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The Plight of the Southerners in Feudal Ethiopia and their Current Situation:A Southernerís perspective

By Tesfaye Habisso
Tigrai Online April 03, 2013

Ambassador Tesfaye Habisso
Tesfaye Habisso is a former Ethiopian ambassodor to South Africa

The purpose of this memoir is not to instill feelings of hostility amongst the Southern Ethiopian Peoples towards the Amhara or the Tigrai people or both (there are, and have been, some fanatic and extremist groups already fretting to do just that) but to briefly reminisce about some of the terrible ordeals the Southerners—the Oromo, the Sidama, the Wolayta, the Hadiya, the Kambata, the Gedeo, the Gurage, the Kaffa, the Yem, the Gamo, the Gofa, the Dawro, the Dorze, et.c. have gone through during the formation of the Ethiopian Empire State around the end of the 19th century – and the tortuous ordeals faced by these peoples in their struggles to shape their own destiny, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate Guinbot 20—a historic day and a momentous occasion which affirmed, at least symbolically, the right of national self-determination and the political equality of all nations and nationalities in Ethiopia and to the equitable sharing of the political and economic resources of the country, and a day wherein we unambiguously and unflinchingly renew our solemn resolve and vow to right the wrongs of the past in a concrete manner and to insure that the ugly past will never again resuscitate in this ‘nation of many nations.’ It is in this noble spirit that I present this piece of mine to all compatriots here at home and elsewhere in foreign lands.

As the eminent Indian historian Dr. R.C. Majumbar puts, “history should express the truth, without fear, envy, malice, passion or prejudice and irrespective of all extraneous considerations.” This comment precisely sums up what is expected of a historian when he/she writes down a narration or a report or a book. Majumbar further emphasizes that the “sole aim of the history is to find out the truth by following the canons commonly accepted as sound by all historians”. As another Indian historian, Vinod Kumar, notes: “Whether the past history glorifies anyone or is full of ugly incidents, the future generations must be told. There is no shame in telling the truth.”

More than eight decades of ‘settler rule’ (‘neftegna sireat’) over the Southern Peoples starting from the reign of Emperor Menelik II to the downfall of Emperor Haile Sellassie I in 1974 had decapitated most indigenous political structures of the Southern Peoples by removing the highest levels of traditional authority, but had not completely demolished them. The preservation of traditional authority in the form of “balabat” (‘chieftain’) helped cushion the blow and maintain continuity, while also facilitating the task of the rulers. Nevertheless, for several decades the relationship between northern settlers and southerners in this area had been that of master and subject, landlord and tenant, tax collector and tax payer. Above all, the horrors of Menelik’s conquest when the relatively unarmed tribesmen and women, old and young, were indiscriminately mown down by the emperor’s riflemen spread fear, trepidation, servility, abasement and despair among the southern peasantry. A Hadiya hero’s lamentations, following his close friend’s (Lachamo Gagabo) hanging by the Amhara because of Lachamo’s alleged engagement in slave trade, vividly explains the uselessness of resistance at the time in the following words:

“Ganamakena, fexfexakena, Amaleki godab sabatim, giirra wojjija, Gibaaka, dar-agakena, goluns-ladamim xoorooyo yaako’o! ( Literally, the meaning goes more or less like this: We cannot fight the Amhara as their waists are equipped with fire spitting bullets; we cannot escape them and flee to distant lands as the bullets travel in such a speed that even the vultures/birds of the sky cannot escape them.”

This precarious situation was further aggravated for the Southerners by the complete expropriation of their lands by the alien invaders from the North, and land was the main source of livelihood, pride and dignity in traditional Ethiopia. Even the highest traditional authority symbolized by the “balabat” (chief) was less significant and less influential when compared to the role of a simple northern settler or “neftegna” (‘gun-bearer’). The latter was given a higher social and political status than the “balabat” before the Amhara courts of justice, police, prisons, churches, and governors. The “balabat” was only a functionary tool for facilitating the rule of the Northerners, and for this service he was given “balabatland” (one third of the whole land, one-third given to the Orthodox Church and the rest expropriated by the State whose representatives were Amhara land-lords and their assistants, the Neftegnas or ‘gunbearers’). The majority of the southern peoples were reduced to landless tenancy and servitude. As Margery Perham stated:

The principle that tribute rested on the land rather than on the “gabbar” (tenant) was easily forgotten, and in these wide depopulated regions it was more important to be allotted so many “gabbars” than so much land…. Generally speaking, especially in the Negro and Sidamo provinces, the position of “gabbar” became hardily distinguishable from slavery.[1]

An Ethiopian political scientist, Gebru Mersha, succinctly points out thus: “…The situation in the conquered territories of the south was totally different [from that of the northern Christian provinces]. Here a foreign power, foreign in all its senses, imposed on the vanquished its political, economic and cultural domination and as a result a new set of political, economic and ideological relations were established. The violence visited upon the peoples, both to achieve the conquest and to maintain the empire was of such ruthlessness that the conquered peoples were reduced to serfs and slaves and their conditions were akin to those of the other African peoples subjugated by European colonialists.”[2] Indeed, a British visitor to these provinces in the middle thirties, though friendly to Ethiopia, said it was far worse.[3] Meanwhile, the slave trade itself was a constant drain upon the subject peoples. It is thus mainly the status of gabbar (serf) as extended to the conquered provinces which gave the word its peculiarly evil significance outside Ethiopia. Mrs. Sandford admits that the gabbar status ‘was responsible for much of the misery of the distant provinces where appeal was impossible and resistance useless’.[4]

Northern officials posted in the south acted as supreme rulers, and the submissiveness of the peasantry tended to reinforce the officials’ self-image. The peoples of the south had felt the weight not only of the power vested formally in the officials, but the entire “neftegna” and northern settler groups settled in their midst—all of whom had been considered representatives of the ruling power. “The bone of the “ensete”(false banana plant) is in the root; the power of the Amhara lies somewhere else”, runs a Kambata proverb indicating that Amhara power derived from the state. Recourse against the abuse of such power, the southern peasant has felt, expressed itself in endless rebellions, intermittent revolts, skirmishes and ambushes of ‘neftegna’ contingents moving from one area to another throughout the rule of both Emperor Menelik II and Haile Sellassie I . Another Kambata proverb declares: “To accuse one Amhara before another Amhara is like trying to separate water from water”; and still another says: ‘A Kambata who has cut a tree is guiltier than an Amhara who has killed a man.’ [5]

The most significant manifestation of Amhara power in this region was the initial expropriation and continuous alienation of land. In retrospect as well as future prospect, this was likely to prove the most profound consequence of Amhara rule in this region during the first half of the 20th century. Understandably, it gave rise to profound resentment among the peoples affected by it. An Oromo proverb says, ‘Where the Amhara tread the grass grows no more’. ‘Menelik gave the land to the Amhara, and other people to the birds’, laments a Wolayta saying, meaning that the loss of their land reduced other people to corpses to be eaten by birds. The hateful exactions imposed by the officials and landlords have inspired numerous sayings which depict the Amhara, with remarkable unanimity, as grasping and devious. According to the Harari (Adare) from Harar, ‘An ordinary person is born with crossed hands, an Amhara is born with outstretched hands’, while the Wolayta observe that ‘the Amhara and the wolf count sheep they haven’t raised.’ [6]

Thus the expropriation of southern land and its distribution to northerners added new and potentially explosive dimensions to the pattern of ethnic group differentiation in southern Ethiopia. The result of the continuous process of land alienation in the south had been the creation of a large landowner class confronting a vast class of landless peasants. The majority of the landlord class consisted of Amhara- Tigrai groups from the northern highlands who had acquired land in the south since the imposition of Amhara rule by virtue of their association with the ruling power. All the tenants were natives of the region, and most of them were followers of traditional beliefs or Muslims. Practically all of the landless peasants subsisted as tenants on the holdings of the landlords, a large number of whom were absentees. As mentioned earlier, these situations obliged the indigenous populations to develop immense hatred and hostility toward the Amhara, which has had persisted and lingered for many decades in the past and even until recent times. A Tambaro saying explained this hatred in the following words: “Woma Chofro, woshakse’erie, Wombo-HauzullaAmharatoffi”! (meaning, “Woma (king) Chofro, deliver us from your dogs; Wombo-Hauzula(two clan gods), destroy the Amhara!)

This hatred and hostility witnessed itself in the form of many peasant uprisings at different periods in the past. Even during the Italian war of occupation against Ethiopia in 1935, the southern peasantry rose up and made bitter struggles to reclaim their lands from the ‘neftegnas’ and attacked the latter’s centres (ketemas) as soon as the ‘balabats’ and their masters left for the war front in Maichew. Upon the defeat of the Ethiopians at the battle of Maichew and the consequent exile of Emperor Haile Sellassie to Great Britain, the newly installed fascist rulers removed the gabbar system and returned the lands of the southern peoples to their rightful owners but this was shortly reversed after independence from Italy in 1941 when the same lands were again distributed among the northern officials and their faithful servants in addition to the former neftegnas and northern settlers of the Menelikian period.

The effect of expropriation of lands and the multiple exactions imposed on the southern peasantry by the new landholders and by their own balabats forced many a peasant to quit their tenancy and flee to urban as well as industrial areas, coffee and sugar cane plantations, and other commercial centres to escape slavery and exploitation perpetrated against them by their masters—the landholders. The consequences of Amhara occupation and rule enhanced the supremacy of the Amharas and the neftegnas in the south and degraded the status of the indigenous peoples in general, whether balabat or gabbar. The negative effect was particularly devastating upon the few educated sons and daughters of the south. When these missionary-educated individuals came out to see for themselves that the lands were not theirs, and their parents, in addition to laboring on the crop fields of the Amhara landholders, had to pay so many taxes/fees to the government as well as their landlords and that there were no native officials—governors, police chiefs and other officers, prison chiefs, priests and church officials, military officers, etc., to protect their peoples’ interests and rights, they felt degraded and ashamed of themselves—ashamed of everything they possessed: their culture, their national identity, even their personal indigenous names and their parents’ names, their own people and their everything. This was further aggravated by the Amhara landholders and other officials of the state and the Orthodox Church who considered the natives as uncouth and primitive and insulted them, called them bad names such as ‘stinking, cowards, ugly, thieves, etc.

All the bad and ugly things on earth belonged to the natives; all the good and beautiful attributes belonged to the Amhara, so to speak. Owing to this master-servant relationship or categorization, the half-baked elites of the south developed the mentality of the colonized (after all, the situation was nothing less than ‘internal colonialism’ to paraphrase the African-American intellectuals of the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s). Thus they sought every way and every means to escape this degrading situation. The only salvation they found was Amharanization—adopting Amhara names, Amhara culture and custom, Amhara language—in parallel to renouncing their indigenous ones. Others hastened to be Christened to Catholicism and Protestantism thus adopting in mass Catholic and Protestant Biblical names. As Franz Fanon put it:

“Every colonized people—in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality--finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above the jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes Whiter as he renounces his Blackness, his jungle.”[7]This was beyond any doubt true as regards the position adopted then by the southern elites/intellectuals in general and that still persists today, even if in a lesser intensity than before.

When I joined the former Haile Sellassie I University College (UCAA) in 1965, I was not rudely shocked to observe that with the exception of the Amhara, Tigrai, and Oromo (those of Wollega and Harar only), no other languages were spoken by students coming from other provinces and no cultural shows from these areas were presented to the university community by these students, not because the university rules and regulations or practices forbade them to do so but because they were skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complex, despair, abasement and shame through the soul-saving campaigns of the Orthodox Church and the civilizing missions of Menelik’s governors and ‘neftegnas’—decades of feudal rule under the iron hand of Amhara landholders and governors. It was only after the question of nationalities was boldly exploded by some of the vocal student leaders such as Birhane-Mesquel Redda, Ibssa Guutemma, and more so, after Wallelign Mekonen’s “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” in 1969, that the Gurage, the Kambata, the Wolayta, the Gamo, etc. began to speak in their own languages amongst themselves in the university compound and to present cultural shows to the university community. It took many years of student struggles to show to these dehumanized intellectuals/elites of the south that the problem was nothing short of the liberation of the southerners first from themselves and then fight in class alliance with the rest of Ethiopians to liberate the toiling masses from feudal exploitation and misery. It was correctly propagated that the southerner who adored and wanted to turn his nationality/identity to Amhara was as miserable as the one who preached hatred for the Amhara (to paraphrase Franz Fanon). The southern or northern intellectuals were taught to tear off with all their strength the shameful livery put together by centuries of incomprehension and struggle in unison to build a democratic and prosperous Ethiopia, a better future for all its citizens. This correct stand taken by the student world indeed made great contributions to the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 that stamped out the vestiges of feudalism and monarchical order and opened a new era of building a federal democratic republic for which cause many intellectuals, workers and peasants had sacrificed their dear lives.

As explained clearly here above, it was not, and still is not, my purpose to instill feelings of hostility in others towards the Amhara or Tigrai people or any other ethnic group for that matter, which would tantamount to a load of crap bordering on ethnocentrism, at the least, or racism, at the worst. My purpose was, and still is, to put the record straight and to unravel every aspect of our past history and place it in its proper perspective so that we may not forget them and also, more importantly, to be able to right the wrongs of the past, to leave the past where it belongs and to move on to shape a better future for all ethnic, religious and linguistic- cultural communities based on equality and equitable sharing of the political and economic resources of the country, making sure that the injustices of the past will never resurface in our country in the future. After all, we all live in our time and for our time, and we will all be judged by our time. There is no wisdom in lamenting about the ugly past, though we cannot forget it, once we have put in place all institutions necessary to safeguard our hard-won rights and liberties. This is what would guarantee a better livable Ethiopia for all of its peoples—a morally just, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, and stable order and a meaningful unity in diversity, nothing else. We have to struggle hard to realize it, we need not expect it as Manna to rain upon us from the heavens, or as a gift from any ruling group or party.

The source and root cause for the still persisting lack of confidence for self-identification as Southerners, and the inferiority complex, the self-hate, etc. suffered by the southerners even today goes as far back to the 19th century and it is due to the brutal legacy of subjugation and dehumanization suffered by the Southerners in the process of the “invention of the Ethiopian empire state”. As history clearly witnesses the conquered peoples were treated as pagans, barbarians and uncivilized savages. All resistance from them was harshly suppressed with impunity. Their languages were not considered as the languages of human beings but of birds (“ye wof quanqua”); their cultures barbaric, their religions, and their political and judicial systems were considered as backward and uncivilized; their lands which were their only source of dignity were dispossessed by the conquerors and their followers (the ‘neftegnas’ or gun-bearers), reducing the once proud peoples to the level of serfs and slaves; even their names were despised and they had to be forcefully baptized; they had to carry Amharic or Christian names (Yohannis, Wolde Mariam, Gebre Mariam, Yohannes, Markos, GebreMedhin, GebreKristos, GebreWold, etc) to be trustworthy of being a faithful serf or servant or slave. Peasants – men, women and their children—were obliged to render services to the governors and the ‘neftegnas’ every day of the week; the serfs had to till, sow, harvest, and store on the farms of their alien masters; they had to give away 75% of their own farm produce of their own land as tenants to the latter; they had to pay innumerable taxes throughout a year (even to give bribe so that the clerks at the treasury would receive the taxes on time: ‘Yeterepesagibir’). Failure to fulfill these obligations entailed harsh punishments.

The conquered peoples were categorically dubbed Gallas; and ‘Gallas’ according to the ideologues of the ruling class during those days, such as Aleka Kidanewold Kifle and DestaTeklewold (Refer to their Amharic dictionaries of the day) comprised all the non- Amhara/Tigrai groups inside the empire-state and were considered “uncouth, uncivilized,” and ‘the blood enemies of the Amhara’ (‘Yalseletene’, ‘Aremene’, ‘Yeamara demegna xelat’) and were to be mercilessly killed on petty offences and pretexts. All virtues belonged to the Amhara, and all the bad and ugly things belonged to the Gallas, so to speak. From the conquerors’ point of view all these denigrating and dehumanizing actions and atrocities were understandable--- unless the conquered peoples were utterly subjugated and dehumanized and reduced to the level of beasts of burden, it would have been very difficult for the conquerors to rule over them. All rulers prefer it that way, as dehumanized, fearful people are easier to rule than assertive, courageous ones. It is a timeless truth. This was in fact the glaring feature of European colonialism as well during the 19th century scramble for Africa, and, for that matter, all colonialism whether it was directed against Asia, Latin America, Australia or Oceania.

When we come back to the Ethiopian situation of the beginning of the 20th century, all the conquered peoples were ruled by governors sent from the north or from the center, whether at the Woreda, Awraja or Province levels; there were no indigenous government officials, neither police officers nor school directors (if there were any government schools in the first place), etc. Even there were no indigenous orthodox priests. Such was the bestiality of the whole system in place. It was utterly dehumanizing and barbaric.

When the elite of the South, those half-baked and missionary-educated elites, came face to face with these ugly realties, they felt ashamed of themselves; ashamed of their landless fathers and mothers; they hated everything that was theirs: their own languages, cultures, history, even their own names, etc. It was utterly devastating for them. So, they hastened to look for escape routes, and they discovered that their only salvation lay in Amharanization--adopting Amharic names (sometimes even changing their fathers’ and grandfathers’ names into Amharic), Amharic language, Amharic culture, Amharic identity; in short, assimilation into the dominant Amhara culture. This was, and is, the root cause for the so-called inferiority complex, self-hate and identity crisis suffered by the Southerners that you quite eloquently analyzed in your brief expose on this topical issue.

The reverse psychological inflation of many an Amhara elite, whom some call chauvinists, is also the direct outcome of this age-long subjugation of the South by their ancestors. (It is indeed very strange how any healthy minds would fail to comprehend and condemn the bestiality of this past but instead feel arrogant and boastful of subjugating others and still struggle to perpetuate that evil system in Ethiopia even today). As a certain Oromo intellectual sarcastically but correctly put it (to paraphrase it): “We simply don’t know what kind of detergent we have to apply to cleanse the minds of Amhara elites or what kind of antiseptic to use to disinfect them. Using a medical terminology…the Amhara elites are becoming like a drug-resisting TB—almost impossible to cure! To be honest with them it is the most frustrating undertaking one could think of. What worries us most is not the demand by the elites of the oppressed peoples for the respect of their fundamental human rights but the impossibility of liberalizing the Amhara elites from this chronic disease of bogus superiority complex.” Let this be acknowledged as the undeniable truth, instead of running around the bush, so that we can all be able to build a better Ethiopia based on equality and justice for all. Otherwise, let us not forget that even Papua New Guinea with a population of less than 20,000 is a fully-fledged sovereign state and a member of the UN.

As we all remember, in 1991, the Ethiopian empire-state was on the brink of disintegration into its component parts. The elites who were represented at the July Peace and Democracy Conference, which was dubbed “the transition conference”, and many others hailing from the formerly conquered and hitherto oppressed nationalities of the Ethiopian Empire State made a conscious effort to avert or prevent the then hovering possibility of disintegration of the empire-state into its component parts by rallying around the Transitional Period Charter and effecting a radical transformation or reconfiguration of the empire-state. There were about 17 national liberation movements at the time. Let us not try to belittle or underestimate that conscious effort. It is indeed puzzling when some of the best sons and daughters of the South do not bother to think twice before accusing the current regime of “open advocacy of tribal or ethnic fragmentation of our people and society” and suggesting that the government “—is supposed to strengthen and promote national unity by all means necessary” (emphasis is mine) even if these means for achieving unity entailed the absolute centralization and homogenization, through a dominant language and culture, as was tried during Emperor Haile Sellassie’s reign but which was proved to be futile, bankrupt, and self-defeating. No ethnic group, I repeat, no ethnic group or nationality, in today’s Ethiopia is prepared and willing to pay the price of assimilation into a dominant culture, be it Amhara, or Oromo, or Tigrai, in order to become a secondclass Ethiopian citizen. Let us not entertain any illusions in this regard. The ugly past will never resuscitate or resurrect in Ethiopia. Never again!

What will guarantee our peaceful co-existence together as a ‘nation of many nations’ is an institutional design or constitutional engineering, as some would prefer to call it, that respects and struggles for ethnic harmony based on equality and ethnic self-determination under a federal state that upholds and safeguards self-rule at the nationality level and shared rule at the regional and federal/central level. That, at least, has been proclaimed and entrenched formally in the FDRE constitution thanks to the bitter struggles of the hitherto oppressed peoples. This arrangement is akin to the arrangement implemented in many multi-ethnic states such as Belgium, Canada, Switzerland and many others that cater for peaceful ethnic co-existence under a multi-ethnic/multinational federal structure. Self-rule or self-determination, however, does not and cannot mean ethnic fractionalization, fragmentation or exclusiveness; neither does it mean the balkanization of countries nor the dismemberment of their nations, nationalities and peoples into mini-states. Self-determination does not at all mean expelling the non-indigenous minorities, ethnic or religious groups from your native areas, or “other extermination” as witnessed in Rwanda, Burundi, Yugoslavia, the former USSR and elsewhere. Further, it does not at all mean tribalism and looking after one’s own tribal members first in national life and becoming tribal chiefs instead of national statesmen. It does not in any way entertain nepotism, patronage and corruption. It is simply arranging a democratic way of life for peaceful coexistence in a multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-cultural society, based on interdependence, equality and justice of all. Most often, it is only when ethnic self-determination or self rule is denied that ethnic conflicts flare up and destabilize a country, though such conflicts may also occur due to conflicts over scarce resources, power-sharing and the like reasons.

Here, it must be made clear that any process which sees itself as “purely” ethnic or national can hold catastrophic contradictions. No people can be entirely self-sufficient. Contemporary society resembles a woven fabric and this is a characteristic common to different peoples and ethnic groups, with different languages, customs and beliefs. National interests must go hand in hand with social and economic rights and with democracy. Otherwise they are hollow and shallow.

Nationalism and religion must be made as tolerant as possible for peaceful coexistence. Blind nationalism and religious fanaticism would undoubtedly blind our intelligence. We have no choice but to live together in peace, and this naked truth must guide us towards a form of integration which will at the same time, allow for the full development of each constituent ethnic group, nationality and language community based on equality, mutual benefits and interdependence. We have to emphasize, cultivate and nurture our common bondage and destiny as a ‘nation of many nations’; we have to recognize our ethno-linguistic and cultural differences, in short our diversity, and manage the latter properly, and surely not try to obliterate or disregard them. It is self-defeating and futile.

Finally, as said again and again by many scholars and political leaders of our country before, our prime enemies today are poverty and lack of good governance, absence of well-functioning judiciary, democracy and federalism, and the rule of law, and surely not ‘recognizing the right of selfdetermination’ for the 80 or so nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia, as alleged by some proponents of centralization and assimilation policies of the ancient regime. Let us not “scratch where it does not itch”, as the old adage goes. Instead, let us all refrain from distressful cynicism and hateful remarks but instead jointly and positively endeavor to contribute toward the realization of a truly democratic, prosperous and multination federal Ethiopia: a cohesive and unified “nation of many nations”.

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