Mekelle:  10 March 2024 (Tigray Herald)

By Christopher Clapham

Ethiopia and the problem of diversity

Professor Christopher Clapham opened the session on opinions and analyses of scholars on the political situation with a historical and analytical consideration of the problems of ethnic diversity in a context of state sovereignty. Addressing his Oromo audience with an oral presentation, he refrained from a scientific apparatus of footnotes and references, though his text certainly is informed by a long career of research on this and related topics in the context of the region.


Ethiopia and the problem of diversity

The basic question with which Oromos and other nationalities in Ethiopia are concerned is by no means restricted to Ethiopia or even to Africa. That question is it possible to reconcile the identities and aspirations of particular peoples with the demands of membership of a single multinational state? is the most important challenge facing the construction of a peaceful and democratic global order, and it must be answered not only in Africa, but in the great majority of the countries of the world. Very few states indeed have but a single ‘nationality’, and even the attempt to create states that are ethnically homogeneous has usually been accompanied by great violence. Though the existing frontiers of states are not sacred, and these may sometimes have to change, and indeed have changed, there is no conceivable way in which the diverse peoples of the world can each be divided into separate sovereign states. The successful development of democratic governance, in Ethiopia as elsewhere, critically depends on the accommodation of diversity.

In most of Africa, the problem of diversity is automatically ascribed to European colonialism, and to the arbitrary and artificial frontiers of most African states, which were usually drawn by colonialists, without any reference to the African peoples whom they divided between one territory and another. I am often greeted with astonishment when I tell other Africans that this problem may be greatest in those states that were created not by Europeans, but by Africans themselves. The reason is that European colonialism subjected all Africans to the common oppression of an external power, whereas indigenous African states were almost necessarily based on the power of one group inside that state over others, and therefore had a much more basic premise of inequality’ built into the state itself. Ethiopia is in this respect is by no means alone, a number of other African states with essentially indigenous origins, such as Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi, have experienced far CMI REPORT


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Ethiopia is indeed a very peculiar country: it was never an apartheid-style state, with power reserved to the members of one particular nationality, but has always been multi-national. It has however had a dominant cultural core, notably represented by Orthodox Christianity, the Amharic language, and the acceptance of as ‘great tradition’ of Ethiopian history, which anyone who wanted to ‘belong to the state has had to adopt. The resulting sense of inequality was then greatly intensified by the great expansion of the territory of the Ethiopian state at the time of Emperor Menilek, and by the intensely exploitative system of land-holding that was then established, as well as by the deeply authoritarian culture of the state itself.



It is a state in which some Oromos, albeit always a small minority, have had an important place for the last three centuries, whereas many, indeed most, Oromos have been among its most exploited peoples, We may think of Menilek’s general Ras Gobana as an Oromo who conquered Oromos, but Menilek himself-coming as he did from an area of ​​mixed population in which Oromos, Amharas and other peoples had mingled for several centuries is almost certain to have had some Oromo blood, and was evidently very different in appearance from the classic Amhara type. Ninety years. ago, Ethiopia was ruled by the Oromo Negus Mikael and his son Yasu; but Haile Selassie, who overthrew them, was himself half-Oromo, since both of his grandfathers were Oromo (for completeness, one grandmother was Amhara, and the other Gurage). For much of their recent history, Oromos have been partly inside and partly outside the Ethiopian state, an ambivalent position due partly to the peculiar nature and changing boundaries of the Ethiopian state itself, but also to the great diversity among Oromos, who have many different histories, just as they have different religions and different traditional modes of production. This peculiar status, partly inside and partly outside a state of whose population they form the largest single group, continues to define the problems facing Oromos today.

Alternative approaches to diversity There are only a limited number of ways in which states and peoples can respond to diversity, and over the last 50 years, Ethiopia and the Oromo have experienced three different ones, which between them represent three of the main mechanisms through which some accommodation. between statehood and identity can be attempted. Each of these, certainly, has had its problems, which in the first two cases go a long way to explain why they have now passed into history. We must however remember that this is an area in which every would-be solution has its problems: there is no perfect outcome, and whichever option is adopted, including those that have not yet been tried, will necessarily have its downside as well as its advantages.

Haile Selassie and assimilation

The imperial government Haile Selassie, through to his deposition in the 1974 revolution, followed a policy that can broadly be described as assimilationist: he assumed that over time, all Ethiopians. would become roughly the same, by becoming in essence like himself, Amharic-speaking. Orthodox Christians, embodying the Ethiopian ‘great tradition of Axum, Lalibela and empire. His home region of Shoa was itself an expression of this idea of Ethiopia, a region of mixed ethnicity, many of whose peoples had only recently been annexed to the country, but which was nonetheless. central to the Ethiopian state. Haile Selassie did not do very much to promote this policy, but as a feudal or dynastic leader he did not see much need to. His agenda was largely limited to the extension of centralised government over the whole country, and the suppression of any attempt to develop any alternative source of identity, such as Somali, Eritrean or indeed Oromo. More positive attempts at integration involved ensuring that education and other government services were provided only in Amharic, and dynastic marriages with the historic ruling families of Welega and. Tigray; but the active promotion of Ethiopian nationalism would in itself have implied a level of popular participation in government that the imperial state could not have withstood.

Haile Selassie’s assimilationist policy, like his government as a whole, was always a lost cause. Increased demands for popular participation are an inevitable consequence of modernisation, and such demands always intensify latent identities. The imperial government did nothing at all- indeed, quite the opposite to rectify the deep injustices that had been perpetuated by the existing class and especially land-holding structures of southern Ethiopia. Already by the end of his reign, the idea of self-determination for Ethiopia’s nationalities was coming to the fore, a process represented in the case of the Oromo by the Macha Tulama association, one of whose young activists, Mamo Mezmir, was a member of my own class at the Law School of Addis Ababa. University in the late 1960s. The idea that Ethiopia’s numerous nationalities could be seamlessly. welded into a common identity represented by ‘historic Ethiopia was never realisable; and the revolution that erupted in 1974 simply precipitated into the political arena tensions that would inevitably, sooner or later, have made their way to the surface.

The Derg and revolutionary nationalism



The Derg regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam and his associates had a very different vision of Ethiopia, which derived from their own revolutionary military nationalism. They felt that if oppression and inequality could be swept away, and the injustices of the old ‘feudal system could be rectified, notably with regard to the land question, then the basic underlying causes of Ethiopia’s internal divisions would no longer exist, and all Ethiopians could join together as members of a single equal and united nation. This vision was moreover very widely shared by the young, educated and idealistic Ethiopians of that time. Its great expression was of course the land reform of 1975, and the zemecha or revolutionary development campaign that immediately followed it, in which high school and university students were despatched to the countryside, to reconnect with their rural roots and implement the land reform and other revolutionary measurers on the ground.

This again was not an entirely fraudulent vision, and like Haile Selassie’s Shoan attitude, it made sense especially to those who promoted it: in this case, junior officers in the army, and many of their contemporaries in the university and elsewhere. Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s own ethnicity remains uncertain, though he was most probably a Kullo Konta from the south-west; and whatever you may say about him, there can be little doubt that he was an Ethiopian nationalist, with a whole- hearted (indeed brutal) commitment to national unity. The great land reform likewise undoubtedly created enthusiasm for the revolution among the peasantry, and perhaps especially the Oromo peasantry, who unlike their northern counterparts had lacked the security provided by traditional. systems of land tenure. The great revolutionary armies of the late 1970s, that in 1977/78 defeated. the Somalis and pinned back the Eritreans, were to a very large extent Oromo armies, and credible reports from that period emphasise the enthusiasm with which they saw themselves as defending their revolution against its domestic and international enemies. Many of the intellectuals who, initially at least, supported the revolution and offered advice and encouragement to the Derg, were likewise Oromos, with Haile Fida most prominent among them. These were associated especially with the Meison movement, and some of them continued to support the Derg right up until the end

But as we all know, the Derg too was doomed, not just because of the end of the Cold War and the loss of Soviet support, which I would rank only as secondary causes of its fall, but much more. important, because it had failed inside Ethiopia, both economically and politically. Regardless of the international situation, it would soon have collapsed anyhow. Economically, the gains from land reform had been lost by a socialist planned economy, with its counterproductive insistence on centralised control, and were emphasised by famine. Politically, the Derg completely failed to put together any form of participation that would meet the needs of Ethiopia’s diverse peoples; its Leninist vanguard party, like all such parties, was no more than an instrument for ambitious careerists. Militarily, as Ethiopia’s old professionally army was wasted away in never-ending conflicts against highly motivated and well-organised guerrilla forces, and their conscript replacements lost the will to die in a losing cause. We have to remember that it was not overthrown

by Oromos, directly at least, but by a movement which was drawn from ‘historic’ Ethiopia, in Tigray and even Amhara; but its fall was certainly hastened by the loss of Oromo support: the conscripts of the 1980s were very different from the volunteers of 1977, and were only too ready to desert, at which point many of them were recruited to help start the PDOs, through which the EPRDF sought to extend its support into areas in which it had no military presence. Eventually, the Derg armies just fell apart.

The EPRDF and ethnic federalism

This brings us, of course, to Meles Zenawi, the EPRDF, and a third approach to the issue of nationalities in Ethiopia, very different from the previous two and indeed from anything else int Africa. I have never met any African political figure from outside Ethiopia who did not regard Ethiopian ethnic federalism as completely crazy, and so it is worth remembering where this remarkable experiment came from. It has two sources: one external to Ethiopia, and one internal. The external one came paradoxically, given Soviet support for the Derg, against which Meles and his colleagues had spent so long fighting from the USSR, and notably from Stalin’s theory of the national question, which not only Meles but Mengistu and the Derg had studied carefully.

This held that differences between ‘nationalities’, a word which comes directly from the vocabulary of Soviet communism, were ultimately due to class exploitation, and could be removed by autonomy, of the kind that produced the Union Republics of the USSR, now independent states. In the Derg’s time, the attempt to implement a Soviet model of development led not only to central planning and the formation of a Leninist vanguard party, the WPE, but also to the establishment of the Institute for the Study of Ethiopian Nationalities (ISEN), and the ethnic mapping of Ethiopia, an enterprise that had not previously been attempted. Strangely, the boundaries between the current Ethiopian regions, and within the SNNPRS, derive very largely from work carried out for the Derg, which the EPRDF simply took over, even though it is inconceivable that the Derg could ever have taken nationality autonomy to anything like the lengths promoted by its successor.

But within the country, it is also important to remember the experience of the TPLF in Tigray, and the particular slant that this gave them on the ‘national question in Ethiopia. This in turn did much to shape the policies of the EPRDF regime. For a start, there was never any contradiction between being ‘Tigrayan’ and being “Ethiopian’. Tigrays remain proud of their historic role in the formation of the Ethiopian state, dating back to the time of the Axumite empire, and however great their resentment at their subordination to Amharas (and especially Shoans) to the south, they only ever really wanted autonomy within Ethiopia. It was correspondingly easy for them to assume that the relationship between maintaining your own ethnic identity and belonging to a wider Ethiopia would be as simple for others as it was for themselves. Equally. Tigray as a deeply impoverished region is highly dependent on the rest of Ethiopia, and splitting away from it makes no economic sense. Tigray is also an exceptionally homogeneous region in ethnic terms, precisely because it is so poor that people have always migrated out of it and not into it, and it was therefore easy for the TPLF leaders to assume that the rest of Ethiopia could be divided into ethnic blocks equivalent to Tigray. In fact both the distribution of nationalities in other parts of Ethiopia, not least for the Oromo, and the relationship between the way in which people identify with specific nationalities on the one. hand and the Ethiopian state on the other, are vastly more contested and complex than in Tigray. Finally, of course, the policy of ethnic federalism also made a politically convenient platform through which to build alliances with other regional forces against the Derg. I very much doubt, however, whether the TPLF adopted this programme for purely tactical reasons, for them it really seemed to make sense.

Ethiopian politics and the logic of nationality This is not the place to go into the lost opportunities of the post-1991 period, the break between the EPRDF and the OLF, and the current political situation in Ethiopia and the Horn. These are matters which other and much better qualified participants will be taking up in the course of this meeting. and about which I myself have much to learn. It may be helpful, however, is to explore some of the logics that the current system gives rise to, taking account of the truism in the study of conflict management, that what appears as the ‘solution’ to a conflict in some respects, creates further potential sources of conflict when looked at in different ways.

For the EPRDF, if the salient problem of Ethiopia was its division between nationalities, and its history of the exploitation of some nationalities by others, then the answer to that problem was to give a high level of autonomy to each nationality within a federal system of government. But this answer, whatever you may think of it as a diagnosis and response to the challenges facing Ethiopia, has created further problems at three different levels.

First, there is the question of the relationship between nationalities and the Ethiopian state, not just in terms of the level of actual devolution to each national state, and the genuineness of the autonomy offered by the central government to the regions, both of which we will certainly be looking at later in this meeting, but in terms also of the question of how ‘being Oromo – or Amhara, or Gurage, or Afar relate to the idea of ‘being’ Ethiopian. Are these opposed or compatible ideas? Most studies of nationalism regard the ‘nation’ as making a hegemonic claim on the loyalty of its citizens, such that a commitment to the nation must displace any alternative. loyalty, or at least relegate it to a very clearly subordinate position. On this basis, then either the vast majority of Ethiopians would have to come to think of themselves as being primarily Ethiopian, essentially replicating the programme of the Derg, or else the competing claims of different nationalities could be achieved only by splitting the country apart into its separate ethnic elements, in the way that happened with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Both Ethiopian nationalists, in the current political situation, and the proponents of separatist or secessionist ethnic identities, are essentially agreed on the mutual exclusivity of these rival claims on people’s allegiance; they differ only in which alternative they seek to promote. For the EPRDF, on the other hand, belonging to a particular nationality and belonging to Ethiopia as a whole are not only compatible but complementary: federal Ethiopia is quite extraordinary among states in insisting that its people cannot be simply ‘Ethiopian’, but requiring that they belong to Ethiopia through their prior membership of a particular nationality. There is no political party, for example, at least on the government side, for anyone who does not identify themselves as belonging to one or another nationality. You must first identify yourself as being Oromo or Afar or Gurage or whatever, in order to participate in Ethiopian political life. The nearest equivalent of which I am aware is the European Union, where being ‘European” is accessed through a prior membership of the individual member



Second, there is the question of the relationship between one nationality and another, which scarcely mattered when nationality in itself scarcely mattered, but which becomes of critical importance when nationality is made the basis on which the whole of Ethiopia is to be governed. In terms of territory, for example, lands which were historically shared between different peoples, as was the case along much of the frontier between what are now Oromia and the SNNPRS, have to be allocated according to a fixed boundary between one group and the other. This can easily create conflicts that did not exist before ethnicity became the basis for governance, as of course did. separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia, which gave a vastly increased importance to the Ethiopia- Eritrea frontier, the precise location of which had scarcely mattered when the territory on both sides of it came under common rule. The relationship between nationalities now equally raises issues of identity: whereas in the past, a great many Ethiopians had mixed identities, being descended from different groups, under the new structure they have to identify themselves as belonging to one group or another. Finally but not least, this relationship now affects issues of power, whereas before, this. was obscured both by the myth that everyone was just “Ethiopian’, and more practically by the fact that everyone was governed from Addis Ababa, it is now much more explicit because important

issues of local governance depend on it. It matters, in a way that it previously did not, whether Gambela is controlled by Anywaa or by Nuer, whether the city of Awassa is part of the Sidaama. zone or outside it, or whether Silte are treated as Gurages, or as a separate nationality of their own.

Third, the new political order also affects the relationships between different people and groups of the same nationality, an issue that is especially important for the Oromo, who are so many and so varied. Since there is now an Oromo regional state, as there never was in the past, then it matters. which Oromo govern that state, in the way that it never did in the past. Power divides, and behind the façade of unity that masks any political movement (and especially any nationalist movement), there are always divisive questions as to who will exercise that power, and how it will be used. There are deeper issues, too, for any movement, and notably in this case for Oromos, as to what “being Oromo involves. How do you define the nature of ‘Oromoness”, and how does this relate to the many ways in which Oromos differ from one another? Different Oromo groups have historically pursued very different lifestyles, from peasant farmers at one end of the spectrum to nomadic pastoralists at the other. They adhere to different religious beliefs, whether traditional, protestant Christian, Moslem or Orthodox. They have created very different histories for themselves, or had. such histories created for them: the Oromos of Borana, of Jima and the Gibe river states, of Welega, Showa, Welo, Arsi, and Kereyu, have had very different experiences of the past, which may be expected to shape their aspirations for the future. Power imposes great responsibilities on those to whom it is entrusted, and as Oromos come increasingly to exercise the power to which they are entitled, then those responsibilities, and the choices that power brings with it, will have to be faced.

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