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OP-ed: Perils of ego-politics and possible source of redemption

Posters and banners with a message “For the Oromo, I am precious,” adorned Ambo city, the birth place of slain Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa

By Mohammed Girma @girma_mohammed

Addus Abeba, July 23/2020 – The killing of prominent musician Hachalu Hundessa shook Ethiopia to the core. The nation that is already struggling to shake off the baggage of its difficult history has experienced yet another round of ensuing violence. We are hearing sobering stories of lives lost, properties destroyed and communal trust dented.[i] At this moment, the government might declare that the unrest has been brought under control; but fear and mutual mistrust (of ethnic and religious nature) continue to color the national mood.

Where does, or rather, should this nation go from here? A difficult question? Yes! However, it’s a question worth grappling with for any responsible Ethiopian. This does not look a conducive time for abstract conceptual analyses and interesting intellectual gymnastics, even though tragedies should not turn us off from conceptualizing our problems. It is rather a time for deeper soul-searching.


Ethiopia as a country has seen several governance systems – ranging from chiefdom to monarchy, to Marxism, to multinational federalism – based on different conceptual underpinning.  Amid all these changes, one stark fact persists. Innocent citizens continue to pay undue sacrifices. At the heart of the predicament is ego-politics – political narcissism. Red Terror of the 1970s almost wiped out a generation of educated and extraordinarily energetic youth. The actors on this horrid national experience espoused similar ideological stance – arguably all of them were Marxists.[ii] And yet, they managed to engineer one of the bloodies of epoch in Ethiopia’s history. Now, multinational federalism is the language of the day. There was a legitimate reason for experimenting with such a system – it is deemed to endow ethnic groups with political, cultural and economic rights. Again, most of the political actors – incumbents and oppositions – have similar political outlook. Regardless, they have formed hostile groups within the same ethnic groups that is now threatening the stability of the nation and the security of the whole region (the Horn of Africa). In the last two years, violence over who should be the best Amhara or Oromo leader was claiming lives.[iii] Worse, the plights and grievances of the masses are used as a political commodity to advance personal interests.

As brinkmanship and ego-politics pushes the nation more and more to the cliff, it is time to change the course. One way to find solution for the national ailment is getting deeper to the wounds. Especially, people in leadership positions and with influential platforms need to listen closely from the direct victims. There are reasons for this.  As bizarre as it may sound, they are more rational than politicians or activists. They have no power to wield, no financial muscle to flex and find a shortcut away from their daily challenges. Rationality is the only weapon they have. Hachalu’s family was a great example. Heartbroken, in pain and distraught, and yet, they were more sober source of story in the course of recent crisis than most political analyst. I also remember a woman from Legetafo – a town in the outskirt of Addis Abeba – who had nowhere to go because her house was demolished by the local government. Frustrated and in tears, she asked, “እንደመር  እያሉ ለምን ይቀንሱናል?”. Taking a cue from Prime Minister’s philosophy of “Medemer”, or togetherness, she effortlessly exposed the logical fallacy between orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the government by asking, “Why are we being side-lined in the ethos of togetherness”? Their stories have a redemptive hope because it is driven by authentic needs, not by political calculations. In what follows, therefore, I aim to channel two stories that is worth listening: That of Hachalu’s and of the victims’.

Hachalu Message: People demand unity

Hachalu was a different breed of political figure in a field that is dominated by individuals with overinflated self-image. He knows the sacrifices the Oromo people paid during the struggle. Their suffering was not a distant contemplative truth for him. It was a practical, or even a subjective one. He was right there, in the thick of it. Even when he was offered secure places, he chose to follow Gudina Tumsa’s[iv] example prioritizing people over his own safety. More than once, he has put his life on the line for this cause. And yet, he did not have personal political ambitions. His, however, was a genuine yearning to see political, economic and cultural justice served to the people he dearly loved. His political behavior was antithetical to the ethos of ego-politics.

“Believe it or not”, he said, “we defeated Tigrayan Liberation Front (TPLF)”.[v] But then, he expected a more unified Oromo leadership in the government that is now headed by an Oromo Prime Minister. However, to his utter dismay, the Oromo people did not fully experience the fruits of their struggle due to internal power struggle among the elites. His frustration was palpable on his very last interview.[vi] He pointed out that Oromo politicians are operating with their interest at center, not that of the people. In his view, the current division among the Oromo politicians is not people oriented. Everyone who vies for the highest office forms their own group that is hostile to another. As a result, people are paying a heavy price.  

His first message for political elites, therefore, was that they have forgotten the people. People want to see unity – it is a bare minimum their leaders can give back to those who supported them. Because of internal bickering, Oromia regional state is less secure and more volatile.  “I would rather die than seeing an Oromo killing another Oromo”,[vii] he stressed. To drive his message home, he gives a positive example of concerted effort of politicians, doctors and activists from all corners of the world during the struggle that yielded a concrete result. “Why do we make a mess out of the victory we gained?”, he asks, as if to challenge them to capitalize on that victory. Growing together through self-critique and righting the wrongs, not tearing each other apart, is his preferred approach to Oromo politics.

Regrettably, trying to drive the attention back to the people has proven to be a dangerous thing to do. As a result, the Oromo people in particular, Ethiopia in general, has lost one of the most authentic political voice. However, his poignant plea for the people to be heard and for unity among the Oromo elites need to be heeded. A divided Oromia is a grave danger for the Oromo polity. Moreover, an internally wrangling Oromo leadership is a great risk for the whole nation because, as Hachalu once illustrated, “Oromo is a trunk”.[viii] So corrosive, if left unaddressed, political narcissism would eat up even on the branches. The atrocity directed at non-Oromo civilians living in Oromia region a terrifying demonstration of this.

Furthermore, recurring violence in the region leaves a permanent stain in the history of this great Oromo people. This, in turn, would have negative social and economic ramifications. Fear and mutual suspicion among ethnic and religious group would become a breeding ground for another cycle of violence. The stories of properties of people being attacked would discourage businesses from investing in the region.

Unified and coherent Oromia would enable the Oromo people to negotiate its rightful place with its sister regions and ethnic groups. By doing so, it plays tremendous role in the stability of the nation and even the Horn of Africa.

The message of the civilian victims: We need security

Abiy Ahmed came to power preaching love and forgiveness. It was a unique message coming from a political figure. It did not take a long time for the nation to fall in love with his style. However, some, including myself, warned that the message, albeit being a fresh and uplifting one, has got a wrong messenger.[ix]

For one, the fundamental call of the state should be providing security to its citizens and administer justice. Preaching love and forgiveness is outside the institutional DNA of the state, and therefore, it should have been left for other suitable institutions.

For another, years of political agitation that was used to topple his predecessors had created a culture of anger. There were groups who held grudges either because they have lost the power and privilege, or because they have lost a chance on gaining power. In a country that does not have sufficient resources and facilities for mass rehabilitation, Abiy Ahmed inherited a society that is angry, fractured and frustrated. Managing an emotionally charged political ethos needed multi-layered measures. His first and foremost priority should have been putting in place a robust security system, especially, to protect the masses from conflict entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the red flags were not heeded.

Within a few months of his ascension to power, leaving the gaps in the security apparatus started to show its dangerous signs. In fact, it started with an audacious assassination attempt on the Prime Minister himself.[x] This was followed by a series of communal violence, internal displacements and high profile assassinations. Weak security system made Ethiopia a breeding ground for dangerous cocktail of division and ego-politics. Some even went to the extent of openly declaring their group as “the second government”.[xi]

 The reports in the recent violence indicate that either the security system was infiltrated by those who work to undermine the Prime Minister, or the security apparatus is still lacking proper guidance and discipline.[xii] Some victims say that they called law enforcement agents during the attack, but “they were left unprotected”.[xiii] In other cases, law enforcement agents were cooperating with perpetrators. The fact that government officials and police officers are being arrested explains the grim reality that the security system is highly compromised. The masses, needless to say, are losing their confidence on the justice system and security apparatus.[xiv]  

Therefore, if Ethiopia has to find its way out of the current political toxicity, the leaders need to turn to the real need of the people. People need peace and tranquillity. They crave for justice and security. They want to see civility and moderation in the way their leaders negotiate their differences. AS

Editor’s Note: Mohammed Girma (PhD) is Research Associate at the University of Pretoria and is the author of Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and the editor of The Healing of Memories(Rowan & Littlefield, 2018). He Can Be reached at















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