By Mekuria Bulcha | July 31, 2013
In an article titled “Oromo Freedom from What and For What, Part 2: A Struggle for the Right to Life, A Fight for a Life worthy of Human Beings” (Ayyaantuu.com May 2013), I have discussed how Oromos, who have been suspected of being members or supporters of the OLF, have been denied their right to life. I have also shown that their relatives have been imprisoned and tortured and that their women were raped and even killed.* I have pointed out that the property of the affected is also often confiscated by the regime or its agents and that their families are deprived of their means of livelihood. What I have also tried to reveal in the article is that most of the Oromo men and women who have been imprisoned, tortured and raped flee from Ethiopia soon after they come out of prison.
This article is Part 3 in the same article series and will continue from where the previous article stopped. It will point out briefly what happens to tens of thousands of Oromos who flee from their homeland because of the persecutions described in that article and become refugees. Obviously, it is not only the Oromo who flee from Ethiopia today. What makes the Oromo case different is that they are persecuted not only in their homeland, but are also targeted, harassed and even killed by Ethiopian agents abroad in the Horn of Africa where tens of thousands of them live as refugees. In other words, the considerable lack of Oromo legal and physical protection is such that their survival—even as refugees—is becoming very difficult. It is not surprising that this, among others, has led to a widespread call, both at home and in the diaspora, for a leadership and organization that can lead our people out of the prevailing outrageous situation and ignoble status ascribed to them.
As we know, there are several political organizations which are competing to provide leadership to the Oromo struggle. By and large, these organizations have political programs that aim to achieve two different goals which they say will satisfy the Oromo pursuit for justice. These are (a) an independent Oromo republic and (b) a democratic Ethiopian state. An independent Oromo state is what the various liberation movements have been fighting for during the last forty years or more. As reflected in the political program of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) (revised in 1976), their strategies have been a combination of a political, diplomatic and armed struggle.
Since I have discussed the struggle for independence in previous articles, I will focus here on the politics of one of those Oromo organizations which believes that the formation of a democratic Ethiopian state will satisfy the Oromo claims for justice. That organization is the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). The ODF argues that the Oromo “question” can get a lasting solution within the framework of a “democratic” Ethiopian state, and that such a solution can be achieved through non-violent means.
I want to make clear to the reader the following: my aim in describing the Ethiopian regime’s persecution of the Oromo at home in the previous article, and the harassment of Oromo refugees by its agents abroad, is not to produce a narrative that presents the Oromo as victims but to highlight their grievances in order to contextualize their claim for justice. It is to answer the question “Oromo freedom from what and for what?” which is used as the main title of the series of articles of which this one is the third. In the same context, it is to assess critically the plausibility and compatibility of the politics of ODF with the claims and aspirations of the Oromo people at large. Before proceeding to my comments on ODF politics I will describe the lack of security and protection which affects immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia in general and Oromo refugees who flee because of political persecution in particular.
Flight from Oromia: Desperate Decisions, Hostile Destinations
As I have mentioned above, denied security and the right to life and liberty at home, a rapidly increasing number of Oromos are making the desperate decision of leaving everything behind and fleeing in every direction to save their lives. In fact, since the 1990s, the largest proportion of the refugees who have fled from Ethiopia have been Oromo. A recent report prepared for Regional Migration by a team of researchers headed by Dr. Rebecca Roberts of Coventry University, UK (see,Desperate Choices, 2012) states that there are about 230,000 immigrants from Ethiopia in Yemen. About 75,000 of them came to Yemen in 2011 and 56,000 arrived between January and August 2012. It states that the “Oromo account for the majority of all Ethiopian new arrivals, on average 50 per cent every month as seen from Nov 2011 – June 2012.” That means at least 115,000 Oromo refugees arrived in Yemen between January 2011 and the end of August 2012.
Questioning why the people are uprooting in such large numbers and fleeing from Ethiopia Dr. Roberts says that some of the refugees claim to have experienced imprisonment and torture, and that their flight from Ethiopia was caused by fear for their lives. According to Dr. Roberts, this involved those who were accused of being in “opposition parties and groups identified by the government as terrorist organizations, such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).”(Desperate Choices, 2012:21) She points out also that, despite the much acclaimed economic growth taking place in Ethiopia, poverty and lack of employment are the causes of migration in the majority of cases. She stated that “farmers are becoming indebted and losing their land through government policies” (emphasis mine, Desperate Choices, 2012: 52). In other words, the ongoing large scale land grab is, among other things, the cause of both poverty in, and flight from, Oromia and the other affected regions such as the Gambella Regional State.
“A journey through death”
Although the refugees flee to save their lives, many lose it before they get asylum. According to some of the respondents interviewed by Dr. Roberts and her research team, as many as 50 per cent of those who begin the journey die from either exposure to the elements in the arid terrains of the Horn of Africa or to suffocation while crossing the sea to the Arabian Peninsula. This may not be generalized for all the migrant or refugee cohorts who embark on the flight out of Ethiopia, but it seems that, in some of the groups, an alarmingly high percentage of those who begin the journey die in transit. Molla a 15 years old boy, interviewed in the Yemeni coast town of Haradh in February 2012, said that:
We started the perilous journey through Afar desert, where some looters attacked us, beat us badly and took the money we had. After around one week of walking in the desert, during which some people died of starvation, we reached Tajoor Mountain, where we stopped in order to have a rest. I was looking around me, I found some people dying, some were sleeping, and others were crying and asking for water or food. I was walking among people laying down, looking at them and talking they were staring at me, but no answer from their side, then, I realized that they were dead! There I realized that I was going through a journey of death, some people died during the desert crossing, some while climbing the mountain and some on the top of it (Desperate Choices, 2012: 23).
Giving an equally excruciating description of the situation, a third respondent said:
There were so many dead bodies and skeletons en route from my home in Wollo [Ethiopia] to the coast in Djibouti that if you had to make the journey on your own you would not get lost because you could follow the remains of all those people who had failed to complete their journey (Desperate Choices, 2012: 35).
Explaining the cause of death, another immigrant reported “During our trip through the desert we came across the body of a dead girl that was half buried in the sand, probably she died of starvation.” She could have died of thirst too. A similar situation was also reported by a source in Somaliland on 24 July 2011 citing the deputy district officer of Lowya’ade that
Eighteen Oromo immigrants from Ethiopia have died of thirst and starvation along the border between Djibouti and Somaliland in the past few days. The officer said all the dead bodies were Oromos from the neighbouring Ethiopia, saying that there were no Somalis among the dead immigrants (Somaliland police officer to Radio Bar-Kulan, 24 July 2011)
The enormity of the problem faced by Oromo and other refugees from Ethiopia becomes clearer if we put it in a comparative historical perspective. Writing about the trans-Saharan trade routes in hisIslam’s Black Slaves: The Other Diaspora (2001), the historian Ronald Segal stated that “routes favoured by slave traders could be easily identified by the skeletons that were visible at intervals alongside the track.” Ironically, and sadly, as the quotes indicate, the fate of those who flee from Ethiopia today has remarkable similarities with the fate of millions Africans who were stolen from their homelands in the interior and dragged across inhospitable terrains to the sea ports during the age of the slave trade.
The situation at sea is not better for those who flee from Ethiopia across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula today. For many years we have been hearing reports about overloaded rickety boats and thousands of refugees who had drowned in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and became food for the animals in the sea. Citing the UNHCR as his source Dr. Trevor Trueman (OSG, Report 48, 2012) wrote that “In 2007 and 2008, nearly 80,000 were said to have made the journey to Yemen from Djibouti or Somalia, with the loss of over 2000 lives” at sea. One can even see some parallels in the conditions aboard the overcrowded rickety boats used by the smugglers and the ships on which African captives were taken across the Atlantic to the Americas in the past. Stories about the boat owners’ inhuman treatment of the desperate passengers bear distressing similarities with the treatment of African captives on the slave ships. Dr. Roberts writes that many new arrivals have told the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) monitoring teams, that they were physically assaulted during the sea voyage. A migrant from Finfinnee (Addis Ababa) told the researchers that many people were thrown overboard by the owner of the boat when they neared the beach and that many drowned. He said the other migrants were not able to help those who drowned since it was dark.
An Oromo female refugee interviewed by Dr. Roberts and her team said “When I was in the boat the Somalia people they beat us Ethiopia people including me. Also the[y] shot their guns and threw bodies into the sea.” Regarding those who fled to Yemen, Dr. Roberts writes that “[f]emale new arrivals report of being sexually assaulted and raped on the boat by the smugglers” (Desperate Choices, 2012: 36). Thus, in December 2011, seventeen rapes and eight attempted rapes were reported by migrants landing on the Red Sea coast alone. In July 2012, twenty-one cases of sexual assault on board were reported by arriving migrants. Since the report did not cover all new arrivals in those months, the assault figures could be higher.
The problems faced by refugees and migrants from Ethiopia are not limited to flight across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden but also affect those who flee to the north African states of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. The situation of the refugees is such that many of them cross the Sahara Desert on foot to come to those countries. According to one source (Mardaasaa Addissu to Oromo Press, 19 June 2013) more than 150 Oromo refugees had died during the Arab uprising. Many become victims of the conflict between government forces and the opposition in Libya while the majority had drowned in the Mediterranean trying to escape to Malta and continental Europe from conflicts in Libya and Tunisia.
No free haven: kidnappers, traffickers and rapists are waiting
What confronts those who manage to reach the Yemeni shores is often worse than what had confronted the African captives who arrived on the coasts of the Americas aboard trans-Atlantic slave ships in the past. Dr. Roberts writes that they land in an abusive environment where kidnapping, torture and extortion are widespread. The kidnappers keep communication with boat owners and wait for the refugees on the coast. There they capture, torture and demand ransom from family and friends to release hostages.
The report indicates that women refugees are the most vulnerable group. Quoting the UNHCR, theMiddle East Online (March 13, 2012) reported that the “majority of approximately 3,000 women held by smugglers in Haradh over past year were raped, many of them repeatedly.” Because of the brutality of the criminal gangs many victims suffer significant physical and psychological trauma. A source within the Yemeni security forces told the Middle East Online that what is most alarming is the disappearance of women from groups of immigrants after encountering criminal gangs. The experience of an Oromo woman who was kidnapped and enslaved by a Yemeni family gives a vivid example of the exploitation and sexual violence to which female refugees are exposed and what happens to those who disappear. She told Dr. Roberts’ team:
They [kidnappers sold] gave me to a Yemeni family and I was forced to work without any pay. When the woman of the house was angry with me she sent her security guard to my room and he raped me. He was sent to do this again and again until after a few months my menstruation stopped [and she became pregnant]. When I told them they said I had not got it from them and then they let me go (.Desperate Choices, 2012: 45)
She was released from her enslavement when her abusers knew they had made her pregnant. The report indicates that pregnancies put the refugee women in danger. In Yemen, they have little or no access to medical help and, if the baby is born alive and healthy, it is difficult for them to work or travel while looking after a baby. Women with children are not “employable,” therefore those who are able to secure jobs hide their babies, leaving them unattended while they are at work.
In general, the situations which refugees from Ethiopia encounter en route and on their arrival in most of the asylum countries in Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula are horrific. Their legal and physical insecurity is often exacerbated by the asylum countries’ lack of compliance with the international refugee convention and human rights declarations.
In an article published in the Journal of Oromo Studies (Vol. 1&2, 2002) the Kenyan scholar Dido Kitole wrote that, “Once refugees leave their home countries, one would think they would be safe and free from further persecution by their government.” Normally, yes. But as Dido indicated in reference to Oromo refugees in Kenya, that is not the case in the Horn of Africa where the Ethiopian regime’s Oromo hunting fields stretch across borders. For example, between 1992 and 1999, Ethiopian security forces conducted over 60 raids into Kenya. Not only Oromo refugees but also Kenyan citizens were affected. Numerous cases of assassinations, abductions and rape committed by the security agents of the Ethiopian regime have been recorded by the OSG in Kenya and Somalia over the last 21 years.
In Kenya, the killing of Oromo refugees started with the assassination of a known Oromo figure Jaatani Ali in Nairobi in July 1992. In December General Waaqo Guutuu and his family were attacked in the Kenyan town Mandera where they had sought refuge following the withdrawal of his organization from the Representative Council of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. During the same year other incidents took place. Three people were injured and two Oromos working at the Moyale district hospital were abducted. In September 1994, the TPLF attacked a village in Dambala Fachana killing twelve and injuring twenty-one people. Agents of the Ethiopian regime continued attacking Oromo refugees and Oromo Kenyans suspected of supporting the OLF in 1995. A hut belonging to a refugee in the Kakuma refugee camp was burnt down and a young refugee girl was killed in the attacks. Many incidents of harassment, abduction and assassination continued in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
In 1999, it was reported that agents of the Ethiopian regime were linked to as many as seventeen incidents involving abduction, assassination and disappearance of Oromos. Both refugees and Kenyan citizens with Oromo ethnic background were affected. According to an OSG report the so-called Hager Fiqir groups were operating in several countries, including South Africa, were hired to harass, kill or kidnap Oromo refugees (OSG, 1999). In August 1999, a plot organized by the group to kill Oromo refugees in Kenya and abduct others was found by the Kenyan police in Nairobi. Since the group was operating from the Ethiopian Embassy in the Kenyan capital, the incident was hushed up by the Kenyan authorities.
As mentioned, Oromo refugees were not the only targets of the TPLF raids. It affected severely the indigenous Oromo communities of northern Kenya. Using local sources of information including the Kenyan Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and the Daily Nation newspaper, Dido Kotile (2002) wrote that the TPLF regime had killed 566, injured 177, and abducted 57 Kenyan citizens of Oromo origin between 1992 and 2001.
The victims of assassination include many prominent Kenyan Oromo community leaders, businessmen and religious leaders such as Taro Sooraa of Modo Adi in 1994, Hussein Sora of Nairobi in 1996, Bukke Liban of Golole and Galoo Walde of Moyale in 1998, Haj Hassen Ali of Moyale, Waaqo Bero of Marsabit in 1999 (OSG, Report 48, 1999). Among the kidnapped Kenyan Oromos was a 52-year-old retired Corporal Guracha Bisko. He was taken to a prison in Ethiopia, held for 17 months and tortured. He told the Kenya Human Rights Commission that he was treated with incredible cruelty. Because of their ethnic affinity with the Oromo inside Ethiopia, these and other Kenyans were suspected by the TPLF agents to be supporters of the OLF. Their own government in Nairobi does not protect them. The Horn of Africa is dominated by the Ethiopian regime, and Oromos cannot live in security even when their territory is not part of Ethiopia and they are not the subjects of the Ethiopian regime.
During the last ten years, Somalia has been another killing field of Oromo refugees by Ethiopian security agents. One of the largest known assaults on Oromo refugees alleged to agents of the Ethiopian regime was carried out on February 5 2008 in Bosasso in Somalia. On that occasion 65 men, women and children were killed and over 100 were wounded in an explosion caused by hand grenades thrown into a building where the refugees were gathered to watch an Oromo language video. The same night the houses of 250 Oromo refugees were set on fire in the same town (OSG,Press Release 44, July 2007-2008).
Djibouti is one of the destinations of the Oromo who have fled from persecution in Ethiopia during the last forty years. Back in 1983, Roberta Aitchison (“UN starts forcible deportation of Djibouti refugees,”New African, July 1983) noted that the impression one gets of the desperate poverty in the harsh, desert place is stark. But what is more distressing is the utter vulnerability of asylum seekers in the tiny republic. For most asylum seekers, life in Djibouti is a nightmare because of the frequent violent raids, detentions and exploitation by its security police. For female refugees, the ordeal often starts the moment they cross the border and are stopped by border guards who separate them from male asylum seekers. Aitchison reported that the guards not only detain the women for days or even weeks but also rape them. Aitchison gives Leensa, who was kept at the border post for two weeks and raped by the guards, as an example.
As mentioned above, because of its geographical location, Djibouti has been one of the destinations Oromo refugees for the last four decades. However, for many political refugees a flight to Djibouti is like running into the fishing nets of the agents of the Ethiopian regime. What makes Djibouti the most insecure destination for such refugees is the policy of forcible deportation of asylum seekers which its government has been following independence from France in 1977. Since then its authorities have been under the control of Addis Ababa making the security situation of refugees from Ethiopia precarious. Furthermore the behavior of the corrupt police of the small republic adds further misery to the life of most the asylum seekers. The OSG reported that
Djibouti police harass refugees. Groups of up to 30 were seen being chased “like dogs”, beaten, forced into lorries or marched to police stations. Money or sex is demanded if detainees are to avoid being handed over to TPLF forces on the Ethiopian border. Sometimes a letter of asylum seeker status from UNHCR is respected by the police. Sometimes the letters are torn up. Sometimes bribes of money or sex are demanded despite the letter (OSG Press Release No. 13, 1996).
The number refugees who were rounded up and handed over to the TPLF regime during last two decades runs into tens of thousands. Those who have been deported include those who have been registered by the UNHCR as asylum seekers. The most recent deportation of refugees was on 1 January 2013. According to the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA, Urgent Action, No. 2, 2013), 43 Oromo and Ogadeni refugees were arrested on December 31 2012 and kept in jail overnight and were hand over to Ethiopia by the Djibouti police on January 1,2013. According to reports compiled by human rights organizations, many refugees who are “repatriated” to Ethiopia end up in prisons or “disappear” after arrival.
Refugees are also abducted and taken to Ethiopia by security Ethiopian agents, often in collaboration with the police of the countries of asylum. For example, Riyah Abdurahman Yusuf was abducted from her refugee home in Hargiesa, Somaliland on the 23rd of November 2012 and taken to Ethiopia. She was engaged in teaching refugee children. Those children are deprived of their teacher by the Ethiopian regime even in a foreign country. Her whereabouts is unknown. It was reported for example that “[The] two Oromo Engineers, Mesfin Abebe Abdisa and Tasfahun Camadaa Gurmessaa …were both UNHCR recognized refugees in Kenya. They were abducted and handed over to the TPLF-led regime by the Kenyan security forces. After two years of torture, physical mutilation (including castration) and incommunicado detention.., the TPLF regime sentenced Abdisa to death and Gurmessaa to life imprisonment…” (ECADF, Ethiopian News & Opinions, 29 December 2010). In Kenya, Somaliland and Djibouti the police are bribed to cooperate with Ethiopian security agents in hunting and deporting refugees to Ethiopia.
The TPLF is even stretching its coercive hands after refugees who had fled across the Red Sea into Yemen. Oromo Muslims, living in Yemen since 1995 as recognized asylum seekers, told Dr. Roberts that some refugees “are returned back to Ethiopia by force” and that even those who are living with the protection of the UNHCR are not safe.
I have researched refugee problems during the last 30 years and have not come across any report which shows that a government in Africa or elsewhere had crossed international borders and harassed or killed refugees with such impunity as the TPLF-led regime has been doing during the last two decades. International law forbids such incursions and international conventions protect refugees. Since the September 11, 2001 al Qaida attack on the US, Ethiopian government security forces have taken advantage of the international war on terrorism and have systematically repressed the Oromo at home and across international borders.
To sum up, the situation I have described in this article (in this and the previous section) shows the enormity and multi-dimensionality of the crime perpetrated against the Oromo. Dispossessed, imprisoned, tortured, raped, and denied the right to live in dignity in their homeland, exile has been the only option of survival for tens thousands of Oromos. The most unlucky ones are stuck in the refugee camps or shanty towns of the Horn of Africa. Although they fled from Ethiopia to save their lives, for most of these refugees lack of security remains the major problem. Frequent cross-border attacks by the killing squads of the TPLF-led regime are making the life Oromo refugees insecure throughout the region. The lack of political and legal protection is making the Oromo increasing vulnerable to genocidal massacres reminiscent of the early days of the Abyssinian conquest. Then, one of the direct consequences of the Abyssinian violence was the capture and sale of Oromo children and women to merchants from inside and outside the Horn of Africa region who were buying and selling human beings. The involvement of the present regime in the fate of Oromos who have become victims of human traffickers, even though indirect, is real. It is the TPLF-led regime which is uprooting and forcing thousands of Oromos to flee across the hostile terrains of Northeast Africa where many meet death or run into the hands of human traffickers. According to different sources of information (HRLHA, Al Jazeera, OSG), tens of thousands of Oromo refugees in Yemen, and in the North African states of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt live in great misery and insecurity.
In general, what the Oromo people demand is not only an end to the violation of their human rights by the TPLF-led Ethiopian regime, but also a fundamental change that will address the root cause of their present predicament. The cause of the Oromo predicament is the lack of the protection of a sovereign legal body or a state. As mentioned above, there are two solutions that are suggested in this regard: an independent Oromo state and the democratization of the Ethiopian state. The OLF has opted for the first solution and is struggling for a change that can address the legitimate Oromo claims to territorial sovereignty. It makes claims to nationhood and statehood based on Oromo history, the fundamental human rights accorded by international conventions to all colonized and oppressed peoples, and above all the current aspiration of the Oromo people. The ODF holds an opposite view. It does not subscribe to the idea of an independent Oromo state: it will solve the Oromo problem in the framework of a democratic state of Ethiopia. However, as I will discuss below, the plausibility of the ODF political program and compatibly with Oromo aspirations is a different story.
Plausibility of the Reformist Politics of the ODF
I will start my discussion of the ODF politics with a cautionary note. The Oromo struggle concerns the rights and interests of over thirty million men, women and children. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to appraise critically the programs of political organizations that claim to be a relief for the predicament of Oromo nation. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the discussion which follows is a critical assessment of the politics of the ODF; it is not directed against any of its leaders or members as individuals. In other words, the intention is to initiate a constructive debate that can benefit the Oromo struggle for freedom and justice.
The substance of the ODF politics
The essence of the ODF argument against the struggle for an independent Oromo state can be summarized as follows. The leaders of the ODF posit that, given the present situation in the world and the Horn of Africa, the idea of building an independent Oromo state is not only unachievable but is also “outdated” in this age of globalization. Therefore, they are inviting others, including the Abyssinian elites both in power and in opposition, to join them in a project which aims to reform and democratize the Ethiopian state. In other words, the ODF is changing the Oromo struggle for decolonization (independence) to a struggle for the democratization of the Ethiopian state. Its politics will satisfy the Oromo quest for justice with the acquisition of “democratic” citizenship in Ethiopia. This is more palatable to external forces than to most Oromos. The “democratic” ODF model aims to align and reconcile the antagonistic nationalisms of conquerors and the conquered under the umbrella of the Ethiopian state. The ODF will assure the Oromo people that the goal it has set out in its political program is not only achievable through peaceful means but will also satisfy the Oromo quest for freedom. I will explain my doubts below.
Democracy versus decolonization
The ODF leaders and members believe that Ethiopia is a colonial empire and the Oromo are a colonized people. They even say that the ODF is engaged in an anti-colonial struggle. However, they give priority to political reform of the empire over its de-colonization, rejecting full sovereignty, the objective of the anti-colonial struggle which the Oromo people have been waging particularly during the last 40 years (Radio Bilisummaa Oromo (ODF), 15 May 2013).
In addition, talking about the objective of the Oromo struggle, the ODF President has remarked “kan lolluuf bilisummaa lafaa otoo hinta’in bilisummaa sabaa-tiif”—we are not struggling for a territory but a people (Radio Marii, 31 March 2013). However, the struggle of a colonized people has always been a struggle for control over a territory or homeland. A struggle against colonial rule is not about a political reform of an imperial colonial polity per se, but about de-colonization and freedom from foreign domination. That was why political reform or democracy has not been a question for the anti-colonial movements in Africa or Asia. A struggle against colonialism strives, in the first place, to restore freedom to the colonized people. As far as I know, there has been no demand from the colonized peoples anywhere in the world for amalgamation with the colonizing country under one state umbrella. None of the peoples in the British, French, Belgian and Portuguese colonial empires came with demands for the democratization of those empires and equality of citizenship with the British, the French, the Belgians or the Portuguese.
Thus, every nation which could get rid of colonial rule and become independent during the last one hundred years started its struggle with demands for sovereignty. That means freedom from foreign rule and regaining full control over its own territory. After independence, some of those countries became democracies through internal postcolonial struggles; others are not democratic states yet or are in the process of becoming democratic. However, all of them are sovereign states today. That is what the Oromo are striving to be: a sovereign, and a democratic state. What is wrong with that?
The loss of democracy is not the root cause of the Oromo conflict with the Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian regimes. The loss of sovereignty is, and has been, the source of the Oromo predicament. The deprivations which our people have suffered under Abyssinian rulers during the last 130 years started with, and are rooted in, their loss of national sovereignty. The suppression of the democraticgadaa tradition was one of the consequences of Oromo loss of sovereignty. The revival of Oromo democracy is a corollary to the restoration of Oromo sovereignty. Hence, for the revival of the former, the reinstitution of the latter is a pre-requisite. Not vice-versa.
Sovereignty is a right to which a people are entitled by birth. As I have stated in another article (Gadaa.com, 23 March 2012), it is a condition in which a free people live under laws they give to themselves. Hence, decolonization is the restoration of sovereignty wrongly taken from a people by a colonizing power. The Irish people who were the oldest British colony did not ask for the democratization of the United Kingdom (UK). Had their concern been democracy and citizenship, the Irish wouldn’t have struggled for separation from UK after centuries of existence as part of it. They participated in building the British Empire.
The economic advantage they had as citizens of the UK or the stake they had in the British Empire, which was at its peak in 1922 when Ireland got its independence, was not prioritized over their national aspiration. Ireland was poorer than England but sovereignty, which was at the core of Irish aspirations, weighed over economic benefits gained as part of the union. They wanted independence because they did not become part of the UK willingly. England invaded their country and stripped them of freedom. That was how their relations started. The same can be said about the large and small soviet republics from Ukraine to Moldavia which seceded from Russian in the 1990s. They chose sovereignty over the economic advantages which staying in a federal arrangement with Russia could accord them. Even the population of the tiny desert republic of Djibouti (23,300 sq. km) chose independence in 1977 over French citizenship. The ODF and the other pro-Ethiopia Oromo organizations have a lot to learn from the history of these peoples.
Partners in democratic citizenship
As I have discussed in a previous article, the pro-Ethiopia Oromo organizations including the ODF have a misleading view of democracy. Democracy, as one political philosopher has stated, rests on consent and active participation. Consent and participation suggest concession based on give and take. In other words, democratization is a collective project. That means, to carry out such a project in a multinational polity, the ODF needs partners among both the larger and smaller nationalities in Ethiopia. However, I do not see candidates among these nationalities, or their political organizations and leaders that are interested genuinely and are ready to engage the Oromo in the type of a democratic dialogue which the leaders of the ODF have in mind. Their political program states that their politics is different from that of the Abyssinian ruling elites both in power and in opposition. The question is, with whom will the ODF build a democratic Ethiopian state that will “solve” its political problems if what they say is the case?
The same can be said about individuals in the Ethiopianist camp whether they are scholars, journalists or politicians. To understand the problem of creating and promoting democratic partnership with the Abyssinian elites, it suffices to observe the reactions which the proclamation of the ODF “vision” produced as reflected in debates conducted by Amhara mass media such as ESAT TV (7 April 2013) and comments made on an interview which the vice president of ODF had made with Ethio-Civility.com (accessed on 12 July 2013). In those commentaries and debates the grievances of the Oromo people were not give any importance, if mentioned at all.
To plead to those who occupy your home and possess your property that you will build an “inclusive” or “common” home with them is tantamount to forfeiting your rights voluntarily. Instead of reclaiming what legitimately belongs to you, you are pleading for a piece of it. It is to be Ethiopians first and Oromos second. To my mind, this is what the ODF politics offers us, because since it is not backed by force, the propositions of the ODF about a democratic Ethiopian state are seen as a toothless rhetoric by Abyssinian elites who are in power and in the opposition. As long as the ODF Oromo leaders do not pose any threat to it, the TPLF-led regime has no reason to contemplate the idea of sharing political power and material resources with them. The ODF politics is also repugnant to those who are in the opposition and are dreaming to rebuild Ethiopia as it was before 1991. They do not accept the simple fact the organization is called Oromo and not Ethiopian Democratic Front.
Thus, as political scientists, sociologists and social psychologists remind us that, no matter how fundamental a change a people may experience, old methods and mind-sets do not easily wither away. Indeed, past experience shows that no amount of talks about democracy can make Abyssinian elites democrats or genuine political allies of the Oromo. Every Oromo knows about the most recent experience or the failure of Oromo-Tigrayan alliance of 1991-1992 in this regard. In my view, given the denial of the injustices suffered by the Oromo in current mass media debates, no fundamentalchange can be expected in the attitude of the Abyssinian elites, at least in the near future.
I assume, what is said above is clear also to the leaders of the ODF. By that I do not mean one should not talk to Abyssinian politicians or political organizations. I see no problem in dialoguing with them. The problem is making them accept and respect Oromo views about Oromo rights. The late Siegfried Pausewang (see Journal of Oromo Studies, vol. 14(1), 2007) criticized the formation of the now defunct Alliance for Peace and Freedom (APF) between an OLF faction and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) as an odd alliance, because it was between a liberation front and an undemocratic anti-Oromo party. He meant an ideological space where the two groups can meet for a democratic dialogue is lacking.
Democracy rests on participatory consent. Participatory consent suggests concession based on give and take which is not part of the political culture of the elites in question. They seldom make democratic participation easy. Here participation pertains to the involvement of different views in a dialogue through which consent is achieved and out of which concession emerges. In the past, the Abyssinian rulers have conceded to demands only under pressure. However, whenever they conceded, it did not take them long to go back on their words. Such actions have been a disaster for the Oromo at every turn.
In short the Oromo have travelled a long distance on the path of bilisummaa (independence). It is unlikely that the Oromo majority will abandon that path and settle for Ethiopian citizenship. There no doubt that the ODF politics will attract Oromos whose dream is to be accepted as equals by Amhara elites. However, these are a minority and belong to the old generation. Contrary to what the ODF politics prescribes, today, most Oromos find it odd and demeaning to bargain about Oromo national affairs with the Abyssinian elites. They do not believe, for example, that the use of the Oromo language, the alphabet for its transcription, the development of Oromia’s economy, etc. are negotiable or are the business of the Abyssinian elites. What is acceptable to the ODF is not for the Oromo majority.
Oromo concern and level of consciousness disregarded
Judged by the comments which it has generated among the Oromo so far, the ODF idea of quitting the independence struggle for Ethiopian citizenship is seen as a betrayal by the majority of the Oromo people. One need not carry out an opinion poll to determine Oromo feelings on the subject. It is enough to pay attention to the outbursts of opinion in Oromo mass media and the question which had confronted the ODF leaders at public meetings during the last three months to understand the way its “vision” is being understood among the people at large. The views expressed by other Oromo organizations and veterans of the Oromo liberation movement, the questions raised by the audience at the meeting organized by the ODF, and the numerous comments made in Oromo media reflect that its politics are in conflict with the aspirations of the Oromo people at large. In particular, it is in conflict with the feelings of the “Qubee generation” that was born long after the cross-road, whereEthiopiyawinet and Oromumma went in different directions, was passed. Its members see no reason for abandoning the path which has been built with the great sacrifices made by their fathers and mothers. The cost paid in human lives and suffering is enormous. In addition, this same generation is already paying its own sacrifice; the price paid during the regime crackdowns on Oromo students during the last ten years is glaring evidence.
In general, the writing on the “Oromo wall” reflects the opposite of what the ODF politics suggests. For, example, as I have pointed out in a previous article (Gadaa.com, 10 November 2012), the art and music composed by Oromos during the last two decades reveal the direction in which the Oromo struggle is moving, which, certainly, is not toward Ethiopiyawinet. However, preoccupied with what they love to call the “changing and globalizing” world, the ODF leaders seem to be less alert to the dynamics in the Oromo society: by and large, their politics contradict the beliefs and aspirations of the Oromo people, including that of the post-Dergue generation.
The brutalities and disrespect they have experienced in the Ethiopian prisons and concentration camps have taught tens of thousands of Oromos that lost freedom should be restored at any cost. Those who have been in the struggle and have seen their comrades die in combat do not have any doubt about the legitimacy of the cause for which they fought and their obligation to continue fighting to achieve the goal of freedom. Those Oromos who were in prison and have heard the cries of prison mates, who were tortured or raped, are concerned about the denial of human dignity which their compatriots are exposed to in filthy Ethiopian jails and prison camps. They want to use all necessary means to end that. Their main concern is not the international community’s opinion about armed struggle but the fate of their compatriots who are being denied the right to life in the many killing fields. The international community has failed to stop the atrocities. Therefore, they believe that the struggle for an independent Oromo state is a legitimate option to end the atrocities and get rid of their colonial roots. As most of us remember, it was this Oromo determination which Dr. Berhanu Nega had witnessed among Oromo political prisoners in an Ethiopian jail, and was motivated to build a political party with the objective of “saving Ethiopia” from, as he put it, an impending danger being posed by Oromo politics.
The veterans of the Oromo struggle who have seen the Ethiopian regimes’ prisons from inside do not talk about changing times, or about the opinion of the international community concerning armed struggle. Since their struggle has nothing to do with terrorism, they do not see any reason for surrendering to the politics of “war on international terrorism.” They are not terrorists; they are fighting against a terrorist regime and its agents who massacre their children, rape their women, loot their resources and chase them out of their homeland. In general, the majority of Oromo people do not take the ODF politics as a “vision” which can guide them out of their present predicament or will lead them to a life in peace and prosperity.
In general, the Oromo see salvation in the struggle for an independent Oromo state. This is clearly reflected in the rapidly growing Oromo arts, literature and music. As I have discussed in another article, the developing Oromo societal culture is embedding and nourishing the national aspiration for independence. Thus, while talking about changes in the world, the ODF seems to disregard the fundamental changes that have occurred within the Oromo struggle itself.
The ODF leaders often emphasize being the founding fathers of the OLF. No one denies that they were among the founding fathers. But, as the ODF leaders admit, their idea of struggling for Ethiopian democracy was not an option that was shared by the majority of the OLF founders; an independent state was the option supported by the majority. What is more, the idea of a social movement gets life when it reflects popular aspirations. That is indeed the case with the claim for an independent Oromo state for which most of the founding members of the OLF struggled and died for since the 1970s, is now a popular belief and a collective goal of the Oromo people. It is embraced by the Qubee generation who will brave the path to bilisummaa paying the ultimate sacrifices and carry the kaayyoo(or independence banner) to its destination. The ODF is swimming against this stream, disregarding the popular claim for independence.
What the ODF leaders and members seem to have also disregarded, when they declared their political program, is the strength of Oromo opposition which met the pro-Ethiopia Oromo politics, particularly during the last two decades. There was opposition because experience has taught the Oromo not to trust the Abyssinian political elites or Oromo elites who ally themselves with them. Incidents from 1974 and 1991 proved that alliance with Abyssinian ruling elites is disastrous for the Oromo. Consequently, whether they are working with the present regime or are opposed to it, pro-Ethiopia Oromo political organizations are lacking the support of the Oromo people. Notwithstanding its rhetoric, the ODF has no concrete strategy to prove that the alliance it will forge with Abyssinian elites will be different from the alliance forged by Jijjirama with Ginbot-7 or the alliance made by the Oromo National Congress (ONC) and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) with Medrek. Given that the political culture and attitude of the Abyssinian (Tigrayan and Amhara) elites is not different from that of the Abyssinian elites of the 1970s or 1990s, it is difficult to say the outcome of an alliance the ODF may forge with the Abyssinian elites will be different from the disastrous results of Meison’s alliance with the Dergue in 1974, and the coalition which the OLF and other Oromo organizations had forged with the TPLF in 1991 to build the abortive Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE).
International conventions versus Oromo claim to statehood
The ODF view that an independent Oromo state is an outdated project is contradicted by international conventions as well as by political theory and philosophy which acknowledge the right of oppressed and colonized peoples to independence. As mentioned above both the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1987 and the UN convention on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1960 declare that colonized or oppressed peoples shall have the right to free themselves from the bonds of domination by resorting to any means recognized by the international community. Globalization has not made the articles of those international conventions irrelevant. They remain potent and have been applied as recent as 2011 with the declaration of independence by South Sudan.
The scholarly discourse is also consistent on the question of independence. The widely acknowledged principle is that secession from an existing state is legitimate: (a) if the group in question suffers serious injustices because of forceful annexation of their territory, (b) if their fundamental human rights are violated by a state, and (c) if the group which claims independence is a territorially concentrated group of individuals. I haven’t come across a convincing argument that contradicts this principle. The Oromo situation fulfills all three of the conditions. I do not think that anybody who knows the history of Ethiopia and the geography of Oromia can deny the fact that the Oromo were conquered and colonized. That the Oromo are a territorially concentrated people is a geo-demographical reality. Confirming this fact, a census conducted by the present regime says 85 percent of the population of the Regional State of Oromia is Oromo. The gross violation of human rights which has been perpetrated against them by the past and present Ethiopian regimes is also widely documented. This and the previous article (Part 2) which I have published on this website are summaries of the violation of Oromo human rights by the present regime.
The ODF could have used what is said above to argue for the legitimate Oromo right to build own independent state. Ironically, its politics do the opposite. It denies the Oromo the right to territorial sovereignty and supports the territorial “integrity” of the Ethiopian state. Consequently, and I believe unwittingly, they support the position of those who oppose the Oromo struggle for total freedom from the “the prison house of nations” into which they were brought during the Abyssinian conquest of late nineteenth century and have been shackled by the subsequent colonial occupation of the last 130 years.
Accommodating irreconcilable interests & antagonistic nationalisms under one roof
The ODF will reconcile the interests of the Abyssinian ruling elites with that of the Oromo people to construct its project of the democratic state of Ethiopia. I have discussed elsewhere at length the fundamental problems of democratizing Ethiopia (see Bulcha, “History and Political Culture Versus Ethiopia’s Territorial Integrity”, Oromo Commentary, vol. II, No. 2, 1992). Many of the problems I raised in that article twenty years ago remain unsolved even today. The attitudes I described then remain unchanged. Whereas the Oromo, including the leaders and members of the ODF, will change the unjust system on which the Ethiopian regimes have thrived, the Abyssinian elites’ aim is to change regimes while keeping and re-strengthening the old system. As mentioned above, the Oromo have made tangible progress in their struggle toward freedom during the last forty years (revival of Oromo language, demarcation of Oromo territory, etc.) and want to expand their victory in every dimension, but the Amhara elites will repair the damages done to their motherland by “ethnic politics” of the TPLF regime: what the Amhara elites see as “damage” to their motherland pertains to the concrete gains which have been made by the Oromo and the other conquered peoples in terms of culture and language; it is opposed to the constitutional recognition (Article 39) of the cultural, linguistic and territorial identities of the oppressed nations and nationalities. In other words, the two groups hold contradictory positions.
In the view of one Amhara scholar, “Article 39 of the present Ethiopian Constitution is a recipe for disaster. It undermines Ethiopian unity and resonates artificial quarrels among different ethnic groups who otherwise wanted to live in harmony” (see Ghaladewos Araia, “Gratitude to Interview Respondents and the Oromo Question”, (Ethiopian Review, 12 November 2003). What is “Ethiopian unity”? If Ethiopia were a united country why do we see a never-ending conflict between the Ethiopian regimes and the conquered peoples? Although the Abyssinian elites, particularly those from the Amhara ethnic background, do not respond to such questions, the answers are obvious. Ethiopia has never been a united country. The Oromo are not engaged in quarrels, real or “artificial”, with the Amhara or the Tigrayan peoples. They are in conflict only with the Abyssinian ruling elites who have conquered Oromia and are oppressing them.
Thus, the problem of the Amhara elites is that Abyssinian culture and the Amharic language are no more the dominating culture and language in Ethiopia. They argue that there are no nations in Ethiopia. Their contention is that the “national” question is an “invention” and its constitutional recognition by the present Ethiopian regime is illegal and anti-Ethiopia. In short, as the American political sociologist Robinson (Journal of Oromo Studies (9) 1997) has pointed out, the sense of reciprocal recognition among equals on which the basis for fraternal solidarity among citizens is laid has been difficult to establish between the Abyssinian and Oromo political elites.
The conflict which has its roots in the Abyssinian conquest and schisms which were created by Abyssinian colonialism in the past are not only persisting, but have even become deeper since the beginning of the 1990s. They are not exacerbated directly by what many people call a divisive TPLF “ethnic politics” but because of the Amhara elites’ hostility to the expression of Oromo culture and identity. The uproar among the Amhara which was caused by the simple statement “I am Oromo first” which Jawar Mohammed made, when an Al Jazeera journalist asked him “Are you Oromo or Ethiopian first?”, reflects such a blatant hostility to the expression Oromo identity (see for example ECADF Tube, 27 June 2013). The majority of the Oromo as we know would have said “We are Oromo not Ethiopians” if asked the same question. In fact that is what the Oromo have been saying for many years. Recent examples of such unequivocal Oromo self-expression were made in a cultural exhibition prepared by the Oromo community in Ireland in May 2012 and in demonstrations staged by Oromo refugees in Cairo, Egypt in June 2013 (Al Jazeera, June 2013). Jawar is demonized because he will simply assert his Oromo identity and demand a fair share for the Oromo people in Ethiopia. He did not say I am not an Ethiopian. Nevertheless, with the Amhara elites the simple assertion of his personal identity has made him a perverted ethno-nationalist.
The attack on Jawar Mohammed is not the first attack on an Oromo scholar. In character, it is similar to what some of us who write and talk about the Oromo have been experiencing at international conferences during the last three or four decades. From my own experience, the followers of the “mother of all lies”, which is the so-called Ethiopian historiography, have the audacity to tell audiences that whatever an Oromo, or even an expatriate scholar, says about Oromo history, culture or politics is a lie. Often, they do not even make an effort to provide evidence to support their statements. The difference with the Al Jazeera incident is that those attacks were limited to small audiences in conference halls and were not within the range of the ears of the general public. The messengers of falsehood could often go from the conference halls unchallenged because the Oromo scholar they attack is “alone” in the hall. Not this time. As we have seen, the Oromo response from around the world is damning. To put it figuratively, while attacking Jawar, the anti-Oromo elements have poked their fingers into a fire. Consequently, they have incurred “burns” that can be paralyzing. What is more, their vilification of Jawar has also exposed their anti-Oromo attitude to the world. A South African colleague who follows the Oromo situation with interest sent me a note saying, “the viciousness of many of the responses to the recent Al Jazeera Oromo interview shocked many here. Shocking that such interviews and documentaries are so scarce, and that when they do happen, engender such vilification – Astonishing and profoundly disturbing.”
To come back to the main point, what I have described above shows that reconciling the Oromo and Abyssinian nationalisms under one roof is a very difficult task to accomplish. Although pro-EthiopiaOromo politicians, including those in the ODF, will convince us that it is possible to accommodate the Oromo under the umbrella of a democratic Ethiopian state, I do not see the possibility of its implementation in the near future. As I have described in this and the previous article, a Tigrayan version of Abyssinian nationalism is currently at loggerheads with Oromo nationalism. The Amhara elites may not attain the position of former Amhara rulers to suppress Oromo nationalism, but that does not mean they will give up their opposition to the expression of Oromo identity. In short, theODF has to tell the Oromo how it will make the Amhara elites accept Oromo rights. As it is, the alliance which is reflected in its political program is one that cannot bring about peace and prosperity, but sustain conflict, waste time and resources, and hinder the Oromo from social, cultural and economic development.
The ODF idea about a democratic Ethiopia sounds good to uncritical ears. The problem is, while the Amhara elites will recognize only the existence of Ethiopian nationalism, which is Abyssinian nationalism in an Ethiopian garb, the ODF will promote the idea of an “Ethiopian home” where all national identities or nationalisms can thrive. The ODF knows that the political programs of all Ethiopianist political organizations are opposed to the token autonomy which the Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution gives the Oromo and other peoples in Ethiopia. I do not say it is impossible to form a common front with these organizations to bring down the TPLF regime. But, as I have argued in another article (Gadaa.com, 2 February 2012), it is naïve to think about building a post-TPLFdemocratic state of Ethiopia with political elites who are openly averse to Oromo identity in general and Oromo national identity in particular. It is enough to look at the political programs of organizations dominated by the Amhara elites: they do not have even a space for Oromia as a geographical entity on their map of the future state of Ethiopia. According to them, the map they will (re)draw will be more or less a replica of imperial Ethiopia.
The leaders of the ODF are aware of the fact that the Oromo and Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian nationalisms are embedded in different political cultures. One is democratic, the other autocratic. Ethiopian nationalism is violent as a political culture and predatory in character. It cannot exist in the same state and government together with Oromo or other nationalisms which will protect their peoples and resources. However, it seems that its leaders are expecting a quick transformation of the values which underpin Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian nationalism once the Oromo and Abyssinian political elites coalesce to form a democratic state of Ethiopia. The question which the ODF has to answer is, how are they going to do that? It suffices to point out here that previous attempts to bring about such a transformation have been abortive and that the schism between the Oromo and Ethiopian nationalisms is deeper today than ever before.
In short, had the purpose of the cooperation which the ODF has in mind been with organizations that are struggling for an independent Amhara, Sidama, Ogaden etc. states, the political differences of those with whom it will cooperate could not pose much problem: when the TPLF-regime is defeated the Oromo and the other people will build their own independent states in their respective sovereign territories. Once that is done, common issues can be raised and treated on different levels and forums that can be co-organized by peoples that are free and states that are independent. Later on, that may even lead to the realization of the ODF dream of seeing the Oromo and all the other neighboring peoples living together peacefully in a federal political arrangement.
Wrong messages about the Oromo struggle
One of the many problems I see with the politics of the ODF is the wrong messages it conveys about the Oromo national struggle in general and the objectives of the OLF in particular. To those who are opposed to Oromo independence, the politics or “new vision” of the ODF has given the impression that Oromo nationalism is dead. Taking the ODF declaration of its “new vision”, which had dropped the issue of an independent Oromo state as the choice of the entire Oromo liberation movement, an observer commented, “gossanyinet wedqoo naw injii yetemellesut wedew aydellem” which means, freely translated, “they are forced to come back (to Ethiopianism) because tribalism is bankrupt” (ESAT, 7 April 2013). In general, the fact that those who are, as one of the commentators put it, the “waanna qenyazmach” or “chief commanders” of the OLF are now quitting it to democratize Ethiopia is taken to indicate the bankruptcy of Oromo nationalism or the ideology on which the OLF is based. In fact, the following answer given by the ODF Vice President, when he was asked why his group left the OLF to form a new front, supports that wrong conclusion. He said “ginbaarun …yasfelgebet mikniyaat ye-Oromoo hizb tigil baallefut 20 ametaat kedersebet darajaa iyaazeqezeqe, tagayuum iyetebetaattene silemexxaa” (SBS Radio, 13 April 2013). Freely translated this means “we formed the new front because during the last 20 years the Oromo struggle (led by the OLF) has been deteriorating, its members [have] been dispersing and it has not been possible to re-organize it.”
In general, the politics of the ODF has given the impression that Oromo nationalism is not, and has never been, a mass-based liberation ideology, but a long and irresponsible adventure undertaken by the Oromo elites. Citing statements made by the leaders of the ODF in the past, among others, theESAT journalists mentioned above have argued that the OLF was created by its leaders to bargain for political power with the Abyssinian ruling elites and not to struggle for an Oromo independent state. I need not stress that this is a blatant distortion of the political objective of the struggle led by OLF. The reader can see the content of the statements made, and the literature produced by the OLF and the activities of its members over the last four decades to make his or her own judgment.
The aspiration of those forces advocating the revival of the policy of upward homogenization through coercive assimilation of the diverse has failed in the past and cannot be achieved in the future. Similarly the obverse policy of aspiring to achieve downward homogenization through the creation of smaller culturally and linguistically homogeneous independent entities [such as Oromia] may not necessarily bring freedom, prosperity and stability, because this alone does not suffice as a cementing factor as the experience of neighboring Somalia, among others, tragically demonstrates”(ODF 29 March 2013)
The parallels which the ODF draws between the Abyssinian ruling elites’ policy of control of assimilation and the OLF politics of national liberation in the lines I have quoted above is distortive. The implication is that the Oromo struggle for an independent state will fail as the assimilation policy of the Abyssinian ruling elites did. The suggestion is mistaken for the following reasons.
First, the Oromo struggle is not about “downward homogenization,” whatever the ODF means by that phrase. Its objective is not to build a state of which the inhabitants are only Oromo. As reflected in the OLF political program, the Oromo aspiration is not about the creation of culturally and linguistically homogenous state, but about liberating the Oromo people from colonial occupation and cultural domination. It is to build an independent Oromo state where the Oromo can live in security, and which will be a safe haven for others who are in need of protection from persecution, a safe haven which, as I have described above, thousands of Oromo refugees are denied in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East today. In other words it is about realizing their claims to territorial sovereignty to guarantee their survival as a people. Normally, this was what many colonized peoples strove for and achieved in Africa and elsewhere in the past. The goal of the ongoing Oromo struggle for nation liberation should be seen in a similar light.
Secondly, the ODF will argue that staying within the framework of the Ethiopian state will assure Oromo prosperity. It uses size to invoke an argument about the economic viability of an independent Oromo state. To suggest the Oromo will have better economic conditions within the framework of the Ethiopian state is far from the truth. To begin with, it is common knowledge that being the subjects of the Ethiopian state during the last 130 years has impoverished the Oromo people. The Ethiopian rulers have been denying the Oromo the right to life not only by inflicting physical harms on them directly, but also by confiscating their property, both as individuals and a community. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the Abyssinian rulers have been predators in the “Garden of Eden.” Predators are destroyers. They kill and destroy not only for consumption but also out of habit. It suffices to refer the readers to see descriptions of Oromo prosperity in agricultural and livestock wealth and the natural bounty of their country in the writings of European travelers such as the French scholars Antoine and Arnauld D’Abbadie, the British envoy Major W. Harris and the Dutch traveler Juan Schuver who visited different districts of Oromoland on the eve of the Abyssinia conquest. The subsequent confiscation of Oromo land and reckless destruction of the environment have exposed the Oromo masses to poverty and famines over the years and continue to blight their lives as the present regime sells or leases large tracts of the Oromo country to foreign investors.
The Oromo need an independent state to rehabilitate what has been destroyed for decades under consecutive Ethiopian regimes and develop their economy unhindered. The “democratic” Ethiopian state suggested by the ODF will not necessarily allow them to have complete control over their natural resources or carry out socio-economic development. I do not see the need for bargaining with Abyssinian elites as to how we should develop our country.
Seen from another angle, the ODF reference to size in order to say the Oromo need a larger state for economic development is also misinformation. The Regional State of Oromia, which, according to official statistics has a population of more than 30 million and is 363,136 sq. km in area at the present, is larger than the majority of the UN member states both in population and land area. Thus size cannot be used as an argument against the economic viability of an independent Oromo state. It was not used against the three Baltic States which together 174,016 sq.km and are less than half the size of Oromia in area and have together 6.5 million inhabitants. East Timor got independence in irrespective of its diminutive size of 15,410 sq. km. and lack of human and natural resources became independent in 2002. In the first place, small does not necessarily mean economically weak or politically unstable. One can give as examples the small but very prosperous and stable states of Singapore and Luxembourg. Oromia has both human and natural resources but lacks freedom to develop its economy.
Thirdly, the ODF reference to the Somali situation is another indirect opposition to the Oromo claim to statehood. The fact that the Somali state has collapsed does not mean the Oromo will follow the Somali example. There is no reason why an independent Oromo state cannot follow the examples of other peoples who had defeated colonialism and built stable states. To use the Somali case as a scarecrow against the Oromo struggle for statehood is a sign of lack of faith in the capacity of the Oromo to a stable state and live in harmony among themselves and with others.
This stand of our movement contrasts with the policies of the ruling party as well as those yearning for a return to the previous political order. It also contrasts with the stand of those seeking to implement self-determination in an exclusivist and statist sense (ODF, 29 March 2013, emphasis mine)
The key word in the statement above is “exclusivist.” It refers to the OLF, albeit implicitly. Notwithstanding what the ODF wanted to say, whichever way one interprets it, the connotation of the term as used in the statements gives a negative picture of the OLF. In general, as used here, the implication of the term is problematic in the context of the Oromo national struggle. It is problematic, because in relation to ethnicity or nationalism, the term often connotes “racism” or “tribalism.” Let us not forget that is also how those who are against the Oromo struggle will represent the Oromo assertion of their identity or claim to independence. One can also interpret the word in terms of “ethnic cleansing,” a crime which the Abyssinian elites, both in power and opposition, have been trying hard to associate with the OLF since the 1990s.
Seen from another angle, the use of the term plays down the gravity of Oromo grievances against the Ethiopian rulers past and present. It “submerges” Oromo grievances in the grievances and complaints of the other peoples in Ethiopia, including the political problems of the Abyssinians. It conceals the enormity of the physical, cultural and psychological atrocities which were perpetrated against the Oromo in the past and the attacks that are, being carried out against them, both at home and abroad at the present, as the enemies of the Ethiopian state. Thus, in their zeal to be “inclusive” and fair, the ODF leaders are inadvertently minimizing the gravity of Oromo predicament. The parallels between the “class” politics of the so-called “Red Gobanaas” (to borrow a term used by Merera Gudina) of the 1970s and the present “democratization” politics of the ODF are striking. The difference is in the character of the social democratic content emphasized: the former prioritized collective rights as producers while the emphasis of the latter is on individual citizenship rights. In both cases there is nothing that makes the problems of the Oromo different from those of the other “Ethiopians.”
In short, the implicit proposition that Oromo struggle for independence is “exclusivist” and selfish, denies the specificity of the Oromo claim—their goal of building an independent Oromo state. Indeed, in many areas, the Oromo grievance overlaps with the grievances of the other conquered and colonized peoples in Ethiopia. But the solutions they seek are not the same: with the exception of the inhabitants of the Somali Regional State, the other peoples are not struggling to build their own states. In addition, no one characterized the Eritreans or the South Sudanese as “exclusivist” or “selfish” because of their choice of independent state- and nationhood instead of remaining within Ethiopia and Sudan respectively. Why the Oromo? The politics of the ODF would make the Oromo feel guilty of a problem of which they are not makers but victims. It puts the responsibility of solving the problems of all peoples in Ethiopia on the Oromo because of the location of the Oromo territory and their demography. It wants to meet the need for neighborly interdependence with the suppression of Oromo rights to independence.
Changes nearer to home may matter but are not decisive
The ODF leaders have been talking about changes that have occurred in the world since the 1970s, the decade during which the OLF laid down its political program. Some of the leaders of the ODF will remind us also that the Horn of Africa is not what it was forty years ago when the OLF was formed. The collapse of the Somali state, the birth of Eritrea, population growth and environmental destruction were mentioned by the President of the ODF to stress the change the region has undergone. According to him the Oromo people need to adjust to these changes. Even though not clearly stated, that means they have to abandon their claim to independence and seek political accommodation within the framework of the Ethiopian state. Indeed, Eritrean independence has changed the borders of the Ethiopian state. But there is no reason why it should change the goal of the Oromo struggle from national independence to Ethiopian citizenship. I am sure there is a lot which one can learn lessons from the experiences of the two countries mentioned here. For example, the Oromo see the value of organizational persistence and resilience in purpose in the Eritrean struggle. That regional and clan conflicts are disastrous and should be avoided can also be a message from the Somali experience.
Again, the ODF President did not tell how population growth and environmental destruction are related to the Oromo struggle for independence. The problem should have been clearly stated. Does he mean the Oromo are increasing at a faster rate and need more space and resources than those they find in their territory for survival? When it comes to environmental issues, Oromo independence is only positive. The revival of Oromo culture and its views about the natural world will help not only the rehabilitation of the environment in Oromia, but will also benefit the whole region. It is common knowledge that the Oromo value the environment and show respect for nature more than most of the others peoples of the region. In short, the contradiction which the ODF sees between “changes in the region” and the Oromo quest for independence is not clear. Nevertheless, the Oromo need not stay within the Ethiopian state to fight all the negative developments in the region; they can do that as an independent people in cooperation with their neighbors.
The ODF leaders call their politics “ilaalcha haaraa” or a “new vision” which can transform subjects into citizens (Radio Marii 31 March 2013). In other words, what is being said here is that the political program of the ODF is not only opposed to the politics of the Abyssinian ruling elites but, as mentioned above, is also different from the politics of Oromo organizations which opt for an independent Oromo state. The question is what is different from what, and what is new?
Indeed, the politics of the ODF are different from those of the Oromo nationalists and particularly from that of the OLF. The ODF will struggle for a political reform. Its politics changes the objective of Oromo struggle from building an independent sovereign state of Oromia set forth by the OLF to a quest for “democratic” citizenship in Ethiopia. In effect, it supports the Abyssinian elites’ politics of the “territorial integrity of Ethiopia” minus its imperial characteristics (Radio Marii as above). In the words of its spokesperson the ODF will persuade and mobilize the Oromo to choose federal Ethiopia over independent Oromia if and when a referendum is held (ESAT, 13 April 2013).
However, notwithstanding its difference from the OLF political program the ODF “vision” is not new, orilaalcha haaraa, as the ODF leaders say. To start with, its difference from the politics of the ONC or OFDM is not clear. Furthermore, the politics of the ODF are reminiscent of the politics of Oromo members of Meison and the EPRP of the 1970s who used to present themselves as followers of progressive politics and label Oromo centeredness as regressive. They were saying basically the same thing the ODF is saying now: that the politics that aimed at Oromo sovereignty is “narrow”, backward and unenlightened. Class struggle and internationalism were the argument of the “progressive” Oromos of that time. The multiple cultural and linguistic oppression and economic exploitation which demeaned Oromo humanity and were making the lives of millions of Oromos bitter were reduced to an abstract class issue. There are some similarities between that and the ODF’s perception that reduces the Oromo struggle for independence more or less to a question of a “democratic” citizenship in Ethiopia (Radio Bilisummaa Oromo, 15 May 2013).
In the 1970s, the aim of pro-Ethiopia Oromo political activists was to overthrow an autocratic monarchy and build a “democratic socialist” Ethiopian state in cooperation with other progressive Ethiopians. Today the ODF is aiming at ousting the autocratic TPLF regime and replacing it by a “democratic” capitalist state in coalition with other organizations. As it was in the 1970s, the ODF road map will take the Oromo to Ethiopiyawinet; in other words, not to Oromo sovereignty, but to citizenship within a “democratic” Ethiopian state. In short, my point is that the dream of finding a lasting solution for the Oromo question within the framework of a “democratic” Ethiopian state is not new. Oromo elites have tried to realize the dream in the past and were betrayed by their Abyssinian associates. The consequences were disastrous both to themselves and the Oromo people. Have the ODF leaders and members forgotten that Oromo experience?
The dream of peaceful regime change in Finfinnee
The politics of the ODF suggest a peaceful transfer of power in Finfinnee. But this is not as easily done as it sounds. It is public knowledge in Ethiopia that in Abyssinian political culture, few rulers have passed power over to their successor peacefully. The history of Abyssinian rulers shows that in most cases power was not transferred but taken after real battles were fought and the reigning monarch killed, or in some cases poisoned to death. Peaceful succession was rare, only death removed a king from the throne in Abyssinian-cum-Ethiopian history. So far, the ruling Tigrayan elites have followed this tradition. It is difficult to predict what they will do in 2015. However, as its Vice President and Spokesman have said in recent radio and TV interviews in Amharic (SBS Radio, 30 March and ESAT TV13 April 2013), the ODF will avoid armed struggle and bring about political change with peaceful means or salamaawi ye-polotiikaa tigil irrespective of what may happen in 2015. How long should the Oromo wait for the “democratic Ethiopia” the ODF is talking about? Can it guarantee that the ODF can give the Oromo people that such a change will occur without blood-shed? How long will it take to bestow the Oromo the democratic citizenship which ODF politics preaches?
It seems that the ODF does not have any answer to these questions, but will support their argument for a peaceful transfer of power with the following arguments. The first argument is that those who come to power using the gun remain in power using the same means. The ODF does not want this to happen with the change they want to bring about. This statement was made by the spokesman of the ODF (RBO, 15 May 2013). It is important to note that it is not always the case that those who take power with force will build dictatorships. None of the states which were created when the ex-Yugoslavian republic disintegrated in the 1990s became a dictatorship. American democracy, laid down by the thirteen American colonies after they defeated the British in the war of 1776, is still functioning after more than 230 years.
Their second argument is that the international community does not support the use of force to change a government, and that it is against the disintegration of the Ethiopian state. It is true that the international community does not encourage the use of violence to overthrow a government. It is also indisputable that UN will respect the so-called territorial integrity of its member states. But, what the ODF leaders do not mention is that the UN has also declared that colonized or oppressed peoples shall have the right to free themselves from the bonds of domination by resorting to any meansrecognized by the international community. Here “any means” includes armed struggle.
Noting the fact that the Eritreans went to war against their Ethiopian rulers, and the world community’s adamant insistence that Eritrea had no right to secede, a commentator wrote in 1991 (see The New Yorker’s “The Talk of the Town”, August 12, 1991) that “The United States now says that it will recognize the independence of Eritrea if that is what the majority of the Eritreans want.” Adding an interesting observation the author asks: “Why is the notion of an independent Eritrea acceptable now?”
Answering the question, the same author wrote that it is not because “Eritrea is a homogenous ‘nation’ or that there is guarantee that Eritrea will be a democratic state that respects minorities, just as the case is with an independent Slovenia or Croatia or Estonia.” The author notes “The change in international attitude can be explained in one word—“war.” He says that, although it is “something that the international community does not like to acknowledge” the criterion used in determining when a nation (people) is to be recognized as capable of forming its own state is “the degree to which it is willing to use violence to gain its independence.” He adds that Eritrea’s independence will be recognized because the “new Ethiopian regime and foreign governments feel thirty years of fighting has earned the Eritreans a right to self-determination” (emphasis mine). Here the key word is “earned.” The argument of the ODF ignores the fact that, above all, it is the willpower of the oppressed people in question to fight for its cause which is crucial in determining the international community’s willingness to recognize their right to nation- and statehood.
To conclude, the ODF thinks that if they change the objective of the Oromo struggle from independence to Ethiopian citizenship, political power will be within their reach. It argues that the OLF is not functional as an organization anymore, and that the claim for an independent Oromo state is also outdated. There is no doubt about the urgent need for reorganizing and strengthening the OLF, but the proposition that building an independent Oromo state is irrelevant and impossible under existing regional and global situations is baseless. Indeed, the ongoing reconciliation process of the different OLF factions and the renewal of its activities should be hastened. There is no doubt that speeding up the process of re-uniting the OLF forces and resources is the responsibility of its concerned factions. Nevertheless, the support and co-operation of the Oromo people at home and abroad is crucial.
Given the ongoing mass uprooting and genocidal killings perpetrated against them, a sovereign state is the only guarantee for the survival of the Oromo people and the economic development of Oromia. We are often told that the TPLF captured power in Ethiopia because it changed its politics many times. Yes, it had changed its politics. Nevertheless, it could capture power because it fought effectively. The Eritreans who did not change their politics also won political power. They fought. In short, the ODF rhetoric about peaceful transition to democracy in Ethiopia is unrealistic. Whichever goal the Oromo want to attain they have no choice of method to be used; they have to fight for it.
Dr. Mekuria Bulcha is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the School of Sustainable Development of Society and Technology at Mälardalen University, Sweden. He is an author of widely read books and articles. His new book, Contours of the Emergent and Ancient Oromo Nation, is published by CASAS (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society), Cape Town, South Africa, in 2011. He was also the founder and publisher of The Oromo Commentary (1990-1999). He is an active member of the OLF and has served in the different branches of the national movement since the 1970s.