OPride.com is proud to announce its pick for Oromo Person of the Year 2011.
This year, we recognize two Oromo activists, Said Mohammed Ali and Mardaasa Addisu Tolesa, for volunteerism, for rising above the political challenges in our community to reach out to those most in need, for advancing the Oromo cause by educating international organizations, for saving lives of those who were caught between unintended conflicts, for leading by example – investing their time and money – for their dedication and commitment to the plight of Oromo refugees worldwide.
Tick, tick, tick, Welcome to 2012!
It’s hard to believe another year has elapsed. And what a year this has been! We witnessed earth quake in Japan, tsunami in the United States, flooding in Australia, the triumph of people’s power over writ of dictators, the global occupation movement fashioned after Occupy Wall Street, the death of world’s most feared person, Osama Bin Laden, and the sudden death ofNorth Korean dictator, Kim Jong–il.
The year of Arab Spring took down some of Africa’s strongmen: Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, Laurent Gbagbo and the fall of entire Gaddafi clan. Extraordinary events! Extraordinary year!
Africa, now dubbed the hopeful continent, saw a steady economic growth, growing at a rate “faster than East Asia, including Japan.” Between a hastened rush for land grab and foreign direct investment, the revenue from natural resources brought in a quarter of the much-celebrated surge.
But in much of sub-Saharan Africa, business remained as usual, life as bleak as ever. Most Africans still get by on less than a dollar a day. Corruption and mal-governance is as rampant as before. Man-made famine, civil wars, and environmental degradation endure. The Horn of Africa, the most troubled corner of the world, is grappling with a famine that is deemed the worst humanitarian catastrophe in more than half a century.
Eritrea remains isolated and closed – earning the distinction as “the world’s second worst jailer of the press with 28 behind bars,” only after Iran. Despite a new discovery of large mineral deposits, the possibility of Eritrea’s democratic transformation remains distant. The feud with its archenemy Ethiopia persists. An alleged meddling in Somalia has led to yet another slap with sanctions from the Security Council.
Somalia, now without functioning government for two decades, maintains its Foreign Policy rank as “the most failed state” for the fourth year in a row. AFRICOM, the African Union’s military arm, has managed to push back al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda linked militant group, out of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. But over the last 12 months, ordinary Somalis became the biggest losers in the protracted conflict. Tens of thousands, especially children, perished in what is now known as the worst humanitarian catastrophe in 60 years.
The world shockingly watched images of starving Ethiopian children in 1984, 2011 proved to be no different for Somalis. To make matters worse, Kenya and Ethiopia have recently invaded the lawless horn of African nation – propelling al-Shabaab to cut off aid agencies from reaching famine victims.
The world isn’t simply watching – the United States, which already supports the AFRICOM, has been using drone attacks to take out high level al-Shabaab targets. France has openly backed Kenya’s invasion. The United Kingdom is publicly touting the idea of intervening in Somalia citing national security interests. Many African nations including Burundi, Djibouti, and Sierra Leone have already agreed to a troop surge.
Ethiopia is sliding fast toward an absolute dictatorship. The country’s fledgling independent press was muzzled. The opposition movement is crippled. The ruling party, EPRDF, under the tight grip of Meles Zenawi, runs all affairs uncontested. Scores of journalists and activists were rounded up and now face treason and terrorism charges under draconian laws.
The Oromo, Ethiopia’s single largest majority, remained as targeted and marginalized as before. Due to high inflation, a tightening political space, and the rise in the standard and cost of living, the number of Ethiopians seeking safe haven elsewhere has ballooned in recent years.
According to a study by the Danish Refugee Council, “between Jan. and Oct. 2011, almost 52,000 Ethiopians made their way to Yemen” alone, a significant increase from 34,509 persons in 2010. The report also shows that 47 percent of new Ethiopian arrivals registered in Yemen were of Oromo ethnicity. Only “1 out of 25 Ethiopian arrivals are actually registered since most continue on with their migration via smugglers the instant they set foot on the Yemeni coast,” the study said.
Oromo refugees and the ‘Arab Spring’
As the popular movement that swept dictators in North Africa gathered momentum, black-Africans began to feel a pinch. In April, when Gaddafi’s 42-year-old rule began to crumble, African immigrants – suspected of being murtazaka, Arabic for mercenaries—were hunted, their houses ransacked and women raped. A lot of countries airlifted their citizens, except those who had no place to return. Hundreds vanished in the sea while attempting to cross into Europe.
Oromo immigrants were among those who suffered a great deal. Their plight remained a rallying cry for the Oromo diaspora. While many spent a lot of energy advocating for Oromo refugees who were trapped between these conflicts – two people remained fixtures throughout the year.
OLF Affairs: “Damaged beyond repair?”
It was a confusing and abysmal year for Oromo polity. The biggest development of 2011 in the Oromo struggle is not one of success but rather setback. Our commentary on the send off for 2010 brimmed with the high hope of the imminent reunification of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). However, this project, upon which many had banked their dream, came to naught. Despite their declared intentions and immense pressure from below, the two groups simply could not muster the political will to implement the agreement negotiated over a two-year period. The agreement broke parts on the heels of a mountain of irrational mistrust, the very cause of the 2008 fallout.
The failure to close the deal has had devastating consequences for both recalcitrant factions. The faction led by Kamal Galchu took the brunt by experiencing an almost unanimous rejection by the rank and file, not to mention the estrangement among members of the senior leadership. The impact on Dawud Ibsa’s faction is yet o play itself out but it is equally devastating because it, too, has seen the departure of its most active, enlightened, and promising operatives.
As a result, the two are dwarfs of their former selves. To overcome the damage, Kamal’s group is tying the knots with Ginbot 7, a case of an unmatched marriage. Many see this move as nothing short of suicidal.
For its part Dawud’s group expelled Lenco Lata, the former Deputy General Secretary of OLF and one of its founding leaders. However, rather than producing the bounce its advocates expected, this action, which is only symbolic as Lencho has not been active with the group since 1994, has eroded the group’s already narrow support base. , has eroded the group’s already narrow support base. Moreover, it has forced many others to question their loyalty to the faction.
The development is bad news to the embattled organization. The silver lining is that it has stimulated a ground swell of determination to come with an even more energized, more legitimate, and more pan-Oromo organization with political principles that are of the 21st century. If the rumors are to be taken seriously, reportedly the ranks of those awaiting this welcome development is swelling from day to day. A new Oromo political organization in 2012? Only time will tell.
Person of the Year Runners-Up
Each year, OPride.com honors Oromo individual(s),
This year’s honoree’s told OPride.com they didn’t deserve the recognition and nominated others including Dr. Trevor Trueman, Kimi Depringer, Dr. Assefa Kuru, Obbo Habtamu Dugo, Obbo Garoma B. Wakessa, Obbo Abdulkadir Noori Gumi, Dr. Mohammed Hassan, Obbo Taye Silga and Aadde Obse Lubo – all for their significant contribution to the welfare of the Oromo in the past year.
Dr. Trueman, a long-time champion of Oromo human rights and California based Oromo nurse, Obse Lubo received significant votes through our nomination process. His former colleagues at International rescue center nominated Obbo Tesfaye Tsegaye, a community leader based in Kenya, who also received higher votes, among others.
Kimi collaborated with Addisu Mardaasa on writing campaign letters to international organizations – articulating Oromo refugees in countries undergoing revolution were not economic migrants – rather political exiles that feared the “Ethiopian government death squads in those loosely controlled countries.”
Garoma Wakessa, the executive director of the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa and Gadaa.com’s Oromo Person of 2011, provided detailed and authoritative accounts on the number as well as the crimes committed against Oromo refugees. Dr. Hassan and others provided advice – and material support.
Said M. Ali and Mardaasa Addisu: Oromo Persons of the Year 2011
Ali and Addisu belong to two different generations – and had two equally distinct life experiences. Until 2011, they only knew each other by name and from a distance.
Born in Bale, Said Mohammed Ali grew up in Dida’a in the Arsi administrative region. After studying history and geography at the College of Teacher’s Education in Finfinne, he taught high school history until he left for Djibouti in 1982. He then lived in Djibouti and Egypt and finally made his way to the United States in 1987.
After completing his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of District of Columbia, Washington D.C., Ali worked as a social worker, school teacher, international broadcaster at the Voice of America, and now works as an interpreter and translator at Regions Hospital/HealthPartners Clinic in Minnesota where he also volunteers at the Voice of Oromiyaa community radio on KFAI. He is a father, an author, writer and an active advocate for the rights of Oromo.
Mardasa Addisu, the grandson of Colonel Alemu Qixxessa, one of the pioneers of the Macha Tulama Self Help Association, was born in Finfinne and came to the United States with his parents when he was five years old. Addisu, who holds a Chemical Engineering degree from Purdue University, grew up in the United States attending annual Oromo Studies Association conferences – where he says, he learned, “a great deal about human rights violations perpetuated against the Oromo by successive Ethiopian regimes.”
When initial reports about the suffering of Oromo refugees in Libya and Yemen surfaced in May 2011, Ali and Addisu – without directly communicating with each other – jumped on the opportunity to lend a helping hand.
For four consecutive weeks on the Voice of Oromiyaa radio program, Ali brought heart-wrenching accounts of the plight of Oromo refugees in Yemen to his listeners’ ears. He used every community event, mosque and social gatherings as opportunities to rally financial support for those who were targeted by locals as well as government troops in places like Sana’a.
The atrocities committed against Oromo refugees in Puntland, Somaliland, Libya, Djibouti, Yemen and Egypt were simply too hard to ignore for Ali, who had spent years in refugee camp before coming to America. Thus, this past summer, Ali carried a donation box and horrific photos of those who were injured or killed during the revolt everywhere he went.
Addisu first learned about the plight of Oromo refugees from a letter by the Australian Oromo community to international organizations on behalf of the refugees. Upon inquiry, Aliye Anota, the president of the community, sent him a list of Oromo refugees along with their phone numbers. Ever since then, Addisu has been a passionate campaigner, and indeed one that is hard to ignore.
He spoke to Oromo refugees at various camps in North Africa to understand their needs, and in turn he communicated those needs to aid agencies whilst also contacting international organizations to seek resettlement and relocation assistance for the refugees.
Beyond the plea for help and the highlighting of their suffering, Addisu’s daily campaign letters emphasized the dire consequences for the refugees if subjected to refoulement, the expulsion of persons who have the right to be recognized as refugees, back to Ethiopia. His letters expressed anger and complaints against agencies that were failing to meet international obligations. He created an online database to share information and coordinate efforts with other Oromos who were involved in similar work.
Addisu and Ali’s work has now expanded beyond Libya and Yemen to include refugee camps in Salloum Egypt, Ras Ajder in Tunisia, Somaliland, Cairo Egypt, and Eritrea.
Addisu is working on a long-term solution for Oromo refugees worldwide. “One of the things that disturbed me the most is the fact that international organizations dismiss Oromo cases as mere complaints,“ said the father of three who lives in southern California.
When he recently heard the UNHCR processing center in Ras Ajder, Tunisia, rejected the cases of 11 Oromo refugees – he reached out directly to the service center, which assured him the UNHCR had no mandate to deport people – and that the office was working to process more Ethiopian cases.
Addisu, who works as a Supply Chain Engineer for Airgas, splits his time between multiple professional duties: interim Secretary of Macha Tulama Cooperative and Development Association USA, 2011-2012 Oromo Studies Association Executive committee member and member of Tiyya Foundation in Orange County.
One of Addisu’s favorite childhood memories is an old map of Oromia, given to him by his grandfather upon visiting the United States in 1995.That meeting marks the last time Addisu saw the late colonel Alemu Qixxeessa.
Addisu remains optimistic about the future of Oromo. “We will end up with a free Oromia,” he said. “The Ethiopian regime today is running out of money – this is apparent with money making schemes such as Gibe III Dam, leasing large portions of land, seeking Chinese government loans, and nationalizing private land – to name a few.”
Addisu is also looking to expand his advocacy for Oromo refugees to a campaign for recognition. “I’m looking forward to a day when the international community stops lumping us with Ethiopians, and smother our conditions,” said Addisu. “I will continue to advocate using new and refined strategies.”
Addisu acknowledges it is sometimes difficult to ascertain the immediate impact of advocacy. But one example stands out, he told me,
I was communicating with Obbo Dida Gabrumma, who fled from Benghazi, Libya to Salloum, Egypt in May, about Oromo refugees still in Libya. It was at a time when Gaddafi used loud speakers to tell all residents of Benghazi that they’d be killed. Many of our people were relocated to a specific area. Obbo Dida was asking me if someone could send boats to get them out. I reached out to Mr. Kostas Lakouris in Athens Greece to see if anything could be done. Mr Kostas informed me that several hundred refugees from Bangladesh drowned while trying to cross into Italy from Libya. So, I told Obbo Dida, who in turn shared the information with more than 70 Oromo refugees in Benghazi. Instead of risking their lives attempting to cross into Europe, they decided to take the drive to Salloum Egypt with the assistance of Red Crescent. I believe that Mr. Kostas telling me how dangerous the journey was saved their lives. As you may know, some 64 Oromo refugees died making the same attempt from Tripoli. Obbo Dida and his wife now live in Sweden.
Ali, who considers his work with Oromo refugees, “one of the greatest accomplishments” of his life, says he has learned that “sustained individual efforts can make a real difference.” He acknowledges that while his previous contacts in the region helped him in getting access to the refugees, his radio program, Oromo websites, e-mails, and Facebook helped amplify his message. He then moved to organize a committee around the world including Germany and Norway to feed the refugees who were living on the streets. The committee continues to help the refugees to date. Ali didn’t have much success getting through to the UNHCR office in Yemen – but that didn’t deter his efforts. He continues to be committed to the plight of Oromo refugees.
We’ve to help our compatriots before asking others to help them. I spent more than half of my life in exile. Now whatever remains of me, I want to devote it to serving my people by advancing Afaan Oromo literature, as well as by being a voice for those voiceless refugees.
For volunteerism, for rising above the political challenges in our community to reach out to those most in need, for advancing the Oromo cause by educating international organizations, for saving lives of those who were caught between unintended conflicts, for leading by example – investing their time and money – and for their unwavering dedication and commitment to the plight of Oromo refugees worldwide, Mardaasa Addisu Tolesa and Said Mohammed Ali are OPride.com’s 2011 Oromo Persons of the Year.
Congratulations to all!!
Happy Holidays from OPride.com and its staff!
*The editor, Mohammed Ademo, is a New York based freelance journalist; follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his public updates on Facebook. Additional editing by Mehrunnisa Wani, follow her on Twitter.
Gadaa.com recognizes Mr. Garoma B. Wakessa as the Oromo Person of the Year 2011 for his selfless pursuit of truth and justice, and for being the unyielding voice of the voiceless. In Mr. Garoma Wakessa’s daily fight against human rights violations and atrocities, the human spirit lives, and because of his daily fight, justice will prevail.