Facing the Challenge of Extreme Nationalism in Ethiopia

Abay Beneberu Qeneni

March 2002


I concluded the first part of this article by calling attention to at least five points when thinking about an independent Oromia. Here are the five points:

Firstly, to which ”pure” Oromo does Oromia belong? I remember an Ethiopian man of literature, whose name I do not recall, replying in an interview to the same question: ”How can we be sure as to who passed by the door of our grand mothers?” As you know, even the star actors have not been found to be ’pure’. If we hesitate until some one tells us such details that the OLF’s Abiyou Geleta’s mother is Gojjam Amhara, the AAPO’s Hailu Shawl’s mother is a Wollo Oromo, etc., we may be forgiven for having sinned against Jesus Christ’s edict (which is also venerated by the Prophet Mohamed) that commands us to ”believe without seeing”. 

Consider the racial-ethnic and cultural-religious intermingling and social interaction that took place during the north ward expansion (I will come back to why I do not call it an invasion) of the Adal Sultanate’s Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi- nicknamed Ahmed the Left handed or Gragn Mohamed- starting in the early 16th Century (1520s), without, of course, forgetting the era of Yekunu Amlak’s grand son, Amde Tsion (1314-1344) whose territory extended to the southern, eastern and western frontiers. Such famous emperors as Zere Ya’iqob, his heir Be’edä Mariam and his grand son Libne Dengel, who began to call themselves Solomonites in the second round (1270), were married to princesses from the Royal family of the Hadiya Kingdom. The example set by them was followed by the aristocracy and extended farther down to the ordinary people. The Metcha-Tullema Oromos, who are believed to stem from the Borena ethnic group, migrated north and west wards after the death of Imam Ahmed (Mohamed Gragn) in 1543 to control, through the use of force, the areas that are today inhabited by Oromifa speakers. In the process, they mixed and assimilated with the majority local population in such areas as Wollo, Gonder, Gojjam, so much so that they are today known as Amharas for they speak Amharic. The same goes for Oromos in other areas, too, where after assimilating as minorities, they are known today by the name of the community into which they integrated.

When Menelik’s army was expanding to the south, east and west in the 19th century and establishing state structures (1875-1900), it was also fulfilling the task of tying the people closer through marriages and religious conversion, a task made easier by the wide spread integration that took place earlier. This project has never ceased until now, though slower at times and faster at others. One can imagine the extent to which this uninterrupted centuries old ‘tradition’ of migrating, as individuals or groups, (through campaigns, hunting, trade, education, public or self-employment, etc.) has contributed to integrating the population. One instructive example in this regard are certain elements of the Oromo culture that have facilitated the process of integration: [Gudifetcha] allows one to adopt a child, irrespective of its origin, and bring it up as one’s own; Harmaa hoppa has the socio-economic function of adopting one as de facto father or mother; Konissa or Sahibaa a mutual commitment /oath that brings one into the fold of another as kinsfolk including the right to inherit land.

Such cultural and social interactions have always been a feature of our entire society with only minor differences. Therefore, despite the best efforts of the ethnic leaders and extremist nationalists - themselves with a portion of Amhara, Guragé, Hadiya, etc. blood in their veins – trying to present themselves as first among equals representing the Amhara, Oromo, Tigré, Sidama, etc., they have not achieved much more than mockery. That is why ethnic politics lost its mystique and respectability.

Our extremists are so blinded by self-aggrandizement that they cannot reply to their own conscience let alone to others, if asked as to how they will deal with kinsmen and women of mixed marriages who attach equal value to the heritages from both parents and therefore are not prepared to choose between their fathers and mothers. I do not believe that these mixed Ethiopians take lightly a recent communiqué from former OLF leaders on the future of minority nationalities and peoples in an independent Oromia that originated in the land of the free, America, and dismiss it as a case of the cart coming before the horse. I have a hunch that those to whom the communiqué is meant to be a consolation will be amused. This is because the things that should have been mentioned as a matter of priority were not, namely, that would-be-minorities are kin to the Oromo; that they are one people; that the objectives of the struggle are to ensure justice and secure a common country where rights will be respected, as well as convince people of this.

However, it takes credible work and working with credible people to achieve credibility- standing and being counted among forces with an agenda for Ethiopia. Any thing short of this is irrelevant. The slogan (“an independent Oromia or death… even for a single day”) is music to Woyané ears. The communiqué confirms that the OLF has not moved forward an inch. In a nutshell, if secession were perforce to take place it is those who issued the communiqué, not the Tigré, who should be worried. The latter will not be alone in the event that such a development occurs; in fact, it will be a moment of joy for them. The extent to which the toiling masses of Tigray are under the tight control of Woyané cadres and security networks is nevertheless becoming apparent. This would mean that others, too, will be relieved of the need to count on a daily basis the number of various language speaking neighbors to work out the balance of forces, in their pursuit to escape from concerns generated by the kind of public upheaval we witnessed in April 2001 (an upheaval that particularly targeted Woyané interests). 

TPLF appointees are challenging us to become rebels á la Woyané and seek protection in the forests, not only because the cities have turned into a forest as far as they are concerned due to their lack of public support, but also for the tactical reason that it becomes easier for them to identify their number one enemies. Whenever you make a remark that angers Ethiopians, they breathe a sigh of relief and are seized with a sense of victory, for that proves to them that you are travelling on the road they have paved. It is apparent to them that they prefer to form a united front to offer their condolences to all those mentioned above in the event of a successful secession rather than showing genuine empathy to the latter. This is certain to happen because it is inevitable that every one will join in a common effort on the issue. But so long as it can maintain their alliance, the Woyané are the major beneficiary of a tumultuous situation, though temporarily.

Another soft point of our extremists is that analyses of such complex social phenomena escape their imagination. In their best propaganda efforts, meant to remind one of their presence, they end up exposing their naked self. In the process, they complicate the efforts of the people to rise in unison against injustice and exploitation. They push the people into pit falls by sowing distrust and hatred among them. They prolong the stay in power of the Woyané, against whom they claim to fight.

Secondly, both the benefits and dire consequences of secession are largish and vivid to see, if we are prepared to face the truth. Put mildly, the people and places of worship in Harar-Dire Dawa, Goba-Assela, Shashemené-Nazreth, Ambo-Jimma-Neqemt, etc. “from within” and, those in Gonder, Meqelé, Bahir Dar, Dessé, Jijiga, Gambella, Arba Mintch, Dila, etc. “from without” cannot be kept away from one another and visits to Finfiné-Addis Ababa-Sheger are a must at least once a year. Diré Skeik Hussén of Balé celebrates the Moslem festival of Maulid with Wollo Duberti [the Virgin of Wollo] as does Abadir of Harar with the Lady of Arsi [Ye Arsiwa Emebét] and the Awlia of Jimma with Sof Omar of Balé. The Church of Merry in Axum, Lasta Lalibela in Wollo and the Church of St. Gabriel in Harar all collect offerings from the four corners of the country. These are some of our values that are indestructible by any force other than by the law of development itself. 

The people of Afar and Issa do not want to see any restrictions barring them from moving with their flocks and herds from the northern frontier to Awash Harba in south-central Ethiopia. The Amhara, Tigré, Agäw, Shinasha, Benshangul, etc. have compelling reasons to travel south, past Addis, to Awassa, Dilla, Arba Mintch, etc. Wolayta, Kembata, Sidama, Gamo, etc. need to travel to Addis, Wollo-Lalibela, Axum-Tigray for such social reasons and ceremonies as weddings, deaths, offerings, etc. Then, what does one have to say to all these masses of people? They cannot change their identity, nor can they turn away from their beliefs. They have no wings to fly, or, are they going to have to pay airport fees and require visas? Or are we expecting them to say “passage through and including Oromia or Death”? 

Folks, let us distinguish between reason and folly. No one in his or her right mind throws away their wealth and honour unless dictated by circumstances. The resources of the nation starting with power production (and including the indemnity Italy was made to pay to us) were invested in this region by all the governments that came and went before the TPLF regime. This would not be an easy complication to deal with were we to settle accounts. It is a grave mistake to regard the interrelationship among the people of Ethiopia as a house of cards. Breaking this chain of unity is by no means as simple as paying lip service to one’s politics or as arbitrarily changing names of individuals and places. One should really take this issue into one’s head!!

Thirdly, the religious ramifications of secession are likely to take us as, they say, from the frying pan into the fire, unless caution is exercised. We have to stop and think several times if we mean what we say about genuinely fighting for the interests of the people. The first task in this regard is to know our people better. I would prefer no to exaggerate religious issues. With a view to counselling our extremists and because fear of the worst does not prevent the inevitable from happening, I will point out for reasons of circumspection our soft spot with regard to religions in Oromia, where there are three: Christianity, Islam and Waqéfätcha. The first two have about equal number of followers and -bear in mind- conservative, liberal and extremist elements within them. Waqéfätcha, like the Gedda system, is dying. And celebrations of the Gedda system are totally forbidden in Islam as are Islamic festivities in Gedda.

In 1992, at a conference organised by shrewd OLF cadres and attended by several people ‘representing’ the Oromo, diplomats and government functionaries in Déraa-Hurutaa, Arsi, to celebrate Gedda ceremonies, Oromo Moslems had to be barred due to protests from respectable elders knowledgeable about the Gedda system. So much so that a 92 year-old elder invited for his expertise in the Gedda system protested as a ceremony involving the killing of a bull was underway. He fumed: “What is killing the Gedda system is this Arabic import of yours, so-called Islam. If you mean business and celebrate Gedda, if you really want the Oromo to unite, please get rid of Islam which is destroying Gedda and is divisive to the Oromo!

That was an unpleasant surprise to the organisers of the conference, to say the least. It was a rude awakening to the fact that one was ignorant of one’s history. Moslem Oromos were dumb-founded, after contributing their share to making the conference a success, to learn that they were barred. I do not think that opponents of the OLF were ever as delighted as on that day. The main victor of the day was the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia (IFLO) of Aba Jarra and co. This organisation muttered ‘I told you so’ and thereafter began to swell its ranks with new members.

Another organisation based in Harar and Balé and used to calling itself Somali-Abbo under Haile Selassé and Sowra during the era of the Dergue had to go through a soul-searching exercise after the Déraa-Hurutaa conference. It is particularly after this conference that the leader of the Balé Oromo movement, Gen. Waqo Gutuu, began to frequent trips to Moqadishu and Saudi Arabia, thereby abandoning his traditional Borena Waqéfätcha for Islam of Mecca-Medina, to which he converted later.

“These people are simply acting. They may speak our language, albeit with difficulty, but they do not know our people. I felt out of place.” [Ber jeri tuni ifumaa if fekesitee, afaan kegnaa humnumaan cecebsite tubeti mele oumeta kegnaa hinbektu. Ijollen hintebettiin mukkaan siwerantii jechun kenaa! Annimaatu if selpissie!] The General meant that he humiliated himself. Respected as he was for his military exploits even by Haile Selassé’s defence Minister Gen. Kebede Gebré and loathe to bowing to Woyané- some thing he did not even do for Haile Selassé- he returned to his traditional bastion of the Dello-Menaa jungle via Borena, leaving behind at Hotel D’Afrique the young lady to whom the Woyané had married him. Six years later while scouring for news about the Badme-Shiraro war, though, I heard him on the VOA say: “Every thing Obbo Gelasaa Dilbo says is fine by me for I do not speak Amharic.” Time will tell how long this friendship lasts.

The second time Islam and the Gedda System had a confrontation was in 1994 in Shewa (at Debre Zeit or Ambo?), where the Oromo wing of the TPLF (OPDO), on its part, organised a similar meeting to the one held in Arsi. Proponents of Gedda were angered to see Obbo Hassen Ali on national television grease his forehead with blood from a bull and wag the sword with which he slaughtered the bull. 

Although the motive behind the OPDO cadre instigated massacre in Arba Gugu was to harm the Amhara, we know from the list of names contained in the report issued at the time by the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC) that half of the victims were Christian Oromos. Hundreds of credible eyewitnesses are also alive and can confirm the story. What does this say to us? Who is to side with whom when the crunch comes? My intention here is to point out the danger that is looming due to an incorrect handling by individuals and cliques (and to the destructive competition among them) of the contradictions in our society. Is it not more constructive instead to embrace the Ethiopianness of the majority and the idea of a common country by leaving religious choices to the individual?

Fourthly, there is another problem we have to face when it comes to internal rivalry. Though not on the scale practiced unscrupulously by our northern (Tigrean) brothers, there is a time bomb we have to bear in mind - the problem of provincialism - in Oromia, too, and this is a further point that disqualifies the argument for secession. Those born in Harar, Balé and Arsi are not particularly keen on things Wollega. Squabbles and mutual indifference are observable even between such neighbors as Fitché and Gebre Guratcha and Ambo-Gintchi in West Shewa, between Gujji-Borena and Jima to the east, etc. Such behavior is apparent even among immigrant Ethiopians who often yearn for compatriots, let alone back home where several factors aggravate the situation. Minnesota can be a case in point. According to a document obtained from the Immigration Office of that State, 97% of 11, 300 applicants (who identified their nationality by the rather marathon name of Oromia-East Africa-Ethiopia) for residence permit were born in Balé, Arsi and Harar regions of Ethiopia. This concourse did not take place without a reason. In imitating the Woyané who give precedence to thier Tigrean identity over Ethiopianness, these ones have become more Catholic than the Pope and give precedence to their regional roots of Balé, Arsi, Wollega, Jimma, etc; their Oromo identity plays second fiddle. That Oromos of Western Oromia lost control of the new OLF leadership has more to do with provincialism than with democracy, and that is an open secret.

Experience shows that a Balé Oromo, for instance, feels closer to a Neftegna of the same region or of Harar than to a Wollega Oromo for reasons of social psychology. The big question here is as to where we are going. It is because of all these reasons that the magic of secessionism will not make us into what we are not, that is why it is neither easy nor credible as a threat, contrary to what the extremists tell us. If you think it works, I urge us all not to leave a legacy of continued misery to our children.

I would like us to be the last to go through the present ordeal. This is implausible, though, and can only lead to derision. The future of our children is at stake here and it worries me that we are forcing them to go through the confusion and torments of identity crisis. Do you feel the pain of children deprived of the right to mention the fact of them coming from mixed marriages while at the same time stating their country /nationality as being Ethiopia / Ethiopian? How cruel and daring are we to impose the sickness of identity crisis on our own children? When faced with such pointed questions, you are used to countering by proposing a precondition in the form of the cliché that the Neftegnas must first apologise for the cruelty they committed during the reign of Menelik. I do not think you really mean that, but use it for evading the issue. Apology is deserved when appropriate, but meaningless when taken out of context and can even be regarded as a crime.

What have we achieved as a result of the 1991 so-called apology to Isayas Afewerki, extended by elders said to represent Ethiopians south of the Mereb River, on the orders of Meles Zenawi and with the assistance of professor Andreas Esheté? They may, on the one hand, believe that they have exacted revenge by annoying and humiliating an entire people. And, on the other, they have used the occasion to give the impression that enmity exists between the peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, the intrigue has not succeeded; we hear grievances from all sides about complex and endless suffering, of which – relative to the conspiracy- we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. I think it is only about three of those delegates sent to humiliate Ethiopians, including professor Andreas, who are alive today - and that under conditions of lost clout and respect. The others passed away without even having time enough to tell us about the hospitality Isayas Afewerki extended to them.

There is no time when one has not paid a price - no matter how - for crimes committed against people. You may remember that most of Woyané’s marionette actors we saw dancing on national TV on the day they told us that article 39 of the Constitution (allowing self-determination up to secession) was adopted by a majority vote, have died. The so-called representative of Harar died in a car accident at Miésso on his way back while that from Balé was killed at his home in Goba-Homma that very day by what Woyané called anti-peace forces. We also know that one of the survivors and a defector from the EPRP, Ambassador Abdul Mejid Hussén – who we saw dance and jump that day in the traditional costume of Jelebiya – has health problems after he was shot six times; we do not know whether the incident resulted from his Ogadeni kin regarding him a renegade or from Isayas Afewrki getting a hunch from Abdul Mejid Hussén’s display on that day that he could be a danger. The lady from the north who was spinning on the dance floor, with a qunna [a traditional tray made of grass] on her head, is today seriously troubled by the recent campaign against corruption and accusations of Bonapartism.

You also know the fate of the person who was leading the work of approving the Constitution, former President Negasso Gidada, and his honorable deputy at that time in the execution of that historic task, Ato Abate Kisho. It is as though political crimes do not go unpunished for too long. No sooner had we expressed surprise at what happened to former Prime Minister Tamirat Layné than the saga involving Siyé Abraha and co. started. The honorable Secretary General of the TPLF, Meles Zenawi, informed us that the front known for producing ‘generations that were moving mountains’ had ‘rotten from top to bottom’. And TPLF satellites hardly knew how to react to that development and were groping in darkness. The OLF was unashamedly the first to try to capitalize on the situation, though that may not necessarily be wrong so long as it is done with caution. The main point here is that the chaos in which Woyané marionettes find themselves is just beginning. The respectable Tobia columnist, Ahmed Abdella, flatteringly characterized the latter’s and President Meles’ attempts to criticize the political crimes they say were committed against them as the “satellites’ declaration of a movement for independence”. 

Turning back to those who ask us to apologize, I would like to warn them to keep away from political crimes that in no time come back to haunt them. Mean time, here is food for thought for them: Putting aside such moot questions as to whether independent observers or partisans wrote our history and accepting both written sources and oral literature, let us ponder over whether it is appropriate to demand apology. Emperor Tewodros burnt people alive and severed the limbs of those aristocrats and ordinary men and women who refused to submit to him (in Gonder, Gojjam, Shewa, Tigray and Wollo). Angered with the refusal of King Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam to surrender to him, Emperor Yohaness IV massacred the people of that region and also committed cruelty against Moslems who refused to convert to Christianity. Aba Jiffar of Jimma enslaved or sold to slavery hundreds of thousands of our people. It was an edict of Aba Jiffar’s that one who was suspected of escaping from efforts to sale one into slavery should be amputated at the calf. With the request of Ras Seyoum Mengesha, Menelik did allow the amputation of the limbs of Eritreans who committed treason and fought on the side of Italy. The Arsi Oromo suffered the amputation of hands and breasts, with the knowledge of Menelik, for repeatedly resisting the latter’s army during its expansion into the region. It is not impossible that similar unrecorded cruelties were committed. Irrespective of such reasons as the low consciousness of the society at that time, the people were victimised. It is saddening that that, too, is part of our history. However, we have to be careful not to repeat it. Beyond this, who is to apologise for whom? If it is the nominal ceremony of apology one is interested in, one has to research into the genealogy of the Emperors who committed the crimes – Tewodros’ in Gonder, Yohaness’ in Tigray and Menelik’s in Ankober (or in Wolayta-Sodo if the rumours are true) and Aba Jiffar’s in Jimma – and look for volunteers to perform it. Other wise, it is a crime to try to punish an entire people, especially today’s generation, for crimes committed a century ago by men-at-arms. By so doing not only does one show one’s ignorance about the essence of apology but turns one self into a problem child. It is possible, either through due process of law or reconciliation, to deal with the crimes and intrigues committed under Haile-Silasse´, the killings under the Dergue and the oppression and acts of treason being committed by the Woyané regime, as the perpetrators and the victims as well as the evidence and the times when the crimes were carried out are clearly known. But one wonders as to what the proponents of apology want us to do with regard to crimes committed in the murky history of the past, i.e. before the reign of Haile-Silassé. Which comes first: Directing our common efforts towards putting an end to the ongoing suffering and devastation our people are currently going through or crying foul about the past where both perpetrators and victims have left the scene for good? Brothers, the beneficiaries of the mindless preaching of hatred among the people and of threatening with secession are not the Oromo people, who are being urged to secede, but the Woyané and political opportunists. Inciting the people, who for so long lived together and intermarried, and turning them into sworn enemies under such ill thought out pretexts and throwing the young generation into identity crisis by depriving it of its sense of patriotism, has to stop immediately, as it does no good to any one; on the contrary, we have to realise that not only is it is a criminal act but also a dark spot on our history.

 Fifthly, regarding neighbors, Somalia would not have annexed not only the Ogadén which it claims is represented by one of the five stars on its flag (the others being Moqadishu, Hargeyssa, Djibouti& Mandèr)  but also Harar, Balé, Borena and Arsi, had it not itself gotten into hot water. Such annexation would have of course included all the Ethiopians who inhabit those regions, namely, the Ethiopian Somalis in El Kerré and the Ogadén, Geremeros (Aduns), Girirras, Guralés (Guras), Oromos and Amharas (whom it calls Arus & Sidama), Hararis (who are nick-named the ‘Woyanés of the East’ due to the activities of their extremists) and others who are not considered Ethiopian by Somalia. The latter has maintained since before its inception as an independent state that it has unfinished business regarding its territorial claims. It is inevitable that it will extend its claim as far into Ethiopia as Awash, as it did shortly before and during its 1977-78 invasion of Ethiopia, and even demand indemnity if Ethiopia is found wanting in the task of defending itself. 

 Those who have a vested interest in the Nile River and in spreading a fundamentalist version of Islam feel that they have the historic duty of assisting in the fulfillment of such a project. In other words, Somalia will not be alone in striving towards achieving its territorial ambitions. We recall that interim President Jaalé Abdulqassim Salat Hassen was Minister of Home Affairs under Siad Baré’s regime that invaded Ethiopia in the late 1970s. Home Minister Abdulqassim Salat Hassen meant more than merely weakening the Dergue when he and his office were hosting Isayas Afewerki and 6 of his lieutenants as well as Meles Zenawi and 3 of his assistants (including Sibehat Nega) by accommodating them with 11 villas and adequate monthly payments, in addition to providing them with passports and licenses necessary for purchasing arms, not to mention the diplomatic lobbying they conducted on behalf of their guests in the Middle East and introducing them to Arab leaders such as Col. Gadafi in an effort to solicit assistance. 

It is the 60 year-old Interim President Abdulqassim Salat, who once lived in Egypt as a refugee (and speaks Somali, Arabic, Italian, English & Russian), that once told us: “The main reason why we assisted Eritrean and Tigrian rebels was that they did accept Awash as the boundary between Somalia and Ethiopia”. The point is not that the table is now turned on him or that he is a poor messenger of Isayas’ or even that Meles ignored his former mentor’s favors. It is Somalia’s agenda that should be kept in mind. Jumping here and there and forming alliances with Sha’abiya, Somalia, the Ogaden Liberation Front, etc., often in response to Woyané policies, is nothing more than a marriage of convenience. One has to take note of this; it is not enough that one decides to travel unless one knows why one travels, the condition of the road and the destination, as well as ensure the adequacy of provisions and munitions, necessary medical supplies and, lest it be necessary, find out the way back home – these are minimum requirements for the planned journey. It is my conviction that one has to abandon the unnecessary political journey and head home and invest on it, for that is an honorable step to take both in the eyes of the people and in the annals of history.

Part III

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