Identity Politics and Current Realities in Ethiopia
By Teferi Fufa, August 2, 2018
The map of current Ethiopia encloses a large number of disparate peoples of different languages and cultures whose customs and traditions differ as the land masses they occupy. Yet, from the very beginning, the architects of Ethiopia saw it fit to consider all these peoples as amorphous bodies ready to be shaped and formed into identities, not of their own, but those assigned by powers that be.
Only God can make or unmake living beings with unique identities. But, Ethiopian authorities never shied away from claiming this, God-like power to deny real identities, and, assign alternate ones to the peoples of Ethiopia. Furthermore, attempts to hold onto one’s own true identity was criminalized while acceptance of the assigned identity is rewarded.
Thus, in Ethiopia, we have always had people “without history and culture.” We have people who have ties to the Biblical King Solomon, and, through him, ties to God Himself. In short, we have people who are born to rule and those who are born to be ruled, those who are born to be served and those who born to serve, those who have rights to resources and those who do not. The Oromo have always known which group they are in. Even today there are those who are trying to convince us that Menelik’s only purpose in Oromia was to civilize. Where else have we heard that before?
No matter how deep you bury it, truth can never be concealed indefinitely. Hidden and banned identities found the spirit of revival from the heavy burdens of their false identities. Resistance gathered force and the empire was shaken. Hence the birth of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia. But, like everything about Ethiopia, federalism too is a sham. The ethnic states aka regional states exist only in name. All instruments of government reside in the colonial garrison continuing the practices of misrule at the pleasure of the man at the helm. Only this time the man at the helm, up until recently, Meles Zenawi, represented a different group, Tigari, leaving the former group, Amhara, out of favor. I am leaving Mr. Hailemariam out as during his period it was the ghost of Meles who ruled through him.
The TPLF government presented Ethiopia with two problems. It legitimated and exposed the hidden and banned identities, by endorsing Ethnic federalism and it alienated the Amharas, long uncontested undertakers of the colonial empire and defenders of the imperial system, treating them like any of the other amorphous bodies. These two problems come face to face as the newly installed leader, Dr. Abiyi, tries to form the course of his regime as the new strong man of Ethiopia.
Oromo Identity Behind Ethiopian mask
It is good to be blessed with natural beauty and riches. But it does invite jealousy and produce enemies. Oromia seems to be blessed by natural beauty and wealth. She is also, undoubtedly, cursed by the presence of a determined and ruthlessly envious neighbors. Ethiopia, for the Oromo, is the direct result of this admixture of blessing and curse. The deliberate negation people’s identities referred to above has been directed at the Oromo. As the consequence, the Oromo had been forced to wear the mask of Ethiopia. Wearing the mask opened certain opportunities, lessened certain burdens, and rendered one relatively trustworthy, while the unmasked face of the Oromo not only removed these advantages but exposed one to a brutal abuse that threatens one’s very existence. The pressure to hate oneself, believe that one is inherently inferior, and silently accept such negative a self-concept is real and constant.
Needless to say, the Oromo have been under this pressure for well over a century. Someday, an accurate accounting will show that thousands have chosen to remove the mask reveal their true identities and perished as the result. Most of us, however, learned to be comfortable in the mask breathing restricted air. Just like we are used to European cloths so much that we view our own traditional attire as treasured relics, at best, or marks of a backward tribe, at worst, the mask of Ethiopia has become part of us in spite of its deforming effects on our being.
Ethiopia, as a federal state, relaxes the need to wear the mask and frees people to see themselves as they feel inside. For the first time in recent history, unmasked Oromo faces emerged. Both the former and the current caretakers of the Ethiopian empire did not know how to handle this. People who are aware of their identities do not allow themselves to be abused, exploited, or subjugated. The empire was designed to do just that. So, the current rulers, while giving lip service to the idea of ethnic federalism, continued the destructive paths of their predecessors through a mechanism they called “Democratic centralism”. They also used the age-old tactic of divide-and-rule. Ethnically divided regions made this tactic easier to apply and harder to hide. That is why there is a ruthless and consequential war being waged on Oromia region from many corners, all orchestrated by the current government.
Meanwhile, the caretakers of the Ethiopian system representing the previous government want the peoples of Ethiopia to get back under the cover of their masks. They blame the current chaos on a wrong information, namely, the people being told that they can be themselves. “We are all Ethiopians,” they claim. If we all spoke Amharic and waved the same Ethiopian flag everything would be fine if one is to rely on their assertions. This, despite the fact that each new Ethiopian government had its own Ethiopian flag, and none of them had the consent of the peoples of Ethiopia.
Dog whistles and assigned identities
In all oppressive states like Ethiopia, master narratives form and inform stereotypes. Accordingly, the different peoples of Ethiopia have been assigned stereotypes via the master narratives. For the Oromo, the word Galla and the numerous negative meanings attached to it formed the stereotype. This is what we fought against. This is what many died fighting. It seems like, except for some die-hard neo debtaras like the ones who show up as guests on ESAT every-now-and-then, most people have stopped using that term. The negative label used to represent Oromos who are conscious of their Oromo identity became “narrow nationalists.” This happened during the Dergue, It was alright to become Ethiopian nationalist, but grossly inappropriate to be Oromo nationalist. Absurd. Under the current government, Oromo nationalists, Oromos conscious of their Oromo identity are called secessionists (tegentayoch), and persecuted and prosecuted as terrorists. Elements outside of government representing the views and values of the former government have now started a new label, namely zeregna or racist. If you speak for the right of the Oromo you are a racist according to these people. These are the same people who have been calling us names denying us opportunities just because we are Oromo. A negative label, be it, “galla” or “racist” and all others in between, are bad, wrong, distorting and must be fought against.
Love, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation
There is a new preacher in town. Everyone loves to hear him. He speaks well. His name is Dr. Abiyi Ahemed. Unfortunately, different people like him for different reasons his likeable words notwithstanding. The criminals who have been ravaging the entire region like his message because it seems to absolve them of responsibility. Those who have been watching, with trepidation, the vail of glory being removed from their beloved empire and are aghast at seeing the naked truth like The new prime minster’s message for its seeming dedication to the empire and unabashed admiration of the criminal empire builders like Menelik. Those who are genuinely tired of state terrorism, death and destruction, daily robbery and intimidation, and the summary loss basic freedoms like his message because it promises a moment of relief.
The plea to forgive and reconcile is a gesture born of desperation rather than a well-formed plan to solve the abiding problem. Who is to forgive whom and for what? Are we all guilty? If we are, are we equally guilty? What guarantees does this kind of gesture give that past crimes do not repeat, or, even return with greater force? Rather dangerous to contemplate.
The Amhara say, “Yewega berasa yetewaga ayirasam.” In deed it is easy for the offender to forget than it is for the offended. To implore the Oromo to forgive and forget all that we have been going through, all that we are still going through, without any accounting, without identifying what went wrong and how, without any compensation or consequence, is to ask us to forget the lives and struggles of those who brought us thus far. We can “love our neighbors as ourselves,” but it is unfair to ask us to love those who harm us more than we love ourselves.
As for what the Oromo can expect from the new slogan, maddammar, the jury is still out. The meeting attended by both Dr. Abiyi and Obbo Lema with the people of Bale recently presents an example of a possible mismatch between the ongoing slogan and what the Oromo people expect with respect to the Oromo question. Speaker after speaker rose to remind these new leaders that they are the beneficiaries past heroes of the Oromo who suffered much in the hands of the imperial undertakers. They also implored the new young leaders to join the struggle and clean the slate. On their part both leaders made no mention of those past heroes of the Oromo, presented themselves as co-strugglers, and avoided Oromo problems rooted in the formation and maintenance of the Ethiopian empire. How far can they go in solving the problem of Ethiopia and Oromia without addressing the real issues?
Can an Oromo embrace Ethiopia when it denies Oromo identity? Can an Oromo love and protect Ethiopia when it hates the mention of Oromo and exposes everything Oromo to destruction? Can one really hope to live peacefully with those who accuse him of being a racist when one has never taken advantage of them at all, while the accusers themselves have and continue to attack and harass one based solely on his/her identity? I believe that the Biblical command, “Love thine enemy,” is limited to when the enemy is in his corners. When the enemy has you by the throat, you have not only the right but also an obligation to kick him off. Reconciliation and forgiveness can be discussed when both are safely in their own corners,
May peace prevail,
Oromia Shall be free!