At the outset, I like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) for inviting me to speak at its 28th Annual Conference. I like specifically to thank Dr. Ibrahim Elemo, Prof. Mohammed Hassen and the OSA Board of Directors.
I am not a historian or a political commentator. Earlier on in my career, I was a journalist. In the last ten years, I have been a writer of historical novels. In addition, I have occasionally presented written commentaries on various issues concerning politics in the Horn of Africa.
In this paper, I like to focus on two points.
The first relates to the story of Chaltu Midhaksa. In Chapter 7 of my book, Memoirs of an Exile, I had narrated about Chaltu, a young Oromo woman who changed her name to Helen and fell into the abyss of identity crisis. I will briefly discuss Chaltu’s story. The second point pertains to problems besetting the Horn of Africa and the fate of that region. Specifically, I will offer my personal views on the Oromo question.
Here is the first point. Once upon a time, a young Oromo woman named Chaltu lived in a village called Qoftu happily and peacefully, proudly and honorably. She died unexpectedly at the age of 25. She wasn’t killed by anyone. She didn’t commit suicide. She was not swept away by a flash flood. Chaltu was killed by terror that was unleashed by a racist and chauvinist system. Chaltu died silently, not knowing who killed her. She didn’t want to tolerate a life of disgrace. She died shriveled and shrouded in bitterness.
Today, I have come across the Atlantic to Washington DC to say a few words about Chaltu Midhaksa. Chaltu’s story is about a history of oppression. Many Oromos of our time have traversed the thorny road linking rural areas to urban centers that Chaltu had frequented walking back and forth to school. They have confronted all of Chaltu’s predicaments. Some have overcome the challenges. Others have fallen short and returned to their villages. Still others have lost their lives. Chaltu was a victim of ignorance. The monument that was her inner strength was broken. The day they took away her identity as Chaltu and clothed her in Helen’s garb, they stole the horse of life she rides on, and gave her high heels and an old hand bag. That is in fact the day that Chaltu died.
To be sure, Chaltu did not remain dead. She did rise again. Midhaksa’s daughter has come back to life and begun riding her horse named Guracha. Hereafter, it is impossible to keep Chaltu silent. Her spirit speaks in the voice of others. Obbo Geresu Tufa deserves appreciation for recounting her story to me on a bus ride from Amsterdam through Belgium to the French border. When he told me the circumstance of Chaltu’s death, my mouth was filled with a bitter taste. I couldn’t continue to listen to Chaltu’s story calmly. I am not Oromo. I am Eritrean. But Oromia is my country of birth. Chaltu is my childhood friend. She is perhaps three years older than I. We grew up in adjacent lands. Our coming up was similar. Growing up, we breathed the same air. It was inevitable that I was intimately attuned to Chaltu’s heart.
When Geresu Tufa finished telling me Chaltu’s tragic story, I said to him, “I will write it down.” And I did as. From now on, Chaltu will rest in peace. But her story will live on. When the Oromo achieve self-rule, a proud equestrian statue will be erected for her in Finifinne, in the same place where once Benti Demo’s granddaughter was not allowed to raise her head up. I wish the caption under the statue reads: “To Chaltu Midhaksa, Victim of a Systemic Terror.” Chaltu symbolizes the Oromo situation at one time. I know Chaltu’s aspirations and regrets were once ensconced in the heart of every Oromo. To be sure, one doesn’t need to be Oromo to know the passion that precipitated Chaltu’s death. One only needs to be human.
As I think about it, Chaltu’s story continues to be a thorn in my side that will keep on puncturing and bleeding my heart.
When Chaltu suddenly woke up from her long slumber, her identity wasn’t with her. She couldn’t live as Helen. Unable to know who she was, she found herself dead. Sometimes death can be a solution. Just being alive cannot be deemed a success in life. The recent uprising in Oromia was a movement to protect one’s identity and honor. Many young people paid the ultimate price, not because they hated life but because they recognized that death is the price on must pay to protect one’s national identity and dignity.
Oromos of our time have come to understand that the same systemic terror is manifested in several iterations and swirls around the throne of Dhaka Araara (The Headstone of Reconciliation). These Oromos have successfully avoided Chaltu’s fate. One such Oromo is Asli Oromo. Asli Oromo is one crazy nut who is quite adept at firing rounds of ammunition until her rifle goes aflame in her hands. Had Chaltu been not encircled by her enemies and killed, she would have been an untouchable tigress just like Asli. She would have been a good example for why the Oromo national movement must mobilize Oromo women and make them an integral part of the struggle. There has been no liberation struggle that succeeded without the full participation of women.
The struggle continues. Oromos are picking up arms against the systemic terror that keeps changing its face to maintain its hold on power. Some engage in the struggle in exile. The Oromo who remain in the country, on their land and in their homesteads, continue to sacrifice the precious life of their children to push the struggle over the finish line. As the saying goes, “it is impossible to arrest an idea whose time has come.” Indeed “Burqaa’s Silence” has run its course. There are signs that indicate “Burqaa’s Silence” has ended.
It is true Burqaa’s Silence is a novel. Its main characters, Anoolee Waqoo and Hawaanii Waqoo, are creations of my imagination. The history of the blameless Oromo who were massacred by Emperor Menelik’s army at Anoolee, however, is not a fairytale. Denying the truth of what happened is not the best solution to the challenges of living together. Eyewitnesses to the mutilation of breasts and limbs have lived until recently. Many who have heard first-hand accounts of the massacres and mutilations are still alive. It is indeed necessary to straighten up the distorted history of Ethiopia. While it is true that the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) is an instrument of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) system, it should be thanked, not condemned, for erecting a monument that memorializes the victims of Anoolee. It should also be noted here that the Oromo people do not need the counsel of their neighbors to decide what monument to erect or which one to tear down. I am aware that many of my friends will be offended by this statement. I can’t help them. It is the truth.
Once, Dr. Negasso Gidaada remarked that about me saying, “he feels that he is more Oromo than Oromos themselves.” Some groups have honored him with thunderous applause for his remarks. Oromos, however, haven’t heard the applause.
The Argentinian Che Guevara struggled and paid with his life for the emancipation of the people of Congo, Bolivia and Cuba. Many Oromos, Amharas and Tigrayans have sacrificed their lives for Eritrea’s liberation struggle. To stand for and with oppressed peoples should be reason to honor someone, not for denunciation. We know that there were several Westerners who struggled alongside the Oromo people. Jews who support Palestinians are more than a few. Noam Chomsky is a good example of this. Wasn’t Alan Paton, the author of the book, Cry, the Beloved Country, a white South African? He wasn’t denounced as someone who tried to be “blacker than blacks.” There were many Anuak, Shinasha, Komoo and Somali fighters in the Oromo Liberation Army who fought, commanded troops, and died for the liberation of the Oromo people. It might be difficult to find individuals among Amhara settlers on Oromo land who fought for the liberation or citizen’s rights of the Oromo. But it is not possible categorically to deny that there were absolutely none.
In any case, my psychological make-up is deeply intermingled with the Oromo people. I was born in Bishoftu and grew up among the Bishoftu Oromo. Yerer Mountain is Oromo. Lake Bishoftu is Oromo. The dense forest of Chuqalaa is Oromo. All of these have shaped who I am today. The fact that I am Eritrean by lineage is not sufficient to prevent me from struggling for the emancipation of the Oromo people. I have no doubt that my participation in the Oromo struggle will be a history that I will be proud of. I will therefore forge ahead.
Let me tell you something startling.
I am glad we live in a time when many scramble to become Oromo. Let’s rejoice that we are fortunate to witness Amhara politicians striving to win over Oromos by saying “my wife is Oromo.” The era when Oromos deny their Oromoness has gone down to grave. This is a great victory for the Oromo. I am proud to have been a part of the struggle that brought us to this victory.
Let me thus conclude what I set out to say in connection with Chaltu Midhaksa.
Chaltu doesn’t need me anymore. She can tell her own story. We might even watch Chaltu on Hollywood’s big screen riding her horse, Guracha, along the Chuqalaa escarpment and hear the echoes of her laughter penetrating the Bilbilo forest.
So let me proceed to my second point.
The Horn of Africa is a region entangled by political intrigue. The regional problems are extensive. Demands for unity and freedom abound. Oromos, including those in Kenya, might imagine Greater Oromia. Ethio-Amharas have a perennial claim, “Asab is ours.” Somalis perpetually dream of recovering the Ogaden. Political scientists have continued to put forth their solutions to these demands. Clearly, our region is not characterized by stability. As an important part of the Horn, Ethiopia now constitutes the core of the regional problems. It is not a mistake to think that “resolving the problem in Ethiopia could also be a solution to the regional problems.” And it is indeed the case that ending group dominance and asserting the rule of law will reduce tensions and resolve problems.
TPLF’s ethnic federalism hasn’t worked. It was undermined at its very inception because it wasn’t founded on the basis of genuine idealism. When the TPLF came to power, it accepted Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and the peripheral regions (Afar and Somalia) as administrative zones. In the southern regions, the principle of ethnic federalism encountered insurmountable challenges. The effort to combine Wolayita, Gamo Gofa and Dawaro into a new ethnicity called “WeGaGoDA” failed miserably. Contrary to the principle of ethnic federalism, the TPLF forced several nationalities in southern Ethiopia into an artificial administrative zone. The question of the rights of other nations within the Tigray and Amhara zones was skipped without mention. Unable to resolve this particular issue, the government subdued it. No official was able to explain why the Awramba, Falasha, Argoba, Agaw, Qimant, Kunama, Saho, and Jabarti weren’t granted the same self-rule granted to the Harari. When the Falasha were airlifted to the “mother land,” the remaining nationalities were divvied up and absorbed into the Amhara and Tigray Zones. The revolutionary democracy-led TPLF federalism was reduced to one group’s instrument of domination and was effectively terminated at the outset. After the passing of Meles Zenawi, even revolutionary democracy was sent to the abyss and “Meles’s Vision” became the guiding principle of national policy.
There is one truth on which all can agree.
From now on, it is impossible to crush and rule the Oromo and Oromia in the old way. It is clear that it is impossible to entomb the Oromo people’s demand forever in the old ways of mass asphyxiation. It might require one tough slog but the Oromo people will get to their ultimate destination. What is not clear at the moment is the method by which they will get to their destination. If conditions are not managed well, it is conceivable that the eventual goal could be costly. The 2014 Oromo uprising could be an indication of the big one to come. I believe it is possible to prevent a catastrophic eventuality. I also believe that we can imagine the tough times ahead and take steps now to minimize the human toll that might result from a spontaneous regime collapse. If we agree that the edifice of Ethiopianity in which Abyssinian rulers have taken turns to rule has entered an irreversible stage of decomposition, it is possible to work together to obviate the impending bloodshed. It is imperative to allow the Oromo a chance for self-rule but also to ask them to take responsibility for the well-being of other peoples in Ethiopia and devise workable solutions to the problems besetting the country. It is time to respect the fact that the Oromo are the majority.
It will be impossible to gloss over and delay the bitter truth of what is coming.
Oromos have repeatedly shown their disappointment with the ideology of Ethiopianism. They have demonstrated their disapproval of the endless intrigues of northerners. When the national soccer teams of Ethiopia and Nigeria played for the World Cup qualifying match, young Oromos in Adama were reportedly rooting for the Nigerian team. I have seen videos of some Oromos lowering the Ethiopian flag and burning it. Even more startling is that non-Oromo Ethiopians were watching from the sidelines when the Ethiopian flag was being burned down. This event signifies not only that Oromos have rejected imposed Ethiopianness but also that non-Oromo Ethiopians have accepted the reality of Oromoness. Further, it shows that no one wants to claim ownership of Ethiopianness or the Ethiopian flag.
The TPLF itself has now gotten to a stage where it cannot control the OPDO, the very vehicle it had created to smother and rule the Oromo. As Jawar Mohammed put it correctly, the May 2014 Oromo uprising had a strong OPDO support. Just like any Oromo, OPDO members are experiencing the oppression perpetrated against the Oromo. Consequently, except for a handful individuals in the upper crust of its leadership, the majority of OPDO members are now beyond TPLF’s control. This raises the question of whether the “TPLF is actually alive” if it cannot control the OPDO.
Overall, as one can gather from reading various publications, many have now raised questions about the existence of an effective government in Ethiopia. We also read in these publications that “the basic political question now is not how to overthrow the EPRDF government. The more pressing issue is the nature of the government that should be in place in post-EPRDF Ethiopia.” Ethiopia is not an isolated island. Ethiopia’s problems affect the surrounding countries. This means we should seek comprehensive solutions for the region. We must try to do this before the whole region drifts away into a point of no return.
What is the solution?
I had pointed out in the “memoir” I recently published that the people of our region must build a unity that is based on common interest. I had emphasized that, if regional solutions are not sought, there will be no end to the countries of the Horn coming apart along the obvious fault lines. Once we end up creating micro-states like Djibouti, we will be a lucrative market for arms dealers.
Our region is endowed with natural resources. Our mineral resources have not been exploited. The region has geo-political significance. The people are enterprising and patriotic, and they value honor. If we dig a little deeper into our ancestral past, we find that we all originate from the same source. If we engage in dialogue without mixing it up arrogance and hatred, it is not difficult to find solutions to the problems that beset us. Why is it that we don’t have a regional vision? What is the source of our incessant conflict? What is the reason for partisan negotiators dominating conflict resolution efforts? Who is responsible for our plight? Ourselves or others?
I believe that the countries of the Horn can begin to pave the way for regional solutions by issuing passports stamped with “Horn of Africa” to the 150 million residents of the region and begin to use a single regional currency for commerce. What prevents the people of the Horn countries (Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya etc.) and even the contending nations in Ethiopia (Ogaden, Sidama, Oromia, Amhara, Tigray) and the other peoples of the Horn from imagining solutions outside the confines of their national borders?
There must be a better way.
I believe we must forge a regional identity. I stress that we must be able to create a new Horn-wide or East Africa-wide identity. We can elevate the ceiling of our imagination to have a broader and longer vision. It is nearly impossible to think of an enduring peace and sustainable development while the region is consumed in conflicts over clans and language groups, ports and borders. The people of the Horn must find economic, political and social common interests. The nations and countries of the Horn must be able to create a legal framework that will serve as a basis for regional integration. If we continue on our current path, we will all be losers in the end. One cannot sleep in peace while the neighbor’s house is on fire. The flame will turn into a conflagration that will consume everything. This is a historical fact.
I am aware that the idea of regional integration is not new. Many have studied and proposed them in the past. But these studies are collecting dust on shelves and in drawers somewhere. Because the idea has never been bought in, we continue to suffer recurrent problems.
In the end, it is necessary to reconcile oneself with the existing reality. The solutions based on domination will inevitably entail dangerous consequences. We must come to the negotiating table sincerely to seek solutions based on common interest. To achieve regional peace and sustainable development, we must come to confront our good and bad past and come to national reconciliations. This is the only remaining solution.
*Translated from Amharic by Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa. Note that Tesfaye gave a much more detailed version of this prepared remarks.