By Jawar Siraj Mohammed*
I listened intently to the Voice of America report about “Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO’s)” opposistion to Medrek’s proposal to make Afan Oromo a federal language. However, I was not shocked by the position as much as I was amazed with the lousy reasons given by certain Mesfin Assefa. I was not shocked because I knew this was coming – it is part of the grand strategy devised by Meles Zenawi to remain in power. I was amazed by how increasingly paranoid the ruling party is becoming. In campaigns, an incumbent party is supposed to bring out its positive accomplishments.
OPDO is using its failures as an excuse to block the well intentioned proposal. In this short piece, I am not going to make a case for making Afan Oromo a national language. That will be done in due time. I will focus simply on the strategic rationales driving the ruling party’s new position.
1) Failure Is Not an Excuse
[OPDO] says “Afan Oromo, which was established as a written language just two decades ago, hasn’t sufficiently developed to serve as a national working language“
First correction; Afan Oromo was not “established” two decades ago, if the statement is referring to it becoming a working language, then it is also important to note that in the process of developing a writing system for the Oromo language, rigorous research was conducted for over a half a century. Intellectuals such as Sheik Bekri Saphalo, Haile Fida and Sheik Mohammed Rashad spent their life time developing and advancing the study of the language.
Nevertheless, how underdevelopment of a language prevents it from becoming nationalized is simply unheard of. I thought linguistic development and nation building are mutually reinforcing and are supposed be undertaken simultaneously. But even if we accept this lousy rationale, whose fault is it that the language’s development has stagnated? Wasn’t it the same party that was in power during this period? Unless Mesfin is one of the newly baptized cadres, I am sure he is aware of the hundreds of students who languish in jails across Oromia simply because they demanded the formation of Gumii Dagagiina Afaan Oromoo (Afan Oromo Development Clubs) in their schools.
Does he know that my dear friend Nasir Abdo was tortured until his kidney busted because he was one of the student leaders demanding the formation of such club that could have been instrumental in the development of Oromo language?
Unless OPDO is suffering from amnesia, it should have known that the stagnation of the language is caused by the forced exodus of almost all Oromo linguists. Where are the likes of Abdulsamad Mohammed, Askale Lemma, Tilahun Gemta, Mahadi Hamid Muudee …? During the 1990’s it was a policy of Meles Zenawi and his cronies to eradicate Oromo intellectuals from Oromia under the motto that said, “Hayyoonnii gurguddoon farra dimokraaisiiti” – [Oromo] intellectuals are enemies of democracy. I challenge Mr. Mesfin to dig through the files of his party and find the little yellow book crafted to urge cadres to target intellectuals.
Therefore; OPDO/EPRDF is solely responsible for preventing Afan Oromo from developing in the speed and intensity that it started in early 1990’s. By expelling almost all the intellectuals, weakening the institutions established to standardize the language, and routinely harassing, executing and imprisoning Afan Oromo teachers accusing them of “narrow nationalism”, the regime effectively prevented the development of the language. Now it wants to use its own failure an excuse to prevent further development.
But why is OPDO coming out against this proposal at this time?
2) Fear Mongering Is Meles’s Hallmark
OPDO official, Mesfin Assefa warns that, “such a move [making Afan Oromo a federal language] would create disastrous violence among nations and nationalities in the country.”
Once again, how an underdevelopment of a language causes conflict among different nationalities is beyond my comprehension. Yet the aim of this statement is clear. It is an attempt at scaring the rest of Ethiopians about the coming of Oromo hegemony that will forcefully impose its language on others.
Remember divide and rule has always been the grand strategy of the ruling party. Hence, it must use every opportunity to create rift within the opposition and the electorate and distract them from focusing on their collective campaign. In the past, it was able to use ideology (nationalism) to prevent formation and sustainability of strong adversary.
Now Medrek seems to have made such a strategy obsolete since member parties have made serious compromises to form a consensus based alliance. Hence, the regime is attempting to fabricate and devise new scare tactics. With this particular tactic, the ruling party is trying to appease – both the Oromo and the non-Oromo constituencies, while also pitting them against each other.
First, the ruling party cites the underdevelopment of the language to comfort and promise the Oromo a new era. The message is this; “it is premature to make the language national, we should development it ourselves first”…going even further to formulate a ridiculous suggestion that making Afan Oromo a national at this time will negatively impact development of the language.
Second, the regime would like to scare the non-Oromo population telling them that the language is going to be imposed on them. It warns that there will be a disastrous ethnic violence. Fear mongering has always been the hallmark for this regime. Any proposal that threatens Meles’s rule is said to lead to genocide and disintegration of the country.
During the last election, when he realized that the opposition was on their way to soundly defeat him, he accused them of planning “interhamwe” against Tigreans. It warned the Oromos about the resurrection of Minilik and reinstitution of the nafxanyaa system. Recently, even the self censoring Voice of America did not escape as the prime minister shameless accused them of inciting genocide. Since this backfired on him, he is now trying to incite Oromo phobia. The Oromo has no desire to unilaterally impose our language over our brothers. We know the pain of learning a forcefully imposed language, the trauma is still fresh.
The decision and process of making Afan Oromo a working language of the federal government requires sober discussion and consensus. Learning Afan Oromo significantly benefits the non-Oromo Ethiopians. In Ethiopia almost 85% of the educated population is employed by the state, and as a matter of fact the vast majority of these jobs are in Oromia. Learning the language, therefore, will only allow the non-Oromo Ethiopians to compete and access these jobs.
However no language should be imposed on anybody without the consent of the people. Neither should fear mongering be used to block proposals. What Medrek has right now is just a proposal. The merits of this proposal need further public deliberation, consultation and consensus among all stakeholders.
*Jawar S Mohammed writes a regular political commentary on Ethiopian Politics. He can be reached at email@example.com.