The Scapegoating of Multi-National Federal Arrangement for Ethiopia’s Problems
A reply to Endalew Lijalem’s article: “The Looming Genocide in Ethiopia – Overview of Facts and Available Legal Framework to Deal with Perpetrators”
By Oromia Global Forum, August 16, 2020
Oromia Global Forum is a global alliance of Oromo Civic, Professional, and Faith-Based Organizations and individual proponents of Human Rights, residing in North America, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa. Our mission is to enhance Oromo unity, discuss, analyze and deliberate on man-made and natural disasters as well as human rights abuses plaguing the Oromo nation, and design and deploy strategies and interventions to mitigate the plights of our people.
Following the assassination of the popular Oromo singer and song writer Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June 2020, a confusion as to who killed him, and where and how his body was to be put to rest ensued. The government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed intervened in the decision of the family and friends about Hachalu’s final resting place and timing. This angered the Oromo people and triggered peaceful demonstrations across Oromia region which turned violent only after government security forces used lethal force to disperse peaceful demonstrators.
After listing the kinds of acts and behaviours that constitute genocide and using carefully selected series of events (which he calls facts), Mr. Lijalem concludes the Oromo people, in particular Oromo youth activists, a.k.a. Qeerroo, both in Oromia and those protesting all over the world, are to blame for the ensuing. what he calls, genocide in which, he claims, the Amhara people are targets and Qeerroo the perpetrators. Furthermore, he lays the blame for this state of affairs squarely on the multi-national federal system which the country adopted in 1991. He is disappointed that the international community, the media and everyone else are reluctant to call what he thinks is happening in the Ethiopian empire a genocide.
This reply aims to inform English readers who are targeted for misinformation by the likes of Mr. Lijalem. Its main purpose is to enable them systematically analyse and show them the fallacies and misrepresentations of facts in Mr. Lijalem’s article and to put the story straight.
Mr. Lijalem is not the first to try to paint the Oromo people as villains and Amharas as victims. He is just one among the thousands of campaigners, hell bent on denigrating and dehumanising the Oromo people and other nations, nationalities and peoples in the Ethiopian empire, their very existence, their culture, and their political orientation which is basically rooted in self-determination and self-rule.
Mr. Lijalem’s presentation of the epistemology of genocide is accurate. One cannot disagree on the theory and the legal framework he put forward relating to genocide. He, also, correctly states the definition of genocide, under the Genocide convention, as also adopted verbatim by Article 6 of The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Alas, this is where we part company!
Mr. Lijalem’s article incomprehensibly bends the truth we can so obviously see on the ground. In so doing, it paints the victims and the oppressed peoples, who have been subjected to systematic discrimination since as far back as when the Ethiopian empire was built about 135 years ago, as villains; the same people who are now facing unprecedented attacks by the current neo-neftegna (modern time colonial settler) regime.
The author based his arguments on carefully selected ‘series of events’ (which he calls facts), perhaps deliberately, and disingenuously, misdiagnosed the problem in Ethiopia, and concludes that the Oromo people are villains in this characterisation. Furthermore, consistent with most ultra-nationalist Abyssinian elites belonging to the old ruling class of Amhara ethno-nationalists, he concludes that the cause of the current political crisis in Ethiopia is the introduction of multinational federalism which indeed, among other rights, recognises the other nations, nationalities and people’s right to self-determination and self-rule.
First, Mr. Lijalem’s biases against the Oromo became apparent when he started out by providing examples of “early settler genocide and modern time genocide[s]” but conveniently omitted Harma muraa and Harka Muraa Anolee (breast cutting & arms chopping at Aanole) and the Calanqoo massacare against the Oromo people during Minlik’s war of conquest. There have also been several recent attacks targeting particular ethnic group and a mass killing in Ethiopia against Oromos that he could have included but chose to leave out. Examples are the ethnic based attacks against Oromo students attending universities in Amhara regions in which three Oromo students were killed and tens were dismissed, and the ethnic cleansing against the Oromos from Finfinne (a.k.a. Addis Ababa) and from areas bordering the Somali and the Benishangul Gumuz regions, all instigated and encouraged by the Ethiopian government and its neo-neftegna cohorts. We are not surprised he omitted these events because the author asserts in the same article that “We feel the pain only when such crime is committed to peoples to whom ‘we belong’ to, while we remain insensitive when it happens to ‘others’.” We say he is not speaking for us but he makes abundantly clear that he feels the pain when he believes Amaharas are at the receiving end, and not when Oromos are the victims.
Secondly, Mr. Lijalem stated article 269 of the Ethiopian Penal Code which he failed to fairly apply to the Oromo case. The article prohibits organizing, ordering, or engaging in destroying a nation, nationality, or a political group by (a) killing, causing serious injuries to their physical and mental health, (b) preventing propagation and continued survival of its members or their progeny and (c) compelling a population movement calculated to cause their death and disappearance. All of these acts have been perpetrated against the Oromo people since Minilik’s colonization and have continued to be practiced by the neo-neftegna government and its cohorts to this day. Ethnic-targeted killings of, and causing physical and mental injuries to, Oromos begun with Minilik’s, what Mr. Lijalem called, “early settler genocide” in the 1880s where he reduced the Oromo population from 10 million to 5 million. Today, the GoE continues targeted killings and injuring of Oromos. Harma muraa anolee and the Calanqoo massacre of the Minilk era, and today’s ethnic cleansing of Oromos from Finfinne (a.k.a. Addis Ababa) city and other regions by neo-neftegna are examples of their efforts to prevent propagation and continued survival of, and ethnic cleansing against, the Oromo people. In all these cases, Oromos are targeted merely because they are members of a colonized nation – Oromo – which happens to be demanding its rights. The reader should note that applying Mr. Lijalem’s definition of genocide, and Article 269 of The Ethiopian Criminal Code, there is no escaping the conclusion that successive Ethiopian governments have been organizing, ordering, or engaging in destroying the Oromo as a nation, as an ethnic group and as a political society.
Genocide requires intent to do the acts listed in the Genocide Convention or the Penal Code in question. There is no time when or a state of fact whereby the Oromo people planned or attempted to destroy any particular ethnic group. On the contrary, there are evidences showing planned raids of villages inhabited by the Oromo people where Oromos were killed in masses as planned. That is a text book definition of genocide. Popular movements and protests staged to demand justice are not crimes. While evidences abundantly show that the Oromo protesters are killed in thousands by the state army, neo-neftegna elites have been encouraging authorities in public using the state and Amhara media to kill even more of them.
Thirdly, Mr. Lijalem began his article with a very bold assertion that “The roots of all the current evils in Ethiopia dates back to the planning of an ethnic-centred Federal system in Ethiopia in 1991.” In fact, he asserts that he is not surprised by these events of violence because such violence is inherent in multi-national federalism which neo-neftegnas love to call “ethnic-centered federal arrangement.” One wonders, if multi-national federal system is such an evil system how is it that Canada, Switzerland and many others who have chosen a similar system not just live peacefully but prosper and thrive because of it? Why is multi-national federalism working for these other societies but evil for Ethiopia? Then it becomes clear to the careful reader that the writer’s primary objective is to do away with multinational federalism and that his allegations about genocide is just one bogyman to scare the world into agreeing with him. The truth, however, is that the root cause of Ethiopia’s maladies is not multi-national federalism but the neo-neftegna refusal to correct their wrong narratives which they perpetuated for close to 150 years, and their resistance to recognize the inalienable rights of nations, nationalities and peoples in the empire to determine their fate.
Fourthly, the author, also begins with the assumption that there are no nations or nationalities in Ethiopia but just different ethnic groups who must identify themselves with one nation “Ethiopia.”
Fifthly, besides ethnic federalism, the author blames “wrong narratives” for the situation that the Ethiopian empire finds itself in today. We could not agree more. The wrong narrative at the root of Ethiopia’s troubles is one that is constructed by ancient Abyssinian debteras and modern neo-neftegna that paints the oppressed nations and nationalities as invaders and sub-humans with no history, with inferior cultures and languages who are allowed to remain in Ethiopia due to good heart of Abyssinians. This wrong narrative, perpetrated by neo-neftegnas for decades, is being challenged by sons and daughters of the colonized nations with scientific and historical evidences which neo-neftegnas refuse to hear much less accept. Their aggressive efforts to force the oppressed nations to accept Minilik and their brutal colonizers as heroes and adopt neo-neftegna wrong narratives as truth is responsible for the situation in which the empire finds itself in today; Not the effort by oppressed nations to correct that wrong narrative.
Facts and Fallacies
Mr. Lijalem claims that the term ‘neftegna’ has been mobilised to form a misguided narrative which the TPLF/EPRDF government through the production of a number of false and half-truths has intentionally used to create hostility between peoples and targeting the Amhara. To substantiate this argument, he asserted that every member of each and every community participated in the neftegna system. This is a rather weak, internally inconsistent and flawed argument. Neftegna is a system in which the colonized nations and nationalities of the empire were made serfs and ruled by the gun-holding class of the conquering Abyssinian (later called Ethiopian) forces. That same term ‘neftegna’ represented the members of Abyssinian forces who were rewarded with settlement on the land of the indigenous peoples and with gabbars (serf from indigenous peoples), as a tribute for their contributions in the process of subduing the defeated nations, nationalities and peoples of the south. In the eyes of the indigenous people the neftegna settlers were part of the invading force whom until the collapse of the imperial era in 1974 were served by gabbars – the indigenous people they received as compensation for subduing the gabbars. The latter were treated in law as subjects. Therefore, references usually made to ‘neftegna’ by the political elites of the oppressed people, including the Oromos, are often about indicating and describing the nature of that system. The settler (neftegna) not only spoke Amharic, the language of the then Abyssinian settlers, but literally was a representative of the system tasked with advancing the Amhara culture and language in place of that of the indigenous peoples.
Neo-neftegnas are those who by denying this historical injustice are advancing the view that the current federal arrangement is to blame for the crimes the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF), and its recent replacement Prosperity Party regimes, have committed and continue to commit. Furthermore, despite the EPRDF’s unforgivable and unforgettable misdeeds, reference to ‘neftegna’ was often made in response to the regressive political narratives advanced by the Amhara ethno-nationalist elites claiming that the old imperial and fiercely centralised unitary system was by far better than multinational federalism. The latter system is widely accepted by all the oppressed nations, nationalities and peoples of the south including the Tigray people, Amhara people’s first cousins.
To drive his argument home, Mr. Lijalem assertively claims that the Amharas have been specifically targeted in many places in Oromia including in deaths that followed the assassination of artist and activist Hachalu Hundessa. He claims that “according to [a] first-hand account, Oromo youth groups, armed with clubs, machetes, and guns, roamed from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and targeted ethnic minorities.” This is despite the fact that in the ensuing violence caused by the government interference in Hacalu’s final farewell process, 239 human beings were killed. According to Ethiopian State Media, among which the Oromo constitute the overwhelming majority at 145. He further alleges that Oromo youth (Qeerroo) caused the death of 78 persons in October 2019 when in fact the 62 of the dead were Oromo persons and their killers were Neo-neftegna youth who attacked Oromo protestors with guns they had been stashing for months in Orthodox churches backyards. Of course, the author failed to mention these crucial statistics for it would decimate his argument about the Oromo perpetrating genocide against the Amhara. If he had, the genocide he is alleging would be a never before seen or heard about kind, where the perpetrators are killed in numbers greater than those against whom they are supposed to perpetrate genocide. In fact, the author criticizes the government for “counting the dead based on their ethnicity” while at the same time claiming that genocide is being committed against the Amhara ethnic group. What is more, after criticizing the government for keeping count by ethnicity, he turns around and alleges the numbers are distorted “(as no independent investigation has been conducted).”
It is true that violence followed Hacalu’s murder in which mostly Oromo individuals were killed, injured or detained. The Oromo are one of the victims of Abiy Ahmed’s neo-neftegna government which is planning and executing these violent acts to stay in power while blaming it on the Oromo and the multinational federal arrangement which it is working hard to dismantle by subdueing Oromummaa – Oromo nationalism. The hooligans the author labels “Oromo youth armed with clubs and machetes”, brought in from other localities for that purpose which “government-actors supported” are government organized and financed gangs dressed like and impersonating Qeerroo. The government forces the author alleges to have supported Qeerroo are the same forces that have been using live ammunitions against peaceful Oromo demonstrators, including Qeerroo) which the United Nations Human Rights office urged to “refrain from using unnecessary or disproportionate force.”
Contrary to Mr. Lijalem’s assertions, a close look at the Oromo protest led by Oromo youth (Qeerroo) which eventually forced the TPLF/EPRDF regime to admit its crimes and to promise democratic transition in 2018 has everything to do with change and nothing to do with hate of other ethnic groups and genocide.
Qeerroo have demonstrated a formidable character throughout the movement, even actively foiling the security forces’ attempt to create conflict between Oromo protesters and minority ethnic groups, mainly the Amharas. During the long protest between 2014 and 2018, they stood firm in front of merciless paramilitary forces that were armed to the teeth, crossed their hands over their heads, and marched peacefully, while being shot at and being killed. In the process, it is estimated that 5000 Oromo youth were killed without so much as raising their fingers against their killers, government security forces, much less against minorities in Oromia.
Who were the killers of those Oromos? Was there any intention to destroy, in whole or in part, the Oromo youth (by singling out the Oromo people as a different race, ethnic group etc. in that process? Well there are many reasons to argue that was the case. Amnesty international, in its 2014 report of “’Because I am Oromo’: Sweeping Repression In The Oromia Region Of Ethiopia”, has shown exactly that. Based on empirical research, Kejitil Tronvoll has also shown that the Oromo people have been specifically targeted and subjected to torture, inhumane and degrading treatment and extrajudicial killings. He studied independent organisations reports on human rights covering a period of ten years. His study revealed that the Oromo people are the most affected, consistently over those years in all areas of human rights violations by every measurement. These extrajudicial killings, tortures, arbitrary detentions and other human rights abuses have nothing to do with the introduction of multinational federalism. They are rather products of wrong political choices by the TPLF/EPRDF led government, mainly, the choice to remain in power without the will of the people. Elections have always been rigged and the outcomes were always predetermined. Political power has been and remains to date a means of enriching family and friends of the ruling elites. This led to grand corruption and massive exploitation. Particularly land became the easiest access to wealth. In the name of development and provision of housing the government finally expanded distribution of land owned by Oromo farmers to so called investors and its supporters. The fact is that the 2014 Oromo protest was triggered by the decision of the government to give a centuries old forest land to an investor. It then proceeded to what was called the Addis Ababa master plan. This master plan aimed to expand the capital city to the adjacent Oromia Regional State and was feared to lead to the forced mass eviction of the Oromo people who made that land their livelihood from time immemorial.
In short, Oromos and other oppressed nations, nationalities and peoples protest, which the TPLF/EPRDF government repeatedly tried to quell with brutal force and in the process killed thousands have been caused not due to introduction of multinational federalism following the demise of the socialist government in 1991. Rather, it is a direct outcome of the TPLF/EPRDF’s stubborn agenda of maintaining its grip on power without the will of the people, and the abuse of power and corruption, involving mainly land grab that left millions of Oromo peasants poor and destitute. The issue of whether these actions of the TPLF/EPRDF government should be treated as genocide remains to be a subject of further discussion. However, there is no shred of evidence as to whether there was intention from the side of the people protesting to target and attack any particular ethnic group. Nor is there any evidence that the root cause of the killings was the introduction of multinational federalism which most ultranationalist Abyssinian elites love to call ethnic based federalism.
To sum up this point, the Oromo protest, led by Qeerroo, that brought about the 2018 change, or which opened a small window of change, was finally applauded and embraced by all nations and nationalities in Ethiopia, the Amhara in particular. There is no denying that that window of change was slammed shut a few months following the assumption of power by the current prime minister. In his unhinged/unfiltered narratives, he created a perception that he is a divinely appointed king and that there may be a possibility to return to the old imperial era; an era of a unitary system whereby a single dominant ethnic group Amhara is celebrated at the cost of all other nations, nationalities and peoples social, cultural, economic and political interests. Right after his assumption of power he followed the Trumpian populist method of distracting the people from their initial goal of following through the promised democratic transition. Through the production of unattainable and yet very divisive imperial narratives he not only fed a false and unattainable hope to neo-neftegnas but pitted different nations, nationalities and people against each other.
Rather than facilitating the promised transition within the two-year available time left until the next constitutionally mandated election (May 2020), he wasted valuable time posing for photo events as many have repeatedly indicated, and by erecting statues of highly controversial figures including that of Emperor Menelik’s and H/Selassie’s. Emperor Menelik is remembered with sadness among the Oromos, Wolaitas, Kambatas etc. According to Professor Mohammed Hassan, distinguished historian and author of on Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik used to own more than 70,000 slaves; that, according to Prof. Hassan who has been teaching history for three decades, makes Minilk a slave owner with the largest number of slaves in all of history as far as he knows.
Few Points on Recent Development vis-à-vis the ‘looming genocide’ theory of Mr. Lijalem
Mr. Lijalem’s article highlighted the assassination of Artist and activist Hachalu Hundessa. But, his article missed the essential facts and the wider context that can better explain the public anger and the protest which led to more killings. The cause of Hachalu’s assassination, as widely suspected by the majority of the Oromo people, if not unanimously understood that way, is triggered by his comment on national TV about the resurrection of the imperial era and his damning critic on the flaws of history relating to Emperor Menelik. The prime minister replied in a subtle way to Hachalu’s comment. On his public appearance planned to announce the opening of a bread factory, the PM said that some people do not know history enough which many took as his response to Hachalu who challenged the prime minister’s narrative about Menelik.
Serious outpouring of critic and rage against Hacalu came from other ultra nationalist Ethiopian forces following his TV interview. Many even threatened to kill him via their social media pages. Surely enough, he was soon assassinated either by the pro government forces or ultra nationalist radicals.
There is another factual edge to this. On top of his revisionist and unhinged opinions, prime minister Abiy also caused damages in deeds. Major Oromo political oppositions were targeted by his government for harassment and persecution. Key opposition figures were carefully hunted and jailed; or they have been in and out of prison. It is also remembered that following the previously attempted assassination of Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed, dozens of Oromo youths who came out to protest were killed. Again this assassination attempt took place days after an unexpected and out of the way comment was made by PM Abiy during his parliamentary appearance criticising people who returned home from the diaspora following the 2018 window of change which most listeners understood to be a verbal jab mainly against Jawar Mohammed. Soon after that, Jawar claimed security forces tried to arrest him in the middle of the night following which he supporters began protesting in which Eighty-six people died in two days of which 62 of them were Oromos. It pattern appears to be that there are forces waiting to act against anyone Abiy Ahmed shows displeasure for: Jawar first, and then Hacalu.
Considering what has transpired since he came to power, it appears that the government of prime minister Abiy has waged an undeclared war in the Oromia Regional State from the start. In fact, the Oromo people saw more incidents of abuses, extrajudicial killings of civilians, burning of houses and property, torture and unprecedented number of arrest and arbitrary detention of people within his two years’ administration than the entire duration of TPLF/EPRDF administration put together. His predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn attested to this in his TV interview with the Deutchewlle journalist. The most recent Amnesty International report on Ethiopia also confirms this. Among the series of gross violations of human rights, this report revealed, among others, a shocking account of the persecution of one elder mother and father, simply because their son is alleged to have been a member of the Oromo liberation Army. This is without including similar accounts regarding the burning of villages, the killings of many civilians and in many instances the killings of multiple members of one family.
Again, the cause of all these human rights violations is not the introduction of multinational federalism, which sadly remained at its infancy due to the lack of political will. It is and has always been the northern ruling class’ desire to rule by force and their unwillingness to recognize and respect the rights of oppressed nations and nationalities in the empire to self-rule and to determine their fate. Consistent with the neftegna system in the imperial era, the TPLF/EPRDF regime, was involved in land grab by evicting the indigenous people and through violence (the barrel of the gun). The current government simply adopted the old neftegna system somehow by giving it different names such as investment, development, housing etc.
The underlying purpose of land grab remained favouring the ruling class and their family and friends (the neo-neftegna) at the cost of evicting millions of indigenous people. As John Markakis indicated
“Abyssinian rule had diverse consequences for the people of the conquered regions, depending partly on the reception they gave the invaders and partly on the wealth of their countries. The conquered territories were divided into fiefdoms assigned to Menelik’s victorious generals, many of them royal relatives, to govern and exploit […] The great majority of the neftegna were Christian, Amharigna and Tigrigna, speaking Abyssinians.”
This, rather barbaric and oppressive system targeted then, and continues to targete the same oppressed nations, nationalities and people of the south, not Amharas as such. Any protest against this kind of land grab, other forms of exploitation, and a demand for self-rule, and every pursuit to advance and exercise their own culture has always been treated as a blow to the unity of old Ethiopia; the Ethiopia that is used to subduing and forcing the rest into the submission of the favoured Abyssinian ruling class. Pro Abyssinian historiographers and authors in different fields often use ‘unity’ as a sugar coat to conflate and hide the imposition of Amharic language, Amhara culture and religion on the rest. That is what they mean when they try to assert the multi-ethnic federalism is the cause of every social, political and economic evil.
What started out as a peaceful protest following Hacalu’s assassination turned in to violent confrontations due to government security forces’ unnecessary and disproportionate response. The overwhelming majority of those killed, injured or detained in the ensuing mayhem were Oromo individuals. To accuse the Oromo people of perpetrating genocide against all these facts would be to invent a never before seen or heard about kind of genocide, where the perpetrators are killed in numbers greater than those against whom they are supposed to perpetrate genocide. The Oromo are one of the victims of Abiy Ahmed’s neo-neftegna government which is planning and executing these violent acts while blaming it on the Oromo.
Abiy Ahemd’s government and its neo-neftegna cohorts have a couple of very important goals they are working hard to achieve. The first is to the will to hang on to power by whatever means necessary and for as long as possible without the will of the nations, nationalities and peoples. Secondly, is to use state power to dismantle the multinational federal arrangement which recognizes, at least on paper, the rights of nations, nationalities and peoples to self-determination and to replace it with a unitary system. None of these goals are achievable without subduing the colonized peoples struggling to preserve their hard earned achievements. Subduing a people in Ethiopian context is to destroy its pride and its love for itself; denigrating its nationalism such as Oromummaa – Oromo nationalism.
To that end, the neo-neftegna government of Ethiopia and its cohorts are throwing everything at Oromo nationalism hoping that some of it will stick. Genocide, the type in which the alleged perpetrators are killed in greater numbers than the supposed victims, happens to be the latest mud which the reader will see for what it is: a mere propaganda campaign.
 Mohammed Hassen, “Conquest, Tyranny, and Ethnocide against the Oromo: A Historical Assessment of Human Rights conditions in Ethiopia, ca. 1880s – 2002”, Northeast Africa Studies 9, no. 3 (2002):21.
 Aljazeera, ‘Death toll in Ethiopia violence over singer’s killing hits 239’ (Aljazeera, 8 July 2020) https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/07/death-toll-ethiopia-violence-singer-killing-hits-239-200708075014258.html accessed 13 August 2020
 Aljazeera, ‘Ethiopia says 78 killed in protests against treatment of activist’ (Aljazeera, 31 October 2019) https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/ethiopia-78-killed-protests-treatment-activist-191031191424376.html
 John Markakis, “Ethiopia: THE LAST TWO FRONTIERS” (2011, Boydell & Brewer) pp 97-107