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Why a national dialogue in Ethiopia would fail & why it would succeed in a sovereign Oromia

By Soretti Kadir - a storyteller, facilitator, and an activist

Originally published by Media Ko:

Find Media Ko on social media: @mediaoneko

Reprinted with permission from the author.

A national dialogue or nationwide community dialogue is often promoted as the most productive path when a society is divided by beliefs, experiences, desires and destinies. In the case of Ethiopia, a national dialogue does not have the capacity to bridge the divides that exist in perceptions of history and its impact on current power and societal dynamics. However, a nationwide community dialogue convened in a sovereign Oromia republic could see this divide finally healed. I argue so for three key reasons. 

Firstly, for dialogue to create a story that can open opposing sides to the common humanity of the other, there needs to be an acceptance of one or more foundational truths. The foundational truth of the Oromo as it relates to the construction of the Ethiopian state is one that contradicts what promoters of Ethiopian nationalism believe is an uncompromisable truth of the founding of the Ethiopian state – that all people living within the boundaries of Ethiopia take a singular national expression as an intimate and personal identity. This truth is perceived as strengthening the Ethiopian national body politic and the rejection of this is seen as an effort to destabilize this same political construct.

Secondly, the Ethiopian state, from its inception until this very moment in time, has actively participated in emboldening the normalisation of anti-Oromo sentiment. This is in contradiction to the spirit of a constitution recognizing that Ethiopia is a multinational federation. The state has demonized high profile and grassroots leaders who promote a multinational agenda.

This leads to the final reason as to why national dialogue convened within the framework of the Ethiopian state will fail. Despite the right of people to identify more or less strongly with the national identity of their choosing within a multinational country, all attempts at dialogue happening now will center the Ethiopian identity as the common and most important denominator, dismissing that for many, identifying as “Ethiopian” is neither a priority, a need, or a part of any genuine process of healing.

In a sovereign Oromia, the state’s conceptual and practical power will take the truth of the Oromo from the margins and establish it as a common narrative in a way that takes diverse people through its narration educationally, compassionately, and authentically. By nature of something new being born, a sovereign Oromia has the opportunity to create a new community narrative that, backed by legitimization of the state, can build common ground without compromising on the Oromo’s, or any other people’s, right to be who they are. 

Creating Ethiopia was not a benevolent process. It did not involve willing parties sitting at a table and deciding that they would now like to come together under the Ethiopian umbrella. It was a brutal process of colonisation and displacement brought upon diverse and sovereign people in the southern, eastern, and western directions of the horn of Africa region. One of these peoples, the largest people in terms of population size, was the Oromo. Since monarchical rulers like Tedrows and Menelik II colonised the Oromo, there have been many forms of organized resistance against this imposed rule. The initial resistance to the earlier Abyssinian rulers did not subside because the Oromo mass saw that it was in their benefit to join the colonizing people in their nation-building project. Instead, it began to subside (only to resume with the next generation) because, despite fierce resistance, the onslaught was costing too much life. This is important to understand because there has never been a moment where the Oromo mass accepted that the Ethiopian nation-building project belonged to or served them until the rise of PM Abiy Ahmed

Abiy represented the opportunity that perhaps, despite the project of Ethiopia never seeing the Oromo mass as more than it could subject, things could change with Abiy, who was put in power by a grassroots movement led by Oromo youth and farmers and eventually joined by people in other regions in Ethiopia. That hope disappeared once Abiy’s idea of reconciliation revealed itself to be a regurgitation of the same story: forget what happened, you’re Ethiopian now, and the people who massacred your people to bring you Ethiopia should exist in our memory as a singular reality – as heroes.

Dialogue is predicated on the hope that when multiple truths emerge, a negotiation of emotional realities takes place to find a relationship between experiences that can honor all. It requires letting go of the old and creating something new, together. As one person, I believed that we could let go of our old imagination of Ethiopia and bring forth something entirely novel. I invested time and energy in manufacturing a dialogue framework of my own and pitching to anybody that would listen in Finfinnee, the country’s capital. I believed that once others understood how the founding of Ethiopia resonated with such a large portion of the people within its borders, our negotiations would surely lead us to desire the formation of new collective memories, to wanting genuine safety and justice for each other, and to the putting aside of the centralization of figures that could never be celebrated by your average Oromo, Sidama, or Somali household. It is not that Ethiopia can not eventually get there. It’s that in the context of how much people need a narrative that does not afford the Oromo a dignified place in the story of Ethiopia, the deep systemic – and community-level transformation needed will take generations. In that process, the Oromo who advocate for themselves as unapologetically Oromo, those who defend their lands and even those who do not show up with this vocality or visibility, will experience displacement, killing, torture, and marginalization. 

I just can’t imagine, considering the costs, that waiting it out could possibly be worth it. If the Oromo were to secure sovereignty over their lands, they would be in a systemic position to rewrite the story of who they are. I do not underestimate that this too will be a delicate process as there are millions of people of other ethnicities who call Oromia home. However, I believe that a story that is unapologetic about who the Oromo are, what they experienced in becoming assimilated into Ethiopia, and how that has led to the need of uncompromisable sovereignty is possible in a way that takes others on an authentic journey about the truth of the lands that they now call home.

If the state tells a different story, then the power dynamics can hold space for a new narrative to emerge and if that happens, I believe that the quality of the relationship between people of different language groups and ethnicities may have a real chance of being strengthened upon values of egalitarianism and humanity. What we have to realize in considering the value of this argument is that on the part of the Oromo, it is not, nor has it ever been, a finding of common humanity in the Ethiopian national identity that has kept peace between the Oromo and non-Oromos, as Ethiopianists and the state would like the world to believe. It has been the Oromo’s binding reverence of Safuu – the belief that in all moments is the need to protect and uphold a universal balance. This is what has made co-existence in Oromia possible. It is this same reverence of Safuu that requires us to now rectify one of the most significant imbalances that exists within the reality of the Oromo – the displacement from our lands, resources and Oromoness. 

The assassination by the Ethiopian state of popular Oromo artist and activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa in late June 2020, the politically motivated arrest of Oromo politicians, journalists, activists and the extrajudicial killing, imprisonment and torture of politically active and non-politically active Oromo people across Oromia is a part of Ethiopian state culture. In an attempt to find a mechanism that could open up the national project of Ethiopia to people of diverse national identities, the 1995 constitution articulated a multinational framework and governance model for the Ethiopian state. In theory, this should have levelled the playing field and cultivated respect for regional sovereignty. The federal apparatus would have become a sort of roundtable where regions participated in shared rule and the genuine representation and negotiation of regional interests within this political centre. The multinational structure is an unrealised dream and the opportunity for this hope to be revived has been dangerously depleted by the systemic effort of the Ethiopian state to create an image of the Oromo as a whole, and in particular, of those protective of the Oromo national interest, as sub-human and unthinking.

This kind of assault is not something that one bounces back from. Its impact transcends generations and leaves a people and story stuck in a resistant position. In the case of the Oromo lands and people in Ethiopia, this narrative makes the ungoverned and unchecked exploitation of Oromo land and resources possible. If advocating the Oromo national interest is seen as borderline demonic and the saving grace is the further assimilation of the Oromo into the unitary Ethiopian state, then there is nobody to protect the agricultural and small business community in Oromia. There is no frame of reference that recognizes that cultural and economic sovereignty that matters.

When I look at other struggles against cultural and economic imperialism around the world, I wonder if other oppressed peoples had the chance to free themselves entirely from governance and storytelling frameworks that see them as collateral, would they wait? I don’t know, because it is also the best of human nature to remain patient on the course of collective transformation, but I think that it is equally beautiful to stand upright and say, enough is enough, I deserve to live free now, not tomorrow, not with the dream of freedom, but I deserve to live in the reality of freedom, now. Stories are compelling, and the story that has permeated the Ethiopian consciousness over the last 60 days and, in different forms, the last 100+ years, is a story that protects the idea that Ethiopianism in Ethiopia equals the best of humanity and anything competing equals the worst of humanity. This is the primary story of the state and its various apparatuses. No genuine dialogue can occur within such a  framework.

If national dialogue were to occur in the sovereign Republic of Oromia tomorrow, I think that the goal would not be to create a subversive or overt path for non-Oromo people to find and define themselves in the Oromo national identity. Instead, it would be purposed to, at a grassroots level, resolve dehumanizing and othering representations of people to each other to enable individual and collective healing and to create measures that act as organic barriers between communities and violence, in the future. Ideally, we would know of the success of this dialogue, not by the extent of the assimilation of identities, but by the successful integration of new dominant truths and stories, creating an opportunity for a nationalistic comradeship and solidarity over assimilation or submission. If national dialogue were to happen in Ethiopia tomorrow, it would hold no water because of the political persecution of Oromo political leaders, the ten thousand plus Oromo people currently being held illegally, and the extrajudicial killings in Oromia that, instead of being held to account, have been rationalized by the state.

But let us imagine that a national dialogue was still to be convened in Ethiopia despite all of the above. The goal would not be to create space for the acceptance of a multinational framework. It would hold the Ethiopian identity at the center, as the common ground, and success would be predicated on the strengthening of the ongoing assimilation process. The ends, in this context, immobilize and make valueless the means. The functionality of dialogue depends on the readiness of the conveners of this dialogue, and all of its participants, to embrace new truths. With the Oromo still experiencing the state as a colonial body, resistance politics feel essential to survival. And with the colonial body uninterested in relinquishing its exploitatory status over the Oromo and other nations, how can it arrive at a dialogue with the capacity to take from it, direction for the kind of deep-seated transformation that is required for Ethiopia to become an entity free of its violent past, and belonging anew to all that live within its borders? It can not. To wait another decade or so for it to be ready to, is not a price that I think the Oromo, or any other nation in Ethiopia, should have to pay. 

The Oromo concept of Safuu sees true togetherness as possible only when true sovereignty is honoured. It makes sense: how can I be connected to you when there is no whole me? Only I can tell you of my wholeness, that which gives me dignity and strength, this can not be decided for me. The conversation about self-determination is often considered politically, but it is first and foremost a matter of humanity. For dialogue to be productive for everyone, people must arrive within their power, and that power should never be formed at the expense of weakening others that come to the table. The goal should not be maintaining something old, but creating something new, and that only works if each party is as interested in the maintenance of the other’s humanity as they are in maintaining their own. None of these pre-conditions can be fulfilled in the Ethiopia we know today, nor, in reading all political activities indicating the direction in which Ethiopia is growing, should we expect it, at least without extreme loss of life in the next decade. In the new Republic of Oromia, the hope for this conversation to contribute to the initial nation-building efforts is more realistic. With the right dialogue practitioners, planning and nuanced execution, a national spirit that is honest about the past, respectful of diversity and collaborative in its future-making is possible to nurture. Oromo values exist not just to serve Oromo’s, but when they flourish, they will create a society of equal standing for all who respect these values. In the context where the Oromo interest over land and livelihood is less compromised (we still have work to do in protecting against vicious capitalist interest), the Oromo identity no longer living on the margins and under subjugation, and this new governmental paradigm protecting against any other identity ever experiencing the same marginalisation, we can imagine a political environment less in need of ethnic-based nationalism. With this kind of freedom, who knows what kind of political thought and vision may emerge from within communities? But before we can talk about building national consensus via dialogue, we have got to get free from the colonial empire that has tried and failed to fashion itself as a democracy. 

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