“United We Stand, Divided We Fall”
The “True” Ethiopian – December 11, 2008
This article was inspired by the November 16, 2008 meeting that was held in Minneapolis among individuals from the Ethiopian community, ethnic groups and political organizations in Minnesota. The purpose was to freely discuss issues of common concern, such as, human rights violations, starvation and economic hardship faced by our compatriots back in Ethiopia, and it was a very successful meeting in that regard.
The November meeting was initiated by Mr. Obang Metho, founder/member of The Solidarity Movement for New Ethiopia (SMNE). SMNE is “a newly formed grassroots movement whose mission is to mobilize Ethiopians in the Diaspora and within Ethiopia to unite in a coalition across ethnic, regional, political, cultural, and religious lines around principles of truth, justice, freedom, the protection of human rights, equality and civility in order to bring about a more open, free and reconciled society in Ethiopia where humanity comes before ethnicity and where the same rights, opportunities and privileges are available to all because no one will be free until all are free”.
I would like to share a bit of my personal history that I also shared in the November 16th meeting; because it might shed some light on the difficulties we are having in working across ethnic, religious, and political divisions to counter the disastrous policies of EPRDF in Ethiopia.
The conquest, the economic exploitation and the prejudices were real.
I was born and raised in the Gedeo area in Sidamo. My ethnicity: 3/8 Gurage, 2/8 Sidamo, 2/8 Oromo and 1/8 Amhara. How about that for a “true” Ethiopian? How did I get so mixed up?
When Menelik’s army invaded the Sidamo area about a century ago, one young Muslim Gurage man, Deluka, joined the army. His own land, Gurage, had just been recently subjugated. Deluka ended up in a small settlers’ garrison village, called Bulai, high in the mountains overlooking the present day city of Dilla. Bulai was chosen for its defensive position and for being away from the malaria infested lowlands. It lay in the transition zone between the Gedeo and the Matti Oromo communities, two indigenous ethnic groups in the area. Somewhere along the way, this Gurage Muslim, Deluka, changed his name to Gebeyehu, an Amhara name, and converted to Christianity.
About the same time, another young man, Kenee, a Selale Oromo from the present day Addis Ababa area joined Menelik’s army, and he too ended up in Bulai. A third young man, Nigatu, from Amhara Syint, deep in Wollo, fled his village because he had killed somebody. He showed up in Shoa, and married a beautiful Abichu Oromo lady, Hikee Argano. The family joined Menelik’s army, and also ended up in Bulai. These were some of my great grandparents.
Members of the conquering army were each given land taken from the indigenous Gedeo and Matti people, along with the people that were on the land. The indigenous people were described by the settlers as”Gebbar”. That was Menelik’s way of paying his army. The settlers lived a relatively comfortable life economically, exploiting the free labor of their Gebbars.
The settlers also developed a sense of superiority. Years passed, some of the descendents of the settlers became poor, even poorer than some of the peasants in coffee growing areas to the south, but they still lived with their sense of superiority. Others like my parents, added wealth, and of course, kept their sense of superiority. Along the way, my grandfather himself born in Bulai fathered a son out of wedlock from an indigenous Sidamo lady. The child was my father. My Sidamo grandmother took the Amhara name Birke, and she became a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, in other words, she was thoroughly Amharanized. I knew her intimately since she lived in our house until her death. My father never publicly admitted his mother was a Sidamo. He talked about his Abichu grandmother, Hike, fondly, but specially emphasized his Amhara heritage. My father’s ethnicity: 1/2 Sidamo, ¼ Amhara and ¼ Oromo.
A bit of a related anecdote— in 1975 just before my grandmother died at about age 95, my two early-teen siblings had a new discovery. One said to the other, “I did not know Ako (Oromo word for grandmother) is a Sidamo”. To which my grandmother, whom they though was asleep, replied, “My children, don’t be ashamed that I am a Sidamo, I am a good Christian!”, as if just being a Sidamo was not enough. The prejudice had been internalized by even the victim herself.
Here are some of the prejudices that developed in Gedeo as a consequence of this shameful history. There were no problems with legal marriages among the settlers in Bulai village, Amhara vs. Shoa Oromo vs. Gurage. But there were no openly acknowledged marriages between any one of the settler groups and the locals. Not even between the Shoa Oromo and the Matti, the local Oromo. In the eyes of the settlers, the Gedeos and the Matti were cowards, merciless savages (aremenes), and less intelligent than the settlers. This story would, I think, sound very familiar to African Americans and Native Americans here in America. The fact is, the settlers were lucky to have had their clunky 19th century guns while the locals had none during the conquest. The locals were, of course, just as cowardly, brave, intelligent, or dumb as the settlers were. These are individual traits, not group traits.
So, I grew up a privileged son of a local landlord, but my playmates were Gedeo children. I went to their home and shared their food from the same container. If they came to my home, they were given food. My mother was considered a very kind lady by the locals, and I think rightly so. Yes, they were given food, but in a different container, not sharing with me.
The reaction from the oppressed and their descendents is understandable, but the solution sought by some of them now is not.
So, when I hear about separatist movements here and there in southern Ethiopia, I am not surprised. There is alienation and hurt, and I fully understand where this is coming from—past economic exploitation and cultural domination by northerners, embodied in the word, “Amhara”. However, do I support the separatists politically or otherwise? Absolutely, not! I do not believe the goal of the separatists, creating an independent state, even if achieved, a big if, is in the long-run interest of the very people they say they are fighting for.
Look at the Eritreans. What did they achieve after all that momentous struggle and independence? They substituted one dictator for another, Issayas for Mengistu. They had conflicts with their neighbors, and eventually ran into a major war that cost more human life in two years than the thirty years they fought so gallantly for their ”liberation”. I personally knew a few of those fighters from my school days. I will especially never forget one, Haile Selassie Gebreigzi, the gentlest of souls. He was picked up by the Dergue’s security, most probably tortured, but eventually murdered while in a prison. Haile could well have been an EPLF member, but the point is he was murdered without due process. No surprise there for Ethiopians. Torture and extra judicial killings were and still are a common occurrence. Haile, my friend, rest in peace. May be it is better that you died for what you believed in rather than lived to see what your comrades and your struggle produced, another tyranny, not a prosperous, vibrant, democratic Eritrea, at peace with itself and the world.
Today there is another round of struggle to try overthrowing Issayas’ regime. Recently, I stumbled on a young Eritrean man in a building, who was directing people to a meeting of an opposition Eritrean group that I did not know about. I was also surprised to read in a publication by the Economist that for 2006 Eritrea was No. 13 among countries of origin of asylum applications to industrial countries. For comparison, Somalia was No.9, and Iraq was No. 1.
What about the thousands of soldiers and officers of the Ethiopian army who paid the ultimate in fighting gallantly for Ethiopian unity beyond and above their soldering duties? How many thousands more from other national opposition groups, like EPRP, or separatist groups, like TPLF and OLF have perished under the Dergue, just like Haile. They were fighting for lofty ideals—Ethiopian unity and/or “to liberate” the oppressed. The result is similar to what happened in Eritrea. Ethiopia too substituted Meles for Mengistu. Meles is a sinister dictator who is wreaking havoc in the Ogden. He continues to plant poisonous seeds of mistrust and resentment which could potentially erupt in far worse inter ethnic conflicts in the future. People of good will need to act in unison to diffuse it, and redirect the energy into getting rid of Meles and building the new Ethiopia. Mengistu was at least on the right tract on this front. The Ethiopian revolution had brought in millions more from previously forgotten ethnic groups into the Ethiopian family. Mengistu was at least an equal opportunity oppressor, who did not favor one ethnic group over another as long as his power was not questioned.
The folly of the two tyrants, one in Ethiopia and the other Eritrea, cost both our peoples tens of thousands of lives and diverted our meager resources away from urgently needed development work. The saga continues. Now, instead of resolving the remaining border dispute peacefully based on the verdict of the mutually agreed on Eritrea-Ethiopia Border Commission, the two armies are staring at each other across the border ready to spill more blood. One would think a rational and humane solution would be to give the local people on the border area the option to resettle on either side of the border, assist them in the resettlement, and demarcate the border for once and all. Instead, the two tyrants rather continue to play up the past ill feelings developed from historical interactions between the Tigrayans in Ethiopia and their brethren on the Eritrean side to prepare their armies for another round of conflict. The real motivation of Meles and Issayas—power and ego! The main hardships of such conflicts fall, as always, on the peasants who continue to lose their children and bear the brunt of the economic cost. Both the Eritrean and Ethiopian people at large lose too because of the economic burden of war, and the lost opportunity of badly needed development work. Meles and Issayas are just fine, thank you.
What about Somalia? How did it fare since independence? Not very well. The last 18 years have been a long nightmare, even excluding, the recent intervention by Meles’ regime on the behalf of America. That’s a major disaster created by Meles and Bush that immensely exacerbated the existing political and humanitarian problems in Somalia, and clearly is not in the interest of Ethiopia or the long-term interest of America. Even before the intervention, Somalia had been consumed in inter-clan conflict. The lesson—even ethnic and religious homogeneity alone does not assure peace, democracy and progress.
Will all the inter-ethnic violence magically disappear once we have a genuinely democratic government in Ethiopia? I would like to believe it will diminish greatly, but it will not completely disappear in the foreseeable future. Such a democratic government would need to constantly work to proactively resolve such potential conflicts peacefully, but, would not hesitate to revert to legal and appropriate application of force to keep the peace without any favoritism to one side or the other. Such an Ethiopia will have a strong, well trained, agile police and paramilitary force. After all, keeping the peace is one of the main duties of a government worth the name. This vision is, of course, just the opposite of what Meles is doing in the country now, despite what he says. Action speaks louder than words.
I focused on Eritrea and Somalia because first, we are dealing with history as it unfolds, and second and more importantly, because of the geographic proximity to and the similarities of culture and the level of development to that of Ethiopia. In general, it seems to me the track record of “liberation” or independence movements in the third world is not very good. The odds of having functioning democratic mini-states sprouting from the present day Ethiopia and being able to concentrate on the monumental task of development is even much more remote. For starters, such mini states will run into endless Ethiopia-Eritrea type “border” conflicts based on just who came where first, heightened by population pressures and competition for resources. How is the border between Oromia and Amhara, or Ogaden and Oromia going to be drawn? What would be the basis for negotiating borders between such mini states? Ethiopia and Eritrea had at least the colonial boarder to begin with, which is recognized by the African Union as acceptable basis for demarcating borders of post-colonial African states. This is not to mention the ethnic and religious differences that will be exploited by cynical power-hungry leaders, i.e. Meles multiplied many times. I believe, there is a much better chance of achieving a functioning multi-ethic democratic new Ethiopia where all its children will feel at home, and where they will eventually concentrate on the real enemies of the country—poverty, ignorance and environmental degradation. In that endeavor, first each of us needs to examine our own attitudes and actions, and work to correct them so that we are least not at part of the problem.
I do not understand, therefore, the basis for the separatist movements. It appears the position held by some, I emphasize, “some” well educated southerners goes like this: We had been exploited in the past and are being exploited now, Amharas and Tigrayans are the causes of our miseries, if only we could have a separate state, we could practice true democracy and develop our land, language and culture.
My reading of history says Amharas and Tigrayans are not uniquely evil, and they did not subjugate the indigenous people in the south just by themselves. Refer to my own personal history, and what is happening now under Meles. The same domination of one culture over another, the same exploitation of one over the other would have happened if the Anuaks, the Sidamos, the Oromos, the Somali or any of the other ethnic groups were the dominant group in what is now called the country of Ethiopia. If the historical Ogadeni Somali, Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghaze (Ahmad Gragn) had succeeded in conquering the whole of Ethiopia in the 16th century, which he actually almost did, yes, present day Ethiopia would have been a different country, but most probably not a more just and democratic one. The story is also not uniquely Ethiopian either. Europe’s history was built in blood and gory. Africa’s history is being made in blood and gory in front of our eyes. Relative peace and respect for human rights even in Western Europe is only a recent phenomenon that flourished under democratic states, and still occasionally falters
The second position I don’t understand comes from some, I again emphasize “some”, quite well educated northerners. Here is how it goes: I am proud of the Ethiopian civilization that produced the only written language in Black Africa, I am proud of the three thousand years of unbroken history, and an Ethiopia that held off the white man during the colonial scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Therefore, I have nothing to do with Somali or Oromo or other social organizations, they are all separatists or at the service of separatist organizations.
I too am proud of some, not all, of the past history of Ethiopia. The positive achievements in the past are not just Ethiopian history, but, they are part of African history. It is in fact a small, but notable, contribution to world heritage. The development of terracing and soil management by our Konso people in the south is also admirable, and something I am proud of. However, the appreciation of the positive does not stop me from acknowledging the negative, or appreciating all cultures and working with people from Ethiopia of different ethnicity on issues of common interest.
Ethiopia held together by outbursts of massive human rights violations is not only unsustainable, but also undesirable. I cannot imagine how a truly democratic individual would entertain such an Ethiopia. Even at the practical level, such a policy will actually assure the ultimate disintegration of the country. This is the 21st century when there is world wide ethnic and religious awaking, mass communication and commerce, not Menelik’s 19th century. Instead, let’s celebrate diversity and direct the energies released from ethnic and religious awaking to positive ends.
On the other hand, there are two middle positions that I empathize with.
I have traveled in Amhara country quite a bit because I used to work for rural water supply under Dergue. I have witnessed abject poverty and lack of roads, clinics and schools. Somebody who is raised in such an environment, and has limited knowledge or understanding of what happened in the south during the last century or so may have a different perspective of current Ethiopian issues. Such a person would ask, “What special thing did Haile Selassie do for the Amharas? The Dergue has returned the land to the peasants in the south, what else do they want? They are just filled with a hatred of Amharas.
The other position that I empathize with is the one that says, “We have been treated so badly by the dominant group in the past, I don’t trust Amharas and Tigrayans; otherwise, in the best of all worlds, leave alone united Ethiopia, even united Africa would make sense. I will support and worry about my ethnic group and work to develop its language and culture.”
Some in these two groups may be people who are interested in public affairs, but are not yet comfortable to work across ethnic boundaries.
The solution: help build a democratic culture and institutions—no more God anointed kings or chiefs to save us. Modernity is rushing head-on towards us, adapt or perish.
There is no easy solution to building a multi-ethnic democratic Ethiopia, To those who have contributed in the past, or are contributing now to this endeavor, I say good work, keep it up. I especially have high regard for individuals who are taking real risk in genuinely pursuing lofty goals on behalf of the people by exposing themselves and their families to harassment, economic discrimination, imprisonment, and in some cases, yes, paying with their dear lives. To those of us who have dropped out or have been sort of on the sidelines all along for one reason or another, the time is not too late. The struggle will be long since it is not just to get rid of a regime, but more importantly, it is to build democratic culture and institutions from the bottom up. The task is a huge one; no one ethnic, religious, civic, or political group will solve it alone. We will either all swim through the rough waters to a more tranquil future, or all drown together in inter clan, inter ethnic and inter religious violence, at the complete mercy of marauding warlords like in Somalia.
Let’s build a democratic society with justice and peace for all in as relatively short a period as possible by learning from the experiences of others and ourselves. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in either the political or technological field. Is there anything we can learn from Indian democracy practiced, however haltingly, in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society? The divisions in Ethiopia cannot be worse than those in India. I say yes; there is a very good chance we can build a just democratic multi-ethnic society in Ethiopia. The task would not be easy, but it could start right here among us wherever we are.
Let’s start the dialogue now across ethnic, religious and political barriers. For starters let’s collaborate and condemn gross human rights violations in the Ogaden, not because ONLF says so, but because it has been documented by international human rights groups. Meles claims there are no human rights violations committed by the government. Good, let him open up the Ogaden and other conflict areas to international observers and humanitarian agencies so that the truth comes out, and the needy are helped, especially now when there is an acute food shortage, bordering on starvation on a massive scale. We can and should work together to bring these issues to the international leaders and the public so as to increase the pressure on Meles’ regime.
Let’s also protest any individual human rights violations. Let’s awaken from our numb state where we sometimes accept such isolated government sanctioned killings, and disappearances as normal. Otherwise, all talk about democracy and human rights will not do much. Let’s insist on openness and democratic practices in any organization we belong to, political or civic. Let’s be wary of leaders who suggest directly or indirectly that “the end justifies the means”. Some of us older folks have witnessed what happens when too idealistic political movements like those that were inspired by communism take hold. What happened in Ethiopia and around the world is history—death and distraction. Just remember the Khmer Rouge as the extreme case, and Meles’s and Issayas’ regimes at a different level. We should be wary of such movements, whether political or religious since, they are more often than not, the breeding grounds of leaders that will eventually become dictatorial when they come to power. In other words, I don’t believe that an opposition movement that is not itself democratic while in opposition will be democratic when in power.
Our task should be to examine our behaviors and actions and try to align them with what we honestly proclaim to be our values are. Let’s consciously work on those attitudes and actions we would like to change, instead of denying their existence. Let’s encourage the immergence of leaders that have shed a lot of the baggage of prejudice that they carried on from their childhood environment.
Sometimes prayer helps too.
Africa did not only produce leaders who were or are corrupt, narrow-minded, megalomaniacs like Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, Mugabe, Mengistu, Meles, Issayas and others. It produced also those who stepped down from power either voluntarily or through the ballot, the likes of Senghor of Senegal, and Kaunda of Zambia. It produced leaders such as Mandela and Nyrere of Tanzania who lived a life of service with honesty, humility and understanding. These are my great African heroes.
Therefore, let the sprit of Mandela and Nyrere, the spirit of working for a common good across ethnic, religious and political difference, with respect to each other, honesty, justice, democracy pervade our leaders and us.
Other than this prayer, what do I know? I am just an engineer and a “real” Ethiopian: 3/8 Gurage, 2/8 Sidamo, 2/8 Oromo and 1/8 Amhara.