Article 39, Oromo Nationalism, Abyssinian Exceptionalism & Expectations Raised by Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s Premiership: Part I

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Article 39, Oromo Nationalism, Abyssinian Exceptionalism & Expectations Raised by Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s Premiership

Part I

Mekuria Bulcha, PhD, Professor

8 July 2018

Ethiopia is in the middle of one of the many crises it had faced since its creation as an empire at the end of the nineteenth century. During the last four years, its inhabitants have been demanding persistently fundamental changes. But, the changes sought by different groups are different, and in some cases contradictory. Most significantly, the change for which the Oromo struggle and the change the Habesha (Abyssinian) elite seek are basically different. The fundamental rights which the Oromo have been demanding are universal and were endorsed by the 1991 Transitional Charter (TC). The national liberation fronts that, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), defeated the military regime and established the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE), accepted the Charter as a last resort to avoid a chaotic disintegration of Ethiopia and create conditions for an orderly transition to a future which will be determined by the people themselves. A period of transition of two years was designed as a gateway to a more promising future (TC, Article 2).[1] However, the envisaged transition to a democratic future was derailed by the EPRDF regime soon after the Charter was signed and OLF was pushed out of the transitional government. The contents of Article 2 of the Transitional Charter were included as Article 39 of the EPRDF Constitution of 1995. However, the Ethiopian peoples have not been allowed to exercise most of the rights the Article endorses. The contents of the Article:

  1. Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination including the right to secession.
  2. Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to speak, to write and to develop its own language; to express, to develop and to promote its culture; and to preserve its history.
  3. Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to a full measure of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in state and Federal governments.

The Ethiopian Constitution is flawless on paper, but the rights it grants are rendered null and void in practice. The British journalist and author Evelyn Waugh wrote that “Tricking the European was a national craft; evading issues, promising without the intention of fulfilment….were the ways by which [Abyssinian rulers] had survived and prospered.”[2] This national skill was inherited by the leaders of the TPLF regime and the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Mr. Meles Zenawi, diligently used it in his dealings with the leaders of international community. The gross violation of human rights which was committed by his regime is well known and I need not repeat it here. However, it is important to note that, although the OLF was pushed out of the educational system, what it put in place in just one year was difficult to reverse. The qubee script was, for example, instantly accepted and owned by the people. Then, the result was unexpected – it produced the qubee youth generation, the qeerroo (male) and qarree (female), whose uprising shook the TPLF regime in its foundations and forced the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Desalegn Haile Mariam, to resign and brought Dr. Abiy Ahmed to power.

The purpose of this article

In this article, I will assess views that are reflected in a sample of articles and audio-visual commentaries that oppose Article 39 directly or indirectly. Written in reaction to the outburst of Oromo uprising that started in November 2015, the articles reflect the fear and hostility which the Oromo movement seem to have stirred among the commentators. Most of the commentators whose views are discussed here have advanced academic titles such as Dr., PhD and hold professions such as professorship in economics, geography, history and social scientists. A denialist mindset, antipathy against the aspirations of the Oromo movement, and lack of a sense of solidarity with the Oromo people in general are the common denominators of their commentaries. The purpose of selecting their commentaries for discussion is to show the category of actors who entertain and maintain the denialist discourse that make democratic dialogue difficult in Ethiopian politics. Basically, the Oromo claim to nationhood and sovereignty because of the nature of their relations to the Ethiopian state which was the result of the conquest and annexation of Oromia by the Abyssinian state in the late nineteenth century. The claim is underpinned by the consistent struggle the Oromo have been waging to become masters in their own house, particularly since the 1960s. However, the opponents of Article 39 associate the genesis of Oromo claims to nationhood with what they call TPLF’s “ethnic politics”. Every Oromo knows that is utter nonsense. However, Oromo scholars have, by and large, ignored the false assertions and left their makers unchallenged. One must not leave the assertions unquestioned. The problem is that Oromo silence will be interpreted as consent and, as it has been the case with much what passes today as history of Ethiopia, the volumes of negative commentaries and fictitious accusations of current Oromo political activism will become tomorrow’s “truth” and explanation for the motives behind the current Oromo uprising. Therefore, my aim is to challenge these assertions. To make it suitable for website readers, the article will be published in three short parts. Each part will discuss issues which commentators have raised to reject Article 39. This first part deals with arguments made against the use of terms that designate the constituent peoples of the Ethiopian polity as “nations” and “nationalities” (Article 39(1), the geography of the federal state (Article 39 (1&3) and the Ethiopian flag versus the flags of the regional states.

Contradictory reactions and conflicting expectations

The Ethiopian political situation has been very difficult and confusing for more than four years. The different political groups reacted differently to the prevailing situation. Above all, the Habesha elite have been the most disgruntled group. The dissatisfaction of the Habesha elite has, in fact, lasted for more than 40 years. In the past the ruling Amhara elite believed that their empire was an everlasting polity and that their political, cultural and economic dominance will remain unchallenged. The 1974 revolution gave them their first major shock. Together with the demise of the centuries-old monarchy, their economic foundation was destroyed when landownership, on which their class had flourished, was also taken from them. Furthermore, the Dergue’s official admission that Ethiopia is a home of nations and nationalities, its initial proclamation of “full rights to self-determination” to Ethiopia’s nationalities with “regional autonomy to decide on matters concerning their internal affairs”, added another dimension to their despair. That was not all; the inclusion of Oromo officers in the formation of the junta also created the suspicion that what was going on was an “Oromo revolution”. However, it was soon realized that power was in the hands of a military junta whose motto was, in fact, “Ethiopia First” from the very beginning. What was even more important in calming down their initial fear of loss of power was that the military junta was dominated by a core of Amhara and Amharized officers. It became clear gradually that those who were in control of Ethiopia’s military and civilian bureaucracy were, by and large, Abyssinians, particularly Amhara. In fact, over 80 per cent of the officers were from Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic backgrounds.[3] In addition, many believed that the aim of the military regime was to ‘normalize’ the political situation in Ethiopia and hand over power to civilians in due time. However, the Dergue continued to rule with an iron hand until 1991 when the unexpected happened. The sudden decrease in arms and military assistance to the regime because of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness–Perestroika, and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union in combination with Mengistu’s irrational massacre of many of his best generals, led to the collapse of the Dergue. Leaving the ruling elite in disarray Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe.

What happened next was new: and the ruling Amhara elite were not prepared for it. The takeover of political power in Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) by nationalist guerrilla forces in May 1991 with the TPLF in the forefront, and Eritrea’s declaration of independence three years later in April 1993 were traumatic events they have found difficult to forget. However, they kept the hope of regaining power and revoking the current federal structure and even go further back and reverse the changes made by the Dergue and EPRDF regimes. They organized numerous “Ethiopian” political parties believing that they can take power from the Tigrayan elite through democratic means. They lobbied the leaders of the international community, particularly the US government and the European Union, to exert pressure on the regime to hold free parliamentary elections until the May 2015 elections dashed that hope. The ruling party (TPLF/EPRDF) “won” all the seats in the federal parliament. The silence of the international community exacerbated their desperation. President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia in 2015, and his recognition of the TPLF regime as a “democratically elected government”, demolished the little hope they had for engagement in a peaceful transition of political power, brokered by external powers.

The Habesha elite in the opposition continued with their hope of reversing the course of history and demands for the revocation of the Article 39 against all odds. However, six months after the May elections and a couple of months after President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia, in November 2015, a massive Oromo protests broke out and shook the ground under the feet of the TPLF regime. It sent the Habesha elite into further despair adding a new obstacle to their dreams to regain power. While remaining hostile to the ruling Tigrayan elite, they were also outraged by the Oromo call for the full implementation of the rights the controversial Article 39 endorses. In the perception of one of their adversaries the activists were “more woyane [TPLF] than woyane.” As he put it, “Instead of rejecting the status quo of tribalism under TPLF, Oromo activists are defending it.” The fact that the Oromo will exercise their natural and inalienable rights seems to be totally unacceptable most of the commentators who reacted to the Oromo uprising. Thus, while the TPLF has been using physical violence to suppress the Oromo protests, the Habesha political elite in the opposition intensified their discursive violence (written or verbal violence rather than physical violence) that contradicts and distorts the Oromo claims to inalienable rights including the right to self-definition as a nation. Although the audiovisual and written commentaries were made in reaction to the Oromo protests, most of them distort both Ethiopia’s and Oromo history and desire to roll back the achievements made by the Oromo during the last forty years and re-establish the pre-1974 Ethiopia, particularly its imperial administrative structures.

Ironically, the appointment of Dr. Abiy Ahmed as the Prime Minister has strengthened their dreams. His rhetoric about the virtues of Ethiopiawinnet (Ethiopianism), his belief in the myth of Ethiopian exceptionalism and his admiration for Emperor Menelik II as “the father of Ethiopia” are taken as opportunity to press for the revocation of the controversial Article 39 and rights regained by the Oromo during the last fifty years. The Prime Minister is venerated by commentators as their Messiah who will save Ethiopia “restore her glorious past”. Thus, the Habesha elite who have been the loudest opponents of the EPRDF regime for the last 27 years, are now hoping to use the leader of the EPRDF regime to hijack the Oromo revolution and change its course. Whether the new Prime Minister will meet their demands and act or not to abrogate Article 39, ban the use of the qubee script, and silence the legitimate Oromo claim to Finfinnee is difficult to say now. However, I will discuss the contents of the Habesha elite’s articles and commentaries in this and the other forthcoming parts of this article.

Nation and history

In political and social history, and the English dictionary, the definition of empire is “a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign.” That means, Emperor Haile Selassie I, and Menelik II before him, ruled over a group of nations. One of them was the Oromo nation. However, Ethiopianist scholars and political activists will deny Ethiopia’s imperial foundational structure and call it as one “nation” with one language, one alphabet and history. The fact that Ethiopia had officially an imperial government until the demise of the monarchy in 1974 contradicts this claim. Nevertheless, in order to accept or reject their proposition we must define the term ‘nation’. According Ernst Renan there are two things which together constitute a nation. “One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories. The other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.” That this type of relationship cannot exist between a conquering nation and a conquered nation is self-evident. Particularly, the type of conquest which was conducted by Menelik does not create the rich legacy of memories and common glories that nourish a national idea defined by Renan. On the contrary, it inculcates painful sores and instills bitter memories. Past injuries need acknowledgement to heal and be forgiven. The approach of the Habesha elite is the opposite.

In order to shed light on of the views of the Habesha elite in general and the opponents of Article 39 regarding the “national” question, I will discuss below the main points raised by Professor Dejene Alemayehu in an interview he had with SBS Radio on April 2, 2017. His 28 minutes long interview with a journalist on the SBS reflects the views of the Habesha elite not only concerning the current political crisis but also about the history of Ethiopia.[4] The discussion is interesting in particular because it covers many of the issues and views reflected in the commentaries that reject Article 39.

Dr. Dejene claims his approach to politics to be scientific. He tells the SBS Radio that logical thinking needs mathematics, and therefore his approach is a combination of mathematics with politics. He criticizes the behavior and deliberations of Ethiopian politicians of being emotional and illogical. However, his claim to logical approach to politics evaporates as he starts to talk about Ethiopia. Ignoring the fact that Ethiopia is fundamentally an empire state, he told the journalist that Ethiopia is not a multination state but a nation state. He argued that terms such as nations (ብሔር) and nationalities (ብሐረ ሰቦች)” are inapplicable “foreign concepts copied from Russian and Chinese documents” and that they must be “deleted from Ethiopia’s political lexicography.” His additional categorical prescription is that “Calling territories with gosa (tribal) names also should stop once and for all.” By “tribal names” he means national and territorial identifications such as Oromo, Oromia, Afar, Sidama, Somali and Anuak. It is said that politicians of multinational states “resist the idea that indigenous peoples are nations on the ground that this might promote secession.” It is apparently for the same reason that opponents of Article 39, such as Dr. Dejene, want to erase the terms “nation and nationalities” from political lexicography. However, it is difficult to grasp how his prescriptions is going to stop the Oromo from identifying themselves as saba (nation) or erase Oromia from the map of the Horn of Africa. One of the achievements of the Oromo struggle of the last fifty years is the right of the people to name themselves—to be called with the name of their choice. What was achieved is cherished more than life to give up, and the price paid for it was too heavy to forget. Therefore, to expect that young Oromo artists will give up their people’s hard won right to self-definition and quit singing popular patriotic songs such as “Oromia biyyako” (my country Oromia), or that the Oromo youth will quit using patriotic slogans such as “Oromia Shall be Free!” in their political rallies as long as Oromia’s sovereignty is under question is a wishful thinking.

Like many other opponents of Article 39, Dr. Dejene will ignore the fact that the Oromo had been in conflict with the rulers of the Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian state. He does not seem to believe that the Oromo have a history of their own. He suggests that Oromo nationalism is an expression of the irrational feelings of Oromo extremists against the Ethiopian state and the Amhara people. He argues that “The supporters of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) complain that the Amhara did to them this or that” (“አብዛኛዉ የ OLF ደጋፊዎች እንደዝህ ሆኛለሁ አማራ እንደ አድርጎኛል” ይላሉ). Denying its being the descriptions of actual events and experience, Dr. Dejene denigrates the history of Oromo resistance as a narrative of victimhood. He states, “We should get rid of the feeling of historical grievance once and for all” (“የታሪክ ተበዳይነትን ስሜት በፍጹም ማስወገድ አለብን”). In other words, he rejects the corpus of historical evidence assembled and discussed by Oromo and other scholars during the last forty years exposing, among other things, the crimes committed by Emperor Menelik II and his forces during the conquest of Oromia and the south.[5] Dr. Dejene’s commentary is a sample of the rhetoric of Ethiopianist pseudo-historians’ who not only absolve Abyssinian conquerors from the crimes they had committed against humanity, but also deny the descendants of peoples against whom the crimes were committed the right to moral reparation, self-definition, sovereignty and control over their resources.

Dr. Dejene’s remedy for the Ethiopian crisis, like that of the other opponents of Article 39, is the denial of history. According to him, Abyssinian emperors did not carry out a conquest of the Oromo territory; no crime was committed against the non-Abyssinian; they “reunified” the Ethiopian state. Therefore, there is no injustice done which the Ethiopian state ought to acknowledge and redress. He castigates those who see the Ethiopian empire state as the creation of the late nineteenth century for lack of pride in its long history, and of course the glory of its great emperors. He dwells on the glory of the Solomonic dynasty, and the longevity of the Abyssinian state suggesting implicitly that the non-Abyssinian peoples have to take pride in the history of the three thousand years old Abyssinian state and its rulers unconditionally. Thus, like most of the commentators who demand the deletion of Article 39, Dr. Dejene will not differentiate the history of the Ethiopian empire state built by Menelik II from the myth of three thousand years of Abyssinian nation and statehood. He calls the restriction of the definition of the Ethiopian empire state to the one built by Menelik II and its age to 150 years by Oromo and other scholars as falsification of history and “the first lie” (የዉሸቱ መጀመሪያ). He claims that the Ethiopian state has a life that is longer than 3,000 years, and that should also be accepted as the “irrefutable truth” (የእዉነቱ መጀመሪያ) about Ethiopia by all of us. The story could be true for the Abyssinians, but the myth of Kibre Negest and its narratives about autocratic rulers which Dr. Dejene is talking about are not shared by the Oromo. Ethiopia’s long history is not a concern for the Oromo; but it cannot be used to justify their subjugation and the denial of their history. The Oromo have their own political culture and a history that differentiate them from the Abyssinians. Unlike the Abyssinians for centuries, before their subjugation, the Oromo obeyed laws made by themselves and not by kings or emperors. They did not obey men who were above the law. The people had the sovereignty to elect and mandate their leaders and changed the laws. Their political history is that of Gadaa republics, not autocratic monarchy that characterized the political history of the Abyssinians.

Like most of the opponents of Article 39, the “truth” Dr. Dejene will tell us is a myth. He posits that the Ethiopian state has always been the same geographically. However, he does not say whether the myth of the “3000-year old Ethiopian state and nationhood” is a shared Oromo-Abyssinian experience or not. He overlooks the history of the nineteenth century Abyssinian conquest of the south as a non-sequitur—an event that is irrelevant to the Ethiopian history he is talking about. He tells us about the Ethiopians who had defended their motherland patriotically from enemies for centuries under the same flag. If we believe Dr. Dejene, the Oromo were constituents of the patriotic “Ethiopians” he is talking about. But they were not; their homeland was conquered and its inhabitants slaughtered by Abyssinians who came marching under that flag only 140 years ago.

Making inappropriate comparisons is one of tricks used by Habesha scholars to win points in political debates. This is also one of the methods used by Dr. Dejene, here. To distort the claims about the consequences of the Abyssinian conquest of their homeland—loss of freedom and sovereignty, he compares their situation with the fate of African Americans. He posits that, “had it been for harms done to them, the African Americans would have not wanted to live with white Americans” (“በደል ቢሆንማ ኖሮ ጥቁር አሜሪካኖች ከነጭ አሜሪካኖች ጋር መኖር አይፈልጉም ነበር”). Indeed, the harms done by slavery and colonialism have similarities. The situation of Oromo gabbar bore documented similarities with slavery. But, Dr. Dejene’s comparison of the situations of the two peoples is simplistic and flawed. Its simplicity is deceptive and distorts what the Oromo struggle is about. It reduces the dimensions. Remember that he had claimed his approach to politics is scientific or logical. Here, his scientific claims evaporate. He ignores the difference between the claims of the two peoples: the Oromo claim includes territoriality and sovereignty. But that is not what the African Americans have been demanding or can demand. The history and patterns of settlement and question of indigeneity differentiate the polities of the United States (US) and Ethiopia. While the US is a poly-ethnic polity created by immigrants who, for centuries, have settled scattered and interspersed across the different states, Ethiopian state, as mentioned above, is an empire created by conquest and through the incorporation of neighboring territories and peoples. Therefore, unlike the 43 million African Americans who live in minority communities scattered across the United States, the 40 million Oromos live in Oromia, their ancestral homeland which is geographically contiguous. In other words, they are a subjugated nation who retain a territorial base inherited from their ancestors. Had Dr. Dejene been logical, he should not have compared or paralleled the Oromo situation with that of the African Americans but with the situation of territorially based nations such as the Ukrainians, Georgians, etc., who regained their independence following the fall of the former Soviet Union, or the Scots in Great Britain and the Catalans in Spain who, in recent years, have been conducting referendums to reestablish own independent states. In short, the Oromo demand for the right to build their own sovereign state, be it an independent republic of Oromia as envisioned by the OLF or an autonomous sovereign state of Oromia within an Ethiopian federation or confederation as desired by Oromo unionists, is not pulled out of thin air, but based, among other things, on political and territorial realities and possibility.

Dr. Dejene’s argument also distorts the African Americans’ history in general and their long struggle for fundamental universal rights and human dignity in particular. His statement implies that the predicament of the African Americans was as inevitable and that they have accepted their “fate” without much ado. He suggests implicitly that the civil rights movement of the 1960s had never occurred, the Black Panthers never existed, Malcolm X never lived, and the “Black Life Matters” movement is not happening now.

The national flag

One of the issues raised against the “TPLF ethnic politics” is lack of respect for Ethiopia’s institutions and symbols which signify the antiquity of its civilization and “unity of its people”. One of the named symbols is the national flag. Dr. Dejene takes the Ethiopian flag as “sacred” and criticizes the use of different flags by the nine national states of the current federal state of Ethiopia as lack of pride in the ancient national symbol. He trashes the flags of the different nations as signage on a row of shops (የቡትክ መደብ መታወቂያ) distributed to them by the TPLF. He suggested that they should be banned.

Dr. Dejene claims that Ethiopia is a state that has existed, both historically and geographically, flying the same flag for more than 3,000 years. According to him, Ethiopians were united under one national flag from Ras Kasar in Eritrea in the north to Moyale in south, from Gambella in the west to Harar in the east and had sacrificed their lives for their country since ancient times. However, he does not have any evidence to confirm that the rule of the Aksumite Empire had extended as far as Moyale and Gambella in south. The rulers of the fourteenth and fifteenth-century Abyssinian Empire who, when faced on a broad front by well-organized Oromo forces retreated northward, might have sent their agents on expeditions into those regions to hunt elephants for ivory and take human captives for domestic slavery and the Arab slave market, but there is no record to show that the Abyssinians had ruled Moyale and Gambella before 1898-9 A.D. As Bahru Zewde has noted, Menelik “pushed the frontier of the Ethiopian state to areas beyond the reach even of such renowned medieval empire-builders as Negusa Nagast Amda-Tseyon (r. 1314-1344)”, and that “In the process, the Ethiopia of today was born, its shape consecrated by the boundary agreements made after the Battle of Adwa in 1896 with the adjoining colonial powers.”[6] Furthermore, the Russian military officer Alexander Bulatovich, who had traveled extensively with the armies of Menelik during his conquest of Oromia and the south between 1896 and 1898 wrote that Ras Wolde Giyorgis, one of Menelik’s generals who conquered the region of Lake Rudolf, was able to unfurl the Abyssinian flag on the shore of that lake in 1898 to hinder British colonial expansion north of it. Bulatovich was attached to army of Ras Wolde Giyorgis as an advisor. Based on conversations between the invading armies and indigenous peoples he wrote that some “never even heard the existence of the Abyssinians” before that[7].

Dr. Dejene has the right to cherish (or have pride in) the Ethiopian flag or may even rubbish the national flags of the regional states, but I do not think that can convince the Oromo youth to lay down the OLF freedom banner or the traditional Gadaa tri-color and unfurl the Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian flag with pride. There are commentators who castigate the Oromo youth for the absence of the Ethiopian flag in their rallies against the TPLF regime. The critics forget that the Ethiopian flag is not a symbol of voluntary union between peoples, or a “Union Jack”, which combines the ensigns of the different peoples who constitute the Ethiopian polity.[8] It is a symbol in which the Abyssinians can take pride. It represents their victories. That is not the case with the Oromo. From their perspective, it is an imperial banner, a symbol of conquest and the assertion of alien domination over them. It was the banner which the forces of Ras Darge carried when they committed their heinous crime against humanity at Anoole. Therefore, it is not surprising if the memories which the Oromo associate with it are negative and different from that of the Abyssinians. Accusing the Oromo for not carrying the Ethiopian flag in their rallies will only tear up old wounds and exacerbate conflicts.

Balkanize and de-Oromize

The second demand of the opponents of Article 39 is the revocation of the national states or the language and ethnicity based federal structure of the Ethiopian state. They argue for the restoration of the imperial provincial structure and the revival of Ethiopian unity by mending the destruction caused by “the evil idea of ethnic federalism” during the last 27 years. Professor Assefa Mehratu states that “For Ethiopia to administer her people in peace and democracy, the option is a sort of a ‘federal system’ based on the past provincial structure and Ethiopian citizenship.” He posits that the present federal territorial structure was created to serve only the interests of those who believe in “tribalism” and fabricate ill-willed narratives (ተንኮል-አዘል የፈጠራ ትረካዎች) against the Ethiopian state. Here, “fabricated ill-willed narratives” is another derogatory label used to refer to scholarly works that are dealing with Menelik’s conquest of the south and, as mentioned above, produced particularly by Oromo scholars during the last four decades.

Defending the defunct imperial regime, Dr. Assefa claims that “the imperial provincial boundaries were not drawn with the sinister intention to mix the main gosa (tribes) or divide and weaken them” (See footnote for Amharic text).[9] He may apologize for the imperial order, but the truth was that balkanization was an instrument used not only to undermine Oromo institutions and culture, but also to weaken their resistance to imperial domination. As pointed out by Lipsky et al, the provincial boundaries on the pre-1974 map of Ethiopia were (re)drawn first after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1935-41). They wrote,

“Before 1935, provinces and districts bore the names of the principal ethnic groups inhabiting them. After 1942, the new boundaries of…administrative divisions cut across a number of ethnic groups, while others joined groups formerly administered separately.” [10]

Lipsky et al also note that, “Over the few last years, the government also has been quietly substituting Amharic for Gallinya [Oromo] names. They pointed out that the provincial boundaries were (re)drawn and place names changed to Amharic with the aim of preventing ‘the development of strong ethnic loyalties’ and facilitate the assimilation of the non-Abyssinian peoples to the dominant Abyssinian culture and language.’[11] Thus, the policy of assimilation, which is often called Amharization, involved not only change of personal names to Amharic, but also place names. In the SBS Radio interview mentioned above, Dr. Dejene Alemayehu said that “the great wisdom of the great Ethiopian leaders was not calling places by their indigenous tribal names” (“የኢትዮዽያ መሪዎችን ትልቅ አዋቂ የሚያሰኛቸዉ አካባቢዎችን በጎሣ ስም አለመጥራት ነዉ”). Apparently, he is talking about the well-known policy of de-Oromization or Amharization of Oromo personal and place names conducted by the imperial regime of Haile Selassie. In other words, Dr. Dejene agrees with Lipsky et al., although the act they described as “substituting Amharic for Oromo names” is mentioned in his conversation as “avoiding to call places with their tribal names”, meaning of course, changing them to Amharic names.

It is important to note here that the main targets of the imperial policy were the Oromo. In addition to the substitution of Amharic names for Oromo place names to blur Oromo territoriality, large parts of Oromoland were also joined with provinces bearing the names of smaller neighboring non-Oromo groups.[12] However, the exercise did not achieve the expected result which was ‘national integration’. The imperial regime was swept away by a revolution in 1974. Most of the places which were given Amharic or biblical names by Haile Selassie regime reclaimed their indigenous names under Dergue.

Assefa Mehratu is not the only opponent of geography of the federal structure. Almost all the opponents of Article 39 are. Demanding its revocation, Professor Alemayehu Gabre Mariam wrote that “It is time to build up Ethiopia and tear down the kilils. …. There is a “time to tear and a time to mend.” We have been torn up by ethnicity, religion, language. It is time to mend and heal our wounds with the balm of Ethiopiawinet.”[13] His words may sound genuine, but whether Alemayehu believes that the Oromo, the Sidama, the Afar, etc. will accept the restoration of the imperial administrative structure is not clear. It would be strange if they too feel the agonies which he associates with the federal structure of the current Ethiopian state, and therefore demand its dissolution. I do not have any doubt that they can separate the purpose which the federal structure is supposed to serve and the atrocities of the EPRDF regime. The EPRDF did not invent new territories but recognized those in which the different peoples lived since ancient times. It did not “tear up” anything. The structure which the Habesha elite such as Professor Assefa and Professor Alemayehu will re-establish goes against the fundamental universal rights endorsed by Article 39(2&3). It denies the nations and nationalities the autonomous space (political, administrative and geographical) they need to organize, develop and promote their cultures and preserve their histories. In other words, it denies them the territorial, societal and communal frameworks within which they can build institutions, exercise their rights and preserve their histories and identities. Consequently, I see no reason why any of the non-Abyssinian peoples of Ethiopia, let alone the Oromo, would agree with the propositions of the two professors mentioned here.


Generally, the opponents of Article 39 question the validity of the rights defined in the three clauses of the Article and dismiss them as the “invention” of the TPLF regime. For the opponents of Article 39, the Ethiopian state had a single past and a single history. The self-evident corollary of that belief is an extension of the same state into eternity. The federal structure which allowed the different peoples of Ethiopia to establish their own institutions and exercise their rights according to Article 39(3) is labelled as a version of the defunct Bantustan system of the apartheid period in South Africa.[14] In the words of one of the authors of the commentaries discussed in this article, the Oromo protests of the last four years were acts of “tribalism”; and in his view, “tribalism is like Nazism and Fascism, the enemy of humanity.” (“ጎሰኝነት እንደ ናዚዝም እና እንደ ፋሺዝም የሰው ልጅ ጠላት ነው”).[15] The same commentator is opposed to the TPLF-led regime not for its atrocious crackdown on Oromo protesters, but for endorsing Article 39 which, in his view, had awakened the Oromo to protest and demand their rights. Thus, while the TPLF regime used physical violence to suppress the Oromo protests, the weapon of the rest of the Habesha elite who oppose the Oromo right to self-definition has been discursive violence in the past. They use a disparaging epithets such as “tribalists”, “narrow nationalists” and “racists” to discredit intellectuals and political activists who identify themselves as Oromo and claim justice for their (dispossessed and marginalized) people. In a UNESCO sponsored study from 1972 Diarra and Fougeyrollas state that “far from being scientific description and actual state of affairs, ‘tribe’, ‘tribal’ and ‘tribalism’ are ideological terms tending, consciously or unconsciously, to discredit the peoples and nations of Africa in the eyes of foreigners or even, through the operation of an all too familiar process of alienation, in the eyes of certain Africans.” Diarra and Fougeyrollas argued that “the alienating notions are kept alive by hurried journalists or by pseudo-scholars”, and they suggested that “the misleading uses of the terms ‘tribe’ and ‘race’ must be eradicated from modern parlance and the words ‘people’ or ‘ethnic group’ and national society introduced instead.” As I have discussed in another article recently, it was with this understanding which is based on reality, and not influenced by “foreign sources”, that the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s used the concepts “nation” and “nationalities” instead of “tribes” in their discourses about the polity of the Ethiopian empire state. The Dergue regime declared Ethiopia as a multinational state and its constituent, ‘peoples’, ‘nations’ and ‘nationalities’ for the same reason. The Russian and Chinese communists might have used “nations” and “nationalities” as key concepts in their historical and political discourses. That does not mean the terminology and their application were copied directly and applied mechanically to the Ethiopian situation, as argued by many of the opponents of Article 39. The concepts of “nations” and nationalities are not foreign but terms that exist in our languages. The term saba in Afaan Oromoo and biher (ብሔር) in Amharic correspond with the English term “nation” and “nationalities” and not with the term “tribe” which, as will be discussed in the second part of this article, is used pejoratively by many of adversaries of the Oromo struggle.

The opponents of Article 39 understand its content as an antithesis of the myth of the “three thousand years old Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian state.” That the myth does not include the non-Abyssinian peoples seem not to bother them when they demand its abrogation. Combined with the history of Abyssinian emperors, the myth was what they were taught in school or read in the only history books available on Ethiopia and its peoples. They were told that the non-Ethiopian peoples of the empire such as the Oromo were “tribes” without history. The fact that this has been challenged and proven false with the rewriting of the histories of the non-Abyssinian peoples, particularly the Oromo, is ignored or unknown to them. Consequently, the road that could bring the different parties to a meeting ground for a dialogue and deliberation about their future relations is closed down blocked hitherto by ignorance and the denial of other peoples’ histories.


[1] Mekuria Bulcha, “The Transitional Charter of Ethiopia”, The Oromo Commentary, Vol. 1 (2&3), 1991, p. 8.

[2] Waugh, E. Waugh in Abyssinian: Guide to the Ethiopian Question, First edition 1936. Paperback edition, Louisiana University Press, 2007, p. 27.

[3] Christopher Clapham, Transformation and Continuity in Revolutionary Ethiopia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 85. Table 1. The composition of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Ethiopia (WPE) was 84 percent had Amhara and Tigrayan names, 12.5 percent Oromo names, 2.5 percent Muslim names and 1 percent others in 1987.

[4] Dejene Alemayehu, “የታሪክ ተበዳይነትን ስሜት በፍጹም ማስወገድ አለብን” (“We should reject the feeling of grievances once for all”), SBS Radio, April, 2, 2017.

[5] Mekuria Bulcha “Genocidal violence in the Making of nation and State in Ethiopia”, African Sociological Review, 9(2), 2005, p. 1-54. My article is one of the publications that deal at large with the outrageous consequences of the imperial conquest and consolidation of Abyssinian rule over the south.

[6] Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1974. Addis Ababa University Press, 991, p. 60.

[7] Bulatovich, A. Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes: A Country in Transition, 1896-1898. Two volumes (1898, 1900) in Rssian, translated, edited and combined in the english translation by Richard Seltzer, Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press. 2000, p. 344.

[8] The Union Jack combines the red cross of St George of the Kingdom of England, the white saltire of St Andrew for Scotland and the red saltire of St Patrick to represent Ireland.

[9] Assefa Meheratu, “ወደቀድሞው የኢትዮጵያ ክፍለ ሃገራት የድንበር ውቅሮች መመለስ የሚያበረክተው ጥቅም

ትምህርታዊ ቪድዮ ኮንፈራንስ” (“Benefits of returning to Ethiopia’s former provincial structure; educational video confernce”, Ethiomedia, October 13, 2017.

[10] Lipsky, G. et al. Ethiopia: its people, its society, its culture, New Haven: HRAF Press, 1967, p. 38

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Mekuria Bulcha, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, 2016, p. 493

[13] Alemayehu G. Mariam “My Personal Letter to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia”, ECADF Ethiopian News Ethiopian news, April 8, 2018.

[14] Alemayehu W. Mariam, Ethiopia-Win-Et: Understanding the Mind of the Mastermind of Ethnic Federalism, Al Mariam’s Commentaries, December 24, 2017

[15] Getachew Haile, “ጎሰኝነት የሰው ልጅ ጠላት” (“Tribalism is the enemy of humanity”), Ethiomedia, May, 2016.

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