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Combatting shortsightedness in Ethiopian Politics


Combatting shortsightedness in Ethiopian politics By Dimetros Birku Dec 1, 2003


I read the article “Hate and Bigotry in the name of Ethiopiawinet”, By Kaayo Ummataa, with interest. He has tried to articulate his view on the issues he believes right and wrong. Some of the points he raised are quite true and deserve appreciation. But there are also points I depreciate as lacking rationality and a spirit of critical approach though it is obvious that the writer can not downsize the party he believes it is in the right track. I want to bring to his attention those points which are not visible to him due to his position. Please don’t take this short article as polemics even if it turns out to be that way with out my knowledge.

Commenting on the nature of Politics, politicians and Political parties in Ethiopia, the writer has marvelously pointed out the downsides which have been denying achievement to the parties and on the way to the people as well. he asserts, “…shortsightedness, ignorance and malice …contaminating the political discourse in Ethiopia” towards the concluding portion of his article he went on reiterating a fact ,“In Ethiopia politics is being played not for the common good it can produce but for its own sake….” I do fully agree with these points and I think no one has a ground to deny. If there is some thing called political maturity in politics, the points raised by the writer as contaminating the political discourse could all be embraced under family name of Political infancy.

This point bounce me back to the 1970’s to have a glance at the genesis of Political parties in the country. The then intellectuals justly demanded the coming into an end of the feudal regime. And Students in particular were blessed to be the motor of the movement. Then we have the evolution of political parties out of the student movement on the eve and immediately after the collapse of the feudal regime. Each party composed its own political agenda and motto. Some adopted an all inclusive name while others wrapped their Political motto with the language group they came from.

Then not long after their formation all the parties were indulged in a violent and acrimonious power struggle there by firmly entrenching the tradition of sorting out political difference on the point of a gun, at a time when they ought to strive to make the people the source of political power. I don’t think there was even adequate political discourse. Each party, then, was claiming the title “revolutionary” for itself while blaming the other as a “counter- revolutionary”. But they were all socialists, and theoretically believe that they were internationalists,working to bring to an end oppression on the bases of class. This political development provided some section of the military with the opportunity to grab political power and the parties had nothing to do. Then some of the parties resorted to armed struggle and went to the wilderness with their ethnic shield while others had to get immunity siding with the military government. In the end, the people was exposed to oppression, dictatorial regime and extreme poverty.

What is very regrettable is that none of the parties dared to admit their mistake and tell, to this generation to which I am a member, what was wrong in handling the politics. Individuals almost from all the then political parties have produced a book on their political struggle and it still appears, to me , a propaganda. Any body who rationally approach these book would find out that almost all the politicians were either shortsighted or emotional, though emotion per se is a kind of shortsightedness and it is not hard to trace a spirit of reticence . No party and politician of that period including the very people who are now in OLF leadership, can extricate from this record. Very recently, we have seen the formation of Coalition of Political parties and what we all can say, at this point, about it is that it is a good start to clear the tradition of shortsightedness and attain political maturity. Time ,more than ever, is demanding working together for a common good and I am very optimistic that all the parties involved in the coalition would work on this principle and work towards, while sticking to cohesion of the nation, installing in place a government obedient to the rule of law and generous in granting citizens all the values of being human and of being a citizen. And What I want to Underline at this point is that Political parties in the coalition should work on the principle of placing more emphasis on discussion than compulsion, on arbitration than aggravation and a fair amount of flexibility is also indispensable. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela- encouraged discussion with a political opponent and he asserts that political assassination is a primitive way of combating political opponent. Discussion on the basis of rational judgement, a spirit free from emotion, flexibility, tolerance and recognition can definitely bring about consensus. In case, agreement is impossible, the discussion should anchor any violet action.

To be on the right track of the theme of this article, there are some points which I don’t like about parties working on the principle of exclusion. And I will try to look at it from the perspective of History and of politics.

I- History

The whole point what history, I mean the profession, is all about is that it has to come in the service of truth and of fact. And Interpretation of historical information matters a lot. So as to combat anachronism, the interpretation has to be attached to the right time frame of the events. We can not or should not, for instance, judge the feudal politics of the 19th century Ethiopia in a spirit of Governance principle on the basis of the rule of law and Upholding human rights and so forth since the concept itself was no where near Ethiopia at the time. There have been a couple of occasions when the interpretation of historical information fall in the hands of Politicians who invested all their concentration on the propagation value of the information ignoring and /or forgetting the harm or confusion it can cause. Unfortunately, the professional historians failed, with some exception, to come in defense of the profession. They either sank in the ocean of fear or they themselves turned out to be a politician there by analyzing the historical information in a way to support their political belief. As a result their analysis are full of Problems .Misinterpretation, Mistaking leadership quality with ethnic group and devaluing the social fabric of the nation stands out as the cardinal problems in connection with analysis of this sort.

A) Misinterpretation

Interpretation of historical information is quite often coinciding with the political propaganda and /or interest of some political parties. Let us pull an example to verify the misinterpretation of information. You may hear a student at Addis Ababa University blaming emperor Menelik for the atrocities committed on innocent civilians during the territorial expansion campaign (it appears a triviality to mention in detail all the blames). I am not asserting that there was not such an action nor I am not condoning what has been done. But I am interested to explain it from the point of view of Military discipline, not from a perspective of government policy. No Ethiopian Monarch or leader managed to effectively maintain military discipline among the army. It has been in the nature of Soldiers to loot, abuse and harassing people in area where campaign is conducted. There had been series of territorial expansion even in the 14th and 15th centuries in the south and south eastern part of Ethiopia which gave rise to a territory to nearly similar to the present Ethiopia, by no means less. Needless to say these campaigns could not be without defect as far as atrocity on the peasantry is concerned . The war waged by Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim Algazi against Christian high land kings in the 16th century and the expansion of the Oromo people from the south to the central ,north eastern and northwestern parts of the country in the same century were not at all free from such pitfalls .The same was true to the very recent regime of derg. The Derg regime, for instance, did have a Military police which was instituted to maintain order and discipline among the army. But there were instances when the Air borne or an army from the other division employed their military skill to rape, abuse and harass civilians. For that matter they may even abuse their own family- his wife, his son, his daughter. So atrocities committed by during a military campaign or in areas where we had military presence has a lot to do with military discipline than with policy.

The other missed point, I think, is that territorial expansion was part and parcel, we can say, of a feudal politics. The yardstick to measure the strength and weakness of a king was the extent of his kingdom, the amount of tax he collect and the like. Then he will build a palace, as magnificent as he could, to signify his greatness. This was the norm not only in Ethiopia but among European Monarchs and this is how countries came into being. As it has been expatiated, the Unification of Germany was achieved on the principle of “ blood and iron” in the same second half of the 19th century. Even countries which were not under monarchy conducted a war to win a territory. The United States of America fought a war with Mexico, in the first half of the 19th century, to expand its territory and has acquired a territory. Coming back to the issue at stake, any body at the position of Emperor Menelik, regardless of where ethnic background-(it could be Ras Megesha of Tigrai, Abba Jiffar of Jimma, or Kawo Tona of Wolayita etc…)-would have done the same thing so as to meet the requirement of the title strong King. Whether the expansion is important or not is another issue but I assert it was definitely important. Hence the territorial expansion conducted by Menelik was not exception and should be judged in consideration of the order of the day.

B) Mistaking Leadership Quality with ethnic group

While failure, achievement and in general leadership quality should be the measures to condemn or to praise leaders, propensity appears high to associate leaders with the ethnic group they came from. In the first place, the genealogy of emperors of Ethiopia, since at least four or five centuries, is controversial. How ever, I prefer to look at the issue from another angle. To start from the very visible fact, Kings or leaders were not elected by the people (so as not to sink in anachronism let us omit those kings preceding Emperor Haileselassie-I here). In Consequence, leaders tended to ignore the interest of the people. If that is the case there is a clear distinction between the people and the leaders. Putting it differently, the ruled could not be associated with the ruler as a close associate nor as a party who benefited from the system as the main Privileged group, all the time, was the nobility which is numerically feeble. And albeit the difference in number of the composition, the nobility was not composed of a single community, language group or ethnic group, (You may use the terminology you prefer). The peasantry, irrespective of language group, was the most oppressed section of the population. That is why we can trace rebellions in various parts of the country against the feudal regime. There was peasant rebellion in Bale, there was also a peasant rebellion in Gojjam and the same was true in Tigray. This point clearly shows that Ostracism that existed in Ethiopian politics was more on the basis of class than it was on the basis of ethnic group.

If there is any mistake committed by ,say, Emperor Yahannes or Emperor Tewodros or Emperor Menelik, that could and should only be evaluated vis-à-vis his leadership quality and considering his ethnic identity or wrapping the misdeeds with the ethnic group to which he belongs is irrelevant and it could correctly be regarded as missing the point. Emperor Tewodros envisaged a unified ,modernized and strong Ethiopia. When this was resisted by the various feudal lords including people from the church he turned out to be brutal towards them and mercilessly dealt with those people, irrespective of ethnic group, in Wollo, Shoa and Gojjam. If that was a mistake, it can not be judged from the point of view of ethnic heterogeneity. Menelik himself has conducted a Military campaign against Teklehaimanot of Gojjam and it was not a friendly game. It was as costly as (in terms of human life and material distruction) the other campaigns that Menelik had conducted in south ,south western and south eastern part of Ethiopia. Take the derg regime again, the name derg does not refer to a single individual. It rather refer to a group of people from different parts of the country and from different community. Was any ethnic group ostracized, advantaged or disadvantaged on the basis of ethnic identity? No! The ostracism was solely on the basis of political belief. There were Tigreans who valorously fought on the side of derg, there were Oromos who firmly stood on the side of Derg and held a commanding position in the defense force -Air Force,The Navy and the army ).Here in Kenya people have been talking about the atrocity committed by Daniel arap Moi government but they never associated the issue with kalenjin, the community to which he belongs. To sum up this point, if there is any mistake committed by the a leader, that should not be taken as the mistake committed by the ethnic group to which he belongs.

C) Devaluing the social fabric of the nation

Recently the Amharic service of the VOA was interviewing a young scholar, Heran Sereqebirhan, and she splendidly reminded us of the fact that the empire Ethiopia was built so much with love and marriage as it was built in war. The point may appear vague for those who downplay the role of assimilation as a cohesive factor but it has a lot of truth. Here I am not focusing only on the political marriage between the royal families and the marriage between feudal lords, in that case marriage itself could be regarded as a matter of joining important families not as a matter of love ,as some writer has claimed, while it still indicates that the nobility, or at least their off springs were a blend of different communities. The fact that the various feudal lords did not turn their back away from Menelik at a time when Ethiopia was facing a war with Italy could be regarded as a manifestation of the value they attached to intermarriage.

Despite the atrocities associated with the campaigns, those who were included as soldiers during the territorial expansion campaigns were also intermingled with people on the basis of marriage. The campaigns by nature were long and as human beings soldiers could fall in love with girls in areas the campaigns were conducted and they were having babies. Abay Beneberu Keneni ,a writer on the magazine Tobia, has brilliantly explained this issue. The trade relation that existed in various parts of the country between different groups of people had also given rise to assimilation of peoples and of cultures. One community has taken and given something from and to another community. This kind of interaction was particularly common in the south and south eastern part of the country where we had a clusters of markets. Assimilation, intermarriage and other social interactions were also an important building blocks of the empire and should not be devalued as insignificant or viewed as a triviality. The social fabric of the nation is a blend of communities. A point I am in a complete disagreement with Kaayo is that this intermarriage and assimilation can never be calculated in percentage. Even if it is 1% ,it should be given a generous social value as this can serve as a socio-political fabric for the nation.

II) Politics

Coming to the issue of Politics I would like to refute some of the points raised by Kaayo Ummatta. He has mentioned some people as denying the existence of Oromo aspiration. If the denial is based on the assertion that the Oromos do not have any aspiration, it can not stand a day light. But what I would advise the writer(Kayyo) is not to take things on the face value. To start from the argument he raised, he rightly asserts that injustice against one should be taken as injustice against all. Accordingly, to speak out against the injustice done to the Oromos, for instance, one has to accept the question raised by the Oromos as his own question. In doing so one can claim that there is no distinction between the Oromo question and the question of the other communities .One may be interested to give the question a nation wide appearance so that the issue turns out to be inclusive and it ceases to be the aspiration of a distinctive ,if it exists at all, group of people. Concomitantly, the people who picked up the question of the Oromos as their own need to be included in self determination as there will be a point of intersection as far as the questions raised are concerned.

The problem associated in such an argument is that the very people who ignited, rightly, the issue shy away near or at a point of intersection. That is where the issue turns out to be controversial. Another dimension to approach this particular point is that there are injustices elsewhere in Ethiopia and among different group of people. So the same way the Oromos should take these injustices as injustices committed on the Oromos. I had a discussion on a number of occasion with friends who hold the view similar to kayyao and at the end of the day they, with some exception, arrive at exclusive conclusion and they push aside people who claim a hold in the conclusion. At one point a question -Who is an Oromo? -lingered in my mind. Where is the demarcation to arbitrate the issue? (Infact, who would be the arbiter is another issue) Is it blood that is worth to consider or is it language and culture that is worth to consider? Or is it both? I find it hard to accept that Blood can be a measure to judge the social Identity of individuals or group of people. I can not be convinced on that but even if there is consensus on that issue, there are points worth to consider:

1) There are people who are Oromo by blood but can not speak the language and are not familiar with the culture

2) There are people who are not an Oromo but speak the language, even as their first language, in different part of the country and from different communities-Guraghe, Wolaita, Sidama, Amhara etc.

These groups have identified themselves as an Oromo with all the cultural identities associated with the identity Oromo.

I harbor the opinion that these people can never be dismembered and do have a right to have a share, if there existed any variegation, in the way the question is forwarded.

On the matter of deriding, I do accept that there is a tendency, even in the Universities, to deride the style, speech and things like that of people who come from upcountry and it is directed at not only against the Oromos but against the other peoples as well. By the way have you ever noticed the comedy in Ethiopia? They are either on the Ghurage, the Oromo or the Amhara , the Tigres etc. I am not condoning it but I don’t take them serious. They are just fun. But if they are harmful they should be avoided. And the right way is to aware the people to weed out things like that. Compartmentalizing issues which are of a nation wide problem on the basis of language could yield no fruit. Aggravating problems that existed and are existing between different group of people can not be a solution and it does not demonstrate political maturity. Rather, it will generate strength to the men in power.

Being marginalized from the political life of the country is not applicable particularly to some group of people. It only gives sense if we see the issue in connection with the people nation wide as the people as a whole was more marginalized from politics.

What I was trying to say is that Politics on the basis of exclusive approach and especially on the basis of ethnicity is, in the short or long tern, venomous. It can bring about incessant conflict not only with other ethnic groups but with in the ethnic group itself. The Somali peace talk is not concluded for instance and it is still claiming lives. Two weeks ago three of the participants in the Somali peace talks were murdered here in Nairobi. The appointments and/or dismissal of officials in connection with the anti-corruption campaign of the new government of Kenya is sometimes facing problem with people who tend to associate the matter with ethnicity.

The writer has also mentioned that the Oromos in the diaspora keep themselves aloof and do have their own community. That is true. I have experienced this in Kenya. But do you think this is right? Don’t you think that we should be close each other and discuss the political differences at length in a manner free from emotion?

To encapsulate my view, parties should work on the principle including as many people as possible and ought to drop the notion of possessing a question as a concern of a certain group of people. It is possible to address the problems and questions of different group of people. Everything it takes is installing in place a government responsive and accountable to the people. Government power is like a vacancy. And the employer is the people. If the government is not doing well or against the contract it is possible to oust it from its position and replace it with another one. I think this concept is not known to majority of the people and this is the most important concept we should teach the people. This is not the time to stay aloof and OLF should take the initiative to discuss their political differences with the parties involved in the newly formed coalition. I think this is in line with political maturity and not in line with shortsightedness.

The writer could be reached at or



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