‘Are you Oromo First or Ethiopian First?’

By Awol Allo

That was the question put to Jawar Mohamed by Al Jazeera’s The Stream co-host Femi Oki. Jawar’s response—‘I am an Oromo first’, and that ‘Ethiopia is imposed on me’—raised a political tsunami that provides us with a unique and revealing insight into the moral parochialism and ethical deadlock that pervades our political imagination. Many moved too quick and jumped too fast- seeking to obliterate the political stature of the man they lauded as ‘progressive’ and ‘visionary’ not long ago. Their love affair with Jawar came to a sudden halt with his declaration of loyalty to his ethnic subjectivity, as opposed to his Ethiopian subjectivity. Their objection is not merely against Jawar’s specific claims but on the overall question of why the ‘Oromo’ question, and why at this time.

As I tried to understand the modes of reasoning, forms of rationality and kinds of logic that permeated the political earthquake that followed, I am reminded of my own politics of location. How should I interpret these multi-polar exchanges that seem to traverse the spheres of politics, affect, thought and reflection? How can I avoid playing into the existing political fault lines- the politically disarming essentialism of Ethiopiawinet and the hyper-coding of ethno-nationalism? I have no answer to these questions except to say that there is no position of neutrality, an outside from which one can speak an objective truth in any discussion of issues so fraught with contingencies and complexities. In what follows, I will only address the debate that pertains to this specific question of what one is in and of himself and how that question is deeply tied to power, force, and right.

Let me begin with the notion of Ethiopiawinet—a master-signifier central to the political storm. What does it signify and how did it come to have the kind of political reality that it has? Allow me to take a bit of a detour here to establish my point. In his ‘history of the present’, Michel Foucault says this about history: “history had never been anything more than the history of power as told by power itself, or the history of power that power had made people tell: it was the history of power, as recounted by power.” History as an index of power, and as an operator and reinvigoration of the hegemony of a particular group! I think those who met Jawar’s response with such utter surprise and outrage are those dazzled by this magical function of history. This history weaves the heterogeneity, indefiniteness, and complexity of the country’s past into a coherent narration. Key events and moments in the nation’s history—stories of origin, war, victory, conquest, occupation, pillage, dispossessions, marginalization, etc—becomes discursive formations tied to power, force, and law. These dissymmetries were coded and inscribed into juridical codes, laws, and institutions- providing Ethiopiawinet the kind of truth that it now has.

Disregarding the vulgarity that has been so ubiquitous, even the most sophisticated of replies take a similar and predictable pattern: Ethiopiawinet is a kind of reality with a deeper meaning and therefore goes without saying. In a short genealogical excavation of Ethiopia’s essentialist historiography, Semir Yusuf offers a trenchant critique of the mainstream history of modern Ethiopia. He provides an interesting insight not into the truth of history but the formation of truths and the system of meaning they constitute and circulate.  They overlook the ritual inherent to that concept, the deployments made of it, the reappropriation to which it is subject, the erasures it inflicts, and the claims it seals and keeps inaccessible. I suggest that we conceive Ethiopia as a creation of a grand historical narrative and Ethiopiawinet as an ideology. Ethiopia, like the United States, Great Britain, France, Kenya, or any nation for that matter, has crafted beautiful lies of its own aimed at creating a ‘historical knowledge’ that serves as a weapon of power. Ethiopiawinet, like American-ness, British-ness, Scottish-ness, and Oromumma is an ideological construct. Both as an imaginary and symbolic form, it has no preemptory force that gives   claim to truth and rationality.

In Ethiopia, however, historical knowledge was installed in a rather invasive way, in a totalized and totalizing way, eliminating every form of counter-narrative from circulating in the social body. Because of this exclusive access to narrative production, Ethiopiawinet has come to inscribe itself not only in the ‘nervous system’ of its subjects but also in the temperament, making people believe that there is a hidden truth to this beautiful lies and myths. As a result, Ethiopiawinet became a ‘master signifier’, as psychoanalysts would say, and came to signify something pure and superior.  For those who embraced the category without questioning its constitutive logic, it is a fixed, stable, and preemptory category that signifies something divine and adulterated. It is perceived as something absolute, eternal, and immutable, an ontological form that has its own intrinsic reality. I think it is precisely this ontologization of an ideological category that explains the fury of Ethiopianists. They don’t recognize that the truth of Ethiopiawinet is a making of our own, that is not independent of social system and power relations. In their refusal to recognize the right of an Oromo to give an account of himself in his own terms and the unassailable sense of correctness that accompanies this refusal explains just how embedded and symbolic this ideology is.

For others, it is a depoliticizing category that mutes differing articulations of identity, commits historical injustice, and conceals the battle cries that can be heard beneath the rhetoric of national unity. By muting an expression of loyalty with the subject positions that power uses but deliberately and systematically misrecognizes, the dominant articulation of Ethiopiawinet depoliticizes other identity categories. By depoliticizing it, it silently erases the injustices it perpetrated against these subjectivities. By refusing to embrace this type of Ethiopiawinet, by proclaiming his loyalty to Oromumma, Jawar is attacking the hinge that connects ‘historical knowledge’ of Ethiopiawinet to power. It is not a denial of his Ethiopian identity but a displacement, and an attack on an exclusionary conception of Ethiopiawinet that is deployed as a weapon in political struggles, and one that does not recognize the right of people to be called by a name of their choosing. If there is any right of people, it is the right to be called and identified with the name they want. The refusal of Ethiopianists to recognize the voices of others reveals a play of power at work in every invocation of this concept.

 The Personal is the Political

True, every nation weaves together its own necessary myths to keep the social fabric and its ideological edifice together. But these ritualized myths that glorify the uninterrupted and untarnished glory of the nation should not annihilate the political agency of those who occupy this subject position. Oromumma is not a necessary biological category. It is a political category. It is a subject position and an identity category. Those who embody the material and lived experience of being an Oromo are political subjectivities with unique and different experience of their own. They were treated with contempt and indifference because they spoke their language. Their dignity and humanity has been reduced because they asserted their identity. For those who endured the every day gestures of humiliation and coded dehumanization, the personal is the political. They become subjects of resistance when their identity is frustrated, demeaned, when my identity, so to speak, fails as a result of a wider systemic failures. It is when the individual links his failure with systemic failure, his with the universal, rather than the personal inadequacy; that the stranger in him emerges. This is precisely what Jawar meant when he said, ‘because we are forced to denounce our identity, we ended up reaffirming and reasserting our identity’.

The words of Steve Biko are poignant reminders: When Steve Biko says, “Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being”, he is trying to politicize blackness. He is trying to destabilize the naturalized nexus between blackness and subservience. Those whose sense of worth questioned, whose dignity squashed, and humanity contested because of their subjectivity will have a different narrative of who we are as a society. Surely, the rage in Jawar’s head, the fire in his belly and the energy with which he sought to reassert his dignity and worth as an equal speaking being represents a redemptive quest for the recognition of his subjectivity and his claims as a discourse worthy of voice and visibility.

In politics, what is not said is more important than what is said in public. I personally do not need a lecture by a mathematician or for that matter a historian that these things happen in Ethiopia. I do not need anyone to tell me that they never occurred. I have seen people argue in meetings that other languages should not be spoken in public places such as universities. I have seen students in academic institution frown upon students who chose to speak in Afan Oromo; I have heard religious figures claim that it is a curse to preach in Afan Oromo. I have seen people pause with astonishment when someone fails to fit their caricatured image of an Ethiopian. And we have all seen the hostile turn around in Taxis whenever a different language other than Amharic is spoken. I know many of you will dismiss this as ‘inferiority complex’—but these are the embodied experiences of a subject that no ideology or vilification can displace. What was evident from the events of the last few weeks was that the hubris of Ethiopiawinet does not and cannot recognize other subject positions unless they speak from within its discourses and frameworks. Whatever the latter says, the former hears it as a noise, not as discourse.

Hegemony is a form of political theology. The hegemonic groups see his hegemonic position as a bestowment. They demand that the oppressed and excluded makes use of the very vocabularies, analytic categories, archives, histories, discourses and standards used by the oppressor when articulating their grievances. It demands that the oppressed and the excluded renounce its claims to past injustices for a reconciled future without saying the terms of that reconciliation. That kind of Ethiopiawinet can no longer go without saying. We need a new beginning, a new concept of Ethiopiawinet that embodies and celebrates diversity and listens to all its voices. We need an Ethiopia of all its people can walk tall assured of its dignity and worth. This subconscious hegemony that compels us from within to squash the dignity of those who refuse to use a partisan and exclusionary discourse is no way to get to that free and democratic Ethiopia.

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