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Oromia (Finfinnee): OMN: Marii Dubartoota Kolfee Qaraaniyoo fi magaalota naannoo Finfinnee February 25, 2019

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HRW: Interview: Ethiopia Lets in Human Rights Watch for First Time in 8 Years Genuine Progress on Rights, Yet Ethnic Tensions Loom in Rural Regions February 23, 2019

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Interview: Ethiopia Lets in Human Rights Watch for First Time in 8 Years

Genuine Progress on Rights, Yet Ethnic Tensions Loom in Rural Regions

Amy Braunschweiger,  Senior Web Communications Manager, HRW and Felix Horne, Senior Researcher, Horn of Africa, HRW

After more than two years of protests, power changed hands in Ethiopia last April. Under the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia is shedding its reputation as a country that tortures detainees and spies on its citizens. The authorities have released thousands of political prisoners and dismissed some abusive security force officers. The decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea came to an end. And for the first time in eight years, Human Rights Watch staff who cover Ethiopia were permitted to visit the country. Senior Researcher Felix Horne talks with Amy Braunschweiger about these exciting steps forward, as well as his concerns about rising tensions among ethnic groups in the country’s rural areas.

Abiy Ahmed, newly elected prime minister of Ethiopia, is sworn in at the House of Peoples' Representatives in Addis Ababa, April 2, 2018. © 2018 Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Abiy Ahmed, newly elected prime minister of Ethiopia, is sworn in at the House of Peoples’ Representatives in Addis Ababa, April 2, 2018.  © 2018 Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

How has Ethiopia changed since you were last there?

Addis Ababa, the capital, has changed so much. Unlike before, modern asphalt roads are everywhere, there are freeways, tall, modern shiny buildings, lots of new restaurants, and a light rail system. It used to smell of smoke, from people burning wood to prepare food, but that smell is now gone. People seemed to feel much more free to express their opinions. They were speaking very openly about sensitive subjects in public spaces, cafes, and mini buses. That’s not the Addis I knew, where everyone was looking over their shoulder to see who was eavesdropping.

You went specifically for a workshop on rebuilding civil society. What did you learn?

Under the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, civil society groups working on human rights issues in Ethiopia was decimated. Most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were closed. Others had their bank accounts frozen. But a new law was passed earlier this month. It eliminates most of the draconian restrictions from previous legislation. The new agency registering NGOs needs to get up and running and that will take time, but we hope NGOs will be able to register soon, which will open up possibilities for funding. Then they can document abuses and advocate for respect for human rights, which is critical ahead of the May 2020 elections.

What was the workshop like?

There was a feeling of newfound optimism there. Still, it was starkly evident the extent to which civil society working on human rights has been decimated since the Charities and Societies Proclamation was passed 10 years ago. It will clearly take time for the sector to recover.

At the workshop, international and Ethiopian NGOs, such as the Human Rights Council of Ethiopia and the Consortium of Ethiopian Rights Organizations, discussed advocacy strategies and research gaps, and talked about economic, social, and cultural rights. It was a chance for everyone to get together in person. There were people there who I knew quite well but had never actually met. It was nice to put faces to names.

Newspaper readers at Arat Kilo, a square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Newspaper readers at Arat Kilo, a square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © 2011 Tom Cochrem/Getty Images

Did anything surprise you?

Some of the activists organized a press conference at the end of the workshop, and I honestly didn’t expect much media interest. But 60 journalists showed up, and most were from the state media. When I talked about how it was our first visa in eight years, there was applause. They asked questions about what work we planned to do in Ethiopia and if we’d open up an office there.

State media never covered our work in the past, and that has clearly changed. But media is still publishing a pro-government prospective. For example, we spoke about all the great reforms happening, and we also talked about our concerns. But most of the media never reported on the concerns.

I have this memory from the press conference, when, among the microphones was one from ETV, which is the main state broadcaster, and next to it was one from OMN, the Oromia Media Network, which used to be banned in Ethiopia. The former government went to great lengths to jam OMN’s television broadcasts and had unfairly charged it under the counterterrorism law. It was great to see them side-to-side and a powerful image of change in the media landscape.

Over the past few years, there have been simmering ethnic tensions across Ethiopia. Where do these tensions now stand?

In Addis, things are good. There’s lots of optimism. But outside the capital – and I’ve been in regular contact with people around the country since Abiy came to power – it’s almost the exact opposite.

Previously, the ruling coalition’s direction was implemented from the highest-level officials down to the villages. An expansive network of intelligence at every level meant the government knew everything, allowing it to suppress any emerging threats to its power and control. The government also used other strategies to stem criticism, including force.

But that system in many places has all but broken down, as people associated with serious abuses, or those not loyal to the current government, have been purged. There is little governance happening at local levels, and local security officials are often ineffectual, allowing some vigilante groups to take control. At the same time, people are feeling newly empowered to speak openly after years of suppression, and many have longstanding grievances over land, border demarcations, access to state resources, and perceived discrimination against their ethnic group.

June 15, 2016 Report

“Such a Brutal Crackdown”

Killings and Arrests in Response to Ethiopia’s Oromo Protests

Unfortunately, institutions that would normally resolve those grievances – the judiciary, parliament, the Human Rights Commission — aren’t yet seen as independent or capable of doing so.

All this is happening at the same time as a massive influx of firearms into the country, many from Sudan. It’s a dangerous mix.

What does this look like on the ground?

The ethnic tensions play out in different ways. In some places, you see young armed gang members stopping cars and demanding payments, smuggling goods, controlling regional trade. There has been open fighting in other places, and the Ethiopian army has recently been engaged in clashes with the Oromo Liberation Front forces. The OLF was welcomed back into the country, but some of its members weren’t willing to disarm or reintegrate into government security forces.

What’s really worrying is that this violence could just be the tip of the iceberg. Around the boundary between the Tigray and Amhara regions, both sides are engaging in war-like rhetoric and heavily arming themselves. If open fighting broke out between those regions, it would affect the whole country. Yet there has been notable silence from Abiy around this and other emerging conflicts around the country.

Some of the challenges facing the government are inevitable in transitioning from an authoritarian government to a fledgling democracy. But restoring law and order doesn’t seem to be high on the government agenda. Officials don’t seem to be taking these risks seriously. Eighty-five percent of Ethiopians are rural, mostly small-scale farmers or pastoralists who need grazing land and water for their animals. If there is widespread conflict, if they’re displaced, or if they can’t plant or harvest because of fighting, the humanitarian consequences would be dire.

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The Ethiopian government is forcibly displacing indigenous pastoral communities in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo valley without adequate consultation or compensation to make way for state-run sugar plantations and the construction of Africa’s highest dam, the Gibe III hydropower project. The Lower Omo valley, one of the most remote and culturally diverse areas on the planet, is home to around 200,000 people from eight unique agro-pastoral communities who have lived there for as long as anyone can remember. Their way of life and their identity is linked to the land and access to the Omo River.

What about the problem of internal displacement?

There are over two million internally displaced people in Ethiopia. This includes 1.4 million new displaced people in the first half of 2018 alone – the largest internal displacement of people in the world during that time period. A changing climate brought increased drought and variability of rains, causing the displacement of pastoralists who didn’t have enough grazing for their animals. But most of those displaced were fleeing armed conflict. In many places along the 800 kilometer boundary between the Oromia and Somali regions, groups, many of them armed, violently removed people from their lands. Because these places are remote, it’s difficult to provide food and other types of humanitarian aid there.

We are worried the government may be forcing internally displaced people back to their lands before it’s safe. Recently, about 900,000 people from the Gedeo ethnic group were forced to flee their lands in the country’s coffee-growing south by the Guji Oromo ethnic group. But the spike in the number of those displaced embarrassed the government, so local officials pressured them to move back in part by telling humanitarian groups – which were feeding the Gedeo – to only provide them food in the places they had fled. Many Gedeo went back because of the pressure, even though for many there is nothing to return to or they feel it is still unsafe.

October 19, 2010 Report

Development without Freedom

How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia

Using aid to control people’s movement was a strategy the former government regularly deployed. It’s concerning to see it being used again in Abiy’s Ethiopia.

How will these factors play into Ethiopia’s 2020 election?

In the past, Ethiopia’s elections were riddled with irregularities, with the government “winning” over 99.6 percent of federal parliamentary seats in 2010 and all 547 seats in 2015 election. Expectations are high that the 2020 elections will be different.

But lots of important issues about the upcoming elections aren’t being addressed. Key elements for an environment conducive to credible elections, like an independent media, fair registration procedures, and a vibrant civil society, just aren’t in place. Opposition parties, many of which only existed outside of Ethiopia for many years, are starting from scratch. An oft-delayed census, historically controversial in Ethiopia, has still not taken place.

Many people are quietly asking if the elections should be postponed. The ruling party and most opposition parties have not sought a postponement because they all think they will do well. And many of the youth – those who joined the protests that brought about the changes over the past year – don’t feel represented by the existing parties. Combine all this with the current ethnic tensions and the security void, and it’s a potential powder keg.

How does all of this affect your work?

In the past, we never were able to get the government’s perspective on the abuses taking place. We always reached out to officials but got nothing back, which denied them an opportunity to tell their side of the story. I’m hoping this new government will continue to give our researchers visas and be responsive to meeting and discussing our findings. We hope we will also be able to do more research on the ground in Ethiopia, and tackle issues that were previously off limits because of access and security constraints. We also look forward to working more openly with local civil society groups and activists as the sector rebuilds itself. After many years stuck on the outside, there’s lots to do, and we intend to be there to do it.

UNESCO:International Mother Language Day February 21, 2019

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‘Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way.’ #IndigenousLanguages #MotherTongueDay #AfaanOromoo #Oromia #Oromo #Africa #Languages #culture


International Mother Language Day

The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was the initiative of Bangladesh. It was approved at the 1999 UNESCO General Conference and has been observed throughout the world since 2000.

UNESCO believes in the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies. It is within its mandate for peace that it works to preserve the differences in cultures and languages that foster tolerance and respect for others.  

Linguistic diversity(link is external) is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.

Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way.

MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR-GENERAL

“Indigenous peoples have always expressed their desire for education in their own languages, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day will be indigenous languages as a factor in development, peace and reconciliation.
Indigenous peoples number some 370 million and their languages account for the majority of the approximately 7,000 living languages on Earth. Many indigenous peoples continue to suffer from marginalization, discrimination and extreme poverty, and are the victims of human-rights violations (…). On this International Mother Language Day, I thus invite all UNESCO Member States, our partners and education stakeholders to recognize and enforce the rights of indigenous peoples.”

— Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day

The iconic Oromo music star, singer, song writer and author of 5 books Daadhi Galaan murdered by unidentified gunman while on stage. February 15, 2019

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Wellisaa fi barreessaa beekamoo Daadhii Galaan nama eenyummaan isaa ammaf hin adda hin baaneen rasaasan ajjeeffame. Biyyoon isatti haa salphatu. Maati isaaf saba Oromoo maaraaf rabbi jajjabeenya haa kennu.

Wellisaa Daadhiin Oromiyaa, godina Shawaa Bahaa aanaa Liiban Cuqqaalaa ganda Jaarraa Gooroo bakka Buuyyamaa jedhamutti haadha isaa Likkee Damissee fi abbaa isaa Galaan Wadaajoo irraa bara 1977 dhalate.

Wellisaa Daadhii fi jaallan isaa Gurraandhala 11 bara 2019 godina Shawaa Bahaa aanaa Liiban Cuqqaalaa magaalaa Ashuffeetti ebba hoteelatiif sirbarra turan. Haala kana keessatti dhukaasa nama ammaf hin beekamne irraa banameen lubbuun artiist Daadhii Galaan darbeera.

Wellisaa Daadhin sirboota aadaa, jaalalaa, kan qabsoo fi sabboonummaa Oromoo jajjabeessan viidiyoo fi sagaleedhan weellisee maxxansiisuun gumaachaa guddaa godha ture.

Wellisaa fi barreessaa Dhaadhiin kitaabota 5 inni barreessee maxxansee gummaache matadureen isaanii:

Aangoo sanyiin dhaalan

Numalee

Yaadannoo jaallanii

Liiban Liibiyaa taate

Boolla nugusa

Sirboota baaqqee fi albamootas gumaachuun guddina aartii Oromootif uf qussannaa malee hojjechaa ture.

Sirboota isaa hedduuf walaloo fi yeedaloo qopheessaa kan ture isuma mataa isaa ture.

Daadhin weellisaa, barreessaa, waloo fi yeedaloos qopheessaa ture.

Artiist Daadhiin seenaa qoratu malee hin barreessu, hin sirbu jedhu hiriyoonni dhiyeenyan isa beekan.

Wanti barbaachisaan maqaa Itophiyaa utuu hin tahin, akka ilmaan namaatti fedhan waliin jiraachuuf maqaa fedhe jalatti walii galte hawaasomaa uumuu dha. Obbo Ibsaa Guutamaa irra February 15, 2019

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What is important is not the name Ethiopia, but the will to enter into a social contract to live together in peace as human beings under any name. 

Kanneen bara Minilik duudan ammallee Oromiyaa biyyoota mootii xixiqqoo isaan bulchoota muudaniifitt ciruu abjootu. Qaabannoo gabaabachuun, dargaggoon Oromo kaleessuma biyya ofii irra darbanii isaanuu bulcha abbaa hirree hamaa, TPLF jalaa bilisa baasuu saanii irraanfatanii jiru. Ummati Oromo fi dargagoon saas hardhas tokkummaa biyya ofii irraa hamaa ittisuuf caalaa dammaqanii eeguu cimsaa jiru. Finfinneen keenya jechuun “Humnoota tokkummaa”, akeeki saanii sana utuu hin tahin, Oromiyaa gargar kutuu akka tahe beeku. Kun waan haaraa utuu hin tahin bara Qinijjitii kaasee kan karoorfatanii. Wacabbarii saanii gidduu kanaa sanumaaf ture. Oromo bilisaa fi walabummaa hameessa saanii waggaa dhibbaa olii, biyya Oromoo, Oromoo biyaa (Oromiyaa) jibbu. Kallachi mormii Oromoo, dargaggoon Oromoo fi demokratoti biraa empayera keessa jiran TPLFiin kan buqqisan goblaa mirgaa kan tahe abdattuun sirna Nafxanyaa bakka buufachuuf miti. Sirni imperial dullachii sadarkaa kabeebsuun hin dandahamett babbaqaqee jira. Gaaffiin ama jiru Itophiyaa dullattii akkamitt dhinsinaa utuu hin tahin, mirkanii lafa jiru, moo’ummaa ummatootaa fudhachuu dha. Yoosi, kan tokkee haaraa fedha ummatootaa irratt hundaawe ijaaruun kan dandahamuu. Akeeki sochii bilisummaa Oromoo qabaa Itophiyaa jalaa Oromiyaa walaboomsuu dha. Sana bakkaan gahuuf waan teekinikaa xixinnootu isa hafee ture. Kanaaf akka ta’iisi sun xifa hin jirreett fudhachuun waldiddaa caalaatt hammeessuu dandaha. Kaayyoo ummata Oromoo ABOn akka ganama dhihaatett tuffiin ilaaluun ayyaamii saba sanaa waldhaaluu taha. ABOn fardaa, yoo dulloome Kaayyoo, ayyaana sabaa utuu hin tahin farda biraatu bakka bu’a. Kan tahuu qabu golooti nagaa jaallatan hundi, yaayyoo karaa mormii ummata booda jijjiirama demokraatawaaf yayyabame hanga xumuraatt hordofuu dha. Danuun seenaa bulcha cehumsaa Garee Lammaa Dr. Abiyyiin hogganamu uumee jiraa. Yero ammaa filmaati wayyaan jiru isaanuma. Deggersi keenya qeeqaa tahuu dandaha, garuu ifaajjee jijjiiramaa barbaachisu fiduuf akka dandeessisutt ijaaraa tahuu barbaachisa. Bu’aa ciicannoo kennaafiin wal amantee uumaa; mucuci asii fi achii, miiddhaan dhaqabsiisu yoo jiraate bu’aa yaa’icha keessa argamu hin caaluu. Waggoota dhibba tokkoof sammuu dhiqaaan jiraatuyyuu Itophiyaa tahuu kan hin fudhatin jiru. Kanaaf, ta’innaan, godinicha tokkeessuuf tattaaffiin godhamu mirkanii jiru kanaan wal gitchisiisuun barbaachisaa dha. Jalqaba, rakkinoota waggoota dhibbaa fi shantama as haanan keessatt kahan erga ilaallee kan waggoota kumaatt dabarra. Mirga saba hiree ofii ofiin murteeffachuu kan walabummaa dabalatu beekuun wal amantee sabootaa fi sabaawota akka walqixxeett waliin mari’achuu mijjeessu uumuu dandaha. Tokkumaan olii gad gonfamu, si’achi fudhatama hin qabaatu. Uumaa empayerii irratt qayyabannoo waloo qabaachuu yaaluun wal nokkora hedduu hambisuu dandaha. Qabeen saa, namoota daaya, gootota, alaabaa, afaan, aadaa fi seenaa tokko hin qabne, biyya ofii qaban kan tahee dha. Barri imperiyaalism jara akkasii humnaan bulcha tokko jalati fide. Hariiroon haala sana jalatt gaggeeffamaa ture hariiroo ashkarii fi goftaa giddu jiru ture. Booji’amootaa fi bitamtee hojjettuun Oromoo, Empayera Itophiyaaf dirree hedduutt gumaachanii. Dirree lola gurguddaatt jabduu agarsiisanii jiru; makiinaa afaan Amaaraa barressu (type writer) uumaniiruuf; dirree hogbarruu fi ooginaa afaan Amaaraa fi sportiitt kkf Itophiyaatt kan isaan gitu hin turre. Tajaajilli akkasii addatt kan Itophiyaa qofaatt beekame miti. Gumaachi Pushkin, Ruusiyaaf galmeeffame malee biyya tarii keessaa maddee Iroobiif miti. Gumaachi garbooti gurraachi qarooma addunyaaf tolchan Afrikaaf utuu hin tahin biyyoota gooftolii saaniif galmaawan. Biyya tokko keessatt tajaajiltummaan qooda fudhachuu fi bilisummaan hojjechuun adda addaa. Kanaaf “Gamna gowwoomsuun jibba barbaacha” kan jedhamu yaadataa, qabattee mirgoota ilmaan namaatt of haa daangessinu. Gumaacha ashkarootii fi booji’amtooti isaan keessaa maddan tolchan Oromoo gowwoomsee gaafii bilisummaaf qaban irraa isaan hin maqsuu. Akka daagaagicha Afrikaa fi ummata aadaan riqata qabuutt Oromoon waan tokkummaa Afrikaaf gumaachuu dandahan hedduu qabu. Garuu dura duubbee cimaa, Oromiyaa barbaadu. Gidiraa jiraatus, waliin jiraachuun jaarraa tokko olii, anjaa kennuun gara jijjiiramaa demokraatawaatt atoomaan waliin hojjennee ummati akka bilisummaan hiree saanii murteeffatan humneessuu ni dandeenyaa. Eenyuu maqaa Itophiyaa jala da’atee, sirna dullacha deebisee fiduu akka hin dandeenye gochuu dha. Fakkeenyi sirna dullacha, namichi ergaramaan tokko, ofii bututtuu uffatee kophee malee, ijoollee saa qullaa of jala yaasee harreett midhaan, dammaa fi dhadhaa fe’ee, qoraan gateettii baatee, tumaalessa ijoollee saa harkisiisuun warra abbaa lafaa gabbatoo takkaa hin daarre, afaan saa hin beekneef fida ture. Sun deebi’uu hin qabu. Ijoolleen Oromoo utuu hin quufinn, utuu daara hin bahin, utuu barumsa hin qabaatin, ummati Oromo jeejee,i dhukkubaa fi bulcha badaatt saaxilamaa qabeeenya Oromoo eenyuu saamee ittiin gabbachuu hin qabu. Wanti barbaachisaan maqaa Itophiyaa utuu hin tahin, akka ilmaan namaatt fedhan waliin jiraachuuf maqaa fedhe jalatt walii galte hawaasomaa uumuu dha. “Lammafata bishaan gaanii” jette hantuuti, jedhu Oromon. Bishaan gaanii keessa cubuluqxee akka tasaa dhangalaafnaan baraaramtee. Oromiyaan haa jiraattu!

What is important is not the name Ethiopia, but the will to enter into a social contract to live together in peace as human beings under any name. 

Those deafened during the time of Minilik still dream of partitioning Oromiyaa into small kingdoms whose rulers will be ordained by them. Their memory being short, they have already forgotten that it was only yesterday that Oromo youth freed not only own country but also theirs from tyrannical rule of the TPLF. Oromoo people and their youth are still today standing guard vigilantly to protect integrity of their country. That the real objective of “Forces of unity” claiming Finfinnee is not in itself but aimed at dividing Oromiyaa is well known to them. This is only a plan that started during the time of Qinijjit. That was what all their hullabaloo of these days about. They hate to see free Oromo and independent Oromo country, Oromo biyyaa (Oromiyaa) their milk cow for over hundred years. It should not be expected that Oromo youth, the vanguard of people’s protest and all democratic youth in the empire that helped in removing the tyrannical rule of TPLF to tolerate another right wing Nafxanyaa system hopefuls to replace it. The old imperial system has cracked beyond repair. The demand now is not how to mend old Ethiopia but recognizing reality on the ground and taking each people as sovereign. That is when reconstructing a new union based on the will of the peoples becomes possible. Oromo liberation movement aimed at liberating Oromiyaa from Ethiopian occupation. It has almost done it except for some technicalities. Therefore, to talk as if that phenomenon never existed is inviting the conflict to escalate. Undermining the Oromo national Kaayyoo as originally articulated by the OLF is failing to understand the psychological makeup of that nation. OLF is only a horse; if it ages another horse will be replaced not the Kaayyoo, spirit of the nation. What should be done is that all peace-loving parties cooperate in following to the end the road map for democratic change that is drawn as a result of people’s protest. Historical accident has created a transitional administration led by Team Lammaa chaired by Dr. Abiy. Right now, they are the best alternative available. Our support can be critical but constructive so as to help them in their effort to bring about the required change. Give them benefit of the doubt; probable damages from slips here and there will not be greater than the benefit one gets from the process. Despite the over one and half century brain washing not everyone accepts being Ethiopians. So, assumptions made to unite the region should be adjusted to this reality. Let us first deal with problems created in the recent hundred fifty years and later we shall deal with those of the thousand years. Recognizing the right of nations to national self-determination up to and including independence creates trust that will enable all nations and nationalities to confer as equals. Super imposed union is no more acceptable. Common understanding of nature of the empire could save us unproductive controversy. It is composed of peoples that have no common vision, no common heroes/heroines, no common flag, common language, culture and history and have own territory. The era of imperialism had brought all this under one rule by force. All relation under that condition were done in servant, master relations. Oromo captives and merceneries have contribute much for the Ethiopian empire in so many fields. They have fought courageously in many known war fields. The have created Amharic type writer; No one excelled them in the field of Amharic literature and arts and Ethiopian sports etc. Such service of slaves is not peculiar to Ethiopia. Pushkin’s contribution is registered for Russia not for Iroob from where he might have originated. Contribution of black slaves to world civilization was not registered for Africa but to their masters’ countries. To take part in a country’s business while in servitude and working as a free person are two different things. Therefore, not forgetting the saying “Trying to fool a smart one is to beg for hatred”, let us stick to the issue of human rights. Praising Oromo nation for contribution of servants and captives originating from it will not fool and distract Oromo from their demand for freedom. As one of the giants of Africa and having the essential cultural inclinations, Oromo have lots to contribute to Pan Africanism. But first they need strong rear, Oromiyaa. Using our living together for over a century, we can turn our past misfortunes into greater advantage of working in harmony towards democratic change, empowering peoples to freely determine on their fate. No one should be allowed to hide under the name Ethiopia and bring back the old order. Example of old order is, a dilapidated man wearing tattered clothes and having no shoes, being followed by his naked children, with donkeys loaded with cereals, honey and butter, and carrying fire wood on his shoulder and his children drawing a ram for well-fed well clothed family of his land lord that do not speak his language. That should not be repeated. Sun deebi’uu hin qabu. When Oromo offsprings do not have enough to eat, enough to cloth, have no education opportunity and when Oromo people are exposed to hunger, decease and bad governance, no one should plunder Oromo resources and enrich oneself. What is important is not the name Ethiopia, but the will to enter into a social contract to live together in peace as human beings under any name. As an Oromo saying goes, “Never again tank water said the mouse” when water in the tank she was drowning in was accidentally poured out and she survived. Oromiyaan haa jiraattu!

The East African Review: SPEAK OF ME AS I AM: Ethiopia, Native Identities and the National Question in Africa February 3, 2019

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Speak of Me as I Am

Does a country create a people, or do a people create a country? KALUNDI SERUMAGA responds to Mahmood Mamdani’s recent analysis on the political situation in Ethiopia. Published in The East African Review, January 26, 2019

The Westphalian principles, rooted in the 1648 Treaties signed in the European region of that name, have been monstrously mis-applied when it comes to the African continent, yet they established modern international relations, particularly the inviolability of borders and non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built. Everything else, especially that dreaded category, ‘ethnicity’ is cast as a diversion and dangerous distraction. This is the tone that runs through Ugandan Professor Mahmoud Mamdani’s one thousand-word opinion piece: The Trouble With Ethiopia’s Ethnic Federalism, published on 3rd January for the New York Times by (and patriotically reproduced in Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper), bearing a total of fifty-four iterations of the word ‘ethnic’.

The default position of a certain generation and class of African nationalist, is to cleave unto the “new” nation born at Independence, as the only legitimate basis upon which African progress can be conceived and built.

At Independence, the Westphalia protocols were conferred on to the former colonial contraptions. The results were economic stagnation and political repression. For over five decades, these new nations have been the focus of intellectual and political agitation among Africa’s thinkers. When, after all that rumination and fulmination, our thinkers still get things horribly back to front, we all get stuck at a crossroads. Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction. Current Prime Minister, the youthful Abiy Ahmed is faced with a many-sided series of demands from a deeply frustrated population. Many of these relate directly to the lack of an economic growth model that palpably raises living standards. Others reach further back to the age-old question of land ownership and reform. Naturally, the demand for greater civic rights to speech and assembly come as a prerequisite. One feature common to these demands is the tendency for the Ethiopians to speak through, and/or on behalf of the various constitutionally recognised native identities within the country. Some may have even formed militias for this purpose.

Mamdani’s essay comes as our current Exhibit A in this long history of intellectual malfunction.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics. “Fears of Ethiopia suffering Africa’s next interethnic conflict are growing,” he warns. Prime Minister Abiy has been quick to concede much, and roll out as many reforms as he can. Most notably, he has ended the two-decade stand-off with his northern neighbour, Eritrea.

Mamdani engages with this to make an analysis not just of the Ethiopian crisis itself, but of the question of what he terms “ethnicity” which, he sees as the issue – or more accurately, the ‘problem’ – permanently bedevilling African politics.

This may not be enough, Mamdani tells us. The real problem, as he sees it, is the introduction of ethnicity into Ethiopian governance, and its central position in the Ethiopian constitution. This, Professor Mamdani says, was done by former Prime Minister, the late Meles Zenawi, who served as the de facto Ethiopian strongman from 1991 to 2012. Mamdani describes this as an attempt to replicate a similar strategy of ethnic organization that, in his view, was introduced to Africa as part of the colonial method of governing: “In most of Africa, ethnicity was politicized when the British turned the ethnic group into a unit of local administration, which they termed ‘indirect rule.’ Every bit of the colony came to be defined as an ethnic homeland, where an ethnic authority enforced an ethnically defined customary law that conferred privileges on those deemed indigenous at the expense of non-indigenous minorities.” This analysis fails to stop itself there, which would have been bad enough. “The move,” continues the Professor, “was a response to a perennial colonial problem: racial privilege for whites mobilized those excluded as a racialized non-white majority. By creating an additional layer of privilege, this time ethnic, indirect rule fragmented the racially conscious majority into so many ethnic minorities, in every part of the country setting ethnic majorities against ethnic minorities.” Describing native homelands as a “fiction”, the Professor goes on to say that while such ethnic labelling and selective privileging may have served the colonial purpose, it had the effect of first, “dividing a racially conscious African population” and second, turning them into people who saw themselves as “tribes” first and foremost. Thus, he concludes, “Wherever this system continued after independence, national belonging gave way to tribal identity as the real meaning of citizenship.” Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general. These words have many meanings, none of them good for Africans, at least. First, this is the same thing as saying that before European arrived in Africa, “ethnic” identities were not politicized, and neither were they units of administration. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is to say that there were no ‘politics’ in precolonial Africa, and neither were there forms of administration.

Having thus problematized the “ethnic” thing, Mamdani goes on to imply that there may be no peace to come in Ethiopia unless the issue is excised from the Ethiopian body politic in particular, and Africa in general.

Africans seem to have been roaming the continent as a cohort of an undefined but also homogenous mass, with wholly insignificant identities, which were only solemnised, formalized, and bestowed with political meaning with the arrival of a European power amongst them. Second, it also implies that only the European had the skill to animate these identities, without them tearing the (therefore necessary) European-planted state apart. Third, that the tragedy of modern Africa began when the European withdrew his controlling hand. Left to their own devices, the identities he had created, mutated into a Frankenstein’s monster of tribal strife. Fourth, that there is such a thing as ‘national identity’ that sprung to life fully formed at independence, a good by-product of the European-planted state, and that it is African ‘tribalism’ that destroys it. In other words, European-invented African tribalism spoils the one good thing (nationalism) that Europe brought to Africa. Finally, that belonging to the European-planted nation in Africa is the only viable means of an African citizenship. But if the British were pre-occupied with “ethnicizing”, and the resultant people’s feelings and loyalties were exclusively ethnic, where then does “national belonging” come from at independence? The entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Naming

Why are 34 million Oromo in Ethiopia an ‘ethnicity’, and 5.77 million Danes a ‘nation’? Why are the three great wars that shaped modern Europe (Franco-Prussian, the 1914-18 and 1939-1945 great wars), not conceptualized as ethnic conflicts?

Mamdani’s entire analysis of the crisis is a crisis in itself: of naming, histories, theories and practice. It is intellectually disingenuous and patronising, and goes beyond the usual linguistic demotion and belittling one usually encounters from many an expert on Africa.

Why are there only a handful of contemporary states in Africa whose names bear a relation to the identity of people actually living there. Everyplace else is a reference to a commodity, or an explorer’s navigational landmarks. This frankly malevolent labelling offers the space for the linguistic demotion of entire peoples. To wit: 34 million Oromo, seven million Baganda, 43 million Igbo, 10 million Zulu will always remain ‘ethnicities’ and ‘tribes’ to be chaperoned by ‘whiteness’. 5.77 million Danes, 5.5 million Finns, and just 300,000 Icelanders can be called ‘nations’, complete with their own states with seats at the UN. Some of these states were only formed less than two centuries ago (Italy: 1861, Germany: 1815, Belgium: 1830), while some of those ‘tribes’, and most critically for the argument, their governing institutions had already been created. Why has the ethno-federalization of Great Britain itself, not been seen as such, and as a recipe for conflict? This, in fact, is the real ‘fiction’, and it has led to decades of instability. But just because Westphalia does not see them, does not mean the African nations don’t exist. The denial of their existence is in fact, an act of violence. This is what led a thus exiled Buganda’s Kabaka Edward Muteesa II to write: “I have never been able to pin down precisely the difference between a tribe and a nation and see why one is thought to be so despicable and the other so admired.” Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity. The starting point of this enterprise is to invite the African to agree to see our own identities as a liability to African progress, by labelling them “ethnic”. When “ethnic” conflicts do flare up, those natives who have refused to jump on to this bandwagon are subjected to a big “I told you so”, as Mamdani’s essay now seeks to do.

Many modern Africans, especially those whose identity is a product of the European imposition of contemporary African states, have a vested interest in making a bogeyman out of native African identity.

This was the position of the OAU member states, and many African political parties, including those in opposition to their increasingly repressive post-Independence governments. But Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism. Since his initial assertion when introducing the issue of ‘ethnicity’, was that it was a result of European labelling leading to a “divide and rule” situation, Mamdani is then faced with the difficulty of explaining where those particular Ethiopian ‘ethnicities’ spring from if there were no Europeans creating them. Unless, to develop his assertion of homelands being a ‘fiction’, he thinks Ethiopia’s various nationalities are fictional too?

Ethiopia presents a huge problem for Professor Mamdani’s theory of the colonial roots of “ethnicity”, since its history falls outside the usual African pattern of a direct experience of European colonialism

He covers up this logical gap by pre-empting a proper discussion of that history. Then changing tack, he suggests that the presence of “ethnic” problems in Ethiopia, despite the country’s lack of a European colonial history actually shows that “ethnicity” is somehow a congenital defect in the body politic of all Africa. “The country today resembles a quintessential African system marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains.” Of course the correct answer to all the above questions is that Africa’s Africans had their ‘ethnic’ identities well known and in place long before the arrival of any European explorer or conqueror. And these were not anodyne proto-identities, but actual political institutions and methods of organization and governance. But this is an inconvenient truth, because then it forces the proper naming of these alleged ‘ethnicities’: nations. All told, deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations. It serves to fetishize the colonial project as the godsend device to rescue the African ethnic strife and predestined mayhem. But if the 34 million Oromo are an ethnicity, then so are the 5.77 million Danes. More so for our situation so are the English, Scots and Welsh who field national teams during the World Cup and the Commonwealth games. We need consistency, people must be spoken of as they are.

Deploying notions of “ethnicity” and “tribe” is a tactic to corral Africans into primordial nomenclatures, thereby avoiding a recognition of their pre-colonial formations as nations.

Naturally, the emergent Independence-era African middle class was more than happy to go along with this erasure, in what Basil Davidson called an attempt at “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”, and even fine-tuned it. Where some concessions had been made to the existence of the old nations, these were quickly, often violently, dispensed with. In British Africa, the politics of trying to dispense with this reality is what dominated virtually all the politics of pre-independence constitutional negotiations. The question informed even the political alliances that emerged at independence. In Zambia it required a special constitutional pact between the new head of state, Kenneth Kaunda and the ruling council of the Barotse people – they have recently sought to repudiate it and return to their pre-colonial status. Ghana’s Asante kings were against the British handing power to Nkrumah’s government. They argued that since they had ceded power to the British via treaty, then the departure of the British meant a termination of those treaties. Logically, therefore, that power should be re-invested in the ones it had been taken from under treaty. In Kenya, the Maasai and the Coastal peoples used the same argument during the decolonisation conferences at Lancaster House. Significantly, the Somali rejected inclusion in the independence Kenyan state, insisting that they wanted to be integrated into independent Somalia. Unable to resolve the ‘Three Questions’ the Foreign and Colonial Office cynically kicked them into the not-very-long grass for the incoming leadership to deal with. The Mombasa Republican Council of today draws its political legitimacy from the updated colonial-era Witu Agreement of 1906, signed between their ancestors and the independence government.

Histories

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants. It is a two-stage challenge. First: to understand Ethiopia’s history. To do that, one must first recognise and accept the possibilities of an African history not shaped, defined and animated by European imperatives. Africans, like all people, have been making their own history. And like people elsewhere, this has as much narration of the good as it does the bad.

To understand the current situation in Ethiopia, one must face up to the challenge of properly understanding any part of Africa, a continent so taxonomised and anthropologised by white thinking that it is barely recognizable on paper to its indigenous inhabitants.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904). As his title implies, this was not a nation, but an Empire: a territory consisting of many nations, brought into his ambit by one means or another. Menelik’s motives and method can, and should be debated, but the fact is that Europe met its match in the Ethiopian Highlands, and were forced to leave Menelik to it.

Ethiopia’s crisis is a consequence of a century-old unravelling of the empire built by Emperor Menelik II (1889-1904).

Yes. Africans also produce momentous historical events. It is not an exclusive trait of white people. We must get into the habit of discussing our own non-European driven history as a real thing with real meanings. Just as we may talk about the continuing long-term effects of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the European Balkan region, so can we talk about how the demise of Menelik’s empire continues to impact on the greater Horn region. If that sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that since Menelik’s passing 120 years ago, Ethiopia has had only six substantive rulers: Zewditu/Selassie, Mengistu, Zenawi, Dessalegn and now Abiy. On his passing, Menelik left a region covering more than three times the area he inherited. Prince Tafari, upon eventually inheriting the throne as Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 simply sought to consolidate it. In his 2002 biography: Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood, the Ethiopian author Nega Mezlekia tells the story of him and his family, as one of many Amhara families that migrate to Jijiiga, a region in the far east of Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Selassie. This was part of a government programme of Amhara settlement to many parts of the Ethiopian countryside. Jijiiga is home to ethnic Somalis. Amhara expansion, one of several factors, eventually provokes an armed revolt. Ironically, the author in his youth joined the insurgents. Emperor Selassie can be said to have made some errors, but the context is critical: his reign spanned a period that saw immense changes in global politics, and social ideas.

Consider his life and times:

He witnessed the two great inter-European wars, the fall of its empires (Italian, German, Ottoman, Japanese) and the end of direct European occupation of Africa. He suffered two European invasions of his realm, and lived in exile. He was a regent during the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917, and saw the emergence of the Soviet Union as a world superpower and the Cold War that followed. He may have been one of only a handful of world leaders to have been a member of both the United Nations, and the League of Nations that preceded it. This sweep of history also had its impact on the Ethiopian peoples. One response was a growing demand for social, economic and political reform, including loosening the bonds of Selassie’s empire. By the time of the 1975 coup against him, the world was a fundamentally different one than the one he had met when he took the throne. He was, in fact, so “old school” that his captors were taken aback when he calmly informed them that he had no personal income or savings to look after himself. He took a hard line on Eritrea, which had settled into an uneasy federation, provoking a war of secession; continued Amhara settler expansion into Oromo and elsewhere; and he failed to manage Tigrayan nationalism, rooted partly in their dynastic loss of the imperial throne to that of Menelik’s Shewa kingdom. Critically, he did not effectively address agrarian land reform, one of the roots of the country’s political and agricultural crises. So, to sum up Emperor Selassie: ultimately, he neither succeeds to fully consolidate his empire, nor does he re-order the empire’s boundaries and strictures, which he had inherited in a fundamentally different era. He found himself fighting the more conservative elements of his aristocracy opposed to his reforms; the modernist republicans concerned that he was not reforming fast enough; and the increasingly radical nationalists in the regions demanding self-determination. Enter Colonel Mengistu, something of a zealot, but who, for all his violent tendencies, was more of the “social reform” persuasion, and sympathetic to the “land to the tiller” demands of the early radical youth movements. Having overthrown a monarch, he saw himself in the image of the Soviet Union’s Communist party in Russia which had deposed the Russian King Tsar Nicholas II. His task, as he saw it, was to create a socialist state. However, Mengistu had basically taken over the same state that Selassie inherited and he was still wedded to it. His modernist concept of history and the world prevented him from understanding that he was dealing with a home-grown imperial history, and that he was in effect therefore, running an empire. This blinds him to the “nationalities question”, and only intensifies the agitations among the various indigenous nations trapped in his now secular empire. So, he basically tries to kill everybody opposed to him. This is the reality Mamdani fails to see, and mistakenly calls Mengistu’s state a ‘unified republic’; interestingly, he does not offer any of the gruesome details of how Mengistu ‘instituted’ this so-called unification. The only places where Ethiopia was unified and a republic was in Mengistu’s mind (and in his armory). What the various territories wanted was recognition of their separate identities, and an unchallenged say over the land of their ancestors. Mengistu’s response was to raise even higher the levels of violence needed to keep these rebellions in check, simultaneously fighting Tigrayan, Eritrean, Somali and Oromo insurgencies.

Theory and practice.

Ideologically, the leaderships of the Ethiopian insurgencies were taken over by persons claiming to be as Marxist as Lenin was. Eventually, all the belligerents, including the regime, claimed to be Marxist organisations, yet they were in conflict with each other. What intensified the crisis was the conflicting understandings of what Marxist practice should therefore be, in their context. It was at this point that a number of left-ideological debates came into play, and where a lot of left-ideologues lost their way. Marxist theory, which mobilized millions of people worldwide, and its practical implications, should be examined with some care. History on this point is necessary. These nationalist struggles based their arguments on the Leninist principle of “The Right of Small Nations to Self-Determination”, which had been partially applied in the Soviet Union from its formation in 1917. After Lenin’s death in 1924, his successor, Josef Stalin, found less time for it, and, in the face of sustained Western European aggression seemed to see it as a liability to the security of the revolution. The 1975 coup that brought Mengistu to power (or, more accurately, the coup that Mengistu then subsequently violently hijacked) was a response to widespread unrest, particularly among youth and student movements. This led to a number of practical problems on the ground, in relation to ideology. At the heart of both the Dergue and the later Tigrayan movements was the issue of land reform. Mamdani does note that the initial upheavals of the 1970s were driven by this, but then fails to make the correct links. For the vast majority of Africans, especially back then, land is not just a place to live, but also a place of work. To be without land is to be without a secure job. Subsistence peasant agriculture is back-breaking, often precarious, and not financially lucrative. It is also – and many progressives fail to recognize this – autonomous. To a very great extent, the subsistence peasant is not dependent on the state or the global economy. If anything, those entities depend on the farmer whose austere lifestyle acts as a hidden subsidy in providing the market with cheaply-grown food at no investment risk to the consumer or the state. Clearly, one thing that can transform and undergird this existence is sensible reforms to the way the farmer secures tenure of the land they work. But what happens when land rights encounter cultural rights based on land? A “homeland” is certainly not the “fiction” of Mamdani’s assertion. It hosts the identity and worldview of the people that occupy it. It holds their sacred sites, and places marking their cultural consciousness. More so, that culture underpins their ability to keep producing autonomously. To suggest that it does not exist or does not matter, actually shows a complete failure to grasp who black African people are and how they live, and think. It is a fundamentally anti-African statement implying, as it does, that black Africans do not have an internal intellectual and spiritual logic, developed indigenously, and augmented by physical spaces and objects within them, that informs a worldview. Africans, the suggestion is, are inherently transposable, as they are not tied to any thing or any place. The captains of the old transatlantic slave ships could not have theorized it better. Coming from someone who lives in Africa, this is a bit surprising. Coming from a professor heading an institute within one of Africa’s new universities, designed to bolster the colonial state’s mission of deracinating the African, perhaps less so. However, the current crisis in Ethiopia is very real, and failure to finally resolve it holds huge implications for the entire region. That is precisely why a correct analysis is needed. Not a comfortable one rooted in essentially racist tropes. The allegedly ‘ethnic demands’ were demands for a different type of guarantee to land rights than those being promoted by Mengistu. For example, would an Amhara family like Nega Mezlekia’s, originally settled by Emperor Selassie in Jijiiga, have a legally equal claim to land against the ethnic Somali communities native to the area, just because they now happen to be the ‘tillers’ there? Would there be a hierarchy of claims? In any event, who should decide? A central authority in Addis Ababa, or a federated unit representing the historic native community? There are no easy answers. But the regime’s (and other ‘progressives’) complete refusal to even consider the issue, is what led to the conclusion that for there to be justice in Ethiopia, the issue of native nationalities, and their land-based cultural rights, would have to be physically resolved first. In short, it became clear that the land reform question could not be effectively addressed without also addressing the underlying question of productive cultural identities and the historical land claims that arise from that. This was particularly sharp in those areas of the country –such as Oromo and Tigray- that are dominated by pastoralist communities. Historically, much of Africa’s land grabs have taken place against pastoralist communities, the great city of Nairobi being a prime example. This is the basis of the ‘ethnic’ movements that have so perturbed Professor Mamdani. It was, in fact, a debate of the Left, and not some right-wing atavist distraction. So, the great irony is that Ethiopia, home to that great bastion of mis-applied Westphalian thinking, the Organisation of African Unity, becomes ground zero for the great unresolved National Question as it applies to Independent Africa: what is an African nation, and is it the same thing as a given African state (or, more accurately, a state located in Africa)? The armed struggle began in Eritrea, after Selassie’s unilateral abrogation of the federal arrangement. The original fighting group, called the Eritrean Liberation Front was soon violently displaced from the field by a more radical Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front of Isias Afwerki, espousing those aspects of Leninism and Maoism that enabled it to mobilise a broad front of all classes affected by the feeling of Occupation. The rebels’ demands were clear: a federation of Ethiopia or separation from it; control of their own lands, and an equal recognition of cultures. For his part, Mengistu, now fighting five separate militant groups, including a very militant hard-line the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front based in urban Ethiopia, placed all his faith in military might. He ended up building the largest armed force in Sub-Saharan Africa (if not Africa as a whole) of some half- a million soldiers, and being heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, which saw him as a vital foothold in Africa, for war materiel and other supplies. He also received military support from Cuba. It again may not be widely known that at the height of the fighting, these different forces which had grown in to wholesale armies, were fighting some of the largest engagements (including tank battles) since the 1939-1945 European inter-ethnic conflict called the Second World War. The fight progressively turned in favour of the rebels. With Mengistu’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally capitulating against the US in the Superpower contest in 1989, his forces were routed and he was driven from the capital in 1991. The Eritrean armed struggle started in 1961, the Tigrayan one in 1975 and Oromo’s in 1973. All end with Mengistu’s fall. If Mamdani genuinely believes these nationalities are just “ethnicities”, and that Ethiopia is now running the risk of hosting “Africa’s next inter-ethnic conflict”, then this history shows that Ethiopia has in fact already had the “next inter-ethnic” conflict. Mamdani’s fears, this is to say, are 30 or 40 years late. To sum up Mengistu: he seized power in response to a severe political crisis, and then, misreading his position, sought to impose his concept of “socialism” on the various peoples still caught in the net of Menelik’s Empire state. This led to a situation of mounting violence, in which he saw just about everyone as an enemy to be physically crushed. His regime eventually succumbed to the overwhelming resistance. Enter Meles Zenawi, who came out of that generation of student activists who took up the nationalities and land reform demands during the time of the Emperor. To many of them, Mengistu’s high-handedness in dealing with the matter was a disappointment. Tigrayans today do not easily recall that when Meles led the the youth to start the war, they sought refuge in Eritrea, and were nurtured and trained there by Isias Afwerki’s EPLF forces already at war against the Ethiopian state. The issue of identity does not therefore mean that Africans are perennially and illogically at each others throats in some kind of primordial frenzy. They do politics, and are fully capable of defining their interests and maintaining relations, or breaking them off, as needs may dictate. Zenawi (to an extent like Daniel Ortega on the other side of the world, and even Yoweri Museveni, in his own way), found himself in charge of a state now encountering a new, neo-liberal global world order being enforced by the only super power left standing. Like Selassie, the circumstances around them had changed greatly from when they had begun their political journeys. Far from simply “introducing” a federal constitution whose “ethnic” nature Mamdani is problematizing, Zenawi’s regime was finally having the Ethiopian state recognise the long-standing historical realities that had emerged from decades of political and armed struggle. To reduce the product of all that sweeping history to a notion of “fictions”, is a dangerous over-simplification. In this quest for erasure, Mamdani applies the same misleading thinking backwards by calling the 1994 Ethiopian constitution a “Sovietificaton” of Ethiopia. The Russian nationalities were no more an invention of Lenin than the Ethiopian ones are of Meles Zenawi’s creation. The various units that made up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were based on nationalities long in place before the 1917 communist revolution took place there. The responsible thing to do, as a starting point, was acknowledge that fact, which the communists did (and Stalin to a greater extent than Lenin before him). Yes, Meles was a dictator. And yes, the constitution is based on indigenous nations. That does not automatically suggest causality: Meles Zenawi did not “turn Ethiopia to ‘ethnic’ federalism”. Its long history did. In fact, events show that Zenawi and the dominant faction he governed with, were no longer in support of the “rights of small nations” by the time they took power. With the exception of holding the pre-agreed referendum on Eritrean independence (he may have had little choice in the matter: friends in Addis used to like to tell the story of how Meles’ own stepmother, who happens to be Eritrean, and who raised him, left him in his official Addis residence to go and vote for independence in Eritrea, then returned after), he fails to implement the sprit and the letter of the new arrangements that were based on principles forged in the course of the long war. As a small example: Article 5 of the country’s constitution now says that: “1. All Ethiopian languages shall enjoy equal state recognition”, but goes on to add that: “2. Amharic shall be the working language of the Federal Government.” Zenawi, despite being very fluent in the language reportedly refused to make public speeches in Amharic for the entire time he was in charge. A more substantive example is found in the very incident that sparked the current uprising: if the regime knew that – as Mamdani points out – the 1994 federal constitution guaranteed the nationalities concerned authority over their land, why then did it try to expand the boundaries of the Federal capital Addis into Oromo territory over the objections of people there? In other words, the problem in Ethiopia is the exact opposite of what Professor Mamdani sees. It is not the “ethnic” constitution at fault; it is the failure by the Zenawi regime to genuinely implement it, by negating the spirit of the idea in private, while pretending to uphold it in public. In particular, Zenawi’s “Woyane” regime repeated Mengistu’s mistake of trying to hold on to Menelik’s state. Critically, he too failed to address the historic issue of land reform that began the whole shake-up of Ethiopia with the student protests against the Emperor. In practice, land is still the property of the state, to be handed out for “developmental” purposes, upholding the Mengistu mentality, but now in the context of global neo-liberalism. “Derg and [the TPLF] took a very similar approach to the land question. Which is why, three decades after TPLF comes to power, they have still been unable to do land reform, abandoned agrarian reform and ironically, put rural Ethiopian land on the international auction. Something like four million acres of rural farmland, mostly in southern Ethiopia has been leased out to foreign investors since the mid-2000s, ” observes journalist Parselelo Kantai, who frequents the country. Power comes with its temptations, and a state machine comes with its own institutional imperatives. It would appear that once a group finds itself in control of the apparatus of an empire such as Menelik’s, they become very reluctant to abandon its workings. Perhaps it is only the armed forces in Portugal, having overthrown their autocratic Caetano regime in 1974, that ever went on to immediately dismantle their empire and allow the conquered to go free. The politics of the armed coalition coming together and finally driving Mengistu out may well have been the moment for this change in attitude to begin, not least because the Meles’ TPLF was by far the militarily dominant faction of the alliance. To sum up Meles Zenawi: he evolved into what many ‘revolutionaries” became after the Cold War era: a technocratic autocrat placing his hopes in a neo-liberal approach to solving the country’s deep economic problems through a “developmentalist” strategy. He quite literally burned himself out hoping that, by bringing rapid infrastructural development, he could perhaps outpace the historical political claims, and thus render them redundant. This essentially meant a new form of what Mengistu and Selassie had done before him: overlook people’s ancestral claims to this or that, and simply see the whole landmass as a site for “development” projects, no matter who they may displace or inconvenience. But “any notion of ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’ that does not start from a peoples’ culture is tantamount to genocide.” the late Professor Dan Nabudere warned us. Meles Zenawi sought to hold on to the very imperial state he had once fought. His unwillingness to fully honour the terms of the broad alliance of all the fighting groups, and instead consolidated his armed group to take factional control of the whole state and set the course for new upheavals. His sudden death became the opening for these issues to spill out into the streets. His immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, soon found that the kind of extreme state violence that had served Zenawi, and Mengistu before him, and Selassie before them both, no longer worked, forcing Deslaegn to resign in failure. Abiy Ahmed must finally deal with these realities. Ultimately, any attempt to do politics based on the imperatives of the Menelik-created state was, and is, going to come up against the fact that this state actually started life as an empire. If the history of Ethiopia has shown one thing, it is that this approach has always provoked rebellions. Ethiopia, one could say, is back to the pre-war situation it was in just before Mengistu’s coup. The problem is conceptual; the same one that confronted Selassie and Mengistu: are we running a nation, or a homegrown empire made up of several?  Mr Abiy Ahmed would be wise not to go down that path. His challenge is to dismantle the remnants of Meles’ personal military apparatus, genuinely re-orient the country back to its federal constitutional ethos, begin to address the land tenure question, and quickly, before the political grievances – and the economic challenges underlying them – completely boil over. As the world becomes less secure and with fewer overlords, there will be more and more examples of Africa’s invisible nations asserting themselves to manage control of their resources. Dismissing them as “ethnic” is simply laying a foundation to justify violence against them.

Read more at: https://www.theeastafricanreview.info/op-eds/2019/01/26/speak-of-me-as-i-am/
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