It was in the aftermath of the assassination of iconic Oromo Artist and Prominent Political Activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa on June, 29th, 2020. There was public unrest across Oromia, Ethiopia as an expression of the angst over the senseless killing by unidentified assailants. In a surprising turn, however, PM Abiy Ahmed Ali’s regime seized the opportunity immediately to incarcerate the most prominent Oromo opposition politicians within 24 hours. The political crackdown was directed against prominent leaders like Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Congress [OFC], and numerous Senior leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front [OLF]; two Oromo Political organizations with projected overwhelming support in Oromia in the well overdue National elections.
Why the sudden explosive shift virtually overnight in the tumultuous Ethiopian political landscape? The answer could be found in the very words of a consequential interview Haacaaluu Hundeessaa gave on Oromo Media Network (OMN) aired a few days before his assassination. In a statement that was pointed and vivid, he stated, in reference to Menilik II, a conquering monarch who forged what became modern Ethiopia aided by modern arms from Europe’s Colonial powers; that he came to the Oromo land riding on a donkey, and proceeded to confiscate the Oromo warrior’s horse; and to date, even in death is symbolized sitting on that horse in his memorial statue erected for him in the heart of Oromia, Finfinnee. He stated further that the day will come when, just like symbols of colonization of indigenous peoples are being removed from public spaces across the globe, Menilik’s will also be dealt with as such. Haacaaluu proceeded to assert that the Neftenya, a term he used to refer to the militarized and Amharanizing system of conquest and occupation, was the enemy of the Oromo in the past, still are, and will remain so in the future.
The assassination as well as Ethiopia’s fast return to more political deterioration in the days that followed, has triggered a flurry of discussion different actors in the field taking place to date, about the historical meaning of “Neftenya” and more importantly its current manifestation which has come be referred to as the “Neo Neftenya.” An example of this derisive campaign by pro-regime state and private media, including ill-informed foreign journalists, can be illustrated in tweets directed against a leading Political Analyst and Scholar in the field, Dr. Awol Allo, for his use of, and otherwise, so far commonly and necessarily used term in Ethiopian politics. This was only the beginning part of a pro-regime propaganda campaign to suddenly assign the term a different meaning; a well-orchestrated effort to silence free speech.
What is really meant by Neftenya?
Neo-Neftenya refers to an ethnocentric Amhara political class and movement in Ethiopia working to forcibly [i.e. by instrumentalizing “Neft” or “the barrel of the gun”] reinstate a single Ethiopian identity with one dominant language [Amharic], culture and governing structure [dismantling the current multinational Federalism of Ethiopia, with its autonomous ethnonational regional States along with its Constitution as its foundation]. It seeks re-Amharanization of Nations and Nationalities of Ethiopia with its official corollaries of public celebration and glorification of bygone and deposed Imperial Monarchs [Menilik II and Haile Selassie I] that enforced this same Imperial policy on the entire populace.
The grounding and unifying core of the Neftenya system of the Ethiopian Empire commenced through Menilik II, was two-fold: Absolute Amhara Dominance over other nations and the instrumentalization of military force to ensure it (or “Neft”, literally meaning ‘rifle’.) This was, literally, the working definition of “Ethiopiawinet” or what it means to be Ethiopia advanced through imperial power and dictum. By all measures, the Ethiopian State was a Pro-Amhara-only empire repressing all other ethnicities out of official cultural, linguistic, and social existence, through a state-orchestrated Amharanization structuring policy and heavily militarized chokehold on all forms of dissent.
If Ethnonationalism was a central issue from the onset of modern Ethiopia, it also remained at the core of its conflict based deadly history that followed. The entire rebel movement for decades before 1991, which eventually brought down the Marxist regime of the Dergue in the 1990s was ethnonationally based and contoured: Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF); Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), etc were formed and developed their combined vast armies prior to the 1990s; mostly strengthened more after the hijacked student revolution of the 1970s by the military regime, some even earlier. Since their formation, they continued in operation with ethnonationalism as their organizing principle.
The 1990s, Demise of the Neftenya System
There were two pivotal shifts to the transition of the early 1990s. On the one hand, it effectively ended the official policy of Amharanization, according to social, cultural, and linguistic rights back to priorly denied Nations and Nationalities of Ethiopia. In addition, its Constitution and the Federal governing structure ensured the right to self-rule for the Nations and Nationalities of Ethiopia. These achievements are under threat now with Abiy’s regime that is making moves to reinstate the doctrines of the past Neftenya system into the Ethiopian State.
The Prosperity Party (PP)
Upon coming to power, Abiy Ahmed single-handedly dismantled the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic party /EPRDF/ within the last two years and replaced it with his own new party known as Prosperity Party /PP/. Abiy’s move has been rejected and decried by Tigray People Liberation Front [TPLF] a consequential organization within former EPRDF, prominent leaders from former Oromo People’s Democratic Organization [OPDO] like Lemma Megersa perceived to be the political figure that facilitated the coming of Abiy himself to power, along with notables from the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM); all constituent parts of the EPRDF.
Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party by policy eliminated any mandate to organize along ethnonational lines, rendering itself a non-ethnonational party. Previous constituents in EPRDF were autonomous ethnonational and regional parties that represent their ethnonational State, which then came together in a Pan-Ethiopian alliance at the Federal level. This provided voice, due process, and much-valued representation to the different Nations and Nationalities of Ethiopia and their unique heritage and needs. PP effectively eliminated that mandate. In keeping with the historical Neftenya system, Abiy’s PP has not only reinstated its monolithic pro-Amhara-only identity but also has unleashed, using State security, a military crackdown against dissent to enforce its political will.
“Medemer”, a title for a book by Abiy Ahmed expounds the essence of his Neo-Neftenya orientation. The book has come to be seen as a definitive statement on his ruling doctrine. By all credible assessments, “Medemer” essentially envisions the State-sponsored resuscitation of Amhara ethnonationalism as the dominant mode of government for all of Federal Ethiopia’s constituent parts. It is rallying behind an Amhara-dominant Unitarian model of Ethiopia.
According to Federalist political opposition, however, the true meaning of Abiy’s መደመር [Amharic for Addition], by all measures, has come to be seen as መጨፍለቅ [Amharic for forcefully blending] into an Amhara identity. Instead of a mosaic vision of multi-national Ethiopia that champions diversity, Abiy, in his book paints an Amharanized Ethiopia with monolithic vision and expression. The palpable angst that has developed within pro-Federal and Constitutional opposition circles like the Oromo, Tegaru, Wolayita, Sidama, Somali, etc, is that when Abiy’s blending principle /መጨፍለቅ/ is applied to the existing multi-national constitutional arrangement; it will eventually eviscerate them. Medemer, therefore, has come to be seen as a unity of dead ethnonational identities and heritage. For them, the issue has morphed into the struggle for survival, survival as Oromo, Tegaru, Wolayita, Sidama, Somali, Gumuz, etc.
Not surprisingly, however, and in keeping with Abiy’s autocratic maneuvering, the book, notably in violation of the rule of State and party separation, has been turned into a training document, on tax payer’s dime. It has been promoted as a practical Manifesto, mandated for use by all government branches and employees that are demanded, to adopt and promote it, as a requirement for their continued employment.
PP Allied Parties
There were always exclusively Amhara backed political organizations that favored Amharanization as the sole structuring political construct and the lingua-franca of the Ethiopian State. Abiy’s regime, whatever minority support it has, gets it from that lingering base. Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party [EPRP] dating back to the fall of Haile Selassie’s regime almost exclusively, “Amhara organization, under “Ethiopian” banner, opposed the creation of Tigrean-led EPRDF. All Ethiopian Unity Party [AEUP] formerly also known as All Amhara Peoples’ Organization [AAPO] in the 90s is also a notable mention. The current incarnation of similar initiatives are the likes of the National Movement of Amhara [NAMA], and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice abbreviated into its Amharic EZEMA, which goes with an “Ethiopian” name but advocates for Amharanized re-structuring of the State.
Equalization of Amhara with Ethiopia
It must be noted here that, with few recent exceptions that adopted “Amhara” into their political nomenclature, all Unitarian Political organizations that are adamantly opposed to the Multi-National Federalism of Ethiopia and support re-Amharanization of all its constituent States choose to be designated as “Ethiopian.” This is a deliberately cloaked machination that essentially and exclusively equates as well as identifies Amhara-only identity and heritage with Ethio-pian-ness and the official Ethiopian state. Replacing the current multi-national states, these entities advocate for arbitrary structures designed to consolidate power to an autocratic center. This is starkly exemplified in the well-publicized agenda items of civic meetings and conferences held in Unitarian circles, sponsored by pro-Neftenya political interests pictured below.
The very title of the Pro-Neftenya public conference held in Falls Church, VA tells it all: “To Avoid Killil” [meant to convey Avoiding ethnonational States]. It advocates for forcible dismantling of the ethnonational States within Federal Ethiopia in place currently. There were 13 presenters in that conference with virtually all of them calling for the dissolution of ethnonational regional states like Oromia of Ethiopia and their replacement with an arbitrary form of organizing that preempts any reference to “Nations or Nationalities.” This is, unmistakably, a current reincarnation in the making of Menilik’s and Hailesilassie’s policy of forcible Amharanation of the Ethiopian State.
Ethiopia’s Urban Elite
Staunchly favoring Amharanizing and dismantling Federal multi-nationalism is the pro-assimilationist urban elite. This circle, utilizing well-entrenched privilege from past Neftenya system, registers boisterous and loud objections as it leads a well-coordinated social media campaign in actualizing Neo-Neftenya ends. The group continues to exert considerable force to silence the voice of those decrying the advances of the new Neo-Neftenya regime in Ethiopia.
Vilification Campaign by the Urban Elite against Oromo Constitutional Federalists
Within very few days of #HaacaaluuHundeessaa’s assassination, this constituent group based both in Ethiopia and the diaspora commenced a well-coordinated social-media-based propaganda campaign against Oromo Opposition and the #OromoProtests. Below are some crucial highlights revealing the gist of some of these specific propaganda campaigns.
#OromoProtests or the Qeerroo Movement that erupted as mourning and opposition to the slaying of Oromo activist-artist, the iconic Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, was Islamic terrorism designed to kill Christian Amharas in Oromia. The facts were that #OromoProtests and the #QeerrooMovement is yet the unwavering movement of the Oromo Nation in Ethiopia to realize their inalienable human and political right to self govern as granted and protected by the Federal Constitution of Ethiopia. And by official count, the Oromos killed were far greater in these protests [over 300 now] than any other ethnicities.
Jawar Mohammed, who has a stellar public record as the very face of #OromoProtests that brought Abiy to power, a nonviolent political activist formerly based in the U.S., and now a civilian politician whose OFC and OLF coalition rep-resented a formidable threat to Abiy’s rule is, literally, instantly painted as Oromo extremist and Islamic terrorist out to get Amhara Christians massacred.
Bekele Gerba, a world-renown, life-long non-violent activist-politician, who champions the late Martin Luther King having translated his book into the Oromo language; a rallying figure that inspires a peaceful political sea change that propelled Abiy Ahmed Ali himself to power. Now, Bekele is dubbed an Oromo radical and political extremist behind the alleged “genocide” of Amharas in Oromia by supporters.
Equalization of Neftenya with Amhara
A common vilification tactic employed by this Pro-Neftenya social class is to summarily categorize and condemn any intellectual and political critique directed at the past Neftenya political system or its current Neo-Neftenya reincarnation as an attack against the Amhara ethnic group. This is grossly and utterly inaccurate, and a coercive tactic meticulously crafted and enacted to shame and silence opposition directed at Abiy’s regime, which it deems to champion Neo-Neftenya ends.
The role of EOTC and Mahbere Qidusan
On October 26th, 2020, Petros Tesfaye, an Oromo Orthodox Priest was assassinated by unidentified assailants, in a case that shocked his religious community and observers that have not seen such a targeted assassination of a religious leader within the Orthodox Christian fold.
Although his assailants have not been identified yet, Petros belonged to the influential coalition of Oromo Orthodox Clergy in Oromia that have campaigned for recognition by the Official Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church’s leadership. At the core of their reform demands by the Oromo Clergy in EOTC is the call for official recognition of Oromia’s own Diocese as well as full clerical support, which is currently lacking, for their use of Oromo language in their churches within Oromia. To date, the demand for linguistic rights and official structural support from the center remain neglected and unmet by EOTC’s central leadership. The rift between Oromia’s Orthodox churches and its pro-Amharic center in Addis continues.
In addition, the EOTC endorsed and unleashed a very controversial group known as Mahbere Qidusan. This faction calls on Abiy’s regime as well as civilian Faithful to utilize lethal force to crack down on perceived political opponents that it has unjustifiably accused as perpetrators of religious extremism. Violence is called against Oromo rights clerical proponents within EOTC as well as against Oromo Muslims. The regime’s security and civilians responded to this call by using lethal force, killing religious leaders and their family members.
The historical role of the EOTC as the religious arm of the Neftenya system was crucial. By all accounts, it has been reinstated by influential circles of the church today. It is commonplace to see Clergy and personnel of the EOTC like Zemedkun Bekele, senior leadership in Mahibere Qidusan outright calling for the killing of Oromo Protesters on social media. Deacon Daniel Kibret is another figure from the Pro-Amharanization wing of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that en-joys an influential government post. He is a personally chosen political adviser to Abiy Ahmed himself who famously stated that Abiy’s stated goal is to fulfill and complete Menilik II’s vision for Ethiopia. Such is the consequential influence that this historically pro-Neftenya religious establishment is still unduly and tremendously exerting on current Ethiopian politics.
Neo-Neftenya Weaponization of the Judiciary
The Imperial Neftenya system’s court-ordered execution by firing squad of an Oromo leader and Nationalist, General Tadesse Birru in 1975. The system rejected his calls for reform to better the Monarchy’s relations with the Oromo populace. Another prominent Oromo Nationalist, Captain Mamo Mezemir, in 1969, preceded him, with execution by hanging by the same political show trial discharged by the Neftenya system. Any form of ethnic pluralization or integration of its diverse popular base into its ruling power structure was utterly rejected by the Neftenya system.
Ironically today, an eerily similar political show trial is underway against prominent Oromo opposition political leaders under trumped charges of terrorism. Jawar Mohammed and Bekele Gerba of Oromo Federalist Congress [OFC]; Abdi Regassa and Michael Boran along with a long list of Senior Leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front [OLF] are victims of the current Neo-Neftenya regime’s weaponization of the Judiciary. The Neo-Neftenya move to silence Oromo voices also extended to many home and diaspora Based Activists as well as Journalists charging, them, with Terrorism.
The Federalist Political Consensus
There is a Federalist political consensus represented by an overwhelming majority of Ethiopians today. Its marks are threefold. It is anti-Neftenya legacy, anti-Amharanizing structures, and anti-militarized politics. It seeks to uphold the Constitution of Nations and Nationalities, preserve the ethnic-nationally based the Federal States, and utilize fair and free democratic elections as a way forward.
In the #OromoProtests between 2014-2018, the demand for reform was clear across the board. It was to realize the democratic promise of the Multi-National Federal and Constitutional State of Ethiopia. It was not aimed at dismantling or altering that constitutional promise. The ensuing mandate from #OromoPro-tests given to Abiy’s regime was never a call to undermine, water down, or dis-mantle Federalism or its constitutional basis. It was rather to implement and realize its promises, for the Oromo and all Ethiopian people, fully and fairly across the board. #OromoProtests has launched again full force against Abiy’s regime, along with enhanced political opposition from Oromo, Tegaru, Somali, Sadama, Wolayita, etc. The outcome remains open. However, concerned parties, including external actors, would benefit by rallying behind this call for Constitutional and democratic government. Any support in the direction of reinventing the wheel, in the direction of Abiy Ahmed’s Neo-Neftenya orientation is already proven reckless and disastrous not only for Ethiopia and the region but all who have vested interest in that geopolitical region.