More understanding and less blaming are key to a solution for the self-determination crisis of the Oromo and other Ethiopian communities
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.