For keen observers of the current Ethiopian politics, especially the writings, media interviews, and social media comments and posts by Oromo elites and activists, one topic has kept receiving a steady focus more than others: The role of Emperor Menelik II in the formation of the modern Ethiopian State and how largely negative and bad the emperor’s legacy is, especially for the Oromo people. In this piece, I sketch some major episodes in the Oromo Protest during the last one year to highlight the point that an attack on Menelik II and his legacy is not an isolated incident in the Oromo movement according to the Oromo elites; it is rather an integral part of it. One of my goals in this piece is to show why an attack on Menelik II is an integral part of the whole Oromo project according to the Oromo elites and activists. I submit that the dispute, claims and contentions about the meaning and significance of the Battle of Adwa , issues involving Addis Ababa from the Oromo elites and activists are also extensions or corollaries of the attack on Menelik II and his legacy. Also, the debate on whether there is an Ethiopian national identity, Ethiopiawinet, is an extension of the attack on Menelik II and his legacy. For the preceding reasons, I take it that to understand the significance of the attack on Menelik II is essential to a proper understanding of the project of the Oromo movement including a need to produce the Oromo Freedom Charter.
What Has Happened to the Immediate Causes for the Oromo Protest?
A year or so ago, the Oromo Protest began with the legitimate demands of the Oromos who suffered injustice under the current Ethiopian government. The injustice the Oromos have suffered under the current regime are part and parcel of the injustice the Ethiopian people have suffered under the regime in power for the last 25 years. We all know that the Oromo people in Oromia regional state have been mercilessly subjected to all sorts of mistreatment because they demanded the government to stop the ever-expanding land grab, to stop human rights violations, to allow peaceful protest to express their grievances, to stop marginalizing the Oromos from the political space in Ethiopia, etc. However, in light of what has recently become the frequent topics of debate by the Oromo elites and activists, it looks like we are almost at a point when we need a reminder what triggered or started the Oromo Protest a year ago. The last several months the issues raised as part of the Oromo Protest are no longer what had triggered the Oromo Protest a year or so ago. The truth is that the Oromos who were initially protesting against the Master Plan, or the land grab in the Oromia Region, were not protesting against Menelik II and his legacy at that point, or even until now. If the regime in power did not engage in land grab and other unjust treatments of the Oromos, like the rest of Ethiopians, would the Oromo Protest have started as a protest against the bad legacy of Menelik II as we have been hearing lately? From the perspective of the protesters on the ground, based on the available evidence, the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” Imagine starting a protest against Menelik II’s legacy calling it as such and asking the regime in power to meet the demand. That would be a bewildering demand for the government. An important and inevitable question now is this: Why did those Oromos who have paid ultimate prices with their lives and those who have suffered life-altering injuries and imprisoned and tortured have paid all these prices? There is a need for a clear answer to the loved ones for the deceased and to those who will continue to be part of the Oromo Protest. The Oromo elites need to offer a clear answer without mixing the reason why the Oromos on the ground were protesting and their frequent and increasingly growing project of revisiting and reinterpreting Ethiopian history by way of attacking the legacy of Menelik II.
It is one of the purposes of this piece to seek a clear answer to the question: What is the ultimate goal of the Oromo Protest? Now we all know that the Oromo Protest has rapidly evolved into what it is now: a deconstruction of Ethiopian history, Ethiopian national identity, calling into question the meaning and significance of the Battle of Adwa. Now it is absolutely crucial to understand the nature and the scope of the Oromo Protest or movement at this current stage. The answer the Oromo elites are presenting has frequently and increasingly comes in the form of engaging the issue of state formation in Ethiopia and with a claim that the Oromo nation has been colonized by the Abyssinia or the Ethiopian empire.
Menelik II: The Colonizer?
According to some Oromo elites, the answer to the question whether Menelik II was a colonizer is a resounding, “yes.” In his response to my article on the Oromo National Charter , Prof. Ezekiel Gabissa writes, “The question of internal colonialism has been a subject of academic debates since the mid-1980s. In Ethiopian studies, the pertinent themes were outlined and discussed in several essays in The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia edited Donald Donham first published in 1986. The eminent sociologist Donald Levine describes the two sides as the “colonialist narrative” and the “nationalist narrative.” These means the debate has ended in interpretive disagreement. A generation of students in Oromia and other regions have [sic] up grown up learning the “colonialist narrative” version over the objections of the advocates of the “nationalist narrative.” This is a settled issue to need any explanation.” From Prof. Ezekiel’s point of view, the debate whether the Oromos were colonized does not need further explanation. I disagree. We are not dealing with a mathematical or logical proof to suggest that historical disputes can be settled without a need for further explanation. At any rate, it is not the purpose of this article to engage in the debate whether Menelik II was a colonizer and whether the present regional state, Oromia, was once an independent nation which came under a colonial empire led by Menelik II.
In my view, to call the modern state formation in Ethiopia a case of colonialism seems to normalize and trivialize the European colonialism of Africa. This does not mean that one has to deny any injustice committed against any ethnic group in the present day Ethiopia in the process of state formation of modern Ethiopia. How we address the issue of injustice that took place under the modern state formation in Ethiopia need not be framed as an issue of colonialism. If it is framed as such, then the European colonialism of Africa and the state formation in Ethiopia would be considered the same phenomenon. Plus, even more surprisingly all non-democratic state formations in the history of the world would count as cases of colonialism, but that is too broad for a notion of “colonialism” to be of use to address issues that are rooted in the historical context of Ethiopia. Having said this, I submit that the Oromo elites see a need to portray the modern state formation in Ethiopia as a case of internal colonialism because without this view a case to reclaim an independent nation, i.e., Oromia as a sovereign state, can hardly be realized. In other words, the colonial thesis in the modern state formation of Ethiopia is a necessary thesis for the Oromo elites. If a nation is colonized, the logical thing to do is to seek its independence as this has been the case for African countries. On what basis would the Oromo elites argue that they are not seeking an independent Oromia as a sovereign nation if they insist that Oromia has been colonized be the Abyssinian/Ethiopian Empire? The claim of colonialism suggests that what the Oromo elites are seeking is an independent Oromia despite the apparent denial by some of the Oromo elites. Hence, for Oromo elites, Menelik II must be portrayed as a colonizer for one clear purpose: to seek an independent, sovereign nation, Oromia. Absent the colonial thesis, to seek an independent Oromia as a sovereign nation would be moot. Conversely, insist on a colonial thesis so that seeking an establishment or a rebirth of the Oromo nationhood becomes a legitimate issue; “legitimate, at least in the eyes of the Oromo elites. In my view, the Oromo elites need to come out and make their intentions clear to the Oromos who have been dying on the ground and to the rest of the Ethiopian people if seeking an establishment of Oromia as an independent nation is not their ultimate goal given their commitment of the colonial thesis. They also need to say why they need a colonial thesis if they are just seeking a just and peaceful and democratic Ethiopian in which the Oromos will be a part of the rest of Ethiopians building Ethiopia going forward, definitely without the regime in power continuing to rule and ruin Ethiopia.
Independent, Sovereign Oromia
Why should anyone argue for the preceding view, i.e., Oromo elites are working to regain the independence of Oromia as a sovereign nation? Here are a few more reasons:
First, think for a moment how and why the recent “Oromos-only* conventions have been organized and what the focus of the Conventions in London and Atlanta was. Why Oromos-only? This question has a straightforward answer, though unconvincing: Because these conventions were designed to deliberate and discuss the issues that affect the Oromo people in Oromia. This straightforward answer is premised on the idea that the issues that affect the Oromos in Ethiopia are somehow unique and hence the need to address them by the Oromos-only first and foremost. But this premise is false. The issues that affect the Oromo people in the current Ethiopia are widely shared with the people of Ethiopia under the same authoritarian government. The Ethiopian authoritarian government jails, kills, harasses people from any ethnic group as long as their dissent threatens the safety of the regime in power. No one needs to dispute the fact that the Oromos and the Amharas are mistreated by the regime with greater frequency because the regime feels threatened due to historical relations with the Amharas and the regime’s conception of the OLF as a threat to disintegrate the country. Returning to our point, for the Oromo elites and activists to exclusively focus on issues that affect the Oromos and everyone else in Ethiopia only by the Oromos alone is more plausibly in line with the claim I made above. That is, the desire of the Oromo elites is to exclusively organize the Oromos to address the issues that affect the Oromos, despite the fact that the issues that affect the Oromos are shared with millions of other Ethiopians. In my view, the best available explanation for this strategic move by the Oromo elites is this: Once the Oromo movement arrives at a stage when it appears feasible to seek independence for Oromia, all the things the Oromo elites have been doing in the meantime will be presented as evidence that the Oromos have arrived there by the efforts of the Oromos alone and no other group can have a say on the fate of Oromia. If this is not the best available explanation, how would the Oromo elites explain what they have been doing remains to be seen.
Second, there has been a discussion recently on whether there is a shared national identity for Ethiopians which some Oromo elites deny that there is such a shared national identity. It is not the purpose of this article to engage in the debate whether there is a shared national identity for Ethiopians, which is a worthwhile topic that deserves a serious engagement elsewhere. My present interest is to make the following point: According to some Oromo elites, the Oromo identity that predates Menelik’s colonial conquest was the true Oromo identity and hence it needs to be restored, or regained, or reaffirmed for Oromos to be truly Oromos. In order to do that the Oromo identity must be distinguished from an imposed Ethiopian identity on the Oromos by the Abyssinian Empire. One can easily see that an attack on Menelik’s legacy crucially includes an attack on Ethiopian identity since an imposed Ethiopian identity on the Oromos is a direct consequence of Menelink’s colonialism, according to this reasoning. Hence, an Oromo identity without an imposed Ethiopian identity will reemerge as an Oromo identity only in an independent Oromia. This is a clear motivation why some Oromo elites engage in the debate on Ethiopian identity only to deny it. If this is not the reason why the Oromo elites want to deny Ethiopian identity as a shared national identity, what else motivates such a debate about Ethiopian identity? If all other ethnic groups and nationalities incorporated in the modern Ethiopia by Menelik’s southern expansion were to follow suit and deny a shared Ethiopian identity that would bring about a disintegration in an Ethiopian national identity, which amounts to a disintegration of Ethiopia as we know it. But is there a rationale to follow this reasoning following the Oromo elites lead? Apparently, the Oromo elites would answer this question in the affirmative since it would support their goal, the independence of Oromia that is free from a shared national identity with the rest of other nationalities in the present day Ethiopia. Think for a moment, once again, all the exclusions of other ethnic groups in most of the Oromo issues as the elite Oromos and activists have been doing. This almost complete disregard to other ethnic groups in Ethiopia is perfectly consistent with the claim I have been making so far that the desire for the Oromo elites is the independence of Oromia first and foremost without explicitly saying so despite the evidence that supports such a conclusion. I leave to the readers to develop the case of Addis Ababa and how some Oromo elites frame the issues involving Addis Ababa. I submit that it is another extension of an attack on the legacy of Menelik II.
Given the evidence that is available for any keen observer of current Ethiopian politics, I have argued that the best available explanation that unifies the Oromo movement according to the Oromo elites and activists is ultimately seeking the independence of Oromia as a sovereign nation. Short of this goal, it is deeply implausible to interpret all the evidence regarding the activities of the Oromo elites with another goal as the ultimate goal for the Oromo movement. Note that I did not claim that the Oromo people on the ground who have been killed, jailed and tortured have as their goal an independent Oromia as a sovereign state. Some might have such a desire or aspiration, but the evidence does not suggest that is why they have been protesting for a year or so. We all know what the demands were and the injustice the Oromos have been protesting against for which they have paid prices including the lives of many, in hundreds, if not in thousands just in one year alone. In my view, consistent with the argument above, the Oromo elites are working to put together a coherent idea that would serve as the cause worth dying for for the Oromo people, but without the Oromo people expressing that the ultimate goal they want to achieve is an independent, sovereign Oromia. If my claims so far are correct, which I think are correct given the evidence, the Oromo elites and activists need to make clear the ultimate goal of the Oromo movement so that people who face the brutal government need to have a clear goal for which they are paying a price including their lives. One of the chief motivations for my decision to write this piece is observing and reflecting on an apparent mismatch between the actual reasons the Oromos on the ground have been paying prices including their lives, and what the Oromo elites and activists offer as the main goal of the Oromo movement in the last one year. If the Oromo elites speak for the actual Oromo people on the ground, it is a responsible thing to be on the same page with the people on the ground at least on being clear why the people on the ground are paying prices for.
Finally, it must be noted that I did not claim that the Oromo elites and activists are totally detached from the movement of the Oromo people on the ground. Absolutely not! My main claim is that as opinion makers and shapers, the Oromo elites have as an ultimate goal for the Oromo movement the independence of Oromia as a sovereign nation without explicitly saying so for a political backlash such a view would bring about. This claim is based on the evidence presented above. It is for the Oromo elites to show that either they accept the claim I have argued for or they reject it or they show another more plausible explanation of the evidence on which my argument is based. If they accept it, that is an important clarification for the Oromo people as a whole and for the other peoples of Ethiopia. If they reject my claim, then it is also important for them to show where the mistake is. That would also add clarity to the ultimate goal of the Oromo movement. Now the most important question is: What is the official, ultimate goal of the Oromo movement according to the Oromo elites, if it is different from what I argued for above, i.e. seeking an establishment of Oromia as an independent, sovereign nation?
*Tedla Woldeyohannes teaches philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and he can be reached at email@example.com