Teachable Moment for Urban Amhara Elites Masquerading as All-Ethiopia Know-It-All?
By Tesfaye Kebede*
After observing the political raucous in the Ethiopianist camp over the last four weeks since the airing of the Al Jazeera’s The Stream program on the persecution of the Oromo, the largest ethnic group in the Ethiopian empire, one has to wonder who constitutes this Ethiopianist camp. Especially, their attacks on Obbo Jawar Mohammed for stating the most obvious of all, that he was an Oromo first, shows the Ethiopianist camp is detached from the realty not only in Oromia, but also in the rural Amhara region, where young men and women are proudly saying, “we are Amhara first;” “we are Agaw first;” “we are Kemant first,” etc. depending on the nationality of the youth.
These Ethiopianists, with their strongest base in Washington DC, are urbanized Amhara and Habeshanized elites who are falsely convinced that they are guardians of the Ethiopian nationalism, which seeks to create a single Ethiopian nation out of the more-than 70 nations, nationalities and peoples in the Ethiopia empire. According to this Ethiopian nationalism, the Greater Ethiopian nation will speak one-language – Amharic; believes in one-religion – the Orthodox Christianity led by an Amhara Patriarch; practices one-culture – the Amhara-Tigrean urbanized Habesha culture. In order to achieve this Greater Ethiopian nationhood, the more-than 70 nations, nationalities and peoples in the Ethiopian empire will be subjected to second-class citizenship on their own land until they are fully Habeshanized and urbanized to become a member of the Greater Ethiopian nation. In this nationalism, even the rural Amhara group will be subjected to cultural mockery and linguistic ridicule (such as making the Gondare rural Amharic accent the punchline of a comedy) until it becomes an urbanized and Habeshanized member of the Greater Ethiopian nation.
Thus, it should surprise no one that the strongest base of this political group, i.e. the Ethiopianist camp, is in Diaspora in DC with some sympathizers in Addis Ababa, where it has neither physical nor psychological attachment to the realty of Oromia or even the rural Amhara region, the very region which this camp says it represents first and foremost.
Probably, the best political characterization of this group was done by the late Dr. Siegfried Pausewang, one of the most prominent researchers in Ethiopian studies – who once wrote a paper on the very subject following the 2005 election. An excerpt from that paper is quoted below. Background: in the 2005 election, the Ethiopianist camp presented itself as CUD (Kinijit) – shedding its prior existences as “All-Amhara” in early 1990’s, as “All-Ethiopian” in late 1990’s, and as “Rainbow Ethiopia” in early 2000’s.
Excerpt from Siegfried Pausewang’s paper, published in 2006:
“The Great Illusion of CUD
It is very likely that most of the leaders of CUD as well as the majority of their members seriously believe that they represent the rationally understood interests of “all” Ethiopians. They believe their political view is logical and self-evident, and they can not understand why people could oppose their logic, unless for purely selfish reasons of preserving the privileges the present regime offers them.
“It is equally likely that most leaders of CUD in the evening of 15th May 2005 were seriously convinced they had won a majority in the House of Representatives. The huge demonstration of May 8 had created a veritable euphoria in Addis Ababa. CUD rallied more people than the government had managed a day before by offering free bus rides and organising participation in government offices and companies,. The message seemed obvious and clear: The masses are with us, they want a change, they want CUD. When the first election results announced, they were convinced of a resounding victory. CUD had won all seats from Addis Ababa except one in the House of Representatives, and victories from other towns, from Amhara and Gurage areas were reported.
“Boycotting the parliament, CUD fell right into the trap and could easily be split into several fractions fighting and discrediting each other. But they still are all part of an urban political movement. As a political identity, I think it is still possible to speak of CUD as one camp.
“Public Debate Excludes the Rural Majority
It is not astonishing that CUD appears as “the” opposition. But it is an appearance that hides a democratic deficiency. Since Ethiopia’s first experiments with democracy, public debate excludes substantial parts of the population. Observers unanimously agree that the public atmosphere before the 2005 election was much more open, inclusive, and democratic than any time before. Yet, we have to conclude that public debate excluded the rural majority. People in the rural areas, particularly the more remote parts far from towns and all weather roads, had and continue to have no access whatsoever to such debate. Their majority are illiterate, and have thus no access to read the press. Even those who can read, do not get newspapers regularly. The radio is the only medium they can access for information. But the radio continues to be in the hands and the control of the government. Peasants have no access to make their views and interests represented or heard on the radio. Even less is their access to the political discourse in Addis Ababa. In parliament, the democratic arena where interests and arguments are supposed to meet and confront each other, peasants are not represented as long as they have no political organisation that formulates their political views.
“CUD claims to represent also their interests. So does EPRDF. But both do so against all logic. Even the election campaign, applauded for its opening of access to the press, and the debates life sent on radio and television, excluded the rural majority in practice. The debate was more or less monopolised by a confrontation between EPRDF and CUD, with some other parties in a marginal position. It had practically no input of what rural people would recognise as their interests. CUD was allowed to stand as “the” opposition, the only group to effectively present an alternative to EPRDF.
“CUD can best be characterised as an urban Amhara populist movement to the political right. It is important to note its urban characteristics, for two reasons. It represents and gives voice to the interests of urban intellectuals, bureaucrats and business people, and is attractive even to the urban poor who hope for a business boom offering them jobs and opportunities. And it is urban Amhara, in the sense of an ambiguity in Amhara identity: Amhara, today the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, was the dominating ethnicity for many centuries. Since the 15th century, the Christian Amharic culture was the medium of assimilation in a multi-ethnic central state, as the late Sevir Chernetsov (1993, 1996) observed. Whoever wanted to advance in the military or the administration, would have to speak Amharic and adopt the essentials of Christian Amharic culture. Especially after the rapid expansion of the Ethiopian empire in the process of European colonisation of Africa, Amharic culture was superimposed over other conquered peoples in the South. The cultures of Southern ethnicities were suppressed, their languages forbidden in public context, and their peasants exploited and subjected to serfdom. In the 20th century, Amharic became increasingly the language and culture of the educated elites and the bureaucracy (Chernetsov 1993, Pausewang 2005).
“This urban Amhara elite group continues to be quite distinct from the rural Amhara as an ethnicity, who remained peasants, with a high level of illiteracy prevailing. In another context (Pausewang 2005) I have demonstrated why this group adopted an All-Ethiopian nationalism built on a vision of a strong central state with Amharic as integrating language and urban culture. The urban Amhara would appear as its natural leaders. But in the other ethnicities this vision revives a fear of a return to the Imperial order which would make them once again loose their freedom to develop their languages and cultures, and would bring back their erstwhile landlords with their hated neftegna (gun-men) rule.
“CUD as a political movement is the direct heir to an Urban Amhara political protest in 1991. The urban multi-ethnic Amharigna-speaking intellectuals intended to overcome tribal differences by forming one integrated Ethiopia, and to create an all Ethiopian identity. They were refused to be registered as a political organisation of “Ethiopians”. Forced to identify as ethnicity, they ended up forming the “All Amhara Peoples Organisation”. Amharic as the leading language and culture in the region since several centuries, it seemed natural that it should become the lingua franca and the dominating culture in a multiethnic Ethiopia, and the educated urban Amhara must have appeared as its “natural” leaders.
“So convincing must have appeared their vision of a united Ethiopian identity, that they did not even see why their programme should be disliked by other ethnicities or groups. Indeed, CUDs programme can not be acceptable to the rural majority. It can not either suit the interests of the Southern ethnic groups who still bear the trauma of conquest, occupation, and economic and cultural suppression. It is hardly to be expected that the Muslims would feel particularly attracted by CUD. True, they face under the present regime less restrictions than any time before and enjoy more freedoms to develop their culture and to build mosques all over the country. But it is not likely that they would follow a programme of a unification under a Christian – Amhara dominated party. And there are other groups too who would hardly feel represented by CUD. Altogether, this limits CUDs grounds for recruitment to a small fraction of the total Ethiopian population.”
Today, though CUD ceased to exist as a single entity shortly after the 2005 election, the Ethiopianist camp continues to make noises out of desperation, especially through its media outlets, such as ESAT, Awramba-Times and ECADForum – most of these outlets are operated by former cadres and activists of the now defunct CUD – posing as journalists.
* Tesfaye Kebede can be reached at TesfayeKebedeLives@gmail.com
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