by Jawar Mohammed
Earlier this week, one of the several OLF factions announced that it had adapted a new political program that apparently drops the ‘secessionist’ agenda. This announcement was preceded and followed by hyped fanfare by Ginbot 7 and its affiliates.
The news had excited a segment of Ethiopia’s political community long haunted by the prospect of an independent Oromia state and those democracy activists who wish to see cooperation among the opposition forces. Unfortunately, even for a casual observer of Ethiopian politics, the content of the new program does not show any substantive change nor the serious reflection the issue demands. What’s more, the exciting narrative employed to sell the supposed change to the public is at best disingenuous, misleading and distracting in the long run.
What’s new in the brief and poorly articulated announcement?
The press release announcing the new program reveals the superficial nature of the said change in policy. The closest inference to the much-celebrated “change of heart” reads, “The new OLF political program will accept the new federal democratic republic of Ethiopia”. There are two serious flaws here.
First, federalism, even if more of a facade, is now a two-decade-old experiment in Ethiopia; hence, it’s not clear what this ‘new federalism’ entails. Second, this is hardly a change, as OLF not only accepted federalism during the 1991 transition but was also its leading architect. To ‘accept’ federalism, a system it helped create 20 years ago, is at best disingenuous. Paradoxically, it is Ginbot 7 and affiliates, who are adamantly opposed to federalism, that need to accept it — not the other way around.
On dropping the secessionist bombshell
The buzz on both ends of the political divide about OLF dropping ‘secessionism’ and embracing ‘Ethiopianism’ is equally misleading. The Oromo movement, particularly one led by the OLF, had never foreclosed on the possibility of resolving the Oromo question within the existing Ethiopian state structure. The OLF program, through all of its amendments from the time of founding to now, left the door open for both options: reforming Ethiopia and establishing an independent Oromia.
The organization of late relies on the vague notion of ‘self-determination’, especially in its diplomatic outreach, for keeping these two options open. The much-celebrated new program invokes the same vague declaration asserting that, “the OLF will respect and honor all decisions the Ethiopian peoples will make using their right of self-determination.”
Beneath the fanfare, this is yet another word game in the never-ending drama of Ethiopian politics where politicians conceal their real objectives behind loose words. Amhara parties espouse unity while covering up their quest to regain dominance, Oromos use self-determination to appease and confuse their internal and external audience, while Tigreans proclaim democracy and federalism to camouflage their monopoly.
Why all the huffing and puffing?
The only change in all of this, if any, is the shift in the attitude of the ‘unity’ crowd. In the past, whenever Oromo organizations reached out to ‘unionist’ organizations they were met with suspicion, pessimism, and outright rejection. This time around, they are not only embracing the ‘changed OLF’ but also intensely engaged in disseminating and promoting the news.
There are three possible explanations for this:
1) the ‘unity’ crowd has always suffered from self-righteousness in attempting to assert a moral high ground against the ‘ethno-nationalist’ camps. They now see the OLF ‘embracing Ethiopia’ as their victory, a testament to the inferiority of nationalist narrative.
2) Ginbot 7 has been attempting to forge alliances with ‘armed’ and nationalist organizations, an effort frustrated by rival groups such as the EPRP, who accuse it of endangering Ethiopian unity. Therefore, Ginbot 7 & affiliates are beating the drum louder pronouncing that the OLF has ‘embraced Ethiopia’, a rhetoric solely designed to silence its critics. This also gives the leaders of Ginbot 7 some bragging rights for bringing a ‘rebel child home.’
3) In the last several years, there has been a popular demand to reduce tension and antagonism, between the Oromo and Amhara political communities, and replace it with reconciliation and cooperation. Thus, some, including international observers, were deceived taking the recent drama for a genuine initiative.
Oromo activists are likening this development to the formation of a new OPDO. The actions and attitudes of Ginbot 7 leadership elevate this suspicion. By sidestepping a genuine negotiation it had started with the core leadership and intellectuals and ‘running away’ with splinter cadres, Ginbot 7 appears to be imitating what the TPLF had done in late 80’s.
It might be the case that, in order to become a dominant voice in its envisioned coalition, Ginbot 7, despite the rhetoric, prefers to have a weaker OLF faction than a united front. But this is a serious strategic blunder. First, Ginbot 7 is not at a stage where TPLF was at the time. TPLF had already effectively defeated the Derg and needed satellite organizations only to legitimize its rule. In contrast, Ginbot 7 is banking on the Oromo support to overthrow Meles. At this juncture, such support cannot be garnered via a parasite organization and deceitful tactics.
Second, unlike the prisoners of war that made up the original OPDO, leaders and cadres of this OLF faction , even if seemingly novice ideologues, are hardcore nationalists who cannot be reduced to a subservient role. Like their predecessors, Ginbot 7 leaders seem to have taken the goodwill of the Oromo for naivety. But this could be a blessing in disguise with a potential to unite the fratricidal OLF factions becoming a catalyst for a popular demand of many diaspora based compatriots.
Hiding behind mountains of failure
Organizationally, the OLF has been on a downward spiral for the last two decades. The release of a ‘new’ program and formation of newer partnerships have, in essence, become a tactical gamble to cover up its organizational inefficiency and strategic blunders. This new faction emerged in 2008 with the promise of ushering in a swift ‘change’ and reigniting the struggle. Three and half years later, it had no results to show for the “change we can believe in.” Thus, in order to remain relevant and renew their contract with their constituency, they have to announce a new initiative.
Similarly, Ginbot 7 emerged by promising to bring down Meles and establish democracy within few years, if not months. Yet, three years later, it had nothing to show for it. Part of its support base is the ‘urban middle class’, a result-oriented constituency that demands return on its money and cannot be satisfied by nationalistic rhetoric alone. Thus, amid their shared desperation, the leaders of the two groups hope to use the alliance to calm their critics and energize supporters.
In search of a shortcut
These newer and more ambitious OLF cadres, fed up with the old and conservative institution, are interested in ‘doing something’ regardless of its consequences and whether it addresses or exacerbates the root causes of the conflict. Likewise, Ginbot 7, whose top leaders are engaged in a bitter personal feud with TPLF leaders, are hell-bent on avenging, by any means necessary, the humiliation they were dealt following the 2005 controversial election.
In order to thrive, the two groups need to access to each other’s resources (political, economic, manpower). The OLF, whose financial support from among its constituency has dried up, seeks to tap into Ginbot 7’s relatively better-endowed constituency. The OLF would also like to penetrate the Amharic-dominated media market in order to reach the urban constituency, Ginbot 7’s mainstay. Ginbot 7 lacks a military capability both in terms of manpower and an area of operation. OLF’s military experience and relative access to Oromo recruits and jungles of Oromia, is indispensable for a possible insurgency.
In addition, the leaders of Ginbot 7, whose ambition was cut short due to the re-alliance of the Oromo elite with the ruling party during the aftermath of the 2005 election, clearly understand the need for an Oromo partner to gain the support of – or at least neutralize – the domestic Oromo constituency.
Despite these needs, they do not expect cooperation to be smooth. The two groups represent antagonistic political communities whose narratives don’t see eye to eye, both in terms of diagnosing the problem and prescribing a solution. They rely on sharply contradictory analysis of the historical root causes of the problem in Ethiopia and have conflicting visions about the future. Bridging this entrenched animosity is a horrendous and time-consuming task beyond the stamina of the two groups under discussion. Thus, bypassing it with minimal and symbolic compromises, while leaving the major differences aside, seems the easy way out.
The appearance of communality between these two groups is not just a preference for quick fix. But it is the inability to learn from strategic mistakes they’ve made just few years back. The leaders of Ginbot 7 did not learn from their debacles with Coalition for Unity and Democracy and few botched attempted ‘operations’ afterwards. By making the same hasty and immature decision like its original ‘coup’ against Dawud Ibsa’s leadership, the OLF faction also demonstrated the same utter lack of self-reflection.
Can this tactical alliance work?
Generally speaking, bringing about regime change through allying forces presumes that
a) each member party brings certain capabilities ( strategies, experience) and resources ( human, material, financial) to the table, and b) the alliance would be sustainable.
Unfortunately, neither the OLF faction nor Ginbot 7 has tangible operational capabilities. Both parties are diaspora-based with little to no organizational visibility on the ground. They lack organizational strength and a feasible strategy to build one. The leaders themselves are not willing to directly engage in the conflict and are resigned to waging a long-distance war.
In other words, both parties bring no tangible strategic resources to the battlefield and their alliance adds little firepower to the opposition camp. There are very few examples historically where an opposition brought down an incumbent without direct action, be it through nonviolence or armed struggle.
This alliance is unlikely to be sustainable either. While avoiding concrete compromise makes it easy to form an alliance, it also paves a way for internal and external actors to break it apart. The two groups are not addressing the contentious issues that divide their respective constituency inviting detractors to poke at these glossed-over differences, stir up controversy and crack the alliance. For instance, within hours of the announcement, the OLF faction was confronted with internal revolt and defection from the rank and file—further depleting its already slim base.
This is in addition to the members and most of the seasoned leadership that had already dissociated itself long before the announcement. It will not be a surprise then if the leadership is forced to rollback its compromises in an effort to reclaim some nationalist credentials. Resorting to nationalistic rhetoric, after causing so much euphoria, will have a dampening effect on Ginbot 7’s constituency—who will pressure its own leaders back to their previous stance. This is exactly what happened to the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD).
Narcissism of righteousness
It’s quite disturbing to observe the ongoing orgy of self-congratulation amongst the ‘unity’ crowd. Ginbot 7 is busy taking credit while its conservative base is elated with glorious victory of their ideology. Unfortunately, the claim is false, and the declaration of victory is erroneous.
Before this announcement, some leaders of Ginbot 7 implied that they had convinced the OLF to change its mind. Such hyperbolic claims might help them collect some credit from their base but ignores such paternalistic attitude can cause serious backlash against the partner they were grooming.
It is true that the emergence of moderate parties, such as Ginbot 7, have been a positive development in improving dialogue between the two constituencies. However, to imply that Ginbot 7 baptized the OLF and helped it see the light of the day is foolish.
Starting in the late 80’s, Oromo nationalism has been undergoing a sustained internal critique. The debates have helped scholars and activists to scrutinize the objective, strategy and external relation of the movement. Hence, the issue of working with Amhara organizations and democratizing Ethiopia had been widely discussed long before Ginbot 7 appeared on the scene, and the discussion continued even when some Ginbot 7 leaders were dismissive of the Oromo struggle. They might be unaware of the internal discussions but how could they forget the fact that AFD, the predecessor to their current initiative, was the brainchild of the OLF? The Oromo leaders did not have to go to jail to recognize the genuine concern of those who worry about the potential danger associated with breaking up of the country.
Both this OLF faction and Ginbot 7 seem to be unaware of this history.
Given that the independence of Oromia has been a nightmare that long haunting the ‘unity’ crowd, it is understandable that the news of the OLF ‘dropping secessionism’ offers a sigh of relief. But what we’re observing is not an expression of relief but rather a declaration of ideological victory.
First, considering the half-hearted announcement is a usual tactical move coming from a small and disgruntled faction, it is too premature to declare a victory. Second, in a situation where there are competing nationalist narratives, such declaration is likely to stir up anger on the other side—weakening the moderates and strengthening the ultra-nationalists. To ensure its political survival, the moderate leadership would be forced to abandon the center.
Third, the sense of victory felt by the unity crowd does not seem to recognize the demographic changes taking place in Ethiopia. Oromo nationalism was built by successfully deconstructing the Ethiopian nationalism. Since 1991, the former has effectively displaced the later in Oromia and as a result an entire generation has been brought up with that narrative. Furthermore, despite its limits, self-rule has allowed the rise of millions of bureaucratic elites who have vested material and political interest in preserving the gains of the Oromo struggle and maintaining the nationalist narrative.
Although OLF was mainly responsible for constructing the Oromo nationalism, it is no longer in control of it. While the absence of a viable alternative political organization still allows the front to make minimal adjustments to the nationalist narrative, any shift that is perceived to endanger the interest of the rising bureaucratic elite faces automatic rejection.
Therefore, Ethiopian nationalism, with its conservative and assimilationist undertone, has little chance of re-establishing itself in Oromia, Ogaden, Sidama, Afar or anywhere else other than some urban areas and the Amhara region. The current elation is an exercise in self-deception, and further cripples Ethiopian nationalism as a unifying ideology by preventing it from transforming itself to adapt to new realities.
“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going”
The widespread antagonism we’re facing is a legacy of centuries of confrontations. Over this long period of conflict, the land has been drenched with blood and left us with painful memories that need to be recognized, deep-rooted prejudices that must be exorcised, and pervasive political, social and cultural disparities that must be addressed.
This is necessary both for waging a unified struggle against the current dictatorship and for building a democratic, inclusive, and stable country afterwards. In order to be sustainable and effective, alliance of forces need to be built on a solid foundation. Such foundation requires reaching concrete consensus on our collective past, present, and future. Issues of historical legacy had to be addressed head on. The role and share of the constituent parties of the alliance need to be clearly spelt out. The formula for equitable distribution of power and wealth must be developed. And each political block must openly and honestly communicate these compromises to their perspective constituency in order to secure a genuine support from the plurality. As we’ve observed during the Arab Spring and previous transitions, reaching concrete agreement on the rule of the game does not only help depose dictators, but it is also an indispensable factor in ensuring the establishment and consolidation of a democratic order.
Simply put, any initiative that hushes over the past and sends ambiguous messages about the future is doomed to fail. Sadly when they fail, they cause setback to positive gains by depleting trust and complicating issues. As the Oromo proverb goes, “karaan sobaan darban galaaf nama dhiba” or its Amharic version “alebabsew biyarsu barem yimelsu”
*Jawar Mohammed is a graduate student at Columbia University, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can access all of his articles at – Jawar’s Corner.