Ethnic Ethiopians have been grossly overlooked and undermined in Ethiopian political landscape in the last 18 years. The Ethiopian Constitution states that Ethiopia is a country of ‘nations and nationalities’. Hence, those who do not subscribe to this ‘nation and nationalities’ categorization are not recognized by the Constitution unless they subscribe to one of the ethnic groups. As I do not wish to discuss this issue in abstract, I would like to describe who the ethnic-Ethiopians are first.
1. Who are Ethnic Ethiopians?
The credit goes to Ato Teshome M Borago who first flagged up the plight of ethnic Ethiopians on Jimma Times After reading Ato Teshome’s intriguing article and exchanging views with like minded Ethiopians on “Ethiopians-forum”, I am more convinced that ethnic Ethiopians need to articulate their cause to be heard in the wider political arena. Hence, I am writing this article to keep the discussion about ethnic Ethiopians alive with a view of appealing to others to break their silence.
Ato Teshome categorized mixed Ethiopians as a new ethnic group called ‘Ethnic Ethiopian’ and defined them as mixed Ethiopians who come from 2 or more ethnicities.
With all due respect to the writer and the rational behind his insistence of mixed heritage,
I would like to broaden the definition by including “everyone who wants to categorise himself as ethnic Ethiopian and find it difficult to categories his identity among the 80 plus ethnic groups.
In my view one should not necessarily come from two or more ethnicity or mixed heritage. Any body who wants to categorise himself as ethnic Ethiopian is an Ethnic Ethiopian. He or she may come from a single ethnic parentage but for various reasons, the person may neither speak the language nor know the customs and culture of the parent’s ethnic heritage. As long as one believes that one is an ethnic Ethiopian that must be the end of it. Thus my approach is not only on parental heritage but also on individual choice and belief.
Of course, as pointed out by Ato Teshome, the obvious point to start seems with Ethiopians of mixed ethnicity since all mixed Ethiopians under the current regime have been forced to choose identity of either their father’s or mother’s side and reject the other side. They should have been allowed to embrace all their multi-ethnic heritage rather than forcing them to fit into the regime’s single-ethnic identification. In the west, for example, one can tick a choice of black, white, African, Asian, Hispanic, mixed race or “others” left with a blank space to allow an individual to describe himself rather than force him to fit into a pre-defined pigeonhole.
Having said that, I can see two compelling reasons for my approach. First, it would not exclude any Ethiopian i.e. those who come from a single ethnicity (if there is such thing in Ethiopia’s context strictly speaking!) and still consider themselves as ethnic Ethiopians. Second, there are large numbers of Ethiopians who consider their ethnicity as Ethiopian and they simply do not want or reject any part of their heritage to fit into the politically motivated categorization. It is for these reasons that I want to broaden the definition of Ato Teshome. Of course, we can always discuss further and assess the merits and demerits this definition to improve it.
Acceptance of ethnic-Ethiopians does not come just because few of us write articles on the internet. But developing the awareness further could assist ethnic-Ethiopians to stand up and be counted with their action and votes.
2. The case for ethnic Ethiopians to stand up and be counted!
The starting point has to be, if ethnic Ethiopians are forced to state their ethnicity in the EPRDF-led Ethiopia, they have to insist that they are ethnic-Ethiopians and they have to be accepted by EPRDF or all other ethnic parties as such. In democracy, individuals as well as groups have rights for choice and their choice have to be respected.
Ethnic Ethiopians should accept and respect others who want to identify themselves as ethnic Oromos, Amharas, Guraghes, Tigres, etc. Like wise, the free choice of ethnic-Ethiopians has to be accepted and respected unconditionally. Ethnic Ethiopians have never been recognized as an entity. It is high time that they stand up to be counted as a
legitimate group that has equal stake in the Ethiopian political landscape. The Constitution should recognize and protect them as a separate and distinct entity from others who force them to be categorized in this or that ethnicity.
Ethnic Ethiopians are the silent majority. They are the most mariginalised ethnicity in Ethiopia. The law of the land and the regime denies even their very existence. Though arguably the majority, they have been deliberately made invisible when ethnic puritans partition and crave the country for themselves. They have no one to speak on behalf of them and to champion their cause. They have been silently suffering a lot under the current regime. To list but a few of the untold crimes against them:
a. They have been dispossessed of their heritage, humanity, basic right and forced to fit into the regime’s single-ethnicity identification. Their existence is denied by the regime. There is no law to protect them. Their fate and day to day existence falls at the mercy of ‘pure’ ethnic warlords. Unlike the regime’s bantustanisation, even the then South African apartheid regime used to recognise mixed races as an entity! Their plight is this bad. There is no single civic organisation or political party which is acknowledging the depth of their unique plight and addressing it.
b. They are unable to get even basic services from the regime if they do not confirm to single-ethnicity identification. A good example was given by one of the discussants on the Ethiopian forum. He said, a few years before, his friend went to the local Kebele to get an ID. He was asked his ethnicity and told them he is of mixed ethnicity. He was asked to choose one ethnicity if he wants to get an ID or leave the Kebele without an ID or keep on arguing and put himself in danger of being arrested.
The friend left the Kebele angrily with out an ID. But as he shortly realized that he can not live a normal life in present day Ethiopia with out an ID, he was forced to choose his mother’s Oromo identity and got an ID which says he is an Oromo. This put him in problem with his Amhara father for a while and the problem with the father was resolved after the son explained the reason behind his action.
On a slightly different approach, a second discussant on Ethiopian Forum stated that his relative told him a similar story. The relative is Gondere in one side and Selale (Oromo) on the other side but if one digs deeper it is even complicated. So the relative went to her Kebele and registered as an Amhara since Ethiopia was not on the menu.
Since the registrar at the Kebele knows her very well, he jokingly said your brother was here a bit earlier to say he is an Oromo. The smart lady replied to the registrar: “Yes, I know but we agreed because the time is very difficult so we have to bet on both sides”.
c. I also know from my experience that those of us who consistently said our ethnicity as Ethiopian shortly after the regime took power were not accepted by the regime and we were simply categorized as Amharas. Even worse, we have heard that on the first national census describing oneself as an Ethiopian was a crime punishable by six months! These are just a few of the untold sufferings ethnic Ethiopians going through.
3. Ethnic Ethiopians as an antithesis for ethnic balkanisation?
During one of Ato Meles’ infamous interview shortly after he took power in Addis, he identified and acknowledged explicitly two categories who would give an insurmountable challenge to his ethnicity policy. He identified these two groups as those who are born
from two or more ethnicities and those who are born and raised in larger Ethiopian cities that consider their ethnicity as Ethiopian. I can not agree more with Ato Meles. Let us explore below what Ato Meles meant in some detail.
a. While the regime’s policy wants us to look inward, ethnic Ethiopians can only look outward. While the regime is forcing us to live in ethnic enclaves, it is in the very interest of ethnic Ethiopians to dismantle the ethnic enclaves. While the regime’s policy wants us accept a certain killil as ours, ethnic Ethiopians can not have a single killil. Rather they claim the whole Ethiopia as theirs. Ethnic Ethiopians are every where in Ethiopia and in all killils transcending the regime’s bantustanisation policy.
Can you imagine what will happen to the regime’s policy if we can force the regime to recognize and register ethnic Ethiopians as such! Yes, you guessed right. That certainly will be the end of the policy. It is this powerful and I do perfectly understand when Ato Meles said ethnic Ethiopians pose an insurmountable challenge to his policy.
b. I believe when we are in peaceful struggle, we need to carefully select agendas which go to the heart of the public’s concern to rally the public behind us. Fighting for our right to be registered and accepted as Ethnic Ethiopians could be one of these agendas which are necessary for a peaceful struggle. I reckon in this way we can galvanise the public at the grass root level. We are in millions and certainly we are absolute majorities in major cities where relatively speaking it is conducive to engage in peaceful struggle. In addition, it would not be that difficult to invoke the support of the international community and Human Rights organizations. Mind you, even apartheid South Africa used to recognize mixed races as such! Thus, the cause of ethnic Ethiopians could give additional impetus and agenda for the peaceful struggle by being a rallying issue.
c. Even the very architects of ethnic bantustanisation can not escape the fate of any other ethnic Ethiopian. Let me explain the Ethiopian phenomenon using an example. I use a public figure who is at the top of the political structure in Ethiopia, Ato Meles Zenawi. I have no personal information but we all have been told that he came from Tigray and Eritrean family. We are also told his wife is from Gonder and possibly she is a mix of an Amhara and a Tigre blood.
Now his kids are Eritrean-Tigray- Amhara. Let us forget about Ato Meles for a moment who is also from a mixed heritage. Where are his children going to fit? Of course, the answer is Ethiopia. The only inclusive identity that could proudly reflect their entire heritage is ethnic Ethiopia. Although this is how in reality Ethiopia and all the other society are evolved, the regime and some adherents of the Student Movement still want our society to fit into Stalin’s hypothetical and failed model.
Put simply, Ato Meles can not even clean the mess his backward-looking policy created right at the heart of his family. Leave alone the wider public, I suppose Ato Meles would find it difficult to rationally convince his own children about his single-ethnicity classification. This is the fragility of the regime’s policy which can be easily exposed and defeated by ethnic Ethiopians!
There is no doubt that Ethnic-Ethiopians are large in number. They have to wake up, realise their potent potential and do something positive about it. I think it is high time that
ethnic Ethiopians articulate their case, assert and make themselves visible to all.
If they use their vote appropriately they can make a difference in Ethiopian political landscape. No one should no more underestimate the potential of ethnic Ethiopians. That is why we call these Ethiopians to wake up and have a say in Ethiopian politics. Since they are the fabric that weaves the whole of Ethiopia, from top to the bottom, their political clout and influence cannot be ignored.
Ethiopian opposition parties and those in government should act
accordingly. Ethnic Ethiopians should also use their association with the multi national
parties to demand their parties to champion their cause. By definition they cannot belong or vote for any ethnic group. They are what they call in the West the swing voters, who play the crucial vote. So far the multi-ethnic parties have taken them for granted but the coming election should be a good opportunity to bring their agenda on the table so that their issues could be re-addressed and marginalisation be stopped.
I can not honestly see a future for ethnic-based politics in Ethiopia. The appeal of ethnicity-based politics has passed its peak and now it is in downturn. The May/05 historic election may be rightly taken as empirical evidence in
support of this contention.
In addition, if needs be, they can also come up with a Civic Movement to champion the concerns of ethnic Ethiopians. This way coupled with a civic movement for ethnic Ethiopians, a very potent force can be created which can only strengthen Ethiopiawinet.
In conclusion, Ethnic-Ethiopians are the fabric of Ethiopia unity. They are products of centuries old union and love. Forcing them to abandon their heritage is not only immoral but also backward looking which may find its root in feudal Ethiopia. Hence networking, focusing on creating awareness and lobbying for change of attitude particularly on the coming election could lead to creation of better and tolerant Ethiopia.