Ethiopia: African Nation Building in the 21st Century

Oromo people protest the expansion of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia, 2018.
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Photo: Oromo people demonstrating against the expansion of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, into Oromia. 

The military conflict between Ethiopia’s central government and the local government of its Tigray Region began on November 4. On December 1, the Ethiopian government reported that it had defeated the rebel army and taken control of the region, but according to Reuters, “the leader of Tigrayan forces said they were still resisting amid fears of a protracted guerrilla conflict.” I spoke to Ayantu Ayana, Ethiopian doctoral student at UCLA and advocate of multinational Ethiopian federalism. 

Ann Garrison: Ayantu Ayana, can you first say something about your own Ethiopian identity. Are you a US citizen in the Ethiopian diaspora, or an Ethiopian citizen studying here? And what are you studying at UCLA?  

Ayantu Ayana: I am a US citizen in the Oromo Ethiopian diaspora and I am studying oral archival traditions, silences in written records/archives, & anti-colonial struggles in UCLA's Information Studies Department. 

AG: You said you’re of the Oromo nation, which some sources describe as the largest ethnicity in Ethiopia with 45% of the population. Is that correct?   

AA: Well, the numbers are always disputed, but the Oromo are the largest nation in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region with something like 40 million people. We were supposed to have a census conducted last year, but like the elections, that was postponed for political reasons. 

AG: And you speak the Oromo language?

AA: Yes, fortunately. 

AG: Since you use the term “multinational federalism,” I assume that by “nations,” you mean peoples with shared history, culture, language, and governance. Correct?

AA: Yes.

AG: Just to avoid confusion then, I am going to call the national government in Addis Ababa either the central government or the nation state. Is that OK?  

AA: Central government is fine. However, to call Ethiopia a nation state is to introduce confusion. It is more accurate to refer to Ethiopia as a federal state. 

AG: How would you contextualize the military conflict that began when, according to the BBC, “an [Ethiopian] army base was taken over by Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces loyal to the regional government of Tigray ” on November 4?  

AA: Well, first of all, the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front dominated the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front  (EPRDF) which was supposed to be a multinational federation, for 27 years and I’m sure they’d do anything to get back in power.  But I want to be careful not to equate the TPLF and the Tigrayan people and the tension between the national government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the distinct peoples of Ethiopia did not begin on November 4. That began as soon as he was chosen to head a transitional government at the end of March 2018. 

Shortly after that he dissolved the EPRDF and created a single party, the Prosperity Party, which invites the participation of Ethiopians as individual citizens, but not that of peoples with distinct cultures, histories, and languages within Ethiopia. Which goes against the constitutional multinational federal arrangement in place since 1995. 

AG: The TPLF dominated the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, ruling Ethiopia for 27 years in the name of multinational federalism, but wasn’t it in fact a minority dictatorship?

AA: Definitely.

AG: Eighteen days after the TPLF attack on the Ethiopian army, South Africa’s Daily Maverick quoted US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy speaking in a telephone press conference, where he said:  

“This was not to secede and create an independent state from Ethiopia, because the Ethiopian Constitution has a provision for the states to be able to secede peacefully. 

“It seems like they were doing this more to depose the prime minister from power and to reassert themselves into the prominent position that they had atop the Ethiopian political spectrum for the last 27 years.

“So, hopefully right now, I think that their tactic has had the opposite effect from what they were planning… it seems like this has brought the Ethiopian nation together, at least for the time being, in support of the prime minister, because this has really stoked Ethiopian nationalism.”

Do you agree with Assistant Secretary Nagy? 

AA: Both Abiy Ahmed backed by Ethiopian unitary nationalists and the U.S. and the TPLF have the same goal, which is control of lands and people of historically marginalized areas, Oromia being at the center of this. Where the two parties in this conflict differ is on the question of how to dominate the country. The TPLF preferred to operate through regional intermediaries they controlled from Addis Ababa. Abiy Ahmed would like to completely centralize power around himself and pursue a more unitary state building process through one single party. But the essence of the battle is over who will have full control over the rest of Ethiopia, especially the resource rich, heavily populated and centrally situated region of Oromia. 

AG: One might have expected the US to support their longstanding ally the TPLF, who used the Ethiopian army as a US proxy in the Horn of Africa during its nearly three decades in power, during which time it invaded Somalia and refused to recognize the sovereign independence of Eritrea—a national hostile to the US —even after the UN admitted Eritrea as a member state.  

However, Assistant Secretary Nagy’s remarks seem supportive of the Prime Minister and today’s Secretary Pompeo’s Call with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed  seemed noncommittal.  

What do you think of the US’s current relations with the TPLF?

AA: Again, the US’s goal is to have a militarily powerful central Ethiopian government that serves their interests in the Horn of Africa. They are not concerned with the wellbeing of Ethiopian citizens or peoples. The TPLF served US interests in the Horn of Africa for 27 years, but finally, thanks to grassroots movements, the US saw that the TPLF faced too much domestic opposition to serve their purpose any longer. Then they switched their support to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. 

AG: What about US relations with the government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed? Do you think they can count on him to serve as a US military proxy in the region? 

AA: I would like to challenge the very notion of a U.S. military proxy in the region. The U.S. has always assumed that stability comes from setting up military proxies and this has been devastating for the people of this region and of course it has contributed to destabilization of the entire area. The U.S. government’s narrow mindedness about stability limits possibilities for alternative conceptualizations of peace in the region. Every time there is an opening for change, the U.S. steps in and backs regimes that are so oppressive and authoritarian that it inevitabily creates armed movements against it. So, the U.S. really needs to rethink what stability means. 

AG: On August 26, several months before the TPLF attacked the Ethiopian army in Tigray, you appeared on Kenya’s Elephant TV , where you said that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was doubling down on a failed governance model of internal colonization and culturally genocidal central government, when Ethiopia needs instead a multinational federation with space for all of Ethiopia’s 80 distinct indigenous cultures. Could you talk about that?

AA: The conquest that incorporated previously independent and self-governing peoples into the emerging Ethiopian state at the end of the 19th century set in motion a process of national, economic, and political subjugation in Ethiopia. The newly conquered territories were ruled through establishment of garrison towns which became the new economic, cultural, and political centers of Ethiopia. As cities grew, this system kept reproducing itself and though it has undergone economic and political changes, the unequal relationship between the state whose nucleus is these cities and the dominated majority (80%) in the periphery has not fundamentally changed. This contradiction remains at the center of Ethiopia’s continuing conflict, impoverishment, and authoritarian trap, including its current crisis. The urban elites in the conquered regions, who are descendants of the settler-soldier class and their intermediaries who created the garrison towns turned cities, oppose multinational federalism because it undercuts their historic and contemporary privileges. Because the multinational federation has potential to shift resources which are controlled by this minority urban elites to the historically dominated national groups in the south. 

The Ethiopian state is founded on the center of Oromo territories and large parts of fertile lands are found there. Because of this the conviction that the Oromo need to be destroyed as a people remains at the center of Ethiopian nation building. The Oromo are especially targeted for assimilation and erasure due to their geographical location in the center of the state. However, the impulse to erase the plurality of the country’s peoples affects all historically marginalized groups. It is this kind of genocidal state policy that Abiy Ahmed’s government seeks to bring back and it is this that historically marginalized groups including the Oromo continue to fight against. 

Historically marginalized peoples whose lands were incorporated through conquest into the Ethiopian state demand an end to a system that makes them aliens on their own lands, a system that demands that millions of people live as second class citizens, that denies them the right to administer their own affairs, use their resources to develop as a people, that denies them anything authentic, including who speaks on their behalf in the village and in other corridors of power, and a system that subjects their ancient cultural institutions to willful and gradual erasure. In essence, they want to live in peace, with themselves and others. Nothing more, nothing less.

AG: There are 80 distinct languages in Ethiopia. Has this government been trying to extinguish them in favor of a national language, presumably Amharic, the language of the Ethiopian Empire, and English, Ethiopia’s language of international business?

AA: Emperor Menelik’s late 19th century conquest set in motion a process of state building that stripped the conquered peoples of Ethiopia their languages, worldviews, political and economic systems. The cultural, political and economic institutions of these peoples came under increasing attack by the state and many of these institutions were completely dismantled. Historically, the state’s impulse has been to erase. Even where there was not been explicit policy to destroy languages, there were more systematic ways of doing it. For instance, schools did not use native languages until the 1990s federation. One of the demands of the Oromo protesters was that Afan Oromo, spoken by more than 40 million people be made a federal working language. Abiy Ahmed’s government have completely refused to address this issue, for example. So there is a persistent desire to promote Amharic at the expense of all other languages. 

AG: What languages do you think Ethiopia should conduct business in nationally and internationally?  Another way of saying this is, what do you think the “official languages” should be? 

AA: Amharic is one of the 80+ native languages we have. It became dominant in the 20th century as it was the language of Ethiopian empire & was unilaterally imposed in the conquered territories until 1991. Amharic remained the dominant language after 1991 as it was chosen as the federal working language. The central demand of the Oromo protests was that Afan Oromo be one of the working languages, a demand that continues to be ignored by the government. The greatest number of people in Ethiopia speak Afan Oromo. For the country to continue to bypass the language of the majority is unworkable and must be addressed. 

AG: What do you think the role of the Ethiopian nation state should be? 

AA: Just to avoid confusion, Ethiopia is not a nation state. It is a federal state made up of many nations. I would like to reconceptualize its future as a potential to serve as a collaborative network of neighbors in solidarity with each other. Whatever future Ethiopia has it is going to require some major adaptation by all parties.

AG: Is there something more proactive that it should do for the many peoples of Ethiopia Should it be building infrastructure, delivering national health care, and other social services? Should it attempt to protect Ethiopians from foreign military and corporate aggression?

AA: Federation should be conceived as a horizontal network. It has to be built that way. The federal government has to be a creation of the regional states, rather than the other way around. The starting point needs to be the regional states being empowered to address their own problems and to engage with each other and the federal government equitably. They need to be able to design their own infrastructure to address their own local needs. This should not come from the top as it historically has been. Basically, the relationship between the regional states and federal government would be a result of deep negotiation. I think these are issues that all Africans need to be asking themselves, especially those of us who have never experienced anything but violent neocolonial governments. In 2018, the Oromo Advocacy Alliance  in diaspora drew up this statement to present to PM Abiy Ahmed upon his visit to meet with us in Washington DC, Minnesota, and California after his appointment to head the transitional government. 

AG: Yes, I read that very interesting document and recommend it to anyone interested in more than we’ve been able to cover. 

Ann Garrison is an independent journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2014, she received the Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza Democracy and Peace Prize for her reporting on conflict in the African Great Lakes Region. Please help support her work on Patreon. She can be reached at ann(at)anngarrison(dot)com. 

 


 

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