Main photo: The symbol of Oromo resistance at the Irreecha cultural festival; Oct 2, 2016, Bishoftu; William Davison
Now that oppression has finally ended, all Oromo political leaders need to set aside their grudges and work together to build on a genuinely historic moment
“A good opportunity is seldom presented, and is easily lost” — Publilius SyrusLast April, when Abiy and Team Lemma came to power, the air was filed with optimism.
Oromos and other Ethiopians were ecstatic, and for the first time in many years people were hopeful. Everyone was looking forward to a bright future. Most Oromos thought that the 150 years of Oromo subjugation had finally come to an end.
However, in just a short six months almost all of that goodwill was dashed and despondence and pessimism was slowly settling once again in the psyche of the Oromo population.
People started to question whether this was a false dawn. And this time around, the despair that Oromos felt was mostly self-inflicted. To be more precise, the fear was triggered by the conflict that had been created between Oromo political organizations.
Last week’s effort to build peace between OLF and ODP and create a committee of Abba Gadaas to work on the reintegration of OLF fighters was a welcome move. But it must only be the start, and, critically, we need to honestly examine the issues underlying the feud.
The acrimony and rancor that currently exist amongst Oromo elites is, to say the least, a cause for concern. The existence of this degree of bitterness is an indication of what is in store for us as a society. In fact, unless something is done, this could be a harbinger of civil war between Oromos.
We have some notable values
Some seek comfort by saying that the division is between elites and not amongst Oromos, and also claim it is only transient. I think such thinking is self-delusional or wishful at best. Anything that starts at elite level does not remain there; in most cases it also affects the population at large. That is the reality that we face. The situation is dire and we have to confront it head on and take preemptive measures.
As a society, we have some notable values that could be the foundation on which to build a stable democratic society. Most importantly, as has just been demonstrated, we have the opportunity and privilege to appeal to our traditional Gadaa institution and conflict resolution methodologies. We also have liberty aspirations, and, it is said, a widespread culture of tolerance, trust and egalitarianism.
But are all these positive assets the same as in our past, or are they perhaps just a myth? Or do they really exist today and inform and guide us as a society in our routine interactions? If we do not have, or have lost, these foundational values, the transition to democracy would have less chance of survival, or even if it survives, it would be flawed.
As we talk about our assets and try to use them as our guiding stars, we should also recognize and consider factors that could negatively affect us in the transition to a stable and peaceful society. Unless we do that we may be blindsided by a series of unexpected occurrences.
We are a society that has lived under occupation for the last century and half. All this time we did not have a centralized administration as Oromo, and we have not had a political class accumulating experience and wisdom. We were not practicing our traditional form of governance for such a long time. In our different regions, we have mixed with and adopted different cultures from other ethnic groups.
We have become religiously divided, and to some extent culturally diverse. Does all this make us fragile and vulnerable? If so, in what ways? Unfortunately, again due to our circumstances, we do not have top class scholars that boldly study such intricate issues. Even when we have individuals that have that potential, we have not created an environment in which they may flourish. On the contrary, we often nip them in the bud.
The current division among Oromo political organizations, and the reason why OLF has failed to become a formidable organization, or the reason it was divided into at least five parts, could be explained only by looking deep into our society. We should not seek the cause of our predicament in the individual choices or mistakes of leaders, but should seek and find structural reasons and limitations as explanations. Just blaming individuals for our predicament is a lazy way out. The saying that every society gets the political organization that it deserves has some truth in it.
In coming up with a strategic plan of how to go forward and deal with each other, and how we should resolve our differences and conflicts, political leaders should look into all these. Ignoring our fragilities as if they don’t exist will ultimately hurt and haunt us. Rather than blaming each other, so barking up the wrong tree, let us look at what is fundamentally causing the fissures amongst our organizations and in our society. Before even going to find solutions, let us first identify our vulnerabilities. You can’t prescribe medicine before making a diagnosis. The solution that are proposed by some are almost like taking painkillers. This would not be a true solution, but only a temporary fix, and at times will be used to hide the root cause of our problem.
It has become a worn-out phrase to say that we are at a critical point in our history. The important point is not uttering the phrase for the sake of it, but actually realizing how critical the moment is. If we understand its importance, what actions have we taken, or what are we planning to do about it? In order to point out some of the missed opportunities, let me give an example that could have been used as a healing mechanism.
Leenco could have gone to greet Dawud
If I were Dawud Ibsa, I would have invited Leenco Lata, Galasa Dilbo and Kemal Gelchu to the stage at that grand rally in Meskel Square. If I were Leenco, I would have gone to Dawud’s hotel to greet him when he arrived from Asmara. I would have also done the same for Galasa and Kemal Gelchu. If I were Galasa, my first order of business after arrival in the country would have been to meet with Dawud, Leenco and Kemal. If the priority of their struggle is about the Oromo people, beyond their organizations, they should have made these simple gestures to encourage reconciliation.
These would have been simple acts done by true leaders who are concerned about the unity of the nation they purport to lead. But either their inflated egos or their myopic concentration on their narrow organizational interest did not allow them to perform such simple acts. This is one simple example, but there are many others.
I am not asking these organizations to overlook their differences and become one organization overnight. What I am saying is that they have the responsibility through their statements and acts to work towards reconciliation and not division amongst the Oromo people. They have the responsibility that political differences should not get out of hand to the extent of dividing our people on the basis of region and religion, and leading to other types of violent confrontation.
They have the responsibility to teach and show through their acts that to be political adversaries does not mean to be enemies. Most importantly, they have the responsibility to come together and come up with the rules of the game for how they deal with each other and how they resolve conflicts when they arise.
The conflict between them is by ad large not personal, and if healing is needed for the greater good, they should take the initiative and do it for the sake for their people. This is the meaning of leadership, and this is the meaning of loving your people. Escalating confrontation until one side loses decisively is a losing formula for all.
The Oromo people were under direct or indirect occupation until 2018. The occupation that started under Menelik II underwent major modifications from one generation to the other and from one regime to the other. The last occupation by TPLF under the name of EPRDF was effectuated through the agency of OPDO. Because Oromia was under occupation, Oromo nationalists were conducting a national liberation struggle through different mechanisms. Finally, propelled by the Oromo Qeerroo revolt, individuals in OPDO also joined the general uprising and revolted and controlled the OPDO, an organization created to be a Trojan Horse of TPLF. By controlling the OPDO, which they have now turned into ODP, they overcame and ended the domination of TPLF in the EPRDF.
Even though the vestiges of dominance and occupation still remain, one cannot seriously claim that Oromos are under occupation today. Because the coup de grâce did not come in a dramatic fashion, or because it came from an internal force in an orderly form, some may not be able to see and appreciate what happened last year in Ethiopia. But it was truly an earth-shattering historic moment. It will go down in history as a year Oromia was liberated. But when I say Oromia is liberated, I’m not at all saying the current regime is democratic or all the demands of Oromos are met. I am simply saying that the national liberation struggle has been achieved because there is no alien force controlling us.
If we agree on and appreciate the significance of the change that occurred, then we have the responsibility to guard and protect it for several reasons. The most obvious reason is that we are not yet out of the woods. There are still many forces that are bent on reversing the gains that the Oromo population had achieved. Because this is so obvious, I don’t want to dwell on this. I would rather concentrate on the consequence of the collapse of this regime.
Government structures are dismantled
If this government is pushed too much, this will most likely not result in negotiated or forceful power transition to another regime, but would lead to a state collapse. The major reason for this is that there is no organization ready, willing, and able to assume power, and there is no organization that could be acceptable to the population to lead a transition. This government is fragile in many ways. First it came to power after a four years of rebellion in many parts of the country. Because of that the economy is a shambles, and in some parts of the country government structures are dismantled.
Because the transition was top down, the regime does not have an organizational structure and cadres of supporters that it controls. This makes it weak; it cannot easily mobilize the population and get acceptance. Because it has a drastically different agenda from the bureaucracy it came from, but at the same time because it did not dismantle it, the government does not fully control the bureaucracy, and therefore, it is difficult to implement its policies.
Bureaucrats who were trained under EPRDF and are used to doing things the way EPRDF was doing cannot change overnight and keep functioning as before. This is a great hindrance for ODP to get acceptance among the population, which creates a legitimacy deficit. Because the population at the grassroots level still sees the previous functionaries, it’s very hard for them to envisage that there has been genuine change.
Rather than exploit this fragility, other organizations should help the ODP to overcome the structural constraints affecting the transition. If we say state collapse is harmful to all, then it’s easy to see why other Oromo organizations should assist the incumbent regime to stabilize itself. This is not the time that we exclusively focus on the forthcoming election and forget the bigger picture. In order to have an election, there should first exist a stable regime. Destabilizing the current regime is almost tantamount to sabotaging the election itself.
The failure of recognizing what type of transition is occurring in Ethiopia is one factor that is leading to conflict. Transitions have always came to Ethiopia by an outside force violently replacing the incumbent. The Derg deposed Haile Selassie through a coup d’état and came to power. The EPRDF and Eritrean rebels chased the Derg from power through protracted armed struggle. However, the current change is different. Even though forced from the ground up, this is a change that materialized from top down. It is a struggle within the ruling party that finally led to the change.
We should also take note that no negotiated transfer of power from the ruling power to the opposition is undertaken in Ethiopia simply because there was no consensus at all on who will undertake the transition, and, as stated above, there was no ready, willing and able force to take the mantel of power. EPRDF’s suppression and dominance was so complete that no force outside it was able to become a force of change. In short there was no preferred opposition alternative, and so ODP cannot be faulted for finally coming to power. All serious power brokers early on realized this. Another important factor that should be considered is that this current transition in Ethiopia is not elite-initiated, but happened as elite response.
Transitions are abnormal periods of undetermined political change in which “there are insufficient structural or behavioral parameter to guide and predict the outcome,” according to two academic theorists. Compared to the orderliness of authoritarian rule, transitions are characterized by unruly and chaotic struggles. If such unruliness persist for a prolonged period it may lead to frustration and even lead for longing for the return of the orderly authoritarian rule.
Consequence of failure is dire
As those who studied political transitions indicate, transitions have often served as triggers of violence. “A significant body of research shows that approximately half of all peace agreements unravel after five years, at times plunging a country into more intense violence than before,” said the United States Institute of Peace. That is why it’s crucial also for the non-ruling organizations to work hard so that this transition becomes successful. Let alone working towards enfeebling this regime, its incumbent on all of us to strengthen it so that it will be able to manage this transition. “Managing the conflict that accompanies political transitions is a critical factor in building strong governing institutions and creating the mechanisms for durable peace,” USIP said.
The next crucial political landmark is the coming election in less than two years. This is a very important point and needs its own separate treatment. It is a well-established fact that in countries that are coming out of transitions, in many places, premature elections have been a recipe for violence. Therefore, deep and informed consultation and discussion should be conducted amongst all stakeholders on this issue. The road to democracy involves complex transformation within the economic, social and political system, and should not be undertaken haphazardly. The consequence of failure is dire and we should tread boldly, but very carefully.