Ethiopia: Behind the Ethnic Cleansing in Benishangul-Gumuz
By Fekade Shewakena
The despicable and barbaric action of targeting, evicting and deporting ethnic Amaharas from the Benishangul-Gumuz ethnic state in western Ethiopia is a horrific crime and a crime against humanity by any measure and the outrage of Ethiopians across the world is justified. The stories we hear from the victims themselves and the witnesses who saw it are heart wrenching. Thanks to social media and communication technology, we are hearing from the victims themselves and seeing some of their tragic pictures in real time irrespective of where we live. Thanks to the folks at ESAT TV and Radio for the relentless coverage. I have even heard many supporters of the Ethiopian regime, at least those who live outside of Ethiopia, condemn this barbarism. They should be applauded for that. What kind of sane person cannot be outraged when watching this replay of a Nazi pogrom that targets an ethnic group who were literally frog-marched and, in the words of the victims themselves, told to go to “their country” and “wherever their ancestors were born”? What do you feel when you are told this nonsense in your own country, the country your fathers and forefathers defended and died for? The victimized ethnic Amharas were beaten, violently dragged off their homes and forced to pay for the trucks that packed them inhumanely, transported them out of the Benishangul Gumuz state, and dump them at the edge of another ethnic homeland without anything to help them stay even for a day. The government has not even denied or confirmed reports that one truck loaded with more than sixty people had overturned at night and fifty nine deportees were killed. We heard that women were giving birth in the wilderness and children died of suffocation. What kind of decent human being would watch this unconscionable action of a government do this to its own people, particularly to the most vulnerable and not get outraged?
While we are at it, it is good to know that this is a part of Ethiopia where even Sudanese nationals related to tribes inside Ethiopia freely move in and out as they wish and depending on the season of their comfort. Note also that the Amharas are not a minority in this ethnic region. Based on the 2007 census, Amharas with 21.8% are the second largest ethnic group among six other ethnic groups inhabiting the area. The largest ethnic group, the Berta, is only slightly larger than the Amhara at 25.4%. Important to note is also that the Amhara are allowed only to elect officials to all levels of government but cannot be elected themselves – democracy Ethiopian style. And lo and behold, this is the area where we are building the huge Nile Dam that we are being asked to contribute money for and that Sudan and Egypt hate like the plague.
Only the Ethiopian government media thinks it is hiding this horrific story. Embassies of Ethiopia’s donor countries in Addis Ababa, who tirelessly tell us how they care for civilization and human rights, have also chosen to look the other way. This barbarism is theirs too as they are underwriting it in so many ways. That may partly explain their silence. The only silver lining I found in this whole sad story is that the local, indigenous tribes and ethnic groups have not joined the officials in this crime. Many, we even heard, were sympathetic to the victims. We all need to be proud of them. They have not lost their senses even as their chiefs lost theirs.
But here is the major point. Many Ethiopians seem to miss the root cause of this crime and get outraged at the chaffs. The root cause of this ethnic cleansing and the factor that created it is embedded in the vision set out for Ethiopia by its rulers, the TPLF/EPRDF, as soon as they took power. The officials of the Benishangul-Gumuz state and those in Guraferda, Bench Maji Zone, in the Southern Ethiopia Regional State, were executing a Grand Vision imbedded in the creation of the ethnic homeland – the Killil. That is why some officials seem to be surprised by our surprise and were giving incoherent responses to some media interviews. In a way, you can argue that the local officials who are doing this crime are also victims of the Grand Vision which they were told was a good official policy.
The Benishangul officials somehow failed to learn from their comrades in the Southern Regional State in Guraferda Bench Maji who as we speak are doing the same thing. Had they done it a few victims at a time, the outcry would have been easily muted. In the Guraferda case, they seem to get smarter after doing a massive eviction when they started out last year. Now they are doing it on “a smaller group of victims at a time” basis. They seem to have learnt that the larger their victims the louder the visibility and outrage. Other than that, the local officials are doing their job prescribed in the Grand Vision.
When Meles Zenawi said, “what is Axum to the Wolayita and the Castles of Gondar to the Oromo”, he may have spilled the beans quite early in his tenure, but he was not saying it out of ignorance or saying anything outside of what he believed. The suggestion was to create a psychology among people that anybody born outside of your ethnic homeland does not belong with you – that Ethiopia’s numerous ethnic groups are mechanically joined units that share very little among one another. The Grand Vision stipulates that the best way to divide and rule Ethiopia, and fight age-old and powerful Ethiopian nationalism that stood on their way, was to reduce it to divided units and inward-looking ethnic nationalism. Of course, this was not an innovation by Meles or TPLF. It was first invented by the Italians who twice invaded Ethiopia and, to their unforgettable surprise, found out that Ethiopian nationalism is more powerful to tear down, and that it is hard to divide Ethiopians along their ethnicity and conquer their country. A version of the current ethnic map is first made by Italian strategists and visionaries, if you can call them that.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am all for the rights of ethnic groups to promote their cultures, languages, etc., and believe that any attempt at democratizing Ethiopia should do its best to do away with ethnic inequality in the country. I also know it is a challenge for any government trying to address it. I have monkeyed with Marxism- Leninism when I was a collage kid. When I began to see and understanding my country fully, I found out that any solution for Ethiopia’s ills can only be based by studying and understanding Ethiopia and its complexities and devising indigenous solutions and not by importing European ideas. I believe we can find our own solutions.
Anybody who thinks that the motive behind the manufacturing of the “killil state” by the TPLF/EPRDF was to empower ethnic groups and help them promote their language, culture etc, and do away with ethnic inequality, was apparently taken for a ride or has not paid attention to the philosophy embedded in the formation of ethnic homelands – the killil. The fact is you don’t necessarily need the ethnic killil to make ethnic groups or so called “nations” and “nationalities” and “peoples” equal. In fact, for ethnic groups to be equal citizens in the country, you don’t necessarily have put them inside a geographic enclave. I am a student of geography. I can make you digital maps of ideal federal states that can be optimally used to help avoid inequality between ethnic groups, fight poverty, and strengthen the Ethiopian union, all at the same time, by crunching hundreds of variables on a computer. It is even possible to avoid the current ridiculous hierarchical classification of ethnic groups into “nations”, “nationalities” and “peoples” which inherently perpetuates inequality.
The current practice only exposes the regime that it does not have even a slight commitment to the rights of ethnic groups. I know many have come to this conclusion by looking at what the regime is doing to the Agnuak in Gambella. According to current practice in Ethiopia, you will lose your citizenship rights, if you are a citizen at all, as soon as you move from your designated ethnic homeland and move to another. Think about it. In the country where I currently live, the son of a Kenyan immigrant is the President of the country. When I think of it, it painfully reminds me of how far in the past my beautiful Ethiopia still lives in. My children and grand children can become presidents or senators in the country that gave me refuge. My relatives who live outside of their ethnic homeland in their own country are not allowed to run and hold even a “kebele” office. It is simply unconscionable that this is happening in the twenty first century. Has anybody wondered why individuals of mixed ethnicity, which probably number more than thirty million, are forced to choose between their father’s and mother’s ethnicity when they are issued ID cards? Isn’t this a crime against an entire people?
So please don’t tell me that the ethnic homeland states of Ethiopia are set up with the good intention of helping ethnic groups achieve equality. Ato Meles Zenawi and those who shared his Marxist- Leninist views very well know that there cannot be a sustainable oppression of one group of people by another without an economic basis. The only economic basis with which the ruling classes in Ethiopia in the past, be it Amahara or a multiethnic class, was able to oppress another group for a long period of time was because of unequal land ownership. But the dergue, Mengistu Hailemariam’s government, has done away with that seventeen years before the TPLF took over. The dergue also targeted Amharas and killed many. In the absence of an economic basis to point to as the basis of oppression, TPLF leaders have to manufacture some tool. The only tool they found in their tool box was linguistic differences and the hatred of the “other”. People were encouraged to hate one another and feel their differences with others more than what they share in common. That was why they dismissed Ethiopia’s long recorded history, the very thing that joins us in pride as Ethiopians as “Teret” (folk tale). I see many countries use even mythologies to help them promote their union. In Ethiopia we are asked to despise even the facts on our record.
It appears that this hate is bearing bigger fruits with time and that is exactly what we are seeing in Benishangul Gumuz and Guraferda now. What we are reaping is what has been sawn, and I am afraid this is not going to be the end of it and may not stop at the Amhara. We are hearing that some of the Benishangul deportees are now allowed to return. Most probably this is due to the need to mute the worldwide outcry and appease some donors but not out of the realization of the wrong they did. The damage is already done. I have no idea how this traumatized people would live a normal and secure life even if they are returned. Some who are very traumatized are even saying they will better die on a street anywhere than return back.
If Ato Meles Zenawi was alive today, I am sure he would pull all his word-craft to justify the crime in Benishangul-Gumuz. He already did justify the deportation from Guraferda in front of the “parliament” last year by saying that the Amhara “settlers” were destroying forests and doing unplanned use of land. He didn’t even care his justification run in violation of the constitution. You see, in civilized communities across the world, the constitution is meant to protect the people from government excesses and the power government holds over people. In Ethiopia it is only quoted when there is a need to protect the government from the people and often to intimidate and throw critics and opponents into the kaliti dungeon.
The whole idea and talk about oppression of nations and nationalities, as they call them, was propagated only to patronize the ethnic elites and facilitate their cooperation in the Bantustanization of Ethiopia and reduce the country to units manageable to rule. That was how you could manufacture surrogate ethnic parties. This was the reason the multiethnic Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM) was forced to become an ethnic Amhara party overnight, though it is obvious that none of it looks like a party created to help Amharas.
Folks, whether you like it or not, this is the vision that will definitely challenge Ethiopia’s survival as a nation in the future. And this is the vision that all of Ethiopia’s officialdom and party cadres are swearing to preserve. Be afraid not only for the Amhara, this poison embedded in the philosophy of our government’s ethnic policy can destroy Ethiopia if left unreformed. This fire will catch more forests. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, as my American friends would say.
Yes, we are witnessing a painful tragedy in progress and I understand why many of you are crying. I myself did shade some tears when listening to the voices of the unfortunate. But don’t let your tears cloud you from seeing the real reason. There is a need for a huge change in Ethiopia.