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Abiy’s regime is a modern version of the Ethiopian empire-state

Political marginalization, cultural repression, economic exploitation, and state violence in Oromia reflect a continuation of Ethiopia’s imperial history.

After becoming prime minister in 2018, Abiy Ahmed positioned himself as a man of peace and democracy who would transition Ethiopia from its troubled past. This initially won him many supporters, both domestically and internationally.

He was also applauded for signing a peace deal with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, granting amnesty to political prisoners, and reducing press censorship in Ethiopia. As a result, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

But, within a short time, Abiy reversed most of the reforms he had overseen. He started to show a second face, one of cruelty, manifested in state terrorism and massive human rights violations.

While much attention was given to his administration and allies’ atrocities in Tigray, state terrorism in Oromia is also rampant.

As with violence against many long-marginalized communities in Ethiopia, Abiy’s brutal repression in Oromia and against Oromos is not new.

The perception among Oromo nationalists is that Abiy, like many of his predecessors, is running a neo-neftegna administration that exalts the glories of Ethiopia’s imperial history and seeks to continue its oppressive, brutal, and exploitative practices.

Imperial history

Defining what a neo-neftenga administration is requires an understanding of the historical neftegna-gabbar system.

Menelik II and his collaborators created the neftegna-gabbar system as a form of settler colonialism in the last decades of the 19th century by settling Amharas, Tigrayans, and other ethnic groups—mainly highlander Orthodox Christians—in Oromia and the broader Ethiopian south.

Conquering the central and southern nations and incorporating them into the Ethiopian empire did not occur voluntarily or peacefully.

Many resisted and fought against their colonizers, and this resulted in countless victims being massacred and enslaved. The colonizing army looted cattle and grain, and committed horrifying acts of mutilation, such as cutting the breasts of women and hands of men.

The army then established a system of control over the rest of the population by dispossessing them of their land, exploiting their labor, and taking their agricultural products. At times, when gabbars failed to provide what was required, they were sold as slaves.

The settlers or neftegna (meaning musketeers)—including soldiers, clergymen, and administrators—exploited the gabbars. Gabbars were treated as serfs and, in some instances, as slaves. They provided labor, tribute, and tax revenue to their new lords.

This system claimed absolute right over approximately three-quarters of the Oromo lands and provided portions of it to its officials and soldiers as a salary. Some land was granted to the Oromo collaborators who became the agents of the neftegna system by engaging in the exploitation and oppression of the Oromo people.

While the neftegna system has a pronounced cultural aspect—Amhara-Tigray culture, Amharic language, Orthodox Christianity tradition, and so on—it is also class-based. Many Oromos and others from marginalized communities have been part of the system since imperial times, mainly to advance and protect their economic and class interests.

One notable Oromo collaborator, Gobana Dacee, played a significant role in helping Menelik II in his efforts to expand his kingdom and subjugate peoples in what is today central and southern Ethiopia. Many Oromo nationalists now use the term “Gobana” or “neo-Gobana” to describe those who collaborate with the Ethiopian state and stand against the interest of the Oromo masses.

Emperor Haile Selassie’s government expanded and consolidated the neftegna-gabbar system before changes occurred in the Ethiopian empire-state during subsequent administrations that came to power in 1974, 1991, and 2018.

Although the 1974 revolution nationalized land and changed the status of the gabbar in the central and southern regions, the fundamental nature of the state was not changed. In fact, the new militarized socialist state intensified the brutalization of marginalized groups, including Oromos.

The same is true about the change of government in 1991.

Despite the TPLF-dominated EPRDF adopting multinational federalism, it largely existed only on paper. The EPRDF was never really committed to the self-determination rights that it gave lip service to. Tigrayan elites and their collaborators from other ethnic groups were dominant and, in line with their neo-neftegna predecessors, exploited marginalized groups.

Rewriting history

Critics characterize the current regime as “neo-neftegna” because it tries to modernize the Ethiopian state by glorifying imperial leaders and the history of the empire while denigrating the history of marginalized communities.

Habesha elites under successive regimes have denied the colonization of the Oromo and presented them as “invaders” of Ethiopia, referring to the so-called Oromo migrations of the 16th and 17th centuries.

But, as demonstrated by Mohammed Hassen and Mekuria Bulcha, the way Oromos are portrayed as invader expansionists is false. For instance, according to these two scholars, the Tulama Oromo lived around the Blue Nile long before Christian highlanders moved to these areas in the 13th century.

The neo-neftegna system defenders use portrayals of Oromos as expansionist invaders to justify the brutal expansion of the Ethiopian state.

In his various historically void speeches, Abiy lectures the long-marginalized peoples of Ethiopia to forget how the Ethiopian empire-state brutalized the Oromo, Sidama, Somali, Qimant, Agew, Wolayta, Gambella, Berta, Gumuz, and others.

When Abiy articulates the greatness of Ethiopia and its leaders, what comes to mind for many members of these groups is brutality, state terrorism, and human rights violations.

Despite Abiy and the Ethiopianist camp that supports him trying to discredit the historical narrative of these victimized groups and legitimize the crimes of successive Ethiopian governments, the people will never forget their real history.

Cultural destruction

Abiy’s neo-neftenga administration has also started ideological warfare on Oromummaa (Oromo history, culture, identity, and nationalism) by glorifying Amhara nationalism disguised as Ethiopianism.

As the new administration tries to revive the assimilationist nation-building project, one aspect of the strategy involves the systematic attack of Oromo political and cultural institutions.

Despite Abiy’s administration giving lip service to the importance of Gadaa/Siiqqee leaders, it is oppressing Gadaa leaders who are the custodians of Oromo culture, institutions, and democracy.

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For instance, on 1 December 2021, federal and Oromia government forces attacked a Gadaa religious ceremony in Karrayu, East Shewa Zone. They beat and abducted the Abbaa Gadaa—the traditional head of religious, social, legal, and economic affairs—other community leaders, and innocent young men. The bodies of fourteen people, including the Abbaa Gadaa, were found the next day, while 25 others were unaccounted for and are believed to be dead.

The administration has also intimidated and discouraged the primary Oromo civic institution known as the Macha-Tulama Self-Help Association (MTA) from functioning in Addis Abeba (Finfinnee) and beyond. In August 2020, Diribi Damuse Boku, the president of the association, was beaten by government forces at his home in Burayu.

State centralization

Abiy’s government has been centralizing power in a way that is reminiscent of Ethiopia’s imperial past.

Abiy used his Oromo cultural affinity, the Qeerro/Qaarree movement, and the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP, formerly the OPDO) to manipulate the EPRDF and become prime minister. Once he took power, he used the narrative of democracy, reconciliation, and transition to convince the wider public.

These conditions gave him time to reorganize ODP under his total control and consolidate power by surrounding himself with loyalists and creating an alliance against the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and Tigray’s regional government—all perceived to be threats to his centralization plans.

The Prosperity Party, created on 1 December 2019, was part of Abiy’s scheme to centralize power.

Like its predecessors, this administration has effective control over the country’s political economy and uses the military, police, and other security forces to suppress dissent.

Ethiopian prisons are now mainly filled with Afaan Oromoo and Tigrigna speakers, and the offices of many private media, such as the Oromia Media Network (OMN), are closed.

Almost all top leaders of the OLF are in prison today and its chairman, Dawud Ibssa, was released from house arrest only recently, while the OFC’s leaders were in jail until a few months ago.

This is part of a long history of targeting any community and its leaders that refuse to submit to the center.

Sadly, rather than criticizing the prime minister’s centralizing ambitions that caused the current crisis, most Amhara elites, Amhara media, and state media often blame Oromos and Tigrayans for Ethiopia’s ills.

Economic exploitation

Abiy’s government has continued the policy of land dispossession from farmers and pastoralists in Oromia and the other colonized regions.

In an impoverished country like Ethiopia, any wealthy government official has become rich by commodifying public resources, such as land, particularly in Oromia and other areas in the fertile south.

This has enabled Abiy to buy those elites who are ready to sell themselves to accumulate wealth and enjoy a luxurious lifestyle at the cost of impoverished people.

Abiy understands this neo-patrimonial system and uses it effectively to ensure loyalty.

There is, for instance, a high degree of corruption in Ethiopia’s land administration. It has been estimated that a third of Ethiopians have paid a bribe to land administration officials engaged in forgery practices, thereby illegally assigning themselves some 15,000 titles.

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Owing to corruption in the judiciary, there is a lack of confidence in the ability of the court system to resolve land disputes and challenge regulations.

Liberalization of the telecom industry is at the forefront of Abiy’s plan, announced in 2018, to privatize several sectors, including sugar, railways, and industrial parks. Abiy and his agents have since merchandized land and public institutions, such as Ethio-telecom, to the highest bidders—funds that now help finance the wars in Oromia and Tigray.

Abiy and his officials have silently continued the EPRDF’s Addis Abeba Master Plan by dispensing Oromo land and destroying Oromo culture around Addis Abeba (Finfinnee).

These economic practices are a de facto continuation of Ethiopia’s imperial system. The land, labor, and resources of marginalized people, particularly in central and southern regions, are used for a violent nation-building project that seeks to destroy their culture and political autonomy.

State violence

Any Oromo who does not conform to the neo-neftegna revisionist history, cultural destruction, economic exploitation, and land dispossession is liable to be subject to state violence.

That violence has been used to impose fear on the public as a ploy to change their political behavior and make them support the current administration.

The Ethiopian government has never refrained from attacking the OLF and OLA, along with the Oromo public, to destroy the Oromo struggle for self-determination.

Starting in 2018, when Abiy came to power, members of OLA and the Qeerroo/Qarree movement have been hunted and killed or detained in many places across Oromia.

Soon after he came to power, Abiy established military command posts in some parts of Oromia, such as Wello, Wellega, Guji, and central Oromia, giving them a free hand to kill Oromo youth and other civilians who were suspected to be Oromo nationalists or sympathizers of the OLF and the OLA.

When asked why the government failed to destroy the OLA at a Prosperity Party meeting, Fekadu Tessema, a party official, said, “If you want to completely get rid of all the fish, you will need to dry up the ocean.” Fekadu was declaring war on the Oromo public because they supported the OLA.

Having declared war on Oromia and the OLA, the administration massacred or imprisoned mainly Oromo students and farmers in Wello, Wollega, Guji, central Oromia, and other areas.

The Prosperity Party system also seems to have given at least tacit support for Amhara Fano militias attacking Oromo civilians. Regional forces from Amhara, Somali, and other regions, and reportedly Eritrean troops, are now engaged in brutality against the Oromo people.

Amnesty International notes, “Ethiopian security forces committed horrendous human rights violations, including burning homes to the ground, executions, rape, arbitrary arrests, and detentions… in response to attacks by armed groups and inter-communal violence in Amhara and Oromia.”

Public executions have also taken place. On 11 May 2021, for instance, government forces summarily executed Amanuel Wondimu, a 17-year-old boy, in daylight at a square in Dambi Dollo. Amanuel was accused of being a member of an assassin group named Abbaa Torbee, and was killed without due process.

These actions are intended to terrorize Oromos so that they abandon their struggle for self-determination. But, the opposite is happening across Oromia as Oromo nationalism has further developed. More and more young people have joined the OLA, and many support the fight for survival and freedom, including many youths who were part of the Qeerroo/Qarree movement.

Oromia’s future

The current neo-neftegna administration has left no room for the peaceful Oromo struggle that brought Abiy to power in 2018. Abiy and his supporters are now determined to destroy the OLF, OLA, and the spirit of Oromo nationalism.

At this historical juncture, the Oromo people have one of two choices: either join the struggle to achieve sovereignty and democracy or continue to be persecuted by Abiy’s neo-neftegna administration, which is trying to eliminate all Oromo dissent by killing and detaining Oromo nationalists and their leaders.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Abiy showing the statue of Emperor Haile Selassie to regional leaders at the inauguration of Unity Park; 10 October 2019; Office of the Prime Minister.

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