BY MUKTAR OMER | 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.
There exists 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, 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.
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.