By Malkaa Guutuu
Since their coercive incorporation into the Ethiopian empire, the Oromo people have initiated numerous valiant but unsuccessful efforts to extricate themselves from the oppressive Abyssinian yoke. The Bale insurrection of the 1960′s, which signaled that the Oromo were ready to engage in a protracted struggle to reclaim their freedom, was out-organized, out-gunned and ultimately dislodged by the Ethiopian army. The attempt to promote Oromo self-awareness and interests via peaceful means by the Matcha & Tulama Association (MTA) was viciously suppressed, when the Imperial regime of HaileSellasie targeted prominent leaders of the association, killing some and incarcerating others, sending the unmistakable message that Oromo self-identification would not be tolerated by the Ethiopian state. The brutal takedown of the MTA propelled the Oromo liberation movement into its next logical phase, facilitating the formation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), with mandates to liberate the people from colonial subjugation and exploitation. Despite delivering impressive results thus far, however, the OLF has fallen far short of achieving its main objective of emancipating the Oromo people from the ever mounting, increasingly blatant and troubling Abyssinian tyranny.
Tens of thousands of productive Oromo citizens are wasting away in the notorious Ethiopian gulags just because they are suspected of having affiliation with the OLF; thousands have died in these prison camps due to neglect and torture. Fleeing persecution by the minority led Ethiopian regime, hundreds of thousands of Oromo have become refugees in the neighboring countries and beyond, with some perishing before they reach their destinations, and others being refouled in violation of international law. Untold misery is visited upon defenseless Oromo communities in different locales, while their land is expropriated and transferred to armed gangs and settlers from near and far at an accelerating pace. The majestic forests of the Oromo country are cleared away to make way for unscrupulous investors, while its streams and rivers are polluted with reckless abandon in the name of the Orwellian-named “Development and Transformation”. Notwithstanding these multi-pronged assaults on their humanity and many other well-documented abuses of their natural rights, most Oromo elites and a significant section of the Oromo public remain largely immobilized, rather choosing to scapegoat others for the debacle.
Different factors are cited in popular discourse for causing the quandary the Oromo nation is facing at the moment, with seemingly everyone playing the role of a pundit. The commonly mentioned reasons include lack of unity among the Oromo public, the constantly changing global political landscape, paucity of influential friends internationally, the incompetence of OLF’s leadership, etc. Individuals with no meaningful contribution to the struggle often accuse the leaders of the OLF for the crises, apparently failing to grasp the rank irony of their stance. Part time “political analysts” have ready-made explanations for the Oromo problem: they typically blame the multiplication of traitors (Gobanaas in the Oromo lexicon) and lack of unity among the Oromo people, without pondering if the link might be a case of reverse causation. Oromo political leaders often blame the constantly evolving geo-political environment, coming across as timid participants in the rough and tumble realm of international politics. In my view, these and similar other assertions are unmistakably circular, if not flimsy rationalizations put forth to skirt responsibility; they are at best correlates and/ or symptoms of an underlying set of problems afflicting the Oromo body-politic.
In this article, I will explore some of the likely sources of the puzzling paralysis currently afflicting the descendants of the great Oromo people, with the objective of initiating a serious conversation and commencing the work that might lead to the solution. I will employ certain widely applicable models in the social sciences to uncover some of the prominent challenges the Oromo liberation camp is facing today. Even though there are foolproof mathematical details behind the model’s implications, I’ve stripped the essay of needlessly confusing jargons, symbols and derivations. When I say the Oromo liberation camp, I am referring to the armed struggle led by the OLF, not the incremental, bona-fide, useful and necessary efforts exerted by various dedicated Oromo individuals and groups to promote the legitimate interests of the Oromo nation.
I argue that the OLF and the Oromo public (the Principal and Agents of the Oromo National Liberation Project) have Asymmetric Information, which has created the problems of Adverse Selection and Moral Hazard, resulting in the confounding scenario described above. Let me offer some definitions of Adverse Selection and Moral Hazard, before making the case that they are likely the underlying causes for the baffling problems faced by the Oromo today. Adverse Selection is a process which leads to sub-optimal outcomes when two parties in a compact have Asymmetric Information about the type (quality) of the object of their transaction. Moral Hazard, on the other hand, describes a situation where a transaction may be struck between a Principal and Agent with Asymmetric Information re: the potential actions of the agent.
To fulfill its stated objectives, the OLF must mobilize the Oromo people, who are diverse in terms of any number of characteristics. For the purpose of this article, we will consider two key sources of population heterogeneity – talent (ability) and dedication (heroism). Ability, which can be innate or learned, determines type, but dedication to a cause dictates actions. It would not be controversial to state that some Oromo persons have more ability than others, and can perform a given function better and/or faster than others. Similarly, not all Oromo are similarly situated with respect to their dedication to the Oromo cause (the cause). To paint a stark picture, there are some who are willing to lay down their lives if called upon, while others are simply morally clueless about the plights of their people. (I will portray a slightly more nuanced picture below.) In all likelihood, ability and dedication are orthogonal attributes. There is hardly any reason to expect that ability and heroism are systematically associated. A hero can be gifted or less so, while a gifted individual can occupy any position in terms of some measure of heroism. If we were somehow able to measure the ability and dedication of every individual in a given group of human population, and plotted them on a plane, I suspect that we would get a picture with no pattern whatsoever, with some occupying a space near the origin, others inhabiting spaces along both axes, and still others located in the north-easterly direction from the origin at varying degrees and distance from the origin.
Let us deal with the issue of Adverse selection first, switching off a measure of Oromo’s dedication to their cause, abstracting away from the critical issue of Moral Hazard, to make (admittedly) a highly stylized, but important, point. When an individual Oromo volunteers his/her service for the Oromo cause, the OLF does not know the type of the potential member a priori. To fix ideas, suppose that potential members are uniformly distributed in type over a certain interval. Let’s further stipulate that the OLF does not have a solid mechanism in place which induces a given Oromo (who is seeking to participate in the liberation struggle) to reveal his/her type. Under these circumstances, potential volunteers would naturally claim to possess higher ability than they actually do, and the OLF would infer that a typical aspiring participant is an average type. The intuition is that entrusting a low ability agent with a responsibility that can only be performed optimally by a person of higher caliber, would not produce desired or desirable outcomes. Likewise, commissioning a more talented person to execute a menial task that can be undertaken by a less gifted individual would have detrimental effects on morale, producing sub-optimal results. The chosen outcome would in turn induce any Oromo with better than average talent, to choose sitting on the sidelines than contributing to the struggle, effectively depriving the organization of the skilled half of all potential volunteers. This forces the Front to reappraise downwards the set of candidates available for mobilization, producing a newer rational expectations equilibrium evaluation of a typical aspiring volunteer’s talent further to the left of the average of the whole set, and so on and so forth. Taken to an extreme, this process would eventually lead to a collapse of the objectives of the Front.
The prediction that the Oromo objective would collapse due to adverse selection as described above is a consequence of holding constant a measure of Oromo’s dedication to the cause, which effectively meant that the Oromo people do not have heroes. Clearly, the OLF has not collapsed and remains rather formidable, largely because the Oromo nation has countless heroes – honorable men and women with atypical preference relations or utility functions (see below). The silver lining in what has otherwise been a depressing state-of-affairs in the Oromo liberation camp is that Oromo heroes have kept freedom’s flame, guaranteeing the survival of the Front under extremely trying conditions.
What is not debatable, however, is that the OLF has lost some of its vitality in the last decade and a half, likely victimized by (among other things) the problem of Adverse Selection just discussed. Regrettably, too many of the highly competent Oromo individuals have been sitting on the sidelines, accusing the organization of not being receptive to their ideas or contribution. To make matters worse, the seeming indifference of certain high achieving Oromo persons to the plight of their people have caused the Front to become even more insular, in turn driving more and more Oromo further down the ability ladder to *abandon* the struggle one after another. This is a classic case of Adverse Selection caused by Information Asymmetry, where the players – in this case the OLF and its potential members – might be behaving rationally in some utilitarian sense, but the ultimate outcome has been the deferment of the realization of the legitimate aspiration of the Oromo nation.
For a more complete exposition of the problems afflicting the Oromo liberation camp, we introduce Moral Hazard into the equation by switching on a measure of Oromo’s conviction to the cause. To fix ideas, let us divide the Oromo into three broad categories based on some measure of their heroism. The first group includes heroes, whose commitment to their people’s yearning to be free dominates any other egoistic pursuits. There are no incentives or disincentives that can persuade or dissuade Heroes to shortchange or abandon their people’s legitimate aspiration for independence. They are noble people who put their own lives on the line, and other self-centered goals on hold, to serve their people. In other words, they are individuals whose commitment to their people’s cause strictly dominates other self-centered goals. Unfortunately, heroes are rare in general, and the Oromo are no exception to this rule. The second group consists of the enemy’s hired guns from within the Oromo community – individuals with highly objectionable moral and ethical standards, lacking a minimal understanding of Safuu Oromoo. Moral suasion would not convince this group of people to abstain from harming the cause; however, with the appropriate mechanisms in place, they can be discouraged from working against their people’s interests.
The third set includes the overwhelming majority of the Oromo people, whose mobilization is essential for the cause to succeed. Individuals in this group, which constitute the focus of this paper, exhibit varying degrees of commitment to the communal interest and are driven by upstanding but intrinsically selfish motivations (e.g. gaining some level of material success through hard work and education, raising a family, etc.). To use a commonly used technical jargon, they are utility maximizing agents in the conventional sense. Their utilities are increasing not only in selfish pursuits (consumption of private goods), but also the blossoming of the Oromo cause (a particular type of public good). However, what they have to do in order for the latter to transpire, reduces their utility from consumption of private goods: the more they contribute to the cause financially or otherwise, the less resources they can allocate towards pursuits that are fundamentally egotistical. There is thus a tension between their desire to maximize utility and what they wish to see happen in terms of the furtherance of the Oromo objective.
The Principal’s aim is to advance the Oromo cause taking these constraints into account. If the Front had perfect information about the conviction of every Oromo person to achieve freedom, the solution would be straightforward: the Front would simply assign each potential agent a task according to her/his dedication. Furthermore, the agents would have no incentive to deviate from their rhetoric with respect to their actual contribution to the cause; their actions would match their words.
In the real world, however, the OLF is operating under Asymmetric Information about the possible actions of its potential agents (volunteers), who exhibit varying degrees of commitment to the cause. Whether we assume that agents occupy a fixed point in terms of their dedication (but can effectively hide it from the Principal); or display a varying level of commitment in response to different circumstances, the qualitative prediction remains the same. Under either scenario, unless it has in place a sound mechanism that could induce its potential members and supporters to reliably signal their commitment levels, the OLF would fail to achieve its objectives due to Moral Hazard: The vast majority of the Oromo people, whilst over-stating their dedication levels, contribute significantly less than what they could and should to the cause, because: 1) doing so is individually rational given their pedestrian utility functions; 2) their actions are largely hidden; and 3) they mistakenly assume that someone else would make the required sacrifices for the cause, allowing them to pick the fruits of freedom that others produce. Hence, their hidden actions are always inferior to their open-to-the-public and often entertaining rhetoric, resulting in the conundrum which has inspired this essay. Alas, the Oromo can no longer hide from the grim consequences of the totality of their inactions, as a result of which a well-organized minority is getting away with brazenly violating their natural and human rights with an attitude of impunity.
No segment of the Oromo community (save Oromo heroes) is immune from criticism for the tragedy to which the great Oromo people are currently subjected. Whether they are affiliated with the OLF or not, Oromo scholars and elites share the blame for failing to engage in a systematic and consistent inquiry that could have uncovered the real causes for the crises in the Oromo national liberation camp. The leaders of the OLF bear part of the blame too: While the nation is bleeding literally and figuratively, the leaders at times appear to have been busy splitting hair, engaging in seemingly endless, bitter and often meaningless ideological battles reminiscent of the trivial feud that annihilated a generation of leaders in Ethiopia in the 1970′s. They should have instead spent their scarce resources on seeking out, organizing and commissioning willing and able Oromo scholars with the critically important task of devising mechanisms that could address the issues that have resulted in the Oromo paralysis. Regular Oromo folks cannot escape from responsibility either; for most have practically passed the buck, turning into pseudo political analysts and cyber warriors, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the brutal gang occupying their land and terrorizing their people can only be dislodged with much more serious effort than they have mustered thus far.
In this piece, I have attempted to identify some of the factors that have wreaked havoc on the Oromo struggle for freedom. I hope and expect that Oromo scholars will step up and engage in the discussion I have initiated, with the ultimate objective of designing a system that could tackle the problems of Adverse Selection, Moral Hazard and other related issues. There is no need to re-invent the wheel, as there are known general principles that must be observed in mechanism designs which seek to address the problems discussed in this article. The trick is to properly employ these general principles, taking into serious consideration certain important defining characteristics of the Oromo people and their neighbors, particularly the Abyssinians, as well as the local and global conditions in which they operate.
As a scholarly organization dedicated to Oromo studies, the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) may take the lead in coordinating the effort to address the specific issues covered in this essay. From among its current and potential members, OSA may set up a Commission whose mandate is proposing a strategy (mechanisms) that will properly mobilize the Oromo masses for the liberation project. Matters pertaining to the detailed authority of the Commission, the make-up of the Commission’s members, and the process guiding their selection should be decided by the current OSA leadership with inputs from a wider audience – its actual and potential members.
The Oromo of yore were a resourceful people, who invented a reasonably complex, dynamic and democratic socio-political system – Gadaa, which had two interrelated purposes: regulating the internal dynamics of the nation, while safeguarding its interests from external aggression. A careful review of what has been presented as “Ethiopian History” of the last few centuries confirms that theGadaa system had served its intended purposes superbly. With Gadaa as their linchpin, the Oromo were masters of their domain – a proud people and skillful warriors who defended their country gallantly. When they marched according to the precepts of Gadaa, no enemy had a chance facing them. The Oromo lost their freedom, arguably, only after certain segments of the society traded the remarkable Gadaa institution for a constitutionally inferior socio-political system.
To put the darkest chapter in their history behind them, and reclaim their identity and independence, therefore, the Oromo of today must learn one crucial lesson from their forebears. They must invent systems (design mechanisms) in order to jump-start the process that will unleash the significant human and material resources of the nation for its liberation. It is time to get to work.