By Olaana Abbaa Xiiqi*
For eighteen full days Egypt shook the whole world. Those brave Egyptians inspired us, we were glued to our televisions and watched their every move, we envied them, rejoiced with them, felt their pain, and when finally the dictator fled the city we joined in their jubilation.
The aftershock of this earth moving revolution had an immediate effect in North Africa and Middle East. Movement of the people erupted everywhere, sending shivers down the spine of every authoritarian ruler on the planet. People’s power in action was paraded on TV, not to be ignored any longer. Dictator after dictator scrambled to quell the rising tide, some by outright massacre and some by giving series of concessions to preempt them. To date, the outcome of these uprisings is not clear. But the struggle is far from over. It will continue and will reach every corner of the world.
The question in everyone’s mind is, “could Egypt be replicated in Ethiopia?” Even before Tunisia and Egypt there were amazing Oromo students’ movement of Fincila Diddaa Gabrumma of 2001-2005 that raged in most Oromian cities. However, except for some human rights organizations, not many people outside the county had heard about them. Because TV cameras were absent, and also because they occurred mostly outside the capital city where diplomatic corps and international organizations were nonexistent, the vicious suppressions of Oromo students were not adequately recorded and reported, the world did not see or hear them, and thus they did not capture the imagination of the world.
Even though their impact on Oromo society was immense, and even if they garnered huge sympathy from Oromos of all walks of life, beyond becoming a student movement, this movement failed to bring on board the larger Oromo population to rise up along with it. Not surprisingly, student movements in other parts of the country also went missing during this period. Not a single non-Oromo student organization demonstrated or passed a resolution in support of the Oromo student movement, and most Ethiopian websites also chose to ignore them. The heroic Oromo Student Movement was finally crushed after several students were killed. Lesson learnt was that Oromo student movement not supported by other sector of the society is powerless against an entrenched repressive government.
Just when the Oromo student movement was waning down, the 2005 election and the massacre that followed suit occurred in Addis Ababa. The Addis population without any clear leadership, but inspired by CUD, rose against the TPLF government en masse. Here again long before Tunisia and Egypt, the younger generation of Addis used the new media of the time, texting, for the first time to mobilize the population. They confronted the TPLF regime in a heroic manner, but in its usual fascistic manner the government mobilizing its Agazi force acted swiftly and cruelly and killed more than 200 individuals in one day in broad day light in the capital city. Tens of thousands were also imprisoned. Addis Ababa was very tense for about fifteen days. However, the movement did not persist for long, and it did not progress to other cities, and it was finally crushed. Again because these killings did not occur under the glaring light of TV cameras they did not capture the imagination of the international community. However, because they occurred in the capital city they did get the attention of the western governments and international organizations, and they did create some kind of a buzz and temporary rift between TPLF and western governments.
Even though there were some scattered unrests among Oromo students during the 2005 massacre, by and large the Oromo population was missing from the 2005 uprising. Around this time, Meles in his usual Machiavellian scheme invited back the OPDO to Addis Ababa from Adama where he had banished them previously. Around the same period, he also gave an interview to the media hinting that he was negotiating with the OLF to bring them back to the legal political process. His intention was clearly to dampen the morale of the Addis Ababa population that rebelled against him and to create a wage between the Oromo and the Amhara.
Several lessons are learnt from the 2005 failed uprising. First and foremost, a movement confined only to Addis Ababa cannot remove an entrenched government like the TPLF. Second, an international community cannot be relied upon to remove the TPLF. They could pass some resolutions and give some warnings, but will continue to do business as usual with TPLF when things cool down. And third, to remain in power, the TPLF will not refrain from taking the risk of instigating a civil war by pitting the Amhara against the Oromo and vice versa. Finally it exposed the weakness of the TPLF that it is ruling not mainly because of its strength, but due to the division between forces that are against it.
Political structure in Ethiopia is ethnic based. All the major nations/ethnic groups, even if controlled by TPLF and its stooges, have their own administrative areas. Amharas have Amhara State and Oromos have Oromia. Besides, even though Addis Ababa is located in Oromia, because it’s culturally and linguistically by and large Amhara, it’s counted in the Amhara column. Unlike Eskinder Nega’s assertion, Addis Ababa is not a big melting pot where everyone comes and loses its identity and acquires a distinct Addis Ababan identity. It’s a city where non Amharas come to Addis and within a generation lose their own identity and become Amharanized. Addis Ababa’s identity could be different from other Amhara identity as the Gojjam Amhara is different from Shewa Amhara identity, but it’s all the same Amhara.
Addis Ababa is the center of Ethiopia in many aspects. It’s a center of the centralized nominally federal government with all its repressive machines. It’s the commercial and financial nerve center of the country. It’s by far the biggest city in the country with a population of more than three million. The highest concentration of educated elite and the middle class is found here. Addis Ababa is also the home of highest concentration of industrial workers, college students and educated unemployed. Unemployment is rampant, life is expensive and the population is very young. It’s a seat of African Union, embassies, and international organizations. From the very beginning Addis Ababa hated TPLF by whom it was also hated. Addis Ababa showed its revenge during the 2005 election when it elected the opposition party members to all the 138 seats, but one. TPLF punished it for this act by killing more than 200 of its inhabitants. Still today Addis Ababa and TPLF do not see eye to eye. All in all, most of the elements necessary for a popular uprising exist in Addis.
But still Addis Ababa is not revolting. Eskinder Nega in his recent article appears to argue that ethnic consideration is not a factor that is holding back the Addis Ababans from revolting. I disagree. It’s an elephant in the room. However, even Nega raising this question and writing an article about it is a proof that this is something in the back of the mind of most Addis Ababans, vexing them. Essential though Addis is, it’s not the whole country. Starting from the legacy of 2005 experience, most are not convinced that they can bring change all by themselves without the support from other part of the country. And they are not at all sure especially if Oromia will follow suit if they start an uprising in Addis. It’s understandable where Eskinder is coming from. However, neglecting this fact is not helpful at all for the popular movement. The better attitude will be to recognize the problem and try to find the solution. Unless we recognize it as a problem, we cannot start thinking about the solution.
Recently two articles have appeared on Gadaa.com advising Oromos not to get involved with an uprising that Addis Ababans may launch. The first one specially argues that because Oromos are not currently adequately prepared they should not support an uprising in Addis because this could lead to empowering the Amhara. This reminds me of a story I heard long time ago. God appeared to a man and told him that he will give him anything he asked him, but will also give double of what he gave him to his neighbor. Instead of trying to benefit from what was offered to him and ask for something good, the person rather wanted to hurt his neighbor, and so asked god to cut his foot so that his neighbor’s both feet will be amputated. Instead of thinking “what do I gain from this”, we have unfortunately developed a thinking of “what does my enemy lose?”
It is amazing how some people fall in the trap that Meles had set for them. They are singing straight from his book, and unwittingly accomplishing a role he had set for them. It does not matter whether you shout colonialism, independent Oromia, etc. thousands of times each day and dream about free Oromia every night. What matters is not you wish, but the consequence of your act. As long as your acts contribute to TPLF’s remaining in power you are serving the regime. To remain in power Meles has to divide the Oromo and Amhara. Therefore, any one, who is serious about dismantling him, should do everything in his power to mend the relationships between Oromos and Amhara. It’s that simple. We should try to undo what enables Meles to remain on power. Before taking any action, we should seriously think whether we are doing what Meles wants us to do.
This is a critical time in world history. Wherever there is oppression people are motivated and inspired of what happened in Egypt/Tunisia. Instead of seizing the moment and inspire our people to rise up, some of us prognosticate from afar and advise them the time is not ripe. We tell them, “wait until we get ready”. It unfortunate we are trying to pour cold water over the long simmering tension in Addis Ababa. To say to the people of Addis Ababa at this specific moment that Oromos will not support you is the most damaging thing we can ever do. It’s a move that could kill the uprising before it’s born. Meles could not have done it better. A single spark could set a prairie fire goes an old Chinese saying. Nobody can predict with any certainty what could trigger a whole uprising. A simple act could be a catalyst and inspire another action which in turn could lead to a cascade of chain of actions and reactions that no one could foresee the result. A motivation from Egypt could lead to an uprising in Addis Ababa that could engulf the whole region leading to the downfall of Meles or lead to empowering of the Oromos. No one knows when the time is ripe. Every pundit who tried the dangerous game of prediction had failed to tell what could happen in the future. Never dampen the morale of the people. Even if you do not support the uprising of Addis Ababans as a matter of principle, which I find it rather puzzling, there is nothing that Oromos would lose from it and you should not be against it.
Instead of repeating by rot the now tired formula for Oromos, these writers who try to give advice how Oromos should act or not act, should do some serious reflections and come up with new methods of struggle that can lead us to victory. The current state of our liberation front’s is not something we are proud of. Therefore, a new thinking is in order. More than anyone else it is Meles and company who are rejoicing in reading these articles I am alluding to, because it’s exactly what they pray for. This is what he wants you to do, and by exactly doing what he wants you do, you have become a puppet in his hands. You do not have to love Meles in order to serve him. It’s high time that people sit down and realize who is currently in power. As long as we stop being obsessed with this Amhara thing, it is going to be very difficult to act from high moral ground and coordinate our struggle with others.
And the second one argues that there is no condition that may lead to an Egypt type of revolt in Ethiopia and advises the Oromos rather to follow the Southern Sudan model. He further argues that the Egypt type of popular uprising could occur only in one nation/state and could not occur in the case of Oromia where the system is imposed from outside. He is saying you can revolt against your own rulers, but not against a foreign occupier. I do not know if this writer had heard about India or many other countries that conducted anti-colonial urban uprising. He also offers his advice that Oromos should follow the Southern Sudan model without indicating that the South Sudanese had been very flexible in their method of struggle including up to working within the system and power sharing.
A responsible individual serious about the misery our people are facing today in the hands of Meles should not be engrossed in this false dichotomy between the Egypt and the Southern Sudan way. At the time when we are trying to inspire a popular uprising à la Egypt, to advocate only for Southern Sudan way, is nothing more than putting cold water on a discontent about to catch fire. I am not saying Ethiopia is Egypt. I am simply saying we need Egypt for its inspirational effect. Do not dampen the morale of the people about to rebel by dabbling in unnecessary theoretical sophistry. We should not transport our lack of imagination on the people. As indicated above, we do not know where a spark set in Addis could take us. The rich matrix of possibility and consequence of life is beyond our pedantic thinking. We should rather send a firm and clear signal to the Addis Ababans that if they revolt that we Oromos will be right there with them.
I went to a great length above just to score one essential point. The greatest obstacle for Egypt type of uprising to take place in Ethiopia is the animosity that TPLF is fanning between the Oromo and Amhara. The fear is not that these two groups will massacre each other in the street of Addis Ababa. The fear is that when and if the Amharas revolt the Oromos will not support them and vice versa. This is the Achilles hill of the anti TPLF popular resistance. This vulnerability should be overcome for the popular uprising to occur or have the intended effect. This is the time when the political leaders, elites, in fact all concerned about the welfare of our people; of every camp from every sector try our best to resolve this intricate problem in a very creative way. Egypt should inspire us to come together and fight our common repressive regime. This is an opportune moment, but while we are indulging in unnecessary squabbles, we are running out of time.
Of course nobody is suggesting Ethiopia is exactly like Egypt. Each country is obviously unique in its own way. On a general level or in some superficial way there are stark similarities that everyone who commented on the possibility of rebellion in Ethiopia had pointed out. Both countries are ruled by despots for many, many years, and there are genuine grievances in both countries crying to be addressed.
It’s true that the Ethiopian army is not a national army in the true sense of the word. All the top echelon is totally manned by Tigreans who we assume will be loyal to Meles to the end. It’s true that without the role that the military played in Egypt and Tunisia the uprising would not have been easily successful. However, in Bahrain and Yemen the popular uprising registered important victories in spite of the army being staunchly behind the ruling government. In Libya even though the result is not clear, similar occurrence are happening. The moral of the story is that, yes having the army totally behind the government makes popular uprising to be extremely difficult, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. It should also be noted that over the time the composition of the TPLF army is changing. Even if still today the top brass are Tigreans, the privates and noncommissioned officers come from all sectors of the country. If popular uprising could persist for a prolonged period of time, there is no reason why this section of the army will not side with the people. Here comes into mind what some brave Oromo generals and soldiers did few years ago. In addition the existence of Siye et al., in the opposition camp, could also even divide the Tigrean dominated army. However, for all this to happen the uprising should not be an event of few days. To have an effect and to spread to all sectors of the society it has be conducted over an extended period of time.
Some commentators make distinction between pro-western governments and others in the way they dealt with rebellions in their respective countries. They indicate that pro-western governments were constrained in dealing harshly with the opposition due to pressure they faced from US and European countries, and therefore rebellions in those countries because successful. It’s very hard to place the TPLF government in either camp. Even though Ethiopia more than any country is reliant on foreign nations’ largesse, it’s not accountable to their judgment. Meles parrots the western words but mimics the deeds of Stalin and Mao, his heroes. Due to the false image and importance it has created for itself as a result of the Somali crisis and the threat of terrorism around this region, TPLF has managed not to be responsive to external demands. It is Egypt and Libya combined together. Therefore, it may be freer than Mubarak’s regime to harshly deal with the uprising. However, it’s not as free as Libya because it has a lot to lose if it crosses the boundary of freedom the west has set for it.
Given the interest popular uprising had generated in today’s world, it will be extremely difficult for the TPLF to conduct the massacre as before behind closed doors. This time the world will be watching. The moment the news of uprising is indicated, Al-Jazeera and CNN will be there the next morning. This could to some extent constrain the TPLF from being repressive as before. Meles’s instinct is to act like Sadam Hussein and Gadaffi, and even use fighter jets against the people he rules, but the question is, could he take the chance of alienating the west who this time, if the killing is done over the TV, will be forced to cut their aid? This is anybody’s guess, but one thing for sure is, the international situation is much better conducive now.
Before I wind down, let me ask this. Where are the political parties? Where are the liberation fronts? All of them are missing in action. Or the better question is, who needs them when the people can liberate themselves without them. Or even the better question is, isn’t their absence a good thing? The legal opposition organizations in Ethiopia appear to have exhausted their importance to the people. Because they are so conspicuously identified by the security forces, they are the first to be the casualty of any uprising . They know this. Therefore, some have already started to avow their opposition to the Egypt type of rebellion in Ethiopia. Even if such an uprising starts, to save their lives, they will be the first to try to compromise with the TPLF to stop the uprising. They have started to talk the language of the constitution as if there is a valid and legitimate constitution in Ethiopia. Therefore, the uprising should be conducted outside the control of the legal opposition. The liberation fronts and other opposition groups that are considered illegal by the TPLF should also refrain from playing active roles if an uprising occurred. Their involvement will only give the TPLF a pretext to use more deadly repression. We see how the TPLF always tries to tie every grievance raised in Oromia to OLF so that it could categorize it as terrorism and justify its repression.
Even though the uprising in Egypt appeared to be very spontaneous, at the core of it were very much dedicated young professionals who meticulously prepared and planned many things behind the scene. This is one of the major lessons that the Oromian/Ethiopian youth must take from the Egypt uprising. Study what they did, learn from them, adopted it to the concrete situation back home. It’s time to start getting ready. Do not expect the diaspora will come and liberate you. Take your fate into your hands, and decide when you are ready. Let no one tell you the time is not ripe!
*I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.