Editor’s Note: The following socio-political commentary by novelist Boruu Barraaqaa is on a par with the mid-20th century (1960’s) conversations sparked by the young activist Ibsaa Gutamaa’s poem “Who’s an Ethiopian?” and the late activist Wallelign Mekonnen’s article “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia.”
Over the last half a century, since the two monumental conversations were sparked by Ibsaa Gutamma and Wallelign Mekonnen, the pillars of the Ethiopian state have continued to revolve around the 3,000-years of Abyssinian history (without the inclusion of Oromo’s, Ogaden’s, Sidama’s, etc. own thousands of years of history), the Obelisks of the Axum (without the inclusion of Oromo’s Gadaa Civilization), the Fasiledes Castle (without the inclusion of centuries of the Oromo Abbaa Gadaa’s and their democratic administrations), the Abbay River (without the inclusion of the 92% of the Blue Nile tributaries, found mainly in Oromia), and the 13th-Century Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches (without the inclusion of the Sof Omar Cave and the 13th-Century Dire Sheik Hussein Mosque in Bale Zone, Oromia). These are not accidental omissions, but deliberate attempts to instill a sense of Abyssinian Supremacy over the oppressed nations, which are portrayed as history-less, heritage-less and civilization-less ‘tribes’ in the “Ethiopian Nationalism” rhetoric of the 20th-century as well as today.
Atse Meles Zenawi and Prof. Andreas Eshete have released their drama, Endegena, to “ONCE AGAIN” instill their Abyssinian Supremacy over the oppressed nations in the name of promoting development. Today, the Ethiopian state (the central government) is more homogeneously Abyssinian compared to the 1960’s, when Ibsaa Gutamma and Wallelign Mekonnen made their historic observations; and non-Abyssinian elites have been either exiled or sent to the regional states in the name of “nations and nationalities,” which are remotely controlled by key Abyssinian actors at the center. In short, in the 120-year history of the Ethiopian Empire, today – the Empire appears to be as strong as it has ever been, and with non-Abyssinians becoming more marginalized than ever before despite decades of struggles and sacrifices to decolonize and democratize it.
ETHIOPIA, THEIR ETHIOPIA
By Boruu Barraaqaa*
The Ultimate Ideological Debate That Determines Ethiopia’s Future
Few days ago, I watched an ETV documentary film, entitled “Endegena,” which roughly translated to “Once Again.” Though the documentary had nothing new, rather than the long-aged rhetoric and drumbeating under the ‘Ethiopianism’ pretext, it could inspire me to write this short piece.
The substance that this article bears is my own personal outlook, and it does not represent the idea of a party or a society I am a member of. I strongly wish this article will spark critical ideological debates within the “Ethiopian” or the Oromo political societies, and also between the two, be it in the near or far future. I believe that such debates are important to produce a final common understanding that will support to shorten the age of the struggle for freedom and democracy in Ethiopia. I guess that some of the readers from both political societies, i.e. “Ethiopian” and Oromo, may be disappointed by how I present such a bit stranger idea. Some members of the Oromo political society may criticize me for the fact that I am an Oromo nationalist, but forwarding a different idea which expresses all the peoples as Ethiopians, i.e. Abyssinian-Ethiopians and Cushitic-Ethiopians. Here, I would like to remind those who may be disappointed by such an approach one thing: my aim is just to narrow the differences between these polarized societies, and to find out a common solution for all the peoples in Ethiopia, be them the oppressors or the oppressed. At the same time, the majority of the “Ethiopian” political society, to which my name has never been familiar, may also condemn this blog/website for posting a bit stranger article that does not limit the rhetorical “Ethiopianism” up to the usual propagation levels. I guess that such people do not like to even hear concepts, like “Abyssinian-Ethiopian” and “Cushitic-Ethiopian.” However, I have preferred to appear like this rather than limiting myself to a given political club. Here I go!
What Does “Ethiopia” Mean and Who Are the “Ethiopians”?
I cannot see widely when the name “Ethiopia” sparks debates among the Abyssinian-Ethiopians or the oppressed nations (especially, the Oromo) elites. The Abyssinian-Ethiopians use the name as a source of pride for their own identity while the Oromos cast it away for the fact that they have been marginalized since they had begun to be called under this name. Most of the non-Abyssinian oppressed political societies have been waving their own ethnic-nationalism rather than battling to deserve the typical “Ethiopian” identity. That is why for the oppressed nations, “Ethiopia” means the loss of pride and the onset of second-class citizenship, while for the Abyssinian-Ethiopians, it is the opposite: the source of pride and first-class citizenship. As this dichotomy cannot be hidden in Ethiopia, both rival political societies cannot go halfway to meet each other and work on bringing genuine reconciliation. Keeping mutual interests, and building a union that is based on national freedom and identity have remained a dawn-less dream.
Abyssinian-Ethiopian elites have been criticized for the fact that they have never tried to change their old political mindset meaningfully; as a result, the oppressed Cushitic-Ethiopian nations, prominently the Oromo, who are the largest one, have been driven to despair on the subject matter of “Ethiopianity.” Ibrahim Melka, who was once an active member of the OPDO leadership, had expressed his rage just before he defected from the regime, “Oromoneten yematawq Ethiopia shi bota tibetates,” roughly translated: “Let Ethiopia that never recognizes my Oromoness disintegrate into thousands of piece.” Today, millions of Oromo intellectuals have such rage towards “Ethiopianism.” It is impossible to hide that, nowadays, a huge number of Oromo elites, both in Diaspora and at home, claim themselves as “non-Ethiopians” – a dangerous identity difference that severely challenges the future unity and stability of the country. Seeking for their own free states, where they will never be undermined as second-class citizens, emanates from such marginalization.
It is also obvious that most of the Abyssinian-Ethiopian political actors criticize the Oromo nationalists for building their own Oromummaa (Oromo nationalism) rather than believing in the motto of “Ethiopian unity.” The Oromos have an answer for this: “it is too late to set the record straight.” Though personally, I believe that it is still not ‘too late’ to set the record straight; however, I know that most of my fellow Oromos’ patience has been running out. Due to the lack of goodwill to go halfway from all sides to reach an agreement, the problem has still remained unsolved till this very day.
As clear as it was, the question of Oromo people was not separation in the very beginning. We remember that, half a century ago, there was a giant Oromo socio-political institution, the Metcha and Tulama Welfare Association (MTWA), from which activities of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) were born. MTWA and its founders had tried their best to bring about equality, justice, freedom and sustainable peace through reforming the old Ethiopian political system. Such intentions were claimed as crimes; and the association had been banned after only three years of activities. In the meantime, until the 1974 revolution, the then Oromo intellectuals had never considered the need for separation.
In 1974 the popular student revolution was hijacked by the military junta, which latter re-stabilized the political status quo by harassing youth activists, who had been struggling to bring about genuine freedom and equality in Ethiopia. At this juncture, the Oromo political society had no choice, except founding a political organization that would precisely fight for the right of the defenseless Oromo, who were the majority people, but undermined as a minority second-class citizens by successive Abyssinian-Ethiopian regimes. As the successive regimes categorized Oromos as aliens (calling them ‘mettes’ [late comers] from Kenya or somewhere, especially as said so by Emperor Hayle Silassie at several occasions), the Oromo elites had also been forced to tending to the counter-propagation than battling to claim “Ethiopian” identity, and at the same time, they had been convinced the need for creating a sovereign state as a home of the Oromo people. The essence of OLF’s foundation had no secret, but it was just the only option left to survive the Oromo identity, which was almost on the brink of total demise. That is why OLF is praised forever for its historical sacrifice in surviving the Oromo identity.
Unsuccessful OLF Endeavors to Democratizing Ethiopia and Sacrifices Paid
Even though the first political program of the OLF, which was drafted in 1974, clearly advocated for separation, the Front had contributed a lot during the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) to democratize Ethiopia. However, all of OLF’s genuine democratic efforts were in vein due to hegemonic actions of the TPLF-led EPRDF regime. In its general assembly that was held in 2004, OLF amended its old political program to the question of self-determination-per-public-verdict. In 2006 OLF contributed a shining effort to establish the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD), the surprising action of the Front that rocked the TPLF-EPRDF camp. As clearly as almost all post-AFD statements issued by the OLF have articulated, the Front still emphasizes the indispensability of alliances, such as the AFD, not only for defeating the incumbent, undemocratic regime, but also for the long-term solution among political stakeholders in Ethiopia.
The above facts are more than enough to understand that the OLF has come halfway to work peacefully with those forces which have never accepted the Oromo struggle as a true people’s cause. By doing so, OLF has paid many sacrifices, in which its organizational unity has severely damaged since 2000. For instance, in 2006, following the declaration of the AFD, a number of active radical members had left the organization after opposing the interest to work with forces, which had never accepted the Oromo cause as a fair struggle.
Some important questions should be raised here. Why did not the other camp meaningfully come halfway to reach the position of the OLF? Why was the OLF alone expected to take all these more dangerous steps? Abyssinian-Ethiopian elites usually argue that OLF should cease to raise the question to self-determination in the first place. Before urging the OLF to denounce such questions, they should have also shown tangible ideological changes from their side, too. For example:
– Accepting the need for genuine federal arrangement based on national identities (not the fake ones like that of the EPRDF) that offer regional states full political, economic, lingual and cultural rights;
– Accepting the Gadaa (democratic) system and the Erecha/Irreechaa (Oromo Thanksgiving Ceremony), which are parts of the ancient Cushitic-Ethiopian civilization, as mutual heritages;
– Accepting Oromo’s Astrological Calendar (Urjii Dhahaa), which has been recognized by many world famous anthropologists as one of the ancient African wonderful civilizations.
These are some ideological steps expected from the side of Abyssinian-Ethiopian elites. Have they accepted these yet? Never! So, how dare they urge the Oromo vanguard organization to totally cease raising what it’s been forced to fight for as the only option while they are rejecting Oromo’s political, economic, cultural and historical identities? These are all about walking halfway forward to come to a compromise.
Once Again a Simple Question; What Does ‘Ethiopia’ Mean for Me?
I have mentioned above what “Ethiopia” means for the Abyssinian-Ethiopianists and Oromo nationalists. What does “Ethiopia” mean for me? My definition might be far different from the definition of both political societies. I personally see two politically different, but historically identical Ethiopia’s. The first one is the politically-recognized Abyssinian Ethiopia, which emerged as a modern state by the conquest of Abyssinian rulers, at the end of the 19th century. This is the Ethiopia that the world knows today. This is the Ethiopia that has undermined the identities of all the conquered nations and nationalities. The second Ethiopia is the ancient one named “Ethiops” (the burned face, that of the [Cushitic] people, who have been widely living in the North Eastern Africa), which has a wonderful civilization since more than 3000 years ago. This ancient Ethiopia includes the present day Southern Egypt, Eastern Sudan, the whole present day Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, half of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. It is this Ethiopia that should be recognized by its contemporary civilizations, such as the Gadaa, Axum, Meroe, Napata and so on.
When we talk about civilizations, some may illustrate in their mind the Obelisks of Axum, the pyramids of Giza, the ruins of Meroe etc. However, heritages of civilizations are usually not only of physical artifacts, but also of intangible attributes of a group or society, that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations. Intangible cultural heritage consists of non-physical aspects of a particular culture, often maintained by social customs during a specific period in history. The ancient democratic culture of Greek can be mentioned as the best example. The same example in Ethiopia is the Gadaa system of the Oromo. Even though intangible cultural heritages are naturally more difficult to preserve than physical objects, the concept of democratic culture, which is thousands of years old in the Oromo society, has survived all kinds of dangers of the past and is still preserved for the future. In that dark primitive age, when the human being had used to slaughter each other savagely over controlling basic needs, the Oromos had their own different democratic rules to elect their leaders peacefully, and the elected Abbaa Gadaa (president) served the society for an eight-year term, until the new elected Abbaa Gadaa took over the power. Every social and political contradiction had its own means of solution. It is a healthy and democratic culture that allows anybody from any race or any ethnic origin to become an Oromo. The wonderful concepts of GUDIFECHA and MOGASA are some of the best examples of the democratic nature of Gadaa. It was this beautiful, democratic culture that Emperor Menilik officially abolished, following his conquest. No need of social surveying to confirm that Oromos were/are not “tebab’s” (narrow-minded) as some try to illustrate them; they are rather the most “hode-sefi’s” (tolerant) people in the region. This is this fact that anybody who has or had a close social relation with the Oromo can witness. The politics of the struggle for the right to self-determination, which has diminished the “hodesefinet” (tolerance) of the Oromo, has evolved from the long-aged political and economic marginalization conducted by successive Abyssinian-Ethiopian regimes, as stated above.
History reminds us that the name “Ethiopia” represents the ancient Cushland. The name was changed to the Greek word “Ethiops,” and the ancient world began to call this particular region “Ethiopia.” In the middle of the 19th century, during the end of Zemene Mesafint, Kasa Hailu (Emperor Tewodros after his coronation) raised from Quara, Gonder, as the first Abyssinian ruler with an attempt to control all the ancient Cushland (Ethiopian) territories. I hypothesize that Emperor Tewodros had some foreign advisers, at that time, who were familiar to the ancient history of the region. They helped him understand the oneness of Cushland (Ethiopian) territories at that darker time, when the name “Ethiopia” was never familiar to the Abyssinians. I have a simple evidence to say this. In the mid 1860’s, Tewodros wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of England – seeking military and moral assistance in his campaign to seize the ancient territories of Ethiopia (Cushland) though he did not become successful. In his letter, Tewodros stated that his ancestors had ruled the whole vast region stretched up to Lake Nianza (Tanzania), and so that he wanted to re-control all those territories under his rule. This is an enough clue to enable one to believe that Tewodros used foreign advisers, first to claim himself an “Ethiopian” nationalist than to be called simply a Gonderie, and then to campaign for the annexation of territories south of Abyssinia in order to build a new state called “Ethiopia.” All the Abyssinian successive rulers, who came after Tewodros, had also the same dream to control all the Cushland areas that they had heard that they were once called under the name “Ethiopia.” It is also not far from our understanding that they all had foreign advisers to learn what “Ethiopia” meant, including its history of thousands of years. Before the rise of Tewodros, the Abyssinians had never used to be called by the name “Ethiopia.” Latter, Menilik made the longtime dream come true by conquering the ancient Cushitic Ethiopians, but was not successful to seize the rest of the ancient Cushitic Ethiopian vast regions, those outside of the present-day Ethiopia, due to the agreement reached with European colonizers during the Berlin Conference (1884-85).
Let’s Commemorate the Glorious Laureate that Tried to Teach the Typical “Ethiopia”
Here I remember the great Ethiopian Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin Qawweessaa. How lucky would I have been if Laureate Tsegaye had once waked up and read this piece?! Everybody who is familiar with the laureate’s creative works can understand what I want to say. Tsegaye had told us all about “Ethiopia.” He taught us all about the ancient Ethiopian civilizations, from the Gadaa to Axum, from Karnak to Meroe, from Napata to the Lalibela, from the Oromo Erecha/Irreechaa to the “Meskel” Damera. These are all what “Ethiopia” means.
Can we find a single Abyssinian-Ethiopian elite, who has had the same understanding with the Laureate Tsegaye on the term “Ethiopianity?” Is there a single historian or a political figure in the Northerners (except the great Eritrean anthropologist Professor Asmerom Legesse), who genuinely believes the Gadaa and the Erecha/Irreechaa as parts of the great Ethiopian civilizations and heritages? I know that almost all of the Abyssinian-Ethiopian political societies are fans of Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin. They have great astonishment for Obbo/Gash Tsegaye’s poems, theaters and books, those teaching about the greatness of Ethiopia. However, most of the fans did not understand or never wanted to recognize what “Ethiopia” meant to the great laureate. Whether we like or not, Tsegaye’s “Ethiopia” had not been merely the Abyssinian “Ethiopia.” Rather, his Ethiopia more seemed to be the ancient Cushitic Ethiopia that extended from the present-day Egypt to the present-day Tanzania, in which Abyssinia is also located. It does not need deep study to understand that Tsegaye’s Ethiopia was the sum of both Cushitic and Abyssinian identities. For example, in his first book, The Oda Oak Oracle, which was printed in 1965 (Oxford University Press), he articulated the sense of the Oda oak, which has been familiar for over thousands of years in the Oromo culture and history, and by which, he might be even the first Oromo elite to introduce the Oromo culture and identity to the rest of world. In his poem, entitled Esat Wey Abeba, he reminded us all about the Cushitic identities of the great river Abbay/Nile. The poem, entitled Ilma Madhaa Abbaa Gadaa, which he wrote in 1972 during his field research on the Gadaa system in Dire Liban, Borana, Ethiopia, was also one of Tsegaye’s significant works that particularly focus on the greatness of the Oromo ancient civilizations.
The sum of all the above facts made Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin a true Ethiopian, who genuinely embraced both his Cushitic and Abyssinian identities. He was also proud of the Axum Obelisks as the temple of the sun is a mutual heritage of all Ethiops, not only of Tigreans or Amharans. He was not a narrow-minded man like that of Meles Zenawi, who once asked, “Ye Axum hawult le welaytawu minu new?” – roughly translated: “What does the Axum obelisk mean to the Walayta?” Obbo/Gash Tsegaye had been trying to serve as a bridge between the polarized Cushitic-Ethiopia and Abyssinian-Ethiopia in order to bring them closer and enable them to be proud as Ethiopians. However, unfortunately, all his endeavors were in vein, as he himself mentioned finally in a short self portrait poem he wrote during the last days of his life. In this tragic poem Tsegaye expressed himself:
“Having dawn-less dreams
Treating incurable wounds
Nursing stunted plants
Straightening other folks’ lives
Never have I lived for myself”
The Need to Set the Record Straight
We can find millions of individuals who claim to be proud of “Ethiopians,” but have never recognized the Cushitic origin of Ethiopia. None of the Abyssinian-Ethiopian kings were willing to call themselves indigenous Africans. They claimed themselves to be from Ze Emnegede Yihuda (The Lion of Judah). For them, Ethiopia is a Solomonic/Sheban, not a Cushite, origin. They concluded that “Ethiopians” are Habeshas, not of indigenous black African nations. The old Ethiopian educational curriculum had also taught us as if the ancient name of Ethiopia was merely “Abyssinia,” not including the typical Ethiops. The generation produced from this distorted curriculum also claims distorted meaning of his/her country. Though I appreciate his talents, I want to put here Teddy Afro, a popular singer and songwriter of the time, as one of the products of the old distorted curriculum. In his album, entitled Ja Yasteserial, which was released in 2005, Teddy urged for a genuine political reconciliation among all Ethiopians. Even though Teddy’s call for reconciliation was a blessed attempt; however, knowingly or unknowingly, he presented his lyrics with distorted words about Ethiopia:
“Ethiopia, emama …
Abyssinia, emama …
Ethiopiaye, emama …
Sabawitwaye, emama …”
The lyrics are limited merely to express the Abyssinianity of Ethiopia. If the song’s call was for a genuine reconciliation, what about the non-Abyssinians? Aren’t they also called “Ethiopians”? Doesn’t the call concern them, or are they simply undermined as usual? How can we call for a genuine reconciliation among all nations of Ethiopia while we are recognizing only Abyssinia and ignoring the rest typical Ethiops? I hope Teddy will set the record straight in his next songs about reconciliation.
Building a democratic, peaceful and harmonious Ethiopia will be not an easy task. It requires ideological revolutions in both the Abyssinian-Ethiopian and the rest Cushitic-Ethiopian political societies. It needs good willing to go halfway and join each other at the mid-point. Yet, such devotions have never reflected enough, especially from the Abyssinian-Ethiopians. All the deeds of the past Abyssinian-Ethiopian rulers have extremely contributed in pushing the non-Abyssinians away from the forcefully-built modern Ethiopia so that the marginalized peoples have one option left, that is considering about building their own free and independent states, in which they will have full political, economic, social, lingual and cultural rights. In other words, this means the total disintegration of the Abyssinian-Ethiopia. In order to prevent such a result, the Abyssinian-Ethiopian political society ought to recognize the above mentioned historical, political, cultural, lingual and social identities of Cushitic-Ethiopians. It is such ideological advances that enable all nations to profit from this globalization era. The new Ethiopia will be a common homeland for all, if and only if identities of incognito nations are recognized genuinely.
* Boruu Barraaqaa, the author of this article, is a popular novelist in Afan Oromo, and he has recently collaborated with two other activists to translate Gene Sharp’s “From Dictatorship to Democracy” into Afan Oromo. He can be reached @ email@example.com or on Facebook @ facebook/barraaqaa