Then and Now: A Rejoinder to my Critics – Messay Kebede

In the last article I posted, titled “Unity Overrides Everything,” I urged the Amhara to join the ongoing Oromo protests even if their reluctance is understandable in the face of the protests being confined to ethnic issues. Some of my readers did not like my appeal, arguing that the protests did not assume a national content and were anything but inclusive. In the many emails I received, the absence of references to Ethiopia and Ethiopian people was cited as the main reason that prevented and still prevents the Amhara from closing ranks with the Oromo.

Such an objection is for me quite disturbing. The most important complaint of the Oromo is that the Ethiopian discourse has always marginalized their contribution and identity in favor of a unilateral assimilation that favored Amhara and Tigreans. The demand that Oromo protesters turn their issues into a national or Ethiopian cause seems to repeat the past practice. Following the inescapable reality of the political fragmentation of the country, the Oromo rose up for their own cause, sacrificed their life, and now they are told that they should transfer their heroic deeds to the larger Ethiopian entity even though that entity remained aloof! I want to remind that most of the young Oromo protesters have no idea of Ethiopia as a unitary nation: as the established political system forces them to do, they see Ethiopia as a collection of different nations. Just as Kenyans are not expected to fight for Ethiopians, so too it is not surprising if the Oromo present their demands in terms of Oromo concerns.

The request to append the label “Ethiopia” to the protests is an invitation to commit historical robbery; more importantly, it forgets that Oromo courageous fight against the TPLF machine is how they rehabilitate themselves and become makers of their own history and, through them, of the history of Ethiopia. Clearly, such a request lacks fairness, to say the least. Who would blame the Amhara if they turn their protest against the ceding of tracts of land in Gondar to Sudan into an Amhara issue? Instead, what they should worry about in case protests break out is whether the Oromo will show the same solidarity as the Amhara have displayed to the Oromo. As the Amharic saying goes, the game is ነግ በኔ”.

Those who expect the Oromo to rebel by assuming the Ethiopian identity forget that the notion of Ethiopia as a unitary nation has receded since the TPLF and the EPLF defeated the Derg and the former implemented the system of ethnic federalism. The fight for a unitary nation should have been waged while the TPLF was battling the Derg. It is now too late and there is no going back. Going back would mean war and, if the Ethiopian state survives, the cost would be the institution of another dictatorial system. How else, if not by blood and fire, would you impose unity after two decades of unrestricted ethnicization?

My unhappy readers seem to be sulking like a child moping in a corner after his wish has been denied. You do not present conditions when people rise and fight an oppressor that also happens to be your own oppressor. You join the fight and only then can you make the issue of unity a common cause. Those who simply watch cannot present conditions to people being beaten, killed, and imprisoned. To make your support conditional is to forget that you are also chained, beaten, killed, and imprisoned by the same oppressor. I find it strange, I repeat, that the sharing of the same fate with the Oromo does not trigger the sense of solidarity.

Nor do I understand how those who rightly claim to be the creators of modern Ethiopia, namely, Amhara elites––of course, in partnership with the Oromo, as evinced by the prominent role of Ras Gobena and other Oromo leaders, to remind those who would be tempted to forget it––do not come to the forefront of the fight for Ethiopia instead of making their intervention conditional on the acceptance of their demands. To pose conditions eliminates the unconditional commitment to Ethiopia, which is precisely what they accuse the Oromo of lacking. If you want an unconditional commitment to Ethiopia, then begin by showing your own unrestricted dedication by joining the Oromo despite the missing Ethiopianism, for only thus you can win them over.

To present condition is also to endorse the divided-and-rule police of the TPLF. Indeed, in being bystanders in this trying and crucial moment for the Oromo, what message are we sending to them? Are we not telling them that their cause and their atrocious mistreatment are not of our concern? How would they feel Ethiopian when those who claim to be Ethiopian turn their back on them? This is to say that the Oromo uprising gives us the unique opportunity both to defeat the TPLF and forge a new unity by our struggle against the common oppressor. Let us remake Ethiopia, this time through the concrete solidarity and unity of the oppressed!