Afan Oromo as the Federal Language: Building Common Policy Understanding

As we continue calling upon the Ethiopian government and the ruling EPRDF to immediately and unconditionally adopt Afan Oromo as the federal working language, it is important to build common policy understanding and clear some misconceptions among the Ethiopian general public. The following preliminary policy issues are an attempts to create such mutual understandings and initiate discussions among various sectors of the Ethiopian society on this vital national interest question that will have detrimental effect on the very survival of Ethiopia.

1. Agreeing on a common vision statement: The question of making Afaan Oromo or any other language the working language of the federal government is not merely a question of acknowledging that language on equal footing with Amharic. Language is the cultural software and the very identity and self-expression of those who speak that language. In this regard, none of Ethiopian languages are mutually exclusive and a threat to each other; but mutually complementary in creating inclusive public space of self-expression for various nations and nationalities. The central and most important vision statement all Ethiopians should agree upon, therefore, is building institutional structures and policy frameworks that will serve all Ethiopians to live together in peace, equality, dignity and prosperity in an inclusive multinational and multilingual federated and democratic Ethiopia where linguistic and cultural diversities are respected, affirmed and cultivated.

2. Agreeing on the necessity of having a deliberative democracy to solve problems and hold Ethiopia together: It is the national duty and historical obligation of the present Ethiopian government and the Ethiopian youth to peacefully solve and address the ages old national questions of the various nations and nationalities of Ethiopia through deliberative democracy. The first step of deliberative democracy is adopting a policy of multilingual federal working languages of which Afan Oromo occupies the top tier. Any presupposition that only one language can be used for deliberative democracy at federal level in a multilingual country is inherently exclusionary and unjust. The continuation of Amharic only mono language policy by the federal government is not only undesirable but also undermine the unity and the long term stability of Ethiopia and the region.

Photo - Traditional Ethiopian rural home
Photo – Traditional Ethiopian rural home

3. Agreeing on the non-partisan nature of making Afan Oromo the federal working language: If all Ethiopians want and agree on the necessity of having a united, federal, democratic and inclusive country where the interests of the Oromo people are represented equally, fairly and in full measure; then the question of making Afaan Oromo the federal working language of Ethiopia is not an Oromo question. It is an Ethiopian question all non-Oromos, particularly the Amhara and the Tigrean brethren, should champion as a matter of necessity not as an option. The same holds true for all other Ethiopian languages. Ethiopia that excludes the Oromo people or others by denying the inalienable rights of being oneself cannot stand. Therefore, it is at the best interest of all nations and nationalities and Ethiopian interest groups to advocate for Afan Oromo, on non-partisan basis, to be the working language of the federal government.

4. Agreeing to pay a price for our unity, progress, and living together: In my conversations with fellow Ethiopians on the question of making Afan Oromo the federal working language; one of the question being raised is about the cost and expense of implementing such a policy. If we love, respect and value living together and our unity as the most important vital national interests of Ethiopia; then no price is too expensive and no cost is too high to implement the policy of making Afan Oromo the federal working language. In fact, it is the most critical and vital national interests of Ethiopia to immediately allocate necessary material, financial and human resources to implement such a policy to break the iron gate of national hostage which will in effect mobilize the potential and economic value creations of tens of millions of Oromos that will quadruple the prosperity and national progress of Ethiopia.

5. Agreeing to abandon following the failed containment policies on vital national interest Questions: If the secession of Eritrean from Ethiopia leaves us with any lesson, addressing the questions of nations and nationalities shared rule and self-rule, languages, and the land policies on the basis of equality, equity, and justice remain the most vital and critical national interest. For lack of knowledge, vision and other shortsighted reasons that are not the subject of this discussion, all Ethiopian regimes either ignore or fail trying to follow containment policies on all major vital national interest questions instead of addressing them. This government and this generation must be different. Ethiopia has long overdue Oromo problem. The voices of over 40 million Oromo people will not be contained but needs to be heard, answered, and the demand of the people met. Any further attempt to ignore or contain the mighty voices of millions of people will not be any different from the fate of the walls of Jericho that collapsed by the mighty voices of the ancient Israelites.

6. Understanding the dead assimilationist and exclusionist policies of the past will not be re-imposed: Post 1991 Ethiopia is different, permanently and irreversibly changed. The pre-1991 assimilationist and exclusionist policies that were engineered to assimilate few elements of the subject nations and nationalities into one language, one religion, and one culture to create homogenous Ethiopia where possible; and exclude and segregate those that don’t assimilate till their final extinctions where not are dead, buried, and will not be resurrected again. It is a moot case that cannot be re-litigated.

7. Understanding multilingualism is not a domination or imposition of two or more languages on the others: Making Afan Oromo the working language of the federal government is neither replacing Amharic with Afan Oromo nor imposing Afan Oromo on the other nations and nationalities mimicking the pre-1991 Ethiopia. Rather, it is part of charting a new multilingual policy rooted in the values of creating a diverse and inclusive public space for all linguistic groups where they will be treated with equality, respect, equity and fairness to be heard. It is part and parcel of the continuation of pre-1991 struggle to replace the assimilationist and exclusionist policies that still continued at the federal government level and in the two largest cities of Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. Similarly, adopting Afan Oromo is not a question of creating another national language, but of creating working language to serve the largest majority of the Ethiopian people in multilingual and pluralistic country.

8. Understanding multilingualism is merely a means not an end by itself: The legitimate political, economic, social and institutional empowerment questions of various nations and nationalities of Ethiopia will not be answered solely through the adoption of multilingual language policies. Such policies merely provide critical component in articulating and communicating those demands with each other in an inclusive deliberative democratic platform. The political, economic, social, institutional empowerment and other demands of various nations and nationalities will only be addressed by creating a democratic, representative, inclusive, and constitutional system of government. Similarly, save the recognition of the identity aspect to address the issue of at least equal self-expression, the adoption of Afan Oromo as the federal language will not address other empowerment questions of the Oromo people.

9. Multilingual policy will enable us to create awakened and enlightened society: Enlightenment and awakening to understand our societies past and present injustices, pains and hurts as well as hopes, dreams, and visions in projecting common and inclusive future are critical for the emotional, physiological, social and economic health and wellbeing of our society. One of the vestiges of one language policy of the past is the incubation and development of emotionally dead, culturally insensitive, politically indifferent and borderline racist society that does not listen, understand, recognize, appreciate or sympathize with each other’s plight; and/or even future. Adopting multilingual language deliberative platform by adopting bilingual or multilingual federal working languages at national level will provide the necessary conducive environment to address past injustices and hurts while creating culturally tolerant society. It will enable us to create vibrant bilingual and multilingual society that respects linguistic, cultural, religious, and political diversity that appreciates and defends creative problem solving and plurality.

10. Understanding mutual trust, respect and love are the only glue that will hold the Ethiopian people together: Either due to lack of vision, knowledge, understanding or pure laziness on how to lead a country, Ethiopian regimes prefer to deploy politics of fear and forces to rule and hold Ethiopians together. This is a problem from hell. Fear and forces creates mistrust, hate, racism, and disintegration; not unity. The present Ethiopian generation must abandon these deadly and poisons policies and adopt a governance policies based on creating mutual trust, respect and love among various nations and nationalities. Adopting a multilingual language policy by adopting Afan Oromo as the federal working language is the necessary first step to create mutual trust, respect and love among the large segment of the Ethiopian population.

In my subsequent posts, I will explore the actual policy framework that suits Ethiopia best by looking at the examples of multilingual and bilingual countries that long tackled these policy issues Ethiopia still grapples with. In the meantime, I encourage people to create discussion forums and other platforms that will address this critical and vital national interest issues in connection with the upcoming Ethiopian national election. Stay tuned.


Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni

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