Monthly Archives: August 2020
More understanding and less blaming are key to a solution for the self-determination crisis of the Oromo and other Ethiopian communities
(ethiopia-insigh)–A powerful and disturbing narrative is gaining traction among reporting on Ethiopia, its bias reflecting the connections of the current and past political and business elites with national and international media, NGOs, and foreign governments.
Most see Ethiopia through the eyes of what has long been Ethiopia’s dominant culture, the Amharic language, script, and calendar, and the Orthodox Church. Subconsciously, most outsiders absorb the sense of entitlement and superiority of those who practise and belong to this culture over the other— majority—peoples of Ethiopia who do not.
Institutional and institutionalized racism against Oromo and against the smaller nationalities in Ethiopia is enabled and empowered by zero-sum politics and its associated societal and domestic authoritarianism. Prejudice against people not represented in the dominant culture portrayed abroad as Ethiopia is rubbing off on journalists and power brokers.
Some commentators believe Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party plans to dismantle the limited regional autonomy guaranteed in the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution and claim that those who oppose this plan are violent ethno-nationalists who threaten Ethiopia’s democracy. That is the narrative gaining traction. It is as false as it is dangerous and it is a narrative that is driving a response.
In 1991, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) participated in the overthrow of the military regime, and participated for a year in the Transitional Government of Ethiopia organized by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), before it withdrew from the 1992 elections and its troops, encamped by agreement with U.S. and Eritrean mediators, were overrun.
In that year, the Minister of Education, Ibsa Gutama (one of four OLF Ministers), ensured primary education was to be carried out in Afaan Oromo in Oromia and in relevant languages in other regions. Indeed, under the federal system created after 1991 by the TPLF, for the first time Oromo people were governed, taught and were heard in court in their own language. To use the word ‘Oromia’, to use the better-suited Latin script for the Oromo language and to see it written down were each huge steps forward for the recognition of Oromo culture.
Those who promoted anything else Oromo, however, were persecuted.
After 2014, driven by the taking of land from Oromo farmers around Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) and by continuing political and economic marginalization, Oromo students, the Qeerroo/Qarree, launched a series of increasing protests. When these spread to other regions, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was propelled to power in April 2018, launching a series of reforms, including his declaration that political harassment is gone for good, releasing political prisoners, pardoning opposition parties and inviting exiled leaders to return and participate in a peaceful democratic process, declaring freedom of speech and press and ending a 20-year conflict with neighboring Eritrea, which earned him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
In September 2018, the return of the OLF leadership to Finfinnee was celebrated by millions. There was talk of truth and reconciliation, mass education about human rights, and real representative democracy. Hope and confidence in progress, prosperity and equality was almost tangible.
It did not last.
Oromia Support Group reports have detailed how extrajudicial killings and large-scale detention have continued and accelerated. Since the assassination of singer Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June, many more have died in violent protests and many properties have been destroyed. Detentions, rape, burning of property and crops—an old-fashioned scorched earth policy—is under way in areas perceived to be supportive of the OLF. In February, many top officials of the OLF were arrested; leader, Dawud Ibsa, is now under house arrest
There is now a media campaign against the OLF and anything Oromo and the Ethiopian government is working hard to persuade the outside world that Oromo journalists and supporters of the OLF and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) are all terrorists. The similarities to 1992 and the subsequent crackdown on Oromo organisations that were also then labelled as terrorists are depressing.
The killing of Hachalu immediately reminded me of the killing of singer Ebbisa Addunya on 30 August 1996. Like Hachalu, he was inspirational to a generation of young Oromo. Today, just as in the 1990s, national and international media echo government claims of atrocities instigated by organised Oromo groups, amplified by biased social media. Internet and media closures are ensuring that the government version of events, aided by anti-Oromo national outlets, becomes received wisdom in the outside world; just as it did in 1992.
The man difference of the current repression with that of its predecessor is ominous.
The broad consensus among Oromo is that any degree of autonomy enjoyed under the 1995 Constitution is under threat. This would mean one step forward and two steps back: not the other way around. Not back to 1992, but back to 1974, the time of a highly unitary state; of one language, one culture, one religion, and Amhara identity, under the cover of Ethiopian nationalism. Oromo people are being forced against their will to belong to a country in which they feel disempowered and unrepresented. Again, their desire for at least a degree of autonomy is ignored and not taken seriously, as though they don’t matter. This is a recipe for disaster.
It is also necessary to understand that the authoritarian nature of northern Ethiopian society, regional zero-sum politics, and the assumption of rights over and above the conquered peoples of Ethiopia is based on racism. And only when this racism is acknowledged can Ethiopia progress toward a multicultural, rich, resource-abundant state with enough for all its peoples. But there must be equality; no domination of one culture over another. Dismantling the current federal structure of Ethiopia, whatever superficial guarantees of fairness and equality are given, will result in more marginalization of all cultures, except that of the Amhara, which is the lens through which almost all outsiders view Ethiopia.
Acceptance and agreement of the events and facts concerning the expansion of Abyssinia in the late 19th century is a much-needed foundation stone for a stable future Ethiopia. With an agreed history and a degree of regional autonomy, it is possible for all the peoples of Ethiopia to live their own culture with respect for the rights of others, with inclusivity in decision-making at an appropriate level, and respect for natural resources.
More violence and suppression, however, will eventually lead to the breaking up of Ethiopia, with most of the people in the southern two-thirds leaving the original Abyssinia as a rump state in the northwest. If the country of Ethiopia can only be maintained by state violence against its people, resentment will build until it fragments, like Yugoslavia. Far better to establish a mutually agreeable state structure.
The greater and more ingrained a prejudice is, the harder it is to be aware of it and tackle it. It is time for the Oromo and other peoples of Ethiopia to be treated equally and fairly. To deny people self-determination, to label those who wish to exercise this right as terrorists, and to force an unwilling population to belong to any geographic, political or cultural moiety is as dangerous as it is short-sighted. Equally, it could be so easily avoided if only the two sides of the self-determination debate, which has become ethnicized whether we like it or not, consider, understand and accommodate each other’s point of view. This can be settled in a civilized manner, without coercion or bloodshed.
በኢትዮጵያ የሀገረ-መንግሰት ግንባታ የታሪክ ዳራ በእኩልነት ላይ የተመሠረተች ሀገር ለመፍጠር የተደረጉ ሙከራዎች ያጋጠሙን የታሪክ ፈተናዎችና ያመለጡን ዕድሎች በብሔራዊ መግባባት መነፅር ሲታይ
On the Power of Phrases
This article, penned by H. Q. Loltu, was first published on The Kindling Point, an occasional print that was active in the 1980s to be a voice for historically marginalized people.
When I declared my own personal independence from Ethiopia, all I had to do was tell my friends and acquaintances to start referring to me as an Oromo. Abyssinians had their own special curse word for their longtime mortal enemies who recently became their slaves; that word was “Galla.” What is unbelievable is that they were able to get the world also to call us “Gallas” for almost a hundred years. If you go to the card catalog of any library, you find the word “Galla” to refer to my people instead of Oromo. But you cannot find anyone living on the land who will use that word to refer to himself. It has always been an insult for Oromos.
The closest thing that I can think of that is as strong as “Galla” is the American word “nigger.” Can you imagine a European coming to the United States in the 1800’s and going around the plantation with the master observing the situation and then writing a report on “Niggers in America”? That is exactly what has been happening inside the Ethiopian empire ever since the Abyssinians conquered the Oromo republic in the 1890’s, cut it into pieces, and made its citizens their tenants. This happened after they got their hands on Remington rifles. The word Oromo and the greatest democratic tradition on the African continent, Gada, were replaced by an institutionalized insult: “Galla,” and a network of suspicious landlords and police. They carried those Remington rifles everywhere and their spy network reported on any “uppity Galla.”
Any son of a slave (“ Galla”) who went to school had to prove how deserving he was to be going into the armed stronghold, the town, which was really foreign territory to him, and to be learning the language of the conquerors. He was taught that this government by armed men was called “Ethiopia” and he was told that it was the greatest African empire on the earth. He had to memorize the geneology of its conquering generals and kings. He learned that the “Gallas” had been horrible savages and ruthless killers who were sent out on bloodthirsty missions and carried home the genitals of their victims. He was taught that the “Gallas” had a heathen culture that had to be destroyed for the good of mankind. It was the job of all educated “Gallas” to help replace those pagan traditions with Amhara culture and substitute this primitive language with Amharic.
I was one of these educated. It was our privilege to be a part of this civilizing process. It seems amazing now, but many of us accepted the assignment. Schoolchildren like myself became ashamed to admit that we had anything to do with these horrible “Galla” people. Most of us accepted Amharic names and tried to pass for Abyssinian. When I think of what proof they tried to give us about the culture of “Gallas” and how they behaved, I remember that teachers used to read from old Amhara monks’ diaries and from the position papers written by the Emperor’s scribes which were meant to justify the massive killings by Abyssinian kings of neighboring peoples. The stories did not match with what my grandfather had told me about the Oromos. These school lessons did not match what I knew when I was growing up in the Oromo countryside about the way our lives were organized around the concept of peace and reconciliation. But that did not occur to me then.
It has occurred to me now. It has occurred to a great number of Oromos that our very own history has been written by other people. It is not a new thing on the African continent for the history of a people to be written by their conquerors. Coming out of darkness about one’s own past has always been part of the process of liberation.
Everyone recognizes that this kind of national liberation is a battle of all the people together. But it is also a difficult personal battle for the educated ones. Our battles do not take place on the battlefields; the ammunition that disables us is words. For us, a single phrase can be more powerful than a bullet. It can go straight to the heart and make a person weak with terror. It can go to the brain, scramble thoughts. A phrase or a label can silence a person completely. It can make him impotent. Our conquerors built up a huge arsenal of potent phrases to use against us every time we showed interest, sympathy, or pride in our own tradition, and they took a shot at us every chance they got. They still do.
When I think of the times that I was silenced by a single word or phrase, it amazes me. All someone had to do was suggest that I might be a “separatist,” or an “extremist,” and I shut my mouth. I was simply terrified of being “misunderstood” and losing my “friends.” If someone labeled me, it had the same effect as if he had put a bullet in my brain at close range. One difference: If I had been shot, no one could possibly suggest that I was silent because I was fine and everything satisfactory.
For me to decide to call myself an Oromo and to insist that all others call me an Oromo was my moment of truth. You may think that it is just a small thing. But for me it was war. It was easier for me with strangers met at parties. When I decided to draw a line for my old school friends and Ethiopian social acquaintances not to cross, I knew had reached a point of no return. It took me a long time to work up the courage. At first, I reduced my contact with many friends, saying that I was busy and out of town. In that time I was reading everything I could find on Ethiopia and Oromo, all with a new perspective.
Finally, after a long period, an Ethiopian friend called me on the Ethiopian New Year. I decided to respond.
“Hello, Happy New Year! It has been a long time since you disappeared. Let’s celebrate together anyway and catch up with each other.”
“Hi. What is it that you are celebrating?”
“It is our new year.”
“Ours?” I asked. But I agreed to go.
When I arrived at the restaurant, two more Ethiopians were there. It is what I expected. None of them ever talked to me about politics or anything controversial when we were alone, but when everyone got together, then each one individually got brave. I have always been the one who felt that I had to prove myself and my loyalty by repeating their ideas with more force than they used. I would be the first to say something negative or to condemn the Gallas who wanted to make trouble. It was done to avoid being categorized. Tonight would be different.
At the dinner, it was not long until they detected the change in me, my unwillingness to do as before. Then came the test. “Well, how about the Tigray victories these days? And some of the Gallas are saying that they are a colony?”
I said that I thought the Tigrayans had a legitimate question of democracy which they are entitled to. “As for the Gallas, why do I have to prove myself to you all the time? Listen to me, I do not want to hear the word Galla any more. You should address me as an Oromo. I will not even speak to anyone from now on who refers to me or to my people as Gallas or to our language as Gallinya.”
“Since when?” one asked, “What happened?”
“Is that why you have been so cool?” asked another.
The friend who had first called to invite me out said, “Does this have anything to do with why you said, ‘Ours?’ when I reminded you about the new year?”
“Yes, It is not mine, but yours. Oromo New Year has not come yet.”
“Oh, sorry you see it that way. Nobody here ever said that you are not a Galla—sorry, I mean Oromo—but just that you are Ethiopian first. Like us, Aren’t you?”
“No, I was an Oromo first, and I am an Oromo first.”
“This is new. Does that mean that you have joined the WORROOMOO revolution?”
I looked at them and for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for them. These are the sons and daughters of the armed guards who were over Oromos. Their parents had been the landlords over my people. They had been raised in the towns and gone to school there. Their whole way of life was built upon the backs of working Oromos. They looked down on ones who worked hard. Their families had actually produced very little but instead spent all of their time in court arguing and backbiting each other and fighting over who was going to get a bigger share of what the Oromos had produced, dividing and redividing among themselves what there was.
“You used to laugh at Oromo kids, who you called ‘Gallas,’ when they were whipped for speaking their own language on the school grounds. Don’t make the same mistake again. Don’t make fun of the Oromos or some of us who decide to support those who are defending themselves against this kind of outrage today.”
“Can’t we forget what is passed? Yes, that was wrong.”
“Has it passed?” I asked, “Today it is worse. Instead of being whipped on the schoolyard, people are being imprisoned, sent away to the military, suspected of being a ‘narrow nationalist’ and receiving ‘revolutionary justice.”
“We don’t approve of that. That is also wrong. Can’t we build a country together? We are one people,”
What makes you and me one? We do not speak the same language; we do not share the same history or the same culture. We never had the same governmental structure. Oromos do not have any more in common with you than with all other human beings on the earth. There are many societies with whom the Oromos share much more in terms of history and common experience than with Abyssinia.”
They were shocked to hear this coming from me.
“Then what do you want? Do you want to break the country up into tiny pieces? Are you advocating fragmentation? Is that your objective? That would lead to a crisis; you know that very well.”
I stopped and realized that there was a time when I would have been absolutely terrified at the accusation that I was advocating fragmentation. But I sat there and looked back at them and said, “Tell me. How could this empire be in any worse crisis than it is now? Millions are starving. The government is bombing people on every side. And you are telling me fragmentation would bring crisis? Tell me. How would the demands of people for their rights bring fragmentation? Tell me what you mean by fragmentation.”
“It is getting late; let’s stop it right there,” they said, Good night.”
“Good night,” I said, leaning back in my chair.
That was when the power of their phrases lost any control over me.