By Siegfried Pausewang
The Oromo are the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, constituting roughly one third of the population. They have managed admirably well to create a common feeling of belongingness during the last 30 or 40 years. Local clan- or community-based identities were forged into a strong common identity of “Oromumma”, an Oromo national identity. But precisely that made all other groups look at them with fear and suspiciousness: In a political context where ethnicity decides over political association, all other groups must fear that the Oromo, should they be able to challenge the present rulers, would establish yet another system of domination, as all predecessors had done.
On the international scene, too, the Oromo are at present not considered a credible alternative to the ruling government that at least guarantees stability. Their political organisations are split in many groups and fractions, and they have no political alternative to offer. Their standard argument remains: Let us first get rid of the present government to achieve majority rule. Then we will know to establish a more democratic society, based on our tradition of “Gada”. Their traditional social order is indeed built on basic democratic elements. But it is that of a traditional society, not adapted to be operational in a contemporary society.
The Oromo need desperately to clarify their political positions and to develop a credible political alternative vision. If they want to convince others, both in Ethiopia and among the donors and the international community, they need to offer a prospect of a genuinely bottom-up democratic alternative for Ethiopia and for the region. But their fragmentation prevented a process of planning up to now. Instead, they gave priority to tactics, to challenge the present government. They attempted to coordinate the resistance of different groups in the country, and demanded a return to the promising start with the “Transitional Charter” of 1991. Challenged to disclose their political alternative and their visions for the future, their standard answer is: Let us first achieve victory and majority rule, and self- determination.
In September 2004, the Chr. Michelsen Institute called together a group of Oromo elders, scholars, politicians and opinion leaders in an attempt to open a debate on the future policies. Until then, each fraction had demanded unconditional support from its members. To maintain unity in the struggle, they were not to challenge the decisions of their Central Committee.
Two questions stood in the centre of the “Bergen Meeting” at CMI: First, is armed struggle a way towards achieving change in Ethiopia; or is it self defeating? Would negotiations allow better success? Second, is it politically wise to aspire an independent sovereign Oromo state, or is substantial autonomy within an Ethiopian Federation a more realistic alternative?