Typologies of National-isms in Ethiopia

ethiopia nationalism
Written by Ayele Gelan

By Ayele Gelan

(OPride) – Over the last several weeks, a lot has been said on both sides of the “I am Oromo first” and “I am Ethiopian first” divide. But very little about why people choose those positions.

This piece is inspired by Abebe Gelaw’s commentary on Jawar Mohammed’s statement. In “I am Ethiopian First”, I thought, Abebe presented a sensible and sober contrast to a catalogue of pieces with vulgar and repulsive sentiments from many Ethiopian writers. His call for calm among Amhara activists regarding their sudden Jawar mania as well as his plea for consensus and compromise between the two communities were commendable.

However, Abebe’s characterizations of the typologies of national-isms in Ethiopia were rather troublesome. He writes,

My understanding is that Jawar is an ethno-nationalist. As an ethno-nationalist, he says he is an Oromo first. Unlike him, I am a nationalist. But that is not the major problem. The problem is the way he has chosen to articulate and present his views in question that have been widely perceived as inflammatory and divisive. I firmly and fervently believe that I am an Ethiopian first. I do not wish to allow the ethnic origin of my predecessors and parents to define me as a human being and overshadow my Ethiopian identity. Jawar said Ethiopian identity was imposed on him. On the contrary, I argue that such a position is fundamentally flawed. Nowhere in the world is anyone given choices of national identity.

While Abebe sees no problem in this statement, the notion that “I am a nationalist” and “you are an ethno-nationalist” is central to the simmering tensions between Amharas and Oromos. For starters, there is no such a thing as “I am a nationalist.” One can only be a nationalist in some defined group. As such when Abebe says I am “an Ethiopian nationalist”, it begs the question, but which Ethiopia?

 The Euphemism

Oromos and most non-Amhara Ethiopians have a clear understanding of the existence of an Ethiopia with dual identity. The first is mythical Ethiopia, which is sufficiently described in Ethiopian history books. In this ancient Ethiopia with 3000 years of history, everyone speaks Amharic and is an Orthodox Christian. In its heyday, mythical Ethiopia’s geography stretched to the oceans before it was reduced to the current existence in recent centuries.

 The second one is what I call the real Ethiopia where two minority groups dominated the majority of people within its borders in literally all spheres of life – politics, economy, culture, language, etc for more than a century. This Ethiopia, created only during a time span of less than a century and a half, is made up of diverse nations with unique historical and cultural backgrounds.

If you are still reading, which Ethiopian nationalism do you embrace: the mythical or the real Ethiopia one? I relate to the real Ethiopia. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, activists like Abebe often go to great heights to camouflage the facts. I have not heard them advocate for Oromo’s or other groups rights. They do not write about the immense sufferings of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia’s south, never mind admitting or even mentioning past atrocities and historical injustices. We often hear “free Eskinder Nega!” but rarely “free Bekele Gerba!” although Bekele is being treated harshly at the malaria infested Ziway prison.

Over the years, I saw numerous rallies organized by “Ethiopian nationalists”, where they make little or no mention of human rights abuses perpetrated against Oromo and other nations in Ethiopia. Demonstrations are organized only when TPLF forces attack Amharas or Amhara interests. In other words, the likes of Abebe react only to Amhara related incidents. This inconsistency however is not true for Oromo groups. For instance, earlier this year the Oromo Studies Association organized a human rights rally in front of the White House where members carried placards bearing mainly names of Oromo political prisoners. This is because OSA and the Oromo activists made no secret of their objective to raise the neglected Oromo voice. Even then, they called on U.S. government to put pressure on the Ethiopian regime for the release of “all political prisoners”, not just the Oromo.

I find it baffling to hear “Ethiopian nationalists” shouting from the rooftops only about injustices perpetuated against Amharas. Even media groups like Abebe Gelaw’s ESAT mention Oromo issues as an afterthought or much like a foreign news item. As such, Abebe’s claim to represent the real Ethiopia is untenable.

In that sense, the Ethiopian nationalism Abebe represents is an Amhara nationalism wrapped in an Ethiopian garb. The Ethiopian nationalist discourse still remains a deliberate effort to hide Amhara nationalism under Ethiopia-ism. The history of mythical Ethiopia, which enhanced the political and cultural dominance of Amharas over other groups, serves as a “historical” background for the cover-up. As such, when Abebe says, “I’m Ethiopian First” he essentially means, “I’m an Amhara first.” Ethiopian is only used as a euphemism for Amhara.

Abebe did not even differ to the Ethiopian euphemism when he said, “I am a nationalist but Jawar is an ethno-nationalist.” This is a deliberate label meant to characterize his version of nationalism as superior, and Jawar’s as inferior ethnic-nationalism. The truth is both Abebe and Jawar are ethnic nationalists. The only difference is Abebe wants to hide the fact that he’s an Amhara nationalist whereas Jawar never hid his Oromummaa.

Ironically, over the last few years, Jawar made more tangible contributions to maintain Ethiopian unity, and has advocated for the emergence of real Ethiopian nationalism. For instance, Jawar has been at the forefront of debates to support Oromo political groups in Ethiopia who are engaged in peaceful movements to democratize Ethiopia. In this regard, Jawar fits what I characterized as a (real) Ethiopian nationalist than Abebe. As ethno-nationalist, Jawar advocates for equality and emancipation of Oromo while also engaging with others to bring about unity among various Ethiopian groups. However, as an Amhara nationalist, hidden behind Ethiopian euphemism, Abebe works to maintain the status quo; and hence he accuses Jawar of being divisive because he is engaged in a political activism that challenges the existing power structure, setup to keep mythical Ethiopia intact.

 On Identity

I agree with Abebe that no one makes a conscious decision and chooses his/her identity. It is common for people with diverse cultural and historical backgrounds to be brought into a multination state. However, the extent to which the different groups achieve a harmonious identity, acceptable to each member of the group, would critically depend on the speed with which the multi-nation state becomes a melting pot for the diverse groups. For instance, Switzerland came into existence due to a certain historical accident that brought together Germans, French, and Italians.

The fact that they came from diverse backgrounds did not prevent the country from becoming one of the most peaceful and prosperous in the world. The reason is clear – no one member of the group wanted to impose its will on others. It has four national languages. Its French-speaking group constitutes about 20 percent of the population, roughly the same as Amhara in Ethiopia. But they never attempted to make French the only national language in Switzerland. The Italians make up about six percent of the Swiss population, the same ratio as Tigreans in Ethiopia, but never sought to control and monopolize the state machinery. These democratic attributes are at the core of the harmony and stability in Switzerland, and the problems in Ethiopia.

 On Imposed Identity

During the now infamous AJStream segment, Jawar said, ‘Ethiopia was imposed on me.’ This statement has since been quoted repeatedly in Amhara media as being divisive. However, it should have been put in the proper context of everything else Jawar has said over the years. Jawar has appeared on numerous media outlets, including Amhara ones. That is why many are baffled to see the ensuing defamation campaign against him. It could be part of a wider effort to contain a rising Oromo politician that has great potential to become a threat to Amhara nationalist interests, primarily concerned with the maintenance of mythical Ethiopia

Like Jawar, many Oromo individuals and groups, at different times, tried to work with the Ethiopianist camp to only realize the futility of their efforts. They then retreated to the ethno-nationalist positions to bring about real change in that country. Today’s young Oromo generation came of age at an era when the Oromo movement has gained momentum. Hence, they were initiated as Oromo nationalists. There is also a third category, like myself, who acquired Oromo nationalist status through evolutionary sequence triggered by real life anecdotes.

I would like to share one anecdote that relates to when, where and how I was “initiated” into becoming an Oromo nationalist. It was in early 1980s when I was a freshman at Addis Ababa University. Ethiopian history was one of the compulsory courses given to all incoming classes. The reading materials for the course were patched together from different sources, sorted into chapters, and then bounded up as a voluminous book. We had to read the material from cover to cover in order avoid dismissal come Christmas. The life of a freshman student was tough.

Toward the end of the book, there was a tiny section devoted to “Oromo history.” After reading through the chapter, somewhat dismayed, I was left with numerous questions about my identity and history. Does this mean Oromos have nothing to do with the rest of the sections I already read? Is this all about Oromos? Is that all the Oromo people deserved, a tiny chapter at the end – like a footnote? I concluded the history of Ethiopia has little to do with me. That I am only an Oromo and no more Ethiopian or to use a familiar expression, I figured, I am Oromo first.

My mind rushed back to a small village in Western Oromia, no more than fifty households, where I was born and raised. I grew up hearing our neighbors swearing in the name of their fathers who lost their lives in Mekele (lafee abba kootii isa Mekeleti hafee) – reference to a battalion from that village perished in one of the battles around Mekele during the Italian invasion. As a young Oromo who just lost his faith in his Ethiopian-ness, I kept wondering whether those heroes lost their lives fighting the enemy to protect their fatherland or serving an army of their masters much the same way Indian and Nepalese fighters served in the British army during colonialism. I believe that they fought to protect their land but the real Ethiopia they died to protect is yet to emerge.

It should be noted that nobody influenced me in arriving at this conclusion. Logic and facts led me to take an Oromo first nationalist position. Suffice to say, mine was rather unique and a soft landing, but I know many other Oromos who have gone through a difficult journey on bumpy roads to discover their true identity. I lived happily ever after with my Oromo nationalism while also keeping an open eye on how to reach consensus with my fellow Ethiopians on establishing a genuinely united country, whose history and culture reflects the multitude of identities of all its constituencies.

In all, Oromo nationalism emerged not just as a rejection of Ethiopian identity. It is not only because Ethiopia was put together through violent force and Ethiopian identity was imposed on Oromos. This explains only part of the story. In my view, ethno-nationalism gained momentum largely because Amhara nationalists took center stage, confusing Ethiopian nationalism with their ethnic version.

This happened over extended period of time, for about a century, under Amhara’s reign. By using state power, the Amhara elite made relentless, persistent, and irresponsible attempts to equate Amhara nationalism with Ethiopian nationalism, and then imposed it on other nations in the country’s south. In effect, what Oromos vehemently resisted is not so much of Ethiopian identity but the deceptive way in which the Amhara identity was forced down their throats. Amharas stifled any opportunity for identities of other nations to exist and hence intimidated Oromos and others to retreat into a position of ethnic-nationalism, through which they are now seeking to establish a true Ethiopian identity.        


I join Abebe in his plea for dialogue and consensus between the two communities. In “Ethiopian” nationalists’ discourses though, even dialogue is practised as a one-way lecture on unsuitability of ethnic nationalism for Ethiopia and the merits of “Ethiopian nationalism.”. Such a discourse amounts to confusing dialogue with monologue. The former implies a two-way talk between two groups, a process in which various viewpoints are expressed to reach compromise and subsequently arrive at a consensus.   As Abebe indicated, regardless of several decades of “debates” between Ethiopian nationalists and ethno-nationalists, we are yet to find the middle ground. But why has it taken Ethiopia so long to reach any meaningful consensus? I believe this is because there was no time in Ethiopian history when a meaningful dialogue took place among various stakeholders. It has become increasingly clear that Amharas are not interested in real dialogue while Oromos are not interested in monologues. The result is two separate community groups with different narratives and nationalisms.

Al Jazeera’s broadcast revealed the extent to which Oromos and Amhara communities have drifted apart. If there were no such separations, then there would be no ground for Jawar’s statement to trigger such uproar. On the other hand, Oromos couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, because this is an identification that most Oromos maintain on daily basis. The lack of dialogue and political space only exacerbates the fear and suspicion between the two communities. For instance, journalist Abdi Fite, in an audio commentary, explained how the lack of dialogue has led widening gaps. Abdi stated that we do not only have two communities but also separate soccer tournaments. He then underlined that it’s time the two communities begin to deliberate on how they can resolve their differences and the future fate of that country. It looks to me that some Amhara nationalists have zero tolerance for such dialogue; that is why they physically attacked Abdi, whose only crime was calling for a dialogue.

In my view, Abdi’s call was not only right but also timely. For instance, the two communities advocate for regime change in Ethiopia, however, it is not clear how they would deal with each other if change does come to Ethiopia. Perhaps the Abebe’s of the world should re-watch Abdi’s thoughtful commentary and start using their media to jumpstart such constructive dialogue.


* Ayele Gelan (PhD) is a research economist at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR). He can be reached for comment at




About the author

Ayele Gelan

Leave a Comment

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