Oromia and Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict (excerpts from the Introduciton)
-by Asafa Jalata
The main purpose of this book is to examine how Oromia was incorporated into Ethiopia and the world economy, the origin of Oromo nationalism, and the development and current status of the Oromo national movement. The process of incorporation shows how imperialism penetrated the Horn of Africa and allied with successive Ethiopian colonial ruling classes from the last decades of the nineteenth century. Christian ideology, geopolitics, and the processes of class differentiation and state formation in Ethiopia proper allowed the Amhara-Tigrayan rulers to seek and establish alliances with the European colonial powers and colonize the Oromo and other peoples in order to exploit their economic and human resources. Thus, explored here are Ethiopian dependent colonialism, nationally based inequalities, and the struggle of Oromia for national self-determination.
A primary theme of this study is that the creation, maintenance, and intensification of nation-class contradictions since the formation of the Ethiopian Empire constitute the fundamental problems between the Oromo and the Ethiopians. By allying with European imperialism and colonizing various independent peoples (such as the Sidama, Afar, Kafa, Hadiya, Walayita, Konso, Somali, and others), the Ethiopian colonial ruling class created this empire and brought the human and economic resources of the colonized populations under its control. Of the 52 million people in this empire today, the Oromo comprise about 50 percent.' Despite their numerical strength, the Oromo have been colonial subjects, treated as second-class citizens and deprived of their political and economic privileges just as have other colonized minorities. European imperialism and Ethiopian settler colonialism intensified the process of wealth and capital accumulation by means of plunder and noncapitalist and capitalist labor-recruitment systems.
The Ethiopian Empire was further built and maintained by the alliance of the Ethiopian colonial ruling class with two successive hegemonic powers—Great Britain and the United States. Euro-American imperialism introduced capitalism and preserved the old political structure in this empire. England and the United States were involved mainly because of their geopolitical interests. This dominant role was played, for similar purposes, by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and the 1980s. However, this shift in alliance from the West to the East, necessitated by the crisis the empire experienced in the 1970s, changed the nature of Ethiopian colonialism only in the reorganization and reconsolidation of the Ethiopian colonial state, and in that colonial subjects were oppressed and exploited more intensely. This was accomplished by creating new colonial institutions, such as military-controlled mass associations and settlement villages, known for their massive human rights violations.
The convergence of longstanding contradictions with contemporary political crisis has provided new momentum for the Oromo national movement. The colonial state reorganization could not change the nature of Ethiopian colonialism—still blocked were the processes of national self-determination, decolonization, and democratization—and thus the Oromo have continued their national liberation struggle. The maturation of ethnonational liberation movements (the Oromo, Eritrean, and Tigrayan liberation movements) in the 1980s, the crisis in the military leadership and the change in international politics led to the collapse of Colonel Mengistu Haile Maryam's regime in May 1991. Among other things, the close collaboration between the Eritrean and the Tigrayan movements and the support the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) received from the United States and the Sudan enabled the TPLF to organize its subsidiary organizations and replace the military government. The emergence of the Tigrayan led government in 1991 temporarily introduced some cosmetic changes without resolving the Oromo question. Since the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) adopted the position of a peaceful approach to enable the Oromo people to decide their political destiny through democracy, it joined the Tigrayan-led government as a junior partner for almost a year.
The collapse of the military regime, the seizing of Ethiopian state power by the Tigrayan-led Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the formation of the EPRDF-led coalition government, and the current cdsis of the coalition government due to the withdrawal of the OLF have manifested a paradox: political change and continuity. On the one hand, the adoption of a transitional charter providing basic human rights, freedom of association and expression, the right of ethnonations to self-determination, and the formation of a democratic state indicated political change. On the other hand, the domination of the transitional government by the TPLF and the blockage of district and regional elections in June 1992 clearly showed the continuity of Ethiopian colonial politics. The attempt to substitute Tigrayan for Amhara ethnic hegemony indicated the impossibility of democratizing this empire without decolonizing and transforming it. That is why the OLF has resumed its protracted armed struggle against Ethiopian colonialism.
Oromia and Ethiopia Defined
For the purpose of this study, and to clarify certain controversies, some historical and political definitions of the names "Oromia" and "Ethiopia" are needed. The Oromo used to call their country "Biiya Oromoo." Although the Oromo never called themselves "Galla," the Ethiopians and their international counterparts called them by this name. The practice continued until the Oromo began their national liberation struggle and started to have an impact on shaping their own destiny and history. We do not know who originated the name Galla, only that it obtained currency through the writings of Ethiopian religious scholars and colonial agents such as Abba Bahrey.
When Lewis Krapf drew the map of east Africa between 1837 and 1855, he gave the name "Ormania" to the Oromoland, and openly stated the importance of colonizing it: "What a noble land would Ormania be if it were under the influence of Christianity and European culture! What a pity that the course of our emigration is not directed to those regions! No doubt the time will come, when the stream of European enterprise which now flows toward America and Australia shall be exhausted." Krapf's political prediction was realized by the alliance of European imperialism and Ethiopian colonialism during the division of Africa, when the Oromo were partitioned between Ethiopia and Great Britain. In the early 1970s, the Oromo Liberation Front began to use the name Oromia instead of Ormania or Biiya Oromoo. According to Baxter, "the name 'Oromia' has been created by young Oromo nationalists for the independent state to which they aspire.... The name Oromia thus serves the same purpose and is as justified as 'Ghana,' 'Benin,' 'Mali,' and 'Zimbabwe.’” In this book, the name Oromia is used interchangeably with the Oromo nation and also indicates the geographical location of the nation in the Horn of Africa. Oromia comprises almost three-fourths of the Ethiopian Empire, on which this study focuses, although there are also Oromo branches in northern Kenya.
(from the book)
The name Ethiopia originated with the Greek word "Aethiopes." Classical Greek explorers and writers gave this name to the territories inhabited by black peoples in Asia and Africa.6 Later, through the process of translating the Bible from Hebrew to Greek and from Greek to Geez (the ancient Abyssinian language), the name Ethiopia came to be associated with Abyssinia; Abyssinia was just a part of the world that the Greek classical writers called Ethiopia. Hence Ethiopia and Abyssinia were originally not one and the same, but the latter was part of the former. The name Abyssinia originated from the name Habasha. The Habasha people evolved through the children of Arab immigrants and Africans in the Horn of Africa, probably in the first half of the first millennium B.C. They later differentiated mainly into the Amhara and Tigrayan peoples. The identification of Abyssinia with Ethiopia through the Bible and with Europe through Christian ideology and mercantilism from the fifteenth century enhanced the political significance of the name Ethiopia. The conflict between Muslims and Christians on trade, religion, and power increased the significance of Christian Abyssinia to Europe for its geopolitics and of Christian Europe to Abyssinia for its military technology.'° In the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese and the Ottomans were struggling to control the Arabian and Red seas and the Indian Ocean for commercial purposes, the Portuguese allied with the Abyssinians against the Ottomans. It was the Portuguese who saved Christian Abyssinia from extinction after it was occupied by the Muslims during the same period."
Abyssinian leaders, confusing mythology with historical reality, began to claim Ethiopian identity and to argue that their territories once included all regions that classical geographers and historians described as Ethiopia. Menelik II, the main architect of the Ethiopian Empire, particularly used this argument in creating an alliance with European imperialism and colonizing the Oromo and other groups. In one of his letters he wrote, “I shall endeavor, should God of his grace grant me the years and the strength, to restore the ancient frontiers of Ethiopia as far as Khartoum and to Lake Nyanza beyond the land of the Galla [Oromia].” (The official adoption of the name Ethiopia for the Abyssinian Empire actually took place in the early 1930s.'3) In this study, however, the terms Abyssinia and Ethiopia are used interchangeably to indicate the homeland of the Amharas and the Tigrayans, and the terms Abyssinians or Habashas or Ethiopians refer to these two peoples. Although the historical meaning of Ethiopia is applicable to all black peoples, its current meaning applies mainly to the Amharas and the Tigrayans. That is why Oromo nationalists say “We are Oromians, not Ethiopians,” recognizing the current meaning of Ethiopia.
Methodological and Theoretical Approaches
Modern colonialism and imperialism have closely interconnected the world and shaped their patterns of development. To analyze contradictions in the Ethiopian Empire as isolated phenomena is to miss this historical reality. As Magubane puts it: “While colonialism has an ancient history, the colonialism of the last five centuries is closely associated with the birth and maturation of the capitalist socio-economic system. The pursuit and acquisition of colonies, their political and economic domination, accompanied the mercantile revolution and the founding of capitalism." By closely connecting history with theory, we explore the process of the penetration of imperialism in the Horn of Africa through colonialism and how it brought many civilizations together. In the process, the capitalist civilization gradually dominated the precapitalist ones and transformed them in one way or another. The ways in which these civilizations were altered depended on the manner of their incorporation and on the interactions of various regional and local forces with imperialism. Therefore, general and specific historical features are key to our subject.
Although there was the negus system (the tributary monarchical system), which maintained political order through a loosely organized army, Christian ideology, and the monopolization of firearms imports after the fifteenth century, there was no central power in Abyssinia between 1769 and 1855. Prior to the creation of the Ethiopian Empire, class differentiation and the negus system were the main features of Ethiopian social formation. In contrast, the classless democratic and egalitarian system known as gada was the pillar of Oromo social formation; but with the development of class differentiation in western and northern Oromia, the moti system (tributary monarchy) emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century as the antithesis of the gada system.
During the mid-nineteenth century, Tewodros, an Amhara bandit and warlord initiated an unsuccessful Abyssinian unification process. This was also a period when European imperialism was expanding to Africa. Tewodros's successors, Yohannes, a Tigrayan warlord, and Menelik, an Amhara warlord, had access to modern weapons and pursued unification of Abyssinia and alliance with the rival imperialist powers. The completion of the unification process, the alliance with the Europeans, and access to modem weapons and expertise laid the foundation of the modem Ethiopian state and accelerated the colonization of the Oromo and other peoples.
The competition among France, England, and Italy assisted the warlords' efforts. Why did France and Britain allow the emergence and survival of the modem Ethiopian state? In particular, why did the British permit the survival of this state when it dismantled the Mahdist state of the Sudan in 1898? Did the alliance of the Ethiopian rulers with these European imperialists save the Ethiopian state? Or, as they claimed, did the uniqueness of the Ethiopians, their difference from colonized Africans, and their bravery help them? Most Ethiopian scholars argue that France, Britain, and Italy struggled to colonize the whole of the Horn of Africa but were not successful in colonizing Ethiopia, though the Ethiopians were on a similar technological level with the colonized peoples in the Horn of Africa—there was no inherent superiority to prevent being colonized militarily and technologically. The alliance of the Ethiopian rulers with the European powers, a religion common to the Ethiopian and European ruling classes, and rivalry among Britain, France, and Italy helped Ethiopia to emerge as a dependent colonialist power. Venkataram writes, "Besides the new interest in African exploration, their strategic aims in the Red Sea region, their desire to seek useful outlets for their commerce and zeal to propagate Christianity had drawn British and French attention to Ethiopia which was soon to fall into the vortex of Anglo-French rivalry." The alliance of the Ethiopian ruling class with these imperialist powers according to their respective interests made the control of this empire cheaper and easier than direct colonization. Later the competition among the French, British, and Italians to control the empire directly made it difficult for any one of them to do so.
On matters of land, power, religion, and trade, the Oromo and the Abyssinians were the main contenders in the Horn of Africa between the sixteenth century and the last decades of the nineteenth century. European imperialism changed the balance of power in favor of the Ethiopians. Why did Europeans support the Ethiopians against the Oromo and others? The Ethiopians had early relations with Europeans through Christianity; a logical next step was to seek alliances with European imperialism. Further, the European imperialist powers decided to establish a central power in the Horn of Africa, following a common colonizing practice of forming the central power and then siding with it. The European powers were interested in seeking local alliances that could be used to interfere in the affairs of the African peoples and eventually create dominion. The expanding capitalist world economy intensified competition among European states and facilitated development of the strategy known as "the scramble for Africa." Learning from the failure of Tewodros and Yohannes, Menelik played the rivalry of France, England, and Italy in building the modem Ethiopian state and colonizing the Oromo. On their parts, the capitalist firms and merchants sought access to the interior of the heartland of the Hon with the alliance of the Ethiopian rulers in order to channel and, in due course, organize commerce and production processes with a view toward providing raw materials for the European market and a market for European goods.
With the incorporation of Oromia into Ethiopia, Oromo civilization, culture, history, and language were subordinated to that of the Ethiopians and subverted in efforts to destroy or graft them to Ethiopian ways. The colonization of Oromia has interrupted the development of Oromo history. Understanding this incorporation requires the exploration of interlocking phenomena—Oromo cultural identity, colonialism, nationalism, and issues of class and ideology—all of which are interconnected by the logic of the capitalist world economy. The peripheralization of Oromo history by Ethiopian and Ethiopianist scholars as well as censorship by successive Ethiopian colonial governments of production and dissemination of Oromo historical knowledge make this work difficult. This book is both reinterpretive and interpretive, and aims to establish a new understanding of the Oromo issue.
1. The modern Ethiopian colonial state was created in the process of the expansion of the capitalist world economy. The Ethiopian colonial class, who occupied an intermediate status in that economy, and who did not have the technical knowledge to produce firearms or the administrative and technical skills required to create a modern state, colonized Oromia and exploited its human and economic resources with the help of European imperialism. The immediate basis for the colonization of the Oromo by the Ethiopian colonialists was the weaponry and the military expertise the Ethiopians received from European states; the Oromo received virtually none. The weaponry provided the means of conquest, while the advice the colonialists received from Europeans on state construction helped in establishing the administrative means of colonial rule. The Ethiopian colonialists initially colonized and pillaged the Oromo to gain slaves, ivory, cattle, and other commodities to pay for European weapons and expertise.
2. The interrelation between Ethiopian dependent colonialism and European imperialism was embodied in the exchange of raw materials on the one hand, and military technology, army and administrative expertise, and luxury items on the other. The Ethiopian colonialists used noncapitalist methods to gradually destroy natural and tributary economies and to create noncapitalist and capitalist productive relations in Oromia for production of foodstuffs and other commodities for local and international markets. The colonial state created or modified and controlled the process of forced labor recruitment via slavery and the nafxanya-gabbar system. The word nafxanya was derived from the Arabic word neft, which means firearm. The nafxanya was the Ethiopian colonial settler who had a gun and used it to impose colonialism at gunpoint. The gabbar was the colonized Oromo who did not have control over his product, life, or children. The nafxanyagabbar system was created to force the Oromo and other colonized peoples to provide forced free labor for the production of goods needed by colonialists and imperialists.
3. Maintaining its tributary nature in Ethiopia proper, establishing its colonial political economy in Oromia and other colonized regions, and strengthening its intermediate status in the capitalist world economy, the Ethiopian colonial state intensified land expropriation and produce extraction. However, capitalist productive relations did not immediately emerge, nor were precapitalist relations maintained. Initially, merchant capitalism flourished. With the further integration of the Ethiopian Empire into the capitalist world economy, slavery and the nafxanya-gabbar system became outmoded. In their places, tenancy gradually emerged. Agrocapitalism began to extend its roots mainly through tenancy and sharecropping and the use of noncapitalist forced-labor systems. Through the gradual development of capitalism, there were recurring class formations and disintegrations that paralleled the interests of the colonialists and the imperialists.
4. The nation-class dichotomy forms the major and inseparable contradictions in the Ethiopian Empire. The Ethiopian colonial state established various mechanisms of colonial control in order to intensify its produce extraction and land expropriation. It created the nafxanya-gabbar system and the Ethiopianized Oromo intermediate class and developed various garrison towns and other colonial institutions. The colonial state organized the peoples in the empire ethnonationally and applied different policies in Ethiopia proper and in Oromia, due to its backward political economy and narrow ethnonational base. The discriminatory treatment of the colonized peoples such as the Oromo, the limiting of education and job opportunities, and the expropriation of lands and other properties created serious nationclass contradictions between the majority Oromo and the minority Ethiopians. The treatment of the Oromo as second-class citizens and brutal economic exploitation and cultural and political deprivations facilitated the emergence of Oromo nationalism in the 1960s and the birth of the Oromo Liberation Front in the early 1970s.
5. The Ethiopian Empire has always been a beachhead for hegemonic powers or superpowers. Over the course of more than a century, the Ethiopian colonialists have maintained their dominance by shifting alliance from one hegemonic power to another. With the emergence of British hegemony, the alliance of Ethiopia with France, Italy, and Russia became secondary. Britain exercised its hegemonic responsibility by expelling the Italians, who colonized the Ethiopian Empire from 1935 to 1941, and by rebuilding the Ethiopian colonial state and defending it from internal and external enemies. As British hegemony declined, the United States assumed the role. With the help of world hegemonism, successive Ethiopian colonial classes continuously controlled the means of compulsion (the state) and the means of production and allocated power and wealth in such ways that Ethiopian colonialism and dominance have remained intact. The emergence of the colonial military regime during the crisis of the Ethiopian Empire in the 1970s and Soviet involvement helped the continuation and intensification of the colonial process through further property expropriation and subjugation. With the decline of U.S. hegemony and the crisis of the Ethiopian Empire, the USSR became involved on the side of the military regime and supplemented the economic links to the West by providing massive amounts of weapons, military expertise, and spy networks and by assuming the responsibility of the previous hegemonic powers. This crumbling empire attracted the attention of these superpowers because of its geopolitical location rather than its economic resources or ideological inclination.
6. The alliance of Ethiopia with the USSR and the creation of colonial state ownership were just the continuation of Ethiopian colonialism. The colonial military regime created state capitalism and continued its economic relations with the West in order to recreate and reconsolidate the disintegrating empire. The postponement of the resolution of nation-class contradictions caused by the alliance of the regime with the Soviet Union accelerated the development of the Oromo national movement aimed at the complete resolution of these contradictions.
7. The collapse of the Amhara military regime, the emergence of the Tigrayan-led transitional government, and the adoption of a transitional charter could not resolve the fundamental contradiction between the Oromo and the Ethiopians. Amhara ethnic hegemony was replaced by that of Tigray. For the Oromo and the OLF, the Tigrayans are Ethiopians and want to maintain Ethiopian colonialism. This assertion became evident when the TPLF-led government violated the transitional charter and blocked district and regional elections in June 1992. The blockage of a democratic transformation and Oromian self-determination by the new regime necessitated the withdrawal of the OLF from the coalition government and the resumption of the protracted armed struggle. The continuous crises of Ethiopian ethnicclass hierarchy, the replacement of the Amhara state by that of Tigray, and the liberation of Eritrea have unleashed the suppressed Oromo political potential. As a result, the OLF has gained spectacular popularity, influence, and support among the Oromo. It is becoming evident that Oromia is going to determine its national destiny sooner or later (through the ballot or the bullet) because of its numerical strength and the maturation of Oromo nationalism.
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