Is Ethnic Federalism to Blame? A look into Ethiopian History

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I wrote this in response to Wondowssen’s analysis of Ethiopia’s current situation. One can find it here: Wond Wondwossen
DAGNE SI’A·THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 201710 Reads

I wrote this in response to Wondowssen’s analysis of Ethiopia’s current situation and the wonderful response by Ayyantu Ayyana. One can find Wondwossen’s post here: Wond Wondwossen

Ethiopia never had in its history a government that is not ethnic - adding the word federalism won’t make it far worse than it has been. I am in no way condoning the current crisis, but I don’t want the past to come out as clean while it was super dirty. The two ethnic group at the top, taking turns have been the Amhara and Tigre - I mean the elite. What works for the elite also benefited the regular Amhara and Tigre too. Just like a government of White South Africa of the Apartheid years helped the whites while punishing the black South Africans on their land, in their country. It is important to read the works of Walelign Mokonnin written in 1969 (On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia, 1969) to get an idea of power structure in Ethiopia. It was a clearly documented material that shows parallels between what passes as good and what is labeled as evil when suddenly the Oromos do it. The mere act of Oromo protest lives under that shadow and a number of misinformation.

During the feudal regimes of Ethiopia (Emperor Haile Selassie and Menelik), the Amhara had the upper hand while the Tigre were the junior partners. Folks from the two region scrambled the land in the rest of Ethiopia like the Europeans did to Africa. The Oromo, Sidama, Somali, Gurage, Gambella, Afar, etc were rendered to tenants on their land giving away their produce to absentee landlords who were given land by the kings. The Oromos, because of their proximity to the capital, which is built on land taken away from their ancestors conquered and made tenants to the vassals assigned by the kings.

The Derg, while it tried to be different in the early days, through proclamation of land to the tiller, it kept the land in its hand (the state owned the land instead of the original owners, the people). It was better than the feudalism that made people produce and send it to the landlords who can do anything to the tenants and their family (rape, murder etc). Derg was still riding the state apparatus put in place by the imperial Ethiopia. For the part of the nation feudalism was decimating the economic power of the people, it gave temporary relief. It made education available across the nation which was unthinkable in the imperial Ethiopia.

Fast forward to today, the junior partner ethnic group of the imperial days, the Tigre came to power overthrowing the Derg regime. They are the minority group who have no way of ruling unless they divide the society to create a pseudo democratic rule. With a 5% population, they managed to be on top by legitimacy drawn from bullet, not ballot. The Amhara elite got pissed now that they are reduced to a junior partner position.

To the usual subjugated nations, the Oromo typically, it become business as usual. They kept on losing their land to state driven land grab. Over 200,000 Oromo farmers were displaced and a whole different people took over their land, drawing the benefit of whatever development on the land. They were exiled to Arab countries, many died in the Mediterranean sea, some died in Somalia, others killed by Ethiopian government security agents in refugee camps (Kenya, Sudan, Somalia).

The TPLF regime became worse than feudalism in that it dismantled Oromos from their land, separated families, just like slavery did. They couldn’t stay on their land anymore when their land is grabbed. Never in my wildest imagination have I thought that I would thank feudalism for letting the people live on their land. The feudal land lords needed the human labor to work on the farms they got in vast amount of land for being vassals of the imperial regimes. In return they gave security service, keeping the population in the occupied territory in check. Their wealth and privilege was built on that and they want to keep it. That is why you see the Oromia region and many previous feudal states have diverse population compared to the Tigre and Amhara region which have homogenous population. It is the nicety of the former feudal states that ethnic groups live side by side in peace for this long.
Back to today, the TPLF was harsh on Oromos than the rest of Ethiopia, The main reason is location and the resilience of past privileges - they tend to keep the inertia built over the years. Also, the TPLF state driven developments would be at risk if they are done away from Addis Ababa. So, all development was concentrated in Addis Ababa, the fortification of the state. That opened the flood gate of population move to Addis Ababa from the periphery. Ever worsening the displaced people, the ensuing demonstration opposing the master plan to expand Addis Ababa (Finfinne) by over 20 times. It ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Why do the Oromos protest with conviction while the rest of the nation is not? Why are the Amhara not as committed as the Oromos are? Ethiopians have a saying, “A kid whose mom went to market won’t cry as much as a kid whose mom died.”. For the Oromos it is about existence. For others, it is not a matter of existence. Because of this difference, the Amhara elites and opinion shapers focused on invalidating the type of organization people have to use - by disqualifying organizing as Oromo an inferior concept (primordial as some wanted to refer it).
The key thing here is, one organizes as one is attacked. There was Apartheid before South Africans organized under ANC. Once they were organized under ANC, they reached out to reasonable white South Africans. If you are attacked as Oromo, you organize as Oromo. These elites wasted too much time hairsplitting on choosing for other people how to organize. The right of free assembly has no constraint. One chooses how to organize and all are acceptable as long as they are not for fascist reasons.

Ethiopian politics won’t be anything better than ethnic. Ethnic concepts are natural. People share culture, language and frame of mind. It also makes it possible to have a government that functions at a grass roots level. Unfortunately, the elite don’t like it. They don’t like grassroots based system. They want a top down, centralized form of government that makes everyone respond at a drop of a dime. They want one language, one official religion.
The Oromos spent so much time to be able to ensure their kids learn in their native language, Afaan Oromo. The elite see this as division of the country. A nation should not be divided when people develop their values, culture and language. it is only a dictatorial nation that does not like empowerment of the grassroots. Ethnic federalism is not the issue here. It is the nature of the historical relationship that are the problem.

The Ethiopia nationalist movement is a reactionary movement that is there to bring back what was in the past. Reactionary systems will keep failing. I hope we share the same interests but our background makes it difficult. It is important to record the historical relationships as they were and seeing the current difficulty through that glass. We had ethnic systems until today from the birth of Ethiopia. It won’t change anytime soon. We can co-exist though. Many nations have done it. Let’s stop thinking of dictating how others have to live, organize or anything. Let’s organize though. Let it be grassroots though.

Finally, the real problem is actually the minority Tigre power grab and hegemony of who are a mere 5% of the population presiding over the national security apparatus leading by legitimacy driven off bullets. We don’t even have real federalism or democracy. The same folks who complain about the ethnic federalism have been enriching themselves in the corrupt practice of TPLF. The drastic population change in and around Addis Ababa is proof for that.

I really want the Oromos and the Amhara, the super majority to take over power and take the country into a path of democracy, co-existence and understanding. That is possible by understanding each other’s position. Not by erasing historical facts and toxic relationships. The white American can and has worked with the African Americans, not by denying what happened in the past but by understanding it and ensuring that it won’t happen again. We have to see where we are coming from. It is not wise to invalidate each other’s style of organization. I have no issue with anyone organizing as their ethnic group. We can do it, the world has done it.

To those who want the shortcut to power, I say, “Don’t be lazy”. The days of scooping up revolutions others died for is gone. The days of once central point of control is over. It is distributed power in the hands of regular folks. Knit picking on how others organize is not a strategy for organizing. Beat your reactionary past and move forward. Time does not go back. Let’s focus on organizing however we like.
Otherwise, live and let live. Peace out.

~Dagne Si’a
Ilmaa Sooddo fi Bachoo

Note: Everywhere I mentioned the word Amhara, please consider I am referring to the elite who perpetuated a non-democratic system of governance in Ethiopia and want to bring it back. I am in no way against any ethnic group in Ethiopia. I know of the abject poverty and lack of education in the Amhara region which is no different than the rest of Ethiopia.