By Teshome M. Borago
Over a decade ago, some members of the now defunct Coalition for Unity Democracy (CUD) party debated on the need to empower cultures that are in the peripheral, as an integral part of civic nationalism. One of the proposals I found symbolic was rebranding the local Oromo Irreechaa festival as a nationwide Ethiopian thanksgiving federal holiday. Not only will this help to unite our country and promote traditional equality; but it will also weaken toxic ethnic nationalism.
With more urgent problems of rampant human rights violations under TPLF minority rule, pro-democracy forces did not see such initiatives as a priority in the past…but they should now.
Irrecha is one of the most important cultural festivals in Oromo history. Though, in much of the 20th century, Oromos were increasingly divided on the future of the festival: with those in Western Oromia linking it to paganism. However, due to rising Oromo nationalism in recent decades, even Oromos who adopted non-traditional Abrahamic religions have gradually begun to reconnect with this ancient Irreecha festival: as a proud symbol of their rejection to the cultural, religious and political transformation of their Oromo ancestors converted by the trifecta: Western Protestant, Abyssinian Orthodox and eastern Islamic powers.
So, if non-Oromo Ethiopians also embrace this defining symbol of traditional Oromo identity as their own – as a national Ethiopian Thanksgiving holiday – more ethnic barriers will be broken and we can start to transform Ethiopian mainstream culture to become more inclusive. Consequently, we can move another step closer to uniting our country by satisfying the original demands of the opponents of modern Ethiopian state.
Disempowering extreme tribalism by chipping into its sources of grievance is, after all, vital to create a big umbrella culture for establishing the foundation for a lasting unity and democracy.
Tribalism replacing dictatorship
After living for one year under the rule of the so-called “Oromo Prime Minister” Abiy Ahmed (who is no more Oromo than Iyasu nor Haile Selassie, by descent) we have witnessed more widespread ethnic conflicts and more displacements than probably ever before. Since Abiy’s rise in 2018, Ethiopia is ranked as the worst country in the world for nativism-inspired tribal displacements. Most of us forecasted this crisis will happen, since Abiy could not control toxic ethnic nationalism. Even opposition leader Andualem Aragie, who spent several years of his life in jail, showed more concern about tribalism rather than the tyranny of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front that imprisoned him when I spoke to him in early 2018. “Dictatorship is inhuman but tribalism is worse,” Andualem told me on the phone while TPLF was still after him.
Gradually, the rest of the world has slowly begun to realize the prevalence of deadly tribalism in Ethiopia. Since PM Abiy was already anointed as a messiah figure in late 2018; his critics, supporters and analysts are now forced to use something else as a scapegoat for the source of our current problems. Thus, the ongoing crisis of raging ethnic conflicts has put a spotlight on the system of ethnic federalism (or “Zenawism”), a unique segregation-like federal structure imposed on Ethiopia by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Supporters of Meles Zenawi claim we had no choice but to adopt ethnic segregation in 1991 to empower diverse identities in Ethiopia. But critics of Meles Zenawi point to the geographic-based administrative zones of his own state Tigray, which outlawed identity-based subdivisions in favor directional zones: like South Tigray, West Tigray etc. Whether TPLF’s policy of rejecting identity-based federalism inside its own state, while imposing the same policy throughout Ethiopia is intentional or not: the damage is already done.
In the last few months, we have witnessed various publications by international rights groups like HRW and major global media outlets like The New York Times (NYT) reporting on the ethnic tensions and conflicts in Ethiopia. For them, it seems defending human rights in Ethiopia has essentially become synonymous with rebuking the ethnic-federalism (Zenawism) or tribal apartheid system institutionalized into Ethiopian society. [Ironically, apartheid was installed in Ethiopia in 1991, the same exact year South Africa outlawed it]
In the past; the international community and the naive Ethiopian opposition were so distracted by the brutality of the TPLF state-terrorism that we all failed to notice how Zenawism was spreading deep into our country, destroying our social fabric, our humanity, and putting neighbors and people against each other. Yet now, even global organizations are admitting that our fundamental problem is tribalism, not only dictatorship.
Moving forward, pro-democracy Ethiopians and civic nationalists can no longer focus on simply talking about protecting human rights, since it goes hand-in-hand with reducing tribalism.
However, we must tackle the problem of tribalism with honesty and a genuine understanding of its underlining causes. As backward as tribalism is; we should recognize that it did not rise out of thin air in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia, like all other nations, have had an inequality problem. And Many foreign governments have exploited our shortcomings to divide us further. Yet, instead of solving our inequality problem, it has been exploited more by domestic tribal elites: by promoting segregation and nativism. These elites formed militant guerrilla movements in the past, but now they utilize Facebook and other social media to spread hate and division. Our inequality has thus transformed separatists, nativists and the loudest ethnic elites into famous celebrities. From Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo nationalist with half Amhara descent; to Colonel Demeke Zewdu, an Amhara nationalist with Tigrayan descent, nativism has provided a shortcut to fame and influence for many Ethiopians. On the ground, the EPRDF ruling party apparatus, which falsely claimed that ethnic-federalism will create “unity in diversity”, has instead encouraged ethnic cleansing in all the regions where xenophobic ethnic parties promote the homogenization of their prospective ethnic enclaves.
Therefore, the inequality problem Ethiopia endured pre-1991 at the federal level has worsened and it became decentralized post-1991 to the local level.
We might wonder: Why is Ethiopia existentially and perpetually feeling the brunt of her inequalities, if all other countries globally also had controversial beginnings as well as suffer systemic inequality? Why is Ethiopia specially affected? Of course, our extreme poverty, the system of ethnic-federalism and population explosion all play a major role in our misery. But the answer to such questions is also found in our unique demography.
Compared to other multiethnic countries globally, Ethiopia’s inequality is a more unavoidable question of our survival as a nation, because we have no ethnic majority (but we function as if we have one.) Other countries are multiracial or multiethnic but they still have one dominant racial/ethnic political identity that corresponds to a demographic majority. So other diverse countries can afford to temporarily ignore their inequality problems, because there is one dominant identity behind the dominant culture (or in some cases, they have adopted a global culture/language as their own). However, Ethiopia is a country of minorities, with no single dominant majority group worthy of solely defining the mainstream culture.
So, how do we address such unavoidable structural problem? First, let’s admit we have made progress since the era of our last emperor. For example, when it came to language rights, the TPLF/EPRDF dictatorship tried to take full credit for local language growth, but in reality, local non-Amharic languages were actually first promoted by the late 1980s Marxist regime; though the EPRDF has further expanded it. The 1980s regime wanted to gradually empower all Ethiopians linguistically and culturally without politicizing identity. Unfortunately, TPLF threw that process out the window in 1991 by suddenly institutionalizing tribalism and creating ethnic apartheid administration nationwide.
The question now is; how do we reverse this negative trend, without damaging the positive gains we made toward multiculturalism?
First of all, Ethiopianists or pro-unity forces need to push constitutional reforms that depoliticize ethnicity. Concurrently, we must support bolder and massive multiculturalism initiatives like adopting a secularized version of Irreecha as a national thanksgiving holiday for all Ethiopians. And unlike the previous Meles Zenawi divisive leadership, we have a well-intentioned leader like Abiy Ahmed as an ally. For years, TPLF built monuments and pushed policies to divide Ethiopians, to remind us of our differences and stoke bitterness. That’s why disciples of Zenawism, like Tsegaye Ararsa and Bekele Gerba, are today stoking nativism, banning languages in the marketplace and telling us not to marry beyond ethnic lines. But we must do the reverse, we must advance our initiatives to unite our people and promote multiculturalism. We should join Abiy’s leadership in making Afan Oromo the second official language of Ethiopia. In fact, we can work towards a more inclusive society where federal and regional government services are provided not only in Amharic and Afan Oromo, but gradually, in ALL Ethiopian languages and English. We can slowly move into that direction by requiring all local town governments give services in the languages of the communities that make up at least 10 percent of any locality.
For example, in Addis Ababa, in addition to Amharic and Afan Oromo, local government can provide services in Gurage and Tigrinya languages. Or in Hawassa, in addition to Amharic and Sidama languages, local government can be required to provide services in Wolaita and Gurage languages. Similar policies can be adopted in all small and big towns around the country, which can increase urbanization as well. Instead of pushing a nativism narrative and fight over whose ancestors arrived where first; we should empower all Ethiopians to belong everywhere they are.
Promoting a more inclusive multilingual and multicultural Ethiopia will mitigate ethnic-politics and nativism, away from our national politics. We can never remove tribalism and nativism completely, but at least we can push it to the fringe of our society, where it does less damage to the general population. And when we fix our cultural inequalities, we can easily depoliticize them. For instance, we can use the example of the Mecha Tulama Association (MTA) which gave birth to Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The MTA began as a non-political organization building schools, clinics as well as empowering Oromo culture. But it later took on a more political role, due to the prevailing oppressive system that marginalized unassimilated Oromos. Another example is the Welkait-Tsegede Committee, inspired by TPLF’s linguistic and cultural cleansing in western Tigray. It began as a harmless advocacy organization but it turned into a militant political movement of Amhara nativism claims on Welkait; then later on Raya, Metekel, South Wollo all the way down to Shewa.
Therefore, pro-democracy forces, who want to get Ethiopia out of such tribalism nightmare, essentially need to search for methods that reverse the transformation of MTAs to OLFs, back to being MTA, to struggle nonpolitically for more Oromo input in the reconstruction of mainstream culture in Ethiopia. While I used the MTA-OLF dynamic here as an example, we can plug-in any other variable of ethnic organizations and the stories are the same. Instead of just wishing for the end of ethnic politics, we should address its root causes in order to remake Ethiopia into a country where every cultural group can gain some level of representation and have a stake in our mainstream culture; or at least see the hope of progressing towards one.
There might be critics to this idea who view Irreecha as a pagan festival. In fact, even some Muslim, Orthodox and evangelical Oromos used to look down on Irreecha. To a degree, the festival itself was viewed to be belonging more to the Tulama and Oromos of east Shewa. However, today, many Oromos following the Abrahamic religions have returned back to their traditional roots, as a manifestation of their political development. In the same fashion, pro-unity cosmopolitan and Ethiopianists must exhibit bold political development by first recognizing the decades old “othering” of peripheral cultures from mainstream urban culture; and then make the effort to embrace these “other” cultures to remake our multicultural centers nationwide. In essence, this creates a multilingual and multicultural “ethnic Ethiopian” society to mirror our already inter-wined identity by ancestry. After all, millions of Ethiopians, including our current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are already “ethnic Ethiopians” by descent, since many are born from two or more mixed ethnic ancestry. Ultimately, broadening and redefining mainstream Ethiopian culture, thus reconstructing the identity of multiethnic centers around the country, will go a long way in removing the need for ethnic elites to perpetually fight over ownership of these centers nationwide.
Ed.’s Note: Teshome M. Borago is a United States based accountant, activist and political analyst. Previously affiliated with CUD party, he writes on various Ethiopian and international media outlets. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].