threats is in itself distasteful to them. They have become stumbling blocs preventing the people from coming closer to resolve their national problems. Protestations aside, you reinforce the Woyané by preventing the people from coming to each other’s aid in their struggle. While practically aiding the Woyané in every respect the extremists have failed to promote the interests of the people, whose cause they claim to have at heart. It is questionable whether they have the capability let alone the genuineness to achieve these claims. Unless they correct their weaknesses, it does not take a genius to know that the current misery of our people will haunt them tomorrow, as they will have to answer for it.

Regarding the OLF and its sympathizers, I respect those who sacrificed themselves and those who are still dying to win justice for the Oromo, aggrieved by the fact that Oromo culture and language were not promoted, and determined to give the Oromo power and influence commensurate with the size of their population and resources, unseen in the history of modern Ethiopia (I believe since the end of the Era of the Princes) and hence determined to create a forum for correcting those injustices, thereby discharging their share of national responsibilities. My opposition is to those extremists who insist on negotiating the Ethiopianness of the Oromo and go so far as making secession a life and death issue. One may not have the capacity to take precautions or the wisdom to learn from the mistakes committed by others, but how can one fail to learn from one’s own mistakes and the dangers one has been exposed to as a result?

How can one endlessly persevere with trying to sell goods for which there is no demand at all in the market? When presented with the question, on the one hand, of preference between a democratic system in which the Oromo achieve influence that matches their number and wealth and where they live together with their Ethiopian brethren and secession, on the other, you confide in whom you claim to be close friends saying that you would not share your abundant wealth with other Ethiopians of meager resources. For public relations purposes, though, you argue for the Oromo to choose in a referendum between unity with Ethiopia and an independent Oromia. Take a pause and think: What answers do you expect for your question where the meanings of abundant wealth and meager resources are not clear? Is there any use trying to convince each other- for even so there is no common ground- for every one is after their own interests? From where in the first place, does such power of accreditation emanate? I would not want to go into details for I know as to which side benefits from it. Suffice it to state that you need to be open, for your ’good will’ cannot be regarded as favour. 

Regarding secession, the fatherly words of a Metcha-Tulema gentleman are a good piece of advice: ”Who does Ethiopia belong to in the first place for you to talk of the Oromo seceding from Ethiopia?” I remember the shameful affront to which extremists subjected the gentleman. Do you realize that you are staining the history of the Oromo and violating their identity and integrity by questioning their Ethiopianness? To me, such an attempt is, on the one hand, an effrontery aimed at making the Oromo a people without history by blemishing those renowned Oromo heroes who sacrificed themselves for the sake of their country and an act, on the other, of treason comparable to a child’s betrayal in time of need of its mother on whose breasts it grew up feeding. If your problem has to do with the term ’Ethiopia’, that is another matter. How can one who claims to be a politician otherwise fail to identify one’s identity and capability and weave them together with past experiences and future plans by taking into account the situation obtaining in the world? When you are challenged from within to review this slogan of yours, you cling to the excuse that you have been fighting for the last thirty years and wonder as to what people would think of you if you did so. Some innocent individuals try to soothe you saying that you cannot make a drastic break with your old ways and that you should do it piece mill. Aren’t twenty, thirty years long enough to make corrections? How many have lost their lives, got maimed and saw the destruction of their families, etc., in the last decade alone fighting under this misguided slogan? Is it humiliating to lower a burden before it breaks one’s back?  Should one allow the suffering to continue just because of a lack of a face-saving formula and due to self-aggrandizement? Why should one try to preach utopia to one’s brethren? What is the weakness in that the 30 million people (according to your estimates) you claim to represent suffer under the complete control of the Woyané who claim to represent 3 million people? Why are the majority forced to seek refuge leaving the country in the hands of a minority? Let us discuss these questions in an open-minded manner. Let us not hide our taboos and walk with them to our inevitable graves. Let us not let down our people and prolong their misery. Let us not destroy the future of the coming generation by fanning hatred and imposing on our selves identity crisis for which we have no place. We are running out of time, so let us not go around the bush and, instead, go straight to the point.

To me, those who champion secessionism and those who insist on a version of Ethiopian unity blessed by them are both pawns in the hands of the Woyané. It appears to me that secessionism is being used as a scaring tactic. I have no problem agreeing in principle with people whose main concern is national unity for the benefit is mutual.  But I am not keen on their enthusiasm for the status quo to continue and on their zeal to be first among equals when it comes to advocating national interests. It saddens me to hear them deplore others for being narrow nationalist and racist whereas they end up doing practically the same thing. The efforts of both camps to me are therefore futile. It has to be clear that there is Ethiopianness so long as there is one who asserts to be Ethiopian and Ethiopia will continue to exist so long as there is at least a community that claims to be Ethiopian. This sense of belongingness can neither be given nor taken by any one in this world. It may be challenged and we have seen it being challenged. Territorial expansion or contraction, national strength or weakness is a matter of time.

One should pause and ask as to who secedes from whom and as to who goes and who remains. The pains involved in the process of secession and whether or not it is rewarding are worth considering. Do those of us who have appointed ourselves as proponents of national unity, without taking into account the grievances of others, have the ability and desire to acknowledge the contradiction between our words and deeds? Holding consultation with one another on the subject is one thing. Does any one have the power and adequacy to be the sole advocate of national unity? Can we show in advance the shape and content of the national unity we advocate? By national unity, do we mean the geography of the country, its boundary or the sum total of the people’s sense of belongingness and their rights, including the territory they inhabit? These questions aside, we know from experience that the things we underestimated had turned out to have numerous ramifications, to which there are several instances: Col. Mengistu fled leaving behind a modern army built over a period of 50 years after having vowed to fight to the last man and the pro-Albanian communist Woyané, who at the outset were committed to establishing a Republic in Tigray Region later entered Menelik II’s Palace in Addis by pretending to be free market capitalists. Eritrea’s secession got UN backing under the signature of an individual who claimed to be the president of Ethiopia; Woyané and Sha’abiya [EPLF], once mirror images of each other, fought a bitter war with devastating consequences to our people; now both Woyané and Sha’abiya are absorbed in bitter internal power struggles [and are again flirting with each other]. Is it not surprising that problems that were of our own making began to unite us from Asmara and Addis at a time when we were engaged in mutual denial of our historical and blood ties? What was expected and therefore not surprising was the fact that the Addis Ababa University, which the Woyané were conniving to keep apolitical and ineffective by cruelly expelling some of its best intellectuals and by keeping its students divided on ethnic lines, broke the shackles and was soon followed by Asmara University. However, the Woyané and other extremists are still trying to resuscitate racism. The war between the Woyané and Sha’abiya could break out any time amid talk of normalization.

Let us assume for a moment that a second round of secession (the independence of Oromia) is declared. But is there a reason why the remaining part of the country cannot benefit, though the seceding entity may not necessarily succeed? Are not the advantages and drawbacks mutual?  Is it really sensible that one assumes the role of sole advocate for national unity? Fleeting political intoxication aside, it is another matter to call for thorough mutual consultations about the long-term goal. Isn’t there any thing we can instead learn from Sha’abiya’s referendum in which one could only choose either ’slavery or freedom’, if we really care about the well-being and long term interests of our people.

In case our Oromo extremists still insist on making Sha’abiya a shining example and a long-lasting ally, continue to regard them as raw model heroes, and if there may also be others who have taken to heart the principle of ’the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, I advise them caution.  Sha’abiya was bragging of having nothing to do with Ethiopian affairs, but it soon found itself under the feet of the Woyané, an organization of its own creation. The Sha’abiya have now learnt the extent to which a henchman can go when allowed the freedom of building their power base. The Sha’abiya have not got much time left, but even so, the Oromo extremists should realise that their worth to the former is serving as a pawn against the Woyané

What do our extremists expect to achieve by employing the failed tricks used by the hate-mongering and divisive philosophies of Meles Zenawi and Isayas Afeworki who are not only kin but were also once so privy to each other?  When OLF cadres say they do not bother about Ethiopian affairs, not only are they echoing Sha’abiya but are also vowing to imitate the latter’s death. Do we all have to die to really understand that death generally is not a good thing? Can’t one imagine how more complex wrenching the centre can be than breaking away the northern frontier? Does it mean that these extremist nationalists will be the first to get their limbs severed if hobbling becomes the vogue of the day?

I often hear these people brag about the Gedda system and their untapped wealth in trying to explain how better they can be than Eritrea if and when they secede. Gedda is a significant historical legacy. We take pride in it for it had elements of democracy relative to those by-gone times. There are still useful elements in it that we can adapt to our situations and times: the requirement that one had to reach the age of forty, i.e., when one becomes Berebaa/Dorri or when one reaches the 4th stage in the system before assuming a position of responsibility and determining the period of tenure of office by a council/Chefé are two such examples. Relative to those times, that was remarkable. Disagreements in Shewa and Arsi some time ago as relates to attempts to commemorate the Gedda system, however, underlined the difficulty of putting it into practice, in a manner relevant to our present situation, without significant modification. The Gedda system is unthinkable today considering the changes in religion, health issues, the current organization of our society and the level of world civilization. An attempt to revert to the past would make us look to suffer from psychological deformity. We cannot live in the past and hence it is not advisable.

With regard to resources/wealth, that is only a minor consolation. It is essential that one has peace and good health in order for one to consume what at hand let alone exploit latent wealth. There is a lot that should go into the reckoning. Who will take what with them when wrenching the center? What will become of those people who form the bridge of kinship between the breakaway entity and the remaining one? How long do we really expect to go on the basis of a ’philosophy’ that relies on paternal blood ties alone? These are life and death questions that need to be answered unequivocally from the outset.

Because a question of survival is one that is a basic right, one has to give thorough consideration to the implications 

a) for the seceding entity, 

b) the remaining part of Ethiopia and 

c) neighbors. 

And take note, this is not a choice but a duty / an obligation. What will be the final outcome of a wave of secessionism considering the pulling together that is likely to result from blood and historical ties as well as the strong sense of community, on the one hand, and the internal friction that can emerge due to religious, psychological and provincial differences with the complicating role of out side interference (which is inevitable), on the other? What is the likely source of reliable strength, peace, development and respect: petty states or a bigger, stronger and democratic political community?

Could the sole super power of our time have dreamt, let alone achieved, the economic prowess and status it is enjoying and the respect and /or fear it is generating today, had it ended up split into 52 separate states after the civil war? Immigrants from all the four corners of the world have managed to establish today’s America in a matter of a few hundred years by defeating the autochthones (the Red Indians). Our extremist nationalists, by contrast, are trying to break a world record by attempting to separate a people interwoven with centuries of blood ties, historical links and belief systems to form petty beggar states that can be no more than mere diplomatic fiction. There is no reason why a new era of princes cannot start, if the extremists have their way, beginning with Oromia, Ogaden versus Christiania and then culminating with a Republic of Tigray, Kingdoms of Lekemt-Dembi Dollo, Wollega, Gojjam-Felege Ghion, Dawaro, Enarya, Wolayta, Jimma, etc. Bear in mind that this criticism does not apply to federative units that come under the umbrella of a sovereign federal country.

Why on earth did the Germans dismantle the Berlin Wall? Why is it that the British care so much about the Common Wealth, Europeans about unity and the Euro, Japan, America and China about a common market? Which doctor prescribed disunity for us and togetherness for them? What do we learn from the former Soviet Union and from today’s Russia? Ponder for a moment over what is taking place in Eastern Europe. Consider, too, the past, today’s realities and the future. In this connection, we have to take into account at least the following five points in thinking about an independent Oromia.

                                                …../ to be continued.