by Magarsa Mukhtar
No dictator rules for a lifetime. Not in the new millennium. With the wave of domestic anti-government sentiments and the rapid trends of change across the region, Meles Zenawi’s days as prime minister of Ethiopia were always numbered.
Zenawi was fortunate to get a dignified exit from politics and this world, a luxury many of his African counterparts didn’t enjoy. However, his “untimely demise” has opened a new can of worms for his successors. As the state-run ETV replays a scene of government officials’ casting votes, the social web is awash with rumors of power struggle.
Now that the ruthless dictator is gone, is there a cause for celebration for Oromos?
Celebration alludes to some sort of victory and that is certainly not the case. Yes, Meles’ departure provides more leeway for the Oromos to flex their muscles against an extremely repressive political elite but it seems like the head of the snake falling off hasn’t quite led to its death.
Nevertheless, the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) has found itself in a critical state with discouraging prognosis. The Oromos could help expedite the demise of the party that has been a scourge to our existence if we take a lesson from the history book of post-1991 politics in Ethiopia.
The implications of Dergue’s downfall and the demise of Meles Zenawi are strikingly similar. Enormous sacrifices led to that momentous occasion when Mengistu Hailemariam ran for his life. Many hoped, the transitional government of Ethiopia would usher in a new beginning – an era of hope, equality and freedom. Early signs were encouraging.
An ethnic-based federal structure was put in place, the brainchild of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). A relatively autonomous self-rule was envisaged. Ethnic regions were to develop their culture and language. Afan Oromo became the official language of Oromia regional state.
Alas, we soon learned, Ethiopia’s sad saga of oppression, tyranny and ethnic disparity was simply given a new lease of life. The new and enchanting Ethiopia belied the truth that this was a ploy to placate Oromo separatist sentiment, and Meles was the architect of it all. Meles’ Machiavellianism and OLF’s belief that he was not a trustworthy partner led to the latter being pushed out of the transitional government. This not only precipitated the ostracization of the OLF, but also emboldened the OPDO – a political outfit designed by TPLF to serve as an agent of the state rather than the voice of Oromos.
Two decades later, the OLF has become weaker than ever and fragmented as a result of both Meles’ machinations and OLF’s own grave political miscalculations. The most unfortunate victims of all these has been the Oromo people. However, Oromos cannot be beholden to the past. Dwelling on the past, especially at this critical juncture, is not the right way forward. So which way forward? Here are some suggestions.
Pragmatism Over Idealism
Oromo politics suffered from severe paralysis in the last 20 years. It was stuck in a state of debilitating immobility and Oromo political protagonists are guilty of this gross incompetence. Even when strides were made, it seemed to be leading us on a wild goose chase of ever-elusive principles. The OLF was caught between dichotomous principles of secession from Ethiopia versus entering into union with others in a truly federal Ethiopia. This polarizing issue has pitted what should have been a united, 40-million-strong people against one another along ideological lines. Even today, the notion of realpolitik remains beyond the comprehension of hardliner ideologues.
In my view, the first step forward is to do away with our pie-in-the-sky notions that lack realism. Whether we want an independent state of Oromia or an autonomous region in Ethiopia, the priority should be realizing what is achievable and whether it is in the interests of the Oromo nation.
Toxic Diaspora Politics
Diaspora groups have become more of a liability than an asset to the Oromo cause. The OLF, which now has four splinter groups, have become so ineffective that cadres spewing scathing rhetoric at each another seem to have forgotten the underlying purpose for which the organization was founded.
After four decades of existence, the OLF leaders failed to devise a winning political strategy. None of the feuding factions seem to have had a plan for post-Meles Ethiopia either, even after months of rampant rumors about his death. As a pioneer of the Oromo struggle, the principles upon which the OLF was founded will always occupy a special place in the mind and memory of Oromo nationals. However, given the infighting and lack of competence that has plagued us, there is no point in clinging to what has effectively become a mighty relic of the past.
One viable alternative is to shift support and allegiance toward stifled domestic Oromo parties that know all too well life under an autocratic state. These are the groups that have tasted the bitterness of TPLF’s injustice and state-sponsored terror. The newly merged Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) had representatives in previous parliaments who fiercely opposed Zenawi’s attempts to institutionalize dictatorship; many of their members were imprisoned and even killed. Oromo activists, including those based in the Diaspora, should join hands with OFC to forge an all-inclusive and more effective coalition. Inclusion of notable Oromo personalities can serve to unify even the apolitical class of Oromos disenchanted with the prospect of a separate state. OFC may face some of the challenges that befall the OLF but a grassroots-based movement grounded in Oromia has a far better chance of achieving success than a detached movement on its deathbed.
Inter-ethnic, Inter-religious Alliances
Finally, forging new alliances based on common interest and nothing else remains an indispensable alternative in post-Meles era. Politics should be bereft of emotion and feeling; it is all about the greater good.
Oromos, the largest ethnic group and almost half of Ethiopia’s 94 million people, need partners in this movement for change – across ethnic, religious, political or socio-economic divides. Yes, politics has the power to both divide and unite people. But time has come for the Oromo to seek new alliances based on shared commonalities rather than simply dwelling on our differences or past injustices.
We can start with Ethiopian Muslims who are now protesting against state interference in religious matters. The majority of Ethiopia’s Muslim community is Oromo – many other groups share their grievances and opposition to state interference in individual lives. Their call for the release of prisoners guilty only of peacefully protesting and asking for religious freedom ought to be supported. Ultimately, the scope of such a coalition should be broad and transcendent so as to include diverse ethnicities – like the Amharas, Tigreans, and others.
Many caution against ending up with the short end of the stick, again, by entering into alliances with old enemies. I would argue that, the end-result does or should not depend on how honest our partners are but rather on how versatile and skilled we are in political maneuvering. Such arguments are defeatist and imply that Oromos are weak, likely to be outperformed by others. This is simply unacceptable. For politics is similar to chess in many ways, the cunning and adroit are always victors. The Oromo might need a healthy dose of that.
In conclusion, the Oromo agenda is at a standstill because (a) insistence on “we could only achieve our goal by fighting” in unfriendly neighborhood has led us only to fragmentation; (b) our wary to deal with potential allies and tendency to cast anyone who dares ponder otherwise as an infectious leper has alienated the Oromo movement. The time has never been more right or welcoming for a drastic change in Oromo politics.
*Mukhtar is an OPride Intern based in the Horn of Africa. He writes a regular current affairs column on the plight of Oromo refugees, and other Oromo-related events in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.