Facing the Challenge of Extreme Nationalism in Ethiopia

Abay Beneberu Qeneni

March 2002


With regard to the AAPO and its members, I pay tribute to those who sacrificed themselves and those who are still doing so to defend the people of Amhara who have been stigmatised as Neftegna and singled out for revenge by Woyané and its cohorts. I do not blame them for advocating a centralised system of government in contrast to my preference for federalism. One has to accept a decision-making process where differences in opinion are respected. However, my problem is the fact that they advocate a united Ethiopia whose status quo is retained or, even worse, their inclination for a particular brand of unity that reflects only their views; it is particularly discomforting that the extremists within them pay lip-service to unity but promote disunity in their deeds, that they are out for achieving fame for themselves or stand on the fringes sulking at what others do, nurturing their self-inflated image, rather than working together for the good of our society in a coordinated manner, some thing they are unwilling or unable to do. It is as though- if my judgment is correct- they were saying that the Amhara are capable of achieving anything, but that the others need a guardian to accomplish a similar feat. From the outset, the mere fact that others organise on ethnic lines is for them an expression of narrowness and secessionism. When challenged on how they have organised themselves, they argue that the Woyané forced them to organise on ethnic lines though, they say, their aim is one people, one country, one-nation.

These people cannot deny the mere fact that they abandoned their goals, under Woyané pressure, confirms that they lost the fight long before it began. This means that they forfeited their role in politics a decade ago. How do they fail to see the discrepancy between their desires and actions when they embark on fighting racism by organising themselves on racist lines? Woyané fears and is anathema to a weaker multiethnic organisation more than it is to a strong ethnic based one. It has a good reason for that; it knows that every ethnic based-organisation revolves around the philosophical circle on which the Woyané itself is founded and that about three-fourth of the benefits of the actions of such organisations go to it. How then can one hope to achieve one’s goal by giving away so much to one’s opponent? When advised to ponder over this and at least change the name of their organisation, one senior member retorted: “Who on earth are the Amhara inferior to not to organise in their own name?”  That is why one dare argue that such people, who are in the twilight of their political carreer, are lulling and impeding the people from taking alternative routes. They pour cold water over the struggle by tiring the people and leading them astray, thereby driving them from the arena of struggle, which is why there is little to shaw by way of results. Some say they chose to organise in the name of the Amhara ‘to be able to respond to the initial attack/massacre against Amharic speakers’, but, though this is plausible, they have had enough time to make changes. They have not done it until now and there are no indications that they will do it in the future. And the campaign against ‘the Amhara’ has not been brought to an end, in fact it has continued, though intermittently. The recent displacement in Wollega is a typical example. As noted above, it is my opinion that every one has the right to organise one self in a manner one sees fit, regardless of the benefits or drawbacks thereof. Pretending to be what one is not or cannot be, however, smacks of Woyané; as such, one has to immediately abandon the mistake of perceiving ethnic-based organisation in black and white, for that is one of the weaknesses of the political struggle. If they mean to fight racism, they have to make their organisation a multi-ethnic one. Another alternative for them is to continue to speak for the Amhara while at the same time accepting the rights of others to organise on ethnic lines. Which ever form of organisation they choose, it is a must for them to make a fundamental revision of their thinking on democratic lines - if they mean to make constructive contributions - and stop acting guardians for other ethnic groups, as that would in itself mean arrogance at best and racism at worst. Otherwise, we have to challenge them to stop confusing the people and retire from their futile political career of the last decade.

There are other extremists on the fringes among those who call themselves Amhara who complicate matters in a manner worse than those I discussed above. Most of them live as refugees outside Ethiopia and their thinking about their country is based on the situation that existed when they left Ethiopia, not on the objective situation obtaining today thereby confusing the two situations. Their extremism, mixed with the sundry of views they have had about the Haile-Silassé, Dergue/WPE and TPLF/EPRDF regimes, has led them to entrench racism in the Ethiopian Diaspora in a manner no less damaging than the one practiced at home. They feel like remote-controlling the forums beyond their reach, not just the ones at which they participate. To them, any activity that is undertaken without their blessing is aimed at winning fame and power. They are extremely mistrustful and dream about the positions of authority they hope to occupy after victory. They easily take to condemning and sulking at any thing accomplished without their sanction. Their fight is, therefore, not against the Woyané but against popular forces. Another way they harm the struggle is by resorting to spontaneous and irresponsible diatribe at whichever forum they find themselves. They spread rumours without giving the slightest thought to the implications and the beneficiaries of their actions. They tend to preach the existence of a divine-imposed hierarchy among ethnic groups. When counselled to desist from making remarks that hurt others, firstly, they do not have the patience to listen but only to talk. Secondly, they continue to commit more blunders in their attempts to convince their interlocutors, rather than genuinely considering the counsel. Such infantile behaviour has enabled the Woyané to kill two birds with one stone and helped it reinforce the loyalty of its kin. This is a red light Woyané is using to warn ordinary Tigrés saying: ‘this is what awaits you if you do not help me stay in power’. Therefore, Woyané will be able to continue to have a reserve of marionettes and keep the people divided. The despondent cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel and the opportunist avails himself or herself of a pretext either to abandon the struggle or to continue to shamelessly cling to their master. The secessionist èlites, too, continue to exploit the infantilism of the Amhara extremists to pursue their campaign with vigour. Members of the Diaspora including the intellectuals, the elderly and those who toil in factories for meager wages begin to dance to the tune of secessionism assuming infantilism to be normal behaviour. By so identifying with the Oromo they try to pass as devotees to the cause of the struggle. The prolongation of the problem at home also provides them with the time and pretext to bring relatives from Ethiopia in the name of family reunion. The unfortunate citizens back home can continue to suffer blaming their stars for their bad fortune! 

When voices of reason tell them that their ways are destructive, that we should distinguish between people and organisations, that we should not interpret history out of context, that we have to consider the truth and weigh it against the implications, that our efforts are futile unless founded on popular support and organisation and that we should in a maturely considered manner chart the future together, the extremists in both camps refuse to listen. They rather come up with insinuations of cowardice, opportunism, treason, and accuse others of being a mixed race, Neftegna henchmen, an EPRP/MEISON or student movement old-timer of the leftist school, an Ethiopian nationalist of the Dergue/WPE type, etc. Folks, the major problem in the first problem is that these extremists do not know about organisation and neither do they have desire nor respect for organised work. As I noted in my introduction, they do not even know the different roles of civic organisations and political parties. They end up failing to tell the head from the tail even when they think they have given their best shot for the struggle. They do not even grasp the goals and programmes of the organisations they claim to support and fail to see the importance of respecting organisational discipline. In this regard, especially most of those who claim to speak for the Amhara (including the inactive ones) have very similar positions, judging directly or indirectly from their actions. Today, they regret the participation as sympathisers or members in other organisations, of which they were once proud. They fuss over trifles in matters relating to the AAPO, their pawn, and indulge in hair splitting with regard to the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Organisation and the Oromo Peoples Congress (OPC). Pertaining to the new comer Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), they talk about the futility of its peaceful struggle against the Woyané. When asked as to what their role would be in the event of an armed struggle, they say they will make material & financial contributions; but when it comes to the question of manpower for the armed struggle, they begin to scratch their heads. And at the mention of EPRP, they are seized by aversion more than the Woyané. When asked for alternative solutions, they come up with such excuses that they are stigmatised by the Woyané, or that they do not want to endanger their business plans and, hence, can only do what they can as individuals not through organisations, or that they are no more interested in politics or that there are no dependable people to work with. Their ultimate answer for the political crisis that is victimising our people is to hasten to quote the title of the book: ‘The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born’

In this book, the author (Armah) has made the wife of the main character (the Man) to call him Choochoo Dodo. Choochoo Dodo is a handsome and proud bird that deeply dislikes all animal products, especially dung. He eats mangoes and nests in a mango tree. Choochoo Dodo is unthinkable without the mango tree. But a mango tree grows best on soil enriched with manure. When using the analogy of ‘The Beautiful Ones are not Yet Born’, those extremists, who would like us to call them Amhara, tend to view politics and organisation in a superficial manner similar to how the wife views Choochoo Dodo’s love and hate towards the mango tree and the manure. The Woyané have failed to prevent the people from organising freely and participating in the politics of their country even after investing all the resources at their disposal, but these extremists are helping them achieve those very goals at a lower cost. When they fall short of realising their goals as a result of such weaknesses, confusion and internecine squabbles, they end up resorting to the audacious and recurrent effort of condemning earlier student movements, organisations, opposition movements and individuals. But such behaviour gets one nowhere and brings one nothing. Some how we have to have the courage to put an end to this destructive chaos. One has to realise that one falls into more insignificance than the extremists themselves if one assumes, on the basis of the negatives the extremists say and write, that there is a fundamental, an irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the Oromo and Amhara and /or that there is mutual disdain between the two communities and hence remove oneself from taking part in the struggle. We have to tell them to listen to advice and correct their mistakes or to desist from their actions or else to retire from politics. One cannot be excessively concerned with public opinion when it comes to defending one’s national interests. Every one has to discharge their share of national responsibilities; it is meaningless to talk in terms of persuaders and objects of persuasion. Every one has to be aware of their rights and duties and work towards respect for those rights and discharge their duties. 

In this spirit and with a view to learning from one another about the people being a source of power, avoiding becoming an impediment to unity and for long-lasting peace and mutual benefit, I propose to outline below six points which I believe will contribute to peaceful co-existence - in a spirit of give and take with the Amhara and Oromo extremists - who are the main focus of this article.

First, we have over 80 indigenous languages in Ethiopia, classified into four categories: 

i) Kushitic (Oromifa, Somali, Sidama, Kembata, Beja, Bilen, etc., 

ii) Semitic (Ge’ez, Tigre, Tigringa, Amharic, Guragigna, Argoba, Harari, Gafat); 

iii) Omotic (Keffa, Wolayta, Majji, Gamo, Konta, Gofa, etc., 

iv) Nilotic (Mezhenger, Gumuz, Kunama, Anuak, etc.). 

Of these Gafat is a dead language and Ge’ez is limited to use in the church. Most of the languages have not had the opportunity to develop. Amharic is, however, better developed for historical reasons and aided by the fact that it has been a written language; it has therefore been the voice of government and a working language for centuries. We take pride in it as it is the only African language, other than Arabic, with an indigenous alphabet. Because most city and town dwellers use it as a medium of communication, Amharic has developed, especially since the 19th century, into the lingua franca of the region. As such, other than the traits it shares with other languages, it has to be seen as a mere medium of communication, and, it is the users who have to choose the medium of communication. One may offer recommendations but cannot force one to use a particular language. But situations can compel one; a case in point is that the Woyané used to refer to Amharic as the language of ‘donkeys’ at the time when they were preaching the establishment of a Tigray Republic, but then as they began to dream of a presentment of something bigger from their guerrilla strongholds, they had to use Amharic for propaganda purposes and as they entered Menelik’s Palace, they realised that their existence depended on it. The OLF would hardly have behaved any differently if it were to seize power other than declaring Oromifa a second working language, for reasons of keeping its word and due to the fact that it is the largest (in terms of the number of speakers) and better developed language next to Amharic and Tigringa. If the OLF were confident of victory and if it knew what it was doing, it had to try to raise the Amharic proficiency of its top cadres to whom it would assign key positions and display that proficiency at every forum where issues Ethiopian were discussed. I know it will not have immediate problems, but it should consider the harm it will do to the country and to young followers of the OLF if it continues to prevent the latter from learning what it calls is the language of the Neftegna: it is preventing these youngsters, who could assume the future leadership of the country, from effectively exercising their rights as citizens and the country from tapping into their talents. We have witnessed the extent to which the Woyané have exploited, though temporarily, their Oromifa and Amharic-speaking henchmen by tagging pseudo-names on to them (calling Tayé Kuma, Minassé Aba Dulla, etc.). 

We have to realise that while they are telling the rest of Ethiopians that learning the Neftegna’s Amharic and Oromifa, too, is a matter of choice for them, they are in the mean time diligently teaching both languages to their kith and kin, not for reasons of inheriting heaven but rather to prepare their cadres for leadership roles and the rear guard for the opportunity to take advantage of wider Ethiopia. If we accept this argument, we have to do all in our power to develop the languages of nations/nationalities while at the same time paying the necessary attention to our lingua franca. Amharic managed to develop by borrowing words, proverbs, idioms, etc., from such foreign languages as English, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Russian and such domestic languages as Ge’ez, which is its foundation, Tigringna, Agew, Oromifa, Afar, Sidamo, Somali, Guraginga, etc. In linguistics, the word and the object or the concept have no relations. What some thing or some one is named is governed by the choice of the users. Every language can adequately express its own culture and is therefore self-sufficent. When stretched beyond its bounds, it makes up for the deficiency either by borrowing from or adapting to a foreign language. English, which is a widely spoken language around the world with rich literature, is developed by such a process of borrowing and adaptation vis-à-vis not just such European languages as Latin, Greek, Dutch, French, Russian, Italian but also other languages in former British colonies. It surprises me to see our Oromo extremists trying to avoid borrowing words from Amharic because they are either blinded by hatred or are so backward in their awareness about languages; it saddens me to see them mock the users of the language, not to mention their poor command of the language itself. What would Amharic gain and what would Oromifa lose, other than enrichment, if Oromifa borrowed from Amharic just like the latter did from other languages, including Oromifa itself? Certain words that Amharic today uses as its own were borrowed both from home and abroad: science, programme, mezmur, tassa, shemiz, verandah, villa, adungna, geleta, qotcho, etc., are some examples. In this regard Amharic has a big role to play in contributing to the development of the other Ethiopian languages. This is the reality and danger of the misconception of extremists of both communities regarding languages and their getting at each other’s throats could be harmful in the long-term. If we continue on the wrong track we may even face problems in developing the other languages. Language is a medium of communication and it should not be an instrument, as used by the Woyané, to divide us. 

While striving to enable children get at least their primary education in their mother tongue and according to the choice of their parents, we have to devote the necessary attention to our lingua franca, too. At least one national working language is necessary for any country. Our social interactions and development will unquestionably suffer if we deny our working language the status it deserves. We have not witnessed any harm done by a single language, English, being the working language in the United States, where speakers of most languages of the world live. If we do not come to our senses and do some thing about it, it will not be long before we need interpreters as we move between regions. In Sierra Leone, for instance, there are ethnic groups speaking 40-50 languages. There was a time when they could not communicate with one another without the medium of the colonial language, English. This problem was partially solved with Mende in the south and Temne in the north developed into main regional vernaculars and Krio, English-based Creole, gradually developing into a national language. If we continue along the present lines, our children may not be able to communicate with one another after thirty years, and it will be then when our miserable failure will be confirmed as such. No one will benefit from such a development, except Ethiopia’s traditional enemies who are thriving on the destitution and failure of the people of Ethiopia. We should give due consideration to the gravity of the situation both for our own sakes and, especially, for the welfare of future generations.

Second, the choice of alphabet, just like the choice of language, has to be determined by the user. This is without excluding the important role of professionals’ views on such matters as choosing the most appropriate alphabet and modification work. But the extremists who do not accept this create further problems by mixing the role of professionals with their own political interests. In Oromifa, for instance, a spoken word can have different meanings depending on where the accent falls or on the length of the word. An alphabetic system of writing, where every symbol represents a single sound and where vowels and consonants are written separately is useful for this. Latin characters (Quubé in Oromifa) enable one to variegate the sound of a word by shortening/lengthening a written word by the number of vowel-consonant combinations. Since the Ge’ez-based Amharic is syllabic, each character can represent two or more sounds (word). Note that representing a word and representing a sound are two different things in linguistics. It is therefore difficult at the moment to show, using Amharic characters, the difference in meaning that can be brought about by shifting the accent or shortening or lengthening sounds. The Amharic characters, which serve to write such Semitic languages as Amharic and Tigringa without problems, are not yet fully developed for use with the other languages. It is hence a mistake to regard those sections of the society who have chosen to use Latin characters as anti-Amharic or even anti-Ethiopian. We know from experience that there are groups who have political motives, however, the right thing to do is to respect their choice. In this connection, it is appropriate to develop Amharic characters in such a way as to be used for all the other languages by, as suggested by author Hadis Alemayehu, reducing the number of characters that have identical appellation and introducing new symbols to represent such characters as the English ‘V’ and the Oromifa sound ‘D’. Those who have chosen Latin characters will have to make sure, by consulting professionals, that their choice is implemented in a manner that will not be an impediment both for students and teachers. Education is a means to solving problems of society and should not be an instrument for fulfilling the sinister desires of particular individuals and groups. If the teaching-learning process in our country continues arbitrarily on current lines for short-term political gains, it will mean confusion not education; one has to realize that it means risking the future of coming generations. And mixing such issues, which can be settled by professionals, with other major national issues of common interest, can only be regarded as poverty of ideas and an excuse for generating conflict.

Part IV

Comments to A. B. Qeneni