The empire strikes back: an Ethiopian opposition finds old enemy

Written by Hassen Hussein

After weeks of online press conferences and ‘consultation’ meetings, a new diaspora-based Ethiopian opposition outfit, Ethiopian National Transitional Council*, issued a Draft Transitional Constitution. The gist of the document can be gleaned from the first item in the preamble:Determined to live in unity and freedom, and to erase the effects of ethnic division and tribalist policies and practices.”

Two things are notable. One, that the erasure of “ethnic division” is more paramount than guaranteeing freedom. Two, that Ethiopia’s primary political enemy is ethnicity, not dictatorship.

The draft charter goes on to detail exactly how the constitution’s supreme objective, erasing ethnic divisions, is to be achieved. Two instruments are chosen to do the herculean job. One, the restructuring of governance. Gone will be the regional states as we know them; Oromia, Amhara, Tigray, South, Somali, Afar, Beni-Shangul-Gumuz, and Gambella, etc, and in comes the old regional structure that reminds us of the Teklay Gizat. “The federal system shall be based upon geographic and historical realities and the separation of powers, and not upon ethnicity, nationality, or religion (article 4). Two, language policy. Amharic would be the only “official” medium of communication displacing other vernaculars from the halls of the National Assembly, public schools, the courts, and official conferences (article 9).

One of the ostensible values of the charter is equality before the law. It did not occur to the drafters of the charter how a Sidama, a Walaita, and a Kaficho — who would be forced to speak to a judge through a translator — and an Amhara, who would charm the court, thanks to his fluency in his mother tongue, would be deemed to have enjoyed equality under the proposed setup. Too focused on defeating the enemy, it escaped the “steering committee” to visualize how an Oromo, and a Somali elder elected by the people to represent them in the National Assembly would equally participate in the political life of the country – when they would be barred from presenting the petitions, grievances, aspirations, and concerns of their constituents to this supreme legislative bodyin a language they are most comfortable speaking.

Ethiopians have a vivid image of such an equality etched in their individual and collective memory. The distinction between citizens and subjects has been in force since the state came into being. Before the fall of the Dergue, the Amhara were presumed full citizens and Tigreans a bit shy. The rest were subjects (if in doubt read the imperial constitution of 1931) – “all the natives of Ethiopia, subjects of the empire, form together the Ethiopian Empire. Learning to speak Amharic and converting to Christianity opened up a few doors, while the high glass ceiling remained shut out to them.

A case in point is how being steeped in both did not spare the progressive Lij Iyasu from being a victim of a conservative royal conspiracy. Another example is the tragedies that befell two Italian war heroes, generals Garasu Duki and Tadesse Birru. However, even the Amhara and Tigreans did not enjoy the rights of citizenship because the suppression of subjects, which made up two thirds of the population of the country, through repression by the state machinery meant that all were denied democratic rights.

After the fall of the Dergue, the tables have turned. Tigreans are the new masters of the empire and the Amhara a bit below their previous hegemonic status. To outsmart their Amhara rivals, the Tigrean oligarchy extended a few symbolic gestures to the subjects–to converse in their tongues and display their cultures, albeit with strict limits. The promises for local self-rule, which the new Amhara elite formation maligns as the primary enemy, amounted nothing more than a hollow promise – a means to expand the reaches of the state to an unprecedented level enabling it to control all aspects of life.

Funny enough, the newly minted Amhara group appears to believe that the “problem of ethnicity in Ethiopia” is a byproduct of Tigrean domination, a 21-year-old disfigured child of Meles Zenawi’s rule. Few bother to review how the dominance of the Abyssinians, chiefly the Amhara and Tigreans, was institutionalized in the Ethiopian body politic, which two examples would suffice to amply demonstrate.

During the imperial regime four Oromo provinces, Arsi, Bale, Iluu-Abba Bora, and Wallaga had fewer representatives in the parliament than Gondar. In fact, the tiny district of Menz had as many seats as the provinces of Arsi and Ilu Abba Bora combined. The message was unmistakable: A Gondare and a Menze were more Ethiopian than Oromo subjects.

You may ask why I chose to delve into an old history which Walelign Mekonnen had already debunked, a legacy which ended with the revolution of 1974. I raise it because the revolution did not erase subject hood in Ethiopia, which brings me to the second example, an anecdote pertaining to the Dergue era, which some are too quick to forget.

In September 1975, the Dergue ordered each of the country’s districts to send three peasant representatives to the capital. A majority turned out to be Oromo, surprise! A shock to everyone, including the unenlightened Oromo.

On the occasion Tafarii Banti, the head of state, made a speech deriding “the racist regime that humiliated our beloved country by making the few lord over the majority.” Carrying him atop their shoulders, the Oromo danced wildly, singing “Yaa Tafarii hoolaa dhaltii, uf eeggadhu worri nama gantii,” to the disgust of many attending Dergue officials, some of whom openly rebelled.

Tafarii Banti would be executed shortly afterwards.

The shock from coming face to face with the hidden face of Ethiopia was widespread. An Eritrean farmer incredulously asked, “where did all these Gallas come from?” An elder from Gojjam pleaded to be given an escort on his way home, as he had to cross the vast Oromo country, which he physically experienced for the very first time.

Neither could be blamed for their ignorance. The reason is simple: the truth they knew is the one propagated by the state media, schools and other state organs. Few were aware that there were/are two Ethiopians: the one in the minds of dominant elites whose lives revolved around the capital and the diaspora, and the real but forgotten Ethiopia, the Ethiopia where the vast majority did not speak Amharic, did not feel the state or the pro-unity opposition represented them in any meaningful way or took their best interests to heart. The real Ethiopia has a large Muslim population that the pro-unity Ethiopian opposition does not even attempt to understand, even when it is self-evident that their grievance is boiling over as their religion is being attacked by the incumbent regime.

Meles Zenawi boasts that he has healed all of Ethiopia’s historical wounds. Through his flowery rhetoric, he paints an idyllic picture of Ethiopia with a blossoming democracy, a functioning federation, and a booming economy. He fails to tell the world why a democracy would distinguish itself as the worst enemy of press freedom, not to mention why the parliament is all packed with EPRDF protégés except one lone member. He does not bother to justify why 38 Tigrean representatives had more say than the close to 200 bored Oromos helplessly watching his not so funny theatrical acts in his rubber-stamp parliament. He does not seem to be bothered by why, if there is true federalism, a Tigrean security operative runs Oromia from Adama in the absence of the puppet president when there are four vice-presidents sitting idly by.  

He does not see the contradiction between the rhetoric and the reality when Tigrean Birhane G/ Kristos signs in the name of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when there is a designated minister, a Walaita, one of the subject peoples. As to the economy, even though there is some undeniable progress registered, the only boom that is real to the populace is the ascent in the number of those who go hungry, the ballooning number of those who are roaming the streets dispossessed of their meager land plots in the name of investment. The only boom is the number of corrupt Tigrean appointees and ruling party cronies who become millionaires overnight using their government connections.

Neither the Tigrean dictatorship nor some in the Amhara elite clamoring to replace it have a vision that would move Ethiopia forward. Whereas the former takes away their land from the marginalized people by force in the name of investment, the later wants to buy it out. In the end, the effect will be the same: re-entrenching minority dominance and perpetuating the subjugation of the majority. The Tigreans take away the political rights of subject peoples with mere promises of linguistic and cultural rights. The new pretenders, under the guise of a people’s congress, want to take away linguistic and cultural rights with a hollow promise of political rights. The end result is an all-too-common tale: the rights of full citizenship would remain an illusory dream for all Ethiopians.

For a few years following the demise of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the progressive wing of the pro-unity camp held sway. However, it is not yet clear how it would fare as the conservative armies of the empire gather to strike back. If offended by my use of the word empire, please read the Ethiopian constitutions until 1955 or try to get hold of your old passport (if you are old enough).

Now back to the Transitional charter. Before concluding, I want to make one thing very clear: the declaration would do nothing other than emboldening the Tigrean oligarchy to tighten its grip on power undisturbed. All said, the ENTC’s constitution is a non-starter, a bold move but a march backwards.

A vision that would rid Ethiopia off dictatorship and bestow full citizenship rights on all is yet to be conceived. An organization that can shoulder such a responsibility is yet to be organized.

The responsibility for removing the dictatorial TPLF regime falls on all Ethiopians, individually as well in their multitude collectivities. However, the mandate falls squarely on the shoulders of the Oromo, who have a vested interest as well as a cultural predisposition towards making a fresh start for freedom, democracy, and the supremacy of the rule of law in Ethiopia. To make this possible, the Oromo needs to stop thinking as if it is a minority and assert itself not only to regain its own rights but also guarantee freedom for all Ethiopians, “citizens” and subjects alike. Rather than comparing and contrasting what this Tigrean or Amhara platform has to offer or endlessly lamenting the past as to aspire to realize a dream that is woefully short of its size, its wealth of democratic heritage, and ideals, the Oromo ought to take its historical place to remake Ethiopia, by enabling the state break free from its inherently autocratic nature and end tyranny once and for all.

Charting a bright new course, a future of freedom, democracy, genuine unity, and prosperity for Ethiopia demands a paradigm shift, away from the status quo of tyranny in the name of protecting ethnic rights and the specter of subjugation in the name of erasing ethnic division. The Oromo camp needs to quickly sort out things and put its house in order by overcoming its mediocrity in organization, leadership, and vision. Only total renewal would put an end to the current state of self-mutilation. Such a reformed and revitalized pan-Oromo movement fully embedded within the mainstream Oromo nationalist community, if and when it materializes, would have the support of many Ethiopians, who, tired of the repeat of a failed past and sickened by a dehumanizing present, await the arrival of that day with high expectations. In the meantime, as the two armies of the empire do combat, let the forces of freedom, enlightenment, and progress gather force.

They will need plenty of it.

*Correction: the original article published on June 10, 2012, erroneously referred to the Ethiopian National Transitional Council as “Hizbawi Shengo.” Please note, the Ottawa Conference, which resulted in the formation of Hizbawi Shengo, is different from ENTC.



About the author

Hassen Hussein

Hassen Hussein, a writer, teaches Leadership and Management courses at the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and can be reached at

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.