Archive for April, 2008

A Typical Story: The Oromo of Ethiopia

April 15, 2008

The following is a work of historical fiction.  The events are true; the characters and even the quotations are not.

In 1991 what was then the longest continuous war in Africa ended when a grand coalition of rebel movements finally toppled the Marxist regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia.  Two of the principal armies were the Tigray Popular Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, which together with several smaller militias formed the umbrella army of the Ethiopian Popular Revolutionary Democratic Front.  Shortly after its euphoric military victory, the EPRDF attempted to transition into an elected government, and almost immediately it splintered into its infighting factions.


“I was a member of the OLF, an active member from 1991.  I was working as a partner in the transitional government with many other organizations,” Genet recounts.  She was 34 years old at the time.  She was married, and she had five children.  As a high school graduate with some work experience, she was educated and professional.


“At the end of June in 1992, there was supposed to be a general election for the first time ever in Ethiopia.  It was supposed to be a free election, but – due to harassment and intimidation by the more powerful TPLF – the OLF decided not to participate.”


The Oromo have always been seen as outsiders in Ethiopia.  From somewhere to the southwest, they immigrated into the Ethiopian highlands in massive and frightening nomadic waves throughout the 16th century, a time when the ruling dynasty was preoccupied with the threat of a Muslim invasion from the east sponsored by the expansionist Ottoman Turks.  The Oromo speak a Cushitic language, more like Somali than it is like the Semitic languages of the highlands.  Today, they are the largest ethnic group in the country, though they are still political outsiders.  By 1992, just one year after the end of the revolution, they had already been ousted from the ruling coalition.  The EPRDF, and thus the government, was securely controlled by the Amhara and Tigrinya elites, as has almost always been the case throughout two millenia of Ethiopian political history.


“At that time I was living in an area called Borana.  I was helping to organize the election materials.  At the moment when the withdrawal of the OLF from the election was announced through the mass media, I was in one of our offices.  Immediately, the TPLF soldiers came and arrested us.”


“I was detained until I was about to die,” Genet continues.  She was held for over a year in a military prison.  “It was a dark and crowded room.  We were made to sleep on the cement floor.  There was not enough food and not enough water.  There was no medicine.  I was tortured, I was beaten, and I was raped.”


All Oromo were guilty by ethnic association to the OLF.  The EPRDF detained not only active members of the organization but their families as well.  While Genet was imprisoned, her family was hunted.  She has never seen her husband and her two oldest children since the day she was arrested in 1992.  She does not know what happened to them or where they are, or if they are alive at all.  Her three younger children were taken by the government soldiers and jailed with her in the same military detention center.


“My children were beaten at the same time I was.  We were all beaten together, even my young children.”


At the end of her arbitrary detention, Genet was made to sign a document listing several conditions for her release.  She was not allowed to have any visitors to her home.  She had to present herself to the local government represenative each morning to sign a log confirming that she had not fled the town.  Finally, if she learned anything about her husband or her missing children, she had to report the information to the EPRDF.


“I signed it.  I signed their paper just to be released.”


For the next six years, Genet and her three children tried to live relatively normal lives at their home in Borana.  Inevitably, though, the EPRDF crackdown on the Oromo led to a backlash which intensified the conflict.  The OLF “took to the forests” and reassembled as a guerilla operation.  Though Genet had worked as a political employee during the short postwar peacetime, she had never been a part of the organization’s military activities.  Still, she was suspected whenever there was any rebel activity in the area.


“I was carefully doing the conditions I was given, but they were always watching me and spying on me.  They came to me regularly to interrogate me.  I would tell them I don’t know about the OLF, and they would beat me.”


In 1999, “there was a peaceful demonstration in town among the students.  The soldiers used bullets to disperse the crowd.  Some were killed, some were arrested, and some managed to escape.  The same day, there was a fight between OLF and EPRDF soldiers near my farm while I was working there.  Some of the government soldiers were killed.  On my way home, the government soldiers surrounded the area and they arrested everyone.  They accused me of participating in that fight.”


Genet was detained for another year in the same local military prison.


“I was interrogated to tell them about the guns and the documents they said I was giving to OLF.  They were asking me about my husband.  They wanted to know where he is, but I have not seen him.  I was terribly tortured and beaten.  They tied me with electric wire and they were beating me with it.  They beat me until I became unconscious.  I was suffocated in water.  They also took me out of the detention center into a kind of forest where they showed me dead bodies.  They asked me to open my mouth and they threatened to shoot me in the mouth.  I was detained in a very filthy room.  I was kept in hunger.”


During this time, “the Red Cross were going all over and checking the problems of the people in detention.  The soldiers knew about the Red Cross.  They would take us away from there to a place in the forest where the Red Cross could not find us.”


After a year in detention, “I got sick and I was very weak.  That is the time they decided to release me.  They thought I might die so they just wanted to get rid of me.”


Again, she was forced to sign a document which detailed the conditions of her release.


“They told me that I had one month to find my husband and give him to them.  They told me that if there was any OLF activity in my area, I would be responsible.  Me and my children, they said we would be killed.”


Knowing that she would not be able to comply with the first condition, Genet started planning her escape from Ethiopia.  Three days after being released, however, she had to flee more immediately than expected.


“There was another shootout between the EPRDF and the OLF.  Many government soldiers died in the fighting.  The following day, the soldiers surrounded my home area and searched for me.  Luckily, I was not at home.  I was at the funeral of my friend.  While I was there, a neighbor informed me about what was going on.  He told me the soldiers were looking for me.”


“I couldn’t go back to my house.  I talked to this man, my neighbor, about my children.  I told him to go to check on my house and if it is possible to bring my children.  That is how that man helped me.  He brought me my children.”


Genet fled alone by bus to Moyale, on the border with Kenya, where she was able to hide in the home of a distant uncle.  She waited there for three anxious days before her neighbor appeared with her children, but only the youngest two.  Her son, already an adult, had been taken by the EPRDF when they could not find her.  Like her husband and her two oldest children, Genet has not seen her son since and she does not know what has become of him.  Now, so many years later, she assumes they are all dead, though she has heard stories of the many Oromo who fled Africa altogether to seek asylum in Europe or North America. 


With her two youngest children, she paid a guide to lead them out of town and into the desert where they were able to cross unobserved into Kenya.  The guide helped them reach a highway, where they managed to hail a local bus to the nearest town.  From there, they continued to Nairobi.


In Kenya, her problems have reversed themselves.  The OLF has a large and strong exile population in Nairobi.  They actively and often forcefully recruit new members from the local Oromo population.  Genet is seen as a traitor because she refuses to join them.


“They wanted me to return to Ethiopia to work for them there, but I refused them.  They are fighting with me and they are accusing me of so many things.  They say I am a spy for the EPRDF; they label me as an enemy of the Oromo.  Threats have become part of my life.  They could abduct me or they could kill me.  My children, they are forced to stay inside because I am afraid of what might happen to them outside.  I am afraid they could be kidnapped by the OLF to fight in their war.”


Genet feels trapped.


“I am now an enemy of both the ERPDF and the OLF.  Both of them, they torture and kill their enemies.  I am not safe in Ethiopia and I am not safe here in Kenya.  What is there left for me?  Where can I go?”

The Scramble

April 4, 2008

The international borders of Africa are notoriously contrived.  To quote Martin Meredith in the Introduction to his book The State of Africa:


“The maps used to carve up the African continent were mostly inaccurate; large areas were described as terra incognito.  When marking out the boundaries of their new territories, European negotiators frequently resorted to drawing straight lines on the map, taking little or no account of the myriad of traditional monarchies, chiefdoms and other African societies that existed on the ground.  Nearly one half of the new frontiers imposed on Africa were geometric lines, lines of latitude and longitude, other straight lines, or arcs of circles.  In some cases, African societies were rent apart: the Bakongo were partitioned between French Congo, Belgian Congo, and Portuguese Angola; Somaliland was carved up between Britain, Italy, and France.  In all, the new boundaries cut through some 190 cultural groups.  In other cases, Europe’s new colonial territories enclosed hundreds of diverse and independent groups, with no common history, culture, language, or religion.  Nigeria, for example, contained as many as 250 ethnolinguistic groups.  Officials sent to the Belgian Congo eventually identified six thousand chiefdoms there.” 


A few sentences later, the author mentions a particularly insidious and damaging effect of the carving up: “Kingdoms that had been historically antagonistic to one another, such as the Buganda and Bunyoro in Uganda, were linked into the same colony.  In the Sahel, new territories were established across the great divide between the desert regions of the Sahara and the belt of tropical forests to the south – Sudan, Chad, Nigeria – throwing together Muslim and non-Muslim peoples in latent hostility.” 


For a little meaningful color, he includes a quote from Lord Salisbury, the former Prime Minister of Britain: “We have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where they were.”


“By the time the Scramble for Africa was over,” the author concludes, “some 10,000 African polities had been amalgamated into forty European colonies and protectorates.”


And, pointedly: “Thus were born the modern states of Africa.” 


Defining dysfunctional states like Congo, Sudan, and Somalia, and promising countries like South Africa, Egypt, and Kenya, these colonial boundaries still exist, and they still confound.


In another remarkable text, John Reader adds explanation and consequence to his description of the Scramble.  The ambitious scope of the work is aptly suggested by its title, Africa: A Biography of the Continent.  The author suggests that “It was Africa’s misfortune…to have been colonized at a time when the concept of the ‘nation state’ was firmly entrenched as a primary determinant of the historical process,” a time when Europe itself was experiencing “convulsions of nation-building.”  The European colonial powers forced the idea of the nation state on their colonies in Africa, no matter how wanton or painful the process.  The effect of this amalgamation of ethnicities into centralized states is clear and tragic more than a century later: “Virtually all the wars that have flared up in Africa since the colonial period have been fought within national boundaries.”


Just as Europeans didn’t know where they were putting Africa’s borders when they put them there, many Africans still don’t know where their borders are today.  Somali refugees often claim that the date they fled from Mogadishu is the date they departed the whole of Somalia, even if they then spent several days, weeks, months, or even years in the country before crossing a recognized international border.  Oddly, however, Somalis in the refugee camps near Dadaab, firmly and deeply inside of Kenya, often believe that they are still living in Somalia.  Similarly, Somali refugees in the camps of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia make the same claim, that they are, to this day, in Somalia.  Without realizing their error or their wisdom, the refugees are making a fair and legitimate point.  Northeastern Province in Kenya and Ogaden Province in Ethiopia are almost entirely Somali.  The whole of Djibouti, tiny though it may be, is Somali.  It is understandable that Somali refugees in these familiar communities might not realize that they are no longer in Somalia itself.  Ethnically, they are still in Somali lands, even if politically they are in Kenya or Ethiopia or Djibouti.


Refugees from Rwanda make the same mistake when describing their escape to Tanzania in 1994.  Almost all of them say that they left Rwanda one day, crossing the international border at Rusumo which leads only and inevitably to Tanzania, yet, they say, they arrived in Tanzania a few weeks later.  Comically, and annoyingly, they are unable to say exactly where they were in between.  It is impossible to convince them that the day they leave one country is necessarily the day they enter the next country.  It is impossible to convince them that the day they left their hometown is not the day they left the entirety of Rwanda.  On the other side of the border, it is impossible to convince them that they day they finally settled in a refugee camp is not the same as the day they entered the country.  It would seem that in their minds, time spent traveling is time spent neither here nor there.  With all of Africa’s nomads and rebels and refugees and migrants, at any given moment a vast number of people would seem to be nowhere at all.


The creation of Eritrea is the only reconfiguration of the political map of Africa since the independence era.  Previously, it was the northernmost province of Ethiopia.  For decades, rebels in Eritrea and Ethiopia fought simultaneous and occasionally coordinated wars to overthrow a Marxist regime in Addis Ababa known popularly as the Dergue.  They were finally victorious in 1991, at which time the new government in Ethiopia granted a friendly and congratulatory independence to its rebel allies in Eritrea.  It was a remarkable concession on the part of Ethiopia, which immediately and voluntarily became the most populous landlocked country in the world.


The African Union strongly discourages any alterations to the political map of the continent.  African politicians like to say the policy is meant to minimize ethnic warfare by discouraging any hope in the outcome.  The unspoken and more ulterior reason is that the Big Men of Africa and their tribal cronies are always seeking to protect their own personal fiefdoms.  They rightly worry that the next region to secede might be the one which contains that valuable diamond, bauxite, or cobalt mine.  Though their motives are selfish, it is possible that their policy to maintain the status quo in Africa is the best of the options.  It took former allies Ethiopia and Eritrea all of six years to crash back into what became the most militarized war in the history of Africa.  Another war along their border is generally considered to be inevitable.


Though colonial capriciousness created the problem, the larger concern today is that governments in Africa view their borders as little more than a delineation of the spoils – my fence contains that which is for me to plunder as opposed to that which is for my neighbor to plunder.  There is little sense of responsibility for the people who live inside these borders.  It is for this reason that ethnicities take to war.  It is not because certain tribes are unwilling to live within the same international border as certain other tribes; it is because throughout Africa certain tribes are perceived to be reaping all the benefits of government and economy, happily leaving nothing for certain other tribes.  Governments not only allow this, they facilitate it.


Blame it on destructive European colonizers, blame it on corrupt African politicians, or just blame it on greed: like an egg, Africa got Scrambled.