On July 19, 2019, 145 Ethiopians, calling themselves “concerned Ethiopians” published a communique in the form of an open letter to all Ethiopians and the international community. The ostensible purpose of the communique was to warn their compatriots and the wider international community that “Ethiopia is on the precipice of civil conflict, and perhaps civil war and possible genocide that are triggered and championed by ethnic elites, fundamentalists and their foreign sponsors.”
Furthermore, “For more than 40 years, the primary target of ethno-demonization, killings, ethnic cleansing, forcible evictions, abductions and recurring displacements has been the Amhara population.”
And lastly, “Ethnic suspicion, hatred, fear and division have been normalized and propagated primarily by the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front) that had issued a Manifesto in 1968 declaring that the Amhara people are enemies of the people of Tigray.”
There is one truth in this communique. Ethiopia is on a dangerous path towards state collapse and disintegration. The lawlessness that pervades certain parts of the country—including the Amhara Region—poses an unassailable threat to the existence of the current Ethiopian nation-state.
The rest of the communique is the weaponization of false victimhood.
There is truth in portraying the Amhara as victims. Can anyone dispute the oppression of the Amhara peasant by poverty? The oppression of the Oromo peasant by poverty? The oppression of the Tigrayan peasant by poverty? The oppression of the Somali pastoralist by poverty? The oppression of any of the 110 million Ethiopians still living below the poverty line is real. Ethiopia’s enemy is poverty.
Ethiopia has other enemies as well. These enemies are the elites inside and outside of Ethiopia who squander the luxury of their education and professional status to engage in pedantic and sophistic exercises of false victimhood. These elites refuse to confront Ethiopia’s real enemy—poverty—and instead write communiques that revive old political scores in a never-ending path cycle of self-aggrandizement.
The oppression of Amhara elites living inside Ethiopia is not real. The oppression of the Amhara elites living in Western capitals all around the world is not real. What is real is the appropriation of victimhood by the Amhara elites and their all-consuming quest for power.
Tensions among ethnic groups in Ethiopia are not the result of ethnic federalism. These tensions have a historical basis. The Macha-Tulema Association articulated a sense of powerlessness, exclusion and even humiliation by the dominant Amhara-centered state and culture. There were two weyene rebellions against this same system. The Somalis, the Afar and the various nationalities of the south had never felt a sense of equal citizenship in Ethiopia.
The “national question”—once the root of the fractiousness among student groups in the 1960s and 1970s—was resolved by the ethnic federalist arrangement.
Ethnic federalism was a structural response to Ethiopia’s “periphery” that made the most sense given the country’s multinational population and a long history of domination by one group. Is it perfect? No. No system is perfect. The irony here today is that ethnic federalism is the thing keeping Ethiopia from falling off the precipice of ethnic conflict and state collapse.
The hostility expressed by these “concerned” Ethiopians is simply a code for antagonism against a system that grants rights to nations, nationalities and peoples in an arrangement that stresses the voluntary nature of membership in a nation state. Article 39, which gives nationals, nationalities and peoples the right to self-determination, including the right to secede, is unambiguous in its intentions. No one group should dominate the body politic without risking the secession of those dissatisfied with the state.
This notion that Amhara elites have been oppressed by the very fact that they, as a group, are not in charge is nonsense. It is a reflection of privilege and entitlement enjoyed by an elite who demonstrate a lack of self-awareness and a refusal to let go of their ethno-nationalist bias. The fact that they raise the specter of a Manifesto published in 1968—when most of the TPLF leadership were teenagers—is evidence of the paucity of their facts and the hollowness of their argument.
Ethiopia is facing a crisis today. The signatories of this communique are abusing their privileged status to promote dangerous ideas that contribute nothing to the critical discourse needed to resolve the tensions of contemporary Ethiopia. Their demand to release the people arrested for their participation in the murder of their own regional leadership and the country’s Defense Chief of Staff brings to mind the release of General Asimenew, from serving time for plotting against the former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. His ill-conceived release set forward a chain of events that brings the country several steps closer to state collapse and disintegration.
There is no space in Ethiopia’s political environment for the narrow nationalism of Amhara elites—or any other group—to pour oil on the flames of ethnic tension.
The time is now to put to rest this idea that ethnic federalism is the cause of ethnic tension; that Amhara elites have been marginalized; and that the TPLF is the cause for the problems today.
The student movement is over. The time for sophisticated thinking about how to move forward and build on what’s been accomplished in the last 27 years is now. Weaponizing victimhood is an ill-fitting suit suits that needs to be discarded in favor of something new.
By Elias Dawit