Ethiopia: The fate of Oromia under Abiy’s Prosperity Party
Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018 after anti-government protests erupted in Oromia following the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) near clean sweep in the 2015 elections.
This article was first published in Ethiopia Insight.
The protests spread to Amhara and other regions, shaking the government and forcing reshuffles of top officials, regionally and then nationally. For Abiy, it was a meteoric rise.
The new premier, a former army colonel and then top intelligence official, first became a member of the federal parliament in 2010 and served a year as a federal minister of science and technology in 2015-16. He gained popularity in his appointment as the head of Oromia Housing and Urban Development Bureau in October 2016. He then served as a vice-chairman of the Oromia member party of the ruling EPRDF coalition under regional president Lemma Megersa and headed the office of the party.
As Abiy ascended, he spoke the language of the street. When the Oromo protests were at their peak, he made a number of appearances on Oromia TV, the regional broadcaster now rebranded as Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN).
On 28 November 2016, reflecting on capacity-building training for top officials in an Oromia TV interview, he said: “The Oromo people have granted us a great opportunity, and we have to use the opportunity and address the demands of the Oromo people by working day and night.” This was one of many public promises Abiy made to the Oromo people.
As a result, Oromos saw Abiy as an EPRDF insider who actually stood up for them. He became particularly popular in Addis Ababa’s satellite towns, which are home to many of the Oromo farmers who lost land in the capital’s expansion.
Abiy’s popularity was magnified by his electrifying speeches in parliament. In an address in June 2018, a little over a month after taking office, he denounced the EPRDF government’s approach, and apologized for past atrocities, even calling them acts of “terrorism”.
His references to “daylight hyenas” were thinly-veiled attacks on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), widely considered to have dominated the EPRDF, and therefore the country, since 1991.
Although divisive, it was the type of approach that led many Oromos to feel that the sacrifices they had made were finally bearing fruit, bringing an end to an era of tyranny, and paving the way for Oromo people to gain equal treatment and have their demands addressed at the national level.
Abiy pledged to revise controversial laws, open up the political landscape, respect human rights, and hold free and fair elections. The enthusiasm in Oromia was palpable. But, the euphoria did not last long.
Reflecting, one activist whose participation in protests helped bring Abiy into power, told Ethiopia Insight in the southern outskirts of Addis: “We thought, we are finally relieved … a new dawn has risen. But now, we are engulfed by the worst darkness.”
It did not take long for Abiy to change his tune and turn his back on many of the people that brought him to power. For example, less than three weeks after becoming prime minister, at a meeting with Amhara academics in Bahir Dar on 21 April 2018, he said: “Oromo nationalism reduced this great nation to a local community.”
Ever since, a campaign against Oromo nationalism has proliferated with devastating effects for many Oromo people, and with disastrous implications for the country. Ethiopia’s 21 June election showed the results of this policy, with Oromo opposition voices once more sidelined.
To understand how we got here, we need to reflect upon the return of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and other key Oromo nationalist entities, the Abiy government’s EPRDF-like response to opposition dynamism in the region, crackdowns and atrocities in Oromia, and the psychological impact of lives lost to political violence, including through both inter-ethnic and intra-Oromo strife.
While reflecting on events since 2018, it’s important, too, to reflect on the ideologies that have shaped actions over time. Conflicting conceptions of nationalism, in particular around Ethiopiawinet and Oromumma – which, roughly, align with Ethiopianist centralisation and ethnic federalism – have grounded recent debates. What it means to be Oromo in Ethiopia is changing – and these changes have polarised people and politics.
While the issues are complex, the need to resolve them through inclusive national dialogue is clear. Unfortunately, based on what we have seen so far, it appears that Abiy – whose Prosperity Party (PP) is now officially elected – is not up to the task.
Prosperity’s ruling party
For many in the Oromo opposition, the seeds of this year’s electoral debacle were sown in actions widely celebrated as headline achievements of a ‘reformist government’.
In November 2018, Abiy surprised many when he appointed Birtukan Midekssa, a former judge then pan-Ethiopian opposition figure, as head of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). It was the first of many controversial decisions which shaped the results of the election this June.
In December 2019, Abiy merged all EPRDF parties besides TPLF under the PP, along with five allied regional ruling parties. The Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), the Oromo EPRDF party, was absorbed by the PP.
By itself, the absorption did not mean that Oromo opposition parties outside of the EPRDF system would not stand a chance against PP. The ODP (formerly, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, the OPDO) was already in disarray after years of civil unrest and crackdowns in Oromia as well as recent fighting between the insurgent Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and federal and regional troops. The party’s popularity had never been high and had significantly dwindled.
On the other hand, in 2019, the OLF, a party that stands for Oromo people’s self-determination, and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) were confident of the support they enjoyed across Oromia.
While opposition leaders still doubted the impartiality of NEBE, members of both the OLF and OFC were hopeful that the election would advance democratisation. To boost their chances, party leaders agreed not to divide the vote in Oromia and joined forces in January 2020.
In May this year, one Burayu resident underscored the pre-election optimism in an interview with Ethiopia Insight: “Biltsigina (Amharic. Prosperity) knows that it is not a match for OFC and OLF. For PP, competing with either of them amounts to attempting to grab air with bare hands.”
PP’s competition for the region’s 178 federal parliamentary seats was not just with the OLF and the OFC. In urban areas, including in Addis Ababa’s surroundings, the incumbent also faced challenges from Ethiopian nationalist opposition parties like Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema).
Abiy did not take the competition lightly. As it became apparent that opening the political space in Oromia – giving room for Oromo nationalism and allowing democratic activity by opposition parties – all risked PP’s power, new restrictions were introduced.
The NEBE amended the country’s election law and devised regulations and directives for registering political parties. Under Proclamation No. 1162/2011 these included a maze of stipulations around providing witness-verified residency records and signatures for founding members of a political party – a process which was difficult to complete as, by the board’s own admission, it struggled with data management and staff unavailability.
While supporters of Abiy’s government routinely trumpet the board’s alleged newfound independence, these moves made life tough for the premier’s key opponents.
Both the OLF and the OFC concluded that Abiy’s aim in restructuring the NEBE was in order to help him win. Faith in the process crumbled further in 2020 after repeated delays to the election and the mandate for federal and state governments was extended – a move opposed by the Oromo opposition parties, the TPLF, and others.
Problems with the NEBE were not confined to the major opposition parties, or at the national level. At the regional level, smaller Oromo political parties also faced obstacles over registration. For instance, the NEBE denied accreditation certificates to 12 Oromo opposition parties.
Six of these, the United Oromo Liberation Front (UOLF), Oromo Abo Liberation Front (OALF), Oromia Liberation Democracy Front (OLDF), Oromo Liberation Unity Front (OLUF), Oromo Liberation Democracy Party (OLDP), and Oromo Democratic Alliance (ODA), jointly filed charges against NEBE in January for cancelling their registration.
When the Federal High Court reversed some of the decisions, NEBE appealed to the Federal Supreme Court. The proceedings went from January to April 2021, and, although the Supreme Court ordered the board to re-register ODA and OGLP, they were, in effect, unable to campaign in the election.
As a result of NEBE’s activities, of the 33 parties it registered at the regional level across the country, none were Oromo-focused. Similarly, Oromos were left with only three parties at the national level: the OLF, the OFC, and the Oromo Liberation Movement, a two-year-old party that admitted to a serious lack of preparation for the election and only put up two candidates against the PP in Oromia.
All of the parties consistently complained of harassment and of a lack of support from NEBE. While the board announced delays to the election on three occasions, none were linked to opposition parties’ complaints.
The OLF and the OFC, for example, complained to NEBE about arrests and harassment of their members and the closure of their offices. The OFC said over 300 senior officials and party members had been arbitrarily arrested and were languishing in prison without trial and over 200 offices had been closed down across Oromia and in other areas.
On 3 March, the OFC announced that it was unable to participate in the election because so many of its leaders were in jail, many of them after the fateful 29 June 2020 assassination of revered singer Hachalu Hundessa.
A few days after the announcement, the OLF followed suit, listing multiple reasons for its withdrawal, and condemning the “non-election” as undemocratic.
In a statement on 4 March 2021, the OFC accused NEBE of being pro-government. It demanded its offices to be reopened, members released, and for another election delay to allow time for a national dialogue. NEBE responded that the parties did not provide specifics.
The Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA) released a report on 24 March 2021 claiming to have verified arrests of members and closure of the offices of both the OLF and OFC in different areas.
It cited a letter sent by the OLF to NEBE on 7 December 2020, providing 39 pages accounting for arrests of 20 officials and 119 senior members at the party’s headquarters. In total, 880 members were arrested and 103 offices were closed in Oromia, Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, the Wollo area of Amhara, and in the Benishangul-Gumuz region.
The HRLHA’s report concluded that the difficulties faced by the OLF and OFC came largely from a premeditated and systematic crackdown organised by the PP, whose aim was “to push them out of the game.”
It said almost all potential candidates of both OLF and OFC, at all levels, had been incarcerated. In April this year, the UOLF, a coalition of two factions of OLF, namely OLF-Transition Authority and OLF-United, called on NEBE to extend the election period.
It proclaimed that NEBE was partial, had deliberately eliminated political parties representing the Oromo people, and was facilitating the return of what the UOLF called “Die Hard Ultra-Nationalist” parties to power – allegations the board denies. On 21 June, in Oromia, the PP put up candidates for all of the 170 constituencies in which voting took place.
Aside from the PP, there were 11 independent candidates in nine constituencies, and eight opposition parties in 58 constituencies produced 84 candidates: Ezema (46), National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) (6), 12 New Generation Party (NGP) (12), Freedom and Equality Party (FEP) (8), Enat party (5), Ethiopia Social Democratic Party (ESDP) (5), All Ethiopian Unity Organisation (AEUO) (3), and the only Oromo opposition party, OLM (1) – the sole supporter of multinational federalism. Of the 170 contested constituencies, the ruling party ran in 103 without any opposition.
Nationally, elections were held in 446 of the 547 constituencies, with a claimed turnout of more than 90% out of approximately 37 million registered voters. Voting could not take place in three of Ethiopia’s 10 regions.
Around 46% of the total population of Oromia were eligible to participate in the election. According to NEBE’s report, 15.3 million (83% of the eligible voters) were registered and 14.7 million (80% of eligible voters) voted.
Abiy won the election by what many in the media have deemed a “landslide”; the PP landed 410 seats out of 436 in the federal parliament. Joining the PP in parliament are five NaMA candidates from Amhara region, four candidates from Ezema, two from Gedeo People’s Democratic Party, and four independents.
In Oromia, the PP won 167 parliament seats out of the 170 contested seats, while the remaining seats were won by independent candidates. Those independents include two ex-members of OLF factions – Galasa Dilbo, the former head of an OLF faction called OLF-Transition Authority (OLF-TA) and Dima Negewo, former deputy chairman of the OLF faction Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) – and Ustaz Kamil Shemsu, a popular Oromo and Muslim activist. The ruling party also won all 513 contested seats in the Oromia regional council.
On 10 July, Birtukan declared: “We have managed to conduct a credible election.” Abiy congratulated all Ethiopians, saying: “Ethiopians have now registered a victory by actively participating in the election process freely without any pressure.”
Suffice to say that, in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest regional state with around 40 million people, or 35% of the total population (the largest share), freedom to vote for any party that was not the PP was constrained. For many, it was a far fall from the “fair” process that Abiy had promised in 2018.
A bungled return
Between Abiy’s meteoric ascent and his landslide victory was a series of decisions that had damaging effects across Oromia. In June 2018, Abiy made a bold move: his parliament approved congressional ratification to remove three rebel groups from Ethiopia’s terrorist list. The OLF was invited back to Addis.
The OLF was founded in 1973 with a mission to lead the liberation struggle of the Oromo people against the imperial government. In the 1980s, the rebel group was part of the fight to topple the Derg, and it formed loose alliances with the TPLF and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) in 1989.
In 1989, TPLF leaders established the EPRDF with the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (later, the Amhara National Democratic Movement). It became an umbrella organisation that was to be made up of several ethnic-based groups, including the OPDO (later, the ODP).
The EPRDF and OLF, alongside other rebel groups, formed a transitional government, and EPRDF insisted that the OLF give up ideas of secession.
Relations turned violent as the struggle for Oromo liberation was sidelined. OLF was forced into retreat, its members exiled to Eritrea. There, although factionalised, they remained devoted to armed struggle against the EPRDF government – until Abiy invited them back in 2018.
Removing the OLF from the terrorism list, alongside Ginbot 7, a pan-Ethiopianist organisation formed by those who turned to armed struggle after accusing the EPRDF of stealing 2005 polls, provided Abiy with a considerable boost in support across Oromia.
Unfortunately, their return also sparked an immediate wave of violence. Ginbot 7 supporters decorated Addis Ababa with their favoured green-yellow-red flag before their leaders’ arrival. When OLF supporters did the same with their own flag a week later, they were attacked.
The government then failed to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate (DDR) the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed wing of OLF, as per the agreement with the movement. Instead, it accused OLA of killing four Benishangul-Gumuz officials and, by September 2018, it installed military command posts in western and southern parts of Oromia to hunt OLA fighters and take their weapons by force.
Widespread violence broke out in Benishangul’s Kamashi Zone after the four Gumuz officials were killed by gunmen near the West Wellega border in Oromia. The killings came after allegations by the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement, an opposition party, that OLF members had carried out multiple attacks against indigenous people in the region.
The federal government declared a state of emergency in the region, and it extended military operations against the OLA across western Oromia.
In April 2018, as a result of clashes between Guji Oromos and Gedeo people of the Southern Nations Nationalities and People Region (SNNP) in Gedeo Zone, the government increased troop deployments in southern Oromia.
In January 2019, political figures and elders, including Jawar Mohammed and members of the Abbaa Gadaas, tried to mediate between the government and OLF to renegotiate a DDR agreement with the OLA. That effort failed and, in April 2019, the OLA announced that it had established its own High Command.
Nominally demonstrating its own commitment to DDR, the OLF publicly disassociated itself with the OLA in May 2019. It formally confined itself to peaceful politics, while the OLA continued its armed resistance.
This year, on 27 April, OLA proposed an eight-point plan requesting an immediate ceasefire and an independent investigation into human rights abuses in order to find a peaceful resolution and resolve political and economic instability in Oromia. It declared its readiness to cooperate with all stakeholders wanting to bring an end to conflicts in Ethiopia.
Although the government has rarely acknowledged the war being waged in Oromia between its forces and the OLA, both sides have reported victories in battles.
In early June, the Oromia police commission reported killing 95 members of “OLF-Shene” in Guji and Borena zones. The government accused the Oromo rebels of killing a total of 463 people in Oromia since the beginning of 2020, including 112 police officers, 57 militia members, and 18 government leaders; it also accused them of injuring 76 police officers, 36 militia members, and two officials.
The authorities have also blamed OLA for massacres against Amhara civilians in Oromia, including in eastern and western Wellega in western Oromia. OLA denied responsibility for the attacks, and activists often allege that the rebel group is being framed by the authorities. Over the last three years, OLA has expanded its activity and grown in popularity across Oromia and abroad.
In February this year, Fikadu Tessema, Head of Oromia-PP, described OLA’s ubiquity as such: “[Its members] are civilians during the day, they live among the people, they participate in our meetings, they gather information, and they take their actions at night.”
Representing his party’s position, and revealing how the government aims to deal with the OLA, Fikadu then stated: “You will never be able to catch all the fish of Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. If you want to completely get rid of all the fish, you will need to dry up the ocean.”
Such divisive rhetoric served to generate further support for OLA’s armed resistance. As a result, more and more Oromos are joining the rebel group as security and human rights protections in the region crumble, military crackdowns against civilians become routine, and the space for political freedom and party opposition tighten to a chokehold. For many in Oromia, the OLA is seen now as the best option for achieving self-determination.
Today, in Oromia, some say that no place or no person is safe. In Burayu: “You can get killed in your house; you can get killed on your farm; you can get killed on the street; you can get killed at a funeral service; you can get killed at your workplace, and you can even get killed in the detention centre,” one civil servant told Ethiopia Insight this June. “There is no such thing called due process or rule of law in Oromia.”
In May 2020, Amnesty International released a report on the human rights abuses committed by government security forces in the two Guji zones in Oromia. The report itemised extrajudicial executions in 2019, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment. It also detailed forced evictions and destruction of property against suspected supporters and members of OLF and OLA.
Research came from monitoring 21 selected police stations between November 2020 and January 2021 where numerous prisoners arrested in connection with what the authorities describe as “the current situation” are being detained, including many who were arrested in July 2020 following the assassination of Hachalu.
The EHRC expressed alarm and indicated that grave violations of human rights had been committed. The report contained testimonies that described arrests of suspects’ family members in some areas—including arresting parents to demand they bring in children suspected of being members or supporters of OLA, and arresting a wife to produce a husband suspected of association with the group.
On 11 May, regional government forces publicly executed Amanuel Wendimu, a 17-year-old youth suspected of being a member of the shadowy assassins group Abbaa-Torbee, in Dembi Dollo, the region’s far west. Oromia officials justified the extra-judicial killing.
In a 7 June report, the Oromia Support Group (OSG), an advocacy organisation researching human rights abuses against Oromos, documented 2,107 recorded killings since October 2018. Of these, 1,326 were Oromo, of whom 766 were killed in western Oromia.
Over three years of fighting, members of the OLA and government have accused each other of killing civilians and committing extrajudicial executions, especially in parts under military command in western and southern Oromia.
The federal government’s original crackdown in Oromia mainly targeted the OLA and by extension OLF members and supporters. However, by 2019, many Oromo politicians, including the leaders of the OFC, still saw Abiy as offering a way forward for Oromo aspirations.
Concerns about Abiy grew gradually. Returned activist Jawar’s shift in attitude towards the Prime Minister provides an example of the change.
Jawar was a key player in the 2013 establishment of the Oromia Media Network (OMN) in the US, which provided a mouthpiece for supporting Oromo demonstrations beginning in 2015, leading to Abiy’s appointment as prime minister.
Jawar returned to Ethiopia in August 2018, and, for a time, was seen by some Oromo activists as a quasi-government official with close ties to leaders in the OFC. Within a year, he became concerned about the direction of Abiy’s policies – not least his plan to merge the four EPRDF parties and their five allies into a single Prosperity Party.
On 17 October 2019, he commented critically on the merger. Claiming the objective was to weaken ethnonationalism and strengthen centrist politics, Jawar said it would be better to democratise the EPRDF rather than combine its components, arguing that Oromos needed to band together to collectively bargain for their rights.
A few days later, Abiy issued a warning to media owners holding foreign passports. This was widely taken as a threat against Jawar, holder of a US passport.
The threat became more acute when Federal Police recalled the security officers who were assigned to protect Jawar. His security was ordered to leave late at night, exposing Jawar, who had recently announced that he would join the OFC and run in Ethiopia’s general election, to violence or an attempt on his life.
That night, Jawar took to social media and shared his circumstances. His supporters poured out onto the streets. Violence and rioting in several towns led to dozens of deaths.
In 2019, Jawar was not alone in his concerns about the EPRDF merger; Lemma Megersa, a former close ally of Abiy, was removed from his position as defence minister and silenced after he expressed concern over the establishment of the PP. Tigray regional government was most forthright in its opposition, leading to the ongoing civil war.
OFC leaders, including Jawar himself, launched a campaign across Oromia condemning government atrocities and criticising the government for attempting to destroy multinational federalism. The rallies attracted huge crowds despite government efforts to prevent them.
In February 2020, for example, the OFC was denied permission to use a stadium in Jimma “because the campaign season hadn’t officially begun”.
The PP, however, held a rally in the middle of the town on the same day. The government’s moves to curtail activities of Oromo opposition parties took a major step forward after the 29 June 2020 murder of Hachalu, an Oromo nationalist musician adored for his songs of resistance.
In his last interview, which Oromia Media Network aired one week before his murder, Hachalu criticised Abiy for not being on the right path, saying he should not have spoiled his hands with the blood of Oromo people.
Emphasising his concerns about ongoing strife in Oromia, Hachalu said: “Suppression is still going on. Oromo is oppressing Oromo.”
His murder remains a major issue for Oromo civilians, activists, and politicians who have continued efforts to find those responsible and relate his death to the spread of violent suppression across Oromia. A month after the killing, the OMN produced a 30-minute documentary looking at how, days before the murder, the government and empire apologists had responded to Hachalu’s interview with threats on social media. Meanwhile, their ideological opponents pointed to other comments by Hachalu to suggest he was targeted by Oromo nationalist forces.
In October, four suspects were arrested and charged for killing Hachalu, with allegations they had links to the OLF. The trial is ongoing. Lamrot Kamal, the last person seen near Hachalu before he was shot, was declared innocent and released, though later detained against an appeal by prosecutors. The court found the evidence was insufficient to link two others to the killing, leaving one Tilahun Yami as the sole suspect. He has now been found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, while two accomplices received shorter jail terms.
In January, Kello Media released a 46-minute documentary about the murder, which included analysis by several Oromo journalists and other testimonies recorded in prison. In an exclusive interview from jail, Tilahun claims he was falsely accused, saying he went to the police station by himself to provide a witness to what he saw the night Hachalu was murdered.
Hachalu’s family has been unconvinced by the trial’s credibility; many Oromos are equally unimpressed. The killing unleashed a wave of demonstrations across Oromia. Internet services were shut down within hours of the assassination and remained down for a month. In the days that followed the murder, police shot dead dozens of protesters across the country, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
It also accused individuals and groups in Oromia of targeted killings based on people’s ethnicity and religion, in practice often Amhara and Orthodox Christians.
As well as using disproportionate force at times, security forces also turned a “blind eye” to violence, the commission said. That was evident in Ethiopia Insight’s examination of the unrest in the central Oromia town of Batu (formerly, Ziway).
More than 9,000 people were detained during and after the disturbances. Included in that count are Jawar, Bekele Gerba, and dozens of leading OFC members, as well as countless OLF officials and supporters, who were arrested by federal and regional forces and accused of fomenting violence.
For Ethiopians who had long been critical of Jawar, the crackdown on the OFC, the shutting down of the OMN, and the arrests of journalists, Oromo nationalists, and activists have been accepted as a way of eliminating opposition elements that they view as undermining the state.
For Oromo critics, the events served as a clear sign that Abiy and the PP do not want Oromo nationalism to thrive – perhaps even survive – in Ethiopia.
Ethiopiawinet vs Oromumma
Oromia is the scene of political competition structured around two competing ideologies: Oromummaa and Ethiopiawinet – Oromo nationalism and pan-Ethiopianism. The federal government has sided with pan-Ethiopianists to the exclusion of Oromo nationalists. This has intensified polarisation and turned the situation in Oromia into another phase of a protracted crisis – a crisis that this election has done nothing to resolve, and may well have exacerbated.
Neither Oromummaa nor Ethiopiawinet is static, and conceptions of each have changed over time. What each term offers, though, is a deeply-felt idea of what it means to be an Ethiopian and/or an Oromo – what the identity means, and who is included in the category.
Whether the two can be reconciled has been an issue at least since the time of Emperor Menelik II. Menelik, whose defeat of the Italians in 1896 preserved Ethiopia’s independence, was largely responsible for expanding his empire to include numerous other groups, including forcibly incorporating most of the Oromo lands into Ethiopia’s empire.
Ethiopiawinet envisions Ethiopian national identity as unified: as an inclusive identity for all people belonging to the nation’s territory. Its proponents often argue that the diversity in Ethiopia is intrinsic to Ethiopiawinet. They defend Menelik’s expansion, saying that it was part and parcel of state and nation-building, arguing that Oromo rulers themselves have subjugated other groups during their own earlier conquests.
In the 1960s, a rigorous debate about the complexity of Ethiopiawinet added depth to the idea. Many began to see the identity as imposed, inherently imperial, and one which centres on the northern people of Amhara and Tigray.
Addressing the way Amhara (and Tigray) supremacy was enclosed within the concept of Ethiopian nationalism and how non-Amhara nations were subjugated, Wallelign Mekonnen famously offered an alternative Ethiopiawinet back in 1969: an identity for members in a genuinely democratic and egalitarian state, in which all nationalities might participate equally in state affairs, with equal opportunities to preserve and develop their language, history, and cultural expressions.
Today, many proponents of pan-Ethiopianism have accommodated criticisms, and prefer to focus on national and political boundaries over religious, cultural, and linguistic markers to define Ethiopiawinet.
Its opponents, however, say it rejects those who promote the self-determination of their own ethnicity or nationality. They argue that pan-Ethiopianists glorify the legacy of the emperors while presenting themselves as patriots; this paves over the marginalisation and resentment of other nationalities and peoples.
Oromummaa is an alternative to pan-Ethiopianism for the Oromo people. In the Oromo language, it simply means ‘Oromo-ness’, or the sense of being Oromo.
One Burayu teenager defined it for Ethiopia Insight as such: “Oromummaa is my blood, my identity, my culture, and my family tree or genealogy.”
Oromummaa also embodies an ongoing struggle: the struggle to end century-old subjugation. It holds with it a demand to exercise the constitutionally-given right to self-determination for the Oromo people.
Those struggling for more power as a state within Ethiopia, on the one hand, employ Oromummaa as a way to empower the nation’s Oromo majority. On the other hand, Oromos fighting for independence use the term to set boundaries for a future Oromia nation-state.
The Derg military regime (1974-1991) which overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie tried to sideline the ideological debate. Its socialist slogan stated simply: “Ethiopia First.”
As a response to the coercive centralisation that had bred rebellion, multinational federalism was introduced by the EPRDF in Ethiopia’s 1995 constitution.
By the time Abiy was appointed prime minister, however, numerous demands for self-determination were seen as having the potential to compromise the state. An updated version of pan-Ethiopianism has gained prominence, as Oromummaa and other nationalisms have proliferated.
Abiy has been the leading proponent for a new version of Ethiopiawinet. Abiy’s Ethiopiawinet purports to keep the best of the past while looking forward to the future. Conflicting narratives of historical oppression and deep marginalization are dropped in favour of a more positive and productive shared identity, more fit for the present.
His slogan ‘Make Ethiopia Great Again’ harkens back to the political ideologies of Ethiopia’s emperors. Abiy adds to this his philosophy of ‘Medemer’, which can roughly be translated as synergy, togetherness, or unity.
The ideology aims at forging a new Ethiopian identity by combining all the nations in Ethiopia, both the marginalised and the privileged, blending their languages, beliefs, norms, customs, and cultures together, merging and condensing their identities into an inseparable, unified, national identity.
This is more than theoretical, and Abiy has given tangible ideas about language teaching, for example, for how such synergy can be accomplished.
In an article he wrote for Project Syndicate, Abiy stated (incorrectly): “The political party I now lead is the first in Ethiopia that is not based on race, religion, or ethnicity.” In a recent speech, he proclaimed: “There are no ‘peoples’ in Ethiopia, only people.”
While on paper Abiy aims to foster unity while respecting diversity, much of the discourse which has followed his Ethiopiawinet revival has been far more toxic and exclusionary.
In June 2018, the NaMA was established, with the goal of defending Amhara interests across Ethiopia. One official even insisted the Amhara should be respected for “creating Ethiopia”, just as people respect their creator – the party later apologsed for using such incendiary language.
Pro-unity media institutions like Ethio 360 Media, Abay Media, and others, have campaigned against Oromummaa. Delegitimising Oromo nationalism, activists have been referred to as ‘tribalists’ or ‘racists’, similar to the way the EPRDF called them “narrow nationalists”.
Some Ethiopian nationalists are openly stating that they would like to destroy Oromummaa the same way they tried to destroy the TPLF.
Protesters across Amhara have taken to the street holding anti-Oromo banners that read “Oromummaa should be destroyed, Ethiopia should be first” and “Oromo Special Zone must be destroyed,” referring to an Oromo enclave in Amhara that suffered extreme violence earlier this year in what some reports blamed predominantly on Amhara paramilitaries.
Many Oromos, even those who are Ethiopian nationalists and who continue to believe in the future of a semi-autonomous Oromia within Ethiopia, see the glorification of emperors as inherently hostile. It has led to increased polarization across Oromia, as Amhara nationalism and Abiy’s acceptance of it has made the vision of Oromumma as a separatist movement more appealing.
As one young Burayu resident told Ethiopia Insight: “Their hate for Oromo is forcing us to give up on pursuing a way we could live together equally and freely in the same country.”
The reappearance of the ‘neftegna’ narrative among Oromos has been another consequence of Amhara-centric-Ethiopiawinet rhetoric.
Another Burayu youth asserted that: “The term Ethiopiawinet is used as a weapon to resurrect the neftegna system that subjugated the nations and nationalities in the country. Its goal is to destroy Oromummaa.”
A ‘neftegna’ (ነፍጠኛ), literally ‘rifle-bearer’, is the name given to settlers who participated in territorial expansion and the creation of modern Ethiopia by the late 19th century. In Oromia, they were seen as ‘settler colonialists’, violently evicting Oromos, forcibly assimilating indigenous populations to the values and system of Northern Ethiopia, and turning farmers into serfs.
Abiy, once envisioned as an embodiment of Oromo pride and power, is now seen by many Oromos as someone working to revive a system of subjugation similar to the one enacted in imperial times. The feeling of betrayal is strong.
According to one Burayu activist: “Abiy deceived the Oromo people. Now, he is building the neftegna system over the graves of our children who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of our people.”
Another claimed: “Abiy’s administration is on the side of those campaigning publicly to commit genocide on the Oromo people, with the intention of reinstating the old neftegna system of emperors.”
As a result of Abiy’s association with imperialist nationalism, politicians in opposition parties across Oromia have expressed even stronger support for Oromumma.
Abiy’s office explicitly denied such allegations following the Hachalu violence, saying it was a “desperate attempt to defame” his leadership: “The term ‘neftegna’ has nothing to do with the current government; it has nothing to do with the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. This is a part of history, and it, in no way, reflects the current political situation.”
In the pre-election transition period, national and international institutions alike called repeatedly for an all-inclusive national dialogue. Some calls, like from the OLF and OFC, have demanded a National Transitional Government, and a transitional government in Oromia.
Necessary aims of the dialogue in Oromia include addressing underlying issues including the government’s crackdown on its opponents and exclusion of Oromo parties, the ongoing war between the government and OLA, justice and reconciliation with Oromia leaders in jail, and the hostile campaign against Oromummaa.
This April, the two main Oromo political parties, OLF and OFC, and the OLA released statements on how to end hostility and resolve the current crisis in Oromia. The OLF proposed an all-inclusive democratic reform process with the participation of all representative political forces.
The OFC also called for an inclusive national dialogue, reconciliation, and consensus. OLA called for a national conference to map a transitional charter, a transitional government, and the postponement of the election.
On 22 June, a day after the election, US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said the elections would not resolve Ethiopia’s increasing conflicts.
At a press briefing, he stated: “We urge all Ethiopians to commit to an inclusive political dialogue that strengthens democracy and helps to resolve inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts.” The OFC and OLF agreed.
On 23 June, the OFC issued another statement calling for immediate talks on the establishment of an all-inclusive Government of Salvation to undertake the aborted reform of governmental institutions; an immediate, all-inclusive, and honest political dialogue to sort out the country’s outstanding political problems; and the holding of a genuine ‘free and fair’ national election within one year.
Thus far, all calls for comprehensive and inclusive dialogue have been rebuffed. Abiy’s inconsistencies – i.e., inviting back exiled leaders only to prosecute them, promoting medemer while elevating imperialist-nationalism, and making peace with Eritrea only to wage war on Tigray – makes it difficult to know what he will do next.
However, one thing comes across clearly enough in Oromia: Abiy leaves little room for anything that threatens him holding power. If the last three years have been an indication of what is to come, the possibility of genuine democratic dialogue seems slim, and the Oromo struggle for genuine autonomy will therefore continue to strengthen.