The Derailed Oromo Movement Gets Back on Track Once More

January 8, 2012

A grassroots Oromo movement that was started during Emperor Haile Selassie I's monarchical rule in Ethiopia to work for the betterment of the Oromo people in Ethiopia predates the Ethiopian student movement that played a role in bringing down the monarchical rule in 1974. Before taking on this rule, the Ethiopian student movement had subscribed to the socialist order during what is now known as the Cold War. The fall of the monarchical rule in 1974 was succeeded by a takeover of power by a haphazardly organized military that ended in 1991, the same year that the Cold War came to an end.

The conflict in this transition process from a monarchical rule and feudalistic order to popular power and socialist order saw many historical events in Ethiopia. The White Terror, an urban guerrilla fight against the military that took power, which is believed to be started by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP), was met by the Red Terror that the military that was in power unleashed against those it suspected. This led to the deaths of many of its critics and innocent people.

As some Oromo political leaders familiar with the events of that time have revealed, it was during those days that the mature Oromo movement that had received widespread acceptance among the Oromo and friends alike was derailed following the involvement of a young batch of Oromo students and activists that drafted a political program that became more of a liability in the long run than a solution for a well founded cause of the Oromo mass.

Following the wind of the day that was blowing over much of Africa, the socialist movement was accepted and the question of the Oromo mass was swiftly interpreted as a colonial question that needed to be solved through secession from Ethiopia.

Over the years since the formation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), every effort was made by this organization to sell this interpretation and prescription to the Oromo mass and the international community alike while reasonable voices were muzzled, communities confused, political cadres went into verbal diatribes, certain hypocritical Oromo intellectuals that are far removed from Oromo wisdom surfaced, and a timid caste of disciples tried to do all it could to cast the Oromo mass in its image.

The debate to conclusively resolve this issue raged for years and cost a lot of time, intellectual, and material resources. Perhaps, the most important consideration to resolve this issue as soon as it was understood was the practicality of separating Oromo country from Ethiopia, which if it were to be undertaken, would destabilize Oromos, Ethiopia, and East Africa with significant implications for global peace.

Asked by a Voice of America’s Amharic Service Program in the 1990s about this specific issue, the late Colonel Alemu Kitessa, one of the founders and leaders of the Matcha and Tulama Self-Help Association, had the following to say (roughly translated): Oromo country is the stem of Ethiopia whereas the other regions are branches; the branches can break away but where can the stem break away?

Perhaps, because of this reckoning, some of those who admitted to have taken part in forming the OLF and drafting its political program became courageous enough over the recent years to distance themselves from the secession agenda but too timid to speak about it and chose to window dress their position by globalization and an Agenda for Peace.

The latest announcement by one faction of the OLF is an important milestone in putting back on track once more the derailed Oromo movement. This message was sent home very clearly in interviews given to the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) broadcast by Nuro Dedefo (Dr.) and Hailu Gonfa (Brigadier General formerly in the Ethiopian army). The former has clearly stated that at least his faction of the OLF has dropped secession from its political program. The interview with the latter was more revealing and insightful.

Echoing the wisdom that many before him have used to explain how the Oromo movement was derailed, Hailu Gonfa had the following to say (roughly translated from Amharic): There is no person who burns his home on himself; one doesn’t burn his home and search and see in the darkness to find a solution that brings light; in this regard, the Oromo are noble and wise people.

In the debates that raged for many years among Oromo political activists and leaders, perhaps, not many have spoken out as forcefully and insightfully as this army officer that encapsulated the issue so clearly and concisely. What many had subscribed to but were timid to speak out for years, he has dispelled it at once. As it is with any undertaking, the history of our people and making of Ethiopia have all their benefits and flaws. It may never be one hundred percent perfect or one hundred percent defective. It is only natural to work on what is right and mend what went wrong.

The interpretation of the Oromo cause as colonial and ceding of Oromo country from Ethiopia as the solution was stretched too far. This army officer has obliterated this stretching that many intellectuals in the Oromo Studies Association had subscribed to in order to be in consonance with the political wind of the day. According to Hailu Gonfa, one can’t call Oromo without reference to Ethiopia or vice versa.

In this regard, this latest step taken by one faction of the OLF has at least two important implications.

First, it is bound to release many Oromos from their confusions and their disheartened state of affairs regarding their approach to solve the political problems around them. It may be fair to conclude that less Oromos inside Ethiopia will be expecting the OLF that is based outside Ethiopia to solve the problems that they face in Ethiopia. They will be bound less by geography or political grouping to take active part in any political organization or activity in Ethiopia.

Secondly, outside entities that have used Oromo movement for their benefit will have an incapacitated conduit to advance their agenda. To be sure, no wise Oromo political group should have been fooled into thinking that the leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, would side with it to defeat Ethiopia’s leader, Meles Zenawi. To begin with, both Kamal Galchu and Hailu Gonfa must have been misled to take refuge in Eritrea. However, as much as they may have been needed to be used to solve a political problem that the timid were not facing head on, it is probably an important step in their lives to learn more about the organization that they pledged to support. As Kamal Galchu once said, the leaders of the organization they found in Asmara don’t have a good understanding of how to solve their internal problems, which, according to him, contributed to the further breakup of the organization into two factions.

When we see down the road, the latest faction will have, in all likelihood, sacrificed itself or whatever credibility it had earned but delivered its important message to the people. For the Oromo people, this latest message builds on those steps taken earlier to put its movement back on track. To be specific, it was the Oromo movement’s building efforts on its faith traditions that started Oromo / Ethiopian / Kush Renaissance from a scratch. Meles Zenawi has already borrowed this movement as if it sprang from his fertile imagination and presented it to the Ethiopian people, and it appears to have galvanized them, at least to some extent. He can now say Ethiopian Renaissance faster than he can say Oromo faith tradition or allow it to function in the country. That is a clear sign of the haphazard in borrowing what he hadn't imagined. Be that as it may, if the fruit of Oromo movement has offered this much galvanization, which will only be more visible as time goes by, there shouldn’t have been any reason why Oromos needed to wait for long to take their equitable share in leading Ethiopia and involvement in regional and international politics.

As Hailu Gonfa added in his interview, the desire of Oromos is for Ethiopia to live on with uncompromising guarantee for the rights of all Ethiopians, equitable shares, liberty, and democracy. According to him, this is not a guarantee that his faction of the OLF offers to anyone for it is its vision; it doesn’t seek affirmation from anyone regarding this matter nor does it ask for it to be given.

In essence, this is about self-assertion instead of asking for self-determination, a concept borrowed, misused, and abused by a certain caste in Oromo political movement.

However, the latest message to the mass can only be effectively fruitful if the wanton deceptions of the confused individuals in Oromo political movement come to an end. Having once wrote in his book that Ethiopia may have to perish, Lenco Lata ought to come forward about his and his disciples dealings with the political rights of the people as it affects them directly. Having once admitted about his involvement in the crimes committed when he officially served in the Ethiopian government, Nagaso Gidada, whose connections with Lenco Lata’s disciples was rumored before he landed in Finfinne (Addis Ababa) in 1991, ought to disclose to the party he sought to lead recently and the general public all his past and present allegiances. Interestingly, we have found him in the place of Judge Birtukan Mideksa, the first woman to emerge as the leader of a major political party in Ethiopia after she was subjected to inhumane political acts. The activities of another committed disciple of Lenco Lata, Solomon Beyene Ungashe, who once served as a public relations official of another faction of the OLF, have long been put to the test. Gammachu Megersa, an in-law of Solomon Beyene Ungashe, replaced the leader of the commission that investigated the deaths of civilians in the aftermath of the 2005 legislative elections. The initial leader of the commission chose to resign from his position and flee the country instead of compromising his integrity. Yacob Likke inserted himself in the middle of the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP) and became a subject of controversy around the time that the party’s leader, Engineer Hailu Shawul, signed a deal with Meles Zenawi, which now appears to be a calculated political treachery.

Apart from the "Jote-work" flattery, what these individuals who chose to present themselves in the service of the public have in common might be the timidity that was imposed on them early on. They have tried over the last twenty years to project it onto the Oromo and Ethiopian public, a project that could have effectively changed our youth into what we call a Manga in local parlance, if they got their way and our people, who have been fighting off uncalled for influences throughout their history and remained independent, gave them a free ride. That confusion and apparent detachment from the local culture, faith traditions, and history appears to have only made them cast themselves out from what now appears to be a decisively geographic gradient that the latest decision by one faction of the OLF appears poised to mend. It is only a matter of time before Professor Alemayehu Mariam’s dance seen from a distance unwittingly shows the cultural linkage between Arsi and Menz and the synergy of his political activism with the followers of the OLF group led by Kamal Galchu may bear a meaningful fruit.

In terms of moving the Oromo movement forward from here on, the latest decision should only be seen as another renewed chapter of the derailed movement. Much has been lost in the debate that brought all to this point and there is much more to work on through active involvement in Ethiopian politics instead of remaining passive or reactive to it. Perhaps, restructuring Ethiopian politics along a decentralization and centralization axis of political equilibrium could be an important and crucial step in this renewed chapter. Forming a Federalist Party (FP) to attend to the decentralization quest and Unity Party (UP) to attend to the centralization quest from the currently disenfranchised small parties may be a vision worthwhile to consider.

How to achieve this is another question. Shortsighted activities that put political parties that are opponents to Meles Zenawi's ruling front to his and his front's terms are not likely to bear fruit any time soon. A farsighted and fruitful approach may be for all independent political parties to take him on his own terms. With a vast majority of the Ethiopian geographic gradient not his bed, it is only a matter of time before his dictatorship will be entangled by his own terms.

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