By Teshome M. Borago
As we celebrate the 121st anniversary of Ethiopia’s victory against Italy at the Battle of Adwa, it is important to put our current polarized politics in perspective. We usually pointout Adwa’s pan-African symbolism and it’s role as an inspiration for black people worldwide. But we often overlook Adwa’s importance when it comes to our historic ethnic relations not only inside Ethiopia, but also inside the former Abyssinian kingdoms.
Decades before this battle happened in 1896, Ethiopia was a loose union of various competing parts and regional kingdoms that virtually took turns to rule the whole, from a revolving center. For example, when Emperor Menelik II rose to power, he had to win over northern friends and foes alike; and create alliance with his Shewan Oromo kins, in order to become King of Shewa and later King of Ethiopia. It is hard to imagine that Ethiopia would win the Adwa war if all these competing kingdoms did not collaborate and provide the necessary manpower. This is why, if we were to believe the false basis of the current poisonous ethnic-politics today, Ethiopia would have actually LOST the war in Adwa. How else can we explain what happened that year? One has to wonder, how could we win unless a multiethnic Ethiopian nation existed long before the so-called “Abyssinian colonization“? How can we defeat an European superpower without sharing a sense of common identity and destiny? How did our people who are supposed to hate each other today, managed to unite with one purpose as one people over a century ago, if there was nothing already tying them together pre-war? Something does not add up.
History shows that several kingdoms volunteered and mobilized from every region in Ethiopia to fight at the Battle of Adwa. From Tigray down to Harar; from Wollo in the east to Gojjam in the West, every Ethiopian province joined the central army of Shewa ( which was then a kingdom of both Amharic and Oromo speakers.)
So when TPLF and some Oromo elites preach anti-Ethiopia propaganda today, let us not forget that many of the Ethiopian generals in Adwa were actually Oromos: including Dejazmach Balcha Safo, Ras Gugsa Welle of Yejju Oromo and Empress Taytu Betul who led the Gondar troops, Fitawurari Gebeyehu Gora who led the Raya Oromo forces and Ras Mohammed (Mikael) Ali who led the Wollo Oromo horsemen into Adwa.
Another symbol of the unity of our ancestors was that many of our leaders were already ethnically mixed for many generations: for example, the general (and future Defense minister) Fitawrari Habte Giorgis Dinagde, Ras Mekonnen and even Emperor Menelik (whose maternal side is Oromo). The fact that all these Adwa heroes were mixed to a small or large degree with an Oromo ancestry is proof that people already assimilated during previous generations of the Abyssinian kingdoms. Therefore today, it is hard to find a pure Oromo, pure Amara or any pure tribe. There is no such thing. All those Ethiopian patriots fought for our country as Ethiopians FIRST and foremost. Our heroic ancestors did not claim to be “Oromo-first”or “Amhara-first.” In fact, Oromigna speakers living in northern Ethiopian provinces of Gondar and Wollo fought Italy as Abyssinians, since Oromos were major players inside the Abyssinian Solomonic dynasty for centuries before. Which is why northern Oromos are Abyssinians.
During a discussion forum in 1997, Professor Donald Levine tried to teach Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia has already evolved into a multiethnic country. But the shameless Meles Zenawi defended his apartheid system and told the Professor;
“Axum means nothing for the Gurage. Lalibela means nothing for the Oromo.”
How ironic that Meles made such a horrible statement, because one of the major generals that went to Tigray to fight in Adwa was Fitawrari Habte Giorgis Dinagde. He was a famous warrior who was born from a mixed Gurage and Oromo family. How wrong Meles was about Ethiopian history!
Some European historians have tried to minimize the significance of our victory in Adwa by hiding the enormous military advantage the Italians had on Ethiopia; in regards to artillery, arms, ammunition and other equipments. But the fact was the Ethiopian army did not have enough weapons to match Italy; so we were considered weak by conventional warfare standards. Therefore, our soldiers’ morale and troops mobilization were the two key factors to our success. In retrospect, we can truly say that the strength of our UNITY was the reason for our triumph in Adwa.
And today, more than ever, it is time to rekindle that Ethiopian spirit of unity and patriotism. It is time to come together; not just as Oromos, Welaytas, Amharas, Tigre’s etc, but to rise together as Ethiopians FIRST. We are not just a collection of tribes. We are one people, one Ethiopians under God. Sadly, due to TPLF’s assault on Ethiopiawinet the last 25 years, Ethiopiawinet has been forced to retreat to urban cities like Addis Ababa. As Neamin Zeleke said recently, Ethiopiawinet is alive and kicking in every cosmopolitan region of Ethiopia, where millions of people do not have one ethnic identity but multiple mixed ancestry. Even some people who blindly claim to be from one ethnic group actually do so because of imposed newfound political identity; not due to ancestral or biological identity. Ethiopiawinet supersedes all other identities and it should remain an umbrella concept that unites every Ethiopian. So Let us open our minds and hearts. Temporary identities based on politics only benefit the politicians of the day. Fake identities based on dialects are not permanent because language evolves. Many of us who speak Amharic or Oromigna today did not have ancestors who spoke Amharic or Oromigna many centuries ago. It is time to break all barriers and unite again as one people.
Until more Ethiopians accept that we have a shared history, shared land, interweaved identity and common destiny; it will be nearly impossible for us to unite again and establish a democratic country. As we witnessed the “Oromo protests” and “Amhara protests” last year, such ethnic-based enclaves may revolt one by one and alone against the TPLF dictatorship. But such isolated and fragmented revolts or protests are fruitless. They are useless. It is important to create a new inclusive movement that embraces both our diversity and our shared ancestral roots; values multilingualism, multiculturalism and democracy. It is important that all Ethiopians, ( including the urban, mixed and cosmopolitan Ethiopians) become part of a movement for fundamental transformation in Ethiopia. Otherwise, we will never have the consensus necessary for a lasting change. We can not build a real democracy based on tribal nationalism and a backward federalism land system that divides us into “natives” vs “aliens” or “guests” vs “hosts.” Ethiopia needs civic nationalism, not ethnic nationalism.
No matter which tribal group gains power in Addis Ababa, it will never have the mandate to govern. In TPLF, we already have seen the result of a tribal based movement. It does not work. It is too narrow and undemocratic. Some of us vilify TPLF as evil people but they are normal humans just like all of us. But their abnormal tribal system of governance has created a trust gap with other Ethiopians so TPLF may never giveup power peacefully. Similarly, an Oromo-led or Amhara-led regime will never work either, because we live in a country of minorities. In fact, the biggest ethnic group in our country is the mixed-Ethiopian. No group is superior and every group must own Ethiopiawinet in order to change Ethiopia.
As one of the larger community of Ethiopians, Oromos can play a special and constructive role in democratizing Ethiopia. Unfortunately, the new generation Oromos (both at home & Diaspora) are led by former OPDO elites, not by progressives. Instead of rejecting the status quo of tribalism under TPLF, Oromo activists are defending it. Some Oromo activists actually want to be more woyane than woyane. Instead of challenging the system on paper, they are hoping to implement it even more. Oromos need to change this mentality. It is time to restore their Ethiopiawinet. Today’s Ethnic politics is inherently incompatible with liberal democracy and individual rights. It is time for a paradigm shift in Ethiopian politics.