Abiy Ahmed’s Vision for Ethiopia
There is one question that I often get asked in different fora by different groups of people, including international actors with limited understanding of Ethiopia’s complex history and current dynamics. The question goes something like this: Ethiopia is currently ruled by an Oromo Prime Minister ushered into power by an Oromo movement. Why are Oromos not happy? Since the PM is an Oromo, isn’t the Oromo issue now one of elite infighting than any serious problem faced by Oromos on account of being Oromo or by merely belonging to an Oromo opposition group?
I think this is a vital question at the root of so much of Ethiopia’s debate over the country’s future and I want to offer some thought on a narrow aspect of this question, so bear with me:
First, the notion that Abiy is ethnic Oromo and therefore Oromos should be satisfied is deeply reductive and erroneous. It is reductive because it reduces the Oromo national question into an individual and it is erroneous because it fails to take into account the empire’s assimilationist policies and their effects on people’s bodies and minds.
Yes, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is ethnic Oromo. But the vision of the future he is offering the Ethiopian people is radically at odds with the expressed wishes and desires of the Oromo people over the last five decades. The vision Abiy is offering Ethiopia is not the Oromo vision of pluralism, multinationalism, cultural autonomy, and multiculturalism. It is the Amhara vision of “Ethiopian unity” under Amhara cultural and linguistic dominion.
The historical narratives Abiy accepts and tells about Ethiopia, his celebration and memorialization of Emperor Menelik II, his pathological obsession with greatness and exceptionalism, his embrace of war and violence as means of settling ideological disputes, his centralizing tendencies, his central policy proposals, are all visions that are aligned more with the Amhara vision of state formation. This vision is not new. It was the founding vision that underpinned Menelik’s Ethiopia. It was the vision that informed Haile-Selassie’s failed nation-building project. It was the vision that guided Mengistu Hailemariam’s calamitous red-terror campaign. It was an assimilationist, supremacist and grotesquely racist vision that is anathema to a nation of extreme ethnic heterogeneity and cultural diversity.
Abiy himself may not see what he is offering Ethiopia as an iteration of that vision, but his narratives, policies, and practices clearly show that that is what is on offer. That is what the majority of Oromo and people in the South understand his policy to be. That is also what his main support base, the Amhara regional state, and ethnically or culturally Amhara urban elite, understand his vision to be. Just look at their hysterically support and defense of the bloody war in Tigray that led to ethnic cleansing, and the return of old imperial paraphernalia to Ethiopia’s public life (Menelik, the old Ethiopian flag etc).
It is extremely depressing to witness how Abiy wasted a terrific opportunity to transform Ethiopia. Instead of delivering the promised national consensus, reconciliation, and democratic transition, Abiy further polarized Ethiopia and plunged its people into a bottomless abyss. The political realities established on the ground over the last five months will be with us for decades to come. At this point, no one can guarantee that the future of Tigray will lie with Ethiopia. All three opposition parties there are demanding, among other things, a referendum on the future of the region. And we know what the outcome of that would be.
Ethiopia faces a crisis that is extraordinary and unprecedented in recent decades.
The country is in the middle of a civil war characterized by mass atrocity crimes. Credible international organizations including the United Nations have come to the view that there is a reasonable basis to suspect that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in Tigray. The United States government concluded that events in Western Tigray amounted to ethnic cleansing. This is extraordinary, and consequential both for Tigray and the Ethiopian state. It will become part of our historical record and collective memory. For Tigrayans, it will be a defining event, a central feature of their national narrative, in the same way, that Menelik’s brutal annexation and conquest served as the narrative anchor for Oromos and others in the south of the country.
The Ethiopian government needs to recognize that the path it is on is a path to nowhere. The strides we have made over the last two several months is a stride into darkness. Returning from the cliff edge requires leadership, courage, humility and so much more. It requires a move away from the current vision.
Most importantly, if Ethiopia is to stand any chance of moving forward as a peaceful, unified and tolerant nation, the founders of the Ethiopian state, the Amhara, needs to begin to fashion a new and different kind of story about themselves and the state they created, a story that is inclusive, reflexive, forward-looking, progressive, and open. Just as the Amhara would not accept centering the Ethiopian state around the Oromo or Somali culture, there is no reason why the Oromo (larger the the Amhara) or the Somali or Tigray would accept a logic of nation-building that centers Ethiopia around an Amhara language and culture. We must face this reality.
A diverse country like Ethiopia, with a history of imperial legacy, one that just experimented with a form of multi-ethnic federalism and a significant percentage of the population was born during this experiment, in the age where social media and the internet democratized the flow of information, could not be centered around a single cultural core. To think that this is possible in this age is simply insane. As we have seen in Tigray, such a move produces the opposite result. Instead of consolidating Ethiopia into a unified and more centralized state, it will lead to a violent disintegration.
Any decent human being who cares about Ethiopia and its people, in the now and the future, must take these concerns seriously.
– Awol Kassim Allo