Walelign Mekonnen, the Question of Nationalities and Ethiopia’s Persistent Crisis

Walelign Mekonnen, the Question of Nationalities and Ethiopia’s Persistent Crisis

By Mekuria Bulcha, PhD, Professor


That Ethiopia is in deep crisis is known to all who follow the political development in the country. That the crisis is likely to lead to the demise of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is also an assessment shared by many.  Indeed, it is not the first time that Ethiopia finds itself in deep political crisis. Two of the latest crises were the 1974 revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, and the uprising which led to the 1991 demise of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military regime. The ominous signs we saw on the eve of the fall of the two regimes have been haunting the EPRDF regime particularly during the last two years. The political, social and economic reports suggest that the country is facing a multidimensional crisis. The atrocities committed against civilians is not decreasing. The EPRDF leaders may claim that they are doing their best to find solution to the crisis, but the results are far from convincing. This is particularly the case in Oromia which has been the epicenter of popular uprising for the last four years. The officially ignored internal displacement of over one million Oromo in the eastern and southern parts of Oromia, and the continued killing of civilians in many places in Oromia in recent weeks indicate that the crisis is far from over. Ethiopia’s crisis is rooted in the creation of that state as an empire at the end of the nineteenth century.

This article critiques the description of the source of the current Ethiopian crisis and the approaches suggested for its solution. While there is consensus concerning the magnitude of the crisis, its suggested source and solution are controversial. Commentators who have been writing or speaking about the crisis see the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) of the 1960s and 1970s as the original instigators of the current political crisis of the Ethiopian state. The ESM is blamed of importing a foreign ideology that has divided the Ethiopian peoples into ‘tribes’. The late student leader Walelign Mekonnen is blamed as the main culprit. His article on the “Question of Nationalities” from 1969 is considered as the root of the crisis. In this article I will argue that the purpose of Walelign’s thesis was not to sow seeds for Ethiopia’s disintegration, as suggested by those who demonize his name, but to solve existing problems and promote justice. Justice was to be done only through the recognition of the rights of each and every people in the empire. Walelign prioritized human and peoples’ rights over the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state. The purpose of taking up the issue is not only to defend Walelign but to underline the relevance of his honest suggestions even today. He did not invent problems but described the existing reality on the ground. The concepts he used were and still are relevant and reflect the imperial nature and the structure of the Ethiopian state. The problem he described and the solution he suggested are pertinent today as they were in 1969. My firm belief is that demonizing Walelign and those who speak the truth cannot solve a serious problem rooted in the making of the Ethiopian empire state.  The acknowledgement of the true history of its creation is the first step in the right direction to solve the problem. That was what was suggested by Walelign fifty years ago.

Genuine Ethiopians and convertible tribes

The politics of recognition is the main focus of Walelign’s treatise. It concerns collective social identity, which is eenyumaa in Oromo parlance and mannenat in Amharic, and its recognition by the imperial Ethiopian ruling elite and the society at large. It was focusing on this that Walelign made his often quoted statement,

To be a “genuine Ethiopian” one has to speak Amharic, to listen to Amharic music, to accept Amhara-Tigre religion, Orthodox Christianity … In some cases to be an ‘Ethiopian’, you will have to change your name [to Amhara-Tigre name]. In short to be an Ethiopian, you will have to wear an Amhara mask.[1]

The imperial ideology privileged Abyssinian culture and way of life. Therefore, the general understanding was that the Abyssinians are the historic staatvolk or bearers of the Ethiopian identity or Ethiopiawinnet. Assimilation was needed to convert non-Abyssinian “tribes” into “genuine” Ethiopian citizens. The message that the educational and political institutions imparted to them was that it was their duty to learn the language and adopt the culture of the dominant group to participate in the social and political affairs of the empire.

Walelign was not the first one to refer to the Abyssinians as “genuine Ethiopians”. It was Edward Ullendorff who applied the term to them in his book The Ethiopians. The meaning he attached to the term was descriptive. In Walelign’s paper the term is used as critique. Walelign was a 24 years old fourth year political science student at the Haile Selassie I University (HSIU) when he wrote the article. He read the “writings on the wall” so to speak and put it on paper concisely. He presented his short paper at a student gathering in November 1969. It had an electrifying effect on his audience who were packed into the “Christmas Hall”, a barrack-like structure that served as a student cafeteria and assembly hall on the Sidist Kilo campus grounds of the HSIU. After his presentation, the national question, which was tabooed hitherto, took the front stage of student debates at home and abroad, never to be shelved again. It became virtually impossible to ignore the question or push the oppressed peoples’ recognition claims to the backstage of Ethiopian politics.

Ethiopia – a nation or a multinational state?

The most important question raised by Walelign was that the Ethiopian polity is not a nation but a collection of “nations”, and that there was no Ethiopian nationalism but Amhara nationalism writ large. Although many people were aware of that already, there was no one who knew or dared to articulate it the way he did. What was noteworthy here, however, was the conceptual change Walelign introduced into the ongoing political and academic debate by recognizing the peoples of the empire, who were reduced to ‘tribes’ by the dominant discourse of the Abyssinian ruling elite and scholarship, as nations and nationalities. He wrote,

[S]ociologically speaking at this stage, Ethiopia is not one nation. It is made up of a dozen of nationalities with their languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization, and territorial entity. …in Ethiopia; there is the Oromo nation, the Tigrai nation, the Amhara nation, the Gurage nation, the Sidama nation, and Walamo [Walaita] nation, the Adere nation, and … the Somali nation. This is the true picture of Ethiopia. There is, of course, the fake Ethiopian nationalism advanced by the ruling class and unwillingly accepted and even propagated by innocent fellow travelers (italics mine).6

The fact that the polity over which Emperor Haile Selassie ruled was not a nation but an empire confirms this conclusion. The historical, political and sociological definition of empire is “a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor, empress, or other powerful sovereign”, or “An empire is a political construct in which one state dominates over another state, or a series of states.”[2] The American political scientist Walker Connor defines a nation as “A social group which shares a common ideology, common institutions and customs, and a sense of homogeneity.” He notes that nation is different from other groups which exhibit some of these characteristics because, to be a nation also means to have “a strong group sense of belonging associated with a particular territory considered to be particularly its own.”[3] The Ethiopian empire was created through the conquest of independent territories which the conquered peoples call their own. The terms Kafa (Kaficho), Walaita, Biyya Oromo (Oromia), Sidama, etc., were and still are names of some of the conquered territories and peoples. The conquered peoples call these territories their own homelands still today.

Thus, Walelign did not “invent” the peoples he referred to as “nations” and “nationalities” or pulled the concepts out of empty air; he only recognized those who existed and are existing within the borders of the Ethiopia Empire and applied the terms to them. He described their aspirations and struggles for justice. He acknowledged that their ongoing struggles were for recognition, social justice and economic rights. In the north, the Eritrean liberation Front (ELF) was in operation long before the Ethiopian students started to discuss the issue. In the south, an emerging Oromo nationalism was assured by the Macca-Tuulama movement and the Bale peasant uprising. The Oromo and Eritrean uprisings were simmering signs of the unmistakable socio-political dissatisfaction felt by the different nations and nationalities who were dominated and exploited by the rulers of the feudal-cum-colonial empire.

Walelign’s article on the question of nationalities was not only a scathing critique of the politics of the imperial regime, but also a criticism of the student movement’s lack of a clear understanding of, and position on the “national question”. Hitherto, any discussion about nations and nationalities was, as mentioned above, avoided, or largely ignored by the educated elite and the Ethiopian student movement. Many Ethiopian university students of the late 1960s were progressive and struggled for social justice. Walelign was one of the leading figures. He was an idealist who would tell the truth, and die fighting for it, whether his adversaries were agents of the imperial regime or members of the student movement. Nationality and regional identifications were disparagingly labelled as “tribalism” or “regionalism”[4] and excluded from serious political and academic discussions in the discourse of the student movement before he wrote his article. Therefore, he criticized the prejudiced attitude the student movement shared with the feudal regime. As an example, he compared student reactions to the 1960 military coup which was led by General Mengistu Neway and the Macca-Tuulama movement led by Taddese Birru. He wrote that one cannot fail to remember that the reaction to the Mengistu Neway coup was popular “because it was staged by ‘Ethiopians’ – Amhara. With Taddese, it was automatically [considered as] a tribalist uprising. Why? Because Taddese, an Oromo, cannot stage a nationalist coup…” (Italics mine). To “show how much Amhara supremacy is taken for granted” by the student “revolutionaries,” Walelign even compared the way a peasant revolt in the Amhara province of Gojjam was applauded on the university campus while uprisings elsewhere in the empire such as the Oromo region of Bale were being condemned although the underlying cause for all of them was injustice from the same source.[5] The difference is that while the Amhara peasants’ right to resist injustice was recognized and respected, the Oromo gabbars were hardly conceived by the student majority who, in fact, were from naftanya garrisons of the conquered south, as citizens owning property rights. Numerous anecdotes that prevailed before the 1974 revolution indicated that the naftanya had hardily considered their gabbars even as humans. Consequently, that the students were scoffing at the Oromo effort to revolt against the empire is not surprising.

Continuing with his criticism of the student movement’s biased position regarding the question of nationalities, he argued,

I am not equivocal in condemning coups, but the Taddese coup had at least one significant quality and a very important one too. It gave our Oromo Brothers and Sisters self-respect.  And self-respect is an important pre-requisite for any mass-based revolution. Even the so-called revolutionaries who scoffed at the coup like the mass of the students did not comprehend this quality. You can clearly see, in this instance, the power of the Amhara-Tigre supremacist feelings.[6]

That these powerful words were penned by a 24 years old student tells us the strong sense of morality and feeling for justice that motivated Walelign to act. As Steve Biko did in apartheid South Africa, Walelign spoke truth to power with unmistakable clarity and unwavering courage. He pointed out that it was not only the students, but also officials of the Ethiopian state and institutions who perceived and treated the Oromo as second class citizens. It is important to note here the similarities between what Walelign was saying and how General Taddese Birru described the treatment of Oromos in Ethiopia to a jury of the imperial court that passed a death sentence on him in 1968. His words were,

“…the Taddese coup had at least one significant quality and a very important one too. It gave our Oromo Brothers and Sisters self-respect.” (Walelign Mekonnen)

What make the freedom of a people are many; the most fundamental of which is their equality before the law. I am denied equality before the law because of my nationality. Officers, who were imprisoned before me [refers to Mengistu Neway and the other Amhara officers who staged the 1960 coup] were paid their salary until their case was decided in court. Because of nationality, I am treated differently. What is more, other officers were neither disgraced, nor tortured, while in police custody. Why am I disgraced and severely tortured? Spreading literacy among the Oromo, who are left behind in terms of education became my crime. I have been the victim of national oppression.[7]

The colonial conquest or feudal expansion debate

The debate which Walelign’s article ignited was such that it became almost impossible to dismiss the “national question” as “tribalism” or hide the fact of the Abyssinian conquest of the south any more. However, the links between the “national question” and Abyssinian colonialism were hotly debated albeit without coming to consensus. While the “fact of conquest”, to use Ed Keller’s[8] words, was acknowledged, the source of controversy became the choice of terminology that describes the conquest. Avoiding the term “colonial” most of the students, particularly those with naftanya family backgrounds, used the phrase “feudal expansion” to describe the Abyssinian conquest of the south. The assumption was, and still is, that territories that were annexed through “feudal expansion” do not have the right to self-determination.  The semantic attempt to deny the colonial nature of the Abyssinian conquest of the Oromo and other peoples of the south may distort reality but cannot fool scholars and those who want to know the truth. The historical evidence that reveals the naked colonial characteristics of the Abyssinian conquest and consolidation of their over the south fills volumes. I will not go into details here but refer interested readers to read the relevant sources.[9] I will cite the observations of four scholars in nutshell just to highlight the point. I will start with Professor John Markakis’ observation who wrote,

Not a victim but a participant in the ‘scramble [for Africa]’, Ethiopia doubled its territory and population in a burst of expansionist energy, and thereafter proudly styled itself the ‘Ethiopian Empire’. The title is not a misnomer, since Ethiopia’s rulers governed their new possessions more or less the same way and for similar ends as other imperial powers were doing. The people who took the pride in calling themselves Ethiopians were known as Abyssinians (Habesha), a name commonly used by map-makers and historians until well into the 20th century.[10]

As the Israeli historian Professor Hagai Erlich stated, “While rebuffing imperialism successfully in the north, Ethiopia managed to practice it in the south.”[11] Underlining the colonial makeup of the Ethiopian state, Professor Christian Scherrer stated “European and Abyssinian colonialism occurred simultaneously, pursued similar interests, albeit from differing socio-economic bases, and this was reinforced by comparable colonial ideologies of the idea of empire and notion of ‘civilizing mission’ and the exploitation of the subjugated peoples.”[12] Regarding the behavior of the Abyssinian ruling elite class Professor Gebru Tareke wrote that the language they used when describing their subjects did not differ from the language the European colonialists were using elsewhere in Africa. He noted that “They tried much like the European colonisers of their time, to justify the exploitability, and moral validity of occupation” and “looked upon and treated the indigenous people as backward”.[13] The indigenous people he is talking about here are the Oromo and other conquered peoples in the south.

Calling the Abyssinian conquest a “feudal expansion” was and is another adopted to turn down the claim of the conquered peoples for the right to self-determination.  Referring to the differing socio-economic bases between Abyssinia and the European states at the time of the scramble for Africa, they argue that, unlike European colonialism of which industrial capitalism was the base, the Ethiopian Empire was underdeveloped, and its conquest a pre-capitalist and ‘feudal expansion’. Their contention is that international conventions and protocols about the self-determination of colonized territories do not apply to Ethiopia. However, whether the conquest was a feudal expansion or colonial, annexation is not legal, and seeking independence is the right of all peoples whose homelands have been conquered, annexed or colonized by others—be it by those who came from the other side of the border or from across the oceans. Just to cite one example, many of the peoples of the territories of the former USSR such as Ukrainians, Latvians, Kazakhs, etc., whose territories were annexed by the Russian Czars through a feudal form of expansion, could secede 200 or 300 years later in the 1990s.[14] The Oromo case cannot be so different.

Historical amnesia

Once the taboo was lifted from the national question by Walelign, the debate was focused on the nature of contradictions that constituted the core of the conflict in the country and the strategy for its solution. Should one prioritize distributive justice, or respond to claims for recognition? As I will explain in a moment, there was total accord on the question redistributive justice. That was not the case with recognition. The claims for recognition by the non-Abyssinian peoples touched sensitive cords: the assertion of identity by the Oromo on one side was reciprocated with denial from the other; they became and still are mutually reinforcing.

The Habesha elite are remarkable denialists. Rather than contributing to the resolution of political problems emanating from the creation of empire state and policies of the imperial regime, they denied the true history of the empire and added fuel to existing conflicts. In other words, the more the elite kept on denying the history of the relationship between the Oromo and the Ethiopian empire, and recognition of the legitimate Oromo claim to national identity, the more the Oromo kept on asserting their rights. The more Ethiopianist scholars tried to create an amnesia in order to build a homogeneous, Amharic-speaking and centralized nation and state, the more the Oromo became interested in their history, own language, and culture. As Robinson has pointed out, a pan-Ethiopian intra-elite accommodation is constrained by the inability of the Abyssinian elite to take an Oromo elite as their equal, and “the latter’s own steadfast refusal to accept their subordinate status.”[15] As suggested by Taylor, “The struggle for recognition can find only one satisfactory solution, and that is a regime of reciprocal recognition among equals.”[16] Taylor adds that it is only then that the process of fraternal “imagining” of being citizens of a state begins, and the basis for fraternal solidarity is laid. As I will explain in detail in another forthcoming article, it is not yet the case in Ethiopia.

Disconcerting truth

Walelign’s article was disconcerting to the Habesha elite for a couple of reasons. First, that Walelign was from an “Amhara” family background was embarrassing to many of them. Had he been an Eritrean, an Oromo, or a Somali from the Ogaden, it would have been easy to dismiss his article and its contents as “secessionist” propaganda. Indeed, Walelign was aware of this when he wrote: “Start asserting your national identity and you are automatically a tribalist, that is, if you are not blessed to be born an Amhara.”[17] He was an Amhara, or at least was seen as one, and was therefore immune to that sort of labelling. It was not possible to dismiss him, or his propositions as “tribalist”, “ethnicist”. What is more, he was an internationalist in word and action.

Secondly, the internal and international political situations also were contributory factors in making Walelign’s article sensitive. The struggle for the decolonization of territories in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the civil rights movement in the United State of America, opposition to the American war in Vietnam were the burning issues of the time. Ethiopia was also affected by the winds of change blowing across the African continent. As mentioned above, the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) was fighting for independence. The Bale Oromo peasant uprising and the Macca-Tuulama Association were demanding land reform and political freedom. In this context, the article expressed the aspirations of the conquered, marginalized and oppressed peoples in Ethiopia.

The primacy of class struggle over recognition claims

Once the taboo was lifted from the national question, debate was focused on the nature of contradictions that constituted the core of conflict in the country and strategy for its solution. Should one prioritize distributive justice, or respond to claims for recognition? Before the Ethiopian revolution of 1975, over 75 percent of the university students came from Abyssinian backgrounds.  Therefore, the homogenizing ideology of the imperial regime underpinned the mindset of the majority of the students.  Therefore, the primacy of class struggle was emphasized and the claim for recognition was downplayed.

Those who downplayed the national question as source of conflict advocated class struggle as the only path to the future. As John Markakis put it “Both the past and future were seen through the prism of class struggle, a point of view which conveniently dissolved ethnic and national divisions and magnified social ones” and “class struggle was to be waged in common, transcending the centre/periphery divide and forging unity among the oppressed masses.” The perspective “conveniently dissolved ethnic divisions and contradictions and magnified social ones.”[18] Thus, the revolution advocated by the student movement did not subscribe fully to the solutions which were implied in Walelign’s article.  Though acknowledged, the socio-cultural and linguistic injustices reflected in the imperial regime’s treatment of the non-Abyssinian populations were seen as secondary issues by most of the student revolutionaries. While the existence of nations and nationalities was taken as theoretically admissible, the unstated fear of many of the students from Abyssinian background was that its unequivocal recognition would lead to the disintegration of Ethiopia as a state. However, since many of them came from landowning naftanya families, their struggle for “land to the tiller” was exemplary. They went against the class interest of their own families and demanded the de-feudalization of Ethiopia. But the Oromo called for the decolonization of the empire, arguing that the national and economic questions are intermeshed in the south. However, there were students who reacted rather negatively about the national question. Many did not even think of it as a relevant issue for debate, or were simply indifferent. Others entered the discussion with the intent to discredit its relevance. Writing in the late 1980s, Dr. Teshale Tibebu was among those who discredited the question. He retorted emphatically and awkwardly that,

[O]ne central issue belongs to the ‘eternal’ treasures of the future Ethiopian history, and we owe it to the Ethiopian left: the language of class! This single contribution towers high in the achievements of the ‘Ethiopian left.’ This language of class is what needs to be defended with utmost energy and determination. After all, Ethiopia is a peasant state. A language that speaks for the peasants is a class language. And nationalism does not and cannot speak a class language.[19]

Whether the author is from “the right” or “left”, this sort of simplistic representation of the national question depicts a skewed picture of the historical relations between the dominant and dominated groups in Ethiopia. To begin with, Dr. Teshale Tibebu’s sociological analysis of peasants’ is incorrect; whether they live in Ethiopia or elsewhere, peasants do not constitute a class. There are rich and poor peasants. Second, in Ethiopia, the Amhara and northern peasants in general did not have similar relations to the means of production or even had the same status as citizens as Oromo peasants did. The former may be poor but they were rist holders – they owned their means of production – land. They were and are citizens. The vast majority of the Oromo were gabbars – serfs who, together with the land they tilled, were owned by landlords of mainly Amhara ethnic backgrounds until 1974. They were second-class citizens, if at all the term “citizen” is applicable to them. Serfdom and nationality were interwoven in imperial Ethiopia. National and class inequality were intermeshed features of imperial Ethiopia. Therefore, as Parekh has argued “Recognition and redistribution articulate different forms of equality, and both need to be addressed by a theory of justice.”[20] In other words, solving the problem of distribution will not solve automatically the problem of recognition. Land reform alone cannot solve the conflict between the Abyssinian state and the Oromo and other conquered peoples.  That was what Walelign has attempted to teach us in his short article and debates. He stressed the necessity for the acknowledgment of both the economic rights and recognition claims of all the Ethiopian peoples to create a peaceful multinational state and society based on justice. As I will explain below, there was total accord on the question redistributive justice. That was not the case with recognition.  The claims for recognition by the non-Abyssinian peoples touched sensitive cords: the assertion of identity on one side is reciprocated by denial of identity from the other; they became and still are mutually reinforcing.

A new paradigm in Ethiopian politics

To Walelign, the politics of recognition was as important as the politics of resource distribution. Therefore, he wanted to see equality of the identities of the constituent peoples of the Ethiopian empire state combined with social justice. If that does not happen, he argued, morally, at least for him, there was no reason to oppose secessionist movements, be it in Bale or Eritrea, since “secession is much better than a nationally oppressive government.”[21] Here lies Walelign’s radicalism and humanism. He prioritized humanity over Ethiopiawinnet. He was emphatic about what should be done to promote justice and avert the disintegration of Ethiopia. He argued that “we must build a genuine national state.” Explaining what he meant by that, he wrote,

It is a state in which all nationalities participate equally in state affairs; it is a state where every nationality is given equal opportunity to preserve and develop its language, its music and its history. It is a state where Amharas, Tigres, Oromos, Aderes, Somalis, Walaitas, Gurages, etc. are treated equally. It is a state where no nation dominates another nation, be it economically or culturally (ibid).

What Walelign was suggesting here is a state with freedom and justice for all. He advocated a “fusion of horizons” to use Charles Taylor’s concept.[22] That means, a culture of mutual respect to be embraced by all, Amhara, Oromo, Sidama, Tigrayan, Afar, etc., both as an ideology and practical politics. It is a state where the citizens have equal rights regardless of nationality to enjoy not only the presumption that his or her traditional culture has value but also to exercise it without interference from the state.

There are scholars who have criticized Walelign saying that he had gone against Ethiopian traditions and history. The “crime” was that he applied the concept “nation” instead of “tribe”. The “devaluation of Ethiopian culture and history through the absorption of Eurocentric concepts”[23]is said to have been harmful to the national integrity of Ethiopia and the unity of its inhabitants. There are many commentators who associate the present crisis of the Ethiopian state with the introduction of these concepts and ideas by the ESM. But the student movement or Walelign did not devalue any culture or history. To the contrary, Walelign valorized the histories, cultures and languages of non-Abyssinian peoples. He argued for the substitution of cultural, historical, and symbolical “elements” that are Abyssinian and which constituted the “core” of what was seemingly Ethiopian nationalism but Abyssinian writ large with a multicultural core, and gradually by a “hybrid core”, or a fusion of the histories, cultures, and interests of the different nations and nationalities of the empire state. His rejection of autocracy and the Abyssinian supremacy inscribed in the mythology of Kibre Negest was not a sign of “identity crisis” as some of his critics have argued,[24] but in defense of the marginalized and down trodden masses of the peripheries.

A treatise on justice

In Walelign’s view “class struggle” and the “national question” were intermeshed in Ethiopia; and indeed, they were imbricated so starkly at the time. Consequently, he aimed at promoting the equality and autonomy of nationalities while condemning economic exploitation in all its forms. In his view, the recognition of the legitimate identities of the hitherto marginalized nations would create a sense of solidarity, rather than leading to the disintegration of Ethiopia as a state. He was not convinced by the reductionist argument that fair distribution of resources or class struggle by itself would lead to the equality of citizenship. His understanding of justice was holistic. He stressed unity which was based on equality and social justice, but as mentioned above, he was not opposed to secession where and when national dignity and social justice are denied or incessantly wanting. He wrote “It is pure backwardness and selfishness to ask to be partners in being exploited till you catch up.” He added “when the degree of consciousness of the various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right but the duty of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and then assist others in the struggle for total liberation.”

Regrettably, it was not all who appreciated the political philosophy of recognition and distribution Walelign articulated in his article: particularly those who were benefiting from the ethnic hierarchy which characterized the imperialist state were threatened. The imperial regime in particular did not take the matter lightly. The state-owned mass media was unanimous in its condemnation of student activities following the publication of Walelign’s article. Among the steps taken by the state authorities was the suspension of the student journal Struggle which carried the article.  In addition, the fall term of 1969 turned into a bloody one as the regime continued to use its repressive muscle against the student movement. In December that year, the newly elected president of the University Students’ Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA), Tilahun Gizaw, was gunned down by security men in a dark street corner in Afincho Ber outside the main university campus. The conflict between the student movement and the regime escalated when many students were massacred by government soldiers at a rally staged on the Sidist Kilo Campus of the Haile Selassie I University, next day, by students and school children from all over the capital city to protest the death of the student leader.8 Accused of leading the student rally, which he did, Walelign was detained and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He was released after a few months, but was dismissed from the university. In December 1972, Walelign and six fellow activists attempted to hijack an Ethiopian Airlines flight leaving Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) for Europe. Walelign and five of his co-activists were killed in the air by security men.

Walelign’s politics of recognition was opposed not only by the Ethiopian ruling elite but also criticized even by many members of the student movement. However, his views eventually came to dominate the political development in Ethiopia. It appealed to the intelligentsia from the different nationalities and was also embraced by the national liberation fronts who fought against the imperial regime as well as the Dergue.

There are scholars who argue that it was the internal disintegration of the student movement into mutually hostile camps, and not the denial of recognition of ethno-national identities which “paved the way for the ascendancy of the national/ethnic movements.”[25] It is suggested that the leftist organizations, particularly the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (Amharic acronym MEISON) which branched out of the student movement and turned against each other in the mid-1970s, left a vacuum which was filled by Eritrean, Oromo, etc. nationalisms. However, I doubt that the growth of nationalism such as that of the Oromo could have been stopped by the unity of the two groups. Perhaps it could have prevented the military from controlling political power following the demise of Haile Selassie’s government. Furthermore, it is possible to argue that a united political organization formed by the student movement could have led to a civilian takeover of power. However, to be successful that also had to be ready to recognize and enact the claims of the constituent nations and nationalities of the Ethiopian Empire. Ethiopia’s political culture of zero-sum game did not allow even such an attempt.

The constitutional recognition of Oromo national and territorial identity by the EPRDF regime is seen as a deliberate step taken by Ethiopia’s enemies and not an outcome of the popular struggles against previous regimes. Thus, “forgetting history” and telling untruth, some Ethiopianists want to terminate the present national states, reinstate the pre-1974 provincial structure and old imperial order. Far-fetched stories are concocted to reverse history and deny the Oromo and others the rights they have achieved through struggle during the last 40 years (I will deal with this in another article).

Ridiculous suggestions are also being made to that effect in preparation for a post-EPRDF/TPLF state and government. One such suggestion pertains to the preparation of a post-EPRDF constitution. Dismissing the current nationality (language and ethnicity) based system, it proposes the US federal system as a model for Ethiopia whereby the territorial structure will be reversed to provinces. The preamble of the American Constitution which says “We the people of the United States of America” is for example suggested as a model for preamble of the post-EPRDF Ethiopian constitution.[26] The suggestion is made ignoring the huge difference of the contemporary Ethiopia from that of the 13 American colonies of 1776 for which the American constitution was written. The absurdity of the analogy between the US and Ethiopia arises from the differences of historical and sociological realities its author seems to ignore. Sociologically, the 13 British colonies which formed the United States of America were not 13 nations or peoples. There were no people called Delawareans, North or South Carolinians or speakers of languages called Delawarean, Georgian or Carolinian but immigrant colonial settlers from Great Britain. About 85 percent of the white population were of English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh descendent. They spoke English and were Christians. About 11.5 percent of the population were slaves. The rest were indigenous Indian peoples. The last two groups were not citizens. They were hardly counted as human beings in those days. In the views of the federalists, the thirteen colonies were populated not by different people with different languages and cultures, but by one and the same people. They were Europeans, white, Christians and mainly British, who revolted against the mother country Great Britain and built a federation of territories populated by colonial settlers. Furthermore, there is a great difference between inhabitants of multinational states created by conquest and poly-ethnic states resulting from migration and settlement. The nations of a multinational states or empires have territories they call their homelands or states. In poly-ethnic states, the ethnic communities do not have that; they live in minority communities or are scattered and interspersed with others. Arguments like the one discussed here use farfetched comparisons only to oppose peoples’ rights to self-determination, in this case the right of the Oromo and other peoples in Ethiopia.

Walelign spoke nothing but the truth

What made Walelign’s paper remarkable was the truth it told about the social and political situations in Ethiopia of the time. He did not create nations and nationalities. He gave due recognition to their true identities and called for justice for all the peoples who were then ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie. He saw recognition as both a measure of justice, and a window for democratic interaction across group boundaries. As the German philosopher Immanuel

Walelign did not invent nations or nationalities. He described reality.

Kant said, to speak truth to the disadvantage of oneself is sublime, and to speak untruth for your own advantage is always immoral. Walelign spoke the truth which, paradoxically, is being denied by Ethiopianist scholars and political activists who demonize his name. His action was not based on self-interest; his sole intention was the promotion of justice.  He made the struggle for justice his duty, and did it with all his heart, with all his mind and soul. Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and many others who spoke truth to power, acted not for fame or power.  All of them were compelled by their “inner” morality when they spoke truth to power, although it was risky and therefore seemed foolish to do so.  Like them, Walelign wrote, spoke and acted out of a sense of justice and supreme goodness to the Ethiopian peoples and not for personal benefit. It is important to note here that the selfish interests of the ruling elite have, coupled with the inability of the Habesha intellectuals to speak the truth, perpetuated injustice and made the crisis of the Ethiopian state a persistent vicious cycle.

 ‘I am an Oromo’

Although members of Ethiopian student movement were united in opposition to the imperial regime, they spoke different languages on the question of recognition claims. For example, while they were opposed to economic exploitation, the aspiration of Oromo students was also the free expression of Oromo culture and identity. This was reflected in an underground paper titled “Oromo Voice against Tyranny” distributed clandestinely in Finfinnee in 1971. It stated, inter alia, that “It is no good for an Oromo to forget his origin, because he is suspected and oppressed by the sheer fact of his origin … The situation thus compels Oromo individuals in all walks of life to unite and be vigilant and rise in defense of their own identity.”[27] Patrick Gilkes who was a history teacher at the Wingate Secondary School and Addis Ababa University in the 1960s and early 1970s, wrote,

The failure of assimilation is clear in its most seriously attempted form – education. … The Growth of interest in Oromo writings among the student body also exemplifies this … Ten years ago, especially to a foreign enquiry, ‘I am an Ethiopian’ was the response. Today it is more likely to be ‘I am an Eritrean’ or ‘I am an Oromo’. This response is limited to politically-oriented students, and should not be overstated. It is, however, a significant trend in intellectual thinking. The most radical students have come to accept the postulate that there are a number of different nationalities in Ethiopia and to accept that these have the rights of self-determination.[28]

These were the “writings on the wall” so to speak which the Ethiopian ruling elite would not consider or even comprehend in the 1960s.  What Gilkes witnessed in Finfinnee was also developing simultaneously in the Ethiopian student movement abroad.

Change or keep on lying and disintegrate

As noted above, it was argued that a colonial relationship does not and cannot exist between the conquered and the conquerors of the Ethiopian empire because Ethiopia was a feudal society while colonialism requires industrial production.  However, based not only on history, but also their own and their parents’ life experience under the rule of Haile Selassie, the view held by the small but burgeoning Oromo student movement on the colonial question was unequivocal. To them, colonialism was not a theory or an idea; it was a lived experience; it was practiced on them directly by Abyssinian rulers and naftanya landlords. Thus, as the nature of the conquest became contentious, differences between Oromo and non-Oromo, particularly Amhara students, within the movement, started to take shape. In other words, it was here that the nationalities based political identities of members and actors of the student movement started to emerge. It became a site where actors who adopted a different identity, took position and started to give voice on behalf of the oppressed nationalities whose histories were denied by the political and academic status quo.

The denial of history strengthened identity politics rather than facilitating “national” integration as envisaged by the denialist. From the perspective of Oromo actors, class oppression explained only part of the reality in which the majority of the Oromo and other peoples in the southern part of the Ethiopian empire. For the southern peasants, the struggle for freedom and freedom from exploitation, and the demand for respect for their cultural, religious and ethnic identities were inseparable. This was even clearly reflected in the Bale peasant uprising and Macca-Tuulama movement which articulated cultural domination as well as alienation from the means of production – land – as core Oromo grievances. Although their uprising was ignited by land alienation and exorbitant taxation, claims for respect and recognition were part of the contentious politics of the Bale peasant uprising. In addition to heavy exploitation, the peasants also felt disparaged and trampled upon by the agents of the Ethiopian state.


The Habesha political elite and intellectuals blame the Ethiopian Student Movement for the lack of loyalty to Ethiopia among the non-Abyssinian peoples and for the crisis which is facing Ethiopia today. They blame Walelign for the growth of what they call “ethnic” nationalisms. In my view, the intractability of the Ethiopian problem lies in the nature of the state itself and not anywhere else. Ethiopia is an empire state, and injustice is inbuilt in its political nature and socio-cultural structure. The imperial regimes denied the conquered and subordinated nations and nationalities basic cultural, social, and political rights. As stated by a renowned political scientist and philosopher, “the recognition of legitimate identities broadens the society’s sense of solidarity by including the hitherto marginalized groups into shared collective identity.”[29] However, what the Ethiopian ruling elite, particularly the Haile Selassie regime did was the opposite. Consequently, the Emperor lost his loyal supporters, and the empire some of its ardent defenders. This was manifested in the steps taken by high ranking Oromo military officers such as General Tadesse Birru who fought the Italian invaders during the 1930s, and the educated Oromo elite who joined the Macca-Tuulama Association. The empire “behaved” as empires commonly do, and the Oromo acted as conquered and colonized peoples commonly act. That was how the birth of a pan-Oromo national movement became a fact.

Those who demonize Walelign as an enemy of Ethiopiawinnet are those who do not feel the morality that drove him to do what is right. They condemn his application of the concepts of nations and nationalities to Ethiopian politics as an unforgivable sin. For them Ethiopiawinnet is not only an identity but also a religion which ought to have been imposed long ago on the Oromo and others, was not successful as strong voices heard from within the recent Oromo protests have indicated. Therefore, those who are still “non-believers” are told to convert or leave the country. Thus, while the point in Walelign’s article was that building a “nation” out of an empire without the fusion of the histories, cultures, and interests of the different nations and nationalities who constitute its polity is unthinkable, for his adversaries it is doable by the use of violence, physical as well as discursive. Walelign insisted on the acknowledgement of the Ethiopian reality as a path to justice and peace. He argued that this can be done only through the recognition of the identities and rights of each and every nationality in the empire. The approach includes the prioritization of human and peoples’ rights over the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian state. That is to say genuine peace and democratization are possible only through the exercise of the right of self-determination. The decision to remain in a union with the rest of Ethiopia or opt out of the union should be left to the concerned people. The position of Walelign’s adversaries is based on a myth – the well-known dogmatic belief that Ethiopia is a three thousand years old indivisible state. They deny the existence of nations in Ethiopia and reduce the Oromo and the non-Abyssinian to “tribes” without collective identity and history. Among other things, that is what makes political conflict inevitable and persistent.
[1] Walligne Mekonnen, “The Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia”, Struggle 5(2) (USUAA), 1969: 4-5
[2] www.dictionary.com/browse/empire; Empire – Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/empire.
[3] W. Connor, “A Nation is a Nation, a State, is an Ethnic Group …” In Nationalism, Edited by J. Hutchinson & A. D. Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 36.
[4] Randi Balsvik, Haile Sellassie’s Students: The Intellectual and Social Background to Revolution, 1952-1977. Michigan: Michigan State University,  1985.
[5] Walleligne Mekonnen, ibid. p. 4.
[6] Walleligne Mekonnen, ibid. p. 5
[7] Zooga, Gizit enna Gizoot, 1993: 257-58, translation by Hassen, 2000: 140.
[8] Keller, E. “Ethiopia: Revolution, Class and the National Question”, African Affairs, 80(321), 1981, p. 519-549.
[9] See for example Bulatovich, A. Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes: A Country in Transition, 1896-1898, translated and edited by Richard Seltzer, Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press, (1898, 1900/2000; Holcomb, B. & Ibssa, Sisai. The Invention of Ethiopia: The Making of a Dependent Colonial State in Northeast Africa, Trenton, N.J.: The Red Sea Press. 1990; Asafa Jalata. Oromia & Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict, 1868-1992, Boulder: Lynne rienner Publishers, 1993; Mekuria Bulcha. Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, Chapters 6 & 7. The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), 2nd Edition, 2016
[10]Markakis, J. Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers, James Currey, New York, 2011, p. 3-4.
[11] Erlich, H. cited in Markakis, ibid. p. 4.
[12] Scherrer, C. “Analysis and Background to the Refugee Crisis: The Unsolved Oromo Question”, in Scherrer, C. & Bulcha, Mekuria. War Against the Oromo and Mass Exodus From Ethiopia: Voices of Oromo Refugees in Kenya and the Sudan, Frankfurt: EPD-Dokumentation, p. 27.
[13] Gebru Tareke, Ethiopia: Power and Protest. Lawrenceville, NJ: The Red Sea Press, 996, p. 71
[14] Macadam, D., Tarrow, S. and Tilly, C. Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
[15] Robinson, I. W. “Global Capitalism and the Oromo Liberation Struggle: Theoretical Notes on U.S. Policy towards Ethiopia”. Journal of Oromo Studies, 4(1&2), 1997, p. 29.
[16] Taylor, C.  Philosophical Arguments, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press.1995: 241)
[17] Ibid. italics mine
[18] Markakis, J. ibid. p. 162.
[19] Teshale Tibebu, “Processes of State Formation in Ethiopia”, in Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on the Horn of Africa, new School for Social Research, New York. 1987, p. 85
[20] Parekh, B. ibid., 2008, p. 54
[21] Walleligne, ibid. p. 6
[22] Taylor, C. Philosophical Arguments, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1995
[23]Messay Kebede, Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, 1960-1974. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2008: 175
[24] See Messay Kebede, ibid.
[25]  Merera Gudina, 2003: 109)
[26] This was, for example, suggested by Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam in his speech at the “Vision Ethiopia” conference in April 2016.
[27] Anonymous “The Voice of Tyranny,” published by Horn of Africa, 1980, p. 23
[28] Patrick Gilkes, The Dying Lion: Feudalism and Modernization in Ethiopia, London: Julian Friedmann.
1975: 259, italics mine
[29]  Parekh, B. ibid., p. 55.