Ethiopia and the ethnicity rat race - part 2: history

Part 1 looked at ethnic federalism in Ethiopia through a geographic lens, and showed it has a bug: that it's not feasible to geographically separate ethnic groups.  

In this post, let's take the historical perspective. The philosophical foundation of ethnic federalism emerged in the early 1970s, as a solution to the problem called "Ethiopia as a prison of nations". Here's one summary:

So, the Ethiopian Student Movement, along with the ethnic nationalists it spawned, referred to Ethiopia as a "prison of nations". 

This idea produced a number of ethnic political parties, often named X Liberation Front, where X is an ethnicity. The most successful of these is of course the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF)  founded in 1975. I guess they had to add the P because there was another group called the Tigray Liberation Front (TLF), the two apparently fought each other and TPLF eliminated TLF in the late 70s. The history of the XLFs is very complicated, full of isms and schisms, featuring different flavors of Marxism-Leninism and extremely violent struggles. The Marxist aspect is not very relevant to our discussion, however the Leninist strategy of "sharpening contradictions" has some bearing. I won't try to summarize that history here, for that see e.g. the excellent History of Modern Ethiopia by Bahru Zewde. Instead let's just focus on one basic assumption of this "prison of nations" concept, namely that ethnicity comes first and the country comes after. Does this assumption have any historical basis?

Ethiopia is 1,700 years old. (The specific number  doesn't change the point I am making here so I put discussion of it in a different post). What about the 80+ ethnic groups that exist in the country?  Consider the Amharic language. During the Axumite period, Ge'ez was a living language.  Many people believe that Amharic is a descendant of Ge'ez, which is not wrong but is an oversimplification:
"As early as the middle of the fourth century, military expeditions may have reached the area later known as Amhara. By the mid-ninth century, four centuries later, a distinctive Amhara region was recognized. The conquering Semitic-speakers spoke a language which was perhaps only four to seven centuries removed from the common origin with Giiz" 
Source:  The origin of Amharic, Ethiopian Journal of Language and Literature, Vol. 1 No. 1 (1983)
The oldest surviving written Amharic documents are 14th century praise songs in honor of the kings.  In biology, there is no precise moment when one species evolved into another. Similarly, as cultures and languages evolve, it is hard to pinpoint a specific date when a new language or ethnicity is born.  The consensus among the linguists seems to be that Amharic gradually evolved, not directly from Ge'ez but from a Semitic language related to Ge'ez, which got mixed on top of a Cushitic "substratum" (or base) which was a member of the Agew family.  The Agew family includes the Qimant and Bilen languages, which are still spoken in the region today.  But whether you consider the earliest or the latest time frame, it's clear that Amharic did not exist before Ethiopia. Certainly it doesn't make sense to think of the Amhara ethnic group as  being "imprisoned" in Ethiopia. 

Speaking of Agew (also spelled Agaw), a few months ago, in August 2021, something called the Agew Liberation Front popped up in a Facebook post and a Twitter post.  The first thing that comes to mind regarding Agew history is the Zagwe dynasty (1137-1270AD) and the amazing churches they build around Lalibela. Tradition has it that the first Zagwe Emperor, Mara Takla Haymanot, married the daughter of the last king of Axum.  One of the most fascinating characters in Ethiopian history is the insurgent Queen Yodit Gudit (940-80AD).  The information about her is from oral tradition, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but apparently she was Agew, her religion was Jewish, when she reached Shewa  she encountered Oromo resistance (more on that below), and according to one source, the Zagwe founder Mara Talka Haymanot was her relative.  Though these details are far from  proven, even if they are completely legendary, they show that the Agew are glorified and viewed as part of the continuum with Axum in Ethiopian history, hardly what you would expect if the ethnic group was a "prisoner".  In short, you could say no one is more Ethiopian than the Agew. Back to the present... The first strange thing about the ALF is that the social media posts announcing its existence and alliance with TPLF were by people whose social media activities consist almost entirely of advocating for TPLF. Second, I did a thorough web search, and found no web page, no news article, no press release, nothing referring to this group before that week. Even after the announcement, no member or leader of the group could be identified. Now that a couple of months have elapsed, perhaps there's more info, I would love to hear who these individuals are, and their actions or thoughts before this year.  But so far,  it really looks like ALF was just manufactured by TPLF in 2021! A move straight out of the Leninist playbook. 

Speaking of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), there's a puzzle there too. The Tigrinya language is Semitic intermixed with Cushitic, it emerged in the middle ages, and the earliest known written examples date from the 13th century -- parallel with Amharic. And just like Amharic, Tigrinya didn't exist before Ethiopia.  The people are found in a number of historical provinces: AgameAkele Guzai, Enderta, Hamasien, Serae, etc. But today we are told that there's an ethnic group called Tigrinya people in Eritrea, and a different ethnic group called Tigrayans  (also known as Tegaru) in Tigray. Nobody seems to be able to explain the actual difference between them! Of course there are different accents, families, etc.  But the distance from, say, Senafe in Eritrea to Adigrat in Tigray is less than the distance from Senafe to Asmara, physically, and even in the blood relations. The separation is political: they ended up on different sides of a border from 1889 to 1936, when Eritrea was Italian but Ethiopia remained independent.  Other groups were also split by this border like the Afar, but nobody says Afars on either side of the border are different ethnic groups. Forty seven years is like the blink of an eye on the timescale of ethnic groups and language evolution. Yet, if you read the news today, you would think the Tigrinya speakers of Eritrea, and those who are in Tigray are different people, capable of committing "genocide" against each other. It's a category error.  Eritrea is multi-ethnic like Ethiopia, and the majority ethnic group happens to be the same one as in Tigray. A naive outsider who has only been following the news of the past year would be surprised to hear that Isaias Afewerki (President of Eritrea) and the late  Meles Zenawi (long-time leader of TPLF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia) were cousins. Another example is Yemane Kidane. The history of EPLF and TPLF is way more complicated than we can describe here (again I refer you to the book by Bahru Zewde as a starting point), but the bottom line for us here is that framing their current enmity as ethnic makes no sense. You can call it intense, brutal, horrifying, many things, but not ethnic, it's political.

Yohannes IV, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1871 to 1889 was from Tigray. Yet he chose Amharic as the official language of his government.  Haile Selassie I, who today is cast by XLFs as the ultimate symbol of Amhara domination, was half Oromo through his mother.  His wife, Etege Menen, was also part-Oromo. Her grandfather was Ras Mikael Ali of Wollo, who famously played a huge role in the battle of Adwa. The Yejju Oromo, from the area around  Weldiya (a city which has been very much in the news in the last few months!), are well known as having dominated the politics of the empire during the Zemene Mesafint era (1769-1855). The picture that emerges when examining the last 300 years is of power alliances and rivalries as frequently within ethnic groups as across ethnic groups. In other words, the exact opposite of  the idea of a "prison of nationalities". 

The 18th century, by the way, was not the beginning of the Oromo presence in what is now called the Amhara region: 
"According to one written source obtained from the Yajju Oromo inhabitants of the Amhara National Regional State, these peoples are mentioned as inhabitants of northern Ethiopia already before the 14th century. This document deals with the rise and fall of the Yajju dynasty. According to this source, the Bokoji clan was the first Oromo settler of Yajju. Later on, however, the Muslim Oromo of the Yajju known as Warra-Sheih family took the territory of the Bokoji clan. From the early settlers of Bokoji clan in Yajju, the same document cites the names of the founding fathers like Kumbi, Marso, Shekka and Abba Dimbar. Maliye, Gammada and Ilman Oromo. At present, this region is found in southern Waldiya. The man named Abba Dimbar Maliye occupied and settled in the present region of Gubbaa Laftoo."

Source: "History of the Oromo to the Sixteenth Century", Alemayehu Haile, Boshi Gonfa, Daniel Deressa, Senbeto Busha, Umer Nure (2004) 

According to the same source, this time frame  is corroborated by an Arabic account of the war of Ahmed Gragn entitled "Futuh al Habasha" which says that when he got there in 1533, the Yejju had been in the area for 6 generations, i.e 14th century, which also agrees with oral tradition from the region, and with the chronicle of King Amda Tsion (1314-44).  Going further, from the same book, we learn that Yekuno Amlak, the king who overthrew the aforementioned Zagwe dynasty in 1270 and established the Solomonic line that lasted until 1974, was from Sagarat, near Lake Hayq (another place that's been in the news a lot lately!) which was ruled by an Oromo Azaj named Challa. Still earlier, archeological evidence shows that in the Menz province of the Shewa region, the Oromo presence goes back to the 8th century, which, as we saw above, is right in the thick of the origins of Amharic. In other words, there has never been a time when Amhara and Oromo were not deeply intertwined.

Moving a bit further north, in the same book, we find this about Oromo presence in present-day Tigray:
"The present-day settlers of Wajirat named Dobba are difficult to identify whether or not they belong to Offla or Marawa Oromo, but they are known to have been old Oromo settlers of Northern Ethiopia. Igguy and Marawa Oromo are said to have been settled in Wajirat since ancient times and that they are prior settlers. This period preludes the reign of the renowned Christian King Amda Siyon (1314-44) and this king himself is said to have recruited Oromo into his army  [...]  At present Wajjirat is bounded by Afar in the east, Inderta in the west, and Rayya in the south. The settlement area of Rayya which begins from southern Wajirat extends southwards as far as Amba Alage or Endamehone. The southern part of Rayya territory is known as Rayya and Azebo whereas the southern territory is known as Rayya and Qobbo. The Dobba Oromo that settled over the mountainous highland territories is traditionally known by the name of Chittu-Ofa. There are several Oromo tribes known with the name Dobba that are living in Hararge, northern Shawa and other Oromo regions."

It might surprise some readers to find ancient Oromo presence so far from present day Oromia.  Further, how can you reconcile that with the common (mis)conception of Oromos as "invaders" who arrived in the 16th century? One possible explanation, from the same source, is:

"Oral tradition collected from the Macha Oromo elders tell us that there are two groups of Oromo settlers in Western Oromia. One group consists of pastoralist Oromo that came and settled in the region during the 16th century organizing itself under a military leadership of the Gada system. Another group consists of sedentary agriculturalists that lived in the region long years before the advent of the pastoralist Oromo. The earlier group called itself "Orom-Duro." It means the ancient or prior Oromo. They used this term to make a distinction with the pastoralist Oromo" 

Note that the word "d'ro" means "long time ago" in Amharic.  There are indeed many basic words in modern Amharic that are similar to Oromo words, which should not be surprising given all of the above. History shows that the Oromo culture is one of, if not the most successful in Ethiopia,  in the evolutionary sense. It has been expanding, assimilating, and influencing others for over a thousand years. (Another source is this book by Martial de Salviac, a fascinating read for modern readers with a thick skin, I will post a review when time permits).

But XLF doctrinaires of the last few decades, e.g. in the OLF, tend to cast the Oromo as victims. A very sad misconception. Unfortunately it's a very effective strategy for ambitious politicians to exploit. I am reminded of this comment by Tigist Gemeda on a previous post on this blog (see also her more recent tweet). Her grandfather was a Balambaras, a high ranking Ethiopian during the reign of Haile Selassie I, but some of his family in the present day are key OLFites who "manipulate" people and exploit a sense of "persecution" for political ambition. Very courageous and powerful stuff. 

My meandering through history is very incomplete, I only mentioned 7 out of the 80+ ethnic groups, focusing, not coincidentally, on the areas at the heart of the current war. The point is not to give a complete history. Nor is it to debate whether there has been ethnic discrimination and conflicts. The answer is obviously yes there has!  Nor is it an argument for centralization. I happen to believe in decentralization and localism, but not along artificial "procrustean" ethnic lines. Rather it is to show that the "prison of nationalities" concept of Ethiopian history is wrong. You can call it a melting pot, a chessboard, a game of thrones etc. But it's not a recently built "prison" of pre-existing ethnic groups yearning for separation.  

And ethnic political parties and ethnic regions, i.e. apartheid, as a solution to this "problem" is a very recent phenomenon. It's a bug, which was formally implemented in the constitution of 1994. It goes against history and it doesn't work. The concept was invented by some university students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And hasn't improved with age. But they mastered armed struggle and perfected the ideological tactics of Leninism, they were successful in co-opting thousands of people to their way of thinking, and passed it on to another generation of ideologues and political opportunists...  Kudos to them I guess. They are still at it. Most recently with UFEFCF (I think it stands for United Front of Ethnic Free Cash Flow) a pathetic collection of XLF puppets manufactured by TPLF masterminds in 2021. How long will this trick work? How long is the country going to be hostage to the bankrupt ideas of a bunch of unwise 20-something year old undergrads from 50 years ago? 

I don't expect to convince any XLF true believers with this post. It's almost impossible to change someone's mind when their livelihood or public persona is deeply invested in an idea, no matter how wrong it is. But many well-intentioned people have fallen for this false solution. They think: "if only X group was free from Y ethnic group...", "X has always oppressed Y...",  etc.  So they buy into "solutions" based on the false conception, judging people by their ethnicity, ascribing collective ethnic guilt for political injustice, blaming present individuals for past sins committed by members of their group etc. They are like the poor old lady who, a few years ago, wanted to repair a deteriorated fresco in a Spanish church. She had the kindest intentions, and she thought it was a simple matter of applying a bit of paint here and there. But the more she did, the worse it got, and she tried to fix her mistakes with more of the same. The result was perhaps the "worst art restoration of all time":

Ethiopia is like that painting: old, damaged, but can only be understood as a beautiful whole.

In my previous post, I tried to show why geographically, ethnic politics lead to doom. Here I hope that I have shown the richness of our different languages and cultures is not fixed, it's a dynamic process. A country evolves. But a person can't change their ethnic identity. So if your politics are based on ethnicity, you are asking to be trapped in conflict. Reject ethnic apartheid! Don't support any political party that has an ethnic group in its name. Believe in politics as a process of learning from mistakes, of forgiveness, where good ideas rise and bad ideas sink. Be resolute in defense of an Ethiopia that transcends ethnicity, and magnanimous in victory. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that ethnic federalism is a bug and it has been proven to be dysfunctional. I do think the issue of equal access to power and resources among the ethnicities is older than the student movement. Hence, why the kings at different times tried to resolve potential conflicts through inter-marriages. I think such band-aid solutions finally caught up to us coupled with half-baked Marxists in the 60s.