Understanding ethnicity and politics in Ethiopia – Teshome Borago

by Teshome Borago

Prof. Berhanu Nega, Chairman of Ginbot 7

I am writing this article after listening to the recent magnificent speech by the Addis Ababa mayor-elect and PATRIOTIC GInbot 7 party leader Dr. Berhanu Nega in Silver Spring, Maryland and reading the recent article by Prof Messay Kebede

Eight years have passed since I met Dr. Berhanu Nega in New York city, but he is as eloquent in his speech today as he was back then in 2007. He reminded us why tens of millions of Ethiopians rose up to vote for his CUD party during their 2005 national election victory.

Dr. Berhanu’s speech was historic and hopeful. [1] Berhanu described TPLF as a “wounded animal” but he said removing this animal will not be an easy task. He warned Ethiopians not to be bystanders and instead actively contribute to the cause of democracy and freedom that is led by his PATRIOTIC GINBOT 7 organization. Berhanu showed his statesmanship during his emotional show of solidarity and sorrow for the dozens of young Oromos massacred by TPLF recently. He said we should put humanity before politics and grieve for the death of fellow Oromo Ethiopians. Despite disapproving what he called “identity politics” influencing Oromos, Dr. Berhanu said that the way forward is not ignoring the legitimate concerns of oppressed Oromos. Berhanu said we should respect and recognize ethnic politics & identities like Oromo. But he said the best long-term solution for Ethiopia is ultimately land reforms and embracing democracy, not tribalism.

The most important point was that Dr. Berhanu did NOT say Amharas should “join” the Oromo protests. He said “all Ethiopians” should support their fellow Ethiopian Oromos against TPLF. After listening to Dr. Berhanu, I read another article by Prof. Messay Kebede. I have a lot of respect for Prof. Messay and his scholarly contribution to our democratic struggle. But the professor’s last articles urging just Amharas to join Oromos is wrong and inappropriate. Prof. Messay is unintentionally using the same divisive language and tone used by TPLF against pro-democracy Ethiopians. I urge Prof. Messay to listen to Dr. Berhanu’s message.

Prof. Messay is not alone because some tribal organizations also wrongly label us “Amharas.” I wonder… are all the diaspora who have supported CUD/Ginbot 7/UDJ “Amharas”? What about our leaders now and then? Are Birtukan Mideksa and Berhanu Nega “Amhara?” Are our diaspora leaders like Obang Metho and Prof. Alemayehu G. Mariam “Amhara” just because they preach unity? Even historical military leaders for a “unitary nation” (ex. Menelik, Gobena, Mekonnen, Abebe Aregai etc.) are they “Amhara?”…. None of them are.

I think Prof. Messay should recognize that when he writes articles on Ethiopian media/websites, he is speaking to all Ethiopians, not just Amharas.

If Prof. Messay thinks that all pro-unity and pro-democracy Ethiopians are only Amhara, he is very wrong.

I am concerned because most of the new generation youth inside Ethiopia are already victims of the TPLF tribal propaganda that imposed wrong ethnic labels on our population. The TPLF has been lying to our people, by saying that all pro-unity Ethiopians are only Amharas. We in the diaspora have a responsibility to reverse this 20 years of lies. We should not be victims too.

In 1992, TPLF hired OLF hardliners to destroy the Ethiopian educational system. Meles Zenawi personally picked the Oromo extremist Mr. Ibsa Gutema for Ministry of Education job in the 1990s. Mr. Ibsa changed all Ethiopian historical textbooks to make new generation Oromos, Amharas and others hate each other. So when we hear about young Oromos cursing at our proud history, why are we surprised? When we hear about young Amharas in Bahir Dar stadium insult Oromo athletes, why are we surprised? They are all products of Mr. Ibsa and TPLF/OPDO/OLF propaganda. In 1990s, the OLF Education Minister of Ethiopia Mr. Ibsa Gutema adopted and imposed the foreign Latin script for Oromo alphabet instead of the local Geez. So we must remember who has divided our country for two decades. After TPLF used OLF like condom in 1992, ironically Meles sent Mr. Ibsa on a plane aboard first-class flight out of Ethiopia, while innocent OLF foot soldiers were massacred coldblooded.

Then in 2005, when hundreds of pro-CUD young Ethiopians and women were massacred by TPLF in Addis Ababa Streets; these OLF Oromos blamed the victims as “neo-neftegna.” In 2005, the OLF diaspora Oromos said these young Ethiopian boys and girls shot and killed by TPLF were “the greater of two evils.”[2]

So this is proof that, the OLF diaspora does NOT have the moral authority to accuse us Ethiopians of not joining the Oromo protests today.

But more importantly, we should not downplay the Ethiopian democratic movement as a mere “Amhara” only movement. We should not let TPLF define us by imposing wrong ethnic tags on our forehead. We have the right to self-identify ourselves as Ethiopians.

If some Oromos and others want to isolate themselves with identity politics, like Dr. Berhanu said, we may persuade them otherwise but we must respect their decision since everyone has a human right for self-determination. We must recognize that all of us are Ethiopian natives from the country we call Ethiopia but inside Ethiopia, different groups of people have chosen to identify themselves differently. For example, below are the 3 biggest groups inside Ethiopia (which has over eighty other tribes.)

1. Amhara

Amhara is one of the largest linguistic groups in Ethiopia. While some natives living around Gondar/wollo have used the label Amhara before, it is still a new ethnic label recently imposed by TPLF on diverse people from Gondar, Gojjam, Shewa, Wollo etc. (despite not sharing common custom) but just because they speak Amharic. While between 2 to 3 million Amharas were not counted in the last 2007 census, the fact is millions more non-Amharas are wrongly labeled Amhara just because they speak Amharic, this includes in the urban and assimilated minorities like the Agew, Qemant etc. The “Amhara” label currently exists as maintained by the TPLF’s puppet ANDM party.

2. Oromo

Oromo is another large ethnic group. Just like Amhara, the label “Oromo” is a recent creation of OLF and TPLF/OPDO, used to unify a diverse (previously separate) groups of clans, gibes and regions based on language. And historians credit the Oromo custom of Gudifecha used on neighboring tribes, which exponentially expanded Oromo language among non-Oromos in the south. Just like Amharic speakers, Oromos also assimilated the Sidama, Damot and others; while the Karayu, Guji etc. adopted Afan Oromo to become Oromo. Now they say they are all “Oromo First.” This is their new preference that we must respect.

3. Ethiopians

Ethiopian (Ethiopiawi) is another identity inside the country Ethiopia for millions of multi-ethnic people who are mixed and for all others who reject the TPLF tribal identification. For centuries, we called ourselves “Ethiopian first.” When we call ourselves Ethiopian, it does not mean we abandon our linguistic diversity. We embrace all our ancestral identities but choose to be called Ethiopians.

All these 3 above big identities are under the country we call Ethiopia.

In my opinion, we lose the battle against TPLF & OLF the moment we allow TPLF & OLF to define our identity. This is why I disagreed with Prof. Messay’s article and wording. If we allow woyane to impose the label “Amhara” on all of us, we already lost the battle! For example, Dr. Berhanu has some Gurage background but he chose to be “Ethiopian first” because that is in his psych, his sociological, political, historical being and sense of national identity. I myself have Welayta and Oromo ancestors but I am Ethiopian first and forever. Dr. Berhanu’s ancestors and my ancestors probably spoke different languages but Ethiopiawinet has transformed our identity and made us one people. Both of us share a common regional culture which is multicultural, common language which is multilingualism; and we have a shared group history with a shared polity and common homeland. This is what it means to be “Ethiopian ethnicity” as opposed to Oromo, Amhara, Tigray etc. ethnicity.

Last year, I wrote an article saying that “ethnic Ethiopians” are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia; bigger than Oromo and bigger than Amhara. Some people asked me how is that possible?

But I replied back– How is it possible that the CUD won 99% of the 2005 election in Addis Ababa if “Amharas” are only 40% of the city population? The TPLF said CUD is only Amhara. But the CUD easily won the 2005 election inside Addis Ababa with 99% of the vote. In fact, the CUD won the election everywhere nationwide, including in many parts of Oromia.


Like Dr. Berhanu said, the best way forward for Ethiopia is via democracy; while recognizing past injustices and respecting the various ethnic nationalists who seek ‘group rights.’ But we are not going to become just a collection of or a united states of 80 tribes. The next step in our progress is for us to recognize that not all Ethiopians are hyphenated identities like Oromo-Ethiopian, Amhara-Ethiopians etc. because some of us are just simply Ethiopians! This is the real reason why ethnic-federalism has failed in Ethiopia. Ethnic-federalism failed to recognize not only the millions of mixed Ethiopians but also the millions of others who simply prefer to label themselves as Ethiopians only. So We must recognize that one of the largest ethnic groups inside our country are ethnic Ethiopians – an identity that transcends all other identities in Ethiopia, and an identity formed as a by-product of the shared history of all. Only then can we craft a new democratic and practical federalism system that will be viable on the ground at the local and federal level.

1 thought on “Understanding ethnicity and politics in Ethiopia – Teshome Borago

  1. this is the best article i read on etnicity in ethiopia
    i am also mixed with tigre fathr and sidamo mother.
    weyane has divided my family to thepoint that my mother’s family does not speek to my father’s family. the tribal politic has done the same destruction in our motherland.

    ESAT media should use the same technic to fight weyane because our ethnicity is ethiopianism and that will bridge the gap between all sides
    it will be easier to create democracy when we realize how interconnected our people are in ethiopia

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