Diaspora Ethiopia Oromia

OPride’s Oromo Person of the Year 2010

Written by OPride Staff

OPride.com is proud to announce its pick for Person of the Year 2010. Surprise, surprise: instead of one person, this year’s honorees are a duo. This is the first year OPride picked up this tradition. We are motivated to embark upon this road because we feel that by literally devouring their leaders, the Oromo, especially in the diaspora, are dangerously and fast becoming a society without unifying leaders.

The Oromo have not created strong modern media organizations at home. Digital technology has helped overcome this deficiency for many nations. However, the digital divide has clearly followed the Oromo into their new homes. Where there is access, there is a venomously prevalent misuse of it.

Paltalk typifies one such classic abuse of technology, a technology-based forum that could have corresponded with the Oromo oral tradition and provided a medium for healthy dialogue. Instead, Paltalk has become corrosive, degrading, dehumanizing, trivializing and divisive. Its tone and content are largely “un-Oromo” and negative, its role poisoning: no morals, no limits, no sense of shame and no respect.

The Oromo lament about lack of leadership. And yet leaders are routinely, sometimes with cause, but most of the times without, blamed, maligned, and dismissed wholesale, without due regard to their lofty sacrifices, best of intentions and performance, however meager. Rather than praising their positive accomplishments, we tend to dwell solely on their shortcomings. There are not, and there have never been, any faultless leaders. They are just like the rest of us, sinning and erring mortals. They are not angels. Great leaders do make mistakes; they just learn from them.

Another essential factor is that leadership does not take place in a vacuum but rather in an institutional setting. Pioneers create the institutions. For the Oromo, the pioneers are founders of timeless edifices such as Gadaa democracy, leaders of the resistance against Menelik’s army, the Bale movement, Macha and Tulama Association, Afran Qalloo Band, and above all the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). These are the giants on whose shoulders we all stand tall. Those of us now living in their footsteps are sojourners on the road they trail-blazed, products of those institutions made from ground up by those luminaries whom we either vilify day in and day out or never talk about at all.

Every institution has its period of instability and crisis, the crucible that is the true test of leadership. Crisis is a school, a sort of an examination where leaders are judged based on whether they enabled their organization to overcome the challenge and perhaps even chart a new course.

We looked far and wide for our Person of the Year. We could not see a religious leader who inspired the best in our humanity. Our political leaders are busy at self and mutual destruction. Our civic and media organizations, having been decimated for so long, are just beginning to heal and have not recovered enough to warrant recognition. We could not identify any military leader who gave the enemy a bloody nose. Our scholars have not stepped up to the plate with fresh ideas with which to plant the barren fields of our knowledge base with new seeds of enlightenment.  No elders who imparted their wisdom on us all, or any young and upcoming leader at the head of a growing movement who helped us shed off our old habits and patterns of thinking.

Therefore, we were left with grassroots organizations, the strength of which is the hallmark of a strong society. We reviewed the outstandingly exemplary services of the Oromo-American Citizen Council (OACC) and the Oromo Artists Association (OAA). The former is promoting a dimension of the Oromo struggle that is terribly neglected: outreach to others.

OAA, despite its prominent role in the effort at re-unification, is still young. The fact that it kept its institutional integrity through the conflict of 2008 is commendable, reflecting the courage and tolerance of its members and leaders. It has set a powerful and positive precedent for our civil society to emulate in the future. OAA is doing a good job and we will be scrutinizing it in the years to come. We have to admit we were tempted to pick OAA. However, after thorough search, we settled on a community organization. The major challenge of our time is to transcend differences. Maintaining the integrity of an important and complex locally-rooted institution in a time of great difficulty presented itself as a major litmus test. Based on this reasoning, we finally chose the Oromo Community of Minnesota (OCM).

The organization has had many great leaders. But based on the factors outlined in the foregoing discussion, we could not take our eyes from two individuals. We tried to pick the better one from among the two. However, we noted that they functioned as a team. And to pick one meant neglecting the team spirit, which is the secret of their success. Neither is a pioneer. Nor are they perfect by any measure. Perfection is not what we were after; after all, who is? We chose imperfect leaders striving as hard as possible towards perfection, which is the case with all great leaders. They made their share of mistakes. However, they are exemplary in leading an important institution in trying times. Our choice also has a redeeming quality which is what a society such as ours faced with a multifaceted crisis needs. Redemption is one of the most enduring, transformative, and winning characteristics of humanity.

Our Persons of the Year are Amano Bullo Dube and Bula T. Atomsa, the dynamic duo of OCM. OAA can take solace in the fact that one of the honorees is one of its own. In the first part of the following piece, we describe the institution, OCM, and its ups and downs. We follow that with the trials and tribulations the duo went through to pull their beloved entity from looming danger.

OCM: From Humble Beginnings to Prominence

The Oromo Community of Minnesota (OCM) was formally established in 1985 as a non-profit organization to serve the growing Oromo immigrant population in the Twin Cities. The number of Oromo people in Minnesota is estimated to be close to 30,000. Participants at the founding meeting of OCM, which numbered in the hundreds, saw the organization’s formation as a landmark achievement. Many hoped for OCM to make the Oromo presence in Minnesota visible through outreach with other Minnesotans and Americans.

On this end, the organization officially secured a 501(b) status, making it eligible for funding and capacity development assistance from funding agencies. It also attempted, albeit haphazardly, to collaborate with similar organizations. However, until 1995 the organization did little more than maintain a single office room, courtesy of the Brian Coyle Community Center.

The Oromo population in the Twin Cities grew rapidly in the 1990s; the trend continued through the first decade of the new millennium. More diversity accompanied the rise in numbers. The immigrants of the 1970s and 1980s were largely more educated, unmarried, able-bodied adults, mostly men. In contrast, the new wave included extended families accompanied by young, school-aged children and the elderly, who needed help in finding jobs, schools, healthcare, translation and quality of life activities, as well as in adjusting to the profound cultural shock. The organization was ill-equipped and totally unprepared to meet the challenge. Moreover, the newly arrived immigrants wanted OCM to champion their concerns for reunion with family members and loved ones stranded in the various refugee camps in the neighboring countries. The plight of the Oromo in Oromia was becoming dire, and many extensively wondered if and how one could do something to ameliorate their pitiful situation. Neither the organization nor its leaders had any answers.

To fill the vacuum, members began to gravitate towards other organizations, away from the mother community organization. Two churches, the Lutheran Church and the Seventh Day Adventist Church, were founded. A mosque followed suit. Followers of the traditional naturalist Oromo religion, Waqefanna, also began to be assertive. The volume of church and mosque attendance expanded, dwarfing community sponsored events where everyone was welcome. Soccer teams abounded. Business ventures mushroomed. As the focus shifted to meeting economic and spiritual appetites, political fervor and occasions to share concerns for pan-Oromo issues gradually dwindled. This meant that despite the growing number, the Oromo could not unify its divergent voices to be heard. The community needed not only a single voice that harmonized the diverse tendencies but also a forum for collaboration across the political, religious, and social division.

As a reaction to these developments, calls for change, predicated on the fear of balkanization of the Oromo and the hope to transcend and bridge the political, faith, and social clubs through the medium of a unifying diaspora community organization, reverberated. The situation was ripe for reorganization. Members of the Oromo Center, led by the charismatic Gamada Urgessa, provided some of the needed services through a rented community center across from the Brian Coyle Community Center. They spearheaded an agitation for renewal, which gave rise to a new spirit of community activism. The Center attracted enthusiastic followers, thanks to a cadre of volunteers making generous contributions. The open fallout between the Board of Directors and the Executive Community of OCM, both of whose terms had long expired, provided the perfect opportunity for a bold grassroots-inspired initiative.

The latter involved convening a General Assembly to elect a new Board of Directors and Executive Committee. Accordingly, a meeting was held in 1995, which amended the bylaws and installed a new leadership. Members of the old Board of Directors and Executive Committee, who had been at odds with each other, filed a lawsuit alleging an illegal takeover. However, the court dismissed the case. The vanquished party did not go away quietly, going as far as establishing a rival outfit, the Oromo-American Community (OAC), by allying with other disgruntled individuals and disaffected groups (some elements affiliated with OAC later began to cooperate with the Diaspora Affairs Bureau of the Ethiopian Embassy and the entity lost whatever legitimacy it had). However, OCM remained the premier Oromo community organization.

From 1995 to 1998 the organization revived. Nevertheless, the feud between the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee resurfaced. Consequently, the bylaw was amended in 1998, merging the two organs into a new nine-member strong Board of Directors. In addition to its fiduciary governance function, the board also took on an executive role. The remedy worked and OCM registered a phenomenal growth, securing grants from the federal and state governments and private philanthropists. In 2000, the Board received the organization’s first grant and was able to hire an Executive Director (1998-2002 Amano, and from 2002 to present Alamayo Baisa). In addition, it employed full-time and part-time officers to assist in job search and counseling, refugee assistance, youth enrichment, health awareness and other programs for elders, youth, and women.

The organization took the next stage in its transformation into a genuine social service organization, purchasing its own building in Saint Paul in 2008, after years of fundraising through the contribution of members. The organization’s annual July 4th Picnic attracts thousands, a festive family get-together. Moreover, OCM vigorously advocated for the rights of the Oromo in Ethiopia, forming working relations with the media, members of the Minnesota delegation in Congress, and human rights organizations. The organization also hosted two successful human rights conferences in cooperation with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and the Center for Victims of Torture at the University of Minnesota. The groundbreaking report by the former in 2009, entitled “Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora,” can be seen as the fruit of this collaboration and relentless effort.

The success story did not last forever. By 2008 a series of political fissures within the broader Oromo movement came to the fore and brought the organization to the brink of collapse. The old camaraderie at the root of OCM’s phenomenal growth floundered. Several members of the Board of Directors resigned or simply walked away.

An Example of Servant Leadership in a Grassroots Context

The quality of leadership is a key ingredient that determines whether a grassroots organization thrives or atrophies. What makes the case of OCM unique is the fact that there is no financial reward for service. Leaders sacrifice precious time, energy, and resources inspired by the objectives of the organization. Their dedication is a result of an internal sense of obligation.

While Amano arrived in the Twin Cities in 1995, Bula came a bit later on. The two earned their bachelor’s degrees from an agricultural college in Ethiopia and also completed graduate degrees in the United States (Bula had earlier earned his first Masters from Belgium). While in Ethiopia, both amassed valuable experience working with subsistence farmers as agro-extension experts.

The duo grew up in the countryside, hence deeply indoctrinated with traditional Oromo social and moral values of tolerance, humility, truthfulness, generosity, and openness. While they grew up viewing their fathers as role models, their attachment to their mothers is noteworthy. While Amano came from a Muslim household, Bula was raised a Christian. Despite this fact, their influence transcends the religious gulf. Amano was born in Southern Oromia, whereas Bula hails from the West. This did not prevent the duo from interacting with, befriending, and winning the allegiance of Oromos from all walks of life. The two are the most constant and consistent face at every Oromo social event, whether private, family or communal. In addition to having a full-time job, going to school, and spending a considerable amount of time on community affairs, both have managed to create a harmonious and stable family life, and to boot their wives are very supportive of their enormous civic involvement.

The two have had a close personal relationship. However, the OLF split in August 2008 put their relationship to a severe test. Minnesota being the epicenter of the conflict, within weeks of the eruption of the conflict, colleagues in the OCM Board who had labored together for years found themselves at odds. To make matters worse, the rhetoric, if not the fact, of the division took on a social dimension.

Previously cordial relationships within the Board soured. Each side exaggerated its case and imagined the worst and galvanized its supporters to prevent the other side from taking over the organization, which in retrospect was the intention of neither side. Consequently, routine management functions such as hiring, firing, compensation, facility use, finance, and advocacy became sources of controversy. The situation deteriorated to the extent that board deliberations became topics of conversation at coffee shops and chat rooms, which was unheard of in the organization’s long history since the reorganization of 1998. Many feared that the prospect of another costly court battle or split loomed large.

The President, Amano, and the Treasurer, Bula, both highly skilled human service professionals with the longest tenure in the leadership of OCM, also feared the worst. The two worked together for a decade and a half, earning a reputation as OCM’s dynamic duo. During the first term of Bula’s Presidency from 2002 to 2004, Amano served as Executive Director. During Bula’s second term from 2004 to 2006, Amano was Secretary. In 2006, the table was reversed, Amano President, while Bula the Treasurer.

After a long period of contemplation, the two finally decided to talk in private in 2009, away from the prying eyes and ears of others, who could not see the big picture beyond partisan interests. The two shared an abiding love and commitment to the mission of OCM, which they agreed to deliberately give primacy in fulfilling. This first meant admitting their roles and failures in the conflict and acknowledging each other’s interests, fears, and concerns. They chose compromise and collaboration as opposed to competition and confrontation. The duo tried to reign in the hardliners from both sides and mobilized the silent majority, the centrists, to defuse the tension. Doing so required saying no to the knee-jerk impulse for win-lose solutions, which meant standing up to defend core values and professional ethics. When the Board failed to arrive at consensus or a clear majority vote, even after a lengthy and acrimonious deliberation, the two involved other stakeholders, reasonable and cool heads who had invested heavily in OCM and thus wanted what is best for the organization.

As a direct consequence of their leadership, OCM is alive and thriving today. In the true spirit of a win-win solution, the Board sidestepped more experienced applicants and hired two bright youngsters, who could bridge not only political, religious, and social schisms inherent in any society of any size, but also reach out to both the young and the elderly. Recently, the Board organized a retreat to devise strategy in which several opinion makers participated. Owing to the prevailing economic situation, many non-profit organizations are struggling to make ends meet. Thus far OCM has navigated the storm well. However, the economic malaise has radically changed the non-profit landscape; hence OCM could not continue to operate business as usual. The Board has crafted a new vision. According to the draft bylaws, it would be one of OCM’s missions “to assist Oromo and other refugees and immigrants in Minnesota through programs designed to provide social, educational, health and other culturally appropriate services.” This miraculous turnaround was impossible without the able leadership of OCM’s dynamic duo. It is a testimony to the power of trust, commitment, and professionalism.

An Analysis of the Duo’s Leadership Techniques

Amano and Bula correctly recognized the gravity of the situation and executed a skillful crisis management approach. Rather than engaging in confrontational tactics, the two leaders empowered, involved different stakeholders, provided direction, aligned followers, and built solid relationships. Convinced that they were not confronted with a zero-sum game, the two worked patiently to arrive at win-win solutions. Admittedly, this did not happen overnight. It took time, making mistakes and overcoming obstacles.

As President, Amano had the option to follow an autocratic style of leadership. He could have chosen from an array of options: competition, avoidance, confrontation, escalating the conflict, and taking disciplinary measures. Instead, he chose to follow a democratic and participatory model, a style that corresponded with the demands of the situation. The soft touch had its detractors, but he was able to find inner courage to persist and persevere. He retained his cool throughout (not always faultlessly). Shy in his demeanor and not the type who promotes himself, he simply did his job, and he did it very well.

Likewise, Bula, the Treasurer, followed the same trajectory with courage. Admittedly, he did stumble initially at the onset of the conflict and his pristine reputation took a beating. This was not particular to Bula; the conflict damaged the reputations of many in the Oromo movement from top to bottom from either camp. However, Bula was quick to collect and compose himself. Great leadership does not mean not making errors but rather learning from them. To take responsibility and learn from mistakes is the recipe for greatness.

The conflict gave rise to a wild and degenerate phenomenon of group caricaturing, stereotyping, denigration, and above all imputing all kinds of bad motives to the other side. The two leaders however tried to remain above the fray, and though not always successfully, try they did. Even if the two were on opposite sides of the split, they maintained a certain degree of open-mindedness. Despite their differences, Bula and Amano kept their communication going. They were able to use their Emotional Intelligence to prevent the impact of corrosive emotional outbursts exhibited by other board members. Because the two engaged in independent thinking, they did not fully succumb to the pressure arising from their respective groups. Both were able to gradually transcend their self and group interests to serve a community that needed their leadership in a time of crisis, which makes them a prototype of servant leadership.

Amano and Bula had the requisite skills and attributes necessary to lead the organization in a time of crisis. Given their humility and dedication, the two can also be seen as what Jim Collins calls Level 5 Leaders. Their ability to manage the crisis is a result of having access to all the bases of power—referent, expertise, legitimacy, reward, and coerciveness, which they wielded to great effect. The two are experts in both community leadership and the delivery of human services. In addition, being opinion makers in the wider social arena of the Oromo society, they both responsibly exercised formal authority in OCM, in their respective human service agencies, and in the Oromo movement at large. Oromos flock to them for advice on employment, education, health, housing, and access to services. Since OCM is also an employer, they have had the power to hire and fire.

Last but not least, fairness requires us to raise one issue without which this story would be incomplete. This pertains to the contribution of many others to make OCM’s success a reality. Since the reorganization of 1998, OCM has had six leaders: Dr. Seyfu Shukarey (Board President), Dr. Niguse Busa (Chaiman of Executive Committee, even if he abruptly quit in the middle of his term), Juhara Mohammad (an iron lady), Dr. Nuro Dadafo, Bula, and Amano. OPride acknowledges and salutes their unique contributions, the contributions of other members of the board who suffered with them. Most notably the other longest serving member of the board, Tashite Wako, who is equally praiseworthy, and the dedicated staff, the likes of Alamayo Baisa and Ali Tahiro, a great communicator who had served as bridge, glue and cement to hold the community together in a crucial moment of crisis.

While congratulating the dynamic duo for their exemplary leadership, OPride salutes the many unsung civic heroes abroad and at home who continue to inspire us to give back to the community we love, making our lives meaningful and worth living.

In addition, based on the online survey, OPride has named Hacalu Hundessa (Abush Zalaqa as a close forerunner), Hashim Adam (Toltu Tufa, runner-up), Jalil Abdela, and Ireechaa 2010, as best artist, most promising young leader, most persistent citizen journalist and most memorable event, respectively. The Oromo-American Citizen Council was highly commended for kicking off the reconciliation agenda. Aliye Geleto of the Australian Oromo Community had the most votes for best community leader.

The survey also revealed that the reunification of OLF is the most hoped for accomplishment for 2011. While the mediating team of OLF elders did a great job at mending the differences, Bayan Asoba, Masfin Abdi, Lencho Bati, and Ibsa Nagawo are most instrumental in pushing their respective factions to move the reunification agenda forward with the overwhelming support of grassroots activists.  They all deserve our gratitude and we wish them success.

Congratulations to all!!

Happy Holidays from OPride and its staff!



About the author

OPride Staff

Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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