By Firew Kebede Tiba, PhD*
This Op-Ed is an outgrowth of my brief response, on a social media, to Magarsa Muhktar’s “Ethiopia’s Beleaguered Opposition: Fighting Goliath”, which appeared on OPride.com on 28 July 2012. Magarsa makes an apt observation of the state of resistance to political repression.
I salute Magarsa for his thoughtful opinion and for kick-starting this very important discussion. The tenet of this opinion is to add to this discussion by highlighting the causes of the conundrum and to put forward a concrete suggestion on how to forge alliance or at least understanding between Oromo groups. Other oppositions representing different interests could replicate the same.
One might ask, why Oromos while Magarsa’s opinion is about Ethiopia’s beleaguered opposition? This is for the simple reason that one cannot generalise about the whole without understanding the state of its discrete parts, in particular when that part happens to be a critical piece in the jigsaw puzzle. It is imperative that no democratic Ethiopia could ever be built without the full participation of Oromos. Needless to say, had Oromo political parties been strong enough and played their leadership role in the opposition camp, TPLF’s dictatorship would not have lasted this long.
In saying this, I am not discounting the priceless sacrifices being paid by Oromos back home and the ongoing many-pronged struggle being mounted from villages in Oromia, the Oromo region, to every corner of the globe where Oromos are dispersed. The big question, however, is how to make the sacrifices yield a dividend – and consolidate the gains that have been made thus far. The gains, such as, Afaan Oromo, Oromiya’s autonomy and cultural revival, are not up for negotiation.
Once bitten, twice shy. This is the cause of the conundrum among Oromos. In the previous two revolutions 1974 and 1991, Oromos were active participants in many different forms. Long before that Oromo armies were the mainstay at the Battle of Adwa regardless of being annexed into the empire only decades or so before. Other key contributions include: the uprising of Raya Azebo Oromos in Tigray (1928-30), whose resistance inspired Kedemay Weyane, the forebear of the current TPLF (Woyane) movement; the Oromo patriots who played an important role in defeating the occupying Italian Army.
In the lead up to the 1974 revolution, the role of the Bale peasants (1964-70) has its own special place in the overthrow of the feudal system. Also think of MEISON, Macha Tulama Association, OLF and others in 1974 who played significant role in the overthrow of the feudal regime. Oromos played a role in EPRP and other national parties. Oromos have never sat on the fence or shied away from participation, since their annexation, in all major events that threatened the life of the country and in weaving the Ethiopian tapestry together.
However, although “land to the tiller” immensely empowered the Oromo peasantry hitherto reduced to serfdom, some of the underlying Oromo questions remained unaddressed. At the same time, I would be remiss in my duty if I do not recognise the role of progressive non-Oromos in the emancipation of Oromos and other ethnicities from serfdom and cultural subjugation. To name but one, Walelign Mekonnen who for the first time publicly shattered the myth of One Ethiopia built around one culture; one religion and one way of life.
Then came 1991, and we know how OLF got humiliated and routed by the scheming and slimy TPLF and left the transitional government. Now, there are oppositions that even think of reversing federalism, one of the symbolic gains of the 1991 revolution. Under normal politics and in a democracy, Oromos have much to gain. In fact, the responsible thing to do for Oromo politicians is to come out and assure nervous spectators that they have nothing to lose in a representative democracy, that there is a place for them no matter what happens. I do not think they have done enough in this regard through their outreach efforts.
At the same time, no self-respecting Oromo can enter into alliance with those who deny Menelik’s atrocity; want us to gloss over that tragic past and those who want to pull back the gains made so far. Personally, these are big NOs for me. We are beyond a point where a mere declaration of adherence to principles of democracy and respect for human rights would have sufficed. Obviously, one cannot judge a book by its cover. It is not sufficient to read their political programs to figure out where they stand on issues. You will, of course, know who to work with when you see one.
Obviously, there are two simple routes to success. One is to muscle oneself in and the other, as the writer mentioned, to be ready to represent Oromo interests at the negotiating table when the opportunity presents itself. Muscling oneself in has been tried and I am sceptical of its success, for the simple reason that it is hard to fire up or agitate people with numerical superiority unlike minority communities. Furthermore, it has proven difficult to get global sympathy, when a group does not share similar characteristics as those others vying for the same attention. Nor does Oromiya has a provable oil or strategic mineral deposits to secure patrons who finance its liberation struggle as has been the case elsewhere. But maintaining forces has its useful purposes, for example, to intervene and protect civilians when a system starts to collapse.
I am all for political pluralism, but it is disheartening to see the fragmentation of Oromo political movements. It is all the more frustrating when the fragmentation is merely on the basis of superficial differences. Take for example OLF, I have now lost count of how many splinter OLFs are in existence, and they are all engaged in a beauty contest of who is more OLF than the other.
It is also unrealistic to expect them to suddenly make peace with each other. I am aware of intermittent mediating efforts, but it is yet to lead to a meaningful reconciliation. Regardless, it would be irrational and irresponsible for these groups not to establish some form of rapport with each other as to the minimum objectives they all should share in promoting the interest of the people whose dignity they seek to restore. The same applies to the Oromo group working with the government (the OPDO). They have to enter into some form of covenant that they will not descend below defined benchmarks.
Being informal, this could be facilitated through credible Oromo elders, who should reach out to all those who are organised around Oromo causes. If Oromo groups agree on their minimum objectives at the very least, it is easy for them to negotiate with other stakeholders to streamline transition. This mundane suggestion is not new or radical, but I see no other alternative quick fix. Supporters also have a role to play. There is a regrettable tendency of talking down, being condescending or vitriolic towards other Oromo groups. This is not helping.
In the process, we have to also be careful not to substitute our experience, wish or fantasy with that of Oromos on the ground. Hence, the mediating effort has to also take on board the views of elders, members of the cross-section of Oromos from different walks of life back home. If there is any cause that needs financial contribution, it should be this kind of effort where Oromos of all political stripes and persuasion can come together to listen to each other and enter into a covenant to shape our common destiny. When I saw Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga assembly play out on TVs across the globe several years ago, I was struck by how similar their notion of coming together in a grand assembly is to that of our Gadaa council. If these groups take the covenant to heart sincerely, it does not matter which one of them takes power or happens to be at the Menelik palace when the old dispensation implodes.
On the question of to secede or not to secede: my take is, it has been an unnecessary distracting wedge issue in Oromo struggle for freedom and democracy. No unelected Oromo group has the right to decide what is best for Oromos. It is all about political power. If Oromos get political power, they can decide their destiny at any point in the future. This political power does not get delivered to Oromos on a silver platter.
Self- determination is a by-product of having a political power to do whatever one pleases. Insisting on the right to secede is like putting the cart before the horse even when it is written in the constitution. I think the experience of the past two decades is a good example that a right is written in the constitution does not mean that one can simply step forward and exercise that right.
Shall we set aside our perceived differences for a moment and focus our eyes on the ball? The cause is much bigger than personalities and parties. Let us just not give a lip service to the consensus and participatory democracy our ancestors left us and instead work towards overcoming this unnecessary gridlock.
* Tiba is a law academic teaching in Melbourne, Australia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org