Making a Case against Forced Assimilation and Language Tyranny

By Urgessa Tura*

In the last four weeks, the news that ‘the new OLF’ dropped its secessionist aspiration as an ultimate political goal in the struggle for the self-rule of the Oromo people has gone viral on various Ethiopian media outlets. This news has created a sensational moment of jubilation for unitarist Ethiopian elites who didn’t waste any time in congratulating ‘the new OLF leaders’ as progressive, patriots and true Ethiopians at heart. While the same news was received with contempt and outrage by the Ethiopian-Oromo elites, who passionately believe that the future of peaceful, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia lies in organizing around identity politics – responding to the political demands of nations and nationalities in plain terms.


This is a telling example of the fact that Ethiopian elites – not necessarily Ethiopian politics – are at stalemate. I say this because envisioning democratic Ethiopia at peace with itself, where social groups hitherto denied of equal recognition would organize themselves around identity politics for no other reason than ensuring their political equality with others (for asking the right to self-determination to manage and exploit one’s resources; administer local affairs; and freely enjoy one’s culture and language are nothing other than seeking equality) is not necessarily at odds with either the project of building ‘a single political community’ in a truly democratic Ethiopia or keeping intact the territorial integrity of the nation as I shall explain below.

Before delving into that explanation, however, I would like to express my view that, as a matter of principle and issue of strategic alliance, making a political decision to work with unitarist opposition groups on the part of OLF reformists led by General Kemal et al is a step in the right direction precisely because the Tigrayan elites have managed to capture the state and consolidate their hegemonic aspiration as each day passes through waging animosity between the Oromo and Amhara elites – who aspire for no less hegemony to set the tone and direction in which the country should move forward.

I have my own reservations, however, on how the OLF reformists (as I would like to call them hereafter) moved to forge alliance with Ginbot 7 – though I can understand that the coming together of Ethiopian opposition political groups of all stripes so as to consolidate their struggle to unseat the oligarchs from Adwa has been long overdue. True, the fragmentation of opposition groups – rather than the invincibility of the ex-insurgents now turned into plutocrats – is the reason for the continued suffering of our people under tyranny. Given this, heeding to the public call: “either fight the evil regime together or else get out of the way” is a good thing so to speak. The intention to respond to this timely call of the public is right, but the way OLF reformists attempted to answer this call has not been thought out well.

First, as a notable young Oromo political commentator (Jawar Mohammed) recently observed, all one could infer from the news analysis is the idea that the bad guys came to the table of cooperation and co-existence within the soon to-be-built new Ethiopian polity on the ashes of EPRDF, the incumbent ruling party. The OLF leaders were viewed as “separatists,” “destabilizers,” “troublemakers” and “non-team players,” heretofore. Now, these “secessionist” leaders understood (through the relentless endeavors of self-proclaimed core Ethiopianists) that the path they were pursuing was destructive and wrong; and therefore, they now decided to pursue a renewed path to being Ethiopians at heart. This would put theOLF reformists in a weakened position to bargain with the group that claims to represent core Ethiopianism. The former are to be corrected and disciplined, while the latter are correction-givers and discipliners.

Second, the OLF reformists were told to get in line and conceded too much without gaining anything significant in the unconscionable political negotiations. The self-appointed core Ethiopianists should have been asked at least to acknowledge the unacceptable attempts of forced assimilation andlanguage tyranny against the political south, mainly the Oromos. I urge the readers of this piece to note that I am writing from ahistorical position in the sense that I am not invoking the atrocities committed by the empire builders in the last quarter of the 19th century. That is in the past, and let’s leave that to historical inquiry. But, I intend to bring to your attention the ongoing pervasive discrimination. This discrimination is not an occurrence of the past: it is happening right now before our eyes. Thus, I would dare to argue that the twin evils of forced assimilation and language tyranny are the pillars of this discrimination, which has continued to haunt the Oromos and other ethno-linguistic communities in the political south.

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Well, one may say look at how the different ethnic communities have been allowed to use their own language in primary education and in local governmental affairs. Of course, that is a good thing, but political rule is not only local – it is also national. And, so far as we truly believe that Ethiopia is a multiethnic country, every ethno-linguistic group must enjoy equal recognition in national platforms. This is to say that there is no reason why Oromos should be asked to settle for something less than making their language an equally influential business language with Amharic at national level. Thus, this is a modest demand when you see in light of the fact that Afaan Oromoo is the language with the largest number of native speakers, not only in Ethiopia, but also in Africa.

Let me substantiate my claim that there is still an ongoing discrimination against Oromos by giving you an example. If you want to sneak into the federal bureaucracy today, your first challenge will be passing what I refer to as the test of ethnic palatability. What I mean by ethnic palatability is simply acting Amhara. This is to say that your name should be one which the self-proclaimed core Ethiopianists would like to consider as one of their own. You are required to speak Amharic in the Keteme accent. If you speak Amharic with an Itayya or Sululta accent, you are unpalatable and do not qualify for the job precisely because you are from the political periphery. The idea is that it is wrong to aspire for joining the federal bureaucracy if you come from the area designated as the political periphery by the group that call themselves core Ethiopianists. And, you are considered to be incapable of assimilating with the core. Too bad for you!

But, if you have some Dessie or Bichena accent, you are deemed to be okay because you automatically pass the name muster, and you are thought to be capable and willing to assimilate to the “prestigious upper-class accent” of the core Ethiopianists. What if you can speak the highly regarded Keteme accent while coming from Robe? Tough luck if you have the name Morke Lolo: that is an ethnic marker demonstrating that you are ethnically very salient (too much Oromo). Your fate will be no different if you speak the Keteme accent fluently while coming from Gidda Kiramu with the name Gemechis Oljirabecause you are considered as an ethnically salient (if you will extremist) Oromo. This is a typical scenario whereby you are prohibited from assimilation while the policy of the so called core Ethiopianistsbasically requires you to melt into their socially constructed Ethiopian identity. This is self-contradiction in clear terms because you went more than half of the way in assimilating, i.e. learning how to speak theKeteme accent, but there are other ethnic markers that ruthlessly work against you – the salient Oromo name. As a result, Oromos were/are unduly pressured to ethiopianize their names – which is a code word for amharanization of your identity.

Even today there are negative stereotypes, and explicit and implicit biases, against ethnic Oromos and other ethno-linguistic groups from the political south. Oromos are perceived as aggressive, narrow minded, lacking civic virtues of good citizens, uneducated, ruralists (getere), peasants, etc. In the common parlance of the self-proclaimed core Ethiopianists, the term ‘peasant’ carries a negative connotation. It is used to demonstrate that you are either from the lower-class or less intelligent. Although a make-or-break revolution is ongoing against such kinds of negative stereotypes and looking down of the Oromos, one should be cautious not to prematurely make the judgment that this is a won battle. Precisely because of the existence of these negative stereotypes, and depiction of ethnic Oromos as unpalatable and inferior for that matter, Oromos and other ethno-linguistic communities from the political south are under-represented in the federal bureaucracy and in the economically powerful public corporations, such as the state-owned finance institutions, telecom, and power and airline industries.

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Third, Oromo art and literature are not considered as representing core Ethiopian culture: that it has been, and is being, pushed to the margin. If you casually observe the transmissions on Ethiopian art, music and literature in both state-controlled and opposition media outlets, anything Oromo stands the last in line and when given the chance to be on the air, it is only with a view to gain the legitimacy of diversity for oneself. When I was in Ethiopia before a couple of years, I was baffled by the fact that Oromo music did not usually appear on the air in the nations and nationalities music program transmitted by the Ethiopian Radio. You may hear Gurgigna, Hararigna, Tigrigna and many other rhythms ofDebubigna as symbolizing the diversity of Ethiopian music and art. Some Amhara folks within my social circle in Finfinne responded to my worries by explaining to me that ‘Oromigna has its own radio and television program, and therefore, it will be fair to give chance to others.’ But, this does not explain why Tigrigna music is aired frequently in the nations and nationalities music program while Tigrigna language has got its own allotment of time in the state-controlled radio and television. Or for that matter, why Oromiffa is falsely equated with Amarigna as if it has dominated the airwaves like the latter is, truly mind boggling.

It must be noted that this has a chilling effect on the development of the Oromo language, its art and literature, while it is one of the major languages with incredibly significant number of native speakers in the Horn of Africa. I call such systemic exclusion of ‘Oromiffa’ – to open a robust opportunity for Amharic to thrive – language tyranny. Opening a robust opportunity for Amharic to thrive at the expense of Oromiffa seems the reason why the self-appointed core Ethiopianists led by Ginbot 7 failed to clearly denounce the hegemony of Amharic in our polity and equally failed to envision ‘Oromiffa’ as the lingua-franca of Ethiopia. These core Ethiopianists want us to be satisfied with the “incredible gains at hand” – using ‘Oromiffa’ regionally. The radical ones among the rank and file of core Ethiopianists do not want to see ‘Oromiffa’ as a working language even at regional level because their imagination for an empire, with one language (Amharic), one religion (Orthodox Christianity) and one flag, has not yet died.

The recent move on the part of the OLF reformists to work hand in gloves with unitarists has resurrected the ill-will of the radical Ethiopianists to the extent that some have openly been blaming the Qubeelaughingly for everything that is going wrong in Ethiopia, including tyranny in all its forms by Tigrayan elites, and I believe, they would also say, Qubee is responsible for lack of economic progress in that country. I can’t understand how Qubee could be mentioned as everything wrong with Ethiopia except impoverishing the radical Ethiopianist elites who lost their chairmanship and executive positions in Zooniilee, Aanaalee and Gandaalee of Oromia because they hate to learn Qubee. Others have gone further to the extreme claiming that the Geez script is more congenial to ‘Oromiffa.’ No one is interested in responding to such self-acclaimed politico-linguists who are nostalgic of the crumbling mono-linguistic empire. The bottom line is Ginbot 7-led core Ethiopianists are cordially invited to come out publicly and tell us:

(a) that they denounce forced assimilation and the hegemony of one language, and

(b) that they endorse ‘Oromiffa’ as a lingua franca of the nation. That must be required from them as a minimum condition to work together.

Now, let me weave together my points and demonstrate how organizing around identity politics is not necessarily at odds with Ethiopian unity and Ethiopia’s strength. First of all, Ethiopia has been the ‘prison house of nations.’ Though there are slight improvements in terms of entitlement to certain cultural practices, local self-rule, in the true meaning of these terms, does not exist in contemporary Ethiopia. Even the nominal gains on cultural autonomy for the Oromos in particular is regressing as the Tigrayan elites have continually grown wary of some Oromo festivals like Irreechaa, which are seen as symbols of resistance to the widely prevalent ethnic oppression against Oromos. Organizing Oromo culture nourishment clubs has long become a crime of complicity with the OLF. The negative stereotypes against ethnic Oromos and others from the south have continued. Under-representation of various ethno-linguistic groups within the federal bureaucracy is a well-known fact. Being an educated Oromo is enough to get you labeled as a sympathizer of ‘terrorism,’ and make you automatically suspect as an anti-Ethiopian. In short, oppression based on ethnicity is an elephant in the room in our polity. So, any serious political project that aspires for the renaissance of Ethiopia should recognize this very fact and seek a lasting solution to it. There should be no first-class and second-class citizens in our polity based on your ethnic origin. This requires on the part of core Ethiopianists to bitterly recognize the indispensability of identity politics to unleash the new Ethiopia of co-existence and mutual respect for each other. Secondly, our prime problem for so long has been authoritarian centralism. One plausible way of breaking that centralism is through creating and strengthening genuine and effective local self-rule. That local self-rule would be axiomatic if organized around identitarian perspective as said hereinabove. Last, but not least, geographic federalism doesn’t make sense much because the infamous provinces of the past were arbitrarily drawn by authoritarian emperors in such a way that enabled their dominion over their subjects. The provinces were fake lines drawn for the expediency of authoritarian rule. Nothing more, nothing less: so why die for them?

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The following are my suggestions that require serious consideration by the Ginbot 7-led core Ethiopianists.

1. Acknowledge publicly, not only in the frame of the past, but also in the frame of the present, that true and lasting alliance for the creation of strong Ethiopia hinges substantially on the elimination of the twin evils of forced assimilation and language tyranny.

2. Respect the incremental, but not yet full, gains of cultural autonomy by the various ethnic communities of Ethiopia.

3. Tone down the overly paternalistic approach of lecturing us on ‘Ethiopiawinet’ before all of us agree on its content. Because there are many equally patriotic Ethiopians from the political south who believe that the term ‘Ethiopiawinet’ is a smokescreen that stands for chauvinistic values of few elites from the political north.

4. A very weak and small Federal Government as opposed to strong State Governments should be the deal of the day if an agreement to work together is to be reached. State Governments must take back many of the political powers and revenue mandates of the Federal Government. The reason is straight forward: look at any of the serious commentaries on Ethiopian politics – our problem has long been recognized to be authoritarian centralism. The new federal experiment should be one that truly grants self-rule to the diverse ethnic communities. Full self-rule in law making, policy-making and adjudication; no hierarchy between the State Governments and the Federal Government.

5. Prioritize and identify the mechanisms on how to rebuild citizenship in Ethiopia because a democratic society cannot be built without active citizens and associations as Tocqueville had observed long ago when he wrote about American democracy.

6. Procedural notice: leave no stone unturned to bring on board the other camp of OLF leaders rather than dismissing them as ‘the old guard’ or ‘out of touch’ whatever. When political groups are pushed to the margin, we intensify hostility and divisiveness. Remember that Aristotle had said it all long ago: “the cause of sedition is always to be found in inequality.”

* The writer, Urgessa Tura, is currently a graduate student at Harvard University: you may contact him @ [email protected] for questions, comments and suggestions.

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