By Dhuguma Waaqoo
Ethiopia is in a quantum leap towards disintegration. The country has been in a precarious position for a long time, but situations got worse after Prime Minister Abiy ascended to power in 2018. His project of resurrecting a unitary government with one language, one religion, one nation policy that accepts Amhara hegemony is ill-advised, narrow-minded, misguided, and reality divorced.
This project stands in direct contrast to the decades of progressive achievements these nations have registered. It contradicts the nations’ aspirations to secure and protect their freedom, institute a democratic order, freely and democratically elect their leaders, control, and defend their resources, develop their respective culture, religion, and language, build their economies, and forge a better tomorrow for their offspring. It denies these nations equitable access to a common home based on the principles of freedom, equality, and democracy.
What have been the historical developments that led to the creation of a chasm between the forces that long for the return of yesteryear’s Ethiopia and those that vehemently oppose that version of Ethiopia? Let us consider some of the important developments.
Ethiopia was created as a dependent colonial empire by the forceful annexation of Oromia and the Greater South in the last decade of the 19th century by Menelik II of Abyssinia. The ancestral land of the Oromo and other nations was confiscated and given to the settler-colonial forces and the original owners of the lands were relegated to serfdom. The languages of the colonized people were officially banned, their cultures were suppressed or rejected, their citizenship revoked, and they were relegated to serfdom.
Successive governments of Ethiopia failed to move Ethiopia from its fractured creation legacy. Instead of gradually integrating the forcefully subjugated subjects, they determined to keep the status quo through forced assimilation and to keep their subjects under progressively tighter leash for more than a century. They relentlessly and ruthlessly crushed any quest for rights and equality by the subjugated nations.
Grievances due to imperial Ethiopia’s harsh response to the 1960 coup d’etat attempt; the killing and exiling of Oromo leaders and the banning of the Mecha and Tulama Self-Help Association; the harsh response against the Bale revolt, the Raya-Azebo peasants’ rebellion, the Woyane rebellion, and the Western Somali insurrection; concerted demands of land reform with the slogan “land to the tiller” by students, and increased grievances of government employees, armed forces, and taxi drivers eventually led to the downfall of the imperial government in 1974.
The popular uprising that removed the imperial government was hijacked by the armed forces and eventually, the neo-neftegna (colonial settlers) consolidated absolute power. As peaceful resistance was crushed by force, various liberation fronts such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM), the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLM) joined ranks with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) who begun armed struggle in the early 1960s when the imperial government dissolved the Eritrean-Ethiopian federation.
A prolonged armed struggle by these liberation fronts finally brought the downfall of the military junta in 1991. EPLF opted to focus on the secession of Eritrea while TPLF and OLF led the formation of a transitional government in Ethiopia. A Transitional Charter that eventually became the basis for the current multinational federal constitution was adopted. However, the TPLF forced the OLF and other significant forces out of the initial transitional coalition, consolidating power and dominating with impunity at the center.
The TPLF implemented a watered-down version of a multinational federal system intentionally riddled with many colonial-era divide-and-rule tactics that portioned homogeneous groups into several states. Even with all its ills, the multinational federal structure was welcomed by the subjugated nations and nationalities. TPLF intentionally mutated the implementation of the multinational federation to maintain its dominance over the economy, politics, and security.
The historically marginalized nations, however, took advantage of the nominal multinational federal structures and constitutional provisions to assert their territorial inviolability and aggressively developed their respective culture, language, and educational system. The previously subjugated nations and nationalities made significant progress in these domains even though TPLF did all it could to illegally constrain and retard institutionalization of democratic order and the growth of the federal states but Tigray.
The unwillingness of the TPLF-dominated government to implement the multinational federation, its unconstitutional encroachments into powers given to the states, and banning and extreme criminalization of opposition parties, the illegal land grab in Oromia, Gambella, and other parts of the country, the mass killings of peaceful protesters, and the extrajudicial killings of Oromo activists eventually led to a sustained Oromo Qeerroo resistance from 2015-2018. The sustained resistance, in turn, forced the resignation of the then Prime Minister Desalegn Hailemariam and the ascension to power of Abiy Ahmed in 2018.
The historically marginalized nations, nationalities, and peoples in the Ethiopian Federation welcomed the move in the hope it will lead to the institutionalization of the rights enshrined in the constitution and greater democratic order.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ascended to power with a promise of transitioning Ethiopia to a democratic order. It did not take him a long time to renege on his promise to foster an open and tolerant political environment and to betray the confidence Ethiopians and the international community placed in his administration. He not only denied the Oromo the opportunity to end slavery and coexist among nations and nationalities of equals, they secured through their sustained struggle, but he instead set out to reverse the gains registered through a century of struggle.
He wasted his political capital and invaluable time on trying to reinstate the neo-neftegna system resoundingly rejected by all nations and nationalities, but the Amhara and a system already weakened beyond repair by the TPLF-led government for over a quarter-century. His administration weakened and eroded the gains registered by the multinational federal arrangement. Rallying the neo-neftegna, his administration declared its unwavering commitment to unilaterally reinstate the imperial policies of a unitary government, one language, and dominance of Coptic Orthodox Christianity.
Returning to “Ethiopia’s glorious past”
Abiy’s project of “returning Ethiopia to her glorious past” is dreadful on many levels. First, there was no “glorious past” shared by the nations in Ethiopia. Second, what the Amhara neo-neftegna call a “glorious past” is a code word for a time when the over 80 nations, nationalities, and peoples in the Ethiopian federation were demoted from citizens of their nations to subjects, and from owners of their lands and resources to serfdom. Third, the project erases, diminishes, demonizes, dismisses, disregards, devalues, and disenfranchises these “other” nations. Furthermore, it strives to subdue these “other” nations under Amhara hegemony over religious, cultural, economic, political, and bureaucratic systems which made up imperial Ethiopia’s past.
Abiy’s unitary Ethiopia is a misguided attempt to resuscitate the imperial system that collapsed in 1974. Imperial Ethiopia was overwhelmingly rejected by the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia. Only the Amhara, a nation among 86, is backing Abiy’s project of returning to “Ethiopia’s glorious past”—a past when the more than 80 nations, nationalities, and peoples were reduced to serfdom, their languages were banned, their cultures were suppressed, and their humanity was denied.
Abiy’s project—a fictional futile dream—fantasizes to reinstate Amhara hegemony—complete control over all aspects of life, religion, culture, bureaucracy, diplomacy, economy, and politics. Abiy’s project pits the interest of a single nation against that of about 85 other nations. The Amhara are the loudest voice as they enjoy the backing of the central government and control the bureaucracy. They have huge advantages due to control over the economy, politics, mass media, and diplomatic establishments for more than a century.
The collapse of the imperial system in 1974 gave access to the education of the citizens of the marginalized nations. The adoption of the 1994 constitution recognized the diversity of the nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia. Even with limited implementation, the constitution allowed these nations to develop their cultures and languages, and to teach their respective history in schools. These progresses have allowed these “other” nations to shape their posture and standing in Ethiopia. The population of these “other” nations now knows their rights. They are united to demand and safeguard their rights. None of these nations is going to accept a neo-neftegna Ethiopia.
Abiy’s fantasy of a unitary Ethiopia is futile. Unless Abiy’s government rather quickly takes a major corrective posture through dialogue with all political operatives in the county, including those who are imprisoned in Ethiopia’s massive prison complex, Ethiopia is destined to disintegrate rapidly. All indications are that Ethiopia’s disintegration is going to be chaotic, costing lots of lives, causing huge economic ruin, massive international migration, and an unheard-of level of a security disaster.
Most Oromia administrative zones have been under an illegal marshal rule since 2018. The security forces have been harassing, intimidating, arresting, killing, committing sexual violence, and burning homes in West and South Oromia for the last three years. With the exception of the brief pose in early 2018, the mass incarceration of leaders of opponent political organizations as well as members and supporters have been a daily routine.
Though high-profile political assassinations spiked under PM Abiy’s government, its climax was reached with the assassination of the Oromo Singer, Songwriter, and Activist Haacaaluu Hundeessa on June 30, 2020. To add insult to injury, the assassination was used as a pretext to arrest more Oromo political leaders, activists, and supporters. Currently, it is estimated that in Oromia alone there are 50,000 to 100,000 political prisoners.
The Amhara state commenced committing genocide predominately against the Gumuz people in the Benishangul-Gumuz state early in 2019. The state’s militia and special forces kill innocent people and use these killings to tell a made-up (fictional) story that the perpetrators are the victims. Using the backing of the central government, the bureaucracy and security forces they dominate, and their unbalanced access to mass media, public and private, they portray the victims as the perpetrators of crimes they systematically commit against innocent, unarmed, and non-combatant civilians.
The denial of dialogue
The government of PM Abiy has demonstrated its unwillingness or inability to resolve political differences through dialogue. It has imprisoned main political opponents such as Abdi Ragassa, Gemechu Ayyana, Bekele Gerba, and Jawar Mohammed whom he concluded that he could not defeat if a free and fair election were to be held.
Abiy’s madness came to its climax when he invited troops of a foreign and rival State of Eritrea, mercenaries from Somalia, military drones from the UAE, and Amhara militia and special forces from a rival regional state that has territorial disputes with Tigray to launch a war on the TPLF and the people of Tigray. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, sexual violence, and the use of famine as a weapon in Tigray are now substantiated by several international media outlets, non-governmental and governmental organizations, and the United Nation agencies.
Emboldened by atrocities they committed with impunity in Tigray, the Amhara Special Forces invaded the Oromia Special Zone in the Amhara Region. In this raid, hundreds were massacred, close to two thousand houses were torched, properties were looted and destroyed. The war on the Oromo in Ataye and the burning of Oromo houses have been relaunched again since April 15.
War of aggression
The government of Abiy Ahmed, in collaboration with the Amhara state, deployed heavily armed troops comprising the Ethiopian defense force, the federal police, the Amhara militia, and Eritrean troops to Northern Shewa and western Oromia zones. The troops newly deployed to Western Oromia have intensified arbitrarily arresting and murdering citizens and burning homes – a tradition established by their colleagues in the military “command post” for the last three years. These forces have burned Oromo villages in Western Oromia such as the town of Angar and killed many Oromo civilians.
The aggression is not limited to military actions alone. During a two-day demonstration in the Amhara state cities on 19-20 April 2021, the total annihilation of the Oromo was demanded: “ኦሮሙማ ይውደም” meaning “Let Oromummaa be annihilated” (Oromummaa is “Oromo-ness” or “being an Oromo”). Amhara State officials showed that they were in sync with the demonstrators by endorsing and praising the demonstrations.
Properties owned by Oromo nationals and Oromo institutions such as the Oromia International Bank and the COOP Bank of Oromia were destroyed during these rallies. As during the initial war of annexation, the current Amhara war of aggression is to obliterate the people and take their land.
In sum, the deployment of Amhara militia and special forces along with Eritrean troops to Oromia undoubtedly is meant to intimidate the Oromo. It is reminiscent of the war of occupation that commenced with Menelik II’s south march and is still underway. The Oromo are reminded of the neftegna war of aggression. Abiy Ahmed, thus, is sending an occupying force to kill Oromo patriots, dishonor Oromo elders, violate Oromo women, intimidate Oromo Qeerroo, loot property, and confiscate Oromo land—just as Menelik II did in the initial war of aggression.
The changed dynamic
There is one big difference though: now is not the late 19th century. The current war of aggression is not going to yield similar results as that of the late 19th century. Thanks to technological developments, the adoption of the Oromo “qubee” script, access to modern education, increased international visibility of the Oromo, and the Oromo liberation movement spearheaded by the OLF for more than half a century, the reconstitution and demarcation of previously dismembered contiguous geographic territory of the Oromo Land the Oromo affectionately call Oromia, a well-educated, trained, and equipped Oromo Liberation Army, Oromia a formidable nation albeit without statehood.
Undoubtedly, the reality of today is far different from the late 19th century. Oromia is a cohesive nation. It is unified from north to south, from west to east, and from center to the peripheries. Thanks to Oromo Qeerroo, the Oromo Liberation Army is composed of tens of thousands of formidable freedom fighters with determination to fight for the freedom of their nation. The neftegna will not be able to intimidate Oromia into submission.
Election without representation
The government of Abiy Ahmed is drumming about an election it is going to hold this June. Major nations such as Oromia, Somalia, Tigray, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz have no political representatives taking part in the elections. The elections are not going to take place in most, if not all, localities in these nations. Thus, the election leaves more than half of the population without representation.
As has been repeatedly reported, Abiy’s administration made it impossible for the OLF, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to participate in the election by imprisoning their leaders, closing their offices, and forcing a war of aggression in these regions. Only groups representing Amhara State and the neo-neftegna backers are aligning with the ruling party in this sham election. The election is thus designed to crown dictatorship, fascism, and settler-colonialism, while nations such as Oromia, Tigray, Ogaden, and Afar are in active war with aggressors.
Inevitability of disintegration
Successive Ethiopian governments always resorted to the use of force to suppress political grievances. The government of Abiy Ahmed has shown its unwillingness to solve political grievances through dialogue. Continued requests for an all-inclusive dialogue have fallen on deaf ears so far. Unfortunately, Oromo leaders who exemplify peaceful political dialogue and resolution of disputes are unlawfully incarcerated.
The window for peaceful resolution of political grievances in Ethiopia is waning for several reasons. First, the incarceration of Oromo leaders who promote dialogue blocks the peace process, if any. Second, the closure of offices of the OLF and OFC is seen as an intentional marginalization of the Oromo voice. Finally, the war of aggression against the Oromo by the Ethiopian government by deploying enemy combatants composed of Eritrean troops and Amhara state militia in Oromia is a huge miscalculation not only at present but also for any future relationship with those states. Of course, denial of peaceful resolution opens the space for violent means. As John F. Kennedy famously said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Unwillingness to resolve political issues through peaceful means and deploying militias of the region that introduced, institutionalized, and sustained the enslavement of these “other” nations for over a century is unwise, uncalled for aggression, ill-advised warmongering, and unsustainable, to say the least. These nations, nationalities, and people have been fighting to uproot slavery and domination for over a century. What political analysis goes into such a move?
The deployment of Amhara militia in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Tigray leaves only two options open for these “other” nations. The first option is to meet force with force. The second is to accept generational domination and extinction. It defies logic to expect any nation that has been fighting off injustice for so long to suddenly opt for option II.
In the face of vehement denial of peaceful resolution, perhaps now is the best time to forcefully resist the war of aggression while the forces of aggression are spread thin in Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Tigray. With that, the window for holding Ethiopia together is closing, making the disintegration of Ethiopia inevitable.