Article 39: Oromo Nationalism, Abyssinian Exceptionalism & Expectations Raised by Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s Premiership (Part II continued)
Mekuria Bulcha, PhD, Professor
25 July 2018
Inclusion that excludes - a myth used to distort history
As I have noted in the previous section of this article published on this website on July 12, the Abyssinian myth of exceptionality was used to conquer and colonize the non-Abyssinian peoples during the European scramble for Africa. However, in the Orwellian language of Ethiopianist historians, and indeed the opponents of Article 39, the Ethiopian state is designated distortedly as beacon of freedom in colonial Africa. The propaganda has served the purpose of hiding the crimes committed by black colonialists who built the Ethiopian empire state at the end of the nineteenth century. As I have indicated, distorting historical facts, the opponents of Article 39 will turn reality upside down and make us believe that Emperor Menelik was a benefactor rather a conqueror, colonizer, and enslaver of the Oromo and other peoples in the south. Many of the commentators will, as mentioned above, call his occupation of the south as an act of unification, denying the fact that what had occurred was not a voluntary union of peoples but a violent conquest of independent states and peoples. Thus, as John Markakis has pointed out,
One of the immediate consequences of the Ethiopian expansion was the dismantling of indigenous states that vanished from the face of the earth along with their history. In this respect, the impact of Ethiopian imperialism was the same as that of the European onslaught elsewhere in Africa.
The Abyssinian onslaught on and treatment of their subjects was worse than that of the European colonialists in other parts of Africa. The British journalist Evelyn Waugh stated that “The Abyssinians imposed what was, by its nature, a deadly and hopeless system.”Comparing the Abyssinian and European treatment of the peoples they had colonized, he wrote that the non-Christian “peoples of the south and west were treated with wanton brutality unequaled even in the Belgian Congo” in the Abyssinian empire. He noted that the Boers in South Africa and the Abyssinians were “the most notoriously oppressive administrators of subject peoples in Africa.” By Abyssinians, Waugh meant the ruling elite and the naftanya settlers in the south. From Emperor Menelik II to the regime of the late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Melese Zenawi, the historical record confirms Waugh’s assessment.
The other difference is that the Europeans left their colonies and went home; the Abyssinians did not after their years of occupation and exploitation. They simply changed their narrative. The Abyssinian elites who hitherto were counting themselves among the ranks of colonial powers joined the anti-colonial movement of their “African brothers”. Haile Selassie championed this movement, building the Organization for African Unity (OAU) headquarter in Addis Ababa. The proud “conquerors” and “civilizers” became “unifiers,” and even leaders of Africa. Colonized Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) became the seat of the OAU which is now renamed Africa Union (AU). Emperor Haile Selassie championed the question of African freedom and could hide the truth about the colonial makeup of his empire from the rest of Africa. While the African states were supporting anti-colonial struggles in the rest of Africa with Finfinnee as headquarter, the colonial policy against the Oromo continued in its vicinity.
What is asserted above is not what the Habeshaeliteswill acknowledge. They claim that Menelik unified Ethiopia by reclaiming lost territories of the Abyssinian state in the past. In other words, the geography of the empire created by Menelik II (the present Ethiopian state) is juxtaposed with the geography of the state ruled by the mythical king Menelik I about 3,000 years ago in the stories narrated by Habesha political activists and scholars. Consequently, the histories of ancient Abyssinia and modern Ethiopia are intermeshed, resulting in the “disappearance” of the histories, territories, and identities of the conquered peoples in the process. Biblical reference is used as evidence for Ethiopia’s ancient and an everlasting covenant with God.Since the story is told by a host of commentators again and again, some people have taken it as the truth and exceptional history of the Ethiopian state and polity. The colonial relationship of the Abyssinian ruling elites and the conquered peoples is overshadowed and forgotten by the myth. As I indicated in the first part of this article, the myth is used as an evidence and justification to oppose Article 39 and propagate the Abyssinian heritage as an Ethiopian history writ large.
It is important to note here that the Oromo have never opposed the Abyssinian elites’ interest in preserving their own heritage. What they have always sought has been the acknowledgment that their political history is different from the Abyssinians’ autocratic heritage. They want the end of the Abyssinian elites’ interference in Oromo affairs and the preservation of the Oromo language, culture, and heritage. Article 39(2) states that “Every Nation, Nationality, and People in Ethiopia has the right to speak, write, and develop its own language; it also guarantees the right to express, develop, and promote its own culture and preserve its history.” Those who want to annul Article 39 want to deny the Oromo and other peoples these rights altogether and revert to the pre-1974 imperial system. That is tantamount to the declaration of a war.
Dr. Abiy’s concept of meddemer needs definition
The lack of clarity with what Dr. Abiy means by መደመር, “meddemer”(“addition”) has become a source of confusion rather than solution to the most recent crisis of the Ethiopian state. As I have discussed in the first part of this article, the speeches made by Prime Minister Abiy since he came to power three and half months ago has encouraged the opponents of Article 39 to demand the annulment of the revival made by the Oromo and the other non-Abyssinian peoples during the last forty years. His “rhetoric” of meddemer has been praised and interpreted as a policy for the promotion of a unitary state. Taken together with his admiration for Abyssinian emperors, particularly Menelik II, and the denigration of Oromo nationalism, meddemer is interpreted as a rejection of not only the Oromo struggle for independence, but also a dismissal of Oromo history and culture that has been unearthed and recorded by scholars of Oromo studies during the last forty years. Censored by consecutive Ethiopian regimes, much of that knowledge is not yet accessible to students, researchers, and the public in Oromia and Ethiopia. If the Habeshaelites assume the role of gate-keepers for what is to be read by the Oromo and the history taught in schools and universities in Ethiopia once again, the knowledge built up by scholars of Oromo studies will never be accessible to the Oromo at home. As understood and used by the Habeshaelites, Dr. Abiy’s concepts of meddemer and fiqir(love) are sugar-coated; while advancing Abyssinian history as a common heritage, they obfuscate Oromo history.
Let me be clear why I refer to the Habeshaelites here. It is because I know that the common people who have been longing for peace are also jubilating with the steps taken by Dr. Abiy because of the peace it promises. Among others, they are happy about the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners during the last three months. But that is not precisely what is in the minds of the Habeshaelites who are caught in an ecstasy prompted by Dr. Abiy’s speeches about Ethiopia’s ancient glories, the history of her emperors, and spirit of Ethiopiawinnet, in general. They have interpreted his words as a positive response to their demand for “one language, one alphabet, one nation, and no national states” such as Oromia. Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam expresses the ecstatic feeling ignited by Prime Minister Abiy’s “restorative” politics among the Habeshaelites as follows:
Since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister a little over 100 days ago, I, and one hundred million Ethiopians have been gripped 24/7 by Abiy Mania (a/k/a) “Hooked on Abiy”), a psychological condition in which we cannot stop talking about Abiy Ahmed. We wake up in the morning and scour the internet for information on Abiy Ahmed. We call each other and ask, ‘What did he do today?’ We call each other to pray for him. We always close our conversations with the question, ‘God heard our prayers.’
I do not mind if the Habeshaelites feel like that; they have the right to be ecstatic about and devour every word spoken by Dr. Abiy. I object the generalization of their happiness to every person in Ethiopia. I object particularly to Professor Alemayehu’s statement because his “one hundred million Ethiopians” who thank God for sending them Dr. Abiy also include the more than one million who were displaced by the Somali Liyu Police and live in horrible conditions since November 2017. His assertion includes the inhabitants of scores of Oromo communities in the eastern, southeastern, and southern, western Oromia who are under daily attack from the same force. Regrettably, these people have no reason to thank God regarding Abiy’s “doctrine.” The atrocities of the Somali Liyu Police which killed thousands of their men, women and children, and displaced them from their homes in the Ethiopian Somali State and eastern, southeastern and southern Oromia in 2017 and 2018 is the worst disaster that has affected them in their recent history. Whatever Dr. Abiy may mean by meddemer(addition, inclusion), they are negatively impacted by his government and their plight ignored by the Ethiopian news media. Dr. Abiy has been visiting different places in Ethiopia and meeting many communities and even hospitalized individuals who were victims of conflicts. While that is commendable, the dire situation of the displaced Oromos was ignored. Thanks to artist Hacaaluu Hundeessa who used his talent to speak truth to power in public, reminding Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Oromia’s President Mr. Lemma Magarsa the urgency of the situation of victims of the Somali Liyu Police, it seems that at least the security needs of these people is given some attention now. Hacaaluu is being criticized for using the time he got at reception organized in honor of President Isaias Afeworki on July 15 for divisive politics (being voice for the Liyu Police victims) instead of singing about unity. But for Hacaaluu not to use that rare opportunity to expose the silence over the atrocities of the Somali Liyu Police and the prevailing lack of engagement of the Ethiopian regime to stop them was to forget the horrific situation he saw with his own eyes in the camps of the displaced Oromos.
The atrocities of the Somali Liyu Police which killed thousands of men, women and children and displaced over one million Oromos from their homes in the Ethiopian Somali State and eastern, southeastern and southern Oromia in 2017 and2018 is the worst disaster that has affected the Oromo people in their recent history. Picture: a convoy of Oromos evicted from the Ethiopian Somali State in 2017
In an article titled “Walelign Mekonnen, the Question of Nationalities and Ethiopia’s Persistent Crisis,”mentioning well-known historical personalities who spoke truth to power, I wrote that those individuals had acted, not for fame or power, but were compelled by their “inner” morality when they spoke truth to power, although it was risky. Artist Hacaaluu Hundeessa’s performance on the reception for President Isayas Afewarki at Finfinnee Millennium Hall on July 15, 2018 should be seen in that perspective. That was also what Fayissa Lelisa did in Rio at the conclusion of the 2016 Olympics? In both cases, the young Oromo heroes have achieved their commendable goals of bringing about the much needed regional and global awareness of the plight of the Oromo and other oppressed peoples in Ethiopia at the risk of their own careers and fortune.
To go back to the Professor Alemayehu’s comment, the Habeshaelites including the well-known Oromo-phobic scholars see Dr. Abiy as Ethiopia’s Moses or Mesaiah. They tend to believe that he is sent by God to save the ancient empire. Altogether, his speeches are interpreted as an introduction to long-awaited policy of “Ethiopianization” and meddemer, key concepts foran erasure of the current federal structure and rejection of the right to self-determination. As many other concerned Oromos have done, I will too ask Dr. Abiy to define what he means by meddemer and save us from the prevailing state of confusion and unnecessary discursive violence.
Article 39: education and history
The Oromo have struggled for decades to realize the rights encoded in Article 39. As I have pointed out in the first part of this article, the contents of Article 39 were first adopted as Article (2) of the Transitional Charter of 1991. The Article was at the core of a “contract” entered by the OLF when it formed the Transitional Government of Ethiopia with the TPLF. The TPLF violated the contract and the OLF left the Transitional Government, but the program which the OLF had put in place had many positive results. One of them was the right to own language. The Oromo have exercised that right with an amazing speed and enthusiasm. When the Oromo language became a medium of instruction, education was sought eagerly and acquired spontaneously by millions of Oromo children. The result was what I have called elsewhere a “vernacular revolution.”The qeerroo are the offspring of that revolution; they are the youth who started school in 1991-92 and became the first cohort of the current Oromo qeerroo generation.
Those who have been following developments in Ethiopia know that the youth who have forced Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign and brought Dr.Abiy Ahmed to power are, by and large, the qeerroo. Brought up in an educational system that valorizes the Oromo language and celebrates Oromo culture and history, they have taken pride in their Oromo identity more than the older Oromo generations have ever done. The celebration of Abyssinian emperors who committed mass murder and destruction in Oromia as venerable heroes nauseates them. In general, names like Tewoderos, Yohannes and Menelik remind the Oromo, not about unity but war, conquest and the destruction of Oromo lives with impunity. That is why the Oromo youth will not join the recyclers of the Abyssinian myth and sing or ululate the names of Abyssinian emperors. To expect them to do that will be absurd.
The renowned historian Geoffrey Barraclough has stated that “Man is an historical animal, with a deep sense of his own past; and if he cannot integrate the past by history explicit and true, he will integrate it by a history implicit and false.”Building on that, another historian John Tosh tells us “If the ambition to know the past is completely surrendered, we shall never be able to determine how the present came to be. The social function of history is not to be so lightly abandoned.”It is possible to state here that, for the Oromo majority, to abandon their national identity and heritage through the process of meddemer amounts to committing collective suicide. They have no objection against individual assimilation. Their resistance concerns ethnocide. They respect the rights of their neighbors to their history and culture; in return, they expect respect, including the acknowledgment of their rights to their own history and identity as a people. This has been the vision and expectation of Oromo intellectuals since the 1960s. In short, while the Habeshaelites are nostalgic about the pre-1974 imperial order, the disposition of the Oromo people is the opposite. They want to get rid of the last vestiges of the Abyssinian imperial order in Oromia.
To sum up the main points in this article, as captives of the myth about the ancient Abyssinian state, the Habeshaelites fail to recognize the colonial makeup of the Ethiopian state. While portraying Ethiopia as a mythical state that existed for thousands of years, they are reluctant to accept that the Oromo and the other non-Abyssinian peoples have their own histories and homelands.Emperors such as Menelik and Tewodros are presented as heroes of, not only the Abyssinian people, but also of the peoples affected by the Abyssinian conquest at the end of the nineteenth century. Respect for the humanity of the victims of the atrocities of the conquest or the sensibilities of their descendants are rarely taken into account. The position of the opponents of Article 39 regarding the history of Ethiopia is that of religious zealots. Like religious fanatics, they do not respect views that critique the reliability of the story about the mythical Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian state. They deny the historical facts of imperial conquest of which the present state is an outcome, and hark back to the myth of an ancient Abyssinian state to argue that nations such as the Oromo did not exist on what is today considered the Ethiopian soil. To criticize their views is to commit a crime; evidence is not accepted. Although unarticulated, in their opinion the purpose of power is not to serve justice, but perpetuate the existence of a state. Impunity is normal for that purpose; those who mention the crimes of the past Ethiopian rulers are not tolerated. They talk about democracy as a solution to Ethiopia’s historical political problem and many of them raise the case of South Africa as an exemplar for solving its current crisis of the Ethiopian state, yet they are not ready to acknowledge the crimes committed against the Oromo and others non-Abyssinian people by the Abyssinian emperors. This is why conscious Oromo scholars and politicians find conducting a dialogue with them, not only an uncomfortable task, but also often a regrettably meaningless undertaking.
Markakis, J. Ethiopia: the Last Two Frontiers.James Currey, 2011, p. 106.
Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia, Louisiana State University Press, 2007, p. 26.
Alemayehu G. Mariam, ”Memorandum No. 13: PM Abiy Ahmed, Challenge Accepted, Mission Possible”, ZeHabesha, July 16, 2018
I advise Hacaaluu’s critics to listen to an interview he gave to a journalist on OBN Oromiyaa TV on June 31, 2018 regarding his feelings about the misery of the displaced Oromos in eastern Oromia.
Mekuria Bulcha,Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation: Dilemmas in the Ethiopian Politics of State and Nation Building, Cape Town: The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, Second edition, 2016.
Cited in The Pursuit of Historyby John Tosh with Sean Lang, Fourth Edition, Pearson/Longman, 2006, p. 50.
Ibid. p. 205.