Oromo Social Resentment: Re-envisioning Resentment Theory, an African Perspective.

AuthorDibaba, Assefa Tefera


The Oromo are the largest single ethnic group inhabiting Ethiopia, Northeast Africa. Oromia is the most populous regional state in Ethiopia with a total population of about 35 million by the 2007 census. (1) Twelve of the twenty largest urban dwellings in Ethiopia are located in Oromia, with Finfinne (Addis Ababa), the capital being at the center. (2) Contrary to the people's acute demand for democratic rights, the Tigre-led coalition of the ruling party "has remained centralist authoritarian in a manner reminiscent of previous regimes" (3) and declared itself legitimate by wining 99% of the May 2015 national election for a fifth term in power since 1992, despite the promised reforms towards democratic elections and ethnic federalism secular at the federal and state levels. Thus, in Ethiopia to date, after nearly thirty years of evil days of the war, famine, and social crisis that ran through 1991/1992, another round of structured state violence followed and affected negatively the everyday lives of the people. (4) As the Oromo national movement for freedom and democracy led by Qeerroo, the angry young (unmarried) Oromo boys and girls intensified, the Tigray elites-led regime declared another state of emergency as a plan to crackdown on the movement. It is yet to be seen if the state of emergency is not a challenge for the new Prime Minister, who comes from Oromia, to fully exercise his authority to change the status quo, to unleash the Qeerroo-led nonviolent movement, and most importantly, to bring to an end the Tigrayan elites' firm grip on political and economic power.

The Oromo resentment has two faces: political and ethical. Politically, the resentment is the feeling of being denied legitimacy and recognition of re/actions against injustices and domination and to the lack of genuine representation; and ethically, it is to the failure of Oromo elites to unite, to take responsibility to fight injustices and show dynamism and commitment to the established binding moral and legal norms (safuu) of the society. Thus, this study has significance in filling the continuing gap on empirical research in resentment in Oromo oppositional culture for freedom and democratic rights as it has implications for the moral/ethical responsibility of Oromo political elites. Based on available data, I argue that the dominant ideas of Oromo oppositional culture have been seen largely as the product of resentment, as negative reactionary stances to domination and exploitation, not as positive legitimate actions and forms of resilience in Oromo resistance culture. It is seen by many as an irrational endeavor for the Oromo people to claim the ongoing protest and national liberation struggle for their democratic rights as a legitimate quest while there was no ethno-nation or nationality in Ethiopia who did not experience oppression.

This paper is organized into three sections. Beginning with a brief background orientation in the first section about the Oromo and their country, Oromia, this study is an attempt to cast light on the nature of Oromo social resentment from an Oromo perspective. The second section details methods used in the study and it discusses the conceptual framework. In this section, the paper opens venue toward the critical examination of collective resentment and what constitutes resentment theory based on local knowledge.

The third and the empirical section of the paper establish and illustrate the ethical and political implications of Oromo resentment texts from Ethiopia's past and present. (5) This section grounds the study within the poetics and political dimensions of Oromo resentment patterns arising from the disenchantment and grief of loss embedded in unequal historical relationships in Ethiopia. Toward this goal, using some examples from Oromo narratives in my collections and texts available in print, the third section analyzes resentment discourse and grounds "resentment theory" in an Oromo context. The paper concludes by indicating that Oromo resentment discourse describes the social condition underlying repressed resentment, and it also points to opportunities for action by linking human agency or practice with prospects and emotion through motivation against structured violence.

Methods & Some Conceptual Framework

This is an interpretive and interdisciplinary study of Oromo social life perceived from an Oromo perspective and their resentment to the dire social phenomenon in which they live in Ethiopia's past and present. The data in this study are meaning-making human practices obtained through interviews and direct observations in the field between 2009 and 2010 in Oromia, central Ethiopia, and some came from available sources in print. The data encompass lived-experiences seen as meaningful and historically contingent human actions and attitudes recorded in songs, stories, and personal narratives over the years. In this view, the data are located within a particular setting and analyzed from particular standpoints of resentment theory by focusing on the specificity of the socio-historical context they come from.

Resentment Theory

Although in some contexts the two terms, 'resentment" and "resentiment," are used interchangeably, the English term "resentment" does not always carry a sense of lingering emotion that the French term "resentiment" carries. (6) Resentment indicates a sense of offense and feeling of ill-will toward another, whereas, in "resentiment," there are added connotations of lasting bitterness, that is, "a sense of animosity and acrimony of temper, action, or words that resentment does not necessarily carry." (7) With these deep-rooted semantic nuances between "resentiment" (haaloo) and "resentment" (quuqqaa), both senses of loss and grievance are understood, in this study, to have social roots in oppressions and inequalities in any system in which those placed at the bottom of hierarchy and differentiation receive less attention, services, and goods. Some scholars of ressentiment draw on Nietzsche and Max Schiler to conclude that it is wholly negative repressed emotions, "slave morality," affects associated with unacceptable emotions that are repressed as taboo, "outlaw emotions" inhibited by the body politic as unacceptable but provide 'clues to suppressed social relations'. (8) However, both senses of the oppressed, ressentiment and resentment are forms of knowledge of the human practices and responses to injustice suppressed by the body politic as unacceptable.

In Max Scheler's view, ressentiment takes its root in an individual or collective impotencies or weaknesses which the subject constantly suffers. (9) According to this view, the feeling of resentment wells up from psychic, mental, social, or physical impotencies, disadvantages, weaknesses or deficiencies of various kinds, and it can permeate a whole culture, era, and an entire moral system. Scheler explores ressentiment from two angles: ethical and political. (10) Based on Nietzsche's phenomenological account of the "genealogy of morals," Scheler treats "ressentiment" as a profound source of value judgment. From this ethical notion, he proposes two accounts of ressentiment. First, "ressentiment" is a feeling of hurt once again, a repeated experiencing of some emotional response reaction against some evil, which is delayed and removed from the person's zone of action and expression because of fear of consequences; not a mere intellectual recollection of the emotion but a "re-experiencing of it". (11) Second, "ressentiment" is a negative and reactive morality, a suppressed wrath which takes shape through a systematic repression of certain emotions and affects such as revenge, malice, hatred, impulse to detract, spite, envy, jealousy, and competitive urge. (12)

On the political scale, speaking of social ressentiment, Scheler affirms the importance of two factors, namely, the spread of discrepancy between the political, constitutional, or traditional status of a group, and the limited spread of factual power. To Scheler, "a potent charge of ressentiment is here accumulated by the very structure of society." That is, in a democratic society, social ressentiment would be slim and "tends toward equality of property," but in a class-divided society, "social ressentiment must be strong," an important determinant factor that influences established morality. (13) In the case of the Oromo, contrary to the fact that Oromo nationalism evolved out of the precipitating historical factors and resentment to political exclusion, economic exploitation, and cultural domination, Oromummaa (Oromoness), the underlying principle of Oromo nationalism, has been misconstrued as an ethnocentric orientation of a resentful nationalism, not as a legitimate creed of national struggle for constitutional and democratic rights. (14) Thus, Oromumma underlies Oromo resentment to any form of injustices.

The School of Resentment

In resentment studies, it is important to learn not just to take wrongs seriously, but also to examine claims of wrongs carefully (who makes the wrongs, to whom they are addressed, and how they are made; their performance and context). (15) In Oromo tradition, where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population, thought and its verbal expression is transmitted through folklore, the creative process and act, hence, a medium by which cultural transmission has been made possible and social transformation has been critiqued. Therefore, social criticism is an ideological and cultural nonconformity to injustices.

Marlia Banning is right to note in her "The Politics of Resentment" that discourse, particularly, critical discourse "knows no national or institutional border" and it can "impact the language, literacy, and rhetoric that circulate in local institutions of work, faith, learning, and civic life." (16) Next, I present briefly the critique of canonizing...

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