OROMO: BEARING THE BRUNT OF THE ENDLESS AND UNNECESSARY
COST OF FAST-TRACK ETHIOPIANIZATION
By JAANNO TERFASSA
There are calls for “measures” to be taken against Jawar Mohammed, a human rights fighter and an Oromo media personality. “Measures” is a euphemism the connotation of which most people understand.
There are shouting demands for imprisoning all Oromo political leaders. There are concentrated and continuous efforts to vilify the Oromo youth through false or exaggerated claims of faults. There are open and notorious racist propaganda as well as actual violence perpetrated against Oromo businesses, public figures and the like. There are campaigns to brand Oromo opinion makers as traitors. There is political repression against members and supporters of Oromo political groups. There is a suspension of civil administration in parts of Oromia and a significant segment of the Oromo people currently live under military command. There is violence in Oromia where victims are blamed for their pain. And now, the sword of Damocles is hanging over Oromos and Oromia.
The fact that these states of affairs exist at a time when the Prime Minister of Ethiopia is an Oromo himself is a source of disbelief, anxiety, and indignation. When the previous brutal and dictatorial government was thrown out and a new leadership came to the fore, many believed (or wanted to believe) that a new day has dawned in Ethiopia. The Prime Minister’s call for Peace, Forgiveness and Love rallied virtually every peoples in support of a new Ethiopia. The Oromos in particular believed that the Prime Minister would make tangible effort to redress past abuses and injustices and set in motion a sustainable conciliation among all stakeholders.
In less than two years, however, the steady light emanating from the Prime Minister is flickering and is endanger of sputtering out. Oromos are ashamed, bewildered, and pained at the recent turn of events. They are looking for rational explanation for the incredulous occurrences, particularly the crisis involving the security of Jawar Mohammed.
What has befallen upon the administration of the current Prime Minister has historical similarities with the regime of Haile Selassie. The palaces then and now are manned by incompetent and corrupt political operatives who focus on cosmetic changes and short-term political intrigues and dominance. These political operatives are set in their ways. And, whatever their set ways are, the operatives present their ways as an advocacy for “One Ethiopia.”
“One Ethiopia” has been used as a code word in Ethiopian politics at least since the return of the Emperor from exile. It means a homogenized identity and one national citizenship. The achievement of such homogenized identity and citizenship is perceived as the first order of business for the Ethiopian rulers. The Ethiopian rulers thus have compared themselves with their predecessors by how much they have accelerated the Ethiopianization process – the standardization of identities.
As a result, the rulers of Ethiopia have been convinced to believe that they are supposed to be active molders of national identity rather than defenders of the will of the people, as expressed through elections or referendum. The King then and the Prime Minister now should have known better.
Modernity is one of the ideas put forth as justifications for standardizing identities in Ethiopia. Diversity is perceived as a threat to the Ethiopian State. Allegiance to Oromo Civilization is particularly dubbed as backward and narrow. The possibility of having dual citizenship is ridiculed and dismissed outright. Advocacy for a common citizenship side by side with particularized national identity is labeled as extremism.
Yet, the Oromos are stubborn about reviving and preserving their civilization – the Gadaa. The Oromos are not challenging the Ethiopian State. They are not against living in peace and brotherhood with other peoples in Ethiopia. But, Oromos are saying “there is a price which is too great to pay for peace – the price of self-respect.” They want to live as Oromos in equality with others. The Oromos hold their Gadaa Civilization in awe. They take pride in being Ilma Abbaa Gadaa – Sons of the Civilization!
Civilization in the Freudian sense applies to the individual, i.e., the capacity or effort to overcome one’s impulses. Civilization in sociological sense refers to the idea and practice of living together under a common form of government, culture and social norms. Modernization, on the other hand, refers to the growth of scientific and secular attitude towards fact-finding and measuring truth. Although all civilizations undergo modernization, modernization does not presuppose the destruction of existing civilizations.
The Ethiopian State consists of various civilizations – the Oromo, the Agaw, the Sidama, the Konso, and others. The existence and modernization of these civilizations does not contradict with the idea and experiment of living together with the objective of forming a common economic and political union. A union of peoples can be materialized in time, without the inhumane and exorbitant cost of creating a uniform identity and citizenship during the reign of one ruler.
The political groups who are hellbent on a speedy uniformization of identities have targeted the Oromo Civilization for destruction, if possible, or reducing it to insignificance. These political factions are unwilling or unable to entertain a more peaceful and humane alternative to uniformization through victimization. They fail to understand destruction of the Oromo Civilization does neither expedite nor ensure the Ethiopianization project. Destruction of the Oromo Civilization is not a modernizing project either. It is rather a destructive scheme of dark forces.
Another concept used to misguide the Ethiopian rulers then and now is “citizenship politics.” The pseudointellectuals of Ethiopia are presenting “citizenship politics” as a panacea for the myriad ills of the country – racism, inequality, poverty, a violent political culture, self-determination and national autonomy, corruption, instability and so on. Really!?
Advocates of the so-called “citizenship politics” propagate the notion that individuals themselves would want to solidify their rights as individuals and as ethnic groups. They also tell us that the primacy of respect for individual rights would reduce or eliminate incidents of ethnic conflict and create the political stability needed for economic development. They are convinced of their own good intentions. Theirs is not a political sentiment with its own limitations. Theirs is an absolute truth and with divine origin.
To make matters worse, the arrogance, myopic and selfish interest of these factions is being enforced by a government bureaucracy. The existing government bureaucracy is the product of decades of racism and prejudice that was embedded in the education, labor, land, housing, health, urban development, infrastructure development, fiscal, banking and financial policies of successive regimes. Unabashedly, however, the beneficiaries and their defenders attempt to convince us that the competence and skills are the determinants of access to the bureaucracy. They conveniently forget those Oromos and others who have been facially and/or systematically forbidden or prevented from access to these opportunities.
In addition, the so-called “citizenship politics does not address the existing group grievances. It does not even entertain the Oromo people’s desire to live as a people and preserve their Gadaa Civilization. It is not amenable to the recognition of the Oromo Civilization as a distinct member of the human family of nations. Rather, it is hostile to the Oromo interest. These advocates are not interested in equality. They are rather concerned primarily with perpetuating their own power and privileged position. They are willing and ready to use any means to fight against the Oromos whom they perceive as threats to their “deserved” piece of the Ethiopian pie.
If the public statements of these advocates are any indication, they are not capable of empathizing with the plight of other groups, and hence are incapable to take actions against racism and inequality. The high-sounding rhetoric of “togetherness” and “greatness” are apt to dissolve at the first sign of trouble, as witnessed in the recent political drama in Finfinnee. Political parties espousing “citizenship politics” and self-appointed ‘Ethiopian human rights’ organizations perceive the lives of non-Oromos are worthier than Oromo lives. Empathy, an essential and necessary condition for republican politics, does not exist among the pseudointellectuals and political operatives of Ethiopia.
The idea that “citizenship politics” grafted onto Ethiopia from Europe would result in assimilation and homogenous Ethiopian Identity has not happened. In fact, the Tigreans successfully rebuffed the-then Ethiopianization project under the “citizenship politics” system. In its place, an alternative civic republican citizenship was introduced in which the peoples in Ethiopia are recognized as sovereigns. Ethiopia is now defined as a union of sovereign peoples who are committed to empathy, fluidity and common good to establish an economic and political union.
In Ethiopia today, there is no common understanding and interpretation of the past. There is conflicting vision about the future. But there is a consensus about the impending nightmare.
Racism, unemployment, territorial nationalism, political religion, corruption, and an opportunistic political elite coupled with a violent political culture are posing serious threats to the Ethiopian State per se. The political repression of Oromos by the government, the violence against Oromos fed by racist ideology, and the continued threat and saber rattling of an all-out violence against Oromos within and outside of Ethiopia proper prompts the question: “Is there an end to the Oromo sacrifice?” “How are Oromos to fend off these threats?”
No one has the answer. There should be discussions and deliberations though. Oromos are asking earnestly. There is suspicion and agitation. There is anxiety and hopelessness. There is confusion and animosity. These are bad political sentiments for a country that desperately needs peace and stability.
For peace and stability, it is important that Ethiopian politics does not become distorted by the mistaken belief that respect for collective right is anathema to individual rights. Respect for collective rights can and should exist with the possibility of forming a larger citizenship in which diverse groups can live and work together toward some common good. Second, the State must refrain from incentivizing or discouraging freedom of association and manipulating the structure of the federal regions. The government should not act based on its own evaluation of what the people ought to think or be. Rather, the government should focus on the task of solving societal problems. The government should respond not to political parties but to public consensus, to be expressed in elections and referendum like upcoming referendum for Sidama statehood.
Finally, the cost of integration should not be borne by some more than others. Although the Oromo leadership has demonstrated its willingness to compromise and work together with other groups in the country, the endless and disproportionate demand on Oromos to bear the cost of Ethiopianization by reduction of the essence of Oromoness need to be reconsidered before it is too late. The Oromo people have social, economic, and security needs that make Ethiopia attractive. However, empathy and political will as well as mature leadership are needed to guide the state and nation-building processes in a deliberate, humane, and accommodating manner. With time and constant dialogue and compromise, allegiance to the State and pride in common citizenship could be achieved while maintaining one’s own national civilization and identity protected by laws and institutions, including the recognition of homelands.