The ‘epistemological violence’ of Awol Allo

By by Sehin Teferra

Rather than trying to speak across the divides, the academic-activist has fanned the flames of ethnic bigotry.

The first time that I heard the term ‘epistemological violence’ was at a conference on multilingual nationalism hosted by the Addis Ababa University School of Federalism in the capital city in 2019.
Dr. Awol Allo from Keele University in the U.K. had given an eloquent presentation, and when an audience member insinuated that Awol had made a certain assertion because of his ethnic background, he responded, politely, that this line of questioning was a form of “epistemological violence”.

I was fascinated by the idea of epistemological violence—the concept that one’s question of how you know what you know may be construed as an act of brutality.

Epistemology is the study of the theory of knowledge, or of how we know what we know.

It is partly shaped by personal experience, and, as a feminist, I recognize that most epistemology is gendered. We know what we know through the experience of learning, or the mental processing of that knowledge.

Where the knowledge is formed by empirical data that is nevertheless open to interpretation that could go in several directions, but when a subject assumes that that the object-person has understood it in such a manner because of their own biases, then they may stand accused of epistemological violence.

Awol knows his influence as a political pundit.

He is a charming, Western-educated intellectual whom I enjoyed speaking to the few times that we met. I think he knows that he, along with other Oromo intellectuals, is setting a discourse that has been left wide open while Ethiopian social media learnt to breathe again.

He has currently stepped into the political void left by the, in my opinion, overdue arrest of Jawar Mohammed in early July, and I for one had been eager to learn what statements he would have on the clashes that claimed more than 150 lives following the murder of Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June. Would he apologize on behalf of Oromos for the bloodshed of innocent others, as he had done in October 2019 following Jawar’s ’Tekebibiyalehu’ (‘I have been surrounded [by security forces]’ battle cry?

Would he set a moderate middle ground for the Qaarrees and Qeerroos who might listen to his words?

The reality hit with the bitterness that many of us did not want to experience.

In the interviews and social media posts that I saw since the unrest, Awol has taken on a defiant position in his commentary on the murder of Hachalu and the bloody aftermath.

His first post after the murder on 30 June, stated: “They murdered our Haacaalluu, our irreplaceable icon, our definitive sound. Perhaps the brightest light of my people has just extinguished. I am heartbroken.”

Awol did not clarify who he assumed “they” were—but, we know who his people are.

The Oromo intellectuals in the Diaspora that we had hoped would lead their communities out of the quagmire of blind hatred were in fact drawing lines in the sand that sunk them deeper into an ‘us-vs-them’ narrative that was dependent on their ethnic and religious backgrounds—and not the more complex reality that most of us living in Ethiopia observe.

A question of epistemological truths— and of epistemological violence—appears when Awol to this day, continues to assert that ‘they’ killed ‘our star’ despite the fact that two people with alleged links to the Oromo Liberation Front have been arrested for their suspected roles in Hachalu’s murder.

In subsequent posts and media appearances, Awol went on to decry the arrest of Oromo political leaders such as Bekele Gerba and Jawar, despite their involvement in the chaos that ensued following Hachalu’s death, which degenerated into several nightmarish days.

Awol’s insistence on the political nature of the arrests is despite the fact that non-Oromo political leaders such as Eskinder Nega and Lidetu Ayalew have also been arrested on charges of organizing the resistance to the Oromo youth who came out carrying sticks from all corners of Addis Ababa and surrounding cities.

To date, Awol calls for the release of the Oromo activist-politicians, and he holds his ground that the Prime Minister, whom he nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year, has imprisoned them for political gain.

Justifying the unjustifiable
There is no credible threat to federalism in Ethiopia. Awol, and others, have fashioned a bogeyman of Ethiopianness or Ethiopiawinet that neither him nor I, let alone the Ethiopian youth (almost all by definition children of the EPRDF-era) know in order to justify his silence against the atrocities committed by his own side.

We have moved far beyond the times where Ethiopia was a cultural hegemony with one state religion, and we are all the richer for a multiethnic, multicultural Ethiopia with a healthy competition between dominant narratives. We have serious problems, yes, and they are as ethnic-borne as they are gendered, but a risk of return to the reductive version of Ethiopiawinet that Awol rails against is not one of them.

In other words, his threats of the annihilation that will swallow Oromos and other non-hegemonic ethnic groups if Ethiopiawinet is unchecked are hollow, and do not justify his refusal to acknowledge the murders of unarmed people who did not choose their ethnicity, or where they found themselves when all hell broke loose.

I am a non-Oromo woman of mixed Ethiopian heritage who has always been drawn to the underdog story of the Oromo struggle, and I gave my son an Oromo name in acknowledgement of a culture that I came to love early on in life. I cannot be silent now when in a sick twist of Teregnanet (‘It’s our turn now’), it is now Oromos who kill and terrorize Others.

In his writings Awol identifies with Oromos who were dispossessed in the past, but many Ethiopians identify with those who are defenseless at the present time. Furthermore, while us pan-Ethiopianists bestow admiration on those Oromo activist-intellectuals who are calling out hate by their own, we also need to confront those who will not, particularly when we used to hold them to a higher esteem than the warmongers of the activist sphere.

The ‘neftegna’ narrative
We need Oromo intellectuals now more than ever before.

However, they lose credibility when they willfully ignore the horrific twists that Oromo Protests have taken. Who should know better than an Oromo intellectual, and one as brilliant as Awol, that ethnic labels are lethal?

I read his stubborn defense of the term ’neftegna’, a term that used to be harmless enough when it referred to non-ethnic Oromos living in Oromia, but which has now morphed into the rally cry of ethnic cleansing along with the newly coined, ’neo-neftegna’ and question what may be driving the use of this language.

Words are neutral until they are all that you hear as you are being dragged from your home, or until a kindly Oromo landlady saves you by vouching for you in Afaan Oromo as happened to my cousin, a doctor who has lived in Oromia all his life, when he escaped danger in Batu (Ziway) on the second day of the unrest.

I wonder if the non-Oromos who were hacked to death in Shashemene heard the echoes of ‘neftegna’ as they struggled for their last breaths?

Did their children, born third or fourth generation in that locale, with no more options of where to go than I and my children would have if ‘Finfinne kegna’ (‘Finfinne [the political Oromo name for Addis Ababa] is ours’) is still to go lethal? Where can you go when the place where your grandparents were born labels you with a target on your back? What choice do you have but to fight, or to die, or to die fighting?

I do not know whether history will be kinder to Awol and to his fellow discourse-setters than it has been to the ancestors whose hateful words Oromo liberation fighters heard as they were beaten and tortured.

Should he have known better than to articulate the bigotry that would deny the self-proclaimed identities of millions of Ethiopians who view themselves as Ethiopian which, however he cloaks it in academic-speak, is still bigotry? Because epistemological violence works both ways.

When an intellectual with considerable voice like Awol decides to frame empirical truths in a way that belittles and ultimately harms whom he has made clear are Others, that is as much an epistemological violence as the defense he levied at that conference when accused of thinking in a certain way because he is an Oromo Muslim.

The epistemological violence of Awol lies in his denial of the self-proclaimed identities of millions of Ethiopians who view themselves as Ethiopian, and of his selective outrage when Oromo lives are threatened. His brand of epistemological violence puts Awol on the vanguard of the new wave of victimization that could haunt Oromia, and Ethiopia, for another 100 years.

I find his stubborn stance to be deeply regrettable.

I wonder if he could have helped stem the tide of ethnic violence while it was still stoppable? Would any of the killers have listened?

Will he still rectify his discourse, while we are all still here to learn, forgive, and change? Or will he defend his position until it is too late, a 21st century perpetrator of the epistemological violence of his own making?


  1. Dear Sehin

    Hats off, sister. It makes your views all the more significant because you draw your arguments from personal experience with this man. I had only listened to some of his views and comments on media, mainly on AlJazeera, which I found then mostly well informed and somewhat balanced.

    Then came another Allo, who went AWOL! I don’t know who did what to him; he came baptized with Jawarism, and turned from an ‘academic -activist’ (as you described him) to a blind ‘ethno–dogmatist’. I couldn’t believe someone with his ‘intellect’ would come so low…

    He pulled his hair and went crazy because, he tells us, a young singer was killed (though as tragic as this is. Who was not so sad by that?), and his stars, Jawar and associates, were taken into custody. But any person in his position with an ounce of humanity would also reflect on the barbaric rampage that followed, and which many conclude amounted to an ethnic cleansing! And the tragedy is he calls himself a ‘human rights activist’, among his accolades ( a darling of Amnesty international and the lot).

    I”m sure he will wake up and regret sooner or later, but alas, it will be too late, Him and his types will lose and to their shame and utter dismay ‘Ethiopiawinet’ will revive anew and shine!

    Let me conclude with an old Irish saying: “There are none so blind as those who will not see”.

  2. Thank you sister for the well thought out article.

    First: I hail from Oromo parents (proud of it!) and needless to say I am ashamed at these few ever-backward-looking ethno-nationalists claiming the mantle to speak on behalf of the Oromo. In reality they do not. Tis said “empty vessels make the most noise” so I say to my compatriots, do not get deterred on account of these few, as what’s true with the tip of the iceberg applies to this case as well: it’s only a small part of the iceberg that is visible and vocal, the silent majority does not and will not identify with these people. What they seek is self-serving aggrandizement whereas for the vast majority what we care is improvement in day to day lives, a better opportunity for the next generation, and generally a chance to live in dignity with equality and peace with our larger Ethiopian family.

    Second: Not directed at Awol per se as I have not had a chance to hear his views, it is said information abhors a vacuum. It is precisely because of the silence of the moderate majority that these people are stepping in to fill the void. If you want to do right by Ethiopia, then you need to stand up, be counted and be heard. I especially appeal to Oromos to communicate an alternate message of togetherness, love and peace in the native language, which is sorely lacking today, at least in the numbers we want to see.

    Third: Everything revolves around access to rewards and resources. The tribalists are flocking to that position today b/c they see quicker access to power through that path whether through the “kilils” or whatever have. Should you want to change the paradigm then focus to alter the way in which rewards or publicity are gained and accessed. Reward unity in diversity and penalize tribalism; there are so many ways it can be done and especially through the countries institutions. Only then can we turn the tide.

  3. Hi Sehin,
    I appreciate the flow of your ideas and clear explanations related to Dr. Awol’s recent ኬኛ (all ours) attitude politics like the rest of most of those who are in power now. In the past I felt ashamed hearing Meles Zenawi while once he said about people like Awol ..” አንድ ከብት ለማስተማር ሰባት ከብት መሸጥ” . I now think that Meles then was right.

  4. Excellent article for its easily comprehensible presentation. It is loaded with so much material for constructive discussion so we can learn from each other. Our patriot sister/daughter Sehin has stayed clear of useless shrills and presented her opinion in a calm and cultured manner.

    I was not and will not be surprised if others are rushing to fill the vacancy created by the incarceration of Obbo Jawar and others around him. Let’s be honest. It is an extremely financially rewarding and lucrative business venture. In this day of economic downturn every employer is feeling the painful pinch from the effects the deadly virus unleashed by the commies in Beijing. Even colleges are going through financial strain. Their bread and butter enrollment by foreign students is way low. Many of them are downsizing. There was news two weeks not too far from where we live when a small community college laid off some of its faculty staffs. Hate mongering is an easily dispensable commodity particularly in the current environment where there is plenty of raw emotion to feed on. Millions of US dollars are at stake here. There is plenty of misplaced anger out there which was created and fanned for years on exaggerated and intentionally falsified information. You don’t have to go through the troubles of brick and mortar factories. You have already well set up factories called Facebook, Twitter and alike. Gross atrocities will be told as happened like yesterday backed up by obviously photoshopped pictured and dead victims. Pictures like a dead protester lying on the ground with arms still crossed in protesting fashion. There is one such heavily doctored photo a dead young Oromo with his entire intestine outside his belly. For an inquisitive eye it is very easy to tell that part of the picture was taken from the web and ‘glued’ on thanks to the handy Photoshop and similar software of our time. Others list of names of victims killed by the regime of the ‘N’ people. Such fabrications and exaggerations are not new. I remember many years ago seeing a photo of a young girl who was allegedly taken out of her home during the night and executed at a place not too far from what I was born and spent my formative years. I was very upset by the news and decided to investigate myself. I asked one of my merchant relatives who traveled to the area frequently to find out and confirm it to me. He told me from the get go that there is no family by that name in that small town because he knew almost everyone. He was told by people he knew that the photo of that young girl was a person who then lived in Djibouti who might have consented to the scheme. So misrepresentations are not new. The only difference is, these days they can spread faster by way of these social media platforms. There is no well organized and funded independent private media that can verify such inciting lies. Just head to these platforms and you can it all. ‘My grandfathers was gunned down yesterday in the small village I was born’. Such lie is usually backed up a doctored photo of an old man. ‘I have a list of executed residents of the small town where I came from.’ That is also backed by a list of at least 10 made up names. Then the closing credit would be a call for the destruction of the country created by those ‘N’ people. The alpha males of such lies will wrap up their diatribe by reminding readers about an upcoming conference where everyone is invited. The gullible will be there still enraged where the connivers would ask those congregated to support their struggle. Contributions will now flow mostly in cash. These con artists are now millionaires overnight. This is a huge business. And when they liberate my Oromia from the ‘N’ people they will cross the millionaire line into the billionaire realm. That is enough to drive you nuts, rabid and blind. It will make you so arrogant that you think you will succeed in the effort others failed so many times before. You would say today that you are absolutely ‘peaceful’ and by the next sunrise you will end up sending gullible young men to Egypt for military training in the arts of unleashing terrorist acts while you are enjoying the fillet mignon on your daily dinner table at your comfy home. Don’t forget you have become a millionaire and filthy rich while that hopelessly poor farmer from my Itu clan is having nightmares about how he will able to feed his family that very night. So the competition is heating up among these conniving bigots to fill a vacancy left behind by another conniving hate monger.

    Thank you for your well penned article. It shows our true tradition of being so cultured. Hats off to you from this beyond repair Afro-Ethio-Centric septuagenarian. I bet you love, peace and flowers!!!

    • ITTu, your solipsistic, post in general and patronizing views about the Oromo nation’s tragedies is unacceptable and those of us in the Oromo resistance against the dominant Abyssinian culture and oppressive conditions will continue weather people like portray our quest for freedom and equality in the country as “photo-doctored”

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