Why Oromo-Amhara solidarity is the greatest threat to the Ethiopian government

“The blood flowing in Oromia is our blood too”

For decades, the ruling party has governed by pitting the Oromo and Amhara against one another. Now the two groups are joining forces against the government.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” said Lenin, describing the Bolshevik revolution. For Ethiopia, the start of August 2016 saw such a week – one that will go down in Ethiopian history as a moment in which a grassroots movement achieved in days what organised elites have not been able to achieve in two decades.

The struggle toward freedom reached its tipping point

Gondar protest

In that week, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest against decades of abuse, discrimination, and marginalisation. This was the culmination of a wave of protests that began nearly ten months ago and has since continued in Amhara and Oromia, two of the country’s most populous regions.

The government responded by dismissing the protesters as agents of foreign forces directed from Eritrea and Egypt, and it deployed armed forced into civilian centres, leading to the deaths of over 600 people, according to estimates, and the arrests of many more.

Despite this disproportionate and excessive force, however, protests and strikes have endured, with a movement of movements mobilising a new generation, tapping into a groundswell of shared discontent. At the heart of this activism is a burgeoning solidarity between the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who make up around two-thirds of the country’s population combined and have begun to come together despite longstanding historical differences.

This convergence has alarmed the government, but how far can collective action based on shared grievances rather than a coherent set of shared ideals and visions go?

Divide and rule

Ethiopia is an assemblage of diverse ethnic and cultural groups. But historically, up to around the 1970s, ‘Greater Ethiopia’ pursued a policy of ethnic homogenisation in which Amhara identity became the identity par excellence, pushing others to the periphery.

In particular, the Oromos, the country’s largest ethno-national group, were not treated as equal partners and did not have influence commensurate with their demographic, geographic, and economic contribution. These asymmetries helped fuel the historic antagonism between the two groups.

Since coming to power in 1991, the current government – led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – has instrumentalised this rivalry as a political weapon. It has created a governing narrative in which Amharas and Oromos are eternal adversaries, representing an existential threat to the future of the Ethiopian state and stability of the region.

Oromos are framed as secessionists who represent a clear and present danger to the unity and sovereignty of Ethiopia, while the Amharas are presented as chauvinist and violent, working towards the resurrection and re-imposition of the old Medieval-type empire.

Within this narrative frame, the ruling party, dominated by ethnic Tigrayan elites, becomes a beacon of stability and unity in diversity.

 “The blood flowing in Oromia is our blood too”

For 25 years, the ruling party has relied on these myths to sow the seeds of division. But this is now beginning to unravel.

The violent response of the ruling party to both the Amhara and Oromo protests has brought into sharp focus the shared vulnerability of the oppressed in Ethiopia. The mutual experience of loss and suffering has generated intense collective emotions, exposing the porous nature of the faultlines that both divide and unite the two communities.

As the violence of the state has intensified, former arch-foes have set aside their mutual rivalry to congregate and endure with one another. An extraordinary groundswell of solidarity is emerging at all levels, exposing the shaky foundation of the regime.

“We are all Oromos”, “I am not Oromo but I stand with my Oromo brothers”, “Amhara is ours, Oromo is ours”, “The blood flowing in Oromia is our blood too” are just some of the many expressions of solidarity declared at rallies.

These are not just words, but actions that exist as words, actions that threaten to unsettle the myths that hold together the ideological edifice of the system. They are words that go beyond the repressive and divisive discourses of the state to create conditions for a collective politics and new forms of alliances. They are gestures that seek to imagine a different kind of world.

At the same time, Oromo and Amhara protestors have also begun to hold solidarity rallies together, flying their respective flags – both symbols of resistance – alongside one another. No collective action is more destabilising to the narrative of the state than the joint appearance of these two symbols, which entered the country’s political imagination as antithetical and irreconcilable.

A regime that seemed invincible has begun to tremble at this sight, with officials expressing their disgust and fury at these two symbols of resistance being presented together. For instance, Government Communications Minister Getachew Reda expressed his outrage at the alliance between Oromos and Amharas and his government’s determination to destroy it, describing it as “unholy” and a “gamble”.

Dilemmas of unity

While politically significant, however, the solidarity we are currently seeing is not based on a shared vision so much as shared grievances. Oromo and Amhara elites have been at an impasse in discussions for the last two decades and have not been able to build up mutual trust to confront contentious issues of historical and political significance.

While mainstream Amhara politicians insist on national unity as a condition for collaboration, Oromo nationalists reject these demands on the basis that there is not yet a shared set of democratic values, principles and ideals that could ‘unite’ the two groups. They insist that any values that are shared between the groups did not emerge out of a relationship of equality and therefore should not be the starting point for a new vision.

This lack of consensus may seem like a weakness, but it is crucial to note that these long-standing historical disagreements do not need to be definitively resolved in order for the two groups to come together to chart the best route for the future. In fact, the arduous task of coming to terms with a contested past requires a robust and inclusive debate that can only happen within a democratic state capable of reconciling social conflicts according to shared rules.

However, to create this democratic platform, the Ethiopian people must first be released from the weight of oppression imposed by Tigrean elites. And neither Oromos nor Amharas need surrender their identities to pursue this goal. In fact, in multi-ethnic countries like Ethiopia where identities are co-opted by the powers that be, those same identities become the very crucibles that provide the energy and passion for the struggle.

Solidarity is not about oneness, but building cross-cultural understanding, tolerance, respect and acceptance of differences. Accordingly then, Oromos and Amharas are increasingly accepting solidarity, not unity, as the principle underpinning their collective actions.

Contrary to some fears, there is great strength in these weak ties, and this emerging solidarity – incipient and precarious as it is – represents the greatest threat to the regime’s long-standing policy of divide and rule.

Dr Awol Kassim Allo is Lecturer in Law at Keele University.

6 comments

  1. Truth is Missing or Misleading?

    Ted,

    Thank yo for your criticism and that is the way to go forward and correct the mistakes that was done whether it was intentionally or unintentionally.

    My comment was based on my personal experience coming both from Amhara and Oromo families. My families saw each other face to face and shared life in good and bad times and not even one time there was any kind of division, mistrust or resentment.

    Monarchy used to be the only type of government in many parts Europe and Ethiopia was blessed to have one when the whole Africa was divided by tribal chiefs that fell prey to European invasion. Those that lacked central government to unit forces that protect the country and people from enemies and invaders can tell us different story about Ethiopia’s intelligent leaders.

    That was not to say everything was perfect and all Amharas were living a happy and prosperous life by suppressing Oromos. There are millions of Amharas that lived worse than people in the south and Oromo people back then and even now. We should not also deny that. Oromos also should share the same types of criticism because they have shaped and made Ethiopia’s politics and sharing of wealth as much.

    There are a lot of good and bad in every one and a good and healthy dialogue is a welcome to everyone and the future generation.
    The best way to come to compromise and understanding is to bring everything out in good faith and correct the mistakes and place a genuine and equally beneficial law of the land. Law and responsibility that applies equally to every individual.

    We have to be wise and civilized enough to see the benefit of having a bigger and united country like every civilized nation and Europe are doing. We do not have to reinvent once proven case that is already being used by those big and prosperous nations.

  2. Corrected guy, You said “First of all there has never been a systematic or institutionalized pressure on Ethiopians to assimilate into Amhara language and culture. The Monarchy ruling and civilization in Ethiopia didn’t start 15 or 30 years ago. It was there before the Birth of Christ and way before many other countries form a formal government. For example I can mention the famous Queen that everyone knows, Queen Sheba. Yes the Monachy was administered under the Orthodox Church which is why it was successful in bringing fear of God, unity and faith in the system…..”

    What kind denial is this in the 21st century. You must be either deceiving yourself, or scared of the real change that is mounting up-front your door. I real appreciate the challenges and constructive criticism portrayed by both writers above Awol Allo and Habte Dafa. This kind of approach is long overdue. We Ethiopians do not need to get ashamed of discussing the past. Because it was done by our past generation the only way they knew how. Then it is our responsibility to correct it, heal the wound it produced and march together to get rid of the TPLF criminals. God bless all.

  3. It is much amazing to read the above old feudal mantra which is nothing but self-declared righteous out of the aged Abyssinian mentality. One needs to grow out of such egotistic narrow perception which brought nothing but miseries and backwardness. First of all not all people accepts one adulterous female (prostitute) travelling beyond Red Sea in-search for male, and coming back to a proud Nation and telling them that she got pregnant or loaded by whoever the womanizer with more than 300 concubines across there, and announced her bastard is the king of the Nation. If you are proud of that, many of us are not. Secondly, the above two intellectuals wrote about how to bridge the existing gap between the Oromo and Amhara people in plain sincerity, but not to putting down or try to double cross each other. So, please come back again when you think you can handle the truth and discuss like an adult.

  4. Do we believe every Scholar?

    Many of the new generation have been victims of TPLF/EPRDF hate and lie built on evil politics. I advice and encourage the new generation to seek advice and education from their grand parents and elders about their past history and experiences.

    Even some of the people we call Scholars are not clean when it comes to history. We have to be systematic and careful when we read or listen to their historical knowledge. We have to ask ourselves who that person is. What that person does or has been involved with. Where that person got his knowledge and how. Why that person seem to care so much. Also pay attention to the outcome of the story if it is going to bring peace or if it is another recipe for disaster which no one wants.

    Because some of them are beneficiaries of the divide and rule policy or tainted with another selfish agenda to invent false history after the fact.

  5. Truth is Missing or Misleading?

    Corrected

    I disagree with you Awol Allo, on some of your comments regarding Ethiopia’s history that you are trying to inject mistrust, and darkness between Oromo and Amharas solidarity that came back after defeating the 25 years old venom of evil Woyane plot.

    First of all there has never been a systematic or institutionalized pressure on Ethiopians to assimilate into Amhara language and culture. The Monarchy ruling and civilization in Ethiopia didn’t start 15 or 30 years ago. It was there before the Birth of Christ and way before many other countries form a formal government. For example I can mention the famous Queen that everyone knows, Queen Sheba. Yes the Monachy was administered under the Orthodox Church which is why it was successful in bringing fear of God, unity and faith in the system.

    Today those countries that came after happen to be in a better shape than Ethiopia that destroyed its successes during Mengistu and now under the Tribal Woyane regime.

    Today Oromos and Amharas are the main targets of Woyane rule and no one except Oromos and Amharas should deal with to drive the hate and darkness out.

    Oromos and Amharas with different religion, songs, dances, food, way of living, language are peaceful people who lived and made Ethiopia a stable and enjoyable place for all kinds of people. Their admired quality of relationship was and envy to Woyane ethnocentric mercenaries. So the first place they attacked is by placing a wadge between those groups so that Woyane will have an easy ride to the Palace, wealth and power.

    Oromos and Amharas have so much in common and have lived and shared very similar tragic repressions, poverty beyond anyone expects, loss of lives and inhuman torture and treatment under Woyane rule.

    Of course there are lots of work waiting to be done. Such as bringing back trust, optimism, openness, equality, understandings, discussions, concessions, compromises, fairness many more work with that is built on good intention for every one.

    So if you are a legitimately concerned person your main concern is should have been how to go forward and support the solidarity of those two main groups to bring about better quality of life as I mentioned above. Not to go back into Woyane like dark ominous evil cloud to perpetuate the disaster and extension of Woyane rule.

    The very important question should be, how to come out of TPLF/EPRDF implemented and targeted impoverishment on Ormos and Amharas.
    How to save Amharas and Oromes lives!!
    How to stop the killings and atrocities on those two groups!
    How every Ethiopian can live equally, respectfully and peacefully!!
    Every problem can be detangled and solved with good intention.

    Ethnicity and language should not be seen as threat to anyone. Every world speaks English to communicate and that didn’t hurt anyone and any body lives in different countries without fear of ethnicity.

    It is only for Woyane and the likes that those are used as tools to divide and kill and control power.

  6. Truth is Missing or Misleading?

    I disagree with you Awol Allo, on some of your comments regarding Ethiopia’s history and trying to inject
    distrust and darkness between Oromo and Amharas solidarity that came out of defeating the 25 years old venom and evil Woyane plot.

    First of all there has never been a systematic or institutionalized pressure on Ethiopians to assimilate into Amhara language and culture. The Monarchy ruling and civilization in Ethiopia didn’t start 15 or 30 years ago. It was there before the Birth of Christ and way before many other countries form a formal government. For example I can mention the famous Queen that every one knows Queen Sheba. Today those countries happen to be in a better shape than Ethiopia that destroyed its successes during Mengistu and now under the Tribal Woyane regime.

    Today Oromos and Amharas are the main target of Woyane rule that no one expect Oromos and Amharas should deal with to bring hate and darkness out.

    Oromos and Amharas with different religion, songs, dances, food, way of living, language are peaceful people who lived and made Ethiopia a stable and enjoyable place for all kinds of people. Their admired quality of relationship was and envy to Woyane ethnocentric mercenaries. So the first place they attacked is by placing a wadge between those groups so that Woyane will have an easy ride to the Palace, wealth and power.

    Oromos and Amharas have so much in common and have lived and shared very similar tragic repressions, poverty beyond anyone expects, loss of lives and inhuman torture and treatment under Woyane rule.

    There is a lot of work waiting to be done. Such as bringing back trust, optimism, openness, equality, understandings, discussions, concessions, compromises, fairness many more work with that is built on good intention for every one.

    So if you are a legitimately concerned person your main concern is should have been how to go forward and support the solidarity of those two main groups to bring about better quality of life as I mentioned above. Not to go back into Woyane like dark ominous evil cloud to perpetuate the disaster and extension of Woyane rule.

    The very important question should be, how to come out of TPLF/EPRDF implemented and targeted impoverishment on Ormos and Amharas.
    How to save Amharas and Oromes lives!!
    How to stop the killings and atrocities on those two groups!
    How every Ethiopian can live equally, respectfully and peacefully!!
    Every problem can be detangled and solved with good intention.

    Ethnicity and language should not be seen as threat to anyone. Every world speaks English to communicate and that didn’t hurt anyone and any body lives in different countries without fear of ethnicity. It is only for Woyane and the likes that those are used as tools to divide and kill and control power.

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