Can contradictory Oromo and Amhara political aspirations be reconciled?

Filed under: News Feature,Opinion |

(OPride) ― In September 2016, at the height of anti-government protests against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) grip on power, Ethiopia’s then-Communications Minister Getachew Reda claimed that Oromo and Amharas are like “fire and grass.” He was implying that the two communities’ political aspirations are mutually combustible and inherently incompatible. He was mean, reckless and parochial, but, sadly, right. Crucially, he made this claim at a time when the country’s two largest ethnic groups were expressing a rare reciprocal solidarity, which sent TPLF into confusion and panic.

Oromo and Amhara activists later lamented the “startling admission” by the regime that it has been fomenting hate and division between the two people. In truth, this was not news. The condemnatory clamour and outrage owed more to despondency and anguish over TPLF’s successful “divide and rule” tactics; and less to disagreement with Reda’s metaphor.

Oromos know this. Amharas know it. And other Ethiopians know it, too. The problem is not that we don’t know. It is that – as Swedish author Sven Lindqvist noted in “Exterminate All the Brutes” – “we lack the courage to understand what we already know and draw conclusions.”

We must therefore – now and here – make the conclusion that, in their current dispensations, Amhara and Oromo visions for Ethiopia are manifestly contradictory. There can be no escape from this conundrum. Denial and wishful thinking won’t help. Nor would obfuscation or bromides.

Why discuss an augury?  

In acknowledging this naughty TPLF political theory, I put myself in the unenviable predicament of courting revilement on the one hand, while hurting some sensibilities on the other. Each side will vehemently dislike aspects of my argument; and there is a real chance both will feel aggrieved. In addition, judging by our notorious incapacity to tolerate unfavourable views, some will question the motive and the timing of this article. Others will accuse me and the publishing outlet of doing a hatchet job on the Ethiopian political opposition at the behest of TPLF. Such accusations, of course, wrongly imply that all was ok before I raised this “not so well known” national augury.

My objective is simple: To provoke bold but abstemious debate between Amharas and Oromos on a virulently emotive subject. This is crucial to the country’s future given the size and influence of the two groups on national politics. However, such a debate cannot start from finding solutions. It has to start from diagnosing the problem. And the problem, to me, is a clash of two historical narratives which inexorably led to two divergent aspirations. Here are the narratives – with a bit of oversimplification, given the variety of political identities and opinions within each group.

The Oromo narrative

The Oromo struggle is a quest to reverse a settler colonialism that started with Emperor Menelik’s 19th century southward expansion. Scholars define settler colonialism as “a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty.”

To the Oromo, predominantly Amhara Abyssinian settlers developed the “distinctive identity and sovereignty” that we now call Ethiopia. TPLF is just a contemporary extension of this arrangement. Its vaunted “equality” and “recognition” of indigenous rights did not end the colonial structures and power imbalances between the “settler” and the “indigenous.” In fact, TPLF used this hollow conciliatory rhetoric to attack and deny indigenous sovereign autonomy more substantively by fronting native surrogates.

Lorenzo Veracini, a key scholar in settler colonial studies, argues that, in such contexts, “the independent polity is the settler polity” and “sanctioning the equal rights of indigenous peoples” has historically been used “as a powerful weapon in the denial of indigenous entitlement and in the enactment of coercive assimilation.” Other scholars agree and indicate that when settler polities shift tactics “from active repression of indigeneity” to “incorporation by recognition”, they are not decolonizing the system. Instead, they are skillfully reforming it to their advantage. For example, in his essay Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native, Patrick Wolfe posits that settler colonialism often remains “impervious to regime change.”

For the Oromo, this means that the fall of TPLF does not necessarily and automatically answer their age-old social and political questions. Defeating TPLF, therefore, is not an end; it is a means to the bigger end of decisively and irreversibly dismantling an overbearing and entrenched Abyssinian settler colonial system. A system, founded by Amharas and perpetuated by Tigrayans. This explains – and even expiates – the alleged Oromo “irrationality” of fighting two wars at the same time.

Oromo decolonisation process therefore emphasizes indigenization and autonomy and manifests itself in the form of “anti-state” and “anti-capitalist” politics. In the former form, Oromo decolonization is about opposition to a political economy dominated by Tigrayan Oligarchy. In the latter, it is about going against owners of the capital and not about rejecting the sovereignty of markets – mostly expressed through protests against land grab as land remains the only meaningful capital the Oromos possess.

The push for more autonomy for Oromia region (including Lamma Magarsa’s contrived brinkmanship), the rejection of the “Ethiopian” identity, the insistence on Afaan Oromo becoming a national working language, the protests against the expansion of Addis Ababa, and the reluctance to pay taxes are all part and parcel of this endeavor. In general, the Oromo people don’t want to identify with what they consider a settler “Ethiopian” polity.

The Oromos’ remedy for this historical and current malady is either independence (the creation of a sovereign Oromia state) or the transformation of the Ethiopian polity from settler polity to indigenous polity (democratizing the empire and enabling the Oromos to determine its destiny). There is utter confusion and endless schisms between various Oromo political opposition groups over what is the most urgent, effective, and realistic decolonisation strategy; but there is near unanimity in the diagnosis of their historical and current problem.

The Amhara narrative

The Oromo point of reference for the origins of current political problems in Ethiopia –  in particular the clash of Oromo and Amhara narratives on the formation of the Ethiopian State – is 19th century. The Amharas trace it to the 16th century.  They look beyond Emperor Menelik’s 19th century north-south expansion and argue that this conquest was merely a reversal of the earlier 16th century south-north Oromo expansion. Amhara scholars argue that identities were altered, land was expropriated, and belief systems were uprooted during both expansions. Therefore, the depiction of the post-19th century Ethiopian state as a purely Amhara-dominated polity is a myth.

A corollary of this argument is that the primary economic system of the new state, i.e., feudalism, benefitted a class (the landed gentry) and discriminated against another class (the tenants). The Amharas insist that the asymmetry of political and economic power was not along ethnic lines. And the “settler” – “indigenous” identity is a recent invention of radical Oromo politicians and TPLF.

This counter-argument is fundamentally a rationalization of imperial Ethiopian state formation and an ideological retaliation against Oromo victim narrative. But it is not without foundation. Identities are primarily political constructs, especially so in colonial discourse. Both Oromo and Amhara are genealogically far from being homogenous. Under each layer of political identity lies layers and layers of sub-identities – redefined by geography, religion, livelihood type, ancestral myths, and etc.

Nevertheless, Amhara and Oromo and “settlers” and “natives” existed, all along, as political identities. It is, therefore, not true that power structures were not ethnicized in the Ethiopian empire. The imperial Ethiopian state, overtly and covertly, promoted a hierarchal political pyramid in which the Amhara sat at the top. TPLF merely added what Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani calls “define and rule” to the old colonial statecraft of “divide and rule”, and created new identities while dismantling others. It then replaced the Amhara and sat at the top of the pyramid.

The Amhara solution to identity-based political questions is to propose the abolition of ethnic identity, in favour of a transcendental identity called Ethiopian. This proposal, while useful as a basis for the transformation of the Ethiopian state from imperial into modern, does not repudiate or reverse past and present settler colonialism in Ethiopia. On the contrary, it sustains it.

How?

In the words of Veracini, “while colonialism (marked by exogenous domination such as the colonial relations between Europeans and Africans) reproduces itself; settler colonialism, by contrast, extinguishes itself.” Through this self-destruction, settler colonialism perpetuates itself by claiming that colonial difference between “settlers” and “natives” have ended while sustaining the ethnically demarcated political and economic inequality through a creation of “transethnic” settler polity. This polity eliminates challenges posed by the “indigenous” demand for rights through bogus autonomy and false narratives of belongingness.

TPLF’s claim that the current Ethiopian federal state is a representative, multi-ethnic polity and that sub-national states are autonomous “indigenous” homelands – while actually tightly controlling both the center and the periphery – is a good example of the resilience and dynamism of settler colonialism; its ability to disguise itself and adaptability to changes in time and circumstances.

Power, not identity or epistemology

The Amhara and Oromo visions for Ethiopia are premised on the foregoing interpretation of history and historicity. To be sure, the rival interpretations are not all unfounded. But they are invariably selective, insular, bigoted and self-serving. The contestation over “narratives” is not simply about identity and epistemology. It is primarily about power: Power to define the political identity of the post-TPLF Ethiopia (or its sequel for the hardcore who seek secession) and to determine subsequent interethnic socio-economic relations.

Amhara and Oromo narratives also ignore the profound political changes of the last 26 years. Oromos are fixated on preserving “indigenous” identity and altering the “settler identity” of the Ethiopian polity. Yet, the first is no longer a major problem due to the creation of an indigenous “Oromia” state. Granted, it is not fully autonomous but core issues such as culture, language, and to some extent “indigenous” economic empowerment are partially addressed.

Large-scale displacement of the “indigenous” Oromos by “Amhara settlers” is also not a real and present danger. The displacement Oromos currently do face is a Tigrayan-led expropriation of their land. The identity of the current Ethiopian polity is also not Amharized – save for the language.

Under such circumstances, calling for the privileging of “the indigenous” over “the non-indigenous”, especially in cities as diverse as Addis Ababa (Finfinne) is not “a fundamental break” from the past unjust settler colonial imbalances, according to Mamdani, but a “reciprocal” imposition of it, only this time turned upside down.

As such, given that the Amhara “settler colonialism” is no longer a problem, the complete “decolonization” of Oromos does not necessarily depend on “indigenization and autonomy.” It depends on acquiring political power at the center, which is now serving as the “metropole” of the new Tigrayan colonizers (read TPLF); and ensuring that the future Ethiopian polity is “de-Abyssiniaized.”

However, the “de-ethnicization” of the national state is contingent on the emergence of a new political language and imagination. Classifications such as “natives” and “settlers” should cease as political identities and must be replaced by progressive agendas which emphasize citizenship, shared values, democracy, individual rights, and the politics of ideas. This is a buffer against the destructive propensity of identity politics which, through its application of discriminatory legal and administrative setups, in time triggers violence between citizens who live in a shared territory. And this is to the benefit of all groups, including Oromos who themselves are not immune to this dangerous brand of politics – with their religious, cultural, linguistic, and geographical fault lines so wide and deep.

The Amharas on their part tend to wish away the enduring impact of almost three decades of ethnic federalism on the national character. They must bid farewell to any nostalgic illusions of the future Ethiopian polity ever regaining its quintessential form and appearance: The legendary militarist, Orthodox-Christian, injera-eating, iskista-dancing, netela-wearing, land of fascinating myths and auras is gone!

The way forward?

In a nutshell, two parallel things must happen if the political aspirations of Oromos and Amharas are to be reconciled, and to forge a strategic and principled political partnership, now or in the future:

1) Looking forward: Oromos must reorient their struggle toward the creation of a just, inclusive and democratic Ethiopia where all people move from being “subjects” to “citizens.” Historical injustices and indigenization concerns could be addressed through the establishment of redemptive not vindictive autonomies. These autonomies should not categorize people into permanent, rigid and static “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” identities. They should make provisions for dynamism and the organic and voluntary dissolution of primordial identities in the long run.

2) Looking backwards: For the future painted above to materialize, the acrimony over the past must end first. It can only end, to quote Mamdani again, if each community rejects the temptation to classify itself as “the victim” and the other as the “perpetrator” of the historical violence and oppression that took place. Instead both communities should consider themselves as “survivors” of a violent history. This is tricky and impractical in a context where the violence and subjugation was largely one-sided and has disproportionately affected one community — in our case, the Oromo.

For the purpose of this discussion, it is immaterial if the Amharas were wronged before the 19th century and after 1991. That is because both the destructive legacy of the alleged 16th century Oromo expansion into Amhara territory and Oromos role in the misery of the Amharas after 1991 are not visible today.

Therefore, the Amharas must acknowledge the historical suffering of the Oromos and must be prepared to show empathy and understanding. An admission of the damaging political, social, economic, and psychological impact of over a century of imperial conquest and domination of Oromos may provide a measure of closure for them. Without such a closure, the creation of a truly representative Ethiopian polity, in which Oromos feel at home, is impossible.

On the other hand, Oromos must realize that the current generation of Amharas and, indeed, the one before it, has nothing to do with the crimes imperial Ethiopia committed against them. If at all, in the last 26 years, the Amharas were the most victimized and dehumanized people in Ethiopia. They endured a fate similar to what happened to the “byvshie liudi” (the former people) in Bolshevik Russia. The “former people” – an arbitrarily categorized group of people including “functionaries of the Tsarist regime, the clergy, and rich people” – were persecuted and summarily excluded from the “new” Socialist order.

The Amharas, under TPLF reign, have been Ethiopia’s “former people.” And their new generation won’t be in any mood to offer apologies for atrocities that they did not commit, and that happened centuries ago; when they themselves are going through present ordeal. They have reached a tipping point; and once a tipping point is reached, an enraged people have no time for magnanimity or vicarious guilt.

Toward the “Last Two Frontiers”

My recommendations are in line with the erudite conclusions of John Markakis, who outlined the two last “frontiers” that Ethiopia must cross if it is to graduate from a multiethnic empire to a modern state: The first being “the monopoly of power inherited from the empire builders and zealously guarded ever since by a ruling class of Abyssinian origin”; and the second “the arid lowlands on the margins of the state, where the process of integration has not yet reached, and where resistance to it is greatest.”

The solutions I proposed here to surmount the Oromo and Amhara political rift are admittedly easier said than done. It is one thing to propose theoretical or “intellectual” solutions in an “academic politics” scenario where, as Henry Kissinger once said, “the stakes are so low.” It is quite different to come up with actionable political solutions in a real-world milieu where the stakes are much higher and more fatal.

But the theory precedes the praxis. So, why not use these “intellectual” solutions as a basis to overcome the impasse? It is possible if Oromo and Amhara politicians start talking to, rather than shouting at, each other. And if they make an extra effort to understand each other’s vantage point, fears, expectations, and interests.

The well-being of any country – and certainly Ethiopia – depends on its people’s ability to confront their fissures head-on. This applies to the myriad of other fissures, beyond Amhara-Oromo political rivalry, in the country.

 

13 Responses to Can contradictory Oromo and Amhara political aspirations be reconciled?

  1. The 16th century Oromo expansion and displacements had mainly affected the peoples in South Ethiopia. Therefore, the Southerneres have their own historical grievances and demands.

    Tumebo
    August 31, 2017 at 4:12 am
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  2. ‘The Amharas on their part tend to wish away the enduring impact of almost three decades of ethnic federalism on the national character. They must bid farewell to any nostalgic illusions of the future Ethiopian polity ever regaining its quintessential form and appearance: The legendary militarist, Orthodox-Christian, injera-eating, iskista-dancing, netela-wearing, land of fascinating myths and auras is gone!’

    childish thinking at best from someone who presents his own assumptions as facts.the feudal system ethiopia had was not entirely the creation of the amharas.other ethnic groups were part and parcel of the system.king menilik and haile silasse were never pure amharas so were their foot soldiers.
    It is amazing how amhara bashing become the core topic without ever checking its veracity.

    ashaa
    August 31, 2017 at 3:17 pm
    Reply

    • Ashaa, you are talking about things you did not or will not understand. Better not comment on things that are beyond your comprehension. OK?

      Galaana Gamta
      September 2, 2017 at 6:12 pm
      Reply

  3. If ethnic based politicians sincerely fight for the people the claim representation, no ethnic political should be contradicting. The politics should be restoring peace, progress and well being of their people. This can be achieved only and only if real democracy, rule of law and Sovereign Ethiopia is restored.

    Thus, essentially genuine Oromo and Amhara politicians should not be judged contradictory!!!

    Ras Dejen
    September 1, 2017 at 2:36 am
    Reply

  4. Some Oromo activists and politicians are wrongly and inappropriately applying their imagianry narratives of colonialism and settlement colonlialism to the process of state formation in Ethiopia. State formation in Ethiopia specially Emperor Menelik`s
    unification campiagns had invloved all the countries communities. The role of the Oromos in this process was as imminent as that of the Shoan Amharas to state it. The Oromos constituted the backbone of Emperor Menelik`s army and rule. In Shoa and its proximity,the Oromos and Amharas have been able to mix and intertwine and share a common heritage. The problem is that the Oromo elites from the periphery specially west Wollega do not feel themselves part of this historical process and common heritage and disclaim all.

    Tewolde
    September 1, 2017 at 6:56 am
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  5. Tewolde, what you are saying would have been so hilarious had it not been tragic. Please do not talk about things you do not know. Its the young people of Ambo, and everywhere in Oromia and not only west Wellega, who is giving you relatives headaches right now. Just because the British army deployed Indians in its colonization in Africa, it doe not mean India was not colonized. Just because there were Oromo soldiers in Minilik army does not mean that Oromia as not occupied/colonized by Abyssinia. You don’t decide the type of occupation depending on the composition of the soldiers, but based on whose interest are they serving.

    Taye Tamiru
    September 1, 2017 at 1:39 pm
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  6. As a contribution to the market place of ideas , I present my perspective as an Ethiopian who left the country decades ago. In Ethiopia because of mixing of the gene pool over centuries at least in the highlands linguistic groups are closer to reality than ethnic groups. To start with I have a problem with the premise of the question posed by the author. Is there a difference in the political aspirations of the different linguistic groups in Ethiopia? If we are talking about liberal democracy together with independent judiciary and freedom of thoughts , worship ,respect for property there should not be any question regarding political aspirations. I also have a problem with the binary classification of people ie one belongs either to one group or another. Culture like biological heredity is a continuous variable with out clear cut boundaries.
    Unlike many of my compatriots in the Ethiopian diaspora I have returned to Ethiopia on many occasions not only to Addis but also to Jimma , the center of majority Oromifa speaking people. Even though I do not speak the language I was accepted with open arms . I was also invited to homes where the primary language was Oromifa. I had “injera” and ‘wett” and at the end of our meal we had the typically Ethiopian coffee ceremony. My hosts could not have been more hospitable. I might as well have been in Bahar Dar or Axum.
    This is anecdotal and not a conclusive evidence for the Ethiopian harmony based on centuries of shared history, however it might give one a different perspective of the prevalent public discourse regarding Ethiopia.
    One of the criticism of the UN millennium development goal is the lack of emphasis on good governance. Yes in Ethiopia, even though there is poor population based vital statistics , there is appearance of progress especially in building infrastructure. But in the absence of liberal democratic values the growth is not sustainable. That progress has produced egregious inequality. Some of the elite especially members of he ruling party and favored groups have become extremely wealthy.
    Political aspirations exclusively of one linguistic group or another is not going to reduce the maternal and infant mortality rate, provide a drop of safe drinking water or improve internet connectivity. Unfortunately ethnic based political aspiration of one group or another is going to result in more exploitative elite from a different group at the expense of the common person person regardless of linguistic affiliations. Based again on anecdotal experience outside Addis, among other things ,you still see childhood malnutrition resulting in stunted growth , you still get typhoid fever from unsanitary water supply. Internet connectivity compared to even to neighboring countries like Kenya leaves a lot to be desired to say the least. While many parts of Africa can benefit from that global connective , Ethiopia lags behind measured in years perhaps decades. This has nothing to do with ethnic political aspirations.
    It never seizes to amaze me that the elites sitting in London , Minneapolis, Washington, Sidney or Toronto, centers of Liberal Democracy, appear to be supportive of ethnic based politics. Can they imagine living in a country with exclusive political aspiration of the Spanish speaking , Italian speaking , Tigregna , Oromifa, Somali speaking groups. As Fareed Zakria of CNN had said he would have stayed in India if he wanted to be identified as Hindu or a Muslim minority . He moved to the US because of a concept based politics of liberal democracy. I would not like to live in a US where the sine qua non for citizenship is “blood and soil” , a slogan of the Neo-Nazis we saw in Charlottesville recently. If diaspora elites like what they have in the US , UK , Canada or Australia why is Ethiopia different? If others can overcome and survive the scourge of chattel slavery and apartheid, so can Ethiopia what ever the mistakes and sins of our ancestors.
    Yes our cultural differences should be celebrated and enjoyed. Each one of us has different identities , however , I hope we share the same political aspirations and ideas of individual liberty,equality and pursuit of happiness. One can argue about political ideas and try to convince the interlocutor. However there is no argument in ethnic or religious differences. Ones opponents are not only wrong; they can’t be engaged in some sort of dialogue. They should be eliminated as a final solution similar to what happened during the mid-twentieth century in Europe.
    I hope we have learned from Somalia , South Sudan, Rwanda or any of the one of the Arab countries. I also hope we have learned from the experience of the past four decades , starting from the tyranny of dergue and continuing with the current peculiar and idiosyncratic ethnic federalism. Ethnic based political aspiration is a dead end and culminates in misery.

    Realist
    September 2, 2017 at 4:27 pm
    Reply

    • Hello Realist,

      I like your post. Please see if you can make it into a stand alone article.

      Thank You

      me
      September 9, 2017 at 2:11 am
      Reply

  7. this article is written to create confusion in readers. ‘Oromos know this. Amharas know it’ what did they know? have you had any research done? or some sort of election to know that? you need to differentiate between people and activists argument (contradiction on your perspective). yes off course these activities will have there own followers. yet, you can not generalize as if people on the ground are 100% agree with the activists on social media. you can say the oromo activist who believe like this or the amhara activists who believe like that not the amhara people or oromo people, people are not herds they can not think as a like unless you have a hidden motto. the other big fail of this article is putting his/her opinion as if it is a fact. if there is a problem, the problem lay on the activists who trying to be both politician and historian, when they bring political solution for political problem rather than argument on history then there will be a solution otherwise …….

    Addis
    September 3, 2017 at 3:55 pm
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  8. The writer of this article is wellversed and soundly scrutinized the problem that faces Abyssinian dominated Ethiopia.I think he is one of those oromo intelletuals who think that Democratizing Ethiopia is the only prescribed solution. decolonizing advances democratizing.As far as the current Abyssinians Mafia gangs are in power there will not be any visiblity of democratization.wasting time in unnecessary polemics is encouraging and giving hands to enemy. wake up those who think you are wake up.

    Bariisoo
    September 5, 2017 at 2:06 pm
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  9. Barisoo.

    So you think the other abyssinian will be any different from the current? The problem is structural not individuals and no Abssiynian is willing to give up power for the sake of democracy. You can not make them change their political advantage to your democracy. They would rather lose everything. The proof is Eritrea. Tey lost Eritrea because they refused to democraize.

    Garo
    September 5, 2017 at 5:27 pm
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  10. @Garo,you nailed it”… no Abssinian willing to give up power for the sake of democracy.” Abyssinians egoistic and arrogance with empty pride again and again proved what they stand for.Thier diffrence is the time,know how and world order in which they came to power.

    Bariisoo
    September 6, 2017 at 2:54 am
    Reply

  11. What Amhara are you talking about? There are gallant freedom fighters of Gondaria and Gojjamia? Are those the ones you are talking about? Don’t you dare tell these heroic freedom fighters that they are Amharas!!! They will come down on you like lethal mudslides. They have been working hand in hand with our indomitable freedom fighters of OLF/OLA and soon there will be Republics of Oromia, Gojjamia and Gondaria. We will then create a common economic market making their combined economy the biggest in the entire southern hemisphere in less than a decade. Such common market is not new to these 3 nations. They had similar common market front for centuries when they were free republics until the outlaw Menelik dismantle their economic system in 1920. All you to do is read the history books written by my Oromo well educated scholars and scientists. The free Republics of Gondaria, Gojjamia and Oromia are Coming Soon in Few Weeks!!!!!!

    FYI – Do you know that it was we Oromos who created the word Amhara? It was created in the 19th century as a palace medium to communicate confidential matters by our Motee(Emperor) Sire in 1878 at his palace at the place called Buruk Itu in the present day Wollo region which should be legally an Oromia territory.

    Hordofaa
    September 7, 2017 at 5:39 pm
    Reply

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