Let that be your last battlefield in Ethiopia
The civil unrest that took place in early July Ethiopia after the slaying of singer Hachalu Hundessa was horrific. Mobs reportedly went from door to door in Oromia regional state, checking identity cards (these often mention ethnic affiliation), before ransacking businesses and private residences belonging to (mostly) those of non-‘Oromo’ ethnicity, and killing scores of people—239 in one death toll, of all ethnicities.
The unrest in Ethiopia is often explained by the historical and current grievances of the Oromo people. We are told they were steamrolled by the forces of Emperor Menelik II (who was ‘Amhara’). We are also told that there is a thread between the anger of the Oromo youth who burnt down towns and carried out massacres last week, and the expansion of Addis Ababa into the Oromo heartlands, over the last couple of decades—even if the connection is ‘hard to see’. But you can read here, in Tom Gardner’s Guardian article, that the attacks were at times random, in some cases fuelled by alcohol (and also that local law enforcement sat by idly). Chillingly, some reports speak of target lists circulated prior to the events.
I have no idea if Menelik II called himself an Amhara or not, but he certainly has been called that by many. The truth is, that Menelik II, like most rulers in Ethiopia, was of indeterminate ethnic mix (Menelik II may even have been the son of a slave on his mother’s side). The troops that pushed into the south, to found ‘garrison towns’ were largely Shewan (Oromo), often marching under Oromo chieftains.
Ethiopians are just as prejudiced as anyone else when it comes to colour (they use four different hues to describe skin pigmentation) and the term Ethiopian itself stems from the Greek Aithiopia (red-brown, or scorched face). But what really mattered was always the culture–the Manifest Destiny, not the blood. Just as the Ottomans couldn’t care less if their Sultan was the son of a slave girl from the Volga, as long as they remained true defenders of the Faith.
‘Amhara’ cannot even be said to be an exact identity. It is a language and a cultural package, that includes ploughing and Orthodoxy (but there are many Oromo in the Tewahedo Orthodox Church too, such as, for example, Hachalu Hundessa and his family). The Amhara share this lack of clear definition with the Oromo (in fact, there is probably no greater diversity in Ethiopia than among the Oromo themselves). Ras Mekonnen, one of Emperor Menelik II’s most effective generals (whose statue was recently toppled in Harar), was mosly Oromo. As was his son, Emperor Hailé Selassié (whose own statue was toppled in London’s Cannizaro Park, on 30 June). The Oromo language contains many Amharic loanwords and was long written using the Geez syllabary. Amharic, often called Semitic, is heavily influenced by Cushitic languages (of which Oromo), in its vocabulary, syntax, and grammar.
And why does the now accepted narrative make history start with the foundation of Addis Ababa in 1887–and not two centuries earlier, when the area lay at the heart of the Abyssinian polity? For evidence, see the rock-hewn churches carved around the capital city, that predate the Oromo expansion. It takes time to cut a church out of stone, and the ‘first’ inhabitants of the Addis Ababa area were Amharic-speaking Abyssinians, in the 16th century.
The Oromo ‘migrations’, that started in the mid-16thcentury, absorbed large swathes of what we call Ethiopia today, and this during two centuries. The Oromo also acculturated others on their drive towards the north of the Horn of Africa, for that is how such projects are carried-out, and the Oromo were culturally hegemonic. Many of the people who are ‘Oromo’ today were once something else. Some were vassal groups, that adopted the customs and language of their new overlords in a mirror phenomenon to the process of Amharisation.
Today, large parts of the central region of Gojjam are peopled with staunch ‘Amhara’–but, two centuries ago, the people that lived there were all Agew. In Ethiopia, this mixing of identities is sometimes carried-out wholesale with entire groups joining other groups. There are Somali sub-clans that used to be Oromo and, in Wollo, there are Amharic-speaking Oromos.
In the early 2000s, these questions of identity seemed to be given less emphasis. It is only when I travelled to Harar with my friend Samuel Asfaw, for instance, that I discovered that he was ‘Oromo.’ Born and bred in Addis, Samuel spoke even less Oromiffa than I did, and he’d never brought his ‘ethnicity’ up in the many years we had known each other. During long khat sessions in the same period with the journalist Sinedu Abebe Mohammed, we talked of everything Ethiopian. Butif I well knew Sinedu was from Wollo, I don’t recall her ever mentioning being Amhara (or Oromo), Christian Orthodox (or Muslim)—perhaps because she was all of those things at the same time. I do remember the pun Sinedu came up with, to characterise the unravelling of traditional culture underway in Ethiopia. It was a combination of the English word ‘Global’ and the Amharic word ‘Gedele’ (to kill): gedelisation.
In Ras Kassa Sefer, the area where I used to live in Addis, most people called themselves ‘Amhara’(but neighbours would then mischievously let you know whose grandparents had once been slaves). And it you went to the Oromia towns of Adama or Nekemte, the situation would be no different. One could go as far as saying that ‘Amhara’ is only a social construct… but you would then immediately have to add that ‘Oromo’ is also just a social construct (and you could also say that both of these social constructs are only ever present in their pure unadulterated essence on social media).
And when it comes to history and land occupancy, there is always another ‘first’ before your own first: the lands immediately to the south of the Entotos (today’s Addis Ababa area) were, based on the accounts of Portuguese travellers in the 16th century, inhabited by a ferocious and warlike people they called ‘Gorag…’ (no doubt the people with such a reputation for hard work today known as the Guragué). Many of the victims in Shashamene were Guragué (and Silté)—and one completely fails to see what they could possibly have to do with the expansion of the capital city into Oromia.
But in the version of Ethiopian history too often showcased by the media these days, and pushed by activist groups, there is only place for one binary opposition: Amhara versus Oromo. Prejudice and life outcomes are ‘structural’, and it comes as no surprise that the Oromos protesting in Minneapolis carried placards that read ‘Oromo Lives Matter’. Meanwhile, the official line on the tragic events in Oromia apportions blame for the massacres on both sides for the killings (rioters and government forces).But it is more likely that most of the killings were committed by mobs, and not by state forces (in recent days a number of arrests of local officials have been carried-out, either for colluding with the massacres, or for failing to put a stop to them).
Two and a half years ago, at the height of the unrest that was to usher in the new government, an Ethiopian friend of mine told me about having to smuggle out a number of his employees from a farm that he ran near the city of Adama. His workers, Ethiopian southerners (Wolayta, Hadiya and others), had been cowering in a cattle shed for two days in fear for their life. That same week, many of these southerners were hounded out of their jobs and their lodgings in the larger area, and particularly in the city of Bishoftu, where several hundreds of these people ended up taking refuge in the Ethiopian Air Force Base, before being bussed back down south.
These evictions went largely unmentioned in the international press, and underlined for me not just how fraught the whole situation was becoming, but also the growing importance of social media in the conflicts. The infamous hack battle cry ‘anyone here got raped—who can speak English?’ had transformed into ‘any Internally Displaced Person here— with a tweeting diaspora?’ I also feared that, once uncorked, it would be all but impossible to put this kind of genie back into the bottle.
For this last shocking wave of killings has been in the making for years: with the September 2018 Burayu killings. With the 80-something murders, after the kerfuffle around Jawar Mohammed’s security retinue, in October 2019(killings which remain mostly unaccounted for).The massacres in Burayu, right next to Addis Ababa, in which dozens of southerners were slaughtered, in particular, demonstrated to all that there is little legal retribution to be feared for instigating terror (to my knowledge, no-one has been charged). It is this prevailing anarchy, largely unchecked, that set the scene for the dramatic events that unfolded following the death of Hachalu.
Last year, I attended the Festival International de Journalism in the village of Couthures sur Garonne, which they have been organising every year for some time now (not this year, mind you!). I had the pleasure of lunching with a few renowned political correspondents. As soon as they heard I was recently arrived from Ethiopia, that is all they wanted to talk about. They told me of bold reforms and marvelled at the growth figures. That’s all they wanted to talk about, indeed, and when informed that none of what they had heard was, strictly speaking, the way things were proceeding on the ground, they seemed disappointed. For my part, I departed our picnic on the banks of the Garonne perplexed. It is only long after our pleasant riverside lunch, that I understood why they were so oblivious to the actual facts: it was because they already knew the story: Ethiopia was experiencing a renaissance (and Africa was rising). For that was the narrative they had read, in their respective newspapers. And all that was now required was a pinch of democracy in the right places, a few reforms for ethnic justice here or there, et voilà!
For they had also very much heard of the plight of the Oromo people. Indeed, it is their own publications, in part, that had raised this question to prominence. I think that it was in the year 2015 that I first saw a caption for a picture taken in the Calais ‘Jungle’ migrant camp that depicted two Ethiopian refugees as being ‘Oromo migrants’. Here too, I believe, a critical mass in the numbers and clout of the Oromo diaspora was reached in those years, but their online advocacy also closely reflected the language of social justice that has moved increasingly to the fore over the last few years in Western media (meanwhile, in photographic captions Syrian migrants continued to remain Afghan—and not Alevi or Sunni, say—and Nigerians continued to be Nigerian—and not Ibo or Yoruba).
But, in actuality, if Ethiopia is disintegrating it is not because of purported ethnic wrongs, current or historical (they do exist, but they are secondary). And it is not because the country needs more democracy. It is said that much of the current anger is stoked by a fear that Abiy has reneged on promises he made in 2018 to end authoritarian rule. Not so. It is the exact opposite that is true: in a country where mobs can kill with impunity hundreds of people, there is a sore need for more, not less, authority.
Ethiopia is crumbling because there are too many youth than can possibly be employed. Ethiopia is falling apart because 50 percent of the country’s inhabitants can now read and write (and, with the spread of social media on mobile phones, read they do). Is literacy a good thing? Yes, but this 50 percent threshold is often a tipping point in a country (it was one of the factors that set the French revolution in motion and the 1974 revolution itself was spearheaded by a few thousand graduates, who went on to Ethiopianise Marxism—to deadly effect).
But today Ethiopia is tottering on the verge of the abyss because it doesn’t have enough hard currency reserves. Because the country has stagnant exports, and high debt coupled with vicious elite in-fighting over diminishing resources. And also because, contrary to the Ethiopia rising narrative, the country remains abysmally poor, and because the price of food just keeps going up. This is the situation faced by most Ethiopians, and it is a problem that no amount of dams or Chinese loans will solve. Denial, as the saying goes, is a river in Ethiopia. There was never a worse time for another half-baked ideological import to run amok in the country: not only will the accounting of past wrongs, real or otherwise, not provide redress—it is already making every single one of the factors of the predicament worse.
Does it matter if the majority of the 239 people were gunned down by government troops–rather than butchered by mobs? It is a rare case in which a misdiagnosis ends with a working cure; more often than not the patient gets worse. During the sugar craze in early modern Europe, when the teeth of the rich began to rot, some doctors instructed their patients to mouthwash before sleep. They also told them to add sugar to the water. It didn’t work out very well. Likewise, the utter failure to correctly diagnose what is going on in Ethiopia, is stoking an inferno in the making.
For the fact is that there is there-is-no-marginalization-of-Oromos-in-Ethiopia. The higher echelons of government are occupied by Oromo. The leader of the country is an Oromo. The Minister of Defence is an Oromo. The Oromia region has the highest GDP per capita in Ethiopia and Oromo farmers have the highest acreage per household in the country. In my years of travel on horseback around the capital, witnessing first-hand the expansion of the city, I saw just as many inhabitants who were making it good, rather than being dispossessed by the expansion of Addis Ababa.
In Ethiopia, a heavily centralised state, all roads lead to the capital, and all of them run through the Oromia region. I am no economist, but instead of repeating anecdotic tales of impoverishment, I wish someone would sit down and run the numbers. Most regions sitting around capital cities are the richest in their countries—is Ethiopia any different? And, as pointed out by Gardner is his Economist piece Urban Brawl, the unrest in Ethiopia manifests first of all as a series of regionalised events, each with its own, unhappy, characteristics. Seen from afar, these events solidify into the contours of an ‘Oromo uprising’. But look up close and what you’ll see is that Ethiopia is dying from a thousand cuts.
In the 1969 Star Trek episode Let that be your last battlefield, two lone survivors slug it out to the bitter end on the distant planet they once shared. These two men are mirror images of each other—they both have a black and white side, only they are black and white on opposite sides. A skeletal plot on which to hang a simple moral lesson, but perhaps a relevant one for our new binary age, in which it is all but forgotten that all Ethiopians have the same burnt faces.
There will be more demonstrations in Washington DC, decrying an ‘ethnic cleansing’ (and there will be counter-demonstrations in Frankfurt, alerting to an ‘Oromo genocide’). There will be more talk about Oromo disenfranchisement on Twitter, to the drumbeat of enthusiastic dispatches about the ‘Ethiopian Renaissance’ (catch up here with the latest instalment, that aired on 17 August on the BBC). All the while, bloodletting on a hitherto unknown scale looms larger every day in Ethiopia. And if the country truly burns—as, arguably, it already is—then will come the time to remember Sinedu Abebe Mohammed’s portmanteau for globalisation. And this terrifying eventuality should be broadcast from every rooftop and called out by its name while it is still time. And then perhaps—just perhaps—the Ethiopian melting pot will not go up in flames.
Yves-Marie Stranger is the author of Ethiopia through writers’ eyes (Eland books, 2015) and the translator of Hugues Fontaine’s Menelik. He recently inaugurated an exhibition, the Abyssinian Syllabary, at the Alliance Ethio-française (see photos: Uthiopia.com). His next book, Ethiopie, La cire et l’or, will be coming out in September 2020 (Editions Nevicata)