EIEP: Prosperity Party’s win is a loss for Oromia—and Ethiopia

EIEP: Prosperity Party’s win is a loss for Oromia—and Ethiopia

The government then failed to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate (DDR) the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed wing of OLF, as per the agreement with the movement. Instead, it accused OLA of killing four Benishangul-Gumuz officials and, by September 2018, it installed military command posts in western and southern parts of Oromia to hunt OLA fighters and take their weapons by force.

Widespread violence broke out in Benishangul’s Kamashi Zone after the four Gumuz officials were killed by gunmen near the West Wellega border in Oromia. The killings came after allegations by the Benishangul People’s Liberation Movement, an opposition party, that OLF members had carried out multiple attacks against indigenous people in the region. The federal government declared a state of emergency in the region, and it extended military operations against the OLA across western Oromia. In April 2018, as a result of clashes between Guji Oromos and Gedeo people of the Southern Nations Nationalities and People Region (SNNP) in Gedeo Zone, the government increased troop deployments in southern Oromia. In January 2019, political figures and elders, including Jawar Mohammed and members of the Abbaa Gadaas, tried to mediate between the government and OLF to renegotiate a DDR agreement with the OLA. That effort failed and, in April 2019, the OLA announced that it had established its own High Command.

Nominally demonstrating its own commitment to DDR, the OLF publicly disassociated itself with the OLA in May 2019. It formally confined itself to peaceful politics, while the OLA continued its armed resistance.

This year, on 27 April, OLA proposed an eight-point plan requesting an immediate ceasefire and an independent investigation into human rights abuses in order to find a peaceful resolution and resolve political and economic instability in Oromia. It declared its readiness to cooperate with all stakeholders wanting to bring an end to conflicts in Ethiopia. 

The federal government’s response four days later was to declare OLA a terrorist organization. It used the term OLF-Shene to refer to the group—a term that heavily implies association with the OLF.

Although the government has rarely acknowledged the war being waged in Oromia between its forces and the OLA, both sides have reported victories in battles. 

In early June, the Oromia police commission reported killing 95 members of “OLF-Shene” in Guji and Borena zones. The government accused the Oromo rebels of killing a total of 463 people in Oromia since the beginning of 2020, including 112 police officers, 57 militia members, and 18 government leaders; it also accused them of injuring 76 police officers, 36 militia members, and two officials.

The authorities have also blamed OLA for massacres against Amhara civilians in Oromia, including in eastern and western Wellega in western Oromia. OLA denied responsibility for the attacks, and activists often allege that the rebel group is being framed by the authorities.

Over the last three years, OLA has expanded its activity and grown in popularity across Oromia and abroad. In February this year, Fikadu Tessema, Head of Oromia-PP, described OLA’s ubiquity as such: “[Its members] are civilians during the day, they live among the people, they participate in our meetings, they gather information, and they take their actions at night.”

Representing his party’s position, and revealing how the government aims to deal with the OLA, Fikadu then stated: “You will never be able to catch all the fish of Pacific or Atlantic Oceans. If you want to completely get rid of all the fish, you will need to dry up the ocean.” 

Such divisive rhetoric served to generate further support for OLA’s armed resistance.

As a result, more and more Oromos are joining the rebel group as security and human rights protections in the region crumble, military crackdowns against civilians become routine, and the space for political freedom and party opposition tighten to a chokehold.

For many in Oromia, the OLA is seen now as the best option for achieving self-determination.

Abounding atrocities

Today, in Oromia, some say that no place or no person is safe. In Burayu: “You can get killed in your house; you can get killed on your farm; you can get killed on the street; you can get killed at a funeral service; you can get killed at your workplace, and you can even get killed in the detention center,” one civil servant told Ethiopia Insight this June. “There is no such thing called due process or rule of law in Oromia.”

In May 2020, Amnesty International released a report on the human rights abuses committed by government security forces in the two Guji zones in Oromia. The report itemized extrajudicial executions in 2019, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment. It also detailed forced evictions and destruction of property against suspected supporters and members of OLF and OLA.

This May, the government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), formally legally autonomous, released a report concerning conditions in detention centers in Oromia. Research came from monitoring 21 selected police stations between November 2020 and January 2021 where numerous prisoners arrested in connection with what the authorities describe as “the current situation” are being detained, including many who were arrested in July 2020 following the assassination of Hachalu.

The EHRC expressed alarm and indicated that grave violations of human rights had been committed. The report contained testimonies that described arrests of suspects’ family members in some areas—including arresting parents to demand they bring in children suspected of being members or supporters of OLA, and arresting a wife to produce a husband suspected of association with the group.

On 11 May, regional government forces publicly executed Amanuel Wendimu, a 17-year-old youth suspected of being a member of the shadowy assassins group Abbaa-Torbee, in Dembi Dollo, the region’s far west. Oromia officials justified the extra-judicial killing.

Amanuel Wendimu on the main traffic circle in Dembi Dollo with his hands tied behind his back and a pistol hanging on his chest, minutes before he was publicly executed; social media

In a 7 June report, the Oromia Support Group (OSG), an advocacy organization researching human rights abuses against Oromos, documented 2,107 recorded killings since October 2018. Of these, 1,326 were Oromo, of whom 766 were killed in western Oromia. 

Over three years of fighting, members of the OLA and government have accused each other of killing civilians and committing extrajudicial executions, especially in parts under military command in western and southern Oromia.

The federal government’s original crackdown in Oromia mainly targeted the OLA and by extension OLF members and supporters. However, by 2019, many Oromo politicians, including the leaders of the OFC, still saw Abiy as offering a way forward for Oromo aspirations.

Concerns about Abiy grew gradually. Returned activist Jawar’s shift in attitude towards the Prime Minister provides an example of the change. 

Jawar was a key player in the 2013 establishment of the Oromia Media Network (OMN) in the US, which provided a mouthpiece for supporting Oromo demonstrations beginning in 2015, leading to Abiy’s appointment as prime minister.

Jawar returned to Ethiopia in August 2018, and, for a time, was seen by some Oromo activists as a quasi-government official with close ties to leaders in the OFC. Within a year, he became concerned about the direction of Abiy’s policies—not least his plan to merge the four EPRDF parties and their five allies into a single Prosperity Party.

Ethiopiawinet vs Oromumma

Oromia is the scene of political competition structured around two competing ideologies: Oromummaa and Ethiopiawinet—Oromo nationalism and Pan-Ethiopianism. The federal government has sided with pan-Ethiopianists to the exclusion of Oromo nationalists. This has intensified polarization and turned the situation in Oromia into another phase of a protracted crisis—a crisis that this election has done nothing to resolve, and may well have exacerbated.

Neither Oromummaa nor Ethiopiawinet is static, and conceptions of each have changed over time. What each term offers, though, is a deeply-felt idea of what it means to be an Ethiopian and/or an Oromo—what the identity means, and who is included in the category.

Whether the two can be reconciled has been an issue at least since the time of Emperor Menelik II. Menelik, whose defeat of the Italians in 1896 preserved Ethiopia’s independence, was largely responsible for expanding his empire to include numerous other groups, including forcibly incorporating most of the Oromo lands into Ethiopia’s empire.

Ethiopiawinet envisions Ethiopian national identity as unified: as an inclusive identity for all people belonging to the nation’s territory. Its proponents often argue that the diversity in Ethiopia is intrinsic to Ethiopiawinet. They defend Menelik’s expansion, saying that it was part and parcel of state and nation-building, arguing that Oromo rulers themselves have subjugated other groups during their own earlier conquests.

In the 1960s, a rigorous debate about the complexity of Ethiopiawinet added depth to the idea. Many began to see the identity as imposed, inherently imperial, and one which centers on the northern people of Amhara and Tigray.

Addressing the way Amhara (and Tigray) supremacy was enclosed within the concept of Ethiopian nationalism and how non-Amhara nations were subjugated, Wallelign Mekonnen famously offered an alternative Ethiopiawinet back in 1969: an identity for members in a genuinely democratic and egalitarian state, in which all nationalities might participate equally in state affairs, with equal opportunities to preserve and develop their language, history, and cultural expressions. 

Today, many proponents of pan-Ethiopianism have accommodated criticisms, and prefer to focus on national and political boundaries over religious, cultural, and linguistic markers to define Ethiopiawinet.

Its opponents, however, say it rejects those who promote the self-determination of their own ethnicity or nationality. They argue that pan-Ethiopianists glorify the legacy of the emperors while presenting themselves as patriots; this paves over the marginalization and resentment of other nationalities and peoples.

Oromummaa is an alternative to pan-Ethiopianism for the Oromo people. 

In the Oromo language, it simply means ‘Oromo-ness’, or the sense of being Oromo. One Burayu teenager defined it for Ethiopia Insight as such: “Oromummaa is my blood, my identity, my culture, and my family tree or genealogy.”

Oromummaa also embodies an ongoing struggle: the struggle to end century-old subjugation. It holds with it a demand to exercise the constitutionally-given right to self-determination for the Oromo people.

Those struggling for more power as a state within Ethiopia, on the one hand, employ Oromummaa as a way to empower the nation’s Oromo majority. On the other hand, Oromos fighting for independence use the term to set boundaries for a future Oromia nation-state. 

Exclusionist Ethiopianism 

The Derg military regime (1974-1991) which overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie tried to sideline the ideological debate. Its socialist slogan stated simply: “Ethiopia First.”

As a response to the coercive centralization that had bred rebellion, multinational federalism was introduced by the EPRDF in Ethiopia’s 1995 Constitution.

By the time Abiy was appointed prime minister, however, numerous demands for self-determination were seen as having the potential to compromise the state. An updated version of pan-Ethiopianism has gained prominence, as Oromummaa and other nationalisms have proliferated. 

Abiy has been the leading proponent for a new version of Ethiopiawinet

Abiy’s Ethiopiawinet purports to keep the best of the past, while looking forward to the future. Conflicting narratives of historical oppression and deep marginalization are dropped in favor of a more positive and productive shared identity, more fit for the present.

His slogan ‘Make Ethiopia Great Again’ harkens back to the political ideologies of Ethiopia’s emperors. Abiy adds to this his philosophy of ‘Medemer’,  which can roughly be translated as synergy, togetherness, or unity.

The ideology aims at forging a new Ethiopian identity by combining all the nations in Ethiopia, both the marginalized and the privileged, blending their languages, beliefs, norms, customs, and cultures together, merging and condensing their identities into an inseparable, unified, national identity.

This is more than theoretical, and Abiy has given tangible ideas about language teaching, for example, for how such synergy can be accomplished. In an article he wrote for Project Syndicate, Abiy stated (incorrectly), “The political party I now lead is the first in Ethiopia that is not based on race, religion, or ethnicity.” In a recent speech, he proclaimed: “There are no ‘peoples’ in Ethiopia, only people.”

While on paper Abiy aims to foster unity while respecting diversity, much of the discourse which has followed his Ethiopiawinet revival has been far more toxic and exclusionary. 

In June 2018, the NaMA was established, with the goal of defending Amhara interests across Ethiopia. One official even insisted the Amhara should be respected for “creating Ethiopia”, just as people respect their creator—the party later apologized for using such incendiary language. 

Pro-unity media institutions like Ethio 360 Media, Abay Media, and others, have campaigned against Oromummaa. Delegitimizing Oromo nationalism, activists have been referred to as ‘tribalists’ or ‘racists’, similar to the way the EPRDF called them “narrow nationalists”.

Some Ethiopian nationalists are openly stating that they would like to destroy Oromummaa the same way they tried to destroy the TPLF. Protesters across Amhara have taken to the street holding anti-Oromo banners that read “Oromummaa should be destroyed, Ethiopia should be first” and “Oromo Special Zone must be destroyed,” referring to an Oromo enclave in Amhara that suffered extreme violence earlier this year in what some reports blamed predominantly on Amhara paramilitaries.

Protesters in Amhara region carrying a banner that reads “Oromummaa should be destroyed; Ethiopia should be first”; April 2021; social media

Many Oromos, even those who are Ethiopian nationalists and who continue to believe in the future of a semi-autonomous Oromia within Ethiopia, see the glorification of emperors as inherently hostile. It has led to increased polarization across Oromia, as Amhara nationalism and Abiy’s acceptance of it has made the vision of Oromumma as a separatist movement more appealing.

As one young Burayu resident told Ethiopia Insight: “Their hate for Oromo is forcing us to give up on pursuing a way we could live together equally and freely in the same country.”

The reappearance of the ‘neftegna’ narrative among Oromos has been another consequence of Amhara-centric-Ethiopiawinet rhetoric. 

Another Burayu youth asserted that, “The term Ethiopiawinet is used as a weapon to resurrect the neftegna system that subjugated the nations and nationalities in the country. Its goal is to destroy Oromummaa.” 

A ‘neftegna’ (ነፍጠኛ), literally ‘rifle-bearer’, is the name given to settlers who participated in territorial expansion and the creation of modern Ethiopia by the late 19th century. In Oromia, they were seen as ‘settler colonialists’, violently evicting Oromos, forcibly assimilating indigenous populations to the values and system of Northern Ethiopia, and turning farmers into serfs.

Abiy, once envisioned as an embodiment of Oromo pride and power, is now seen by many Oromos as someone working to revive a system of subjugation similar to the one enacted in imperial times. 

The feeling of betrayal is strong.

According to one Burayu activist: “Abiy deceived the Oromo people. Now, he is building the neftegna system over the graves of our children who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of our people.” 

Another claimed: “Abiy’s administration is on the side of those campaigning publicly to commit genocide on the Oromo people, with the intention of reinstating the old neftegna system of emperors.” 

As a result of Abiy’s association with imperialist nationalism, politicians in opposition parties across Oromia have expressed even stronger support for Oromumma.

Abiy’s office explicitly denied such allegations following the Hachalu violence, saying it was a “desperate attempt to defame” his leadership: “The term ‘neftegna’ “has nothing to do with the current government; it has nothing to do with the Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. This is a part of history, and it, in no way, reflects the current political situation.” 

Dialogue debate

In the pre-election transition period, national and international institutions alike called repeatedly for an all-inclusive national dialogue. Some calls, like from the OLF and OFC, have demanded a National Transitional Government, and a transitional government in Oromia. 

Necessary aims of the dialogue in Oromia include addressing underlying issues including the government’s crackdown on its opponents and exclusion of Oromo parties, the ongoing war between the government and OLA, justice and reconciliation with Oromia leaders in jail, and the hostile campaign against Oromummaa.

This April, the two main Oromo political parties, OLF and OFC, and the OLA, released statements on how to end hostility and resolve the current crisis in Oromia. The OLF proposed an all-inclusive democratic reform process with the participation of all representative political forces. 

The OFC also called for an inclusive national dialogue, reconciliation, and consensus. OLA called for a national conference to map a transitional charter, a transitional government, and the postponement of the election.

On 22 June, a day after the election, US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price said the elections would not resolve Ethiopia’s increasing conflicts. At a press briefing, he stated: “We urge all Ethiopians to commit to an inclusive political dialogue that strengthens democracy and helps to resolve inter-ethnic and inter-communal conflicts.” 

The OFC and OLF agreed. 

On 23 June, the OFC issued another statement calling for immediate talks on the establishment of an all-inclusive Government of Salvation to undertake the aborted reform of governmental institutions; an immediate, all-inclusive, and honest political dialogue to sort out the country’s outstanding political problems; and the holding of a genuine ‘free and fair’ national election within one year.” 

Thus far, all calls for comprehensive and inclusive dialogue have been rebuffed. 

Abiy’s inconsistencies—i.e., inviting back exiled leaders only to prosecute them, promoting medemer while elevating imperialist-nationalism, and making peace with Eritrea only to wage war on Tigray—makes it difficult to know what he will do next. 

However, one thing comes across clearly enough in Oromia: Abiy leaves little room for anything that threatens him holding power. If the last three years have been an indication of what is to come, the possibility of genuine democratic dialogue seems slim, and the Oromo struggle for genuine autonomy will therefore continue to strengthen.