Ethnicity and Ethnic Politics in Ethiopia

By IndepthAfrica
In Eritrea
Nov 9th, 2012

By Seble Teweldebirhan, ( – Nowadays, when someone tries to be less sensitive about ethnicity, he/she is considered unsympathetic to the rights of marginalized groups and their rightful issues. At times there are accusations and arguments that, those who do not identify themselves based on ethnicity, they are promoting homogeneity (in favor of dominant groups) and denying the existence of several other ethnic groups in the country.


Ethnicity is also the main ground for prejudice against people in Ethiopia. Often, in our society the actions, opinions and political stands of individuals are evaluated and judged based on ethnic background rather than on content or results. People are often categorized automatically as supportive of a certain political group or opponents just because they belong to this or that ethnic group. With diverse history of each ethnic group which at times is based on misconstruction, and the contemporary ethnic-based federalism, it is inevitable that we get such growing attitude towards ethnicity.


With all due regard for arguments and legitimate questions of historically marginalized ethnic groups, under this article, I would like to forward some points on the difficulty of drawing a clear line between ethnic groups in contemporary (or even not too distant) Ethiopia. Ethnicity is by definition about ancestral language, culture, tradition and beliefs. It is a sense of shared history and lifestyle. Many argue that ethnicity is not inherent but rather learned from one’s environment.


If ethnicity is all about where our ancestors come from and the lifestyle they chose and followed, there is another legitimate claim in Ethiopian context that the generations before us, despite all the disparity between them, got so mixed with one another and shared their culture, lifestyle and even the language.


The reason I raised this complex issue is because I wanted to share the following short and very inspiring true story from one of my favorite autobiography of Jagama Kello, written by the renowned author Fekremarkos Desta. Jagama Kello, also known as Yebegaw Mebrek (The summer lightening) was one of the incredible freedom fighters of Ethiopia against Italy during the 1935 invasion. Only 15 at the time, the young superman from Oromia have destroyed and led multiple successful military missions against Italian troops.


In the book, the uncle of Jagama Kello, Aba Doyo, exhibits the impracticality of trying to separate one ethnic group from the other in Ethiopian context. The story goes like this.

Italians, during their invasion of five years, were challenged by Ethiopian freedom fighters beyond their expectation. The Ethiopian fighters, including the courageous young hero Jagama Kello, made the life of the Italians in Ethiopia a living hell. Therefore, they tried to learn from other colonial powers on how to rule a nation that was so diverse as Ethiopia. Of course the lesson they were looking for was not far.


The British had a success story in the divide and rule mechanism. The Italians thought that is the best way to rule Ethiopia, since there was and is so much diversity to use as a ground against one another. Of all the possibilities, the Italians chose ethnicity and tried to use it as a tool to pound the Ethiopians. They started telling the Oromo’s to wipe out the Amhara in their area by dictating that Amhara as rulers of the nation for centuries were never kind for other ethnic groups including Oromo’s. They told the same story for other ethnic groups so that they will rise against the Amhara’s. At the same time, they told the Amhara’s that other ethnic groups are conspiring to destroy them and they better prepare to defend themselves.


This method nearly worked. Aba Doyo, the uncle of Jagama Kello, was the most respected elder in Oromia Metcha area. Therefore, when the Italians told the people in Metcha to rise up against the Amhara’s, the elders decided first to consult with Aba Doyo. They told the Italians that, since Aba Doyo is the wisest of all, first they needed to confirm if their action was right. Aba Doyo had heard about this thing before the elders came to his house to seek advice from him.


Therefore, on the day of their arrival, he prepared a mixed Teff, called Keyet Teff. Keyet Teff has black, white and brown colors. He put the Keyet Teff on his door step and when the elders came, he asked them to take a small amount in their hand before entering the house. Though confused by his unusual request, they respected him so much as to question him so they took a small amount of Keyet Teff and entered the house. After that, Aba Doyo, instead of asking them why they came, he asked them to separate the white from the brown and the black. Of course, since Teff is too small, it was impractical, so they told him that they couldn’t do it.


It was after that Aba Doyo asked them why they came. They told him it was because the Italians are asking them to take actions against the Amhara’s in their area and they wanted to know his opinion on that. They also told him that in other areas of Oromia, people are rising against the Amhara’s. When they finished, Aba Doyo went to his inside room and brought a gun. He also brought his wife from the kitchen and gave the gun to one of the elders. Confused by this action, the elder asked what he should do with the gun. Aba Doyo said “I gave you the gun so that you can shoot my wife. She is from Amhara which also makes my children half Amhara”. The elders were shocked and started praying for the awful thing they just heard.


Finally Aba Doyo explained to the visitors that he was trying to demonstrate how difficult it is to separate Ethiopians based on ethnicity. “I asked you to separate the white from the black in the Keyet Teff and you have seen the difficulty. It is the same thing in our ethnic makeup. We are mixed beyond separation. We married women from all ethnic groups and we gave our daughters to husbands from different cultures and language. As Oromo’s we have a proud tradition of adopting children from all over and we are raising many children who belong to other ethnic groups. They are our family members, our sons and daughters. This is our proud history and a unique and generous lifestyle. Can we just abandon this just because Italians are telling us so?” he asked. The elders were convinced and, in Metcha Oromia, the Italian scam to create ethnic-based violence failed. (Jagama Kello (Yebegaw Mebrek), The Summer Lightning, Biography, page 15-19).

Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for

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