By J. Ebisa
The recently discussed Amhara-Oromo solidarity, by some, does not mean that Amhara and Oromo have the same historical memories, experience, and aspirations. It is true that both the Amhara and Oromo are now marginalized and oppressed by Kleptorcatic gangs which mix Stanlism, plutocracy and neo-liberal developmentalism as a method of governance. The Oromo and Amhara have a shared interest to get rid of this intolerable regime. Then, what is next? Some Amhara would like to get back to power where they left off as ruling national elite whereas the Oromo aim to end the Amhara-Tigre rule domination once and all. Thus, one of the problems with this solidarity is that a hidden dream of the Amhara elite to put the clock back in the event the current regime ends and roll back political reforms by manipulating the transitional period and restore status quo ante which the Oromo nation already rejected and buried (http://www.ayyaantuu.net/beyond-the-bushoftu-massacre-the-war-on-orommuma-and-oromo-unity/)
As discussed in above quoted piece, over the last few weeks, there has been conversation about protests and resistances among two biggest national groups and largest federal regions, Oromo and Amhara. The widespread uprisings and resistances throughout Oromia and the appearance of protests in Bahir Dar and Gondar and the consequent violent repressions look like a wild fire. To this, one should add the less discussed cases, the Konso and the Afar protests. In some diaspora communities, we see some joint demonstrations between Oromo and Amhara activists to condemn the Tigrean Kleptocratic ethnocracy. Amhara-Oromo solidarity or “unity”, at very least a tactical alliance, is considered as a major threat even a nightmare for the ruling junta whose ethnonational base is about 6% in a country of 100 million inhabitants. It is not difficult to imagine a huge challenge of this minority government to face a colossus (representing more than 60% of the population together plus other groups who are likely to join them) which controls also a large chunk of the national economy.
I would argue that solidarity and unity is mechanical and superficial, not organic and genuine. It is true that both Oromo and Amhara are feel disrespected and marginalized, excluded and have common interest to change this regime by all means, in an ideal world by peaceful means. Generally, it is not uncommon to see alliances to achieve some goals; people, nations, groups and parties with different political ideologies and aspirations can create alliances or coalitions around the common denominator by putting aside their differences to face a common threat. For example, Western democracies, US in particular, created the Great Alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat Nazism despite the deep ideological and political gulf between communism and capitalism. That alliance was not natural but tactical and helped to defeat Nazism. After the end of WWII, both returned to their hostile stances which led to the cold war (1945-1990), an ideological and political and military conflict between East and West.
In fact, one can mention numerous examples from the annals of history the extent to which groups and nations formed alliances to deal with the greatest evils despite their differences. As common adage goes in politics, friendship and alliances may be temporary but interest is permanent. What does Amhara interests have to do with the Oromo interests? Are they compatible? Do they converge beyond the regime change which both despise and consider as illegitimate and criminal? Do they have common memory, experience and understanding of the past? What about future agenda and political journey they envisage both in short and long term?
The Weight of History and Memory
In the following paragraphs, I will try to answer the above questions in order to capture the crux of the argument. The country we now call Ethiopia was carved to its current shape since the first of the half 19th century and has been exclusively ruled by the Abyssinians, the Amhara and Tigreans. The Amhara were the master of the land sine 1840s, when the conquest of the Tulama was completed by Sahle Selassie until 1991, roughly for 150 years. The Tigreans /Woyane have replaced them as the ruling group and have been in charge for 25 years now.
However, for the majority Oromo and other southern people, Amhara rule began in earnest with Menelik who created the empire under/around the Amhara power, culture, economic and political dominations. Initially, the Amhara expanded as feudal colonialists and then used the modernization and revolutionary process to their advantage to consolidate their hegemony and influence through the process of social change. In the meantime, the Oromo became colonial subjects (Gabbar, second class citizen for extended period of time (the vicious cycle of sub-ordination and humiliation and marginalization which continue unabated under the current regime) despite the numerous reforms and even a major revolution in 1974.
The grievances against the Amhara controlled state was so deep that the Woyane rallied the Oromo, in an open rebellion, for a new departure. They pretended that they would create a system which will correct injustices of the past, bring equality, mutual respect and democracy to the country. In reality, the hidden plan was to create a Tigrean Kleptocratic government under the tautology of federalism. Their predecessors, the Amhara owned the Ethiopian state and used it to their own advantage. Despite their apparent differences due to the change in international and national circumstances, the Woyane learned a lot from the Amhara rule – controlling the state and using it to their interests. For instance, both grabbed Oromo lands and resources and thieved in a relatively short period of time. The Oromo elders remember with some irony how Woyane and Naftagna came to Oromia as penny less and emerged as propertied wealthy elite in a record time as the expense of labour, land and resource of marginalized people.
With respect to the methods of rule, both have the same strategy despite changes in times and circumstances. The Amhara, being a minority to effectively rule such a large empire where they lack knowledge of local culture and language, created the balabbat system in the conquered lands which ensured Abyssinian authority at the local levels (Local channels of communication). The fate of the Balabbats was sealed with the fall of Haile Selassie and went to the bin of history. For its parts, the Woyane, a small group with no capacity to govern the country on their own, badly needed collaborators and fabricated their local agents, messengers, to impose their domination. They created OPDO to replace the old version of the balabbat system in order to control the Oromo population. But, OPDO agents are artificial creature easily disposable compared to the balabbats whose power was embedded in local communities.
As often been the case in the Ethiopian traditions, the Tigreans have accused the Amhara of misruling the empire and oppressing and exploiting the nations and nationalities composing the polity. This was not invented myth but largely shared by all people who were conquered and incorporated into the country. Now, the Amhara have their own arguments to accuse the TPLF as ethnocratic, exploitive, oppressive and divisive regime. In the process, they forget and openly deny or minimize the damage of their governance system spanning 100 years. Above all, it is an irony that the Amhara are blaming their cousins, Tigreans, for lack of democracy, lack of respect for human rights and lack of inclusive government as if they presided over regimes which ruled differently. The fact of the matter is that the Woyane system is a continuation or a replica of Abyssinian political culture based on factionalism, manipulation and repression, not something invented in the 1990s but adapted to the changing national and global realities to justify their policies.
From Oromo perspective, the Tigreans and Amhara are the two faces of the same coin; they are imperial people. It is difficult to choose between plague and cholera! The Amhara owned the state under all successive regimes and the Tigreans, despite many promises, and changes in political orientations, constitution, the federal structure, rule with an iron fist. They have one thing in mind: to replace the Amhara as the dominant group, and exercise exclusive power in accordance with Abyssinian well-known political system: a zero sum game and the winner takes all paradigm. It looks as if they are saying “we won power by force, and will keep until were are forced out by the same means.”
The Oromo collectively and unanimously reject and abhor imperial rule no matter the ideological cover of the system. Here, I have no time and space to compare and contrast what Amhara and Tigrean rule look like. Future researchers may come up with interesting insights and conclusion on methods and impacts of their governance on the southern people. The Ethiopian revolution of 1974 and the TPLF takeover 1990s provided ample opportunities to address Oromo historical grievances by the owners of the Ethiopia state. Unfortunately, little has changed and we still talk of Oromo uprising and revolts for their rights. The 40 million or so Oromo are saying enough is enough of Amhara-Tigrean rule.
Oromo aspirations and the Centrality of Collective Rights
Historically, the Oromo were not imperial people, and they do not want to be one now. They did not have an organized ideology and system of exploitation to impose on any one. The key issue and demand is, and has always been, to restore their violated dignity to be self-governing and free people under the political system of their choosing including the Gadaa system. Gadaa is one the brilliant accomplishments in their long history and constitutes one of the original contributions of the African people have to offer to world civilization and system of governance. The Oromo are proud to learn that their ancestors were ruled by democratically elected leaders until they fell under ruthless feudal colonialism. They are thrilled to show that their ancestors had the concept of human rights and natural rights before John Locke popularized them in his Two Treaties of Government in 1689. Moreover, the Oromo put in place a democratic system of governance well before European enlightenment, between 17th and 18th century, known as political and philosophical movement for liberty, equality and fraternity, which became slogans of the French Revolution, even global slogans.
The Oromo Gadaa leaders had been implementing, since immemorial times, the concept of fraternity, equality and liberty which were enshrined in the Gadaa laws. They did not wait for Jean Jacques Rousseau to hear that “all men are born free and equal”. They did not borrow his concept of General Will and common good which was already carefully crafted in the Gadaa system. This is true for the rule of law, term limit for elected officers and the checks and balance system that ensures both individual and collective rights. The sad story in all this is that, Oromo’s civilizational model /system was destroyed and replaced by a feudal autocracy of Menelik. In so doing, he reduced a free and egalitarian society into slaves, helpless serfs, and colonial subjects. The Oromo are now out to restore aspects of what was taken from them in order to live in freedom and dignity.
One of the major problems and obstacles for Oromo -Amhara solidarity is, and has always been, their scholars, politicians, and activists have not yet to come to terms about the existence of Oromo, Oromia and Orommumaa which they tend to dismiss as the invention of the Woyane. They have mobilized an army of scholars, activists and even priests to discredit and undermine Oromo identity and as they did for centuries. As I wrote in another piece:
Some Naftagna, pseudo historians or their coolies are mobilized to argue that Oromo /Oromia was created by Tigreans in 1991. When they lost the war to deny Oromo nationhood or Oromia, they kept the fight by opposing and protesting against the Qubee, the use of Oromo alphabet to write Oromiffaa. Additionally, they denied or continue to minimize Oromo proven historical grievances against the Ethiopian state. Their priests went up to excommunicating its members who preached in Oromo language. At one point they allegedly refused church service for the dead members for using Qubee.
All this -both their official and unofficial dream and endeavor to undo Oromummaa they rallying cry “Kelil” which they dismiss as Bantustan, Apartheid segregated villages in South Africa, not a coherent socio-cultural reality. This is offensive and insulting. They hate any change to the status quo, unitary and centralist and assimilationist state. For the Oromo, the question is not whether the federal model acceptable but its superficial nature just created to enable the Tigrean to control and exploit Oromo sources.
The Amhara give the impression their desire rollback all important reforms since 1990s including the federal model should they get they opportunity. For the Oromo regardless of different ideological orientations, which could be divided into minimal land maximal nationalists, Orommumaa and Oromia remain the basis for any future political arrangements. This clearly suggests that the Oromo cherish collective rights, which does not mean the negation of individual rights as all rights inter-dependent and inter-related as explicitly stipulated in the UN Declaration: “All human rights and fundamental freedoms are indivisible and interdependent; equal attention and urgent consideration should be given to the implementation, promotion and protection of civil and political, and economic, social and cultural tights”
This clearly stipulates that no hierarchy in category of human rights – human need civil /political rights, social and economic rights as well as group/collective rights are necessary for the life of dignity. However, oppressed and colonized people do feel, rightly, that individual rights cannot guarantee their freedoms, protection against the power of the state or dominant groups. In other words, in poly-ethnic empire based on conquest, and power disparity/inequality, individual rights cannot appropriately and fairly address the national question and deeply-seated grievances. Historically, Individual rights claim is related to the people that have power, propertied class and a privileged category where group rights/collective right are claimed by the oppressed people. In Ethiopia, those who sing the hymn of Individual rights are former power holders, and all those who think that they have somethings to loose when disempowered are empowered through collective rights. It is not that collective rights take anything away from them but they lose the power and opportunity to infringe upon others’ rights, who will be self-governing and the master of their destiny.
In other words, regardless of their numbers, the Oromo constitute an oppressed nation under Abyssinian and empire rulers. There is nothing less than full-fledged autonomy which guarantees self-government status where they could share sovereignty, on some domains, with other nations and nationalities at the federal level. So, the future talk and political arrangements should start from where are now, not where we were before 1974 or 1991. Oromo cultural unity and geographical unity is not subject to negotiation.
For so long, the Amhara ruling political and intellectual elites tried to disguise their own Amhara identity under “Ethiopian identity” they called themselves Ethiopians, not Amhara, until very recently. Yet, they promoted their own sense of identity and history by wrapping in Ethiopian flag. Interestingly enough, the Tigreans say that old Ethiopian flag is the symbol of Amhara domination. For their part, the Amhara reject the current TPLF Flag as a symbol of Woyane domination. In the meantime, the Oromo feel the Ethiopian flag, both Tigrean and Amhara version, is the symbol of imperial power, not the symbol of freedom and dignity taken from them.
In fact, this is more than a dog fight on a piece of cloth but the sign of polarized and fragmented body politics and competing view of national identity and the conquest aspirations. It is in this context, the young Amhara activists have claimed officially Amharaness before Ethiopian identity. It is a slap in the face of older generations of Amhara like Prof. Mesfin who he denied all his life the existence of Amhara identity as a way of negating the identity of oppressed peoples. That appeared logical then. If you elevate Amhara identity to national identity and promote it as such, why do you reduce what is national to ethnic? Not anymore. The Amhara have realized that they are one of the constituent groups, not the group defining or imposing the terms of Ethiopianism on others. Here, it is important to stress that there is no problem with being Amhara, Amhara culture and values, religion, way of life. What Oromo rejected and resented for long is the imposition of this culture at the expense of their own.
The Amhara -Oromo solidarity is possible in so far it promotes common interest and mutual respect, not as a means of controlling the future agenda for self-interest and coming through the back door. Historically, the Oromo resistance and protests were targeted against the Amhara, the rulers of the empire. When they lost and replace by the Woyane regime, the Amhara are opposed to many concessions made particularly in the 1990s to the Oromo people. The Oromo do not see many reasons to form an alliance which centralist elites whose political thoughts and political agenda are stuck in the distance past. Many Amhara based political organizations and even civic group are allergic to the issue of identity and collective rights, disguising themselves by Lockean individual liberalism which they think is the best way to restore Amhara influence/power. All the reference to Locke and Kantian cosmopolitanism to deny Oromo collective rights and their right to self-determination is an exercise in futility.
Oromo political organization and groups (OLF the General Kemal Gelchu group and recently ODF) which reached agreements with Amhara based organizations were not only criticized by the fact that they deny Oromo collective rights but also could not delivery any results. This rapprochement was with revulsion and contempt by the majority Oromo. These agreements and alliances all failed miserably. Where is the agreement between General Kemal Gelchu and Ginbot? What is the significance of ODF and Ginbot agreement? They are miles behind the movement of history. Both Amhara and Oromo activists do believe these coalitions are artificial and do not reflect the fundamental aspirations of their constituencies.
To come back at the issue of Oromo-solidarity, the question is: solidarity for what? To change the current government only? What kind of government and political system do we want? Here starts the thorny issue. The Amhara solidarity with is belated. They were debating for months whether or not supporting Oromo protest is an opportunity or risk. Some argued in favor of support that if the Oromo protesters carry Ethiopian flag and promote Ethiopian identity or no support if the movement consolidate Orommumaa and weakness what they call national identity. So, it is a conditional support and half-hearted, superficial and opportunist. This is perfectly understandable as everyone looks for its own interests. The Amhara protest was triggered not because of planned solidarity with the Oromo but due to territorial conflict in Wolqait which the Woyane annexed to Tigrai.
They now want to use this “solidarity” tautology to have some influence on Oromo transitional charter. In fact, the nature of Oromo charter is the talk of the week on the news outlets both in Amharic and English as if what Oromo do is their business. Some started attacking the tenor of Oromo Charter without knowing what is in it. This shows two things; 1) outmoded paternalism and imperial nostalgia. They still seem think that what is good for the Oromo and for everyone in the country. 2) what is funny is that no one interested in their transitional charter, which is based on Amhara agenda.
In the light of the above analysis, there is a need for the Oromo activists consult with their base about the possible national transitional charter. TPLF imposed its political agenda on OLF and weak ethnic/regional based parties. The Oromo have learned from this experience and will come up with coherent charter which responds to Oromo aspiration and interest of other groups. Obviously, other groups can come with their own vision to solve the country’s political and economic problems. Everything is on the table except Oromo’s collective rights where the tenor and contour of the issue will be discussed.
Before we talk of Amhara-Oromo solidarity, there has to be a robust inter-Oromo dialogue, solidarity and unity more than ever before. The Oromo Charter should be inclusive given the importance of the issue for this generation and even for generations to come. It is imperative to reach out to different social groups and organizations in the nation of 40 million people. No one should be left out including senior leaders, veterans of Oromo Liberation Organizations, young activists, scholars, the Qubee generations in the forefront of the struggle, and Oromo elders, religion leaders, representatives of civic and community organizations and all stakeholders to get their input which is likely to make the charter an embodiment of Oromo interest, and a road map. I trust that the organizers/convers of the meeting take into account this seriously to claim that the charter would reflect the Oromo voice and sensibilities. At this juncture, one is reminded that, in Oromo culture, important decisions are reached through consensus, not imposed by autocrats.