Bate Urgessa has firsthand experience with the struggles of the Oromo people. As a political officer with the Oromo Liberation Front, he witnessed the brief flowering of political freedom under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), only to see those hopes wither away once more.
In Bate’s view, state formation in Ethiopia has been distorted from the beginning. Citizens were subjugated and oppressed, and unity was imposed through domination. For true peace, Ethiopians must set aside old grievances and ambitions to determine a shared purpose built on mutual respect, according to him.
The Reporter’s Ashenafi Endale spoke with Bate to hear his insights. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: Several parts of Ethiopia have witnessed conflicts in the past few years. The social fabric along ethnic lines, religion, and other social capitals seems depleted. Do you think social healing and nation-building can be achieved under the initiatives the government is taking?
Bate Urgessa: In order to heal the scars, we need to study Ethiopia’s problems. What are the major contradictions in Ethiopia’s social, state, ideological, and power constructs? As Ethiopians, we have no agreement on the definitions of our problems.
From our perspective, the major problem in the wider south (not geographically but politically) is how the state of Ethiopia was formed. We believe that the state of Ethiopia was formed by force and is the yoke of the emperors. Meanwhile, Europe convened in Berlin to scramble for Africa, and Emperor Menelik embarked on a similar project. So the domestic colonialism of nations in the south destroyed their territory, administrative system, culture, religion, and language.
The Ethiopian system attempted to create a nation-state by overrunning diversity. Ethiopianism tried to mold one nation out of many nations. Currently, there are political forces arguing that Ethiopia is one nation, not a house of nations and nationalities. We believe they are trying to resurrect the old imperial system.
The relationship between nations in Ethiopia is distorted because Ethiopia was birthed in a distorted way.
Recently, the FDRE Policy Studies Institute (PSI) released a research report titled ‘FDRE Constitution after Three Decades: Inquiring into Whether and What to Amend.’ The report argues that the constitution has institutionalized ethnicity and ethno-territorial federalism, which has become a recipe for the disintegration of Ethiopian society and the state. The study recommends amending these provisions in the constitution. Do you agree with this recommendation?”
The existing constitution aimed to reverse and correct historical distortions by putting all nations on a similar balance and building a country with one political economy. It’s important to correct past injustices, starting on an equal footing and building an integrated economy, because disintegrated nations cannot succeed economically. Since we are not one nation, the constitution cannot say ‘we, the nation of Ethiopia.’ Instead, we are nationalities composed of Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and others. The grammar of the Constitution is not problematic.
This is not something that can be answered by simply asking 1,000 people. It requires a deeper study than what the PSI did. Throughout history, we have been through a lot, and there was a time when Oromo governed up to Gondar and Amhara ruled over Oromo and other nations. It’s important to admit this and move forward.
During the student movement decades ago, the question of nationalism was discussed in depth. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is part of the student movement that fought for nationality rights, and they won power and crafted the current constitution. Even though it’s the winners’ constitution, we cannot say it has no public support. The TPLF and its allies won because they had public support.
Ethiopia could not have faced this much conflict in the past few years if the constitution had been well implemented. Even if there are problems, they could have been resolved under the context of the constitution. The biggest bottleneck to the constitution and this federation is the deficit in democratization. Nothing could have led to conflict if every question was answered as per the Constitution.
The only strong part of the constitution that needs amending is Article 3, which talks about human rights. If there is a democratically elected ruling party that has acceptance all over the country, amending the constitution would be simple.
Currently, the government is trying to amend the constitution illegally and unconstitutionally. If the government managed to try it illegally, why is amending the constitution legally impossible? Even currently, if the Prosperity Party presents the constitutional amendment issue to regional government cabinets, it would pass automatically. Once regional cabinets approve, then at least two-thirds of the House of Federation (HoF) and House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) must approve the constitutional amendment.
Anything is possible, especially if the party decides. There is currently no line between party and government. But if there had been a democratically elected ruling party and democratization in the country, many problems could have been resolved, let alone amending the constitution.
I do not believe that the Constitution is to blame for Ethiopia’s problems. Even if there are problems induced by the Constitution, they can be resolved by fully implementing it. Some politicians say Ethiopia is in turmoil because of its constitution, but they are undermining Ethiopia’s problems and denying historic injustices.
Even before the constitution, nations, ethnic groups, and neighboring nationalities have been fighting over grazing land or water bodies. Today, the same people might fight for towns and cities. So we cannot say they are fighting because of the constitution. They would fight even if the constitution was not there.
The constitution stipulates ways out of such conflicts. For instance, it states that erupting border conflicts can be resolved through a referendum, and identity issues can be resolved through regional cabinets or the HoF.
The OLF, TPLF, ONLF, and other liberation fronts were formed before this constitution was introduced, and they built large armies and fought the central government long before it was crafted. Therefore, it is wrong to blame the constitution for the proliferation of ethnic parties and liberation fronts.
The conflicts we see in Ethiopia today are minor compared to the huge political claims that threatened Ethiopia’s disintegration during the Derg regime. The root causes of the current conflicts are land claims, border area ownership, resource access, and power representation.
Denial and undermining create a fertile environment for ethnic-based political forces to bloom. When you say there are no Oromo and undermine their rights, more Oromo political forces emerge. The resistance is strong because the way Amhara tried to create the state was brutal. If Oromo and other nations in the country found Amhara’s ideology and culture very attractive, they could have adopted it willingly. When a ruling class is more civilized, democratic, and not scrambling for land, the nations willingly assimilate. But the hate and oppression have created strong resistance.
This is the biggest difference between Oromo and Amhara in Ethiopia’s nation-building process. Oromo had a successful assimilation policy under Gudifecha and Mogasa. Many non-Oromo ethnic groups have become Oromo willingly. They had the right to refuse. This process was quite opposite to Amhara’s, which includes slavery, and Gabar’s forceful submission of other ethnic groups. Oromo’s nation-building process was successful.
Is there an alternative approach to accommodating diverse nationalism and competing identities into the state structure?
Kifle Wodajo, Dawit Yohannes, Andreas Eshete, and the team that crafted the constitution have discussed too much before adopting this constitution. Each of the points we are discussing today has been discussed in detail. This constitution was not the TPLF’s manifesto, as many claim. Members of the Constitutional Commission discussed in detail the issue of Finfine. Oromia was asking Finfine to be administered under Oromia, even before the constitution. A joint administration system was also considered between Oromia and the federal government. Finally, it was given to the federal government to administer.
The issue of nationalism was legitimized and championed during the student movement. Most of the student movement leaders were Amhara imperial members. Even they concluded there was ethnic-based oppression. It was these students who ensured the land was given back to the tiller.
Today, some politicians are failing to give credit to the student movement. The students were very progressive. They struggled to make sure the rights of all nations and nationalities were protected. But this generation is proving backward. These forces today are denying diversity and trying to introduce a constitution that states there is only one nation in Ethiopia. It is essential to protect the rights of all nations and nationalities, as the student movement leaders fought for.
Is your criticism of the PSI study based on the methodology or on the substance?
Basically, on both. The PSI study has several flaws. It has a sampling design defect. The sampling size is wrong. There are systemic and random probability sampling techniques. I taught research at colleges and universities for a long time, and I know these issues in depth.
The PSI researchers stated they used probability random sampling techniques and types of sample designs. It is false. To use the probability random sampling technique, you must have a population frame. You need a database of each of the names and a detailed list of the 120 million Ethiopians. Then you might reduce people below 18 years of age and above 65 years of age.
Then, out of the proper population, random selection is done. The researcher conducts research on all the samples whose names turn up in the random selection.
This is a lie. PSI has no population frame. So the study cannot be done under probability sampling.
The only way is non-probability sampling or purposive sampling. But the research does not state that it is done through purposive sampling.
Under purposive sampling, knowledgeable scholars and social representatives like those from universities, CSOs, the media, teachers associations, and other relevant institutions are included. The composition is tailored to the size of nations, religion, gender, age, and other groups. 10 questions are sent to the stratified and selected representatives.
PSI claimed to have included close to 40 nations in the study. This is a lie. What if Oromo or Amhara are not included under this probability random sampling they deployed? This technique is like gambling, so any group can be excluded. This is very wrong. Luckily, they included the big ethnic groups. This also indicates they did not use probability sampling. If it is really random, at least one of the large ethnic groups would be out of the sample size. It is a lottery.
The sample size they used also does not well represent all the issues in the country. It is disproportional to the 120 million population.
This is not a study. Sample design, margin of error, standard deviation, composition, stratification, and the like are not needed for the survey.
For me, it would be great if PSI did the survey on Addis Ababa University (AAU) students and teachers.
It said the study was based on the “snowball” technique. The snowball sampling technique is deployed for drug addicts, human traffickers, prostitutes, and investigative work in which one respondent leads to the other respondent (rolling snowball). For instance, you do not know the list of thieves in Adama town. So you cannot send questions to respondents. You find one thief, and he leads you to the next. So you cannot have a population frame.
The biggest deficit of the PSI research is that it lacks a statement of the problem. What is it they wanted to answer with this question? The problem statement, objectives, and findings of the research do not align.
If you want to know the desires or problems of Ethiopians, you have to ask open-ended questions. You can also create focused discussions. You ask, “What do you think is Ethiopia’s problem?’ If you want to make it semi-open research, you give alternatives like constitutional issues, security issues, and others. If they answer “Constitution, you ask, “Which part of the Constitution?” Then you ask for the solution.
The PSI is aimless. It begs the question because it tries to address the wrong issues.
It says a certain majority opted to end the existing federal structure. Then it says certain populations prefer Addis Ababa to maintain the status quo. How will Addis Ababa maintain its status quo if the federal structure is demolished?
Do you think it is timely to amend the constitution? There are also other initiatives, like transitional justice and national dialogue, underway in the meantime.
PSI did this survey while there was fierce fighting in Tigray, and Oromia was also under serious conflict. The units of study should not be ethnic groups but regional states. It is the regions that have the power to amend the constitution. People had already created and given power to regional governments.
The OLA took up arms because they said the constitution was not implemented. The TPLF went to war with the federal government because the constitution was breached. They held regional elections, which the federal government rejected. The TPLF said it has self-administration power under the constitution. That was the reason for the war. Of course, the federal government’s interest in intervening in Tigray affairs was also another reason.
Ethiopia was in an internal fight, mainly because the constitution was not implemented. Just after the war in Tigray ended, the government tried to amend the constitution unlawfully. Then the government is trying to make this sabotage a scientific study.
Currently, there is turmoil in Oromia. In Tigry, Benishangul, Gambella, and all regional states, armed groups have been active in the past few years, though slightly declining.
So blaming the constitution for these conflicts is like aiming at the wrong place.
We have been through a constitutional crisis. The government tried to translate the constitution when the ruling party’s term phased out, but election time was compromised due to COVID-19.
Some people say the constitution is amended in action. For instance, new regional states are already being formed. Sidama became a new state following a constitutional referendum. This does not mean the constitution has been amended. It means the constitution has been implemented.
Basically, what the government is trying to do is not a constitutional amendment. It is a constitutional change. The objective, as per the PSI study, indicates the pillars of the constitution will be replaced. The preamble, which says ‘we peoples, nations, and nationalities, will be changed to just ‘nation of Ethiopia’. Article 39 will be canceled, among others. These are the pillars of the constitution. So if the pillars are changed, it is not a mere revision but a constitutional change.
It would not be the FDRE constitution anymore if those pillars were changed.
The study also suggests that forming political parties along ethnic lines will be banned if the constitution is amended.
That is another funny part of this study. The PSI study says the formation of political parties based on ethnic lines should be banned. There is no place in the constitution where this is allowed. This negates the constitution’s part that says ‘anybody can create a group’. This is also an international right.
The study also states that the issue of the emblem and anthem will be addressed in separate laws. This is also not stated in the constitution.
What I understood from this PSI study is that even the government does not know the constitution as much as we, the OLF, who came from the forest, do. Self-rule is a natural and international right.
Some scholars are saying ‘nationalism should be detached from land’. Do you agree?
Somehow it looks scientific. But it is like saying the identity, self-rule rights, culture, and group rights of a nation can be respected without land. This is impossible.
Some say nationalism is illiberal, irrational, and anti-democracy. This is completely wrong. There is nationalism in liberal countries. Nationalism aspires to equality, freedom, and democracy. These values are also present in liberalism. So nationalism is an ideology by itself. A nation aspires to self-rule. That is nationalism.
Individualism is freedom of choice and freedom of thought. Religion has no territory. Muslim people live anywhere in Ethiopia. Some ethno-nationalist scholars argue nationalism should be non-territorial, just like religion.
Nationalism cannot be non-territorial. An ethnic group, or nation, cannot practice its rights in a vacuum without land. Nationalism is different from religion. From the beginning, nationalism did not exist without territory. Every ethnic nationalist in Ethiopia is attached to its territory.
On the other hand, classical liberals say individual rights are derived from group rights. They claim all rights are divisible into individual rights. For them, an individual is the smallest political unit. But neoliberals have revised that now.
A collective being exists currently. Oromo is a collective being, for instance. Muslims are also collective beings. They are alive as a group. They cannot be reduced to individualism. Their existence is realized only as a collective.
But classical liberals say if the rights of individuals are respected, then the rights of the group are respected. Afan Oromo is not my personal asset. It is the asset of the collective Oromo. The Gada system is not something I can decide to keep or destroy. It is the Oromo’s social reality.
Collective beings exist just like individual beings. It has a legal entity. So embracing difference is not optional.
I cannot be Oromo by myself, individually, without Oromo. I cannot celebrate Irecha alone.
How do you believe the conflict in Oromia can be peacefully resolved and lead to lasting peace and stability? What are your thoughts on the recent peace talks initiated between the government and the OLA?
To achieve lasting peace and stability, it is crucial for the government to show political commitment and engage in genuine peace talks. Both sides must bring their grievances to the table and be willing to compromise. A one-sided approach where one side demands the other surrender their arms will not lead to a sustainable solution.
For a permanent solution, the peace talks must address the long-standing issues that the Oromo people have been facing.
Do you think the first round of peace talks in Tanzania and the government’s efforts so far to resolve the conflict peacefully are genuine?
We currently have no information to determine whether the government’s efforts are genuine or not. The details of the peace talks remain undisclosed, and it is unclear which issues were addressed and which points the parties agreed or disagreed upon.
However, we hoped that the first round of peace talks would result in a cessation of hostilities. If a ceasefire agreement had been reached, it would have been a positive step towards continuing the peace talks in good faith. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether a ceasefire was even on the agenda in Tanzania.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The PSI research conducted on the conflict in Oromia failed to identify the root causes of the problem. The research objective and the actual situation on the ground are not aligned, and the findings are contradictory due to methodological issues.
There are reports of the government using the PSI research as a basis for national dialogue and constitutional amendments. If the government attempts to amend the constitution unconstitutionally and looks for a solution outside of the constitutional framework, it will only exacerbate the political turmoil in the country and will not lead to a sustainable solution.
Overall, a genuine commitment to peace talks and a willingness to address the root causes of the conflict are essential for achieving lasting peace and stability in Oromia.