Part I: Peddling Ethnic Hatred
Gemechu Aba Biya
In an interview on August 1 with Semeneh Biafers of Walta TV, Hizkiel Gebissa makes many deceitful statements, as he has done in the past. It’s time to take him to task. He describes himself as a public intellectual dedicated to defending human rights in Ethiopia. But a glimpse of his interviews, speeches, and writings reveal that the man is neither an intellectual nor a human rights advocate; rather, he is an intellectually bankrupt and dishonest imposter. To fully expose his bankruptcy and dishonesty requires several pages, probably a book. Instead, I’ll choose a few examples to illustrate my point.
Officially, Hizkiel is described as a professor of Liberal Studies (whatever that means) at Kettering University in the US but he calls himself a professor of history. He published his PhD dissertation as a book in 2004, Leaf of Allah: Khat and the Transformation of Agriculture in Harerge Ethiopia, 1875–1991. I suppose, this makes him an expert in the production, distribution, and consumption of khat in Harerghe. I am not interested in reviewing his scholarly contribution on khat; I would leave that to the experts in the field. My concern here is his consistently divisive, offensive, and untruthful statements about the political situation in Ethiopia, currently and in the past.
Although his academic expertise is limited to khat, he presents himself as an expert on Ethiopian history and the political economy of countries in the Horn of Africa. Unsurprisingly, his knowledge of Ethiopian history and political economy is demonstrably superficial. In a rare display of honesty, when asked by Semeneh about the ethnic background of emperor Menelik, Hizkiel responded that he does not know. Yes, it is true he knows little about Menelik or the history of Ethiopia.
Since Ethiopia’s history is outside his academic field, he can be forgiven for his scant understanding of Ethiopia’s rich history. The issue is not the deficiency of his knowledge—that is a given; rather, it is his ostentatious pretensions, his deliberate distortion of facts, his fabrications of stories, and his fallacious arguments to advance his extremist nationalist agenda.
In all of his interviews, he describes himself as a public intellectual dedicated to defending human rights in Ethiopia. Is he? A public intellectual is an individual who is distinguished for his or her scholarly work and is engaged in advancing a just cause, whether it is economic, environmental, political, or social. In the US, there are some well-known public intellectuals; for example, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Edward Said, and Cornell West.
We may disagree with their politics, but we all admire their dedication, consistency, and scholarly work. It will be unfair to compare him with them. But it’s understandable how in the la la land of extremist nationalism, an intellectually mediocre imposter can become a star. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, as the saying goes.
A human rights activist consistently and meaningfully defends and promotes the human rights of all individuals in Ethiopia, irrespective of their ethnicity. Human rights activists often pay personal sacrifices for defending human rights violations; for example, being imprisoned. Talk is cheap. It is difficult to call Hizkiel a human rights activist. First, there is no evidence that he has contributed anything substantial to promote and protect human rights in Ethiopia. Second, he has paid no personal sacrifice for defending human rights in Ethiopia. He was teaching at Kettering while many human rights activists in Ethiopia were being tortured in jail.
Third, his activism was at best limited to producing pamphlets or making speeches that denounced the TPLF government, selectively. Whenever the TPLF government violated the human rights of the Oromo people, he was quick to denounce the government, but when the human rights of non-Oromos were violated he was conspicuously silent. Human rights activists don’t discriminate between victims of human rights abuses.
Fourth, under the Abiy government, his stand on human rights abuses are appalling. When the mob that came out to welcome his boss Jawar Mohammad to Shashemene hanged an innocent young man upside down on August 13, 2018, Hizkiel chose to keep quiet. The victim was a non-Oromo. When followers the OLF and Little Ayatollah massacred close to 60 non-Oromos in Bourayou on September 17, 2018, once again Hizkiel chose to be silent. Instead of denouncing the massacre, he condemned the coverage of the news as an anti-Oromo propaganda campaign.
Following the massacre, when the authorities in Addis Ababa arrested thousands of innocent youth and put them in a military camp, again he chose to keep quiet. When 800,000 Gideons were displaced at the instigation of extremist Oromo nationalists in June 2018, Hizkiel kept quiet. Once again, he characteristically denounced the efforts to raise funds for the victims as a propaganda ploy to discredit the Oromo people. He has yet to denounce the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing. Can such an individual be called a human rights activist? No way, not even by a khat addict.
His selective denunciation reflects his ethnicist division of the Ethiopian people between “us”, the Oromos, and “them”, the non-Oromos. A prejudiced activist cannot claim to be a human rights activist, even if we take his denunciation as activism. He is an ethnicist charlatan.
A human rights activist, even a self-proclaimed one at that, who by his silence indirectly sanctions massacres, mob hanging, mass incarceration, and ethnic cleansing acquiesces to the crime. He is an enabler of crimes against humanity.
A human rights activist works with the other fellow activists to advance a common cause, but Hizkiel attacks other human rights activists in Ethiopia who disagree with him politically. He disparages non-Oromo activists who defend the rights of the citizens of Addis Ababa to elect their own mayor directly. He calls them hoodlums who engage in political terrorism. His condemnation demonstrates that he is a political operative masquerading as a human rights activist.
Not only does he engage in selective denunciation, he spreads ethnic hatred. In most of his political discussions, interviews, speeches, and writings he instigates conflict between Amharas and Oromos. In an essay that appeared on Ethiomedia on October 20, 2016, he lists (by quoting another author) ethnic slurs directed at the Oromo more people supposedly by Amhara people, as an example of how the Amharas have oppressed, marginalized, and dehumanized the Oromo people for more than hundred years.
In the eyes of many Ethiopians, as Donald Donham keenly observed, the “Galla were pagans. They were uncivilized. Ye Galla chewa ye gomen choma yellem (it is impossible to find a Galla gentleman as it is to find fat in greens) or again Galla inna shinfilla biyatbutim aytera (even if you wash them, stomach lining and a Galla will never come clean).” In one Amharic expression, Oromos were equated with human feces: “Gallana sagara eyadar yegamal” (Galla and human feces stink more every passing day). In another, even Oromo humanity was questioned: “Saw naw Galla?” (Is it human or Galla?).
What was the purpose of listing these ethnic slurs? Why stoop so low? The khat expert knows the purpose well: it is to create resentment, animosity, and hostility among Oromos against the Amhara people. But what he should have realized is that ethnic, racial, or regional slurs are not unique to Ethiopia. They are ubiquitous elsewhere as well. Still, intellectuals don’t resort to using slurs to bolster their arguments.
I can list many Oromo ethnic slurs directed at Amharas, Keffas, Sidamas, or Somalis, but that will not strengthen whatever argument I am making other than fuel hatred. Individuals like him who resort to using ethnic insults lack the intellectual capability to provide evidence-based arguments to support their dubious claims.
A sound argument based on verifiable premise, supporting evidence, and logical conclusion requires no emotional embellishment to convince its listeners or readers. The appeal to emotion indicates once inability to produce sound arguments. An individual who claims to defend human rights does not repeat offensive ethnic slurs. The use of ethnic slurs to advance a political agenda is unconscionable, objectionable, and deplorable. A sane individual will not use ethnic slurs in any argument, unless one is under the influence of khat.
Human rights activists don’t incite ethnic violence, but Hizkiel ’s stock-in trade is inciting conflict, particularly between Amharas and Oromos, as I have shown above. Here is a more recent example. In September 2018, appearing as a prop for Jawar as usual on OMN TV, he announced that there is a political party that is dedicated to exterminating the Oromo people. The message was loud and clear: The Oromo people should be ready to fight against the impending onslaught. This story was fabricated to incite violence between the Amhara and Oromo people.
The shameless Bekele Gerba repeated the fabricated story. To his credit, Marara Gudina repudiated the story. A man who fabricates such a story cannot be human rights activist. He is a fraud. He is a criminal. Had he told a similarly manufactured story in the U.S, he would have been prosecuted for hate speech and put in jail. The khat expert has less integrity than that of a khat (drug) dealer. The sooner people realize his duplicity, particularly journalists, the lower the chances of people being duped by his deceptive, divisive, and conflict-inducing statements. May Allah help the author of the Leaf of Allah to come to his senses.