Oh, Finfinnee! May Reason and Justice Prevail!
By Yared Terfassa, March 13, 2019
The City of Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) has been the venue of political theater in Ethiopia for the last century or so. It was the site of the unparalleled deviance of Abune Petros (Megersa of Fiche) in the face of occupation and fascism. The City was also the scene of terror under the Derg wherein a generation of its residents perished.
Today, Finfinnee is not just the loci of political drama but the plot contrivance of the play itself. There is a saber-rattling and divisive political game in and about Addis Ababa. There is an organized movement that wants to use the democratic and administrative questions of the citizens of Finfinnee as a pretext to spread hate against the Oromo and ultimately challenge the existing federal arrangement and constitutional order.
There is a media campaign to radicalize residents of Addis Ababa. For example, the U.S. based EthSat was instrumental in organizing opposition activities in Finfinnee. Residents of Addis Ababa are encouraged to emulate the self-immolation of the Tunisian national for dramatic political effect.
Meetings of radical activists are being organized in Finfinnee to bring the worst in and of its people. The speeches, slogans, chants, and sentiments reflected in the meeting held on March 9, 2019 in Addis Ababa are a cause for concern. The participants would like to create a “we” versus “them” cleavage between residents of Finfinnee and the Oromo people. They want to deny the historical link between the City of Finfinnee and the Oromo people. They want to break the administrative interactions between Finfinnee and Oromia Regional State. They want to build a wall to keep the Oromo out of Finfinnee.
In the mass protest organized by radical activists on the same day, they were demanding to be armed. They were insulting and ridiculing the Deputy Mayor of Finfinnee because he is an Oromo. They threatened to take more action.
The current display of uncalled-for belligerence and prejudice against the Oromo is not to be taken lightly as just another ordinary political drama. It is dangerous and must be given due attention by the Finfinnee Administration, the Oromia Regional Government as well as by the Federal Government of Ethiopia. A dark cloud is beginning to throw its shades on Finfinnee. It may bring about violence in the City and precipitate the dissolution of the State itself.
Finfinnee is made the riddle in today’s political drama in Ethiopia following the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) public pronouncement of its commitment to the existing federal arrangement. This caused the radical activists in and outside of Ethiopia to label Dr. Abiy, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and Obbo Lemma Megersa, President of the Oromia Regional States, as conspirators and traitors. And, following administrative hiccups about illegally built houses and distribution of new condominiums, the radical activists perceived an opportunity to unleash the hitherto pent-up prejudice and wrath against the Oromo people and Oromia.
Dr. Abiy’s accession to power is the old catch-22 in action; he is an Oromo who has become an Ethiopian leader, yet he is an Ethiopian leader who can neither retain his Oromo identity nor help the Oromo in Ethiopia lest he would be branded a narrow Oromo nationalist – not an Ethiopian. Sahle Mariam Hailemelekot, Teferi Mekonen, and Mengistu Hailemariam managed to stay as Ethiopian leaders and escaped the brand because they hid or renounced their Oromo identity. Today, the radicals wish Dr. Abiy does the same. If not, they are organized to cause trouble. Can a rational and dignified person with conscience suddenly change or be expected to change his identity for pleasing irrational, prejudiced radicals?
The radical extremist groups actively working in Addis Ababa consider themselves as the sole representatives of residents of Finfinnee. They portray themselves as the embodiment of what it means to be a resident of Finfinnee. They claim that the present Deputy Mayor does not represent residents of Addis Ababa because he was born in Oromia. They suggest that an Oromo with an accent when speaking Amharic or with an Oromo (last) name is not fit to administer Finfinnee. They have coined a new “Addis Abebee” identity. They have convinced themselves that they are the only ones who have been born in Finfinnee, and hence who have the sole moral right to speak for the City. They willfully forget that there are millions of Oromo and their brothers from all over Ethiopia in Finfinnee who would challenge their delusion and fantasy.
There is no gainsaying that the rights and interests of the residents of Finfinnee to participate in the legislation and execution of the rules governing the city shall be respected. The call for respect of the citizenship rights of residents of Finfinnee is not an ethnic issue; it is a democratic question. All Oromos do or should support the democratic question of Finfinnee.
At the same time, there is no contradiction between the democratic question of Finfinnee and the continuation of the historical and organic link between the City and Oromia. There is no contradiction between Finfinnee being the capital city of Ethiopia and the seat of the Government of the Oromia Regional State. There is no contradiction between the coordination of the Administration of Finfinnee with that of Oromia. There is no contradiction in synchronizing economic, educational, language, cultural, public security policies of the City with the Regional Government. Given the geography, demography and history of the region, such coordination and cooperation are imperative.
Addis Ababa is not only the seat of the Regional Government and the Federal Government, it is also the seat of the African Union. As such, the citizens of Addis Ababa have come from all over Ethiopia and its residents from all over Africa. A cursory look at the demographic history of the Finfinnee reveals that different groups have come to the city at different times and settled in city. The coming to Finfinnee of Amharas and Gurages in large numbers is not an ancient phenomenon. And, arrival time was of minimal significance as Finfinnee harbored all without moaning about place of origin. At the same time, Finfinnee has not always been kind to its Oromo citizens. The city is devoid of any symbols that reflect its historic, natural, continuous connection with the Oromo people. And, the new radicals are bent to take Finfinnee back to the 1940s and 1950s when cultural and lingual racism against the Oromo was at its zenith.
The Oromo claim over Finfinnee has nothing to do “social engineering,” or “special rights or preferences,” or “eviction of non-Oromo residents” as the radical and irresponsible groups would have us believe. Rather, the Oromo claim on Addis Ababa in essence is the recognition of the dynamic and essential link between Addis Ababa and the Oromia Regional State in promoting democracy, justice and peace for the City and the Region. The Oromo people have a strong interest in the peace, development, and democratic governance of the City of Addis Ababa. Conversely, citizens of Adds Ababa have a strong interest in the peace, development and democratic governance of Oromia. The City and the Region share the same values. Both can and must work together to materialize common goals and values.
This invites the question why there seems to be a dispute over “ownership” of Finfinnee today. The Oromo use the term “ownership rights” to emphasize the importance of coordinating administration of Finfinnee with Oromia for regional peace, development, and respect for citizenship rights. The Oromo never employ the term to demand exclusive residency or benefit from Finfinnee. Others deliberately distort the Oromo’s rights and interest on Finfinnee. They present the “ownership” issue as a dispute over the identity of residents of Addis Ababa and the Oromo people. They want to erect a divide, imaginary and actual, between the citizens of the City and Oromia. They manufacture stories and myths to radicalize a segment of the population. But they evoke “unity,” “one Ethiopia,” “post-tribalism,” “modernity,” and “politics based on citizenship” to mask their true identity. A rose by any other name still has horns.
They have come up with a new phrase for an outdated phase in the development of the Ethiopian State. This catchword is ‘Politics based on citizenship.’ It is an old dodgy idea that “cultural assimilation” is a perquisite for Ethiopian citizenship. It is a euphemism for cultural superiority, a disguise for contempt for other cultures, and a cover for denying peoples existence as people.
The primary agenda of these reactionary group is the Oromo civilization: what needs to be smashed, eradicated, obliterated is not injustice or indignity, but the revival of the Oromo culture. They accept the underpinnings of Classical Marxism: a belief in the superiority of modern societies over traditional ones – claiming their culture is more modern than the others’. History teaches us that such irrational prejudice is the incubator of fascism, racism, and war.
Citizenship is a political, legal status created and determined by a State and enforced by law. Participation in the political process is a manifestation of citizenship. The State transforms its subjects to citizenship status by recognizing their rights and obligations to participate in the legislation and execution of the rules governing them. Those without a citizenship status cannot formally participate in politics.
Citizenship is not a neutral concept; it is a contested one. Part of the contest involves the primacy or preference to be given to the basis of the citizenship status itself. Some countries accord citizenship status exclusively based on the individual whereas other countries bestow republican citizenship on the peoples that make up the State.
The choice between the varieties of citizenship statuses is or should be a function of the history of the country. Yet, the whims of political leaders and prevailing political sentiment of the times have influenced the choices countries have made. For example, citizenship status in the United States is based on the individual. This reflects the history of the country; the constituent peoples of the country have either been exterminated or reduced to a point of political insignificance; others have been subjected to racism and oppression for so long they have lost the will to assert themselves as a people. Even the victors themselves feel and express the national and personal shame they feel about what has been done to the other peoples. The cost of standardizing identity is not just the generational pain and suffering it inflicts on the victims, but also the shame on the benefactors as well as the constant tension and uncertainty about the viability of the political union.
The situation in Ethiopia is a little different. Of course, there has been attempts to create a standardized “Ethiopian” by any means necessary. Violence, institutional racism, and shaming have been employed to standardize of the disparate peoples in the country into “one people.” Yet, due to the resiliency of the peoples, Ethiopia remains a multicultural country. Visit the history of Qimant; visit the history of Sidama; visit the history of Oromo; visit the history of Agaw; visit the history of all peoples in Ethiopia. Witness the human spirit for freedom and dignity first hand.
Today, Ethiopia recognizes its peoples. Republican Citizenship is the law of the land. Individual Rights is an indispensable part and parcel of Republican Citizenship. It is the law of the land. This does not mean that Ethiopia is out of the shadows of yester years prejudice and violence against its own peoples. There are radical groups would like to make standardized Ethiopian individuals. They have the audacity to manufacture “new Ethiopians” in the next few months or years. But they do not have the magic wand to do it peacefully and immediately without paid. Oh no! They don’t! They would have to do the old way.
This is an unacceptable proposition for the Oromo in the 21st. The Oromo cannot be reduced to an arbitrary identity standard concocted by irrational and prejudiced political entrepreneurs. Oromo is sacred. Tens of millions Oromos live it, identify with it, find meaning and purpose in it. The Oromo civilization has existed since time immemorial and generations of Oromo have and will always defend its existence and ensure it revival.
The deliberately manufactured crisis about Finfinnee is proxy for challenging the federal arrangement and the Constitution. Finfinnee should be a factor of cooperation and not a bone of contention. Radical, opportunist political groups should not be allowed to cause unnecessary and unwarranted conflict both among citizens of Finfinnee and between citizens of Finfinnee and Oromia. The radical groups are testing the waters; they are testing the resolve and wisdom of the current government. Arrogant and ignorant as they are, it is wise for Dr. Abiy not to gamble on their weakness. Neither is it wise to discount the harm they would cause to the social cohesion in the city of Finfinnee and beyond.
The government of Dr. Abiy and Obbo Lemma have the solemn responsibility for protecting the rights and interests of both the residents of Finfinnee and the Oromo people. The Oromo people have been demobilized since the coming to power of the ODP and Dr. Abiy whereas the radical group is forming a well-financed and greased machinery. This spells disaster.
The Oromo people’s right and interests shall not be a sacrificial lamb for appeasing irrational prejudice. Simultaneously, residents of Finfinnee shall not be made cannon fodders for the irrational, prejudiced political project of a new breed of old players.