Written by Girma Jaldesa, an Oromo political analyst and commentator on regional dynamics & international relations.
‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it’ is a quote attributed to George Santayana, the philosopher who perhaps had some leaders in the Horn of Africa in mind. For the past century, successively, we have seen them come, one after the other, to continue an uninterrupted path of a permanent state of hostilities. A quick reflection on recent history or at least the sections within their living memory could have significantly altered the course of history in our part of the world.
To those of us who study the Horn of Africa, we cannot be oblivious to the whirlwind rise of a fringe propagation of the ‘Oromumma’ ideology in Ethiopia and its permeation of the Oromo population—a nation of people in the heartland of Ethiopia. This ideology, initially conceived in the context of Oromo nationalism to advocate for the rights and recognition of the Oromo people within the Ethiopian state, has now transformed into a full-blown movement with entirely different political aspirations contrary to its past state-centric goals. Ethiopia, with its multitude of nations, each with its own goals in this ethnically divided country, faces a unique challenge with the scale and apparent support of the central authority in Addis Ababa, where Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversees state matters. Are these audacious Oromumma believers empowered players in the crowded field of Ethiopian politics?
Numerous reports circulating in the last two weeks suggest that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali (an ethnic Oromo himself) has been influenced by some of his community elders to adopt their version of the Orommuma ideology. If the reports are true, then many in the region, including myself, would seriously question his state of mind at this juncture. If the Prime Minister pursues Oromumma, as he has increasingly shown—an ethno-nationalist ideology cantered on the supremacy of the Oromo ethnic group over other nations, particularly their interlocutors in the ongoing national struggle, i.e., the Amhara and Tigray—this would be interpreted as a leader who chose his kinsmen while neglecting the concerns and grievances of all the other peoples he leads (there are more than we think). This threatens to further fracture the delicate balance that has loosely held the country together for a long period. This ill-advised strategy, aimed at dividing and ruling based on ethnic lines, particularly between the Oromo and other main groups like the Amhara & Tigray, while also compounding the increased tensions with neighbouring Eritrea—which, for its part, had maintained warmer ties with Ethiopia since 2018—all raise serious concerns about the stability and unity of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is home to a mosaic of ethnicities, each with its unique traditional, religious, and historical leadership and culture. Abiy’s emphasis on Oromumma not only alienates other ethnic groups but also exacerbates historical tensions that have always simmered beneath the surface in the collective state building of Ethiopia from imperial times to the modern Ethiopian state. The vision of a united, prosperous country is undermined when divisive ideologies like this one take precedence over the inclusive spirit that Ethiopia desperately needs. Abiy’s focus on Oromumma, rather than promoting national unity, risks pushing the country into a dangerous trajectory.
Ethnic tensions lead to violence, displacement, and a loss of lives every day in Ethiopia; it is an ongoing cycle of motion that only varies in size and scope. Most recently, the country brutally fought a long, protracted, and brutal war with the rebel group Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), which claimed the lives of over half a million people.
The proponents of this ideology have put forward a novice starting point; their fight is Cushitic and Semitic division in the Horn of Africa. In the thousands of years, we have lived on this land, yes, we have had divisions, but none to this scale. How can you even tell between a Semite and a Cushite in the horn? Oromumma ideologues will tell you that the Amhara, Tigray, and the majority of Eritrea’s inhabitants are the Semites.
This ethnonationalist vision is also marked by a dangerous strategy that involves exploiting religious, political, and diplomatic means to create some kind of republic of Kush. This divisive approach seeks to unite fellow Cushites, such as the Somali and Afar, against what is perceived as centuries-long domination by Semitic groups, including the Amhara, Tigray, and Eritrea. However, Abiy Ahmed must tread carefully, as the potential consequences of such a strategy may jeopardize not only Ethiopia’s internal harmony but also its standing in the Horn of Africa region.
Religious Manipulation and Division One alarming aspect of the Oromumma ideology is its purported use of religious divisions within Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and Islam to advance its goals. The manipulation of religious sentiments for political gain has historically proven to be a perilous path. Ethiopia’s rich tapestry of religious diversity must be preserved, and leaders must refrain from exploiting these differences to achieve short-term political objectives.
The Oromumma ideology’s attempt to use religious divisions risks fuelling animosity and instability within the country. Ethiopia’s long-standing tradition of religious tolerance is at stake, and Abiy Ahmed should reconsider such divisive tactics to safeguard the social fabric that has held the nation together for centuries.
Political Maneuvering and Diplomatic Intrigue
Abiy Ahmed’s plan to employ political and diplomatic means, aided by certain Western countries and Arab Gulf states, to create a republic of Kush is a cause for concern. While diplomatic engagement is crucial for a nation’s prosperity, leveraging external support to pursue ethnonationalist agendas may exacerbate regional tensions.
The involvement of external actors in Ethiopia’s internal affairs raises questions about the nation’s sovereignty and independence. Abiy Ahmed should be cautious not to compromise Ethiopia’s interests in exchange for foreign backing, as this may lead to unintended consequences and further fragment the nation.
Historical Lessons: The Price of Division
The historical context of Ethiopia’s attempts at internal division and external aggression serves as a stark warning. Leaders such as King Menelik II, Haile Selassie, and Meles Zenawi faced challenges stemming from attempts to manipulate ethnic and regional dynamics. The consequences of these actions, including the current conflict in Tigray, demonstrate the long-lasting impact of divisive policies.
Eritrea’s Role and the Importance of Unity
It is imperative for Abiy Ahmed to acknowledge the pivotal role played by Eritrea in assisting Ethiopia during the recent civil war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Eritrea’s strong sense of nationhood and defense capabilities were instrumental in the defeat of the TPLF. However, Abiy Ahmed should recognize that Eritrea’s support does not come without expectations, and a collaborative approach is crucial for the long-term stability of the region.
The Mistrust of Somalia and the Horn’s Fragile Balance
The Oromumma ideology’s ambition to unite Cushite groups, including Somalia, against perceived Ethiopian domination may prove counterproductive. Somalia’s deep mistrust of Ethiopia, stemming from historical grievances and Ethiopian interventions in its internal affairs, could lead to regional tensions.
Abiy Ahmed must acknowledge that Ethiopia’s actions in Somalia, including its invasion of Mogadishu and the subsequent balkanization of the country into clan fiefdoms, have left a legacy of mistrust.
For more analysis on Horn of Africa and Ethiopia, follow Girma Jaldesa or contact him via [email protected].