Ethiopia is haunted by ghosts of its violent history. Can it be redeemed?

Ethiopia is haunted by ghosts of its violent history. Can it be redeemed?

“Except for fringe ultra-nationalists, most Ethiopian people accepted and embraced the Federal Constitution, which promised to protect indigenous rights, minority rights, and identity. The constitution provided for the recognition of ethnic language and culture, the recognition of indigenous rights to land and natural resources, and the right to govern their affairs.”

“Instead of futile attempts to recreate a homogeneous nation-state, Prime Minister Abiy and his party should embrace dialogue to deliberate and agree on how to better manage our diversity.”

Ethiopia is haunted by ghosts of its violent history. Can it be redeemed?

What on earth is happening in Ethiopia? Less than three years after a promising reform, there are tensions and conflicts in nearly all ten regional states. Amid growing signs of political frailty, authorities are defaulting to a true and tried Ethiopian tradition: Repression, human rights abuses, harassment, intimidation, and dehumanization by ideologically allied deep state and ultra-nationalists.

The repressive deep state system’s return recalls the imperial-era assimilationist rule, the brutal terrors of the communist Dergue, and the authoritarian abuses of the last 28 years. The deep scars and historical trauma are still fresh in the eyes of many Ethiopians, particularly among the marginalized ethnic groups, who do not wish to see the recreation or restoration of one ethnic group’s hegemonic dominance.

Yet, the deep state agents and allies are working relentlessly to resurrect the dominance, supremacy, and hegemony of one group over the systematically “othered” ethnic minorities. These hopeless nostalgics could not get over past imperialistic illusions and historical amnesia. They yearn to revive a genocidal past at the expense of a multicultural system built on the principles of equality, mutual respect, and co-existence. Their dark desires have taken over reasoning. They hallucinate to Amharanize everything under cover of promoting national unity as openly propagated by Daniel Kibret, a senior advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Sadly, their delusional ambitions are causing all the tensions and conflicts we see in Ethiopia today.

In Ethiopia, the deep state agents are ultra-nationalist Ethiopians who believe the country is a divinely designed geographical entity with one religion, one flag, one culture, and one language (Amharic). Under the past acrimonious systems, these agents promoted Ethiopia as an island of Christianity inhabited by native Amharas and their settler subjects. The official hagiography considers the 80 plus nations and nationalities as settler migrants, subordinates, and non-indigenous cultural and religious groups who live in Ethiopia. These are complete historical aberrations.

A true reckoning

To move forward, Ethiopia must first reckon with its turbulent past. That process should start with the full accounting of the country’s complex history. It is only through an understanding of their history that the young generation could acquire the capacity to revive, preserve and practice their culture, traditions, and language. Those who do not know their history often suffer from an identity crisis and become directionless political entities.

In this piece, I will highlight a few facts and historical records compiled by various local and international authors on the erasure of Harar, Oromo, Somali, Afar, and other independent nations in the 1880s  and early 1900s. Emperor Menelik’s southward conquest led to genocidal wars and the destruction of many independent kingdoms.

Before the advent of conquests and annexations, the Abyssinian territories were: Amhara, Tigre, Gojjam, and Shoa. As Wilfred Thesiger, in his book, The Life of My Choice, wrote: before he was incapacitated, Menelik had incorporated into his empire: the Ogaden, the town of Harar, the lands of the Oromo, the Gurage country, the ancient kingdom of Kaffa, the Anuak, Beni Shangul, Kambata, and other Nilotic tribes along the border with Sudan. These historical facts underscore how the forces of aggression and deep state-allied expansionists wiped out free nations from the Horn of Africa map in the 1880s and early 1900s.

Menelik as King of Shoa conquered the following territories:
1) In 1886 – Guma, Gomma, Ghera, Limmu, and Gimma (as protectorate)
2) In 1887 – Harar, Gurage, Tulama Oromo conquest begun.
3) In 1887 – Anole massacre and conquered Arsi
4) In 1889 – Kambata was conquered.

He then, as Emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik deconstructed and annexed:
5) In 1890 – Leqa Oromo and Yem
6) In 1893 – Wolaita, Sidama, and Tulama Oromo conquest completed
7) In 1894 – the Ogaden conquest began
8) In 1897 – Kaffa, Jambo, Gimira Konso, Burji, and Ogaden conquests were completed.
9) In 1899 – Gubba, Gunza, Beni Shangul and Boran
10) In 1900 – Nilotic Tribes
11) In 1909 – Aussa, Beru and Teru, and
12) In 1935 – Jimma was annexed by the Emperor Haile Selassie.

In other words, the expedition and war of annexation to patch up imperial Ethiopia in the second half of the 19th century marked the end of these kingdoms. It also heralded the establishment of the ideologically positioned deep state. In essence, imperial Ethiopia was forged by swallowing up diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Muslims and indigenous believers, that inhabited present-day Ethiopia for centuries.

Geopolitical convergence

Menelik’s conquest and efforts to eradicate Muslims and minority ethnic groups benefited from a convergence of geopolitical interests, as Somali Ambassador Mohamed Osman Omar observes in his book, Somalia: Past and Present:

On 22 January 1887, Major Hunter, who was the official who had made the Somalis sign the Protectorate Treaties a year earlier, reported that Menelek of Shoa was within three days’ march of Harar and that the Emir had gone out with all his force to fight the Abyssinians, who were accompanied by several Italians.

Jebril Marijou, an interpreter of Menelek, who had been in Zeyla for some days past, informed Estemios Moussaya that at the instigation of the French, the King was about to attack Harar. An army of 15,000 men, of which 5,000 were cavalry and the reminder infantry and artillery, were on the move to invade Harar.

On 8 January 1887, after invading and occupying Harar, Menelik wrote the following letter (dated 20 January) to the British Consul at Aden.

To the English Consul at Aden, 

How are you. By the Grace of God, I am well. Amir Abdillahi would suffer no Christian in his country. He was another Gragne, but by the help of God, I fought him, destroyed him, and he escaped alone on horseback. I hoisted my flag in his capital, and my troops occupied his city, Gragne died: Abdillahi was in our days his successor. This is not a Mussalman country, as everyone knows. 

The British Consul, Major Hunter, wrote back 10 February 1887: 

We have received Your Majesty‘s friendly letter informing us that you captured and occupied Harrar and hoisted your flag there. There can be no need to recall the terms of the treaty concluded with Her Majesty the Queen in 1841 by Your Majesty‘s predecessor King Sahela Selassie, Negus of Shoa, Efat, and Galla. 

Your Majesty may rest assured of the continued friendship of the British Government, and we hope that under Your Majesty‘s protection may revive and the trade route be safe. 

On all the Somali Coast from Ghubbet Kharab, especially at Zaila, Bulhar, and Berbera, where our troops are now stationed, we shall always be glad to further Your Majesty‘s interests. 

These disgraceful letters clearly showed how local and international forces committed social injustices and degraded Islam and Muslims at the time. The letters’ contents are further evidence of annexations of diverse territories, reminders of local and international abuses, and marked the loss of glorious height of peace and prosperity for the diverse people of the conquered peripheries of Abyssinia. Today, as in the past, Ethiopia’s political sickness boils down to numerical power politics and false singular national identity and ownership.

The invasive and expansionist “nation-building” project emulsified diversity into one religion, one flag, one language, and one culture. Among the panoply of usurped independent statehoods were nations, kingdoms, or self-governing territories with their distinct socio-economic characteristics and institutions. The conquered populations lost their statehoods, identities, cultures, and languages. Menelik’s successors modified, expanded, and continued his totalizing policies, which led to decades of resistance and catastrophic wars.

A glimpse of hope

A glimpse of hope came three decades ago when a coalition of ethno-national groups set up a multinational federation for the first time. The federal constitution that reconfigured Ethiopia in the early 1990s in its preamble emphasizes and recognizes: “We, the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia.” It guaranteed them, under Article 39, “an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession; to speak, to write and to develop its own language; to express, to develop and to promote its culture; and to preserve its history; a full measure of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in state and Federal governments.”

Except for fringe ultra-nationalists, most Ethiopian people accepted and embraced the Federal Constitution, which promised to protect indigenous rights, minority rights, and identity. The constitution provided for the recognition of ethnic language and culture, the recognition of indigenous rights to land and natural resources, and the right to govern their affairs.

However, this too failed because the new rulers left the structures of the deep state intact and tried to extend their grip on power through repressive and undemocratic practices. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) came to power promising local self-rule and national shared rule, but, once in power, it opted to re-enact Ethiopia’s culture of injustice, human rights abuses, and marginalization of minorities. The political crisis that followed, leading to the group’s ignominious defeat, underscored how, in the words of James Baldwin, “ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy, justice can have.”

To truly move forward, Ethiopians must acknowledge and accept the agony of 80 plus ethnic groups, who have endured silent genocide in imperial Ethiopia and all manners of abuses after that. In line with UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, consolidating and establishing democratic multinational order is the only way to ensure equity and equality without repeating the political pitfalls of previous experiments.

If the current federal constitution is refined and appropriately implemented, it will be an approximate panacea for the accumulated political ills and historical aberrations in Ethiopia. A genuinely democratic multinational federalism treasures and celebrates diversity. It liberates minorities from internal constraints. It paves the way for the minorities to determine their destiny and govern their territories. It grants freedom and equal citizenship to all Ethiopians.

For Ethiopia to emerge from the vicious cycle of violence, it is important to ground our analyses of the recurrent tensions in the country’s violent history. The demands for statehood and genuine self-rule are rooted in history and the cry for respect and accommodation of diversity. A military-led law and order operation may temporarily restore calm, but it won’t guarantee lasting peace since, as Malcolm X said, “you cannot separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” 

Way backward or forward? 

Given its violent history, the only way forward for Ethiopia is a genuine and inclusive dialogue with open-mindedness and respect for each ethnicity and our shared humanity. Instead of futile attempts to recreate a homogeneous nation-state, Prime Minister Abiy and his party should embrace dialogue to deliberate and agree on how to better manage our diversity. That process should begin with acknowledging the violent history of state-formation and accepting democratic multinational federation as a cure, not a disease. Ethiopia’s history teaches us that the use of brute force and internalized and institutionalized discrimination brought neither national unity nor peace.

The time has come to implement multinational federalism fully. To be sure, the 1995 constitution is not perfect. But it is an excellent place to start. It can be reformed and brought in line with the realities of our time. For example, by dividing the country into only nine states, it denied due recognition to the Sidama, Wolaita, Silte, etc., people, who were before annexation independent nations or kingdoms in their own rights. That is why these groups are now demanding the same legal recognition and autonomy given to other ethnic groups according to the constitution’s provisions.

The causes of conflicts across Ethiopia vary and depend on the historical relationship between different ethnic groups. But, at the moment, the key driver is the current government’s policies and efforts to implicitly and explicitly undermine the Federal Constitution. The Abiy administration and its allies must at once stop attempts at social programming (alias Amharanization) as it will only push the country further into political turmoil and disintegration. They should then rally all Ethiopians to come together to stop the internal bleeding. Reconciliation, forgiveness, respect, and equity will heal the political and social wounds that variably exist, for as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “we must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools.”

Finally, Ethiopia has gone through assorted self-destructive modes of rule for centuries. It is time we follow a peaceful means, reform our attitudes towards one another, and agree on a flag, shared symbols, and history. I came to speak my mind, and I shall say it now. I yearn for my decolonized village, kingdom, state, and beautifully diverse country. I love its peoples because of their worldly poverty, spiritual strengths, and cultural diversity. In my country, I spoke Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Harari, and Tigrigna. I also spoke Arabic, English, and many more.

I yearn for all the languages and cultures to develop—for Nations and Nationalities to self-govern and determine their fate with integrity, respect, and dignity. My soul believes in the power of knowledge and justice over dark ignorance and deceptions; it denies the sick mentality of feudalism, pro-imperial political elites from numerically dominant social groups that supply arrogance, ignorance, and social injustices in the current political dispensation in Ethiopia.