Viewpoint

Abiy’s regime is a modern version of the Ethiopian empire-state

Political marginalization, cultural repression, economic exploitation, and state violence in Oromia reflect a continuation of Ethiopia’s imperial history.

After becoming prime minister in 2018, Abiy Ahmed positioned himself as a man of peace and democracy who would transition Ethiopia from its troubled past. This initially won him many supporters, both domestically and internationally.

He was also applauded for signing a peace deal with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, granting amnesty to political prisoners, and reducing press censorship in Ethiopia. As a result, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

But, within a short time, Abiy reversed most of the reforms he had overseen. He started to show a second face, one of cruelty, manifested in state terrorism and massive human rights violations.

While much attention was given to his administration and allies’ atrocities in Tigray, state terrorism in Oromia is also rampant.

As with violence against many long-marginalized communities in Ethiopia, Abiy’s brutal repression in Oromia and against Oromos is not new.

The perception among Oromo nationalists is that Abiy, like many of his predecessors, is running a neo-neftegna administration that exalts the glories of Ethiopia’s imperial history and seeks to continue its oppressive, brutal, and exploitative practices.

Imperial history

Defining what a neo-neftenga administration is requires an understanding of the historical neftegna-gabbar system.

Menelik II and his collaborators created the neftegna-gabbar system as a form of settler colonialism in the last decades of the 19th century by settling Amharas, Tigrayans, and other ethnic groups—mainly highlander Orthodox Christians—in Oromia and the broader Ethiopian south.

Conquering the central and southern nations and incorporating them into the Ethiopian empire did not occur voluntarily or peacefully.

Many resisted and fought against their colonizers, and this resulted in countless victims being massacred and enslaved. The colonizing army looted cattle and grain, and committed horrifying acts of mutilation, such as cutting the breasts of women and hands of men.

The army then established a system of control over the rest of the population by dispossessing them of their land, exploiting their labor, and taking their agricultural products. At times, when gabbars failed to provide what was required, they were sold as slaves.

The settlers or neftegna (meaning musketeers)—including soldiers, clergymen, and administrators—exploited the gabbars. Gabbars were treated as serfs and, in some instances, as slaves. They provided labor, tribute, and tax revenue to their new lords.

This system claimed absolute right over approximately three-quarters of the Oromo lands and provided portions of it to its officials and soldiers as a salary. Some land was granted to the Oromo collaborators who became the agents of the neftegna system by engaging in the exploitation and oppression of the Oromo people.

While the neftegna system has a pronounced cultural aspect—Amhara-Tigray culture, Amharic language, Orthodox Christianity tradition, and so on—it is also class-based. Many Oromos and others from marginalized communities have been part of the system since imperial times, mainly to advance and protect their economic and class interests.

One notable Oromo collaborator, Gobana Dacee, played a significant role in helping Menelik II in his efforts to expand his kingdom and subjugate peoples in what is today central and southern Ethiopia. Many Oromo nationalists now use the term “Gobana” or “neo-Gobana” to describe those who collaborate with the Ethiopian state and stand against the interest of the Oromo masses.

Emperor Haile Selassie’s government expanded and consolidated the neftegna-gabbar system before changes occurred in the Ethiopian empire-state during subsequent administrations that came to power in 1974, 1991, and 2018.

Although the 1974 revolution nationalized land and changed the status of the gabbar in the central and southern regions, the fundamental nature of the state was not changed. In fact, the new militarized socialist state intensified the brutalization of marginalized groups, including Oromos.

The same is true about the change of government in 1991.

Despite the TPLF-dominated EPRDF adopting multinational federalism, it largely existed only on paper. The EPRDF was never really committed to the self-determination rights that it gave lip service to. Tigrayan elites and their collaborators from other ethnic groups were dominant and, in line with their neo-neftegna predecessors, exploited marginalized groups.

Rewriting history

Critics characterize the current regime as “neo-neftegna” because it tries to modernize the Ethiopian state by glorifying imperial leaders and the history of the empire while denigrating the history of marginalized communities.

Habesha elites under successive regimes have denied the colonization of the Oromo and presented them as “invaders” of Ethiopia, referring to the so-called Oromo migrations of the 16th and 17th centuries.

But, as demonstrated by Mohammed Hassen and Mekuria Bulcha, the way Oromos are portrayed as invader expansionists is false. For instance, according to these two scholars, the Tulama Oromo lived around the Blue Nile long before Christian highlanders moved to these areas in the 13th century.

The neo-neftegna system defenders use portrayals of Oromos as expansionist invaders to justify the brutal expansion of the Ethiopian state.

In his various historically void speeches, Abiy lectures the long-marginalized peoples of Ethiopia to forget how the Ethiopian empire-state brutalized the Oromo, Sidama, Somali, Qimant, Agew, Wolayta, Gambella, Berta, Gumuz, and others.

When Abiy articulates the greatness of Ethiopia and its leaders, what comes to mind for many members of these groups is brutality, state terrorism, and human rights violations.

Despite Abiy and the Ethiopianist camp that supports him trying to discredit the historical narrative of these victimized groups and legitimize the crimes of successive Ethiopian governments, the people will never forget their real history.

Cultural destruction

Abiy’s neo-neftenga administration has also started ideological warfare on Oromummaa (Oromo history, culture, identity, and nationalism) by glorifying Amhara nationalism disguised as Ethiopianism.

As the new administration tries to revive the assimilationist nation-building project, one aspect of the strategy involves the systematic attack of Oromo political and cultural institutions.

Despite Abiy’s administration giving lip service to the importance of Gadaa/Siiqqee leaders, it is oppressing Gadaa leaders who are the custodians of Oromo culture, institutions, and democracy.

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For instance, on 1 December 2021, federal and Oromia government forces attacked a Gadaa religious ceremony in Karrayu, East Shewa Zone. They beat and abducted the Abbaa Gadaa—the traditional head of religious, social, legal, and economic affairs—other community leaders, and innocent young men. The bodies of fourteen people, including the Abbaa Gadaa, were found the next day, while 25 others were unaccounted for and are believed to be dead.

The administration has also intimidated and discouraged the primary Oromo civic institution known as the Macha-Tulama Self-Help Association (MTA) from functioning in Addis Abeba (Finfinnee) and beyond. In August 2020, Diribi Damuse Boku, the president of the association, was beaten by government forces at his home in Burayu.

State centralization

Abiy’s government has been centralizing power in a way that is reminiscent of Ethiopia’s imperial past.

Abiy used his Oromo cultural affinity, the Qeerro/Qaarree movement, and the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP, formerly the OPDO) to manipulate the EPRDF and become prime minister. Once he took power, he used the narrative of democracy, reconciliation, and transition to convince the wider public.

These conditions gave him time to reorganize ODP under his total control and consolidate power by surrounding himself with loyalists and creating an alliance against the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and Tigray’s regional government—all perceived to be threats to his centralization plans.

The Prosperity Party, created on 1 December 2019, was part of Abiy’s scheme to centralize power.

Like its predecessors, this administration has effective control over the country’s political economy and uses the military, police, and other security forces to suppress dissent.

Ethiopian prisons are now mainly filled with Afaan Oromoo and Tigrigna speakers, and the offices of many private media, such as the Oromia Media Network (OMN), are closed.

Almost all top leaders of the OLF are in prison today and its chairman, Dawud Ibssa, was released from house arrest only recently, while the OFC’s leaders were in jail until a few months ago.

This is part of a long history of targeting any community and its leaders that refuse to submit to the center.

Sadly, rather than criticizing the prime minister’s centralizing ambitions that caused the current crisis, most Amhara elites, Amhara media, and state media often blame Oromos and Tigrayans for Ethiopia’s ills.

Economic exploitation

Abiy’s government has continued the policy of land dispossession from farmers and pastoralists in Oromia and the other colonized regions.

In an impoverished country like Ethiopia, any wealthy government official has become rich by commodifying public resources, such as land, particularly in Oromia and other areas in the fertile south.

This has enabled Abiy to buy those elites who are ready to sell themselves to accumulate wealth and enjoy a luxurious lifestyle at the cost of impoverished people.

Abiy understands this neo-patrimonial system and uses it effectively to ensure loyalty.

There is, for instance, a high degree of corruption in Ethiopia’s land administration. It has been estimated that a third of Ethiopians have paid a bribe to land administration officials engaged in forgery practices, thereby illegally assigning themselves some 15,000 titles.

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Owing to corruption in the judiciary, there is a lack of confidence in the ability of the court system to resolve land disputes and challenge regulations.

Liberalization of the telecom industry is at the forefront of Abiy’s plan, announced in 2018, to privatize several sectors, including sugar, railways, and industrial parks. Abiy and his agents have since merchandized land and public institutions, such as Ethio-telecom, to the highest bidders—funds that now help finance the wars in Oromia and Tigray.

Abiy and his officials have silently continued the EPRDF’s Addis Abeba Master Plan by dispensing Oromo land and destroying Oromo culture around Addis Abeba (Finfinnee).

These economic practices are a de facto continuation of Ethiopia’s imperial system. The land, labor, and resources of marginalized people, particularly in central and southern regions, are used for a violent nation-building project that seeks to destroy their culture and political autonomy.

State violence

Any Oromo who does not conform to the neo-neftegna revisionist history, cultural destruction, economic exploitation, and land dispossession is liable to be subject to state violence.

That violence has been used to impose fear on the public as a ploy to change their political behavior and make them support the current administration.

The Ethiopian government has never refrained from attacking the OLF and OLA, along with the Oromo public, to destroy the Oromo struggle for self-determination.

Starting in 2018, when Abiy came to power, members of OLA and the Qeerroo/Qarree movement have been hunted and killed or detained in many places across Oromia.

Soon after he came to power, Abiy established military command posts in some parts of Oromia, such as Wello, Wellega, Guji, and central Oromia, giving them a free hand to kill Oromo youth and other civilians who were suspected to be Oromo nationalists or sympathizers of the OLF and the OLA.

When asked why the government failed to destroy the OLA at a Prosperity Party meeting, Fekadu Tessema, a party official, said, “If you want to completely get rid of all the fish, you will need to dry up the ocean.” Fekadu was declaring war on the Oromo public because they supported the OLA.

Having declared war on Oromia and the OLA, the administration massacred or imprisoned mainly Oromo students and farmers in Wello, Wollega, Guji, central Oromia, and other areas.

The Prosperity Party system also seems to have given at least tacit support for Amhara Fano militias attacking Oromo civilians. Regional forces from Amhara, Somali, and other regions, and reportedly Eritrean troops, are now engaged in brutality against the Oromo people.

Amnesty International notes, “Ethiopian security forces committed horrendous human rights violations, including burning homes to the ground, executions, rape, arbitrary arrests, and detentions… in response to attacks by armed groups and inter-communal violence in Amhara and Oromia.”

Public executions have also taken place. On 11 May 2021, for instance, government forces summarily executed Amanuel Wondimu, a 17-year-old boy, in daylight at a square in Dambi Dollo. Amanuel was accused of being a member of an assassin group named Abbaa Torbee, and was killed without due process.

These actions are intended to terrorize Oromos so that they abandon their struggle for self-determination. But, the opposite is happening across Oromia as Oromo nationalism has further developed. More and more young people have joined the OLA, and many support the fight for survival and freedom, including many youths who were part of the Qeerroo/Qarree movement.

Oromia’s future

The current neo-neftegna administration has left no room for the peaceful Oromo struggle that brought Abiy to power in 2018. Abiy and his supporters are now determined to destroy the OLF, OLA, and the spirit of Oromo nationalism.

At this historical juncture, the Oromo people have one of two choices: either join the struggle to achieve sovereignty and democracy or continue to be persecuted by Abiy’s neo-neftegna administration, which is trying to eliminate all Oromo dissent by killing and detaining Oromo nationalists and their leaders.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Main photo: Abiy showing the statue of Emperor Haile Selassie to regional leaders at the inauguration of Unity Park; 10 October 2019; Office of the Prime Minister.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished.

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About the author

Asafa Jalata

Asafa Jalata is a Professor of Sociology and Africana and Global studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His newly published books are The Oromo Movement and Imperial Politics Culture and Ideology in Oromia and Ethiopia; and, Cultural Capital and Prospects for Democracy in Botswana and Ethiopia.

14 Comments

  • “At this historical juncture, the Oromo people have one of two choices: either join the struggle to achieve sovereignty and democracy or continue to be persecuted by Abiy’s neo-neftegna administration, which is trying to eliminate all Oromo dissent by killing and detaining Oromo nationalists and their leaders.” Thank you Professor!

  • The dream of writers like this man is turning into a nightmare ?, it is funny and sad to witness at the same time. They love cokking up words that have no real meaning or practical use just so that they push the victimhood politics, the left is turning into a sad show here in Etetoo.

  • You , Oromos are ruling the country but you say that you are persecuted and marginalized! but by whom? Abiy represented and came from OPDO, not from Amhara political party, as such he is primarily an Oromo. You may dislike his moderate stance but millions of Oromos do support him. The danger for Oromia, as well as for the whole country arises when the cleavage between the moderate and extreme Oromo parties gets deeper and wider, which may land you at, not the pure and great Oromia you dreamed of, but rather at the fate of South Sudan with endless bloodshed and butchery.

  • All seen and described , lo and behold, Primintet Minter Abiy’s poltical manifestation is unraveling and becoming unambitious clearer by the day. After following four years of his political haphazard , duplicity, doublespeak, contradictions or public gaffes , one can assume with certain degree of confidence that he is either naked oppotunist leader and raw political power-moger only in par with the characteristics of his predecessors of that. old empire or has zero for leadership fortes or knows little about what it takes to conceive the true meaning of institutional reforms, democracy , justice and good governance of that nation. Adding insult to the injury , he rubs more salt on the old wounds of the marginalized nations and nationalities in every opportunty by either fabricating or glorifying the messages from extremists and host of other chauvinists from a God forsaken and long forgotten imperial system that that entirely depended on the very blood, sweat and exploitive schemes of those same communities.

    • Let me extrapolate further what I mean by baseless new fabrications or historical revisionism at the expense of local communities ,which is perpetuated, advanced and disseminated by Amhara extremist groups , their media outlets . the Orthodox Church . Of course, it is done this with the help of Abiy himself. Good example is tecent brouhaha of non-existent of the so-called ye jegnoch victory of the 1977- 1978 at Karaamara against imaginary invaders. In reality, there is not such name in the locality. heroic event or anything similar, let alone memorable victory in the area. The true name of the place in af-Somali or afaan-Orom language is Karaamardha., not the newly baptize and amarized Kara-amara. Ask anyone who is residing , farming or herding in the region for centuries ? Second, No major battle ever took place Karanatdga perse at the time and it had little or no military and battlefield strategic significance whatsoever . Even some former Ethiopian military officials attest to this fact on live TV.
      If anything, , Major fights and confrontations between the Somali Liberation Fronts, with the backing of Somali government against the Cuban propped Derg army took place in Diridhaba front and Babile and other places., because was there myself as a teenage among liberation fighter.
      Third, the the cause of the war itself was necessary one and righteous ,, because it was against the century old of Abyssinians aggressors , settlemers ,occupiers that inflicted untold atrocities misery and exploitation on local Somali population like other oppressed nations in the old empire suffered. Fourth, most local population who lost their lives for lost loved ones , plundered and uprooted in the war and at the hands of Ethiopia military were not foreigners or come from Somalia proper as their narratives suggest but were locals activists and nobody asked their opinion about it now and then or how they see the past events or how they perceive this newly concocted narratives, historical defilement and unjustifiable glorification of their suffering in the land against their beliefs and rights. If the masses got some half from neighboring states so be it. Because they were in desperate for help and it don’t matter where it comes from as long as it mitigates local oppression . Lastly, the hypothetical question if thete is need for some war narrative or want to commemorate past events and inter-state collaboration and if there sense of mutual respect among ethnic groups ,why not just stick with the Cuban and Ethiopian friendship monuments and erect somewhere in Addis, Debra Tabor ,Baherdar etc. for the sake of it? Why there is a need to harp further new sharp sharp object on the same old wounds ?

  • Excellent analysis Prof. Asafa.
    Abiy’s Prosperity Party and his neo-neftegna collaborators are nothing but a continuation of the violent history of the Ethiopian empire. In the end their violent policy will strengthen the struggle of the peoples Southern Ethiopia, mainly the Oromo, for democracy, freedom and justice.
    Truth shall prevail!

  • Dear Prof.Asafa,
    Thank you so much for such a scholarly analysis of the illusionists empire where all the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are meaningless!!
    You are always my favorite writer who writes the things which can be justified with tones of data. We understand the fact that the fiction-writers who are known to write or read the nightmare of the neo-naftanya do not like the facts that you are clearly pointing here!

    Let me tell this guy who is trying to vomit his nonsense in here:
    ?
    @ferenjitel
    All what you said is only about yourself and the brainDEADs like you! You guys have ZERO capacity to learn or understand facts! You keep your illusions , falsehood strategies, baseless fictions to exploit the Oromo land. Bring woods that you say, ‘tabot’ is flying in the sky, this and that land is holy where ‘gabriel’ or ‘mariam’ will appear! Look the most savage strategies of you and your friends! That holy place that you guys took from Oromo farmers is currently the store house for guns to terrorize our people! You mentioned about kids, pregnant women, burning human alive are what you and your Fano friends do!
    Your endless illusion and ambition to expand ignorance has transformed the ethiopian empire into hell! We don’t know the next phase of your ignorance! We have seen all versions of your barbarism that is ultimately consuming the hypocrites like you and the ethiopian empire itself!

    Oromia will prevail!

    OLA will librate Oromos and the sons and daughters of Oromia will protect the sovereignty of Oromia! The Ethiopian empire is gone to never come back again; a few remnants are only hallucinating in Finfinnee!
    Cheers!

  • Dear Prof Asafa
    You talk too much from distant comfortable USA. Do you know what is happening on the ground by OR goons – setting fire to cities (Ataye, Shashamene, Batu, etc) bayonetting pregnant Amhara women (with the foetus inside), massacring women and children of mainly Amhara descent, selling and buying oromo real estate and driving Revolution and Invincible trucks in Addis… what the hell are you talking about? neo-neftegna, this or tribe was settled around Tana area in the 13 th century…you are just talking hearsay, nothing evidenced in concrete terms. And you deny that Abiy is Oromo too… the pork that you are gobbling each day is stuffing your brain with rubbish. It is pathetic to read such trash from a so-called professor in USA. Shows what they and Egypitians pay you to write. In the meantime, be sure that the Oromo people on the ground here do not much share your invented stories. You better change your name too.

    • @feremjitel
      All what you said is only about yourself and the brainDEADs like you! You guys have ZERO capacity to learn or understand facts! You keep your illusions , falsehood strategies, baseless fictions to exploit the Oromo land. Bring woods that you say, ‘tabot’ is flying in the sky, this and that land is holy where ‘gabriel’ or ‘mariam’ will appear! Look the most savage strategies of you and your friends! That holy place that you guys took from Oromo farmers is currently the store house for guns to terrorize our people! You mentioned about kids, pregnant women, burning human alive are what you and your Fano friends do!
      Your endless illusion and ambition to expand ignorance has transformed the ethiopian empire into hell! We don’t know the next phase of your ignorance! We have seen all versions of your barbarism that is ultimately consuming the hypocrites like you and the ethiopian empire itself!

      Oromia will prevail!

      OLA will librate Oromos and the sons and daughters of Oromia will protect the sovereignty of Oromia! The Ethiopian empire is gone to never come back again; a few remnants are only hallucinating in Finfinnee!
      Cheers!

    • doesn’t look like a comment from someone who had read two consecutive paragraphs of the article. Insulting and trying to humiliate author justifies why you are here

  • By the way such a false stories sponsored by the western neo-colonialists is not new for Ethiopians and you are a “professor”? in western university and we can conclude you are brewing their hate politics upon us except the damn elites we Ethiopians the Amaharas, the Oromos, the Tigrians, the Sidamas, the Afars, and all other Ethiopians we are interconnected, interrelated we love each other more than any time. You and your type of mad people leave us alone.

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