Why not fix Oromo-Ethiopia relations first?
The last few days have been very promising in Ethiopian politics. Despite our families being busy with the holidays, two major events are taking place. First, many Oromos are now challenging the current TPLF/EPRDF regime in Ethiopia. Secondly, various Oromo politicians and Oromo writers are using Ethiopian nationalist media outlets (like Ethiomedia.com) to express their views on Ethiopian history, politics and current events. Both are good and encouraging developments because the TPLF/EPRDF used to wrongly claim that Oromos are its main supporters in Ethiopia.
The original and full title of this article was actually “Ethiopia can not reform without compromise on the past and consensus on the future”
I said “compromise on the past” because we obviously do not seem to agree on the past history of our great country or how it evolved. And i said we need “consensus on the future” because currently, most Ethiopianists clearly disagree with Oromos on how the future of Ethiopia should look like. That is why Ethiopia is stuck today in a “no peace no war” situation. So i would argue that the preconditions for a successful democracy and lasting unity inside Ethiopia are (1) compromise on how major competing factions interpret Ethiopian history and (2) consensus on how we go forward as a nation.
Why do we need to do all this? I believe without major groups in Ethiopia compromising and uniting, there will never be long-term solution to the Ethiopian crisis. Organizing protests here & there or having revolutions in one part of the country will not bring real and nationwide solution. So let us dig into the two topics.
1. ON THE PAST
Having read the recent articles on Ethiomedia written by the likes of Olaana Abbaaxiiqi, Gabisso Halaale and Awol Allo, it is clear that some Oromo politicians and other “marginalized” tribes see the world differently from most Ethiopians. For example, we view Emperor Menelik II positively as a black hero and as Ethiopian patriot for uniting all Ethiopian tribes to defeat the European colonialists. However, some Oromos view Menelik as a genocidal killer and as a colonialist himself.
Also, for many Ethiopian students of history, the earliest recorded contact between northerners and Oromos happened in the 1500s during the Oromo expansion. But Oromo politicians reject this historical account and they believe Oromos lived in present-day Amhara and Tigray regions for thousands of years. Thus, Oromo politicians say that Oromos lived in this Ethiopian region before Amharas/Tigres/Gurage even arrived.
So, one wonders, how do we compromise on such historical differences?
Another conflicting theory promoted by Oromo politicians is that all Ethiopian historians are bad and European historians are always good. Not only Ethiopian historians, but first-hand books written by respectable Arab and even somali historians like Muhammad ibn Azhar ad-Din are also rejected by Oromo politicians just because their textbooks prove that Oromos raided and expanded north into Abyssinian and Somali territories in the 16th century. So, instead of first-hand accounts, Oromo politicians now prefer secondhand accounts written by Western historians. How do we compromise on such contrasting school of thought? This is another big challenge we must face.
Since the famous Wallelign student movement began in the 1960s, many Ethiopians have counter-argued that our ethnolinguistic identity is a fluid and adaptive trait that is not even skin-deep and has evolved over the centuries. In addition, many Ethiopians, including notable Oromos like Dr. Merera Gudina, have admitted that the northern Raya and Yejju Oromos in the 1700s have ruled Abyssinia(Ethiopia) for decades, as accounted by renowned historians like Paul Henze. In fact, those Oromo past rulers imposed Oromo language on other tribes three centuries ago. So Oromiffa actually used to be the official language of Ethiopia at that time, but it was later replaced by Amharic due to its lack of native alphabets used by the dominant Orthodox religion. Again, modern Oromo politicians ignore this vital part of Oromo-Ethiopian history and they pretend like these ethnolinguistic groups never met each other until Emperor Menelik showed up. That is why modern Oromos wrongly believe they were colonized by other Ethiopians and they maintain the victim mentality when it comes to land and language policies. For many of us Ethiopians, world history does NOT start in 1890s but Oromo politicians want to hide pre-Menelik history. So, Why do Oromo politicians ignore such history? And how do we reconcile such conflicting details of our past?
Lastly, some Oromo politicians confuse the “Kush” kingdom with the label “cushitic” which was randomly given to Oromiffa speakers, out of mere convenience by 20th century European linguistics like Joseph Greenberg. It would be crazy to believe that Mr. Greenberg labeled Oromiffa as “cushitic” because he magically traced back Oromo genetics to the grandson (cush) of biblical Noah or because he thought Oromos came to this land before Amharas. That seems unrealistic. Unfortunately, Oromo politicians use such wild syllogism to claim that Oromos were the original people who lived in western Eritrea/eastern Sudan areas (better known as Kush/Meroe. ) So some Oromo politicians believe their people lived here for millennia and the Amharas recently arrived to Africa from Yemen. Well, Many Ethiopians disagree with this theory of Oromo origin.
So again, how do we reconcile such polarizing and contrasting views of the past? The answer to all these Oromo questions will be one of the keys to the future of a democratic and peaceful Ethiopia. These questions are important because land ownership is shaped by history. This is important because we will never have democracy in Ethiopia unless there is consensus between the two largest groups: Oromos & Amharas. Whether we like it or not, Ethiopian history is complex and highly disputed. The question of land that is at the center of today’s politics revolves around the historical disputes we had about which group lived where first or settled where and when.
The TPLF regime ignored this complex and disputed history and recklessly drew ethnic boundaries in 1990s to satisfy its “ethnic federalism” concept. This is why there is sporadic violence today in modern Ethiopia.
2. ON THE FUTURE
I described above the various disagreements we have regarding our past history and how those issues impact the present. Now let us analyze the disagreements we have about the future.
When it comes to the future, many intellectuals have written on how the Ethiopian economy should be set up and on the federal arrangement. Some people say we should have a unitary centralized system while others seek provincial and ethnic-federalism, with varying degrees of regional autonomy.
In 1991 and 1992, several conferences were held during the transitional period after Mengistu Hailemariam regime was overthrown. The most important were the London Conference and the Addis Ababa National conference, including the “Convention of Nationalities.” These conferences were not inclusive because they did not allow Ethiopianists to participate. Only “national liberation movements” were allowed to participate and that was the first recipe for disaster. Only OLF and TPLF (with its affiliates) participated in the conventions. There was no diversity. So everybody who participated then defined Ethiopian people as “nations and nationalities.” Therefore, they concluded that the only future of Ethiopian state is an ethnic-federalism arrangement, with no respect for individual rights.
Ethiopianists from all ethnic groups were banned from expressing their interests in those conferences.
To be blunt, the 1992 conferences excluded the interest of atleast 3 major groups: the Ethiopianist Amharas/Gurages, the mixed-Ethiopians and other Ethiopians who reject tribal/hyphenated identity (which i call “Gosa-blind” or colorblind Ethiopians). Basically, around half the Ethiopian population was not represented in those early 1990s transitional conferences. This means the constitution drafted and set up in the 1990s does not represent the voice and the will of about half the country. So it was not a surprise that following those controversial conferences, thousands of Amharas and mixed-Ethiopians living in the south were massacred everywhere. Especially in semi-urban areas of Oromia and Somali, there was a witch-hunt of mixed-Ethiopians and Amharas. Even full blooded Oromos who spoke Amharic only or did not support OLF & OPDO ideology were hunted down like wild animals.
So 10 years later, it was not a surprise that the CUD Ethiopianist opposition party easily won the first ever multiparty national election in 2005. In some places, the CUD won 99% of the vote, which symbolized the people’s rejection of not only the TPLF & OPDO, but also the public’s disgust with opposition parties that shared any similarity to TPLF’s ideologies.
Unfortunately, the government decided to overturn and rigg the election results in 2005, according to EU election observers, so today we are still in a political crisis.
Now, what can we learn from these events?
I believe the first mistake of the TPLF was excluding the voice of half the Ethiopian population during the national conferences and conventions in 1992. This is why there is no consensus in Ethiopian politics today and TPLF still has no mandate to govern Ethiopia. TPLF’s constitution (with the support of Oromo politicians) rejects individual rights, in favor of group rights. Then TPLF crafted a system of ethnic-federalism and self-determination, but forgot to define who is really the “self” in self-determination. Does one need common language, religion or cultures to utilize the self-determination concept? What about economic entities with common political psych and what about mixed-Ethiopians? Or at what stage of an ethnogenesis one need to be at? And who really gets to award ethnic labels to people; due to self-identification or outside identification? The TPLF gave no proper answers to any of these questions. I remember when my mother once joked about this, telling me, “you need woyane’s blessings to enjoy self-determination.” Maybe she had a good point because in the constitution, it says Addis Ababa’s “ethnically diverse people have a right to self-government,” which means, on paper, Addis Ababa can declare independence from Ethiopia, as weird as that might sound. But nobody gave those “ethnically diverse people” of Addis ababa the chance to draw their own borders from Oromia. So today, we have this meaningless and oxymoron border dispute about the “Addis Ababa master plan” vis-a-vis Oromia. The fact that evicted farmers should get proper compensation…that is a nobrainer. But what is legitimately debatable is whether or not Addis Ababa has the right to expand and grow.
Let us be honest that the “Master plan,” by its nature, is not really a “plan.” It is not a choice. It is triggered by supply & demand, in terms of land. Addis Ababa has been growing already. The TPLF was naturally forced to grow the city boundaries because of urban population growth and to advance the economy. But it was ironic, that the same TPLF that gave Oromia their boundaries is the one actually breaking it up to expand the Addis Ababa city borders. So I believe the Addis Ababa Master Plan and the mass protests by Oromos is in essence the biggest symbol of how ethnic-federalism on paper is inapplicable on the ground. Indeed, when the TPLF violated its own ethnic-federalism based borders, it showed the whole world how its ethnic-federalism policy is impractical and has failed miserably. Even TPLF’s allies cried foul. For example in October, the pro-OPDO Professor Milkessa Midega of Dire Dawa University accused the EPRDF/TPLF leaders of imposing the Master plan. He said that the master plan runs counter to the policies of EPRDF and there is controversy on who actually created the plan. And last week, the OPDO’s top leader Mr Abadula Gemeda criticized TPLF radio stations for attacking Oromos. He later said that Oromo students were right to oppose the Addis ababa master plan. It is interesting how time exposes everything.
All these current issues are the negative consequences of the undemocratic and exclusionary policies, laws and conferences that took place between 1992-95. The future of Ethiopia has been decided by a selected few. We went from one extreme system where the Amharas, the mixed and the urban Shewan Ethiopianists benefitted; to another extreme system where only the other half benefit. Somehow, we have to find a middle ground where all Ethiopians benefit.
There is no one cure all solution yet, but we should not shy away from trying to find one. I believe the crisis we have today can be gradually solved if all stakeholders are allowed to participate in interpreting the past and deciding the future of Ethiopia. This has never happened in Ethiopia. Sometimes we might have to agree to disagree. But I believe all stakeholders and all political camps being involved in the problem solving process is as powerful as the solution itself. Meaning, just the spirit of a constructive all-inclusive national dialogue itself can benefit the country even before we actually find a solution.
When it comes to disputes on our past history, Amharas and Ethiopianists should not impose their version of history on others. Similarly, Oromos (et al) should avoid imposing their version on others and they must recognize the millions of mixed-Ethiopians who are byproduct of the Ethiopian state evolution. I think Ethiopia is suffering not only from zero-sum politics but also from zero-sum history. This suffering must end. One of the ways forward is for all groups to respect each other’s cultures and languages. No matter how or when we migrated to this region we call Ethiopia, we are here. We should give more emphasis on the positive parts of our joint history; like the victories we achieved against Egyptian, Italian and other foreign invaders. We should also be proud of the unity and patriotism of our forefathers during those wars. We should be proud of our pan-African role in leading all black countries to unite and our nation being the source of honor for blacks in the Caribbean & worldwide. We should all be proud of our country’s rich natural resources, archeological history and ancient heritages of all religions; a combination unmatched anywhere in the world. There are many reasons to be proud together.
I also recommend that we should compromise on the type of government structure. One of the reasons that the coalition party MEDREK fell apart last year was because they could not compromise on federalism and language policy. Unlike some unitarists, I don’t think the complete reversal of the current federal system benefits the country. I believe every rural region should self-govern and use its own language as official and working language. But every urban area must promote bilingualism. Under the current TPLF system, many educated Oromos are suffering from unemployment because they do not speak Amharic. Not only in Addis Ababa, even in cities where Afan Oromo is official (like Adama, Bishoftu and Jimma) many educated Oromos are underemployed while Tigrayans and even Welaytas from Awassa come to Oromia cities and take most of the jobs. This shows that politicizing language did not benefit Oromos.
As a compromise, I believe the current ethnic-federalism arrangement created by TPLF and OLF can be saved. But we can add new mini-states and adjust the system so that urban Ethiopians from every ethnicity as well as the millions of mixed-Ethiopians can be comfortable to live in multilingual commercial centers nationwide without feeling like they are foreigners. Today, Oromo students in Mekelle schools are being discriminated against and Amharas in Jimma are treated like foreigners. We can change this sad reality without removing ethnic-federalism. One possible solution is creating new and independent multilingual metropolitan regional states (MRSs) inside the urban portion of every current regional states. These MRSs will enjoy the same rights that the current regional states have. Basically, they will be multilingual economic centers. For example, a Dessie metropolitan regional state (MRS) would self-govern and be fully independent of Amhara state. It will have no obligation to mirror the cultural or linguistic character of Amhara state; thus liberating it to advance, to embrace all Ethiopians and to be a local bridge toward global economic integration. I believe creating such MRSs will reduce the burden on Addis Ababa to expand more than it needs to. This means more urban population grows locally inside pre-existing regional states, instead of everyone crowding or moving to Addis. If Addis Ababa has less strain or less burden to expand, it will hurt less rural Oromo farmers surrounding Addis Ababa. For example, with the Amhara regional state disowning Dessie MRS, no ethnic group can claim ownership of this MRS, thus reducing ethnic conflicts, triggering population growth, diversifying the area, increasing regional employment opportunities and making it a direct gateway to the global market. We can create more MRSs around Awassa, Gondar, Adama, Dire Dawa and Mekele. These MRSs can compliment the pre-existing regional states (RSs) like Oromia, Amhara, Tigray etc. I believe this can be one possible way that unitarists and ethnic-federalists can compromise and find a consensus on the future of Ethiopia.
Indeed, without securing nationwide consensus, nobody can democratize Ethiopia even post-TPLF. Last week, I met a pessimistic Ethiopian in my church in New York and we discussed the current events in Oromia. I told him how hopeful i was feeling about Ethiopia but he explained to me that the TPLF’s homogeneous army is not like Mengistu’s relatively diverse army because all key positions in the current military are fully controlled by Tigrayans. So, in hard times of crisis like today, the TPLF will easily survive because it is not worried about mass defection of its military. He said that such nationwide Oromo protests and revolts actually give the TPLF even more justification to keep the military exclusively Tigrayan and loyal.
I was forced to agree with my Ethiopian friend because as long as the TPLF regime feels like it does not have the support of the Ethiopian people, it will stay undemocratic, unrepresentative and brutal for many more years to come.
The truth is, whether it is TPLF or any future government in Ethiopia, without a consensus and a mandate to rule, all future governments are forever doomed to be undemocratic. Therefore, the only way forward toward a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Ethiopia is a compromise and consensus between all parties, all ideologies and all political groups of the country.
Profile: an accountant and Ethiopian political analyst based in New York