The Oromo, Ethiopia, and the “Other Ethiopians” – The Importance of Elections

dr daniel ayanaBy Dr.  Daniel Ayana

The following paper is  a summary of a presentation at the 2010 mid-year OSA Conference in Minneapolis on April 3rd, 2010.

This presentation has a very unorthodox view. It provides the missing link between the “democratization” and “sovereignty” groups, calls for broadening the political space, and suggests that the Diaspora Oromo mobilize to support independent Oromo parties at home. This path would break the prevailing impasse.

Before going into my presentation, I will clarify two key concepts. First, I take politics as the art of the possible, in its most elementary sense. This simply means operationalizing ideas and ideals in their proper contexts.  Second, the other concept that has been problematic is “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopians.” In its ancient Greek meaning “Ethiopia” referred to the land of black, brown, and red peoples. At one time it even meant the continent that is today Africa.

With Menilek’s conquest and colonial rule, Ethiopia shrunk to mean a core of Menze-Amhara. Moving out of this core other Abyssinians including the Tigrayans shared the name and its identity. The Oromo and the various victims of Menilek’s empire had each derogatory names such as Galla, Wollamo etc and were collectively referred to as “minaminte.” While the lands and the resources of these formerly despised peoples provided the economic foundation of the empire, the people were rendered sub-human material out of which “Ethiopians” will eventually be carved out over a long time in the future.  Collectively referred to as nations, nationalities or ethnic groups by various researchers, these peoples lived in the background. The Ethiopian regime failed to produce neither modern “Ethiopians” under Haile Sellassie nor socialist “Ethiopians” under the Derg.

Before a coordinated struggle of the Empire’s subject peoples could overthrow the regime, EPRDF took power, and its rule produced the “Other Ethiopians’’. EPRDF extended political discussions from a limited core to the territorial boundaries of Menilek’s Empire.  But political decision making remained centralized with the core of EPRDF, the TPLF. Despite claims of federalism and democracy, the system is tightly run from the center just like the previous regimes.  In the process the concept of the “Other Ethiopians” appeared as an EPRDF lexicon to refer to non-TPLF or non-EPRDF members as a category. Sometimes the word distinguishes Tigrayan from non-Tigrayans.  In each context the word is uttered dismissively and signifies powerlessness,   disenfranchisement, and sharing a misery index. Sometimes it meant those peoples born within Ethiopia’s international boundary. The word does not carry a meaning of entitlement, power, and status. At best it is a convenient inaccuracy. Thus when Ob. Bulcha or Dr. Merara , refer to themselves as Ethiopians, it is to this category of people. I call these “Other Ethiopians,” nations of intent.

Currently only select few can claim the definition of Ethiopianity or Ethiopianess in the political sense. Yet there are many others who are struggling to reestablish the old meaning attached to the word. Thus Bulcha and Merara are appealing to the new category of peoples under EPRDF.  These people are struggling to decide their fate through democratic elections.  Referring to the Oromo political activists or independent party leaders as “Ethiopians” is a misnomer and confusion. The old definition and category is no more applicable and the new applies exclusively to the few.

While the struggle of the Oromo people under the former OLF leaders had contributed to the Derg regime’s demise, the Oromo have yet to attain “what they want.” Currently there is a disagreement among the elites on what the Oromo want. Some say the Oromo want a democratized Ethiopia. But they are not full heartedly supporting those at home on the front line of the democratization effort. Others say the Oromo should opt for an independent and sovereign Oromiya.  I argue that the Oromia’s geography and Oromo settlement pattern is the missing link between these two seemingly different options.  I presume that the supporters of the “independent Oromiya” option struggle to secure their objective militarily. While I cannot estimate the time it will take, let me assume hypothetically there is such a possibility. Once the process is underway to secure a separate Oromiya militarily, one has to cross into the lands belonging to the “Other Ethiopians” due to the nature of military strategy and the regional geography.

The sprawling nature of Oromo settlement pattern does not allow a clean geographic break from the other nations of intent.  For practical reasons the Oromiya’s geography compels an Oromo commander to march through the lands inhabited by the “Other Ethiopians.”  To safeguard some Oromiya territories, one needs to control strategic landmarks. By virtue of their geographical locations such lands become essential for an independent sovereign Oromiya. Then there are recently-built or already existing air-ports or bridges on the lands of the nations of intent from south to north and west. Military moves to control such areas are not innately expansionistic. They are existential necessities of states. Controlling such strategic spaces overrides any other considerations.

The prevailing idea among some Oromo elites that a military operation stops at the edges of the territory where the Oromo have settled is not a realistic option, historically or geo-politically.  No statesman has marched out from a conquered piece of land without establishing law and order. What makes one a conqueror or an occupier is the type of government established to provide law and order, not a military necessity to remove a regime during periods of conflicts. This is a harsh reality one has to consider.

Once a military leader enters a territory, he/she cannot leave the area without establishing a dependable political order because doing so would create a power vacuum from which a dictator emerge. Thus if one wants an independent and democratic Oromiya to survive, then one has to help build stable democratic neighboring states before one pulls out. This is the iron law of geo-politics. Since the dawn of recorded history, despotic regimes always fought over land. In the context of a militarily liberated Oromiya one will be compelled with an only realistic option of building democratic neighboring states.  Simply put there can be no viable democratic and sovereign Oromiya sharing boundaries with authoritarian regimes to the north, south, west, and east.  Just as Menilek’s process of regional conquest was piece-meal and geographically inter-related, the ending of that legacy is going to be interdependent.

That is why the Oromo should consider their comparative advantage in demographic size. Currently in Ethiopia the Other Ethiopians and the EPRDF are facing off periodically over elections that are watched by many interest groups. Observers of the Horn agree that the EPRDF is organizing a show election for its procedural democracy. The nations of intent in Ethiopia, and international groups want an outcome that is based on fair and transparent multi-party election.  We should consider these elections seriously because our comparative advantage lies in our vote counts.

All of the organized political parties back home are showing an interest in our comparative advantage in delivering the decisive votes. The Oromo participated in these and future elections anyways. The vote of the Oromo and the Other Ethiopians will pave the way for a peaceful and democratic reorganization or dissolution, out of which nations of intent can merge or emerge.  That is why the process of creating independent Oromiya or a future democratized Ethiopia is interrelated.  Unless we take the elections seriously, the pent-up frustration among the Oromo and the “Other Ethiopians” could lead to a protest vote, to be picked up by any organized group in the game. Such organized groups could even be the ones who would like to reverse to the pre-EPRDF status quo ante.

My suggestion is that we assist independent Oromo parties such as OPC and OFP at home through walfaanummaa. They are the ones in the frontline to expand political space. They are the ones who can lead the peaceful struggle along with a willing coalition from the Other Ethiopians. Walfaanummaa calls for the Diaspora Oromo communities and individuals to provide a collective, full-throttled support for activists back home. Walfaanummaa suggests that the Diaspora Oromo link-up with groups interested in our region to contribute what can be done from abroad. Walfaanummaa calls for those in the “sovereignty” and “democratization” camps to nurse their differences and unequivocally support those back home in the frontline of non-violent struggle.  You will not lose in this path of the struggle but eventually gain a deserved respect. Such a process will reveal the complexities involved, and show how the Oromo imaginatively solve the problems at the grass roots level.

Some  of the Questions Presented from the Audience :

Why don’t we put pressure on OLF because it can be a game-changer?

Dr Daniel: I know that most of you believe in Jaarsummaa to bring change to former OLF leaders. Jaarsummaa works mostly on issues related to social and physical space. Jaarsummaa is rarely effective on matters of politic among former comrades. No amount of Jaarsummaa or pressure can make political leaders work together. Political leaders are too self-confident about the correctness of their paths to change their views through Jaarsummaa. They also have self-generated opinions for each other, which the elders do not entertain. However, when they realize that the Oromo are tackling problems at home with local leadership and grass roots participation, they will get time to reflect accordingly.

Q: Do you encourage the status quo to remain as it is?

Dr Daniel: No I do not support the status quo back home. There are gains on Oromummaa that had to be consolidated, which needs local democratic participation. But there are many issues that have yet to be addressed. Those issues have to be framed as election platforms by home-based activists.

You said that the West depends on EPRDF security apparatus. How can this apparatus become dependable for a democratic process? The West wants a professional security apparatus in countries of the Horn including Ethiopia. The West does not want security officials to interfere in political process. If you remember recently in a West African Francophone country interference in the political process created chaos. Those individuals who overthrew the government and shot peaceful demonstrators are now neutralized. The West has a clear and vested interest in stability in our region. The West does not want Somalia-scenario or Sudan-type fragility to appear in the region.

Q: Do you believe in armed struggle or democratization of the Empire?

Dr Daniel: The purpose of my presentation is to show that both are linked to each other. Even if you militarily win independence for Oromiya you have to have stable democratic neighboring states. You help them build such states or you will be on war footing always, as is the situation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both paths end up having the same process of democracy building. One goes for an armed struggle only to end up building democratic neighbors. The other builds democracy from below. It is your choice to discern which path is beneficial. My choice is for the Oromo and the nations of intent to decide through the ballot box.

Q: How do we support Dr. Merara and others who are empire builders?

Dr Daniel: I know how some Diaspora individuals perceive Dr. Merara due to past political issues that belong to a different historical time. Now we are in different stark reality. Dr. Merara is struggling to win freedom for the Oromo. He cannot build an empire when his parliamentary seat is not secure due to the narrowing political space. If he and the others in the opposition can win their seats in the May 2010 election, that is an achievement worth noting and building on.  There also lies our irony. That is why we have to support the broadening of political space through an out-come based democracy.

* The writer thanks Ob. Fayyis  Oromia  for the concept of walfaanummaa which I used in a different context in this writing and (In the interest of disclosure this writer does not belong to any political party or has no affiliation to any faction.)



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