Ethiopia: Adwa and Ethiopian political identity

by Selam
Painting of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia at Battle of Adwa in 1896. (Chris Hellier/Corbis via Getty Images)

By Teshome M. Borago 



After my article last week on the ongoing political drama of selecting a new TPLF puppet minister, i was not eager to write my annual commentary on the Adwa anniversary. But then, I was contacted by friends and encouraged by a few readers who I have never met. So I decided to write, once again, on this historical event that has become the pride of black people worldwide; a display of sheer will, patriotism, of unity, honor, and one of the greatest achievements of good vs evil: the 1896 Ethiopian victory at the Battle of Adwa against an European super power. 


As we celebrate the 122nd anniversary of Adwa, I urge all Ethiopians to visualize how historical events shaped our political identity. One of the readers who asked me if I was going to write again about Adwa this week lives in Oromia. He is from Ambo city and actively involved in the #OromoProtests movement. Last year, this man told me his political thinking was changed after reading my March 2017 article titled “Adwa: when Oromos fought Italy as Abyssinians.


 He said, before reading my article, he never thought of himself as an “Abyssinian-Oromo,” because he did not know that many Afan Oromo speaking communities existed in Raya, Gondar and Wollo and mixed with other citizens of former Abyssinia for centuries. Knowledge is certainly power.


One of the benefits of the digital age is that even people in the rural Ethiopia are now being exposed to extensive information. Their sources of information is not limited to voices inside the local tribal community anymore. Many young Oromos today are finally learning that both Emperor Menelik and Emperor Haileselassie were mixed Oromos. Many young Oromos today are learning that not only Emperor Menelik’s Shewan Oromo allies but also Abyssinian-Oromos in the north were part of the Ethiopian society for centuries and thus played a major role during the Battle of Adwa. This historical fact was purposely hidden by the elites and creators of Oromo nationalism since the 1960s. The goal of ethnic nationalist elites was to empower their ethnic people, but they had to divide Ethiopians to achieve that goal. So it is the duty of every peace loving Ethiopian to spread the true history of our nation. 


After discussing my old article, he concluded that it is now time for his fellow Oromo speaking Ethiopians to once again participate in making Ethiopia victorious and great again. It is better to improve the future of Oromos by fixing the whole Ethiopia. While he still believes that Oromo language and culture have been marginalized for too long; he told me that “Being an Oromo nationalist should never mean being anti-Ethiopia” since Oromos bled and died to create and defend modern Ethiopia. 

I believe, not only Oromos but also all other Ethiopians must be proud of their ancestors who fought at Adwa for the freedom of Ethiopia and who inspired black independence movements in Africa and worldwide. 


It is important today that more ethnic nationalists go thru similar stages of a post-Menelik “Ethiopian Identity Development” (EID). For these Ethiopians, the last 60 years particularly have been a harsh period of denial of their own Ethiopiawinet. Some attempted to reject their Ethiopianness based on a wild variety of isolated incidents and tales passed down from generations. They were stuck in the middle stages of the EID model, where ethnic elites used existing grievances to advance polarized political agenda. During these past decades, many ethnic nationalists propagated extremist views and used historical fallacies. They wrote books, broadcasted radios and spoke publicly in a hyperbole language to spread anti-Ethiopia sentiment and bitterness. 


Did all ethnic elites used such propaganda to instigate animosity between people in order to instigate genocidal act? Absolutely No.  I believe some ethnic elites are well-meaning and peace-loving people. I believe the ethnic elites use these polarizing tactics as a means of mobilization for their cause; NOT as a means to spread people-to-people hate. Thanks to my late Oromo grand father from Welega, I have actually met many early members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF.) It might surprise many people today, that some of these past OLF leaders and members that my grand father associated with were actually mixed-Oromos with ancestors partially from other linguistic groups (and some of them were intermarried with other ethnicity). So technically, many of them were not even “full Oromo” by ancestry. But they made a conscious decision to be “politically Oromo.” They were not born or even raised Oromo nationalists; they gradually decided to be one. What made these ethnic nationalists adopt such political identity were usually shocking events in their lives (like witnessing discrimination firsthand in school or at work) which triggered their transformation. These negative life experiences inside the Ethiopian state usually took a life of their own and became Exhibit A, B and C of why ethnic self-exclusion (thus narrow nationalism) appeared attractive for many marginalized Ethiopians as a way to counter perceived systematic ethnic inequalities. 


However, the truth is the Ethiopian state did not systematically and intentionally establish ethnic inequality in the 20th century, until the TPLF arrived in 1991 when it receimposed ethnic-segregation. Even the OPDO has admitted this fact to be true. Earlier this year, Lemma Megersa and the OPDO executive published a surprising statement clarifying their political position. According to the statement, OPDO believes that the oppression that existed in Ethiopian history was “class-based” and not ethnic based. (A position that is opposite from the ideology of TPLF) This progressive OPDO statement is important in shaping the Ethiopian Identity Development (EID) of millions of young Oromos in Ethiopia. This OPDO ideology sets up the ideological foundation to remove the apartheid ethnic-federalism structure overtime and gradually reignite the unity of Ethiopians by breaking artificial tribal barriers.


In general, what all of these developments prove is that current day ethnic identities are mostly social construct. They are “political identities.” They can be unlearned and unmade just as fast as they were made. That does not mean diverse linguistic and cultural characteristics can and should ever be unlearned. Only the political portion of these identities should be removed. The same way the World today sees “political Islam” as a threat to modern society; it is vital that Ethiopians (and Africa ) also view ethnic politics as a threat: as an obstacle to peace and democracy. As western society seeks to detach politics from Islam, we should also de-ethnicised politics in Ethiopia. In this effort, the symbolism of Adwa is important to develop our Ethiopian political identity. Just as many unfortunate historical events have created the ethnic grievances that justified creating political ethnic identities (ethnic nationalism) over the last few decades in Ethiopia; now, we must look back to the Battle of Adwa as an inspiration; as one of those historical events that reignite our Ethiopian political identity and restore our Ethiopian nationalism. 



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