Ethnicity is not about Descent

by Messay Kebede
This short article refers to the ongoing heated debate about Fikre Tolossa’s book on the origin of Oromo and Amhara. My intention is not to intervene in the debate by supporting this or that side; nor is it to contribute a missing piece to the debate. I openly confess that I have not read the book; more yet, I do not intend to read it. By contrast, I have read some of the reviews, which clearly indicated to me that the dispute has to do more with ideological positions than with scientific accuracy. Those who reject the book denounce the lack of credible materials in support of the allegation of a common origin of Amhara and Oromo; those who defend the book do so because it counters the discourse of secessionist Oromo who speak of the Ethiopian colonization of the Oromo.

Mesay Kebede

I say the whole debate is ideological because veracity matters little for the issue at hand. The supporters of the idea of a common origin think that it will significantly decrease the ethnic tension between Oromo and Amhara. If Oromo and Amhara are related, then the arguments of secessionist Oromo go down in flames. On the other hand, those who maintain that the idea of a common origin is just a fantasy actually share the same assumption only to say that the idea is unfortunately untrue. They do believe that the attempt to base Ethiopian unity on a fantasy is a dangerous game if only because it misunderstands and underestimates the Oromo grievances. Still, instead of confronting the supporters of the idea of a common origin with political arguments, they try to refute the scientific value of the book. In so doing, not only do they miss the political dimension of ethnic conflicts, but they also engage in a genealogical argument as though things would have been different if indeed Oromo and Amhara had the same origin.
The bare truth is that ethnic conflict is not about having or not having a common origin, religion, or language. Take the case of the Somali: you have literally people with almost identical features in what defines them as a distinct group. Yet the Somali state collapsed and was replaced by smaller hostile states. Another highly relevant example is the growing hostility between Amhara and Tigreans: though they formed a political union that goes back centuries and share crucial defining features, many Tigreans consider themselves as a separate nation. The conflict between Sunnites and Shiites is another example: the identity of race and language could not prevent the proliferation of hostile divisions in the Arab world over an issue that can be considered minor.
One could multiply examples proving that ethnic conflict is less about genealogy and more about politics. Equally obvious is that the appropriate response to a political issue can only be political. To turn it into a genealogical dispute is to evade the issue altogether. And in saying that it is political, one essentially involves elites and their competition for the control of power. That politics is about elites, mere common sense establishes it for the simple reason that two ordinary people living side by side have no cause to quarrel. Why would the fact that the Oromo speak a different language and have different customs antagonize the Amhara or vice versa, unless there is an underlying competition for the control of power?  If you take away the desire to rule, control, and expand, you have no business with politics. The old Marx knew this: he specifically attributed the rise of the state to the emergence of classes.
The whole method of ethnic politics is to construe cultural characteristics into an instrument of organization and mobilization, as confirmed by the expression “politicization of ethnicity.” Elites invent discourses whereby what is just a legitimate and apolitical cultural difference turns into a reason for hostility, mostly through dichotomic valorization contriving the superiority or inferiority of a given culture. The invention of suspicion and hostility enables elites to call for the unification and mobilization of ethnic groups under their leadership and for the control of power to assert or counter the claim to superiority. Once this stage of mobilization is reached, the attempt to dilute or disprove ethnic mobilization is little efficient. Not only is such a solution inadequate, but more importantly, it is also dangerous because it is inappropriate.
The real and only solution is political means the reaching of a viable consensus among competing elites. The consensus must be about power-sharing prior to any election or the verdict of the people. Election cannot be used to marginalize or eliminate rival elites, especially if these elites come from minority ethnic groups. The role of election must be to legitimize the consensus that was reached and make it operational in terms of governmental organization and legislation. Accordingly, the process requires the establishment of democratic rights allowing elites to freely speak and compete while an equally free popular verdict delivers the final arbitration so that the competition between elites remain peaceful. In a word, it is about real decentralization of power by which alone competing elites can have a say in the running of the country.

0 Comments

  1. The old Marx knew what? Was that Karl Marx? I could not believe what I was reading. Is this writer still infected with that deadly disease of ‘Dialectical Materialism? I guess once you are a commie you will die a commie.

  2. Dr. Messay Kebede is one of the very few true scholars Ethiopia have ever produced. Please keep up the great job you are doing. your strength is needed to narrow the gap between the two major nations of the country. Thank you.

  3. Prof. Mesay,
    I wanted to thank you for this piece but I did not. Here are my reasons.
    First, I hate the word “ethnic” and the characterization of its politics as “ethnicity” because it is invariably (but cleverly) used to undermine the cause of people with national question. Nationalists that frame and advance national question are also seen in the same light. Much worse are Amaric words such as “gööte” and “zëëwge” taken as equivalent to “ethnic”, the politics as “göötegnet” and “zëëwgegnet” as if words “bëëher” and “bëëhertegna” do not exist. Oromo as well as Amara are nations; there are many others too in Ethiopia. I often see guys in the “unionist” camp use “ethnic” and “ethnicity”, “gööte” and “zëëwge” in a disgusting derogation. In the above piece, Prof. Mesay uses the “e” word. In fact, he has used the Amaric words too in several talks he gave. Now the use of the “e” word is so widespred that not only “unionists” but nationalists as well use (rather misuse)it. The effect is relegating an importan issued to undermine the cause of nationalists. It is a .
    Lexicology aside, I do not understand why Prof. Mesay does not want to read Dr. Fekre’s book. As academic, it makes sense if he declines to “intervene in the debate by supporting this or that side”, but to say “I’ll not read it” because “reviews” have shown me what to expect is terribly unprofessoral. Rather than arrogantly reject a book about which much is said and written, I would expect the professor to read it (even reread it if there be the need) and raise his incisive pen to disect facts and conclusions to teach others. Here is a catch: despite what he says in public, I have a hunch he will read it. It is all about the common origin of the Oromo and Amara which I find an impressive work. We’re all Homo sapiens who emerged in presnet day Ethiopia before we branched into the Cushetic (Oromo) and Semetic (Amara) socio-cultural and lingusic communities. None us came from far except we’re mixed with new comers such as Arabs and Nilotic people. Be it a myth or other, anything that indicates the common ancestor of the two major nations is good.
    To say “whole debate (on Dr. Fekre’s book) is ideological” is to be an out and out reductionist. Seeing the discussion on the book as an attempt by “Oromo and Amhara” nationalists to make their point of “common origin” or “oneness” by capturing the entire discussion by one word i.e. “ideology” emanates from not knowing what the book is all about. If and when you read this point, you might say – “here goes another idiot” – but the truth of the matter is the book is important contribution that must be read. It has depth and bredth than the way nationalists see their respective causes; it is about Ethiopia, its origin and people.
    What prof. Mesay calls “ethnicity” (which I call nationalism) is indeed about having or not having a common origin, religion, or language. In fact, it is a lot more than that which I will not dwell on at the moment. Scotish, Catalonian and Quebecois nationalism are about all the things you fails to see as nationalism. These nations all live in a mature democracy (in the U.K., Spain and Canada respectively) but they want to be recognized as nations and have their own country. Scotts have no quarrel with the Irish, Walesh or British, but they want a country. The same is to true to Catalonians and Quebecois. That’s why some people say your suggested solution that democracy solves national issue is wrong. Don’t tell me the millions of Scotts and Quebecois who had a referendum were manipulated by elites into believing that they need a separate state. Democracy might have prevented separation, but both referendums show that almost half the populations of the nations need a separate country. I have trouble with an acadmemic like Dr. Messay who reduce national question to elite dysfunction. Elites frame issues and advance the question, but they do not make decisions; people do. Rather than lament the role of elites, it is better to study how U.K. and Canada remined united. It is definetly not by castigating elites who frame issues and advance nationalism and not even by denying people the right to self-determination. Prof. look into how they did it.
    Somalia cannot be an example to refute national issue.
    The worst part of Prof. Mesay’s opinion is the last paragraph which concludes his write-up. He says: “the real and only solution is political means the reaching of a viable consensus among competing elites. The consensus must be about power-sharing prior to any election”. Again, it is sad how learned people miss the depth and width of nationalism. Prof. Mesay’s suggestion is bribery. Elites are after power and give them their shre and the issue of nationalism will disappear. I sicerely doubt if nationalism is about sharing power although some elites might have such hidden interest. But an entire nation cannot be corrupted by sharing power. You cannot tell a nation that you are part of the power now and expect national issue to go away. It is about having a country or no country.

  4. Prof. Mesay,
    I wanted to thank you for this piece but I did not. Here are my reasons.
    First, I hate the word “ethnic” and the characterization of its politics as “ethnicity” because it is invariably (but I would say cleverly) used to undermine the cause of people with national question. Nationalists that frame and advance national question are also seen in the same light denigrating them. Much worse are Amaric words such as “zëër”, “gööte” and “zëëwge” taken as equivalent to “ethnic”, the politics as “zëëregenet”, “göötegnet” and “zëëwgegnet” as if words “bëëher” and “bëëhertegenet” do not exist. Oromo as well as Amara are nations; there are many others too in Ethiopia. I often see guys in the “unionist” camp use “ethnic” and “ethnicity”, “zëër”, “gööte” and “zëëwge” in derogation. In the above piece, Prof. Mesay uses the “ethnic” which I will call from now onwards as the “e” word. In fact, he has used the Amaric words too in several talks he gave. Now the use of the “e” word is so widespred that not only “unionists” but nationalists as well use (rather misuse)it. The effect is relegating an importan issued to all stake holders particularly with intention to undermine the cause of nationalists. I feel it is a disgrace.
    Second, lexicology aside, I do not understand why Prof. Mesay does not want to read Dr. Fekre’s book. As an established academic, it makes sense if he declines to “intervene in the debate by supporting this or that side”, but to say “I’ll not read it” because “reviews” have shown me what to expect is terribly unprofessorial. Rather than arrogantly reject a book about which much is being said and written, I would expect the professor to read it (even reread it if there be the need) and raise his incisive pen to disect facts to teach others. Here is a catch, though. Despite what Prof.Mesay says in public, I have a hunch that he will read it. Personally, I found it an impressive work because it is all about the common origin of the Oromo and Amara. Anthropologically speaking, we’re all Homo sapiens who existed in presnet day Ethiopia before we branched into the Cushetic (Oromo, Somali and Afar) and Semetic (Amara and Tigre) socio-cultural and lingusic communities. None us came from far except we’re mixed with new comers such as Arabs, Nilo saharan and Omotic people. Be it a myth or other, anything that suggests the common ancestor of the two major nations is good.
    Third, to say the “whole debate (on Dr. Fekre’s book) is ideological” is to be an out and out reductionist. Seeing the discussion on the book as an attempt by “Oromo and Amhara” nationalists to make their point of “common origin” or “oneness” by capturing the entire discussion by one word i.e. “ideology” emanates from not knowing what the book is all about. If and when Prof. Mesay reads the observation, he might say – “here goes another idiot” – but the truth of the matter is the book is important contribution that must be read. It has depth and bredth than the way nationalists see their respective causes; it is about Ethiopia, its origin and its people.
    Fourth, what prof. Mesay calls “ethnicity” (which I call nationalism) is indeed, though partly, about having or not having a common origin, religion, or language. In fact, it is a lot more than that which I will not dwell on at the moment. Scotish, Catalonian and Quebecois nationalism are about all the things you fail to see as nationalism. These nations all live in a mature democracy (in the U.K., Spain and Canada respectively) but they want to be recognized as nations and have their own country. Scotts have no quarrel with the Irish, Walesh or British, but they want a country. The same is to true to Catalonians and Quebecois. That’s why some people say your suggested solution that democracy solves national issue is only a part of the solution. It makes no sense to say millions of Scotts and Quebecois who had a referendum were manipulated by elites into believing that they need a separate state. Democracy might have prevented separation, but both referendums show that almost half the populations of the nations voted for a separate country. I have trouble with an acadmemic like Dr. Messay who reduce national question to elite dysfunction. Elites frame issues and advance the question, but they do not make decisions; people do. Rather than lament the role of elites, it is better to study how U.K. and Canada remined united. It is definetly not by castigating elites who frame and advance nationalism and not even by denying people the right to self-determination. The good Prof. should look look into how unity is preserved where there is nascent nationalism.
    No need to comment on Somalia since it cannot be an example to refute national issue.
    Fifth, the worst part of Prof. Mesay’s opinion is the last paragraph which concludes his write-up. He says: “the real and only solution is political means the reaching of a viable consensus among competing elites. The consensus must be about power-sharing prior to any election”. Again, it is sad how learned people miss the depth and width of nationalism. Prof. Mesay’s suggestion is to bribe the elites. He says elites are after power and give them their share and the issue of nationalism will go away. I sicerely doubt if nationalism is about sharing power although some elites might have such hidden interest. But an entire nation with its constituent population cannot be corrupted by sharing power. That’s what happened in U.K. and Canada. You cannot simply tell a nation that you are part of power sharing and expect them to be content. It is about having a country or no country.
    Finally, unionist elites should come up with a real solution to national issue in Ethiopia beyond corrupting nationalists with power sharing. That path is undemocratic and bound to fail. How about studying the experience of U.K. and Canada than look for a quick which will never work?

  5. You know what, I am always suspicious of Dr Messay, I even wrote comment months ago labeling him OLF sympathizer. Honestly I did not know he is Gurage, wow I smelled rats. Have you noticed prof Mesfin hates Amharas? he never mentions his background other than saying he was born in Addis and education background, I recently learned that he got Adawa and Eri background, hmmmmmmm? no wonder he was close friend of Kinffe, he likes praising Essayas Afewerki. Oh my God too many enemies of Amharas, I am also suspicious of Al Mariam. By the way I like Dr Tolosa for his effort and good intention, he is real Ethiopian beyond ethnicity.

  6. You guys are simply wasting your time with this pseudo-intellectual with his voodoo-philosophy; he has no concept of history of this ancient nation; he has lifted Marxist’s idiomatic expressions of nation state and applied it to our agrarian society and you have innocently accept it a universal phenomena; he is an idiotic demagogue and some one should reply to this non sense and put the national questions of Ethiopia into perspective. Zelalem

  7. Aleneger, Ittu Aba Farda, Ketema, and Zelalem Me[n]gistu; Please refrain from character assassination. Follow the example of Shegitu Dadi who argued to refute the substance conveyed in Prf. Messay Kebede’s article.
    Having said that, let me say a few words on Prof Messay’s ideas. For the Professor the elites are determining forces, period. What an elite determinism philosophy! This philosophy disregards the role the masses play. According to the “logic” of the prof, the Oromo and Amhara up rises happened because the elites had consensus. Once the elites take control of power in Ethiopia, political problems in this country are settled. He writes, “The real and only solution is political means the reaching of a viable consensus among competing elites”. Elites may be catalysts by promoting ideas, bad or good. The bad ones could lead to blood shade, as it happened in Ethiopia by the elites of the 60s and 70s. They don’t have a determining role. Prof goes on, “The consensus must be about power-sharing prior to any election or the verdict of the people”. NO sir, the will of the people through ballots prior to power sharing of elites should come first. Then elites’ views, literature, culture, art, science etc flourish.
    Professor’s subtle insinuation says, “The invention of suspicion and hostility enables elites to call for the unification and mobilization of ethnic groups under their leadership and for the control of power to assert or counter the claim to superiority”. In here the prof wants us to make minuscule the struggle of the dying Amharas trying to organize and save themselves from annihilation. For him, the exposure of the plights of the Oromos and Amharas is the mere invention and suspicion of the elites in their struggle for power and superiority. Prof, please listen to or read, any news media you think is credible, so that you may get a glimpse of what the situation in Ethiopia looks like.
    Prof tells us that, “…ethnic mobilization is little efficient.” and “… it is also dangerous because it is inappropriate”. Really? Prof, how do you think the small minority ethnic groups in the southern part of Ethiopia, eg. the Wolyitas, Kembatas, Gurages, Konsos, etc survived for generations the incursion or invasion by one or the other large or small neighboring ethnic groups for any reason? They have asserted their existence through appropriate mobilization of their cultural, language, and other resources. Not by the consensus of their elites, Prof!

  8. Samma from Nashville:
    I did not character assassinate the writer but he did it to himself. What does the following sentence in his article mean? “The old Marx knew this: he specifically attributed the rise of the state to the emergence of classes.” The theories of Karl Marx and his followers brought nothing but disaster on this good earth including our own old country. Wasn’t that demon Mengistu flapping his stinking mouth with ‘Marxism or death’ while he was butchering the future and cream puffs of the society in the 1970’s? Just curious, where was this professor in the 1970’s and 80’s? Was he one of those dear-at-heart professors that Mengistu adored then? Where was he? I was here and never heard of him until after Meles and his leftist hooligans marched into Addis(Finfine). I tell you one thing and I hope you will not mind listening to me. If you utter any reference righting any theory from Marx or his followers you will be relegated to a dog house in my book. Such creatures are those who had been and still are raising the name of The Lord Our Creator in vain. I remember quite a few of them from the 1960’s. They were busy gabbling and gathering up this demonic philosophy and took with them to the old country. There they found virgin and raw minds(psyche) in the youth and we know what happened. There came OLF, MEISON, EPRP, TPLF, EPLF and many other political groupings pushing and peddling in one form or another the very tenets of this devilish creed. All of them went at each other’s throat and in the throes of destructive fracas millions of the youth and able bodied section of the society was butchered like there was no tomorrow. There was not a single family that was not adversely affected by the senseless carnage. I myself have lost members of close relatives and highly educated individuals for whom I had my highest regards for their academic achievements. I still mourn their untimely demise. There is nothing I can do to bring them back. I lost them for ever. Their so called leaders told and brainwashed them with this wicked conviction that ‘political power comes out of the barrel of the gun’. Please do not start me with that. And this professor after all these years (40+ years) he still extols the bankrupted ‘Marxism’? That was why I described this ideology as an infectious disease that will not leave the host. Nuff said!!!

  9. Thank you Ittu Aba Farda! This was the type of intervention I was looking for. Well said. I agree with you. Yes, ” There came OLF, MEISON, EPRP, TPLF, EPLF and many other political groupings…” that ” went at each other’s throat…”, and in the middle thousands of precious lives perished for nothing that benefited the country. All Ethiopians with good heart should, “… still mourn their untimely demise.” The blood shade only cleared the way for two of the devils, TPLF and EPLF, to achieve and implement satanic agendas. You have a good reason to hate and avoid Marxism.

  10. This Guy is as Ethno-Center as TPLFITES wasting his and our time for his non-sense and unfounded fairytale.
    ETHIOPIAN CURRENT BURNING ISSUE IS FREEDOM FROM THE ETHNO-FASCISIT TPLF APARTHEID RULERS PERIOD.THIS IS NOT A RIGHT TIME TO WASTE THEIR TIME YOUR UNFOUNDED FAIRYTALE

  11. Samma from Nashville:
    There is a lot to be taken as a lesson from the 1970’s and 80’s for the good of the people we all call countrymen. The Marxist deacons had their chance during those decades where they run the country to utter ruins. During the last 15 years and especially after I retired from my career, I have been reading a lot about those dark days from articles and books written by those who lived through it all. Some of them were honest account and some others were written in an effort to justify the roles they played in the mayhem. One account I read about 6 months ago had just shaken me to my core. The story tells about the demonic and un-Ethiopian behavior by the well educated supporters of the ruthless Mengistu. It was said that the government was holding a massive number of political prisoners who were rounded up suspected of being members of the underground opposition groups for more than a year or two. Their families were expecting that their loved ones would be released on amnesty at any time then by the victorious Mengistu. And suddenly those elite supporters of the regime began writing articles on the major newspapers and even sending letters to Mengistu urging ‘revolutionary measures’ be taken on those prisoners. This happened at the time when those violent radical opposition groups were driven out of all major cities and towns. Then Mengistu took out everyone of them and murdered them all en masse. I happened to see one those memos sent to Mengistu demanding the execution of those prisoners from an online posting. They tried to reason with him as to why those ‘anti people criminals’ should not be kept in prisons indefinitely and fed with the ‘people’s’ money. When I saw the copies of one of those memos I just held my head and wailed tears streaming. I understand that some of the authors of such ghoulish letters are now living among us. Some of those prisoners were highly educated individuals. The book tells how some of them were in festive mood the day they were taken out to be summarily executed. What kind of humanity asks a demon to kill helpless prisoners? They were not even given dignified burials. They were either just dumped in mass graves or their corpses tossed out for the wild animals to enjoy. In one of such instances members of my Itu clan traveled to the district office to complain and demand such inhuman actions be stopped. They were worried that once the hyenas develop a taste for human flesh their shepherd children would be endangered. If those who penned such urgent memos are still alive, how can they go to bed without an iota of remorse? How? How? How? Are these children of the same magnanimous people that produced us all? Woe! Woe!! Woe!!!
    Now, this is on the supporters of Mengistu side. There is another disturbing account I read in one of the books written by a former leader of EPRP. The author tells us in a passing comment the fate of one prisoner it was holding. That prisoner was one of its central committee members. The author tells us what happened to that prisoner during one of Mengistu’s search campaigns. He goes: ‘On the same day, Getachew Maru who overpowered an EPRP guard and tried to escape imperiled his life’. I said what do you mean by ‘imperiled his life’? No, I did not get it. The author tells us in his half baked book that his group was holding that man for more than 3 months. My lingering question has been who gave his group the mandate to imprison a dissident without due process. Did his group heard about Habeas Corpus? It took me quite a while to decode his ‘imperiled his life’ meant. That meant he was shot in the back and killed while he was running away for his dear Almighty Blessed life.
    Dear Samma, do you see the sad predicament the youth of that country found itself for being pulled in all directions and perishing in its millions? That senseless bloodshed could have been averted if cool heads prevailed in all those groups and my blame for such failure rests on that demonic philosophy of Marxism/Leninism and those who peddled it. They all claimed that class struggle was raging throughout the country and in during such struggle dialogue and sensible discussion for the good of the people is forbidden. I lost young close relatives and highly educated individuals who I had the privilege of meeting them during my school days in the Middle East and when I arrived here in the Good Ole USA in the early 1970’s. I can give you my firm testimony that those highly educated individuals had the intellectual horsepower to run any giant global corporation. But they are gone wasted and nothing can be done to bring them back.
    I sense and see that the same fault is about to be committed again. You will see in some of the name calling of honest commentators and call for executions of political prisoners in their posting on this and other websites by those who are hell bent in their support of the regime. It is an unsettling sight for me. That is why I become so delighted when I read this news of a dialogue like this one.

  12. Ittu Aba Farda, well written. No one has described better the generation that cut its own throat, and left our country in shambles, but you. Please continue with your positive commentaries.
    I would like to tell Saleh M NUR that the present rests on and starts from the past; and the future rests on and starts from the present. Ittu Aba Farda and I are trying to summarize what went wrong so that the millennium Ethiopians can have a glimpse of facts in order not to repeat them. The youth of the 60s scolded, belittled and mocked each other, just like you, Saleh, are doing here, continuing the cycle of being mean to anyone with a different opinion. I can sense where your fury emanated from. Please try to cleanse yourself from hate first and curse second.

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