Freedom: A Dream of the Past, the Present and the Future

In a three part article titled “What Did We Dream? What Did We Achieve? And Where Are We Heading?” and published by The Addis Tribune, Dr. Bahru Zewde analyzed Ethiopia’s precarious political situation. Going as far back as Tewodros’ dream, the analysis visited Ethiopia’s past, present and future political dynamics, admitting painfully the uncertainty of “what Ethiopia would be like twenty years from now.” Despite an unrealistic prescription as the solution to the problem, he has taken a quasi-objective approach amid shallow deliberations that characterize many Abyssinian scholars. 

His analysis starts out with the expression of bewilderment by the failures of the Haile Sellassie regime, the Soviet State, the Derg, the EPLF and TPLF fallout and the TPLF split. Careful and realistic analysis should suggest that none of these failures, fallout and split could be surprising. It should not be a surprise if the TPLF, or what has remained of it, withers away suddenly, either. None of them had or has the real power, which is the confidence of the majority of the constituents they claim to represent. In the absence of such confidence, any perceived strong binding force is sooner or later bound to be overcome by the internal pressure induced by such force. 

Dependence on foreign powers such as the US by the Haile Sellassie regime or the Soviet Union by the Derg reign without the real support of the peoples within should never have been taken for granted. Any regime can ill afford the consequences of not paying due attention to the wishes of the peoples under its jurisdiction. Such analysis is borne out of subconscious understanding of the real foundation and power inside the country. The Oromo Gada system could have saved all of us from dictators after dictators who are found unable to learn from their predecessors. Even today, we are told by some scholars to look west sometimes and east some other times although the emergence of some scholars who are willing and determined to look inside is encouraging. One Oromo scholar is reported to have confessed that out of the three schools of thoughts he went to – Abyssinian, Western and Borana subgroup of the Oromo nation – what he learned from the Borana has been the most valuable. 

Be that as it may, the notion of “what we dreamed” has no foundation. Serious scholars on Ethiopia’s politics should probe if the peoples ever had a common dream. A critical reflection of the situation demands asking if all the peoples in Ethiopia have any dream which all of them have seriously deliberated on and agreed to. Unless this question is objectively answered, the analysis does little to help since the attempt at assessing how far the dream has been realized embodies a fundamental flaw. Certainly, we can’t assume the dream of Tewodros to be the peoples’ dream. The fact that Tewodros used barbaric method of punishing his subject peoples is clearly testified in the analysis. What started out by him to unite the fragmented Abyssinian polities proper and a fringe of Oromo nation by force was continued by Menelik and stepped into more territories and peoples, such as the wider Oromo country. Haile Sellassie held together by force what was created by Menelik. No one ruler in Ethiopia really worked on the foundation; they tried to mend or maintain the roof of the house created by force on a shaky foundation and that may be why they fail so quickly and suddenly. 

It was further testified that there has never been a covenant between the peoples and the government except constitutions in the fashion of “decree from above”. The means used, such as the so called Ser’at, to maintain what has been created by force were sent from the top to the bottom. They were not of the making of the peoples, but those of the rulers. The peasant rebellion against Haile Sellassie’s regime which later became mass movement that brought down him and bore some fruit out of the “Land to the Tiller” motto was an exception of the people’s making although it was nonetheless hijacked by the military junta. 

These tools of the rulers were and are violated at convenience by their very owners. This makes the abuse of the peoples two fold. Generally, this kind of arrangement boils down to a system that ruthlessly exploits its subject people. In the diplomatic language of Dr. Bahru’s analysis, no one can deny the “existence of national oppression in the past” in Ethiopia. He further notes that “in particular, the southern peoples were subjected to extensive and odious oppression. Subjected to the administrative fiat of the north, their language and culture were denigrated. Many lost their lands and quite a few were sold into slavery.” 

Arguably the TPLF constitution is better than the ones before it. However, it has become a tactic than the rule. Recently the TPLF government decided to move Oromia’s institutions from Finfinne to Adama, violating article 49(5) of the constitution. When the Oromo people demanded an explanation, the TPLF came out heavy handed causing disturbances in the very foundation of the country they are ruling. 

The final analysis of the dream is that if the peoples didn’t have a common dream to begin with, it makes no sense to ask where the dream went wrong in the first place. Nor can one make a sense out of the discussions about missed opportunities and where we went off track since the peoples have never been on a genuinely negotiated track. Of course, anyone can argue that many countries in the world were formed by force. However, no one can argue about the fact that the peoples that were controlled by force have the right to break away from the bond as they see fit if their wishes are not attended to. 

Dr. Bahiru’s analysis factors in other local, regional and global issues. These include the confusion of Ethiopian intellectuals, some of which may have been lost in the wilderness and accuse themselves for participating in the “Land to the Tiller” movement. He reminds his readers that famine has become the “distinctive badge of Ethiopia”. He shares his perception that the wisdom traditions of the Middle East may become a potential source of conflict in Ethiopia. The analysis also makes a critical observation of the confusion of the TPLF, an organization that was set out to liberate Tigray from Ethiopia but now sitting at the power center of the country claiming that it has addressed the nations and nationalities questions. The EPLF and TPLF alliance that tried to break a natural bond between the Tigre, Afar and Saho peoples on both sides of the border, and more importantly the world buying such confused and subconscious act in the eve of the 21st century is also pointed out. Globally, the emergence of a sole superpower in the political problem of Ethiopia is factored in. While there may be no contention about the careful observation of other factors, the fear of the superpower to address Ethiopia’s problem may need to be weighed out. People should fear the shackles of their own governments than the world sole superpower. China and India are moving forward and no world superpower can stop them, although this doesn’t mean there is no natural competition. Our planet is a small spot in our galaxy and even smaller in the vast universe. All people have ample opportunities to make a difference on this earth and to head into the cosmos to understand our universe better. One might add, when it puts its house in order, Africa could also join in. 

After visiting all these problems at length, Dr. Bahru prescribes the institution of genuine constitutional governance. No healthy society or country demands anything more than constitutional governance and meaningful relationship between its constituents. In the same token, no healthy nation can swallow forever constitutions sent to it one after the other without meaningful input and keep watching that very constitution violated by the owners of these constitutions. While this may be beyond the point of the analysis, we are left with little insight about how genuine constitutional governance can be achieved. He advises us that “The American-style territorial federation is to be preferred to the Soviet-style of federation of nationalities.” The readers are left with the homework of defining the American-style territorial structure in the context of Ethiopia. The factors of distinctive identities of the peoples and their languages in Ethiopia are conveniently avoided. If one travels in Oromia, Amharic is or used to be used as the main means of communication in loosely scattered shanty towns whereas most of the people in the vast countryside speak their own language, Afaan Oromo. Imagine traveling in Germany and English used as the means of communication in German cities such as Berlin, Bonne, Stuttgart, Munich, and so on whereas the rest of the country using the country’s language, German. It is this kind of complex and on the ground factors that are left to the readers to formulate territorial federation. Such arrangement may benefit relatively small ethnic groups such as the Gurage and even those Oromos who would rather be identified as Gurage, but it would be only a dream to think that the major ethnic groups such as the Oromo people would willingly enter into this kind of arrangement. 

Finally, no genuine attempt should gloss over such complex issues when trying to prescribe some solution to the complex problems of Ethiopia. The task may not be easy. We can draw an analogy between building a healthy society and a safe house. Both need firm foundation if they are to last long. To build a house, one needs to dig deep enough to put it on a stiff foundation. A house built on such a foundation will last long. Similarly, building a healthy society demands going deep to the souls of the peoples to which freedom is dear. The real and firm foundation emanates from the peoples we come from. Of course, the effort to ferret out a collective aspiration out of the wishes of individual souls is not without its challenges. The answer lies in understanding the fact that people have common traits in the sense of aspiration for freedom. Humans are perhaps the weakest animals that can be defeated by the power of reason. Other animals can’t negotiate meaningfully, as far as we can tell. Humans can agree on common points as long as the negotiation is done on their own free will. The process is hard and messy. However, the end result is resilience in the face of danger. That is what American democracy boosts. 

Dr. Bahru’s analysis may have been prompted by the current mass movement in Oromia. Without any doubt, the question of the Oromo people is staring everyone in Ethiopia right in the face. No one can afford to mistreat it for that would be disservice to every other party involved more than it would be to the Oromo people.