“Ethiopianism,” The “Neo-Official-Nationalism,” and the “Oromia First!” Trend

by Assefa Tefera Dibaba | 5

This paper is in response to a request made repeatedly to give my personal accounts on and observation of the political culture and the current uncertainty looming in Ethiopia. Toward this goal, the paper aims, in the current Ethiopia’s context a) to critique the historical and contemporary factors that led to the ongoing mythologizing (myth-making) of PM Dr Abiy Ahmed as a political hero and ideologizing of his rhetoric (narrative) glorified as “medemer” (unity in diversity) and the promises he is making to reverse the recent unhappy past under the EPDRF authoritarian rule of which he has been a part for the last 27 years, to avoid the exclusionary old rule with its ethnic undertones, and to reconstruct a new Ethiopia on the basis of “Ethiopianism” (a new-official-nationalism), b) to assess the Oromo political ambiguity in spite of the mass struggle intensified over the last four years led by Qeerroo, the Oromo Youth League, to enable the Oromo determine their own future, to bring about a systemic change, not a simple reform, I argue, as the ruling party’s (EPRDF) effort has amounted so far to little more than a window dressing. The paper concludes by reconsidering the ongoing euphoric fervor of “MEDEMER” (Ethiopian-ness) more as “patriotic” sentiment than “nationalistic” stand and sketches a Roadmap for the divided Oromo political voices to rejoin the common goal (kaawoo) of the nationalistic “OROMIA FIRST!” trend, and to start to engage in an OPEN DIALOGUE at grassroots level around WHAT THE OROMO PEOPLE WANT (not just what party leaders want), and to move toward a NATIONAL CONSENSUS on Oromo political question.

Ethiopianism and the Neo-Official-Nationalism

Before assessing the “neo-official-nationalism” which is evolving out of the current euphoric move, “MEDEMER” (unity in diversity), the terminological problems “Ethiopia,” “Ethiopianness,” and “Ethiopianism” must be sorted out. Those terms are elusive concepts and difficult to pin down and to define in the wider range of Ethiopian and Oromo Studies. In what follows, to avoid pitfalls of a misnomer, I make an attempt to elucidate the concepts from historical and religious perspectives.

Historically, “Ethiopianism,” is considered a cultural production of a black messiah among sub Saharan Africans and in the Caribbean, and has been a Pan-African religious-cum-political string used to advocate for a political and religious freedom in the colonial era and after (Shepperson, 1953). Ethiopianism conveyed the African notion of independence against “all forms of racial discrimination as practiced by Europeans,” (Lahouel 1986: 681) and against the “Christian principles of justice and equality and the hard reality of the color bar within the European-led churches in the South African societies”. Consequently, disillusioned by the European prejudices, Africans established their own churches of both “Ethiopian” and “Zionist” tenet before 1937 based on African aspirations: while the “Ethiopian” worship maintained the Christian liturgy, the Zionist churches included traditional healing rituals and drum-beatings (p681). Graham Duncan shares this politico-religious view of “Ethiopianism” as a wider network of African nationalism, which is “the result of long-standing resentment of and resistance to white domination, a direct challenge to the ecclesiastical status quo by promoting ‘Africa for the Africans’” (Duncan 2010:199).

From a religious perspective, the widely acclaimed quote from the Bible is “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands unto God,” which is a Christian expression of Pan-Africanism based on the text of Psalm 68:31. This perspective can be explicated from two angles. First, some rightly argue, “Ethiopianism” is considered as a Christian “sense of cultural and political identity amongst black people throughout the African continent” (Duncan 2015: 199). Second, from this view of Christian Ethiopianism, “Ethiopian roots can be traced to biblical times and the then known regions of northern Africa”, generally including the regions traditionally known as Meroe, Napata, Nubia, and later, Axum. Hence, “Ethiopianism” derives from the biblical term “Ethiopia,” also referred to as Kush or Cush. Peter Gill (2010) claims “The Greeks gave Ethiopians their modern name— ‘burnt faces’—and applied it to anyone living south of Egypt”. That is, in classic documents, Aethiopia appears as a geographical term which derives from the Greek name “Αἰθιοπία,” meaning people of a “burnt face,” hence, the Kushitic stock. We should not also forget that, in European chronicles and tradition from the 12th to the 17th centuries, there was an imaginary powerful Christian kingdom called Ethiopia located between India and the Middle East of which a legendary patriarch called Prestor John was a king.

Built around the slogan “Africa for the Africans!” “Ethiopianism” was a politico-religious ideology of a more African and relevant Christianity which advocated for the restoration of traditional way of life and for political and cultural autonomy. Ethiopianism influenced PanAfricanism and Afrocentrism as it helped to disseminate the nativist and nationalist dimensions led by the “back to Africa” ideology with the emergence of the Jamaican black activist Marcus Garvey who promoted the idea of “African Diaspora”.

“Official Nationalism”: the Ethiopian Practice

The colonial thesis states that, “Ethiopia was created by the Abyssinian state colonizing its neighboring nations during the scramble for Africa” (Alemayehu Kumsa 2013, 1112; Asafa Jalata 1993). That is, as widely documented by European travelers and missionaries (Bruce, Krapf, Harris, de Salviac), the Amhara & Tigre Semitic stock migrated from the southern Yemeni tribe called Al-Habashat, hence, “Habasha” (Abyssinia,) and founded the highland Abyssinian state, a premise yet to be proved further and which Abyssinian elites to date refute as saying the migration was cultural (religious and linguistic), not a human relocation. Abyssinians annexed gradually the southern surrounding lowlands (Oromoland/Oromia and other ethnicities) in a classic pattern of empire-building under the reign of Menilik II (1989-1913). In spite of fierce resistances, the empire was consolidated and renamed “Ethiopia” in the 1931 first imperial Constitution replacing Fetha Negest and revised in 1955, and proclaimed again in the 1932 imperial coronation (Perham 1969). Through an exclusionary system of land management, military mobilization, and political loyalty, the centralized government administered the empire by strengthening the ethnic dimension of minority rule and chanting “Ethioipiawinat” / “Ethiopianness” guided by a motto temelket alamahin / teketel aleqahn!, which engraved a unitary and centralized governance.

Given the country’s ethnic diversity, however, it is not by accident that the Ethiopian state did not survive the centrifugal dynamics, which gave ethnicity more prominence as a future source of political dissention and arising nationalism. This rising ethnic-based political instability against the backdrop of the imperial “official nationalism” (“we the people”) and the glamorous “Ethiopia First!” mantra of the Derg regime was re-enforced by the 1995 Constitution which turned Ethiopia from a melting-pot of cultures into a federation of nine ethno-nations without real decentralization and equal distribution of power/authority and resources. John Markakis (2013) discusses in more detail these center-periphery discrepancies in the historical and contemporary Ethiopia as “two frontiers” that need to be crossed to guarantee peace, democracy, equity, and sustainable development in the country.

Some may argue that both the Amhara and the Tigrayan ruling classes marginalized the rural population of their own ethnic groups as the oppressed classes of other ethnic groups (CRU Report, 2016). In fact, it should be noted that there are collective shared experiences of violence, famine, and war that peoples in Ethiopia suffered indiscriminately in the continued process of control and coercion to ensure political stability and peace by force. However, among some serious disparities of oppressions and economic exploitations in the south that have been overlooked include, the marginalizing rural land tenure system of rist (inheritance) in the highland (north) Orthodox Christian population and gabbar (serf) in the south, the cultural domination (religious and linguistic), the discriminatory educational policies, and unfair court system.

Soon after the WWII and the end of the Italian invasion, Haile Selassie engaged in what Benedict Anderson (1983:80ff) calls “official nationalism” (Hultin 2003:404; Markakis, 1974). That is, he introduced some cosmetic changes in reaction to the nationalist movements of the time and a modernization of traditional polity, the project which coincided in time with the era of territorial nationalism, decolonization and nation building in Africa. From the view of “official nationalist” discourse, Jan Hultin shares Walelegne Mekonnen’s critique that “state and history were associated with the culture and society of Amharic and Tigrinya speakers, whilst other ethnic groups were disparaged and marginalized,” which had a profound influence on many Oromo students “to start a search for roots in the history of their own people” (Bulcha 1996: 63; Hultin 2003). In the 1960’s, as the university activist students’ protest took momentum, the question of “Ethiopian-ness” became apparent in the student’s literary club and the movement’s organ, “Tagel,” (“Struggle”). For example, the poem titled “Ethiopiawiw Mannew?” (“Who is the Ethiopian?”) written by the former education minister, Ibsa Gutema, was one such dissident writing. Although the Oromo question, and that of other ethnicities’, was belittled to mere “ethnocentrism” and “provincial narrow mindedness,” the agenda was one of cultural, economic, and political freedom (Asafa Jalata, 1998).

Writing of nationalism, Benedict Anderson (1992) recounts, “the great polyglot empires that ruled the earth for hundreds of years from Lisbon, London, Moscow, Vienna, Paris, Istanbul, Madrid, even Addis Ababa (emphasis mine), have disintegrated leaving behind only the residue of the Celestial Empire still more or less standing”. As this long process of disintegration is also a process of liberation, however, Anderson is right to question this double-faced nature of the process, namely, integration and designation of nations around the world.

“Medemer” (We are One People): A Future Oriented History?

Chanting “Medemer,” like the “Ethiopia First!” motto of the Derg regime, the task is to reintegrate the culturally and socio-politically divided ethnicities and ethno-nations in Ethiopia over the last 27 years and more. To continue to survive as a nation, in this view, Ethiopian-ness is unavoidable and forceful again. Official nationalism evokes an emotional power in the people, one that is initiated from a top down, from the same emphasis on ethnic identity, especially when people become territorial and defensive of what they consider theirs and who they are as a people.

In its modern history, Ethiopia has been presented as an independent modern nation-state and second most populous in Africa. The modern Ethiopia evolved in 1991 out of the history of oppression and decades of rebellion and liberation struggles. In its contemporary history (after 1991), Ethiopia has been set in a volatile and insecure context of sociopolitical instability which, among other factors, has been exacerbated by border and resource-based conflicts, and quest for the disregarded democratic rights, on the one hand, and demand for loyalty and legitimacy on the other. The impoverished peoples and the disillusioned members of the political parties, OPDO (Oromia), ANDM (Amhara), and SEPDF (the Southern Region) in the ruling party EPRDF led by the Tigrayan TPLF, have been dissatisfied with the dominant role of the TPLF, the ever-growing human rights violations, and the uneven distribution of power and resources. Added to its history of violence, militarism, and its controlling approach to dissent instead of dialogue, Ethiopia’s political culture does not guarantee EPRDF to be democratic. Historically, liberation fronts which evolved into governments claim it a privilege to rule for a life-time than submit to a peaceful power transfer through a fair and free election (as to be discussed below). Instead of a democratic process of “election,” by “selection” and political appointment, officials assume power in Ethiopia, including the incumbent Prime Minister and his predecessors; and as a result, the government changes and the oppressive system remains in power. As centralization, control, and coercion continues to perpetuate the rule, public dissent rises and recurs.

According to one report on historical and contemporary political settlement in Ethiopia, three factors influence the whole power transaction: historically, the legacy of centralization, exclusion, and recurrent conflict, the contemporary TPLF single-party monopoly, the strong party government interlace and the state-led economy which opened ways for crony capitalism and corruption (CRU Report, 2016). The resulting resentment and the growing distrust fueled the “identity-based mobilization, despite a generally shared sense of ‘Ethiopian-ness’” (CRU Report, 2016).

Nationalism is more than mere sentiment and grows out of a self-articulated expression of national consciousness which is in the process of rebirth and intensification among the Oromo people (Asafa Jalata, 1995). In this context, it would be interesting but beyond the scope of the present paper to analyze Oromo politicians’ attitude toward this new Ethiopianism and their agenda in light of the neo-official-nationalism (“we the people”) being orchestrated around Dr Abiy’s “Medemer”.

It is not by accident or simply by historical coincidence that Dr. Abiy Ahmed came to cherish the new light of history to shine on him. It remains mysterious though how he rose above the crowd when dozens of other perhaps more notorious figures could stick to power from the TPLF. Today, in Ethiopia, as an outcome of the upsurge of Oromo nationalism, which has been intensified over the last four years led by Qeerroo, some neo-official-nationalist feelings are also at the origin of new Ethiopianism, mainly among the Amhara and other ethnic groups, which is confused with patriotism. Rather, it is a politico-religious movement aimed at introducing a subtle way of occupation and spreading cultural domination in Oromia and other regions. For instance, the increasing number of construction of new Orthodox Christian churches in Oromia on every dominant space and sacred sites (hilltops, ritual places, and ancestral grave sites) and flying high on each spot the plain imperial flag with the three pennants (red, yellow, and green) or with a crowned lion in the middle holding a staff topped by a cross with ribbons symbolizing the “Conquering Lion of Judah” are some of the subtle ways of occupation and cultural domination. In fact, it is when political liberation is possible that the end of subjugation translates into cultural and socioeconomic freedom for the oppressed. Next, I will consider with a special attention measures that need to be taken as a first step to end subjugation and cultural domination in Oromia.


Posted on November 12, 2019, in Information, News. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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