Facing the Challenge of Extreme Nationalism in Ethiopia

Abay Beneberu Qeneni

March 2002


In part III of this article I presented two of the six points I believe would contribute to peaceful co-existence. Starting with my third point, I now discus the remaining four points and conclude the article.

Third, I am saddened by the time and energy wasted as a result of the laughable points of argument on which the two camps deliberately fail to agree. The Oromo extremists often talk about the empire, in an attempt to imply that Ethiopia colonized sovereign states, one of which they believe was Oromia, though they lack the evidence for that. The Amhara extremists on their part do not surprisingly want to hear such words as emperor or governor, as though they were not proudly using those terms in the past. We did not know they meant that the emperors existed without an empire. Those who say Habesha-Abyssinia-Ethiopia_Finfiné-Addis Ababa are not, however, trapped as easily. Unless we know the historical genesis and meanings of these five terms as well as contextualise their use and purposely continue to confuse, then we will end up fighting not just against history but also against our own conscience. We know that it is not a mystery why foreign Zionist names are attached to Nazareth-Adama, Debre Zeit [Mt. of Olives]-Bishoftu, Hossa’ena, Debre Sina, Ephesson, Wollisso-Ghion. And those who chose those names are not alive today. It is laughable that our extremists are wasting time and energy fighting over the right to inherit names that have no claimants. This is so insignificant that this generation does not have to get absorbed in it. It is comparable to a situation where a family christines a child with two names and uses which ever of the two names to refer to the child; similarly, it is advisable that we use the place names of our own preference and leave the matter at that. Some deny the reality that was; others tend to become pretenders to the throne that is long gone. Still others seem to be preparing to settle scores against names they once scrambled to adopt, realizing that they have failed to fulfil their wishes. But had the OLF managed to enter Menelik’s Palace, it would not have had time for such trivial issues. It would never have made references to the empire, for opportunity never knocks twice at any man’s door. It cannot cleanse itself of the secessionist taboo. Neither will it develop into a nation nor is it showing efforts to work with other organizations that have an Ethiopian agenda. It is failing to realize that it cannot succeed without working with popular forces. The OLF is likely to go into the dustbin of history without benefiting either itself or others it claims to serve. I think it is persisting with its secessionist agenda as a protest against its failure to enter Menelik’s Palace and a sign of despondency. It is the responsibility of the Oromo to force it into correcting this weakness. Other Ethiopians, too, have the responsibility of helping by responding positively to its genuine demands.

Fourthly, we were eyewitnesses to the fact that Ethiopians in the South were losing their land ownership rights to henchmen of the system at the time under the smallest of pretexts until the practice (of communal ownership, usufructory rights, tenancy, church endowments-sämon-) was abolished by the Dergue’s land proclamation of 1975. I know, for instance, that in Balé Region, no less than 100 gashas of the Sinana-Débisa plains were in the hands of three families, including that of the Emperor’s mouthpiece. Though we are not privy to their true identity, they all passed by as Amharas. When we saw them come from afar, we used to say: attend to the cattle the Amhara are coming. The reason was that if one of the local herdsmen (I was one of them) failed to be attentive and allowed the cattle to stray into those lands, the local inhabitants had to pay birr 2-3 per beast. Note that at that time a heifer cost birr 20-30. The main purpose of owning a chunk of the plains was to use it as a trap for tress-passing; imagine how many heifers a local owner of, say, 60 cattle would pay if one of them trespassed. The cruelty of the landowners and all the ordeal the locals had to go through as well as the disciplinary actions a family would take against the herdsmen were all trivials. Who would blame them if children grow up hating Amharas? The Oromo of the area did not normally treat the poor Amhara that used to suffer with them as Amharas, but often at times of trouble. The reason for all that sordid situation was the owners of that extensive land, who neither bought nor inherited it. But then, how did they manage to get hold of it? It would be too much if they tell us that they deserved it as a favour. In this connection, we would be grateful if one of the children of those landowners, who in 1971 was my teacher at Azmatch Deglehan (Batu Terarra) High School and who is still alive, could impart his thoughts to us on the matter. The reason for the 1964 uprising of Balé Oromos, led by Waqo Gutuu and Waqo Lugo, was the forced confiscation of the rich lands of Arena-Buluq and the Dello Menna Jungle, famous for its wild coffee, timber, etc., and its distribution to ministers, senior army officers, the royal family, etc.  The ordinary Amhara did no harm. It is one thing to call for a contextual analysis of the situation, but quite another to trivialise the truth. Another shameful behaviour is to try to champion a dead cause. Our reference to the past should not aim at killing what has already died, but to enable us to come to terms with the truth so that we can chart the future together.

Fifth, although the war between Christian Emperors Libne Dengil and his successor Gelawdios, on the one side, and the leader of the Adal, Imam Ahmed ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi (Mohamed Gragn) in 1529-1543 ended in the latter’s death and defeat at the battle of Woina Dega in Wollo, it is known that the debilitating effects of the war enabled Barentu and Borena Oromos initially and, starting 1543, the Metcha-Tullema branch of the latter (Borena) from the southeastern part of our country in a second round, conducted an extensive and coercive expansion to the west and north and managed to settle in areas which today are inhabited by Oromifa speakers. Those who do not today speak Oromifa, due to assimilation into the majority local population in such regions as Wollo, Gonder, and Gojjam are known as Amhara. In other regions, too, such ‘Oromos’ are identified by the names of the local ethnic groups. Putting aside, for the moment, the main question of as to whom Oromia belongs, what would one feel being regarded as an immigrant in one’s own country one example of which is ‘the Oromo Migration’? Bear in mind that this word [immigrant] has subjected us to humiliation. Fable turned into history: over time, the word filsset [immigration /migration] gave birth to felasha [immigrant] and led in 1991 to the loss of our kin and kith who adhered to the Old Testament, under the pretext that they were Israeli Jews. Judaism may have come to Ethiopia by way of immigrants, traders, etc., but the term felasha gave the impression that even Ethiopian converts to Judaism were foreigners, providing a perfect excuse for, on the one hand, the Israelis who mainly wanted the Ethiopians to supplement their meagre manpower resources in their never ending confrontation with the Arabs and the Woyané, on the other, for making money out of the misery of the Ethiopians. Moreover, who is to blame if a marginalized people chooses to deny its identity and opts for another? I am saying this in the context where we have bolted out of our political sleep to realize the sly political interpretations of the time, not to relish the stretched version of filsset that taunts the people of Wollo Region as ‘eternal migrants’. My point is that we have to desist from and correct expressions and acts of marginalisation or misconception that hurt the feelings of others. It is not unusual to listen to Amhara extremists brag about civilizing and not harming others, about letting others go if they wish and about the fictitiousness of Oromia, etc. The trash about civilizing others is a result of ignorance about one’s history. While one born in Debre Marqos calls those across the Abay River Galla and baria, slaves, a Moslem Oromo from Balé calls the Amhara flat-headed infidels, while those who come from the central parts of the country refer to the Amhara in the north as buda, evil-eyed. Such name-calling may cancel out each other, but it has to be corrected for, firstly, we know it is being exploited to create and /or aggravate contradictions among the people and, secondly, for it does not encourage mutual respect. Telling others to go (secede) and trivializing the name of a region are harmful practices. The term ‘Oromia’ may not be a historically well-grounded name, but accepting it – so far as the Oromos themselves like it – is the least non-Oromos can do both as a gesture of respect to them, considering the derogatory connotations with which the term ‘Galla’ or ‘the land of Galla’ was used, and a matter of minor compromise. The term may be fictitious, but every nation is built on its own bit of myth and fiction. We have to pay attention to such practices, as in fact, they form the foundation to correcting similar shortcomings in the interest of coexistence. In the first place who are they [the Amhara extremists] to tell others to go or to stay, to even dare choose names for others? One has to know that a united Ethiopia where the integrity of any nationals and regions - let alone that of such a huge section as the Oromo or of Tigray, an important part of our history - is questioned is another destructive characteristic of the Woyané. Let alone fundamental matters of history and identity relating to the names of a people or a region, who is to impose their will even on an individual who opts for a name of his or her own choice so long as he or she fulfils relevant legal requirements? We have to remember that reciprocity is fundamental to respect and love being mutual. We, too, have to get used to the political correctness practiced in the west. 

Sixth, The expansion of Amhara and Tigre Emperors is often regarded positively as an expression of their strength and of pacification. Emperor Menelk’s southward expansion by defeating local leaders and kings (in Arsi, Harar, Wolayta, Keffa, etc.,) is seen as a territorial expansion intertwined with sovereignty, an act of centralization, and of defending the system of the time and of pacification. I have no problem with that, as no nation in the world came into being without the sword and the spear. Ethiopia should not be expected to be an exception. My problem is the tendency to regard other aspirants to political power than the Amhara and Tigre as demons. We know, for instance, that the explanations given to Imam al Ghazi’s (Gragn Mohamed’s) northward expansion were not the same as those given to Menelik’s. The former was described in both oral and written history as an invader, an infidel and a Satan-sent messenger of destruction. Why? What was the rational behind describing the expansion of Amhara and Tigré Emperors in a positive light while demonising that of Mohamed Gragn’s? For obvious reasons, it was meaningless to raise such a question in the past. My argument is that we have to be ready to correct this misconception and distortion now. Corollary to this is the tendency to regard the formation of the modern Ethiopian state as a result of a uni-directional southward expansion, rather than a synthesis of a collision-collusion process involving actors from all directions, including Mohamed Gragn’s northward expansion. The bullets of Mohamed Gragn and Emperor Menelik were equally deadly. What is the difference between the former burning Churches in the 16th century and the latter Mosques in the 19th century, other than an indication of the influence of religion on the outlook of those leaders, seen from a perspective of human rights violation? What would have happened if Gragn Mohamed succeeded in his efforts other than making Islam a state religion, just like Menelik and his predecessors made Orthodox Christianity a state religion, for reasons of political expediency, and hence pre-empting Emperor Yohanness IV following in the foot-steps of Menelik? I even have a hunch that Gragn Mohamed might have continued with Amharic as a working language by virtue of its written script. It is not unreasonable to think that he could have also been tempted by Arabic, though it would have been limited to religious use, just like Ge'ez, considering the fact that the people did not speak it. But because of religious affinity, the relations with the Arab world would have been much different. And if we could have been better off than today because of closer ties with Arabs is a moot question, which even experts may have problem knowing with certainty. Incidentally, though, there is little doubt, contrary to conventional wisdom, that we are closer to the Arabs than to the Jews (historically, culturally/psychologically, linguistically, in belief systems, in geo-political and economic ties and in appearance). The problem is bad politics.

I do not believe that our situation would have been significantly different if from the centre or the south, for example, that King Tona of Wolayta, Abba Jiffar of Jimma or the King of Keffa defeated Menelik and took control of the central government. The lessons from the failure of Emperor Yohanness and of Gragn Mohamed to impose a single religion and the development that gradually led to a virtual evening out of the number of Christians and Moslems could have perforce resulted in a seminal realisation of a common country and of leaving religion to the private sphere. One can assume that the social-psychological influences of the communities in the centre coupled with the lax manners and limited opportunities they had, relative to Gragn Mohamed, could have constricted their chances of imposing the will of a single group, leading to a sense of Ethiopiannes similar to that we have today. This, too, is what happened under Menelik, without prejudice to the fact that the culture of those at the helm imposed itself on others. As such, the administrative ability and dexterity of individuals, the role of their advisors and foreign influences, especially as pertains to religion, determined the length of one’s reign at that time.

Although the best evidence they can provide is mythology, the Solomonites had a reason to re-trace the genealogy of the Emperors since the beginning (1270) of the reign of Yekuno Amlak, who dethroned the Zaguwé dynasty, until the end of the reign of Emperor Haile-Silassé I (1974), to King Solomon and the Lion of Judah. Though we were told that Menelik’s father was from Ankober, we knew little about his mother being a southerner (perhaps from the Bulgo or Menzo tribes of Wolayta or Bulgo. Likewise, Emperor Haile-Silassé I tried day and night through out his life to inculcate in our minds that he was a Lion of Judah while he kept us in the dark about his mother being a Guragé or about the Oromo blood of his father, Ras Mekonnen. This was a ploy to convince political rivals from the Sultanate of Harar, the Kingdoms of, Keffa, Wolayta, Oromo, Hadya, etc. that they were not chosen by God/Allah to rule and hence to make the people - including the Amhara and Tigre- subservient. Those who managed to break the shackles would rule for a time, and some did succeed. And such shackles serve as mere political manoeuvres, regardless of where one comes from. In the first place, nature has provided no one with the right to choose one’s origin. No one is inferior/superior to any one by reason of blood or innate ethnic prowess, except that one on whose side are time and circumstances succeeds to establish political dominance. True heroism comes to light when one in trying times stands tactfully for the truth and exploits opportunities for eternal good deeds.  Accepting this axiom not only brings agreement with our Oromo, Amhara, Afar, Tigré, Anuak, Wolayta, etc., brethren and with all Ethiopians, but also entails that we make it a priority to free ourselves from being prisoners of historical misconceptions and impart the truth to our extremists both on the left and right.

In this connection, the attempt to classify people on racial lines – in line with the political vogue of the times by allocating percentages to former leaders - for instance, Haile-Sellasé was 75% Oromo - to give the impression that others had an equal share of power as the Amhara and Tigré, has to stop, for it is wrong. In the first place, the Emperor himself was known, in order of importance, by his closeness to the relatives of Jesus, i.e., as a descendant of the Jews (to convince others of his divine power), Christianity (to win the Church and the Shewan nobility) and by his identity as a Menz-Beza Sefer Amhara and not by his links to the Oromo and the Guragé. No one dared to utter a word about his Oromo and Guragé connections either, until he was removed from power. Until he died at the age of 83, the Emperor himself was only once rumoured to have quipped, prior to the hanging of Tadesse Biru: Is it because you are more Oromo than We are that you are so concerned about the welfare of the Oromo? I do not think he was allowed to talk of his Oromo origins, he ruled in the name of the Amhara as long as he lived. There were many senior Oromo officials next to the Emperor. Nevertheless, they were hardly in a position to make the ordinary Oromo feel an equal beneficiary of the system other than the fact that Oromos of Wollo and Shewa were interlinked with the royal court through intermarriages, etc.

With regard to Col. Mengistu, we have not heard anything from him even though we have been thinking of him, on the basis of his appearance, as some kind of hybrid from the south. He did not bring about fundamental changes regarding the issues we are discussing, though circumstances forced him to introduce reforms that suited his rule. Former President Dr. Negasso and Mr. Meles, on the contrary, have not hidden from us the details about their race. After the TPLF began ‘rotting down from the head’ resulting in its split, though, rumours have emerged tying Meles not only to the ‘Golden race’ [Tigré] but also, through his father, to ‘the lowly’ (Cherq) Amhara in Wollo. Regardless of whether the rumours are true it is here that one should admire Meles’ shrewdness. If he establishes a link to Wollo, he can then stretch it further, through the Borena-Kemissé, etc., to claim Oromo blood. Thus the trinity of Tigré-Amhara-Oromo qualifies him, not through elections but by virtue of his innate natural quality, to be a leader of a new multi-ethnic organization and hence of Ethiopia, in the event of the dust in Tigray turning into a desert storm and his politics of race breathing its last. As things stand now, though, the changes that Meles has brought about are calling his ruling machinery nation-nationality-peoples-EFDR, depriving the country of its Red Sea outlets and transferring his capital from Meqelé to Addis Ababa.

The main political systems we have had so far have essentially reflected the social psychology of Amharic and Tigringa speakers, which undeniably has been a matter of priceless satisfaction to the latter. True, the consequences of mal administration can equally affect the ordinary people. But a destitute peasant from Menz feels much more proud in public places than a hugely rich Oromo landlord from Kofelé. Similarly a Tigré today feels as though he or she were endowed with natural superiority and entertains a perception of being a ruler. Their children imitate them and they, too, grow up with the same perception. For Amharic speakers, the fact that they could express themselves with out interpreters at such places as government offices and market places, as well as expressing their sense of national identity and that their children could study with their mother tongue as the medium of instruction had clear spiritual and material benefits. The Kefitcho, Dawros, Oromos, Kembatas, the Afar, etc., were, however, deprived of this means to fulfilling their human dignity. Allowing for some variations, their opportunity to identify themselves with the central government, power sharing, equality, access to such social services as education and employment were limited – and still are. Even though the Woyané regime today is making a mockery of these ethnic groups by telling them it has enabled them to use their languages and have regional states, which it tends to see as its ultimate gift, the fundamental problems remain unresolved. They still have no say in matters of national importance, cannot use regional resources, and are not regarded as equals and mutual love and respect need reinforcement. Denying these and confusing them with other issues is futile and does no good to any one. It is paramount that we make amends and shape a better future through mutual efforts. Those who were oppressed should focus on effecting a promising tomorrow for all and not be driven by rancour and a desire for vengeance. This is the magnanimity of learning from history. Only the realization of a political system where free and fair elections on the basis of a one-man one-vote principle and the rule of law guarantees long-lasting peace and respect for every one. In addition, I also believe a constitutional device that in future effectively protects minorities from ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is required (as a supplement to the one-man one-vote principle). That is why Group interests based on the rights of the individual should also work towards that goal. That is how we can achieve solutions to our problems.

Unless we move ahead or want to move ahead along these lines, it means that an end for the misery of our people is not yet in sight. To repeat, theologian Isaac Barlow’s views on the incompatibility of human kind and this world reflects the situation in today’s Ethiopia:

How like a paradise the world would be, flourishing in joy and rest, 

if men would cheerfully conspire in affection and helpfully constitute

to each other’s content: and how a savage wildness now it is, when like 

wild beasts, they vex and persecute, worry and devour each other

(Isaac Barlow, Doctor of Divinity Sermon, Works, 1683).

It is not without reason that I chose to open and close this article with Dr. Barlow’s words. It is my way of drawing attention to their importance as relates to the monument we will set up at our final day of victory over Woyané’s politics of hate, which we have instinctively joined, being pushed by extremists and losing a grip on our roots and destination in the process.

Comments to A. B. Qeneni