By Debteraw Associate Reporter

Here are my observation and impression as an audient at Harvard Forum that was organized by Ethiopian Students Association at Harvard. The topic is Ethnicity and National Identity in Ethiopia, with five panelists and twenty-five to thirty participants. For panelists’ resumes and accomplishments, please see The forum runs the whole day with two sessions of three panelists each. 
I-The morning session started with the three panelists, Teshale Tibebu, Mohammed Hassen Ali and Sarah Vaughn, each with twenty minutes presentation and twenty minutes comments from the panelists and audience.


Teshale Tibebu, the author of the Making of Modern Ethiopia, 1896-1974, which I get a chance to read the book, I would categorized is book as mainstream. His presentation topic is Competitive Nationalism in Ethiopia. The theme is Ethiopian nationalism vs. ethno-nationalism. He categorized Ethiopian nationalism into three theses:

  • Imperial Ethiopianness, “

    Island”, landlords and landless

  • Marxist (socialist) Ethiopianness, “

    Island”, class struggle

  • Liberal Ethiopianness, such as Kinijt.


His description of Ethnocentric Nationalism is focusing on more domination and oppression and differences than common shared experiences or common grounds.

  • Oromo, Somalia, and Sidama Nationalism,
  • Colonial question, self determination including secession
  • EPRDF in the middle between Ethiopian and ethnocentric Nationalism
  • EPRDF with its solution of linguistics policy (line) of nine ethnic regions


His concluding remarks are:

  • Well founded fears of disintegration or dismemberment of the country
  • Problems of Kilele
  • Genbot 7 Election and aftermath
  • Playing like with recent religion incitements is like playing with fire
  • Diluting history is not solution to our problems
  • The need for common grounds to save the country 

Mohammed Hassen, the author of the Oromo of
Ethiopia: A History, 1570 to 1860,
focusing on the development of Oromo nationalism within the Ethiopian state. His presentation title is Ethiopian Nationalist and Rival Nationalism. He talked in general on similarities and difference as follows:

  • Long history of
    Ethiopia with rival nationalism
  • Contest between various ethnic groups
  • Nation formation, question of legitimacy
  • Nationalism in not divisive, fear from ignorance
  • Christianity vs. Islam in
  • Creation of modern
    Ethiopia by Menlik
  • Imposition of one’s culture and custom, language
  • Amharanization, Hegemony’s Amhara elite


His concluding viewpoints are not specific and put it general scholarly manners and terms:

  • Lack of democracy
  • Need for institutional identity such as institution of nationalities during time of military government
  • Devolution of power through federalism did not specified.


Sarah Vaughn, I do not much care about her, she looks to me more of a technocrat than academician. Her presentation is careful worded and well guarded not to offend the present government. Anyway her topic was Ethnic Federalism in Practice: Issues from
Ethiopia’s South and West.
Her focus on current situation based on her work for the government and study are:

  • Linguistic federalism
  • How ethnicity changing
  • How the government policy is working
  • Phases of government policy and response 1991-2006
  • Relationship between local evolution and transformation of ethnic identity
  • Deep rooted in local understanding of the policy of environment, government actions and institution
  • Political organization mushrooming


In concluding remarks, she told the audience that she is not at liberty to say any bad things about the Ethiopian government because she does not to jeopardize her privilege to go in and out of
Ethiopia. Please make your judgment by looking on the Harvard website about her expertise.


Comments and questions for three panelists are:

  • Why is the minority ethnic group  dominating the majority?
  • What is the relationship between Derge nationalism and class struggle?
  • What is the problem of ethnic federation? Is it with its implementation? Or with itself?
  • What should be done to keep the country together?
  • Are ethnic groupings fighting for identity or share of limited resources? Or both?
  • Why is Article 39 important for ethnic groups?


II-Afternoon Session was supposed to start with the three panelists, Messay Kebede, Asafa Jalata and Ghelawdewos Araia, because Messay unable to attend due to sickness, the afternoon presentation began with Asafa Jalata and followed by Ghelawdewos. The session was not any more like the first session brainstorming. It is heated debate and everybody wants to score points. Ghelawdewos and Asafa were confronting and combating each other without giving much time for audience to comment and ask questions. Despite back and forth arguments, the audience was not bored or tried.


Asafa Jalata, I did not read any of his works, but from what I learn from his presentation, he looks like more of a vanguard member of the OLF  political organization. To learn more about his works, please see Harvard website.  His title for the presentation is
Ethiopia On the Fire of Competing Nationalisms: The Oromo People’s Movement, the State, and the West. His emphasis of the presentation is as follows:

  • Focus on the struggle of Oromo’s people
  • Showed a large map of
    Ethiopia with the present ethnic divisions with state of Oromo in green color
  • Question of colonialism
  • The Abyssinian colonizer and colonized ethno-nations
  • Ethiopian Empire
  • National self determination
  • Ethiopian settler colonialism and its institutions
  • Labeled the Ethiopian Student Movement as Amhara Student Movement
  • Objectives of OLF
  • Ethiopian racism and radical/ethno-national hierarchy
  • Compare Oromo’s People Struggle with that of African American Movement


His concluding remarks are more offensive to the audience at large except few well-known radical OLF members in our community are cheering him. According to him:

  • Tewodros, Yohannes, Melik and Haile Sellasie are/were warlords
  • His solutions to the present crisis in the country is to recognize the past and present state crimes committed against the Oromo people
  • Accepting the principle of self determination
  • Common ground to save the country from disintegration can only be established by accepting the past and present crimes as well as accepting the right of self determination
  • Ethiopianness should not be pre-condition for opposition forces to form an alliance. He did not mention by name AFD or Kinijit, just said an alliance between two major ethnic groups meaning the Oromo and Amhara.


Ghelawdewos Araia, . In comparison to Asfa Jalata, Ghelawdewos looks to the audience as an Ethiopian patriot. For his works and accomplishments, please the Harvard website. His topic is Ethnocentric Politics. His main points are:

  • Ethno-nationalism and Ethiopian nationalism
  • Highlight the history of
    Ethiopia from antiquity to the present
  • Ethnic groups in
    Ethiopia have more common grounds to stay together than their differences to force them to disintegrate.
  • Battle of Adwa and the participation of various ethnic groups as Ethiopian
  • Battle of Bademe and the participation of various ethnic groups as Ethiopian


His concluding remarks are:

  • The need to broaden common ground to save the country
  • Eritrean model of
    Independence is not acceptable to the Oromo
  • Bringing religion to politics is more dangerous than ethnic politics


Comments and questions from the audience are:

The audience made comments in favor and against Ethiopian and Ethno-nationalism. Some are real and legitimate grievances and others are unacceptable to most Ethiopians or advocates of ethno-nationalism. Overall, the presentation and discussion were good as brainstorming and I believe the presentation will help the Ethiopian students to be more familiarizing with problems of our country and seek possible solutions. At the comment session, I felt bad to be only good listener and not telling at least students and young people my viewpoints.  . For the records, the real issues that should have been discussed are:

Ethiopia is a multiethnic and multi-religious nation –state and not an empire

·        To save the country, the need for a grand coalition of opposition forces under common ground of Ethiopianness

·        To recognize and support the legitimate grievances of ethnic groups, women’s rights

·        The need for transition period for a multiparty democracy

·        The need for democratic constitution making

·        The exploration of federalism will be more meaningful and useful if addressed during a democratic constitution making by future democratically elected representatives. To me it wills useful, if future federal structure is considered based on linguistics, geographic, cultures and most of all by endorsement of Ethiopian people with rights to make amendments.

·        Under a united democratic federal
Ethiopia, there will be not problems that will be addressed and seek acceptable solutions to the majority of Ethiopian people without affecting the right of minority.

Published in: on November 16, 2006 at 7:01 pm  Comments (16)