ODF, a democratic alternative for Ethiopia

lencho lata
Written by Mohammed A

(OPride) After an intense week of discussions in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the activist group Oromo Dialogue Forum on Thursday announced the formation of a new political party, the Oromo Democratic Front.

This came after a year long deliberations on the direction of the Oromo people’s struggle in Ethiopia, a series of media interviews, and meetings across continents.


Leenco Lata, an intellectual and founder of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a rebel group formed in 1973 by Oromo nationalists to fight for the self-determination of the Oromo people, was elected the chairman of the new organization.


OLF has fought a low key guerrilla warfare against three successive Ethiopian regimes, including the current one. But its influence waned in recent years as the organization battled numerous internal splits amid a dwindling support from the Oromo diaspora.


There are many old OLF faces in the leadership of the new political party. For instance, all but three of the nine-member executive committee of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) were, at one point or another, former high ranking OLF officials. ODF Vice President Dr. Dima Noggo Sarbo was among its founders, and briefly, the first chairman of OLF.


What is new, however, is perhaps their political program.


ODF “advocates justice for the Oromo and all persons and nations in Ethiopia,” the party’s declaration reads. “The founding of ODF ushers in a new phase in the Oromo nationalist struggle with the objective of working for the transformation of the Ethiopian Empire into a truly democratic multinational federation of all the concerned nations.”


The birth of ODF as an independent political party run by former OLF leaders and supporters is a clear break with the recent practice of forming a splinter of OLF which has nearly crippled the movement. The group’s bold decision to depart from the usual business, whereby different factions compete on who is more committed to the “original program” of forming an independent Oromo state than the other, is expected to force the Oromo nationals to look into the future.


Nonetheless, ODF faces a crucial test in lifting the Oromo people’s political struggle from its current dismal state. In addition, as has been evidenced over last year, a sizable number of Oromo activists continue to insist on the formation of independent Oromia state as the only answer to the Oromo question in Ethiopia. It remains to be seen if ODF can win their endorsement.


The idea of Oromos having a democratic political force in Ethiopia was first brought to light by the ODF Chairman Lata in his speech in July of 1999 at Oromo Studies Association in Atlanta. His idea of democratizing Ethiopia has since divided the opinion of the vast Oromo diaspora. Some continue to be preoccupied with denunciation of Lata, albeit without a discernible alternative political agenda of their own.


But the formation of ODF, in large part the realization of an idea he put forth in 2000 and two subsequent books he has written, is being hailed as the first bold move by architects of the mainstream Oromo nationalist camp in re-articulating the goals of the Oromo movement crafted in OLF’s program of 1976.


The news of the formation of the new political party for the Oromo people comes as Ethiopia is going through a set of leadership transitions since the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi last year.  At its 9th congress, held in the tourist city of Bahir Dar, the ruling party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front formally elected Hailemariam Desalegn as its chairman and introduced a number of new faces to Ethiopia’s political scene.

It is not immediately clear if ODF is looking to make a leap toward participating in the 2015 general election in Ethiopia. But it’s success is likely to be dependent on whether it would become another Diaspora-based outfit or one rooted inside the country.

Here are few excerpts from the announcement:

On Structuring Ethiopia as a Federation

We start from the simple premise that the post-1991 policy of structuring Ethiopia as a federation of its diverse nations is a move in the right direction. The adoption of this policy is attributable neither to the ill-intentions nor generosity of the TPLF but became mandatory as a response to the mounting pressures of the struggles for self-determination by the Oromo and other oppressed nations.

The OLF played an active role in proposing the restructuring of Ethiopia into a multinational federation as a means to end the injustices stemming from the imperial character of the Ethiopian state. Unfortunately, implementing a genuine federal order completely contradicted the present ruling elite’s aspiration of emerging and permanently remaining as a new dominant group by simply stepping into the shoes of those that it replaced. We now stand for correcting the aberrations resulting from the abuse of the federation as a policy of domination by the present ruling elite.  

Federations serve the purpose of facilitating the simultaneous exercise of self-rule and shared-rule and become necessary in order to reconcile unity with diversity. In the present political dispensation, however, communities exercise neither self-rule nor shared-rule but have been enduring the TPLF/EPRDF’s tyrannical rule for more than two decades. The ruling party directly and centrally micro-manages all communities by pre-selecting its surrogates that the people are then coerced to “elect” at elections that are neither free nor fair. Ending this charade by enabling all communities to elect their representatives in fair and free elections is the only way of finally putting Ethiopia on a path to democracy, stability, peace, justice, and sustainable development.

On the Struggle for Self-Determination

The official title of Ethiopia has gone from the Empire of Ethiopia to the People’s Democratic Republic and to the current one of Federal Democratic Republic. Despite some of the changes that accompanied these name-changes, the custodians of the state behave as if the country is their imperial inheritance. Consequently, the struggle for self-determination by the Oromo and other oppressed nations remains legitimate.

On the Exercise of Self-Determination

We aspire to build on the positive aspects of Ethiopia’s current federal set-up. However, to make the simultaneous exercise of self-rule and shared-rule possible it is necessary to remove the procedural and substantive shortcomings that stand in the way of democracy and federalism.

This can be accomplished by exercising self-determination in a multidimensional fashion whereby subject nations, in due course, freely elect delegates to their respective state and central constitutional assemblies. When this process is completed, the present “holding together” type of bogus federalism will be transformed into a genuine “coming together” variety.

On the Issue of Ethiopian Unity

There are those who perceive themselves as the sole defenders and definers of Ethiopian unity. We reject such a stand since the essential precondition for unity is the emergence of a community of empowered citizens. As we have witnessed for more than a century, invoking a common history, culture or language has not guaranteed unity.

We similarly reject the present ruling party’s presumption that it serves as the sole embodiment and defender of the so-called “revolutionary democratic unity.” Such a system has ended in disaster elsewhere. We also disagree with the ruling party’s illusory expectation that the promotion of economic development would serve as an alternative source of unity in the absence of democratic participation.

Consequently, we propose and struggle for the alternative of deliberately forging constitutional patriotism by inaugurating and entrenching societal commitment to their shared and separate political institutions as the more promising and enduring uniting factor. We believe that it will be this commitment that will bind the diverse nations into a united political community willing to protect these institutions from internal and external enemies.

On Citizenship Rights

In order for the present subjects of the Ethiopian state to be transformed into empowered citizens, all their citizenship rights must be recognized and respected. In situations where the simultaneous exercise of self-rule and shared-rule needs to be upheld, citizenship also needs to be entrenched at both the national homeland and federal levels. The bundle of rights that make such a layered enjoyment of citizenship is as follows:

  1. Civic rights; that is, the freedom and inviolability of the person, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, equality before the law and prohibition of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, origins, nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc.
  2. Political rights; that is, the right to vote and stand for public office, as well as freedom of assembly, association, and information.
  3. Social rights; that is, the right to work, equality of opportunity, entitlement to health services, provision of free education of a high standard to the extent that the resources of the country allow.
  4. Cultural and language rights; the right to take pride in the redemptive aspects of one’s culture, the right to publicize one’s particular history and the right to use one’s language for education, administration, commerce, and the provision of judicial services.

On Disentangling the Private Sphere from the Public

The elite that have dominated Ethiopia to date have fused public and private institutions in order to advance and serve their partisan and sectarian interests. This shall come to an end by turning all state institutions into the common servants of all regardless of their political allegiance and national identity:

  1. The civil service shall be overhauled in order to end its subordination to the ruling party.
  2. The military shall be transformed into a neutral defender of all by enacting a concordance model of civil-military relations.
  3. The intelligence services shall not be used for monitoring the political and private activities of citizens.
  4. Public media shall come under the supervision of a neutral public authority that oversees their work of providing education, entertainment, and information.

On Economic and Social Policy

The regime’s economic and social policies leave much to be desired. Its economic policies have exacerbated inequality, eviction from ancestral lands of indigenous populations, and environmental degradation. Its social policies have created deterioration in educational standards, health disparities and massive youth unemployment. In addition, its interference in the exercise of religious freedom has created unwarranted social tension.

The ODF stands to correct these lopsided policies and upholds inclusive, balanced and sustainable development aimed at curbing growing inequality, protecting the environment, and advancing the rights of indigenous peoples, and promoting employment. It would promote a mass education policy coupled with the development of technical know-how and scientific progress. The ODF would also promote a health policy integrating health education, prevention, cure and care measures. Furthermore, it respects and upholds religious freedoms and equality.

On Mobilizing Stakeholders

We believe that a country-wide movement sharing the preceding vision, principles and policies is indispensable for propelling Ethiopia forward and ending the current political paralysis. To this effect, we will exert all efforts in order to pull together as many advocates and promoters of the interests of diverse social sectors as possible in order to popularize and refine the principles and processes that would transform Ethiopia into a genuinely democratic multinational federation.

A call to all Oromo Organizations and Groups

We believe that ending more than a century old subjugation of our people should be of a paramount interest than dwelling on trivial political wrangling. The prevailing condition of our people demands the Oromo political organizations and groups pulling together our efforts to strengthen and consolidate our struggle to achieve our people’s national aspiration. Thus, we call upon all of you to join hands with us in strengthening our camp to intensify our legitimate struggle and put an end to sufferings of our people.


We call up on the ruling regime to reconsider its ultimately counterproductive policy of aspiring to indefinitely stay in power by fanning inter communal and inter-religious suspicion and tension. We call on the regime to join us in articulating and implanting policies that create sustainable stability.

A call to International Community

The ODF calls on the international community and all other friends concerned with the suffering of the Ethiopian people, to stand with us in implementing our vision and proposal of transforming the Ethiopian state to bringing peace and sustainable stability in Ethiopia and Horn of Africa.

Full Announcement: Oromo Democratic Front

In Afaan Oromoo: Labsa Kora bu’ureessaa ODF



About the author

Mohammed A

Mohammed Ademo is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. He's the founder and editor of, an independent news website about Ethiopia.

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