By Maganasa Oda*
Disclaimer: Nationalism is a very complex subject that is very difficult to comprehensively present its entire aspect in this short article. Please do not cite this piece for academic purposes.
Watching what some of my friends are saying, and reading what they have been writing regarding the speech of Dr. Abiy Ahmed on Oromo Nationalism, forced me to write this short piece. This is a very difficult subject that needs enormous time. I convinced myself to put something out to let some of my friends to have a perspective on what has been said and what some of us have been writing.
What is Nationalism?
Nationalism is a very complex subject. Defining it is also problematic. For the purpose of this short piece what Craig Calhoun noted is taken: “nationalism is a discursive formation that gives shape to the modern world.1 It is a way of talking, writing, and thinking about the basic units of culture, politics, and belonging that helps to constitute nations as real and powerful dimensions of social life.”
Good and bad nationalism
In his article, good and bad nationalism published in 2001, Robert Reich wrote: “Negative nationalism assumes that the world is a zero-sum game where our gains come at another nation’s expense, and theirs come at ours’.” In the case of negative nationalism, “dictators and demagogues, on the other hand, flourish where social capital is in short supply. People who feel little responsibility toward one another will turn against minorities in their midst and outsiders across their borders, in return for promises of glory or comforting fictions of superiority.” In this aspect, the writer mentioned the reemergence of nationalism in Frans, Austria, and Switzerland. As it has been widely reported, the recent resurgence of nationalism in Europe mainly explained by ‘why do we care about others, we are better than them.’
On the other hand, as per the writer, “Positive nationalism assumes that when our people are better off they’re more willing and better able to add to the world’s wellbeing.” The writer continues, “A society with a lot of positive nationalism is more likely to be tolerant and open toward the rest of the world because its people have learned the habits of good citizenship and social justice.” This is a kind of nationalism that “accept[s] and uphold[s] those cultural values that symbolize a nation.”
The modern Oromo nationalism emerged in the middle of `20th century. It emerged at the time when Oromos were not considered equal citizens. It emerged at the time when Oromos did not have the right to learn and work by their own language. It emerged at the time when Oromo singers were told that Afaan Oromo songs would break a tape recorder. It emerged at the time when an Oromo person had to speak Amharic and must have an Amharic name to progress in his/her career. So, that nationalism was fundamentally founded on the idea of equality for the Oromo people. That nationalism was based on justice for the Oromo people. That nationalism was founded on the premise of saving and reviving the Oromo culture, history, and language- which were under constant attack from the ruling elites.
The context of Abiy’s speech
The Prime Minister mentioned the issue of nationalism in the context of unity and working together. He was drawn to the subject to address the right-wing element in our society. In this context, he was trying to explain the danger of exclusive nationalism which dangerous for any nation, especially heterogeneous nation like Ethiopia. In this context, the PM underlines that Amhara nationalism should not be eliminated, but at the same time, it should not eliminate us as a country. In this case, the prime minister was referring to the exclusiveness of negative nationalism, not the existence of Amhara nationalism.
When he was referring to the Oromo nationalism, the Prime Minister, said, yes, he said, “Oromo nationalism brought the Oromo people to a village level.” If we love cherry-picking, yes this is enough, the prime minister rebuked Oromo nationalism. However, truth must be told, this would not be fair for the prime minister. The prime minister, like many of us, when making that speech was cognizant of some groups who misinterpreted Oromo Nationalism. Explaining all might be complex and time-consuming, but let me put the issue in the following VERY FEW questions:
Was it not the case that some Oromo nationalists were claiming to be superior over their own Oromo brothers from a different region?
Was it not the case that we used to label people who want to work with others, especially with the Amhara people for common good, anti-Oromo? Case in point Dr. Marara Gudina in 2005.
Was it not the case that if someone’s mother or father was not an Oromo, we used to sideline that person?
Was it not the case that if someone is not fluent in Afaan Oromoo, that person was not considered proper Oromo?
Fast forward, just two month ago, didn’t some of us write and disseminate rumors that Abiy’s mom is not an Oromo, his wife is From Tigray and his kids speak Tigrigna at home and because of this Abiy does not represent Oromo interests?
The combined effect of the above issues gave EPRDF under the leadership of TPLF additional impetus to divide Oromo political groups and created an even larger gap between our own people and has enabled the EPRDF/TPLF to gain further inroads amongst the populace.
That was the type of nationalism that the Prime Minister was referring to.
Discussing Oromo nationalism without mentioning the role of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in shaping Oromo nationalism is incomplete. To begin with, this is another complex issue, to say the least. According to OLF Political program, an Oromo is a person whose father OR mother OR one of his grandparents is an Oromo. However, through the course of time some supporters, knowingly or unknowingly ignored this very fact. For these die-hard supporters, an Oromo is someone whose both parents are an Oromo. Within this group, there is also a group that even tries to define Oromo based on religion; still, there is a group within this group that defines Oromo based on a particular region/place. To be fair, this has never been on the agenda of OLF. In reviewing many documents about OLF and viewing many videos that the OLF leadership in the past and present have said, I only heard Oromo nationalism as a force for equality, justice, freedom, and self-determination of Oromo people.
What is the fuss about Abiy’s Speech?
Using this situation for personal or group political gain is more than a credibility issue- it is a dangerous approach that can pit our own people against their fellow citizens. There are numerous areas where I can reasonably and legitimately doubt and criticize the prime minister; however, this is not one of the areas. Does anyone of you believe in an Oromo nationalism that belittles others? Oromo nationalism that wants to impose its own language, culture, and history on others? Oromo nationalism that does not care about the suffering of other ethnic groups in the country? Oromo nationalism that makes others a scapegoat? If the answers are negative, then you have to agree with the prime minister, because he was referring to that sort of nationalism, the Oromo nationalism that is built of freedom, equality, and justice for the Oromo people. If the answers are affirmative, you have not been struggling for equality, freedom, and justice for all; you were fighting to replace one repressive regime with that of your own. I have watched the video more than a couple of times, the one that is more than six minutes, not the one that was deliberately edited to mislead others. My honest and unbiased understanding is that the Prime Minister was NOT referring to the general Oromo nationalism that has been the driving force for justice and equality in the country; he was rather referring to a section or a group that has, for different reasons, created a narrow narrative from benevolent Oromo nationalism and in the end went out of whack. Thus, compatriots, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. If the prime minister was rebuking the Oromo nationalism that helped the survival of Oromo identity, culture, and history, I will be the first to hit the autobahn waving an anti-Abiy flag.
* (Maganasa Oda is Oiplatform contributor. He is based in Germany. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org