The threat to national integrity comes from those who fantasize about the past

By Mohamed Olad

On 29 June, activist musician Hachalu Hundessa was murdered, triggering protests and unrest that killed at least 239 people, and a heavy crackdown by security forces that has since seen more than 9,000 people detained and internet services shutdown for almost three weeks.

Hachalu’s place within the collective Oromo consciousness was as a cultural icon and once-in-a-generation performer. He was cherished by millions of Oromo as an artist that captured the melancholy surrounding their struggle for freedom and equality. That very struggle helped bring Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power in 2018.

Unsurprisingly, Hachalu’s killing evoked strong sentiments of anger similar to how graphic police brutality recently elicited similar reactions in the U.S. and elsewhere. One tragic result was Oromo mobs targeting ethnic minorities and businesses in the Oromia region. Despite criticisms against the government for its slow response at preventing looming human and economic devastation, a heavy crackdown ensued.


Rather than looking at these unfortunate events as an opportunity to unify a deeply polarized society and instill trust and legitimacy in disregarded law enforcement and judicial institutions, the government chose to exploit the tragedy for political gain.

Hachalu could have been given a dignified memorial worthy of a freedom fighter here in Addis Ababa similar to General Seare Mekonnen, or legendary singer Tilahun Gessese, while still respecting the family’s wish of Ambo as his final resting place. It too could have put its security apparatus on alert to prevent the gruesome violence we have seen in Oromia.

But it instead chose to use the opportunity to settle political scores and aggravate an already tragic situation. It engaged in finger pointing, insinuations, and media campaign to ‘poison the well’ before formal investigations or public debate could even begin.

These same law-enforcement agencies which claim to have uncovered a deep external-internal web of conspiracies against the state have yet to resolve any of the high-profile killings from the last two years.  That being the case, any further lack of transparency and due process is set to erode whatever trust remains in the government and state institutions critical for democracy.

Backsliding signs

We are at a crossroads facing a multitude of fundamental problems that need meaningful answers. Yet all that the Abiy government can offer is empty slogans and pseudo-profound rhetoric that will set back the quest for a multinational, federal democratic state.

Two years into a high-stakes and high-expectations transition, the jailing of high-profile opposition figures, cracking down on protesters and journalists, mass arrests, mistreatment of prisoners, dubious judicial processes, and a lack of broad national dialogue still persists. For a transition to succeed, you need a government and a democratic process of which elections are not only a minimum requirement, and which are rooted in legitimacy and transparency. None of that is enjoyed by the incumbent.

The misgivings clouding a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a progressive, democratic dispensation are numerous; the government’s heavy-handed response to the unrest in the wake of Hachalu’s death, the documented killings and abuses in Oromia and Amhara, crackdowns on opposition, a looming constitutional and security crisis due to PP-TPLF standoff, the indefinite postponement of elections, and the Abiy government’s unwillingness for dialogue or compromise.

If these events are anything to go by, it is eerily similar to the toxic political climate following the 2005 election. I remember the suffocating political heat of those days like yesterday.

Road to nowhere

The odds for a triumphant transition to democracy were already bleak, since the subject of reform is the ruins of an archaic imperial state with its own social, cultural, and historical burdens.

An ethnic plutocracy in the form of the TPLF, hell-bent on political, economic and ideological domination, was the main obstacle to reforms in the last three decades. However, it is an intolerant, and often impetuous, hodgepodge elite that includes the ruling party, opposition parties, activists, civil society organizations, diaspora groups, online and broadcast media outlets flexing to dismantle the current multinational federalism that are the biggest spoilers to a smooth democratic transition.

Their preferred label is as ‘Ethiopianists’, however, their detractors dismiss them as ‘Neo-neftegnas —an assortment of people nostalgic for the regressive imperial era, who despise the current multinational federalism, and attribute the recognition and autonomy granted to the nations and nationalities to be the source of all our social and political ills. Multiple studies have found that they are predominantly urbanites, ethnically Amhara, and disproportionately dominate levers of power: government bureaucracy, media, and finance. They pursue this as a zero-sum game, and to the detriment of historically marginalized communities.

Regardless, this current fight is one for the soul of this nation; what it should embody and envision for this generation and the ones that follow. And it is only beginning.

These faux unitarians and their counterproductive ways are baffling. They call themselves ‘Ethiopianists’, and claim to stand for unity. But it is hard to see anything especially Ethiopian or unifying about them, their approach, their historical narratives, or the society they envision.

They claim ultimate guardianship over the Ethiopian state, and are determined to delegitimize and criminalize the legitimate ‘question of the nations and nationalities’ and their struggle for justice and equality. Nonetheless, the more their historical suffering is ignored, the louder the echoes of imperial drums grow. And, the more their aspirations deferred, the less likely we are to realize a nation that is at peace with itself.

What I like to call ‘Ethiopia’s original sin’—the violence, the subjugation, the oppression, and the subsequent marginalization of the Nations Nationalities and Peoples upon which it was founded—are still too raw and intense to simply wish away.

For example, the story of Menelik II and his violent Zemechas, or conquests, has a different meaning for me and my ancestors than those who still hold him in high esteem as a godlike figure. There was no love lost between Menelik II and my great-grandfather’s generation. Being the Somali tribes along the Jigjiga Valley, they were the first to try to stave off Menelik’s incursions, but unfortunately fell prey to them and his better armed crusaders in the likes of Ras Mekonnen, Dejazmach Benugise, and Kenyazmach Basha-Basha.

As Major H.G.C.S Wayne  documented in his book; Seventeen Trips to Somaliland and a Visit to Abyssinia, when he trekked northern Somali territories and eastern Ethiopia in late 1890s, Menelik II’s mistreatment of the Somalis was equal to their unforgiving mistrust towards him. So much so they were willing to live under British rule, as documented by Major Wayne, with some semblance of order, rather than the humiliation and degradation of a true despot.


It is Abiy’s alignment with these neo-imperialists and Derg remnants that is the biggest hurdle for the transition. They sit at the crux of political, cultural, economic, military, security and media vessels that were left rudderless by the abrupt retreat of TPLF, and are determined to crush everything and everyone they see as a threat.

This does not bode well for a smooth transition.

Moreover, there are a range of controversial figures that bear the banner of the ‘Ethiopianist’ camp. This includes exposed xenophobes, to former Derg generals like Fisseha Desta, Mengistu’s second-in-command, and Kassaye Chemeda who even called for violence on national television. These figures are either in the Prime Minister’s inner-circle, have influence on policy, or are praising him on state television.

The biggest threat to our societal cohesion and the continuity of the state does not lie with those pushing for greater autonomy and recognition for nations and nationalities. Rather, it lies with those fantasizing about the past, with their preferred cut off for the ‘good old days’ being prior to the EPRDF-era.

Continued bullying of anyone refusing to buy their outdated, out of touch dogma into silence by hurling demeaning and crude reductionist insults such as ‘treasonous mercenaries’, ‘savage extremists’, ‘tribal nativists’, ‘terrorists’ will not bring peace and unity.

Exit strategy

In his inaugural speech, Abiy called for national reconciliation, forgiveness, and the closure of our dark past, promising ‘‘to forge ahead to bright future through national consensus’’.

For someone who came to office on a platform of unity and dialogue, it is worth emphasizing the only way forward is by backing out of the current quagmire. It is equally worth noting that any genuine attempt at national dialogue and reconciliation starts with the immediate release of all political prisoners as part of aiming for a comprehensive settlement.

If our Nobel laureate Prime Minister can embrace the last true despot in the Horn of Africa, President Isaias Afwerki, as a force for peace and development, finding common ground with his detractors here at home shouldn’t be too hard.

However, it is hard to guess if Abiy has come to terms with the reality that no one can rule Ethiopia in peace, and longevity, while making a career out of angering the only tent that can provide a viable governing coalition. Abandoning his natural constituency, the Oromo, neglecting Somalis and the issues they care about, feuding with the Sidama, clashing with the Wolayta and suffocating Tigray is not a good place to start if the goal is to reach peace and unity, and underwrite state continuity.


  1. Subject: The threat to national integrity comes from those who fantasize about the past” By Mohamed Olad, ZeHabesha August 26, 2020

    Commentary, 26 Aug 2020
    It is a cliche’ to state that Ethiopia is one of the few ancient independent countries around the Globe.. Yes, Ethiopia — a NATION in AFRICA — is legitimately proud to have rich history that any country can envy. Let us leave the details to Historians.

    Let us look at the year of 2020 . Ethiopia is on the verge of being disintegrated into pieces based on religion, region, racial, provincial etc giving a perfect tool to those who denigrate the BLACK PEOPLE OF AFRICA as northing more than ………………… I do NOT wish to finish the sentence.

    Is that what Ethiopia wants? Is that what modern educated Ethiopians, >>> with the highest academic degrees of Doctor of Philosophy from top most Universities around the Globe >>> and vast knowledge in the History of Mankind >>> would like to see ETHIOPIA degraded and plunged into gutters of existence, thus becoming a tool to THOSE who have an eternal demeaning attitude and “proof” as to the degrading position of BLACK AFRICANS as servitude to Human Society. WE AFRICANS, squabbling among ourselves, ARE OUR OWN CRUEL ENEMY. THE END

  2. It is mindboggling to dare write this kind of incoherent analysis of the politics of Ethiopia, with a lot of falsehoods.
    Again Amharas are made the scapegoats of all the ills hounding Ethiopia. Amharas have been out of any influence from the governments that followed the king. That is not all; they have been the targets of ethnic killings, displacements from their lands and possessions, jobs, etc.for the last 50 years. As a matter of fact, they have been demonized for a long time in preparation for genocide. The genocide committed on Amharas and Orthodox Christians on June 29,2020 and the following two days was one of many in which 239 were inhumanely murdered, tens of thousands displaced and their properties in billions looted and destroyed. Even now tens of thousands are sheltering in churhes because they have nowhere to go.The writer chose to ignore these horrendous crimes and instead narrated unheard of, more than a century old, allegation against Menelik II.
    Abiy is not a saint, but he is better than any politician on scene in Ethiopia at present. All the others aren’t for united Ethiopia. Without any guilt conscience, instead of demanding justice for the slaughtered citizens, he demands that the political prisoners be freed. What a human being. He also accuses PM Abiy for not conducting elections in the era of COVID-19. More countries have postponed elections than those who didn’t. I don’t blame him.

  3. Mohamed Olad has conveniently created an alternative world out of thin air. For all mayhem that has taken place in Ethiopia Mr Mohamed Olad ‘s has found a scapegoat “those who fantasize about the past” Nothing can be further from the truth Ethiopia had passed through one “revolution” in which a man with 70 cattles was considered an exploiter or a feudal and killed in spot. Then the weyane ethnic stratified the country and made Amharas the cause of all Ethiopians miseries, though by any measure Amharas were no better in some cases worst than the others. Now the kind of Mr Mohamed who are itching to build their nest on weyane ethicized treer, to plunder and kill as they want to screaming the sky is falling just because that system is scrutinized for its failing . At this time whether elected legibly or illegibly every so called kellls are being administrated by their won. The weyane designed constitution that Mr, Olad is painting as panacea makes other Ethiopian living out of their kelele as a second class citizens in their own country. Abiy has nothing to change that , absolutely nothing. So how is that “those who fantasize about the past” has become a whipping boys for Mr Mohamed? Because the kinds of Mr. Mohamed who are supporting openly or tacitly communal strife among Ethiopians of different culture and religion has to find some entity to blame while they are at work to undone Ethiopia. That is just a fact. Look at this sentence and how Mr Mohamed Olad justifies a genocide that was committed against Ethiopinas specifically because of their religion and because of who they were, namely Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and Amharas ( renamed as Neftenas) just a remindere to Mr Mohamed Olad The chant that went on while theses ethnic and religion fanatics killed and destroyed property was “Allah weakber”. Here is how Mr Mohamed is trifling the tragedy that befallen Ethiopians, who singled out , with the list of names and address ready by these fanatics, that were slaughtered in their house , some burned with their children alive.
    “Unsurprisingly, Hachalu’s killing evoked strong sentiments of anger similar to how graphic police brutality recently elicited similar reactions in the U.S. and elsewhere. One tragic result was Oromo mobs targeting ethnic minorities and businesses in the Oromia region.” Just reminder to Mr Mohamed in US no single race or religion was targeted because of who they were.
    Is it one incident that took place out of the blue? No,The same actors who were agitated by same Jawarian media (OMN) have been committing targeted ethnic cleansing.
    September 14-16 2018 in the city of burayu 65 innocent Ethiopians were killed by radical so called “keeros” chanting leave our land. Gurages, Dorzes, and Amharas were the victims.
    On October 24,2019 Jawar called his mob on Facebook calming that his government provided securities were told to leave without his knowledge . More than 100 Orthodox Chrisians, and Amharas were killed in the most gruesome way imaginable, churches were burned to the ground.
    Now July 30, the same anti-Ethiopian agitators, led by Jawar, orchestrated Hachallus killing, and using that they wanted to take power by force. Within hours of Hachallus killing in Oromia cities, these well-organized Ethnic cleansers came to the city with name , address, killing and burning discriminately by nationality and religion . The same cleaning happened in Sdama – there too both the agitators and the victims are the same. So for Mr Mohamed Olad this truths are not covenant truths he wants to delve into. And the phantom entities the so called “those who fantasize about the past” are simply a smokescreen to cover the anti-Ethiopian campaign lead by Jawar and CO. Patriotic Ethiopians will defended their country from the enemies within and without; there are not going to shrink from their responsibility whether one calls them “ fantasizers of the past or whatever. They would not allow Ethiopia to become another Somalia.

  4. Thank you, Habtamu

    I totally agree with your views. No need to add on yours, but…

    I’m afraid Mr Olad, with all respect, sounds like those Somali brothers whose mindset is still stuck to the politics of the past (including the 1970’s and 80’s). Things have moved fast recently, and to the surprise of all our Somali brothers and sisters have ushered a new vision for their region and the country. Particularly with the leadership of the young and charismatic Mustafa Oumer, the Somali nation is now at the centre of the affairs of the country, not the periphery.

    Most irritating is the hate mongering citing Menelik, nefttena, Amara, etc. I’m sorry, but such people need some serious therapy. Just tell me, which country in the world we know today has emerged without conflicts and wars in its past? Some even much much bloodier than that is alleged to have happened in Ethiopia.

    As I understand it nefttegna is a phenomenon that is related to power that emanates from expropriation of land. Please wake up! All land in the country has been declared people’s /state property some 40 years ago! Private land ownership and any privilege associated with it is history now. So, what is this singing about nafttegna day in day out?

    The task we face today is not to lament endlessly about what happened in the past; none of us can change that. The focus should be to look forward and create a bright future for us and the coming generation. Yes, we need to learn from history; and never repeating the negatives and building on the positives in the spirit of peace, brotherhood and development. We have lagged behind and it is high time we strive to catch up!

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