“The suffering which falls to our lot in the course of nature, or by chance, or fate, does not seem so painful as suffering which is inflicted on us by the arbitrary will of another.”
By: Yared Terfassa
From reading a recent article by the well-seasoned historian, Dr. Mohammed Hassen, titled “… continuous attack on Oromo identity…,” one can surely pick up the agony and powerlessness felt by the author for the violence and brutality endured by his people – the Oromo. And, that man of conscience, Mr. Felix Horne of the Human Rights Watch, expressed his utter revulsion at the extent of brutality the current Ethiopian Government is perpetrating against the Oromo in the phrase, “Such a Brutal Crackdown,” a title he gave to the recent report.
Unquestionably, the political sentiments of both of these good people are shared by all those who stand for peace and human dignity. But, there are ideas and attitudes that underpin “Such A Brutal Crackdown” and “continuous attack on Oromo identity”. Understanding of these underpinnings is imperative to finding ways out of the perennial problem of violence in Ethiopia. My premise here is that “violence is never a question of a single act in the here and now.” It is a “phenomenon that has history.” And, more often than not, it is preceded by some sort of generalized belief or prejudicial judgment.
The violence against the Oromo did not commence in November 2015. It has been going on since the inception of the Ethiopian State. Of course, there are those who completely forget, deny, rationalize, and/or relativize the history of violence against the Oromo. These individuals have the luxury of “historical amnesia and incuriousness about” it. For the Oromo, however, the Ethiopian State violence is a “lived experience of expropriation, whose effect constitute…daily humiliation…”
Prior to the importation of the idea of nation-state into Africa from Europe in the 19th century, the Oromo had lived as a pre-nation, independent people under an indigenous, democratic, administrative system, the Gadaa. They are people of ancient origin. The initial act of the formation of the Oromo as a linguistic-cultural group can be adequately explained by the principles of ease, least effort, congeniality, and pride in one’s own culture. And, the longevity of its existence can be attributed to the coherence and soundness of the foundational ideas Oromo for communal living, the commitment of its adherents, and of course, historical fortune.
The Gadaa system, which has served the Oromo well since time immemorial to live in peace, proved inadequate in the face of an emerging politico-military organization imported from Europe. The Oromo did not transition from direct democracy to a centralized, national, republican form of government in time to successfully fend off threats to their independent survival. Though the absence of centralized national leadership at a critical juncture has made the Oromo vulnerable to the military adventures of chieftains, it was the political tutorial and bullet handouts of the Europeans to local chiefs that was decisive in changing the Oromo’s historical fortune. The Europeans gave out the tutorials and handouts on a first come basis to local chieftains who would give or give up something in return. The Europeans help was never based on considerations of individual merit of the chieftains or evaluations of the languages, traditions, or social organizations of indigenous groups. In politics then, as it is today, what mattered was “who you know.”
Be that as it may, since the completion of the founding of the Ethiopian State violently in early 20th century, the Oromo fate in Ethiopia has been in limbo until 1991. During that period, a modus vivendi has been “worked out” between the Ethiopian State and the Oromo in which the latter “simply knew” their position in the Ethiopian social hierarchy. They were expected to abide by the realities of the prevailing system. Whatever resistance the Oromo had showed was viciously suppressed. In 1991, however, social changes that occurred in Ethiopia pushed the Oromo issue to the fore. The power to be, the TPLF, declared its commitment to address ethnic/national issues through “Revolutionary Democracy” – respect and recognition for the sovereignty of ethnic/national groups. For the first time in Oromo history, Oromia, Oromo country, obtained legal and political recognition in Ethiopia.
Merely a year into its rule, however, the TPLF wavered from its “convictions” and replaced them with its narrow, group “interests.” It replaced “Revolutionary Democracy” with the so-called “Developmental State” program. The essence of this program is the creation of a middle class whose members would be chosen, directly or indirectly, by the TPLF and perpetuate Tigrean hegemony for a long, long time to come. Accordingly, the TPLF adopted England’s 18th century “primitive accumulation of capital” model to create wealth to its leaders and benefactors. It involves “suddenly and forcibly” divorcing farmers from their “subsistence farm” for the purpose of raising capital. It should be noted that when this took place in England, the country had already had over three hundred years of existence as a nation, which is far different from the ethnic and national realities of Ethiopia in the 21st century.
The Oromo have naturally rejected the imposition of these “horrifying barbarisms” and the rationalization of irrational means (impoverishing millions of Oromo) to an end (creating a few capitalists, mainly Tigreans). The Oromo view TPLF’s paternalism (and/or parasitism) as the worst form of affront toward their dignity. As a result, the Oromo, from Wollo to Borena and from Wellega to Hararghe, have taken to the streets in opposition to TPLF’s project of dispossession. Obbo Ibsa Gutema, that man with iron in his soul, has proudly characterized the recent Oromo resistance/mobilization as “…unseen… (at least) in the region…since the 16th century.”
One cannot fault the TPLF, or any other group, for having or pursuing its own social, economic or political interest. Interests can be negotiated and an amicable solution can be found. But, when one’s interests are elevated to the status of rights, they become non-negotiable. Thus, the TPLF has to defend its newly devised non-negotiable interests via the rule of violence as it is doing now, and not through the rule of law.
Successive Ethiopian governments have made use of extreme violence against opposition groups, ideological or ethnic/national. But, the violence against the Oromo has been going on for so long and the ubiquitous prejudice against them have made the perpetrators and a lot of observers unsympathetic and unempathetic. It is a historical fact that the Ethiopian ruling class and its adjunct intellectuals have been propagating ethnic/national prejudice against the Oromo. Some of the prejudicial judgments about the Oromo in Ethiopia include describing or characterizing them as “late comers or foreigners,” “uncivilized,” “pagans,” “tribalist,” “narrow nationalist”, “extremist,” “threat to Ethiopia,” “agents of foreign powers,” and more.
Remember the old adage: “There has never been a bite without previous barking.” Without such generalize beliefs, the violence against the Oromo could not have been sustained with such frequency and intensity for so long. These beliefs are, of course, literally absurd. They are based on faulty and inflexible generalizations. They cannot be rationally accounted for by the objectively known traits of the Oromo or their deserved reputation. But, they have been serving a purpose justifying and/or masking the economic advantage, social status and political power that the rulers derive from the subjugation of the Oromo. These prejudices are then passed on from generation to generation.
Some of the ways that anti-Oromo prejudices are propagated and recycled from generation to generation are:
- Jokes and derisive languages as methods of proving the “inferiority” of Oromo and exalting the attributes of others.The jokes one tells or gets amused by say a lot about the decency and soundness of one’s character. Of course, some get a sense of superiority/release in the most deranged of ways, including via depraved and debased jokes.A few use of the epithet “gala” not only to characterize a person’s membership but also to disparage and reject him. The use of this epithet is to dehumanize the Oromo and influence how they are perceived and how they are written about and thought about by the general public in Ethiopia. For the user of this epithet, the proper name Oromo strikes him as absurd; the Oromo language strikes him as ludicrous; the mention of the Oromo name sends him into paroxysm of fear, or a frenzy of anger.
- Denial of the existence of the Oromo nation and/or oppression against them so as to justify the rule of violence.Some of the deniers of the existence of the Oromo nation set about deconstructing the Oromo identity in an attempt to show the illogicality and falsity of the facts of Oromo history. They argue that since there are no “pure Oromos” in Ethiopia, those who profess real Oromo identity are “self-serving fakes,” whose demand for social justice should be dismissed as mere trouble making.These deniers fail to understand that national identity is not a biological concept although ancestral lineage has traditionally been accorded much weight in the literature. They also fail to appreciate the sense of pride and purpose the Oromo identity produces and the passion it engenders that are instrumental in the struggle for freedom and justice. There is no moral error in claiming, asserting, and promoting one’s ethnic/national identity. Furthermore, the only way to find out whether the Oromo nation exists is to ask the people – a project that requires political will and the audacity to take responsibility.Some other deniers make every effort to find an alternative “national problem” with a view to put the Oromo question on the back burner. Some of the problems identified to undermine or hide ethnic/national problems are income inequality (class struggle), corruption, border issues, religion, threat from external enemy, and so on. Of course, Ethiopia has these problems and much more. Yet, the articulation of one problem and the attempt to find one sovereign solution does not seem a rational or practical approach to address the multi-headed demon facing the country, including the most potent – ethnic/national issue.
Still, others present ethnic/national problems as economic questions, and proceed to look for solutions in the Marxian school of thought. They are of the opinion that “class makes for a rational political behavior because it associates people on the basis of their common interests, in pursuit of an individual emancipation.” They theorize ethnic identity as “false consciousness.” The Ethiopian experience of class warfare under the Derg clearly demonstrated the absurdity of this belief, though. Driven by “envy, resentment, and paranoia,” the so-called class struggle had turned into a justification for arbitrary imprisonment, torture, judicial and extra-judicial killings. The experiences of almost all countries who chose similar journeys had been even more horrifying. The affirmation of the Oromo identity is not “false consciousness” that needs violent absolution. Rather, it is a human rights issue demanding urgent politico-legal solutions.
Also, traditional liberal democracy is inadequate to address the deep-seated, extremely discriminatory socio-political problems in Ethiopia. It has failed to appreciate the dynamic interrelationship between individual rights and group rights. Advocates of liberal democracy also miserably fail to see that the free choice, civil society, and property rights they advocate could not be achieved or sustained in a country where there are ethnic/national prejudice and discrimination. The sad culture of “copy and paste” of the Ethiopian literati has proved to be an additional impediment to finding peaceful, egalitarian solutions for ethnic/national problems.
Sometimes, however, the denial of the existence of the Oromo as a group or the oppression against it are based upon sheer habituation to the status quo, and not on malicious intent. Some people are accustomed to the prevailing social system that they think it is eternally fixed and entirely satisfactory to the Oromo. Such people do not have malicious intent, thus are amenable to change through information and learning.
- Fabrication of myths to create the illusion that the current social order has moral superiority because it has historical priority.All nation-states create or use myths about themselves that they wish to perpetuate. One motive for the formulation of myths could be the desire to enhance national pride or status, or to provide a heritage to live up to. In Ethiopia, however, a variety of myths have been fabricated to discredit, defame, and denigrate the Oromo. Some of these myths have been fabricated to create the illusion that the current social order has always been accepted and hence, it is beyond reproach or contestation. History of antiquity is employed as a device to suppress legitimate demands for justice. In most cases, those who manufacture the destructive myths in Ethiopia are individuals with some kind technical training. They write articles, blogs, books which give them a veneer of respectability and a modicum of success in spreading their fables since their writings are quite widely distributed. Even with the best of intentions, the utility of myths in forming lasting national unity is fatally undermined when the ruling class perpetuates discrimination and violence against a significant segment of the population, as is the case against the Oromo.
- Employment of primordialist theories to trivialize and delegitimize the Oromo quest for freedom and equality. In addition, rationalization of the actions of the Ethiopian Government, relativization of the suffering of Oromo, and blaming the Oromo for their predicament have all been used for the same effect.Some characterize the Oromo’s demand for recognition as “tribalism,” or “primordialist.” They argue that such a demand is an “irrational sentiment” that has survived from past tribalism, and not fit for the modern personality. Some even have borrowed the phrase, “lack of imagination” from Mr. Obama’s speech to give credence to their myopic and defective reasoning. They describe Oromo nationalist as “cultural fools, doomed to reproduce their world endlessly and mindlessly.”These prejudiced individuals condemn the Oromo in the most condemnatory terms possible. The critical weakness of these arguments is that they fail to recognize again that ethnicity is not a genetic concept. The fact that the Oromo identity is not biological reality does not mean it does not have social significance. In fact, the Oromo identity in Ethiopia likely determines or greatly influences an Oromo individual’s personal security, socio-economic mobility, and the like. And, approaching ethnicity or nations in terms of genes/DNA is not just wrong but dangerous. The argument these bad-faith Ethiopians are pursuing and the position they are advocating is a species of sociological racism and may become a doctrine of extermination.The other category of ill-thinkers attempt to rationalize the suffering and oppression of the Oromo. They invoke the Darwinian theory of evolution in such a way to justify the subjugation of the Oromo by a “fit” ethnic group. They chide the Oromo for their “stubborn refusal to modernization.” But, modernization is not a neutral concept; it is a contested one. Modernization can be viewed as not an instrument of modernity but its subversion. For instance, colonization as an instrument of modernization carried to other peoples, to construct auxiliary instruments of labor, is the antithesis to modernity. Thus, the Oromo demand for cultural right and socio-political recognition cannot be dismissed on the premise of modernity.
Deconstructing history, fabricating fables, denigrating the Oromo are simple intellectual tasks; they do not involve difficult moral choices. But, their impact on the Oromo individual is all too real.
Naturally, the Oromo individual has devised ways to survive the persistent blows of contempt and violence directed toward him/her in Ethiopia. He/she has employed various tactics/mechanisms to survive the scourge of ethnic prejudice and national oppression. And, the choice of tactics/mechanisms depended on the individual’s own life experiences: how he/she was trained, how severe his/her suffered from persecution, his/her philosophy of life, etc. Some of these are:
- Selective self-preservation and passivity: many individuals, particularly in urban settings, have resorted to the tactic of playing the clown, ingratiating themselves, pretense, etc. in the interest of survival and social mobility.
- Denial of membership: is the simplest response. This device comes easy for those who do not have Oromo names, appearance, or accent, and who do not in fact feel any loyalty or attachment to the Oromo. Perhaps, they are, figured by tradition, only a half, a quarter, or an eighth inheritors of the Oromo tradition. Also, there are some who deny their group by conviction and regard it as desirable for all others to lose their identities as fast as they can. But, often, the individual who denies his/her allegiance to his group suffers considerable conflict.
- Self-hate: a few have come to dislike their Oromo heritage. These types have a sense of shame for having an Oromo name, Oromo parents, or any of the negative qualities ascribed to the Oromo by irrational and immoral others. They want to lose themselves totally into another culture as soon as their custom, speech, and wealth makes them indistinguishable from that culture. They mentally identify with the practice, outlook, and prejudice of the existing system. I do not know how such individuals could be “cured.”
- Fighting back: the reactions of many Oromo individuals can be summarized by a quote from Spinoza. “He who conceives himself hated by another and believes that he has given him no cause for hatred, will hate that other in return.” Hate is not a virtue; fighting for one’s dignity is.
- Enhanced striving: many Oromo individuals have chosen making the extra spurt of effort to surmount the challenges of everyday prejudice they face in Ethiopia. Consequently, many have achieved and become paragons of success. Although there is nothing unethical in this approach, it does not provide much political inspiration.
Here, it should be absolutely clear that such tactics of survival are not exclusively of Oromo invention or experience. The Tigreans under the Derg, the Amharas under the TPLF, have employed similar methods of survival and mobility at various levels. In fact, that such methods have been employed throughout history by every group of people who has ever been subjected to constant violence by the power that be. Furthermore, the Oromo do not claim that the indignities they have been enduring are worse than that of the Gurages, the Kembatas, the Wolaitas, and others. Rather, the Oromo have chosen to reject subordination and demand recognition as part of the universal struggle for human dignity. Given their history, demography, geography, economy, and the culture of resistance they have developed, the Oromo has the capacity and a historical responsibility to bring about a new politico-moral order of which human dignity is the foundation, and peace, stability and development are paramount.
Nonetheless, none of the tactics adopted by individuals could bring about lasting, nay fleeting, change. National or ethnic prejudice is the most difficult to overcome on an individual basis. The violence against the Oromo people would not stop if and when an Oromo individual achieves a certain economic or social status. Individuals can rise and fall, succeed or fail. But, discrimination and stigma are a common, group fate, and it requires collective action for group rights. National oppression or ethnic prejudice is not an individual issue, and mass escape is never possible. That is, the Oromo demand for recognition cannot be reduced to be a matter of individual self-determination.
The Oromo nation is not a group of individuals who have come together for a certain political project, and who would cease to be Oromo after achieving it. Neither is it a collection of individuals who have found their way into the nation by their own paths, one person or family at a time. It definitely is not a collection of individuals who joined the group because the TPLF is persecuting them. Rather, an Oromo individual is discriminated against and persecuted because of his/her group membership – because he/she is Oromo.
The Oromo are people with a sense of pride in a rich received tradition, a longing for generational continuity, and loyalty to the Oromo national identity. Of course, individuals can break away, and commit themselves to the difficult process of self-formation. But, the vast majority of Oromo people do not want to see the Oromo nation dissolved. They do not want to abandon their language or traditions. They do not want to forfeit their national identity for the sake of being accepted as “pure Ethiopians. They passionately want to be recognized as a group, as an independent source of human activity, with a will of its own. This is what the Oromo are struggling for.
To conclude, the recent violence against the Oromo in Ethiopia is not a new, one-time, accidental phenomenon. It is one that has been going on with varying levels of intensity, with a purpose, since the founding of the Ethiopian State. The absence of a democratic founding covenant or a subsequent ethical or democratic tradition have made violence an acceptable method of state building in Ethiopia. Functional or pathological, the prejudice against the Oromo has been real and pervasive. And, there has been a direct relationship between the prejudicial view hold by the bearers and the brutality they inflicted upon the Oromo. The absence of an Oromo national organization with centralized leadership has also contributed to the continuation of the perpetration of violence. Today, in the 21st century, the Oromo are under a power that follows the tired modus operandi of despots of the 19th century. In fact, the political and security cost of living in Ethiopia is exorbitantly high for the Oromo. For instance, that staunch advocate of peace, Obbo Bekele Gerba, is being charged a price that even an ascetic cannot afford.
All is not bleak, though; there is hope. The ongoing Oromo struggle has earned the respect and admiration friends and foes alike. Many of the ethnic/national groups in Ethiopia are tired of tyranny. The Americans and the Europeans also have begun looking at the Oromo as a viable partner for peace and democracy in the Horn of Africa. The only remaining obstacle is the intransigence of the TPLF. The TPLF also has to either abandon its violent ways and dictatorship out of self-inspection or through pressure from the Oromo, the Amhara, the Sidama, and others before things go out of hand.
“There are some abuses that are genuinely intolerable, and some excuses for these abuses that are insupportable.”