Taking Oromo Movement to the Next Higher Level

January 1, 2013

Nearly 40 years ago when young students in Ethiopia were introduced to the ideas of colonialism, socialism, communism, self-determination, liberation, and independence, some of them formed the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) and others got involved in one or more similar organizations, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), and so on. Without sober debates at both national and international forums, the young students quickly subscribed to one or more of the imported ideas.

Because educational and research institutions had been introduced in Ethiopia only recently at the time, there was evidently an acute lack of such stages at the national level. Because Emperor Haile Selassie, who had patrilineal Oromo lineage as we learned lately, was working on establishing higher learning educational institutions in Ethiopia, continental political issues, including the formation of the Organization of African Union, and building solid international diplomatic relations, including with the U.S., U.N. and U.K., there was evidently a critical lack of avenues for sober debates at the international level regarding the multitude of ideas to which the young Ethiopian students were introduced. As new students of formal education that had only recently been introduced to the country at that time, there was a tragic detachment of the students of “modern education” from societal wisdom, which may have been uncritically relegated to “backward tradition”.

Without much research and recorded materials of their own but armed with scanty knowledge they gained from various books written by causal travelers and viceroys, the young students took to the streets and meeting halls like a “mob”, as Professor Theodore Vestal observed, to bring about a radical change in Ethiopia up to and including its destabilization, which would potentially affect regional and global political trajectories.

The momentum they thrust took many of them in different directions, including extrajudicial executions by an agitated army, longtime imprisonment and torture, involvement in armed resistance, refugee camps, and exile. Two of these students, the late Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki, dropped out from Medical and Engineering education at the Addis Ababa University to join liberation movements. They later abandoned the organizations they joined and got involved in or formed the TPLF and EPLF, respectively. At the end of the Cold War, Meles Zenawi led his organization to take political power in Ethiopia in 1991 and allowed Isaias Afewerki to conduct an expedient referendum for the former Ethiopian province of Eritrea to become an independent state in 1993. In the process, they made Ethiopia a landlocked country with the largest population in the world.

Meles Zenawi passed away in August 2012 at the age of 57 and Isaias Afewerki has been leading Eritrea since 1991.

A well founded Oromo movement for democratic rights and justice in Ethiopia became a causality of the hodgepodge importation of various ideologies by the ESM. This Oromo movement practically lost its track after it was made to subscribe to the idea of self-determination as a political guiding marker, which eventually led to the formation of the OLF.

The fact that the idea of self-determination, a quest of independence of a minority’s polity from that of a majority, was wrong to begin with for Oromo movement did not, evidently, occur to the student subscription providers and subsequent subscribers. This subscription of self-determination for Oromo cause was easily disqualified a few years ago by clearly explaining that in the case of Oromo movement, the Ethiopian state becomes inexistent the moment an Oromo force seeking independence from Ethiopia controls the mutual political centers of Oromo and Ethiopia. The logical next step for such an Oromo force, if it could cause that eventuality to occur, would be the declaration of independence since the political entity from which self-determination was demanded would cease to exist starting the moment the Oromo force controls the mutual political center in Finfinne, which is located in the center of Oromo country. If anything, the new Oromo force would be the polity from which the polities of various other minorities in present day Ethiopia would demand self-determinations.

What the self-determination prescription helped the leadership was to conveniently postpone the necessary and immediate action that would be necessary to end the identified problem.

After its formation, the OLF entered a protracted debate of sorting out its direction and eventuated in ideological spilt between the federalists that publicly pledged recently allegiance to democratic Ethiopia and its sovereignty and the separatists that publicly announced their intention to form an independent Oromo state.

Prior to these public pronouncements, the absence of such clear visions was apparent in the organization’s political history. Explaining away problems using confusing words, such as suggesting that liberation (bilisumma) and independence (walabuma) have different political meanings, became the newest and latest manifestation of the problem. Instead of taking a clear stand about what they wanted to achieve, some in its leadership conveniently wavered between one or the other position, which caused various frustrations among its members and supporters. Frustrations led to the formation of various factions, blaming supporters that paid various sacrifices, conveniently explaining away failures to lack of unity, and some of its top leadership questioning itself. In an interview aired a few months ago, Galasa Dilbo, the OLF’s former Secretary General, soberly told his listeners that he and his colleagues had asked themselves out of frustrations why they started the struggle.

Before two of the OLF factions reconciled and recently announced their intent to struggle for the formation of an independent Oromo state, which would completely destabilize the Ethiopian state and possibly fracture it into several small states, the OLF was split into three factions, each of which used the parent name by adding different suffixes, and yet again another faction, which called itself the Oromo Dialogue Forum (ODF).

This experience would make the Oromo wisdom that advises to look not where one fell but where it was slippery particularly vivid. The Oromo students of 40 years ago could have drawn much from this and our society’s similar wisdom values before uncritically subscribing to the hodgepodge of ideologies that they imported and started to preach it down to our society.

Now that the two prevailing ideologies have been sorted out and their directions set, each group is in a position to take actions it deems appropriate independently, bear responsibilities for its actions, deliver answers that it can to the quest of the Oromo mass, and cherish its historical accomplishments.

The separatists cherish utopian virtues while the federalists cherish realist virtues.

To the separatists, Oromo and Ethiopia were conjoined politically only about one hundred years ago after Emperor Menelik II consolidated centralized political power in Ethiopia. They define this relationship as colonial in nature and preach it down to the masses without finding a conceptual equivalent in Oromo language that is in the consciousness of the mass, believe that this colonial nature needs to end by separation of Oromos from the Ethiopian state, that this solution was charted by young Oromo students that drafted the political program of the OLF about 40 years ago, that this political program is sacrosanct that some even take pride in their participation to write it, that many lives have been sacrificed for this mission, and that the Ethiopian rulers have failed time and again to peacefully solve Oromo political quest.

Understandably, many of the leadership of this group are in exile, including in North America, Europe, and Australia, from where they voice their political concerns. They appear to believe that it is their work that contributed mostly to the political achievements made so far, including the recent revolutionary revival of Oromo culture, and that they only are best equipped with the wand to guard these achievements and bring about more political successes in the future. Fringe elements among them continuously wrong others and consider themselves wiser, more visionary and passionate about the cause, and intellectually more capable even as their writings are used as fodders for strategic penmanship for motives they evidently haven’t comprehended yet. They are at liberty to expediently belittle the alternative vision of others and they don’t seem to be concerned about their hypocritical assumptions.

Those that have emerged as the federalists from the OLF join those that criticized the OLF's ideological strategy and chose from the get go nearly two decades ago to solve Oromo political problems by struggling for a democratic governance and equitable share of political power in Ethiopia.

The spectrum of Oromo federalists range from those who believe Oromo history is the foundation of Ethiopia’s long history to those who see federalism in Ethiopia as their newly found vision, a political expediency, to solve the prevailing political problem in the country.

On the right of this spectrum, we find those who trace Oromo and Ethiopian history to long before Ethiopia accepted Christianity nearly two thousand years ago. Some go farther than that and find Oromo and Ethiopia’s influences in ancient Pharaohnic Egypt. They agree with the observations of various scholars, including the late Ethiopian Laureate Tsegaye Ghebremedhin, who wrote the African Union anthem, the renowned French historian Jean Doresse, who observed that the word Oromo appeared in ancient Egypt referring to the same subject, and the traveler B. Bates who noted that the Oromo “were a very ancient race, the indigenous stock, perhaps, on which most other peoples in this part of eastern Africa have been grafted”.

Thus, to the federalists on this spectrum, Oromo and Ethiopian history, continuity, and destiny are inseparable.

These and other observations were the reasons to take the struggle from Oromo redemption to the resurrection of the civilization of the people commonly known in religious texts as Kush. This public call has now been picked up, including by the Ethiopian government, and grown to the quest for Ethiopia’s Renaissance. The separatists may be ignorant of the observations, calls, and efforts or choose to conveniently ignore them.

Unlike the separatists do conveniently, this group of federalist Oromos does not discredit Oromo’s pivotal contribution in Ethiopia’s victory at Adwa over the Italian colonialists that came to colonize the region at the height of Europe’s scramble for Africa. This group of federalists sees virtue in Ethiopia’s fight for independence from European colonialism, as did heads of new African states that gathered in New York in the early 1960s and chose Finfinne as the headquarters of the Organization of African Union (OAU) in a symbolic gesture to Ethiopia’s independence. They see the benefit of discretion for the continuity of Finfinne as a metropolitan city with one of the largest number of offices of existing international organizations and diplomatic establishments in the world, which are located in the center of Oromo country and Ethiopia. They see political maturity in the virtuous continuity of the continental organization’s headquarters in Finfinne. Perhaps, the separatists have a plan that they can present to convince these offices and diplomatic establishments, after separating Oromo country from Ethiopia, to forget the factors that took these establishments there and remain and smoothly carry out their international bilateral and multilateral assignments.

On the left side of the spectrum, we find those who recently split from the OLF leadership. They claim that the conditions that existed 40 years ago when the OLF was formed do not exist anymore due to globalization, economic developments, and political atmosphere in Ethiopia that warrant and support the continuation of the demand of Oromo independence from Ethiopia.

This realignment of ideologies pushes the political theme of the Oromo Dialogue Forum (ODF) to that of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), which was created several months ago through the merger of the Oromo People’s Congress (OPC) and Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM). Given previous proposals of positioning Ethiopia on a decentralization and centralization axis and having nationwide Federalist Party (FP) and Unity Party (UP) to attend to the decentralization and centralization quests, respectively, the Oromo Federalist Congress may well be in a position to spearhead the formation of an inclusive Federalist Party or Congress instead of remaining at its current stage of exclusive Oromo Federalist Party or Congress. As it stands now, the OFC is not a nationwide party. However, it may well be brought to the next higher level of well defined and established nationwide Federalist Party through which the quests of Oromos and all others interested in the decentralization of political power in the country may be channeled and addressed.

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