By Oromsis Adula*
Prominent Ethiopian websites that are run by or cater to non-Oromo Ethiopian Diaspora are swamped with reports of Medrek’s most recent North American working visit. Medrek is the main opposition, a coalition of eight multiethnic parties, in the forthcoming TPLF’s “national” election. TPLF is an acronym for the ethnic minority ruling party, the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front. Among other places, the delegation has held successful public meetings in Seattle, San Jose, Las Vegas, Washington DC and Atlanta.
At all these well attended gatherings, Medrek was hailed as the new face of Ethiopia, the rebirth of Ethiopia – and as the Menfes (spirit) that Kinijit once was. An informant close to the organizers tells us that the delegation didn’t adjourn their official tour. But with public meetings still scheduled around the states, only Seye Abraha the spokesperson for the coalition remains in the United States. Seye is also scheduled to do a signing ceremony for his forthcoming book “Netsenat Ina Denginat Ba Ethiopia”, roughly translated Freedom and Justice in Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, the campaign season is coming to a closure. Painful memories abound, the opposition has sustained an unaccounted for number of causalities. In two of the few reported cases, opposition candidates for federal parliament were stabbed and beaten to death. The public, especially in Tigray and Oromia, is subjected to an unprecedented intimidation and coercion campaigns. Meetings have become a daily task for ordinary Ethiopians as the regime seeks to systematically orchestrate and amass the people’s vote.
The Diaspora, although marginally divided along ethnic lines and perhaps more incongruent, has shown some strides towards common understanding on certain issues. For instance, all Ethiopian Diaspora groups agree more or less on ridding the country off the current minority junta. To some degree, we are also seeing an unspoken ease to work collectively towards that end goal – by forming a mutual strategic alliance similar to the late Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD). However; in recent years, Diaspora based opposition groups, especially in the Oromo and Amhara camps, have been dealing with internal crisis’s that brought the prospect of working towards forging such strategic alliance to a stalemate.
TPLF has succeeded in exploiting both the internal and external situations. At home; the regime took advantage of disfranchised opposition in Amhara region, a loosely formed coalition of traditionally conflicting groups as scare tactics in Oromia and a coordinated smear campaign against former TPLF leaders in Tigray where the contest emerged to be fierce.
In Amhara region, the alignment of former TPLF big wigs [Seye and co] with the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party and the subsequent split that led to the sidelining of members like Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam was effectively employed in the ruling party’s campaign messages. In the same manner, although this has badly backfired, Seye Abraha and Gebru Asrat’s imposing comebacks and their alliance with Amhara groups was used in Tigray to put the wind up the public ears.
In Oromia, the opposition lacks a grassroots support as a result of a tightly controlled political space. The absence of civil society and independent media coupled with ambivalent campaigning efforts by the opposition leaves much to be desired in order to change the majority voting power to an advantage. TPLF’s pet project – the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), makes an effective use of prewritten talking points to exploit the situation. As is everywhere else in country, Meles Zenawi’s carefully crafted smear campaign messages are used against former TPLF members who are in the coalition. In addition, the long standing and historically compelling Amhara-Oromo wrangle is used as an alarm against a sudden comeback of the century old “Neftegna” Amhara rule.
Missed opportunities during the high-ranking Medrek officials working visit to the United States seems to validate those fears also prevalent among the Oromo Diaspora. On such highly publicized and well organized visit with Ethiopian Diaspora, it was a political miscalculation at best to not approach Oromo communities around the states. Ethiopia, by Medrek leader’s own admission, is a prison house for Oromo people. It is enough to mention here Seye Abraha’s quote – “Ethiopian prison speaks Afan Oromo” – an infamous testimony to the fact that an unaccounted for number of Oromos remain unlawfully incarcerated in Ethiopian gulags. Seye is a former rebel, a defense minister before the TPLF split, inmate at Kaliti prison and currently a spokesperson for Medrek. Dr. Negaso Gidada, the former President of Ethiopia and a high ranking member in the coalition, has also stated numerous times that by the time he resigned from presidency, there were over 20,000 Oromo political prisoners in Ethiopia. As such, it is a grave political miscalculation to espouse change by living the wretched of the country – the Oromo, behind.
The time calls for audacious actions and leaders who can go above and beyond their duty into unfamiliar turfs to bring people together across the aisle. Any movement, armed or peaceful struggle, will only succeed in Ethiopia by involving all sectors of the society…even more so by taking-up the cause of the dispossessed majority in all its forms – economic, social and political. The political developments of the last two decades and the surge of ethnic nationalism in Ethiopia require a progressive and issue oriented paradigm shift.
Another interesting case worth mentioning here is the recent death and long term sentences handed down to Oromo nationals by Ethiopia’s kangaroo court. Notwithstanding the fact that Medrek did not issue a press release or make a public comment on the case, the matter did not generate a lot of interest among non-Oromo Ethiopian groups. For instance, Tigabu Yilma, from my understanding an Amhara who is obviously frustrated with the divided politics of the country had this to say.
I have lived enough to observe that most Ethiopian politicians fail simply because they exclude the Oromo people. Recently, my friend, who is an Oromo, was sentenced to 12 years of prison without parole. I sent a brief note – my personal account of the time I spent with the prisoner at Addis Ababa University Law School, to most “Ethiopian” websites. Except two, all of them declined to publish it.
Similarly, I have heard a deafening drum of calls for the release of jailed opposition leader, Ms Birtukan Mideksa. The “Free Birtukan” mantra has become viral and contagious among non-Oromo Ethiopian groups creeping up at their meetings, musical concerts and online. No one is free when others are oppressed goes the old axiom. I am all for the release of Birtukan Mideksa. But the holier than holly manner in which a campaign for her release [alone] is being staged leaves one to wonder if these groups even acknowledge [truly] the overwhelming presence of Oromo political prisoners in that godforsaken country.
It is my sincere hope against hope that Medrek will eventually emerge as a coalition that can heal many of the wounds, divides and pains caused by the TPLF regime. This may not happen at the current hyper-chaotic moment but at not too distant future. But I see a danger lurking around the loose-loose coalition with many fundamental differences yet to be hammered out. It is unwarranted to expect Medrek to be perfect with only a year under its belt. But the wise Oromo says, “…you can tell if the food is going to fill you up by looking at what is on the plate.”
The Ethiopian Diaspora, doggonit – there is much more that needs to be done. It is an encouraging fact that despite years of absence from homeland, the Ethiopian Diaspora remains actively involved in the events in their country. The western world offers many teachable moments and opportunities to adopt certain workable practices for Ethiopia’s future. As young Ethiopians are coming of age with multinational identities and with a surprising attachment to what they call their country, the time calls for a paradigm shift to move away from old habits of them vs. us.
Many agonizing trials from the past will indisputably be kept in the trash bin of history. There are also legitimate reasons for mistrust and the need for independent existence. But if the future yields any better scenarios for the people of Ethiopia, the homework must be done now. I do not think it serves any group’s interest to be bogged down by insidious debates of who gets what.
The struggles of Ethiopian people with tyranny, arrested development, vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy affects all – albeit more prevalent in some places. It must also be fought by all. Medrek must seize that opportunity and truly work for a better future for the silenced, trodden down and overlooked majority in this least developed country on the face of earth.