Discussing Ethiopia’s Ethnic Nationalism and Ethnic Conflicts (Fekade Shewakena)
By Fekade Shewakena
Over the last couple of weeks, particularly following news that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) foiled an assassination plot against Ato Abebe Gelaw, a journalist and political activist who heckled Meles Zenawi at a heads of states meeting in Washington DC last year, a completely misguided and unhelpful ethnic politicking is raging on the internet, Ethiopian social media and community radio stations. While I was nursing a terrible flue last weekend, I had some time to surf through several Ethiopian pal-talk rooms and internet sites. By and large, the discussions, if you can call them that, are ugly , savage and most importantly unhelpful . It is sad that such a wonderful technology that can bring people from different corners of the world on a spot and can be used for meaningful discussions and problem solving actions is being abused so flagrantly.
My objective here is not making accusations but to point out how dangerous and counterproductive the prevailing discussions and views that I observed are. I am in no way trying to discourage discussion on the subject of ethnic politics in Ethiopia. On the contrary, the reason I am writing this is because I favor even more reasoned and civilized discussions on the subject of ethnic nationalism and conflicting ethnic interests that I believe are growing dangerously in our country. We have to discuss this issue even if some parts of it can make us uncomfortable. We can cover the fire with the ash and convince ourselves that there is no fire in there but some wind someday is bound to blow it on our faces. We are compounding the problem by not putting it to reasoned discussion and articulate with evidence and data along with the solutions and with a level of dispassionateness.
Followers of ethicized politics often get their history education from the worst writers of history, ethnocentric politicians. I have once met some nice Ethiopian who told me that Menilik killed 5 million Oromos while expanding to South and East Ethiopia and referred me to an article written by someone as evidence. I was stunned to find out that he believes the story. I asked this person if he was willing to sit with me for less than half an hour so that I can use a mathematical model from the science of demography to show him that there were no 5 million Oromos in Ethiopia at the time and that even the total population of Ethiopia at the time hovered only around 10 million people. It did not take him a minute after I showed him to understand that the person who educated him wanted to make maximum impact in his mind than convey the truth. The narrative of our ethnic political discourse is replete with these kinds of fabrications and lies made by politicians who masquerade as historians. They have a mission of making maximum impact for their cause.
I am not raising this example to diminish the fact that there has always been ethnic marginalization, injustice and inequality in Ethiopia. I am simply trying to show how some people want to convert a legitimate cause into some form of a sickness. It is hard to argue that this maximum impact seeking historiographers have not succeeded in many cases. Consider, for example, the case of what I came across in an Ethiopian pal talk room ironically named “Room for Political Civility”. I had a chance to listen to one individual nicknamed “Dejena”, who said he logged on to the room from Addis Ababa. The guy, an ethnic Tigrean, was so furious about the accusations of TPLF involvement in the Abebe Gelaw assassination plot (which he magically translated as accusation against all Tigreans) told the audience that he knows the origin of ethnic hatred in Ethiopia very well with an air of authority on the subject. He said the origin of ethnic hatred in Ethiopia is what he called “Ankoberism”. I am quoting him verbatim. As evidence, he quoted some writer who lived over a hundred years ago during the time of Emperor Menilik and who wrote pejorative phrases about ethnic Tigreans as his proof. He then went on raging against the Amhara using the usual code words like “Timkihegnoch”, “neftegnoch” etc. His hate mongering made me wonder if these are the kind of people that are capable of committing the kind of savagery we witnessed in Rwanda. Mind you, like the people who committed the savage carnage in Rwanda, this man is on the side of a powerful government that is being led by the TPLF and he is still raging as a victim. Then came an eloquent, self declared Oromo under a nickname “True Democracy” responding to “Dejena” and others who were repeating the fabricated “Tigrean cause”. He said that the enemies of his people today are no more the Ankoberites but the “Neftegna from Adwa”. He said it is the Tigrean elite led by the TPLF who are persecuting and looting his people bare. He quoted researches made by Ginbot 7 to show how, what he referred to as “the Tigrean elite”, is taking over the country in an apartheid system. His limited attempt to make a distinction between the people of Tigrai and the TPLF could not help stop the rants of the speakers that came after him. None of what was presented and the tone with which it was presented was helpful to stimulate any reasoned discussion or educate anybody. Nor were there any mature people that showed up in the room to strike some middle ground or balance. There were over four hundred people logged on to the site. It looks like everybody was speaking and writing to make the other side angry. It was like the Wild West. The whole thing was so disgusting that I turned it off. In most other Ethiopian pal talk rooms that I stopped by, individuals accuse the TPLF of sending assassins to the US to kill its critics and opponents starting with Abebe Gelaw. Nearly all of them play victim and call for a vigilant response. Yet the ongoing investigation on the assassination plot against Abebe Gelaw has not so far made any definitive conclusion.
For the record let me once again make this clear. I am not one of those who want to dismiss or wish away questions and discussions related to ethnic nationalism from Ethiopia’s political discourse. I believe those who do are not dealing with reality. Ethnic nationalist questions with serious potentials for ugly and totally destabilizing conflicts exist in Ethiopia and are growing faster than many of us may want to admit. We cannot blame anybody for the existence of ethnic nationalist politics in Ethiopia. We can’t accuse the TPLF of creating ethnic identity politics in Ethiopia. It existed in Ethiopia before TPLF. We can debate whether the TPLF had made it worse or better. I believe it has made it worse. But believe it or not, it is not going to go away even if the TPLF goes away. The Ethiopian political landscape has changed irreversibly with regard to identity politics. The best we can do now is to think hard through the problem and come up with ideas that are acceptable to all sides in the contention. This may even mean going to the left of the TPLF and Meles Zenawi if we can find solutions. There are useless suggestions that I hear coming even from very educated Ethiopians. They say substituting individual rights for group rights would solve the problem. This in my view is a false distinction. Group rights and individual rights can coexist without a problem. Individual rights also include the rights of individuals to form groups if they so choose to help themselves as individuals. But neither group rights nor individual rights are guaranteed in Ethiopia today and whatever rights written in the constitution are fast eroding. In any case, the ethnic question will not go away even if we hate it. These days, I see that even some Amharas are trying to create a non-existent Amhara nationalism from the scratch.
The authorities ruling Ethiopia are not trying to solve the ethnic or national question, whichever you want to call it. They are trying to use it for a short term political end. Accusations that the TPLF has disproportionate representation in decisive positions of government particularly the army, the security forces and key government positions is a public secret and many including many ethnic Tigreans are resenting it. Even the choice of a Prime Minister from Wolayta has not helped diminish the question. It probably made it worse. The officials are neither justifying nor denying or addressing the accusations that are mounting by the day in any form. But the backlash is very palpable.
The Ethiopian authorities should stop that patronizing ethnic groups and ethnic elites is a substitute for addressing the serious question of inequality in the country. Look at what happened at Addis Ababa University only two weeks after that huge, wasteful and useless patronizing farce held at Baher Dar – the so called “Nations and Nationalities and Peoples Day”. There was an ugly ethnic war between Oromo and Tigrean students where many were hurt, and many are still in prison. I am told such conflicts have become perennial and frequent in nearly all schools of higher education in the country. How can sane people expect to have a better, more united, stable and prosperous country while we watch the future leaders already at war? Ethnic groups dancing their cultural dances and showing their traditional garbs and parading together doesn’t move us an inch closer to equality or solve our problems. The officials know this. If that were the case senior officials including Ato Hailemariam Desalegn who addressed the crowd would have come to the celebration in their ethnic dresses instead of their western suits.
Ethiopia is a very poor country inhabited by people who suffer abject poverty. Alleviating this poverty requires a level of stability and hopeful future where every citizen believes that they have equal shot at accessing opportunities. There is also a serious need for a political environment that encourages all of us to believe in our country and participate in helping solve this problem. Many of us outside of Ethiopia have a lot to give given this environment. I for one consider myself as someone marginalized by the regime from helping my country. For example, whatever the motive for the initiation, I believe the building of the dam on the Abbay is a good idea that must not fail. I am denied the opportunity to make contributions. I know many who are in my situation.
Ethiopia’s various ethnic groups or call them nations, nationalities and peoples, will be appreciating their equality only when they have equal access to everything the country offers and feel that they are not treated as second class citizens, and when the historically disadvantaged, particularly the small ethnic groups in the peripheral areas of Ethiopia, are given a little extra help.
The predominance of Ethnic Tigreans in key decision making positions is a central issue of discussion among Ethiopians. In my view this dominance could be reasonably explained perhaps up until about 15 years ago. If there are good explanations justifying this dominance today from the side of the TPLF, I haven’t heard one yet. Some are already calling it TPLF apartheid and this in my view is a serious accusation. I have even heard some non Ethiopian Ethiopia observers use the term. The government cannot dismiss these accusations which are increasingly being shown with the support of figures and objects by its opponents. Attacking the people who raise the issue does not answer the question. Certainly the kinds of discussions we are having about it currently are not helping.
Ethiopian authorities should let students at higher education centers exercise and experience multiethnic student governments by collectively and freely electing their leaders. They should be allowed to discuss everything under the Ethiopian sky. That was how we did it when I and Meles Zenawi and a lot of the current leaders were students at Hailessilassie University. The Ethiopian authorities should be ashamed that the way they handle academic freedom in universities and colleges is far inferior from the one we enjoyed under Emperor Hailesilassie’s Ethiopia. This is not to mention the disastrous quality of education they are providing at all levels. I had hard time believing news that there are students in colleges who have a hard time reading and writing until I heard it from the mouths of respected educationists such as Professors Habtamu Wondimu and Baye Yimam on the Voice of America a few weeks ago from.
The freakish obsession with control by the authorities from small local “idir” to every civic and religious institution is not only unsustainable but also dangerously counterproductive. It can only give you an illusion of control until it explodes on your face.
Both supporters and opponents of the government should not play with this issue as a political football and use it to bully one another. Knowledgeable Ethiopians, professional historians and responsible political leaders should not leave the discussion of this subject to narrow and single minded people who approach the issue only from hatred, anger or sheer ignorance. It is much better to discuss these things in public civilly and confront the reality than trying to push it under the rug and let it simmer. Debating it with an open mind will not kill anybody; shoving it under the rug and denying the reality will. We will all lose finally if it goes wrong.