Menelik's Adventure, the Peoples' Venture Testing Us All a Century Later
Over a century ago, Menelik of Ankober allied with European powers to get firearms that he used to conquer much of the land in the present day Ethiopia. Unlike other conquerors of his era, he built his government seat in the conquered land although it is not clear if that was intentional or not. His garrison towns later became islands in the middle of the conquered peoples' land. Finfinne, which was renamed Addis Ababa and used as the capital ever since, is located in the middle of the Oromo people who speak Afaan Oromo (Oromo language), which is different from the working language used in the capital. When one travels in Oromia, Amharic is spoken in a loosely scattered shanty towns, which is a vivid sign of conquer. A century of attempt to impose Amharic on the Oromo people did not persuade the Oromo mass to learn the new language, nor did the ringing of the Orthodox Church's bell destroy Oromo wisdom tradition.
Perhaps, to hold together the peoples that were conquered by Menelik, Haile Sellassie was crowned as "the conquering lion of Judah" and ruled Menelik's empire for a long time with decrees and the motto "samai ayitarrasim, mengist ayikassassim", roughly meaning the government can't be accused as the sky can't be ploughed.
A rebellion was sparked against this system by Oromo peasants, which later on bore some impetus in the ranks of university students and the government army, galvanized the mass, and resulted in the 1974 revolution that brought down Haile Sellassie's rule.
That rebellion created or strengthened two major dimensions to the political groupings in Ethiopia. The first group included liberation fronts, notable among them being the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) out of which the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) was borne, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), who were or appear to have been set out to liberate their respective people from Ethiopia. The second group which includes the Derg, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MIESON) targeted the central government power. The Derg almost destroyed the other two parties in this group and ruled the country for about 17 years.
The turbulence in the aftermath of the rebellion has made Ethiopia sweat hard for a long time. That turbulence consumed the brightest and the well educated. Mengistu Hailemariam, the leader of the Derg group for the most time, built a huge army, notable in Africa and the world, without building the real power - the confidence of the peoples. He vowed to fight until one person was left and his cadres echoed it, perhaps without realizing what that meant exactly. Not many seemed bothered to ask what the purpose of that fighting was if it meant going down as low as that. Yet, Mengistu's army was crippled by the joint operation of the liberation front group and moral support from various sectors.
The EPLF achieved its goal of liberating Eritrea from Ethiopia. The TPLF, in a chameleonic move, overshadowed itself with the Ethiopia Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and took power in Ethiopia in 1991. The OLF is still making a slow but measured move. The camps of Derg, EPRP, MIESON and some other new political groups have recently regrouped to contest the TPLF power.
A deep analysis of the course of all the parties suggests that all of them may be in confusion. The people of Eritrea gave the EPLF a free ticket ride to Asmara whereas the people of Tigray gave the TPLF a similar ticket ride to Finfinne. They sacrificed material and human resources but discovered Isaias Afewerki, the president of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, turn against each other and their own comrades. Even expatriate supporters of the EPLF chronicled the struggle of the Eritrean peoples venturing to the extent of giving it the name Against All Odds. A few years later, we have been told by these chroniclers how mysteriously the same organization lost some of its own founders. Some scholars find this a painful wake-up.
The feud between the two leaders, the two fronts and by extension the two countries would play itself out at international stages in the cast of the Ethiopia-Eritrea Boundary Commission (EEBC) in The Hague and the U.N. Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia (UNMEE), thus becoming liability to and costing these international organs millions of dollars. It seems not many realized that Eritrea built a house on a foundation of dried sweat without a real skeleton. It has just started a new front of struggle to democratize the country, and this struggle seems bitterer than the liberation struggle to some of them since this one is with their own former comrades. In the process, they have come as far as seeking support from Ethiopia, the country they fought to be free from.
The TPLF has lost the political compass. As the name suggests, it was set out to liberate Tigray from Ethiopia. Its former members, some of them among its founders, are now accusing Meles for Article 39 in the Ethiopian constitution, the right to self-determination up to secession. After a long period of toiling, having been given names such as separatists and narrow nationalists, the TPLF contributed its share in overthrowing the former regime. As a stronger resistance force against the Derg and with assistance from foreign powers, it seized power in Ethiopia. Confused between whether the war against the Derg was won or the TPLF actually won the war, it went to the extent of telling the world that it knows how to create a war let alone how to fight one. Such perceived confidence was trapped momentarily by a short legislation initiated by the TPLF in the wake of the fallout in the ranks of its officials. After this fallout, we are also told that some of the high ranking officials of this organization, including Meles Zenawi, the current prime minister of Ethiopia who is also chairman of the front, are "Eritrean agents". This is after spending their rebellious life together and after sharing power in Ethiopia for years.
The Derg, EPRP and MIESON camp seems to be politically the most confused. Some of its proponents appear to have been caught between the old world of feudal outlook and the new era of human rights. They once argued in favor of the motto "land to the tiller" but now, thirty years later, some of them regret participation in that struggle and call themselves the generation that cut its own feet. Some of them once tried to have us believe that there are no people called Amhara while some others formed the All Amhara People Organization (AAPO) shortly after. The AAPO members later split it into the AAPO and the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP). They assert they would respect the rights of the peoples in Ethiopia but are mired by their Ethiopia first confusion. Their logic sounds something like Ethiopian Oromo or Ethiopian Amhara, not Oromo Ethiopian or Amhara Ethiopian. It is like one needs to be American Irish as opposed to Irish American. They blame their failures on everyone, including western countries who are accused of brain drain, and perceive the west is doing this using its "sophisticated" calculation.
Recently, they formed a coalition of fifteen political groups with some of the member parties subscribing to qualitatively different political objectives, a few of which even conflict with one another. Their goal seems to be winning the 2005 election in Ethiopia. Their course after that doesn't seem to be clear, even on administrative matters in case they win. They have arranged for a temporary marriage but no clear plans for the inevitable divorce. It is also not clear if they have a plan for not repeating their past mistake, thus making them blinded by tomorrow's perceived gains, irrespective of whether it will be successful or not. Their work lacks meaningful substance for solving Ethiopia's chronic problem and bringing a lasting peace to the Horn of Africa region. The row between some of its members has already spilled to the public.
Oromos have been caught between democratization of Ethiopia and decolonization of Oromia, both theses with subtle implications. This has tested them and become, perhaps, the greatest challenge to Oromo struggle. Its cost may have been more than anything else in the life of organized Oromo movement.
The new generation sees the roads to the towns, the cities and even out of the country where possible. A generation that is running away from challenges is here and it cuts across the peoples in Ethiopia. For this generation, the opposite way is "unthinkable". With little exposure to what awaits for them outside Ethiopia, some of them leave with false hope. Their misery is heard from different corners of the world, from Yemen to Norway and even Washington, D.C., where some have been found homeless. Instead of going out to the countryside, toil for a few years while at home so as to be on a good footing materially, going to the Middle East and sweat unbearably has become a choice. The environment is changing because of deforestation and this will have consequences. We have been given a lot on this earth, a beautiful lot at that, and we seem to be abusing it instead of protecting it.
The peoples are already on their private course both inside and outside the country. The current widespread student unrest in Oromia from north to south and east to west is a clear manifestation of this. It doesn't seem to have spilled significantly to other regions, which may have perceived this is no longer their issue or the country's issue for that matter. The immigrants in western countries have already segregated into different camps. The existence of Ethiopian communities and Oromo communities in the same cities in North America are far from being uncommon. And they do not appear to be complimentary to each other at all. On individual levels, we have gone down to the lump sum generalization of judgment. We have gone to the level of judging the people the political leaders come from instead of those individual leaders. This is not an encouraging sign and it is certainly not the right direction, whether we end up living in the same house or as neighbors.
In the final analysis, Ethiopia as a country and as a stake for peace in the Horn of Africa region is in a precarious situation. Arguably, the empire that Menelik built has become a malfunctioning one with no clear direction about where it is headed in the future. What we see seems orchestrated by the political leaders and the peoples' trust in their leaders without critical scrutiny. This seems to have paved the ground for three political camps on a delicate ground. These are the freedom forces that have a strong grassroots support, old forces shortsighted by old nostalgia, and what appears to be a police force administration in between without mandate from any court. This police force seems to always resort to its stick instead of the people's will, perhaps, being ignorant of the fact that it is unforgivable mistake to suppress the people's will by gun which one has not invented but shopped, from overseas for that matter. The will of the people is a natural force that can not and should not be controlled but led in an orderly manner. And the more it is controlled, the more its dire consequences. It goes without saying that it follows the law of nature in the form of equilibrium between action and reaction.
These criticisms are not meant to end without any alternative suggestions.
In its next month column, Voice Finfinne will present some perispective
that may help solve Ethiopia's and possibly the regions political problems.