Let’s talk about ethnicity and nationalism in Ethiopia

So much of the discord and paralysis in the pro-rights movement in Ethiopia and the Diaspora comes down to one factor: ethnicity. Politics related to Ethiopia has become so heavily “ethnicized” that we have a difficult time distinguishing between ideology and identity. Conversations about change cease to center on shared concern (like justice, human rights and democracy) and turn to disputes over ethnicity. While recognizing that we shouldn’t sweep these issues under the rug, it is clear that currently no one benefits more from this fragmentation than those who are interested in maintaining the status quo—chiefly, the ruling regime which has inflicted injustice and repression on people of all ethnic groups, including its own.

Increasingly elites in Ethiopia are using ethnicity as a basis for political organization, infusing linguistic and cultural differences and competing historical narratives with new political meaning. In recent years, there has been a rise of ethnic consciousness and ethno-nationalism, most notably amongst Oromos—the nation’s largest ethnic group (estimated at over 25 million people within Ethiopia, larger than most African states), which has historically been disproportionately underrepresented in national politics. Under the existing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, power has been wielded predominately by elites from the minority Tigrayan ethnic group, while in the past—with the noted exception of the Derg regime during the 1970s and 1980s—it shifted mainly between Amhara and Tigrayan monarchs.

Despite having introduced ethnic federalism, a system of decentralization that, in theory, distributes power and resources to regional states based on ethnic majorities, the EPRDF government views ethnic nationalism of any sort as a threat to its centralized rule. In fact, the intention of this new system was never to share power but to maintain political dominance. According to a 1993 EPRDF manifesto:

The interests of the majority of the population would be fulfilled only through our revolutionary democratic lines. So the objective condition requires the establishment and continuity of our hegemony”. The way that the EPRDF seeks to establish this hegemony is by institutionalizing ethnic divisions: “The mission of these nationally-based organizations is, on the one hand, to disseminate in various languages the same revolutionary democratic substance, to translate this substance into practice by adapting it to local conditions (history culture, character, etc.).

Though the EPRDF envisioned ethnic federalism as a means of maintaining control over an ethnically-diverse state, when groups assert their autonomy, the government’s response to ethnic mobilization around political grievances—similar to its response to any type of political opposition—has been harsh and swift. For instance, earlier this year, Oromo students took to the streets in the town of Ambo to protest the government’s plan to expand the administrative boundaries of the federal capital, Addis Ababa, into parts of the Oromia Regional State. According to the government, 11 students died in Ambo when they encountered police who were deployed to quell the protests, although eyewitnesses say that dozens of students were killed. As protests spread to other towns, hundreds more students were arrested. Although human rights groups and activists rightfully condemned the brutal massacre and crackdown, there was scant national or international coverage of these deaths or arrests—not surprising given the state’s control of the media.

Within the vocal Oromo Diaspora community, the state violence in response to the student protests has been described as more than an attempt by a repressive regime to crush opposition to government policy. Instead, it is understood as part of a systematic and long-standing history of oppression against Oromo people by the Ethiopian State. The expansion of Addis Ababa into 1.1 million hectares of the Oromia Region demonstrates blatant disregard to the authority of the Oromia Regional Government and is viewed as legally and morally indefensible. Mohammed Ademo explains: “For the Oromo, as in the past, the seceding of surrounding towns to Addis means a loss of their language and culture once more, even if today’s driving forces of urbanization differ from the 19th century imperialist expansion.”

Conversely, for some non-Oromos, the fact that the protestors were advocating for upholding Oromos’ regional autonomy over federal planning priorities is viewed as “anti-Ethiopian” and an impediment for national development. This idea is aided by the government’s response that the protesting students were “anti-peace forces.” While seemingly laughable, re-focusing the debate on whether Oromo nationalism is “threatening” Ethiopian stability has quietly shifted attention away from the government’s egregious actions against peaceful protestors.

Beneath the recent dispute over urban expansion, federalism and the government’s common use of excessive force against protesters is a boiling debate about identity, history and state legitimacy in Ethiopia. One typically encounters two competing narratives on the question of Oromo national identity. The first is a narrative of imperialist expansion, in which Oromos have been marginalized politically and economically for centuries and continue to be oppressed under the current regime. In this version, what is promoted as Ethiopian culture—food, music, language, and traditions—is largely Amhara and Tigrayan and does not reflect the unique contributions of Oromo people.

The second is the multi-ethnic nation narrative, where (similar to South Africa) Ethiopia is construed as a multi-ethnic nation that accommodates and embraces its cultural diversity. Under this framing, all ethnic groups have equal standing in politics, and those who complain of marginalization are portrayed as being “anti-Ethiopian” – promoting their own self-interest above what’s best for all. Repression, injustice and inequality in Ethiopia under this narrative are not issues related to ethnicity but rather to class and political affiliation.

Admittedly this is an oversimplification, but that these two narratives dominate many conversations in Ethiopia today is revealing in demonstrating how a lack of open debate and dialogue begins to dangerously cloud the truth. Ethiopians should really be discussing how to respond to a government that feels the need to kill peaceful student protestors. The less we converse—and the more we compete to have our narrative told over others—the more dangerous our silences become.

Beza Tesfaye

Beza Tesfaye is a writer and researcher based in Washington D.C.

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