In the Eve of Ethiopia’s 2005 Elections


In a few days, elections for the house of peoples’ representatives and regional state councils are planned to be conducted in Ethiopia. Whether these elections will be free and fair is bound to be seen. However, the fact that this election is a pivotal point for the future direction of the Oromo people in particular and Ethiopia in general is well acknowledged by all those who have been closely following political developments in Ethiopia.


The alignment of political forces in the politically troubled Ethiopia can be seen in the smokescreen of their rhetoric. In some aspects, the political atmosphere in Ethiopia today seems to be similar to what it was in the aftermath of the fall of the Haile Selassie regime. In addition, many of the political actors of today include those who were active back then. Their incriminations and recriminations, already in the air, as well as some show of a semblance of democracy in the form of public demonstrations are reminiscent of the early days of the Derg. Their smokescreens seem to be in four different kinds.


The first one is the governing TPLF/EPRDF party, the only group with strong sticks in its hands, much like the Derg after it overthrew the Haile Selassie regime. In addition, this ruling group was the leading party that overthrew the former regime, the Derg, much like the Derg did to the regime of Haile Selassie before it. 


The second one is the United Ethiopia Democratic Front (UEDF), a party that may be characterized for the defense of Ethiopian unity as well as decentralization that may favor regional administrations, with seemingly similar ideological characteristics of the All Ethiopia Peoples Movement, better known in its Amharic acronym of MEISON, which ideologically defeated and swallowed the Ethiopia People Revolutionary Front (EPRP). The direction of the UEDF can be seen in the composition of its member political organizations that vie to represent nearly all the nations and nationalities in Ethiopia.


Interestingly, even though the EPRP may have been overtaken by MEISON, its ideological characteristics seem to have manifested itself in the third kind of smokescreen of what is now known as the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). This party has come out to the people with theories of some academics that fails to address the fundamental problems of Ethiopia and seems bent on driving back the problems to its roots. The forerunner of the roots of Ethiopia’s problem is that its people are diverse that can never be modeled after the American melting pot. Ethiopia can only survive if and when it accepts this diversity and cultivates it as a source of unity instead of applying the melting pot model. The second root problem is addressing the injustice of the past, one of which was solved by the 1974 revolution through the implementation of the Land to the Tiller motto.


In its book size manifesto that has a touch of an academic paper than that of a political blue print, the CUD political party seems to be going against these root problems. One of its unwitting written manifestos is to “eliminate differences”. The other is to reverse past unjust measures done in Ethiopia although it is not clear enough whether it may be referring to the injustice done by Menelik II who confiscated Oromo and other peoples’ lands or to the 1974 revolution that gave land to the tiller. However, it would make little sense if they get organized to reverse the injustice done by Menelik II for it would not be in favor of its political actors and major constituents. In addition, the party seems to use the era of Haile Selassie as its reference point and vain pride, the very problem of some in Ethiopia, as a tool to agitate the people to vote in its favor. A significant portion of those in the Diaspora in whom the beneficiaries of the Haile Selassie regime have a strong leverage seems to be its constituent of both moral and financial support.


The fourth smokescreen is reminiscent of ECHAT in some of its characteristics but politically much stronger than it. Backed by some fundamental questions and more sincere political cause than the other parties, this smokescreen involves mainly Oromo political organizations that are yet again divided between two choices of solving Oromo problem through democratization of Ethiopia or through forming the Republic of Oromia. Consequently, independent Oromo political organizations in the political struggle for the cause of the Oromo people are in two clear camps: the liberation front camp and the opposition camp.


The goal of the liberation fronts camp is clear even though their roadmap to reach there is not as clear. Interestingly, critical observation seems to suggest the reverse is true of the oppositions. Their roadmap is clear but their goal is not as clear. In short, their roadmap is Ethiopia’s constitution.  


The discussion between the liberation front camps and the opposition camps on the one hand and between the supporters of the different opposition parties seems to make some so busy. While some supporters of liberation fronts reject participation in this election with the expressed feeling that it will not be free and fair, but will endorse legitimacy to the ruling party, some of the supporters of the oppositions are caught in the search of which opposition will be more fruitful.


The two notable Oromo opposition parties are the Oromo National Congress (ONC), which is headed by Dr. Marara Gudina, a political scientist, and the recently found Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), headed by Obbo Bulcha Damaksa, a businessman who also held a political position during the regime of Haile Selassie.


The final goals of both parties are not clear enough for the ordinary observer, much less for comparing the merits of the two parties. One has to refer to the political background of their leaders and their messages from interviews and written materials to infer some understanding of their political foundation. What is for sure is that both leaders believe in keeping Ethiopian unity. Dr. Marara is praised by Abyssinian scholars for his commitment to Oromo identity and Ethiopian unity. His party has been in the field of Ethiopian politics for well over a decade now. Seemingly triggered by the frustration after the 1992 OLF army encampment fiasco and the expulsion of the OLF from Ethiopia, the unnecessary emotions expressed by Dr. Marara and the stage that he used to express that emotion blurred the central message of his party. Yet, through the same emotion, Dr. Marara was astute in sympathizing with the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and sharply criticizing the OLF leadership of the time for its poor judgment.  


Nevertheless, for a long time, the party was never given serious attention by Oromo politicians even though it had some clever political messages for the Oromo people and politicians as well. He is credited to be the champion of the philosophy of one-person-one-vote to solve Ethiopia’s political problem, which is a crucial message for the Oromo people who are the largest in number in Ethiopia. In reference to Oromo question, he noted in an interview with The Addis Tribune in the 1990s that secession is a question of the minority. In an article published in The Ethiopian Review in 1998, he is reported to have noted that “the Oromo have a far better historic role to play at far less cost by assuming the leadership of both the maintenance of Ethiopian unity and the democratization of the Ethiopian state and society.” Only a political novice fails to grasp the multiple messages in this brilliant statement that is good for Ethiopia, East Africa and beyond since Ethiopia is a strategic geo-political location and the Oromo people and their land is a strategic center of Ethiopia.


Apart from his role as the editorial member of The Ethiopian Review magazine and his campaign in 1992 to be elected for a political position from his village in West Wallaga Zone of Oromia region, Obbo Bulcha’s name has not been commonly heard in the political business in the last decade. He is known to be a successful trader in the private bank business as the founder and leader of the Awash International Bank.


The political party he leads doesn’t seem to be practically different from that of the ONC. Looking at their names, one is a national congress whereas the other is a federalist movement, the former with a far more independent political call than the latter. Both seem to have a political line to make the Oromo language a national language of Ethiopia, rightly so since the Oromo people constitute the single largest majority in Ethiopia and the capital where Amharic is the official language is an island in the ocean of the Oromo people who speak Oromo language.


In terms of nationalist feeling, Obbo Bulcha’s public discourse so far doesn’t reveal any outstanding political leadership potential. In a recent interview with a French journalist, he seems to suggest that if Oromia became independent, it would be against his wish, if it came his way, when he answers “not all of us want to be independent”. In addition, he states “[Ethiopia] is composed mainly of Amharas, Oromos, and Tigres”. Since Oromos are larger in number than the Amharas and Tigres combined and as a representative of a leader of an Oromo political organization, one would expect him to put the Oromo people at the front of his political discourse, needless to mention that that is one of the ways of political struggle. Also in his recent interview with one of the newspapers of Ethiopia, he declared that Oromos are part and parcel of Ethiopia and that they needed some favor in the example of the U.S. government’s Affirmative Action policy.


Given these political clues from the leaders of the two Oromo opposition political parties, the fact that both will struggle for the right of the Oromo people within Ethiopia is obvious. The question that should follow must be what form of political power the Oromo people should have within Ethiopia according to these two political parties and why did the people who formed the OFDM not join the ONC and strengthen it to become a formidable Oromo opposition force to the government in power.


Whether within Ethiopia or as an independent country, the Oromo people’s becoming a formidable political force in the region is a forgone conclusion. Remaining in Ethiopia should not fall short of Dr. Marara’s vision of assuming its leadership. Instead of looking for some sort of Affirmative Action policy, the OFDM should also be bold enough to advocate for the Oromo people to assume leadership in Ethiopia. The way it stands now, the party has put itself in a gridlock between representing the Oromo people alone which doesn’t lend it the avenue to assuming leadership in Ethiopia, such as in the form of the UEDF, which consists of political representatives of other peoples in Ethiopia including the peoples in the Southern region, the Amhara, the Tigre, the Afar and so on as independent partners. For the Oromo people, democratization of the Ethiopian state and society has both its opportunities as well as its challenges. Democratization presupposes the assumption of meaningful power for the Oromo people, and that is the opportunity. The challenge is whether one is able and ready to work with other parties especially if one has a plan of assuming meaningful leadership.


As for the Oromo liberation fronts, they are facing double challenges of pushing their agenda for the Republic of Oromia as well as the competing frame of assuming leadership, which seems to be garnering momentum. This momentum is bound to be proven wrong only if centralist parties such as the CUD magically win this coming election and reverses all that Oromos have gained so far. In that case, the liberation fronts may garner enough support from the Oromo people to their favor. In fact, if it happens, they may have to strengthen their stand by declaring independence from Abyssinian political machinations, much like the United States declared independence from the British Empire, and mobilize the Oromo nation for the cause.


As for the Oromo people, they should use all the necessary avenues to once and for all come out of the political problem they were put in hundred years ago. They may not expect much in this election. However, with better vision from their political leaders, their problem can be brought to rest at the next round of political show in Ethiopia. During that show, Oromos should go for the position of premiership through the legal opposition as well as through the OPDO itself. By that time, the Oromo son Meles Zenawi took for Guddifacha should be old enough to give him a helping hand for he may become too old physically and will have exhausted all he has including his tortures. That should be a helping hand to the Oromo people as well. The oppositions should not be swayed away by the criticisms or support of some Oromos here and there whose political position is less predictable than the direction of the wind. Instead, they should be bold enough to refine their strategies and leadership qualities to take on the challenges of leadership if it comes their way. The liberation fronts should strengthen their base and means. Their primary concern should not be who becomes the next ruler in Ethiopia or Oromia. It should be ensuring the Oromo people liberty to exercise their right. By the concerted struggle of all Oromos for the liberty of the Oromo people to fully exercise their natural right, real victory is within reach.


As for the other peoples in Ethiopia, the ball is not in Oromo court, but Oromos are well positioned to play it safe and wisdom should prevail in all. As for the TPLF and its leader Meles Zenawi, it seems judgment day is fast approaching. The result of this election is bound to show if there is any hope in its government for better future in the region.