By Edao Dawano
Ever since the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power 24 years ago, there has not been any robust and nationwide political protests, involving people from all walks of life, as the still-ongoing Oromo protests.
Rightly, this popular objection to EPRDF’s uncontested reign has captured the international community’s attention and as well as the attention of some in the mainstream media.
Perhaps even more important, the protests in Oromia have registered far better political results (tangible and otherwise) than over two decades of “armed struggle” by diaspora-based Oromo political groups angling to replace the EPRDF regime and bring about freedom, justice, and democracy in Ethiopia.
To be clear, this is not an effort to devalue or undermine the countless sacrifices and contributions of Oromo nationalists, including those who lost their lives along the way. Rather, it is an attempt to frankly assess the static state Oromo political organizations in light of the ongoing protests and offer some reflections on the potential for civil political discourse toward genuine reconciliation and unity in the Oromo camp.
For years, many implored diaspora-based Oromo organizations to deliver on their oft-repeated promises of liberation, freedom, peace and justice. Yet, year-after-year, these groups remained locked in pointless internal infighting owing in part to such misfortunes as global geopolitical shifts, ideological differences but largely to visionless and egotistic leadership that lacks determination and the ability to unify the base. These political organizations pose as if they’re an Oromo government in exile, but only in name and symbolism. As a result, any hope of effective exiled political force, which the Oromo mass at home still yearns for and expect to rescue them from TPLF’s grip, is being gradually dissipated even as the regime in Finfinne intensifies repression against the Oromo.
The Oromo Federalist Congress
Unlike the exiled Oromo parties, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) is a legally registered opposition in Ethiopia. But its victory against the ruling party appears virtually unattainable. The TPLF regime has turned the dream of a genuine democratic electoral process into a nightmare from which one forgot to wake up. By their own admission, a rag-tag group that came to power through armed means is not willing to simply hand over power to its opponents through a paper ballot. Thus, competing against a regime that keeps on claiming total victory time and time again is akin to gross political miscalculation. To their credit, some diaspora-based Oromo political groups have insisted on armed struggle as the only viable means to challenge the status quo in Ethiopia, yet their rhetoric lacks any trace of advancement. Meanwhile, the EPRDF government has exploited with modest success the existence of domestic opposition, Oromo and otherwise, to project a semblance of fledgling democracy to donors and the broader international community.
In theory, the Oromo opposition in Ethiopia enjoys unrivaled access to the masses and an opportunity to mobilize and organize a burgeoning young generation that could engage in peaceful resistance for social change. Toward that end, in recent years, the OFC has turned out large numbers of supports at its rallies and even gained significant diaspora support despite its poor showing in the national elections. OFC’s contribution to the rise of Oromo social awakening in Ethiopia is undeniable. Aside from losing parliamentary seats, via obvious electoral rigging, which OFC chairman Marara Gudina termed “armed robbery” last year, the organization also faces relentless crackdown on its members and leaders by the security forces. Countless OFC supporters and leaders continue to face lengthy imprisonment, torture, and even extrajudicial killing. All these crimes have been recorded and published by Oromo and other non-governmental organizations.
Whereas government accountability and hope to democratization remains distant, OFC’s presence alone has played a key role in creating awareness about ongoing human rights abuses in Ethiopia. But given TPLF’s unabashed elections rigging and the staggering cost of human rights violations, many had lost hope in the opposition’s platform for peaceful political change. In the mid-2000s, especially after the disputed 2005 elections, this gave way to the exodus of Oromo youth looking for alternative routes to political and economic freedom.
Tackling organizational deficiency
The Oromo — at home and in the diaspora — longs for and sings about political unity. This enduring aspiration is exactly why we need to engage in a serious dialogue about the stationary state of Oromo diaspora-based political organizations. Our leaders often ignore the public desire for unity. For the most part, it is safe to say that the Oromo leadership does not reflect the public’s aspiration for unity and strong leadership. It appears as if all strong Oromo leaders have either resigned to fate or paid the ultimate price or are languishing in Ethiopia’s various gulags. The public is slowly recognizing that there are no obvious differences between ordinary Oromo refugees and those in a position of power claiming to lead an Oromo armed insurgency.
For those at home, who face daily indignity and unspeakable ordeals, expecting liberation and social change from abroad was once a hope but now it is a complete illusion. Hence, the countless public meetings in the diaspora, unless followed up by tangible action, seem pointless — serving no discernable purpose despite the extraction of hundreds of thousands of dollars from poor immigrant families. Their political propaganda and press releases, augmented by photos and videos of Oromo heroes and heroines, only serve as a cover up for the leaders’ incompetence and lack of progress and their organizational deficiencies. This should no longer be acceptable.
In addition to their cover-ups and organizational decay, these diaspora politicians have failed time and time again to accept responsibility and acknowledge their shortcomings. In order to shield their failures, they continue to engage in divisive politics and uninspired sloganeering such as “Gadaan Gadaa Bilisummaati”; they utilize mass media to deceive unquestioning masses that can’t look beyond political slogans and demand concrete actions.
The least these leaders could have done is to forge a genuine Oromo political unity. But instead, their egos and organizational bureaucracy have for years stonewalled efforts at reconciliation. For some, clinging to inexistent power appears more important than solving the chronic Oromo diaspora problem: factional infighting and petty political bickering.
In the process, they not only deceived their followers but themselves by wasting time and giving the TPLF regime ample time to innovate and consolidate its grip over the country. More time has been devoted to smearing one another and exposing each other’s limitations than challenging our supposedly common enemy.
Meanwhile, for many who lost loved ones to the Oromo struggle, their pain and sorrow continue to grow like a lethal cancer cell in a human body. As the political and economic suppression against the Oromo continues to rise, so does the weakening and division among Oromo political organizations, hampering progress. This has become a chronic mental impairment, diminishing hopes for a unified Oromo force to achieve our national aspiration.
Two years ago, former leaders and members of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), as well as Oromo nationalists and political elites who were frustrated by the lack of progress in the Oromo movement, formed the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF).
ODF leaders wanted to return to Ethiopia and organize the Oromo people to forge a truly federal and democratic Ethiopia. To sell its objectives, ODF held many public forums that were at times met with rejection, disappointment, blame and even hate. But it also drew support from those who yearned to see progress in the Oromo movement and genuine alliances with other Ethiopian groups.
True, ODF might have galvanized a mass support had they gone home despite opposition from those in the diaspora who insist on armed struggle. However, after taking one step toward grounding their organization in Ethiopia, the group had stumbled and took two steps back to the diaspora. The incumbent government is simply not ready for yet another Oromo opposition. ODF now finds itself striving to remain relevant in diaspora while continuing to press for permission to return to Ethiopia.
Even ODF’s supporters admit that its leader’s failure to remain in Ethiopia and struggle amongst the Oromo people regardless of the sacrifice points to the continuation of a typical political syndrome of past. For example, had the ODF delegation that went to Finfinne last year declined to depart and decided to stay in Ethiopia after they were told to leave, it would have created a wider solidarity and support even from their detractors. The Oromo would have gained much more recognition from other Ethiopian groups and the international community for trying everything on the book to end Ethiopia’s political malaise for once and all. Unfortunately, ODF leaders’ hasty return to Ethiopia and sudden turnaround will be entered into the history books as yet another missed opportunity. The decision to retreat to diaspora shows the lack of willpower and readiness to pay the necessary sacrifice to achieve their goals as the fallen Oromo leaders have done.
ODF’s action also contradicts some of its leaders’ assertions and slogans about their willingness to go back home and persist at home and peacefully struggle at any cost. Furthermore, their unceremonious turnabout served as a smear tool for their opponents and reinforced the idea that EPRDF will never allow genuine political competition unless its hand is forced by armed means.
All in all, diaspora Oromo political organizations have their executive leadership in four different continents, which creates collective decision-making problems and undermines their stated objectives. In fact, the scattering of leadership has led to disenfranchisement, lack of results and it is at the core of the reasons for their static state of affairs.
The disfranchisement of the Oromo was a golden opportunity for EPRDF to maximize their political agenda, depicting exiled groups as anti-peace and anti-development elements. The attack on diaspora groups comes in many forms, including a veiled process of defaming Oromo nationalism in order to suppress social resistance. This is why the EPRDF has enacted its anti-terrorism proclamation and other draconian laws that allow them to fabricate false evidence and arrest Oromo nationalists.
EPRDF’s repression does not stop there: it goes far beyond violations of human rights and paralyzes the livelihood of the population, Oromo and others. To mention but few, EPRDF has committed egregious crimes against Ogadenis, the people of Gambella and the Anuaks.
The continued land grab scheme in the country forces indigenous populations to move from their ancestral land and face displacement without their will and sufficient compensation. The EPRDF regime justifies its criminal acts as development and free market enterprise. In the process, forced eviction and displacement has brought about an irreversible destruction to the people’s livelihood and identity.
Neoliberal investors and crony capitalists extract resources and help boost the government’s growth statistics while ignoring the cries of locals. The EPRDF regime uses false and inflated economic data to attract foreign investors with the help of multilateral financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This validation allows the EPRDF regime to project a veneer of growth and democratization by obscuring internal political deterioration.
Most Ethiopians rely on the land for subsistence. That’s why whoever controls the land controls the people. A social unrest that erupted over issues of land ownership is not like any other political resistance. At its core, the fight over land is a quest for survival.
The ongoing Oromo protests are unprecedented in many regards. For one, it was triggered by a land dispute but served as the manifestation of Oromos long unaddressed sociopolitical subjugation. Second, the Oromo protest is a mass resistance rooted in Oromummaa and Oromo nationalism. Lastly, it united fractured Oromo diaspora and activists in solidarity and around common advocacy.
The protests are fundamentally rooted in resistance to TPLF’s half-century of repression and undemocratic system of government. The protests could usher in lasting political solution for Ethiopia but the government’s harsh declaration of war is, as always, aggravating the situation. Obsessed with a hegemonic domination of power, the ruling elite has forsaken the future generation, leaving them with no hope for upward mobility. The resultant frustration and political awakening have emboldened the youth to demand their political rights without fear, at any cost. Therein lies a remarkable development in Oromo politics: the youth at home has finally taken matters into their own hands, as opposed to looking to diaspora for deliverance, and are facing down the EPRDF regime’s brutality with cell phones and sticks.
The Oromo youth appears ready to pay the ultimate price in defense of their dignity and livelihood. Already more than 180 protesters have been killed. Their sacrifices were not lost in vain. The protests have registered major victories unlike any before. It is even attracting solidarity and support from other nations and nationalities in Ethiopia to join them in the struggle for justice and freedom.
Beyond Ethiopia, the movement have gained international recognition and generated unprecedented media coverage. Still, the Oromo, as leaders of these protests, must devise constructive and strategic means of winning real concessions from the current upsurge. This is crucial because the resolution of the Oromo question is key to Ethiopia’s socio-political stability. Therefore, it is important to critically assess the advantages and disadvantages of this movement.
*Part two will deal with advantages and weaknesses of the ongoing Oromo protests and offer some suggestions on the way forward. Watch this space…
The writer, EdaoDawano, is a Minneapolis-based Oromo activist and former president of the Oromia Youth Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.