Genocide is a heavy word. It not only tells us that crimes have been committed but it is a word specifically designated to describe crimes that are committed because one party has declared that another group of people are less human, and as a result, not only should they not be allowed to continue living, but their capacity for inter-generational existence should be entirely exterminated. Where there is genocide, there is the worst expression of humanity, a hatred that makes perpetrators of genocidal violence believe that they are doing themselves, their communities, and the world at large a service by actively working to kill off the people they have designated as less than human because of their skin colour, their way of life, their ethnicity or other identity.
It was in the wake of a genocide that the United Nations and the other international instruments of political and social accountability that we know today were born. It was not the first genocide that had ever occurred on earth, but a chapter of violence in human history, the Holocaust, that involved a systemic, calculated, and long-term effort to exterminate people from the earth because they were labelled as un-human.
Designers of genocidal campaigns often see themselves, as being, by some intrinsic quality, more worthy and more capable of operating within human faculties such as thinking, feeling, deciding, processing, planning, and dreaming. Although some have argued that the legal definition of genocide refers solely to the physical destruction of all, or part of a group, in the Ethiopian context the term has been used to include the act of destroying a community’s cultural, economic, social, and political power in order to subjugate it to another. This is the sense in which I will use the term in this article.
The word genocide has proliferated in popular Ethiopian political discourse since November 2020, namely because of the war in Tigray, where events in the region have been termed a genocide mostly by the Tegaru diaspora. This essay will attempt to unpack the complicated ways that acts or perceptions of genocide have been utilized by the Ethiopian state and its ideological allies to support its goal: the creation of a unitary state. I will explore Ethiopia’s history of genocide and the present institutionalization of this history; the events that occurred in Oromia in the wake of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa’s assassination; and the collective and institutional denial of the genocide in Tigray.
Ethiopia’s history of genocide
Contrary to the narrative that Ethiopia is the only country on the African continent that was never colonized, Ethiopia itself is a colonial state built on a colonial legacy that involved, like other imperial states, genocide. The process of forming the Ethiopian state involved a power-hungry monarch backed by several European powers expanding into the southern, eastern, and western independent territories and imposing a cultural, social, political, economic, and even spiritual hegemonic order over a vastly diverse people. This required an attempted eradication of already established ways of life—in other words a genocidal pursuit. Where there was resistance, people were simply wiped out. One example of this is the Calanqo massacre of 1887. On 6 January of that year, Menelik II’s army invaded eastern Oromia and indiscriminately killed thousands of Oromo and non-Oromo people. Another example is to be found in the events that took place in Aanolee in 1887.
In the case of the Ethiopian empire, there operates an ideology that purports that Ethiopianism, an Amhara-centred cultural, spiritual, and political worldview, is the superior existence and you can, as a non-Amhara, experience semblances of belonging and power in this paradigm if you do not oppose it with a counter-existence. The goal of the Empire was and still is the control of land and exploitation of resources, and despite the presence of a belief that those that are of a given identity are inherently entitled to manage the economy and rule, the Empire can integrate those willing to assimilate.
The idea of Ethiopia was resisted since its inception. For example, in his book Conquest and Resistance in the Ethiopian Empire, 1880 -1974: The Case of the Arsi Oromo Mohammed Abbas Ganamo describes various military resistances that emerged in response to Menelik II’s efforts to consolidate the lands of southern Oromia into the Ethiopian state. This kind of resistance will continue until there are fundamental changes in the way the state relates to the people, or until the state no longer exists. This is not lost on the architects and beneficiaries of Ethiopianism, and although seemingly unable to forfeit their unitary and ultra-capitalist ambitions, the institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.
The most obvious example was the hyper-focus on Abiy Ahmed’s Oromo ethnic identity when he was appointed leader of the transitional government. His appointment was touted as a win for the Qeerroo movement and an antidote to the oppression of the Oromo mass at large. His existence as an Oromo became (and still is) a pacifier used when anyone dares to point out that extrajudicial killings, detention, and other war crimes are taking place with the intention of eradicating Oromos who resist assimilation, refuse silence, and embody a counter-existence.
Another example is the institutionalization of the Oromo thanksgiving festival, Irreechaa. A celebration rooted in the Waaqeefata religion, Irreechaa is celebrated by Oromos of all walks of life, representing the heart of Tokkummaa (unity) amongst the Oromo nation. Being such a strong display of culture, identity, and national unity, Irreechaa has been targeted with violence by previous Ethiopian governments, including, for example, the Irreechaa massacre of 2016. However, in 2021, Irreechaa was turned into an exclusive event that took place in Oromia’s capital Finfinnee. People bought expensive tickets and a special ceremony was held by some small body of water (the Irreechaa ritual requires the wetting of leaves in water). As this took place, the Oromo mass who were trying to participate in the day’s events outside of the bubble created by the state were arrested, beaten, and altogether obstructed from commemorating the event. For Ethiopia to continue as one polity without reckoning with its need to fundamentally change its posture towards the people who live within its borders, genocide will remain an existential need of the state.
The institutionalization of inclusion and progress is an effective tool used in Ethiopia today to facilitate a real and ongoing genocide.
In the early hours after the assassination of singer, songwriter, and civil rights activist Haacaaluu Hundeessaa on 29 June 2020, a myriad of events began to unfold in a number of Oromo towns, including Shashamane and Dheera. What happened in the final hours of 29 June and into the morning of 30 June would form the bedrock of a narrative that associates all expressions of Oromummaa (Oromo nationalism) with hatred and violence towards the minority Amhara ethnic group. Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero, but a coordinated and curated campaign involving largely, people who were not from the town itself.
According to an investigation conducted in the days following the incident, eyewitnesses recount that young people involved in the violence were not locals and had access to information that could only have come from local government officials. Who exactly was behind the attacks and what the intended consequences of the attacks were can only be speculated at, but there have been obvious and enduring impacts on the towns in question and on the position of the Oromo and Oromummaa within the state’s larger narrative.
Shashamane was a booming economic centre with investments flowing directly from the international market into the heart of the city, rivalling the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, which is an urban site that has been manufactured to serve a small economic elite. The destruction of Shashamane, a space that exists outside of Ethiopianist cultural and religious hegemony, severely impacted the town’s representation in the international community and successfully diverted investment. As for the social and political impacts, Oromummaa was henceforth marked as a precursor for genocidal violence, as the violence in Dheera and other places was labelled a massacre of a Christian-Amhara minority by a fanatically nationalist, even religious-nationalist, Oromo majority (Oromo being a majority Muslim nation).
Eyewitness accounts suggest that the rampage that consumed the town of Dheera was not merely visceral rage ignited by the killing of a hero.
Although these assertions completely ignore the fact that the violence also targeted Oromos themselves and the fact that Oromo and Amhara communities have been living together peacefully in these towns for decades, this assertion has manipulated the truth that there is dormant social and political unease between these communities that is rooted in unresolved historical trauma and if triggered, violence could erupt.
The creation of perceived genocide sounds like a conspiracy theory, and many were painted as conspiracy theorists whenever analysis suggesting that something strange was going on was offered. But the truth is that there is a pattern. Where Oromo nationalistic ambitions are represented, whether by armed struggle, peaceful resistance, or the act of counter-existence, evidence to suggest that the ambition of the Oromo is to exterminate Amhara people from Oromia emerges in the form of actual dead Amhara civilians. Although impossible to refute an eyewitness statement recounting Oromo people killing non-Oromo people because of their identity without sounding like a callous brute, the truth is that there have never been independent investigations into these killings, and where the accusations have fallen on the Oromo Liberation Army, the group has itself called for such investigations time and time again.
It is also true that this kind of genocidal violence taking place is not a far-fetched idea. The state is aware that what has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma. This, though, does not mean that the trauma has been addressed or that it has no present-day impacts on the dynamics of equality and marginalization in the context of the wider Ethiopian state. Instead of taking steps to heal this trauma, the state is using the perception of genocide to create a vacuum that only its unitary, supposedly ethnically transcendent political ideology, can fill.
Conversely, it is difficult to hear the first-hand testimonies that have come out of Tigray and not refer to what has gone on in the region since November 2020 as a genocide. And yet the Ethiopian state and its supporters have pushed to frame the conflict as void of any actors that are targeting Tegaru people because of their identity. If it were to admit that such a thing has occurred, then the very logic that the Prosperity Party’s unitary politics rests on, the logic suggesting that Ethiopia does not care for ethnic identity, would come undone.
What has created a fabric of relative peace and cooperation between Oromo and Amhara people in Oromia is a willingness, at a grassroots level, to live day-to-day life beyond historic trauma.
In the conclusion of the first essay in this series, I noted that the obsession Ethiopia has with a falsified self-image, where it simply cannot do or be wrong, has made denial feel like the only way that it can survive. The other option would be to give up on the dream of a hegemonic nation, but that would require reckoning with deep-seated shame and guilt over what has been done thus far in pursuit of this dream. The collective denies that there is a genocide going on in Tigray because doing the opposite would mean accepting that the unitary Ethiopian polity as envisioned by the Empire of old and its ideological descendants can only come to be through genocide, an act that Ethiopian exceptionalism suggests that the Ethiopian human being is just not capable of.
Not only does the desire to avoid confronting generations of shame and guilt make the Ethiopianist collective unable to call out crimes for what they are, but it also plays a huge role in the cyclical nature of genocidal violence all across the country. I believe that state violence in Ethiopia is viciously perpetual because it is fighting to keep shame at bay. When we cannot release ourselves from the shame of any given past, we do more of the thing that we are ashamed of, with grandeur and excess, in order to normalize these acts to the parts within us that are reeling in shame and to tell the world that “there is no shame here”. What the empire has done to the Oromo over decades, what it is doing to the Tegaru today and the manner in which it is using the lives of innocent Amhara people as the political game is simply genocide weaponized to build economic and political power.