Fortifying Oromia’s Political Landscape as the Old Guard Gets Foothold in Menelik’s Garrison Towns


The title of this column is meant to be a metaphor for political resistance by the Oromo people to any plan to take Ethiopia back to where it was a century ago and replay the political drama since then if such plan gets its way. Similar calls can be made by other peoples in Ethiopia against the same plan but the Oromo people do not and should not pretend to represent other peoples in the same way as some other parties. That is against the Oromo people's well developed culture.


In the recent May 15, 2005, election in Ethiopia, several parties are claiming victory or victory is being claimed on their behalf, even before the final results are out. The first party that claimed to have won is the ruling party led by the TPLF/EPRDF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front). The second party that claimed to have won is the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), a coalition that was formed recently out of small parties that have a relatively longer political history. Some careful observers claim that the peoples in Ethiopia won.


Critical observation suggests that what is on the course of winning is actually the truth and this manifested itself out in various forms, in what amounts to an explosion of it. It seems to be sending its shockwave in different directions, demonstrating that no politician, political party, or political group is immune to it.


The hegemony of the TPLF in Ethiopian politics for the last fourteen years has practically fallen. The fact that it was an illegitimate group to rule the whole of Ethiopia and its crippling through free and fair election wherever the TPLF was obliged to allow is the first manifestation of the truth. Having left home to liberate Tigray region from Ethiopia, the founders of the TPLF turned out to be the shakers and makers of Ethiopia’s politics in the last fourteen years. With a population of less than two digit percentage in Ethiopia and with virtually little known natural resources for sustenance, the politically inexperienced TPLF founders started their journey on a not good enough path, and then reversed it to go on a worse path to rule Ethiopia only to come to a dead end. It seems that now, former TPLF members and supporters are on the run back from the dead end in what seems to be a competition among themselves. Interestingly, the maneuver of some of them in the competition appears set to prove to other parties that they are the best champions of Ethiopian unity at the expense of their own identity that forced them to form their liberation front in the first place.


The second manifestation of the truth is the Ethiopian peoples’ referendum through this election on the process of Eritrea’s referendum. In the last fourteen years, one can argue that the most serious difference between the peoples in Ethiopia and the TPLF/EPRDF leadership was the process of Eritrea’s referendum, not so much the referendum itself. The process opened the window for unnatural split of the same language speaking peoples into Eritrea and Ethiopia through a dogmatic rather than rational interpretation of colonial history. The primary victims of this dogmatic interpretation were the Afar and Tigre peoples and the collateral damage was done to the peoples in Ethiopia whom this dogmatic interpretation made landlocked. The decision of having access to Afar land along the Red Sea coast should have been left to political deliberation between the Afar people and the other peoples in Ethiopia and Eritrea than what seems to be a friendship deal between Meles and Isaias or between the TPLF and the EPLF, depending on how one would like to look at it.


The third manifestation of the truth is the lesson learned by loyal TPLF/EPRDF members that public service is just another job better done with the highest level of standard and integrity. The landslide rejection of high ranking EPRDF officials by those who voted in Finfinne must have taught them and other politicians that the people have more power than the government or a king for that matter. Had they failed in the assignment of the prime minister, the punishment would be a warning or graceful resignation at the worst. The call back of these officials by the people is a powerful punishment for a job not well done. It must be a lesson for would be officials that their job is not bringing down to the people the orders of the government but, and better be, bringing to the government or the prime minister the concerns of their constituencies. In other words, the agenda of the people they represent should be put before the agenda of the government by whom they were handpicked. This election has shown that public service is just a career with a renewable probation period of five years, according to the current constitution of Ethiopia. Perhaps, a tenure-track professorship position should be preferred, by the qualified academicians, to public service career for which there are enough other people to do the job just fine.


The fourth manifestation of the truth is the critical lack of experience of the electorate in Finfinne, presumably the well informed because of the relatively better democracy they have enjoyed in the last several years under the EPRDF government. Inadvertently, it simply made public some people’s secret observation for a long time that it is a city characterized by its uniformity that has been likened to the uniformity of porridge. People observed long time ago that whether one is in Bole or Gullalle, two opposite ends of the city, one is bound to observe the same kind of talk as well as style in the larger populace. It is a city of hip-hop, jazz, rap, country and so on simultaneously at different times. It is a city that can dance uniformly to the tune of hip-hop music today and that of country music tomorrow without conscious understanding of the difference between the two across a cross-section of the city. The reports on the election results so far indicate that all seats for the federal as well as the city administration went to a single coalition party that had a life span of a few months. This result is at a time when the country’s future is facing two qualitatively different directions and at a time when the electorate were given a choice of at least three different political parties with qualitative differences. The lack of any winner from any of the other two parties for both the federal and the city administration simply exposes the failure of the city’s electorate than it demonstrates the fruit of democracy. This is more so especially looking at the pragmatism of the leaders of the two parties and their political programs. The EPRDF seems to better understand the real problem of the country and its leader, Meles Zenawi, seems to be more pragmatic than the political agenda of CUD or its leader, the seemingly power anxious Hailu Shawul. What the result shows is the mosaic of Ethiopia is either lost in Finfinne or totally swallowed. Either way, the picture of the result should not give CUD reason to celebrate, but a challenge to face which it seems to have taken upon itself without any reservation. The city that thinks itself ahead of the other parts of Ethiopia may be far behind these other parts that are living off past Kushitic and Abyssinian civilizations.  


The fifth manifestation of the truth is the failure of some politician and individual members of the Amhara people who failed to understand the real problem the country is facing and still remain stomping on the same ground to send it in a dangerous direction. The struggles of mostly the non-Amhara peoples gave the Amhara people free and fair elections in at least the major cities including Finfinne in a few decades. This is what they couldn’t deliver or get in their known history. However, instead of showing some humility to the people who have been in arduous struggle, these individuals and the parties they represent seem so bent nostalgically on their past actions of molding Britain out of British, German, Franch and other peoples in Europe or Sunnis in Iraq out Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. They have started using their well known confusing code word of unity that practically meant in the past Amhara and Amharic domination at the expense of Oromo, Tigre and other people’s identities and languages. Their maneuverings are evident in the characters and characteristics of these individuals and the rhetoric of their party programs. Their main target are other peoples’ identities and interests. They are attacking those in the struggle by labeling their political activities ethnic politics as if these attackers do not stand for Amhara “ethnic” politics under the cover of standing as the guardians of Ethiopia. Their attack is to get back on Amhara and Amharic centered power at any cost.


One can simply look at some anecdotes surrounding the party known as CUD to observe its deeds. Under the rhetoric of unity, as if any rational person dislikes consensual unity, they have confused many people in the past for which great sacrifice has been paid to clear the confusion. If they get their way, it seems they do not back off such tactic that has proved to have failed beyond any doubt. One needs to carefully observe the characters of the leaders and messengers of CUD. As a person more Oromo than Amhara, as some of his former colleagues testify, Hailu Shawul jumped in the All Amhara People’s Organization (AAPO) for a reason difficult to explain. Later on, his group broke out of that organization and formed the All Ethiopia Unity Party (AEUP) that was formed in the northern Amhara region and marched south for political expansion, in his own admission a few years back. His party became a founding member of the United Ethiopia Democratic Forces (UEDF) that was formed in the USA a few years back only to again break out in a time of less than one year to end the marriage of convenience. The final manifestation of his party has shown in the results of its electorate which is mainly the Amhara region and a few garrison towns in other regions that were used by Menelik in the conquest of these regions. When uncovered, the winners of his party members may also be mostly ethnic Amharas or Amharic influenced individuals. Hailu Shawul’s personal anxiety also attests to this group's quest for power at any cost.


Even before the voting was over, he spoke out that the election was rigged, that he personally rejected it and that he would ask his party to reject it as well, only to back off that promise in a time of less than twenty four hours. When the EPRDF announced that it won the election with enough seats to form the next federal and four regional governments, the party he chairs told the world that that was illegal since it was only the National Electoral Board (NEB) that has the legal ground to announce the results. Again, breaking that promise few days later, his party claimed before the result became public by the NEB that it has won the election with enough seats to form the federal government. Interestingly, that was after observing some self-serving but deceptive rhetoric that the party’s results were based on the trends from the Amhara region and garrison towns mostly in Oromia. That is what the speaker of this party told the international community: that the “civilized” part of the country voted for them, inadvertently reminding Menelik’s self-serving mission of “civilizing” the “uncivilized”, as if the world of kings was more civilized than the egalitarian world or looting other people’s resources was the action of the civilized. Their self-conflicting individual supporters in the Diaspora have also shown their true characters in the course. After having made some promise to knock at the door of Oromos to hear their grievances to solve Ethiopia’s chronic problems, after calling to step back from the edge of the abyss, after calling for “kieving” Addis Ababa, some characters have turned their true color inside out to replace the EPRDF with a party that primarily serves their interests at the expense of other stakeholders’ interests. And they are doing this by sending an open letter to the current prime minister and western diplomatic offices, insulting these western diplomatic offices' intelligence by declaring a party of the mainly Amhara ethnic group represents the interests of all the peoples in Ethiopia. The rhetoric heard from other circles in the Diaspora is to get back their land, apparently referring to the land that was given back to the tiller, which was taken from them through Menelik’s conquest.


The sixth manifestation of the truth is the critical failure of the foreign observers to observe the serious issues Ethiopia is facing. First, it would be a critical failure to not be able to observe the fact that in Oromia region, students go to school to be spied upon by their teachers. It would also be a critical failure to not reflect the recent Human Rights Watch report, which indicated that Oromo families and individuals  have been assigned a spy from their neighbors and family members. A failure to reflect on such criminal acts by observers who have gone to observe the elections from their lands of liberties  would amount to a historic mistake. Second, this election was not a democratic election but it was a political election. The country is being pulled in two different directions: one for decentralized autonomous states along peoples' collective identities, with some forces demanding for self-determination on the side, and the other for unitary state with Amharic and Amhara domination at the center. The result of such election will only bring the political fight into the assembly hall, which will make the TPLF and Amhara parties working together a challenge than a healthy discourse. Suffice it to observe the picture of all TPLF winners in Tigray region (38 parliamentary seats) conduct healthy deliberation with all CUD winners in Finfinne (23 parliamentary seats). The challenge will be not due to the differences in their opinions but the inherent philosophies they have and the level of adversity with which they look at each other. The TPLF will see the CUD as remnants of the chauvinistic elements that was the cause for the very formation of the TPLF whereas the Amharas in the CUD group may see the TPLF as the adversary that contributed in a major way to the downfall of Amhara hegemony in Ethiopia.


The seventh and perhaps most important manifestation of the truth is the main problem of the country: the Oromo issue. The most important political opponent of the TPLF/EPRDF government, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), chose or was persuaded not to participate in the election with the view that the election would be not free and fair election. An EU observer and representatives of three organizations from the USA who went to observe the election were kicked out before the election. Interestingly, the representative of the EU observer had given a scholarly advice to the OLF to participate in the election hoping that it would be free and fair, only to find out himself on the way back home before observing the election and then hearing it from Human Rights Watch that the 2005 elections in Oromia would be a hollow exercise. Even moderate Oromo opposition political organizations who took part in the election are reporting that their observers and candidates have faced challenges that would prove the elections in Oromia a hollow exercise as the Human Rights Watch observed.


No one can say for sure whether these elections would be as free and fair as it was observed in the towns if the OLF participated in the election. What is most certain is that the TPLF/EPRDF would have lost Oromia much the same as it lost Finfinne had the elections been made free and fair in Oromia and had the OLF and other Oromo opposition parties participated in the election without obstacles. It is also most certain that the TPLF/EPRDF government would not allow this for that would be complete failure, which it is not prepared to swallow at any cost, looking at indications of its actions in Finfinne. What this election was is simply a political show between the Tigre politicians and their Amhara counterparts with marginal Oromo and other people’s presence.


The actors from the Amhara side have openly stated even before getting to power that they would redraw state maps and allow the sale of land before the political problem gets settled. This made three things very clear to Oromo political organizations, political activists as well as the Oromo people. The first is that if certain power driven individuals from the Amhara people get their way, they would not back off from disfiguring Oromia state in Ethiopia. The second is that those Amharas in the northern Amhara region who elected these individuals do not seem to care enough about the repercussions of the actions of these individuals who are on a power quest even if it meant further damaging the relationship between the Oromo people and their people. They had choices between the All Amhara People’s Organization, an organization that was formed to protect the interests of the Amhara people, and Hailu Shawul’s CUD. However, they disproportionately chose to accept CUD than AAPO. Oromos have fought for Oromo identity and they are not prepared to compromise that achievement. Some individuals from other societies’ readiness to tradeoff their culture and identity for some trademark in Finfinne doesn’t mean it is a practice the Oromo people are prepared for like the traders. The third thing that became very clear is that the TPLF/EPRDF would not have let free and fair election happen in Oromo region, the largest cream pie of Ethiopia’s politics, with all Oromo political organizations in new encampment called TPLF’s measured free and fair election that would ensure its win.


However, by their own actions, both the TPLF and Amhara driven political organizations availed an excellent opportunity for Oromo political organizations. At this time in Ethiopia’s political history, Oromo political organizations find themselves politically in the best strategic positions. The Oromo civil society on the one hand, the coalition of the liberation fronts, the opposition political organizations as well as the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), an organization that is left with a severely bruised step-father, the TPLF, find themselves in strategic positions from where they can protect as well as advance Oromo interests. The key factor is their mutual understanding of one another for the Oromo people’s cause. It is time to stop attack on one another and contribute to the Oromo people’s struggle how best they know and from where they find themselves. With vision and the use of all the resources available to them, all these groups can play a historic role.


All available means need to be used for the cause. All parties need to agree on some basic questions and demands. For obvious reasons, the Oromo people will be the least losers if Ethiopia becomes fully democratized. However, the fact that the Abyssinian politicians have enough experience in playing treacherous politics doesn’t mean the Oromo people should be played into the hands of these treacherous politicians that advance Amhara ethinc politics as they condemn other people’s quest for identity. If one means what one preaches, one has to swallow the reality that is staring one in the face.


CUD’s sworn political program seems to be to reverse the definition of regions based on the identities of the peoples and also the right for self-determination including up to secession, the famous article 39. No genuine politician or political party should target the identity of the Oromo people or the Amhara people, or any other people. The rule of the game should be how to cultivate one’s identity and seek to find ways to cooperate on matters that concern all. Critical observation shows that in the long run, as one of the minority peoples in Ethiopia, one of the Amhara people might need the guarantee of article 39 than the majority Oromo people. However, their quest to reverse this guarantee before finding a common ground for cooperation calls for the Oromo people to consider all their options at this time.


As it stands now, CUD’s program of redefining the states in Ethiopia is in direct collision course with almost all other political organizations in Ethiopia, including the potent and better structured UEDF and the TPLF dominated EPRDF. By taking its natural course, this stand of CUD may be “cudded” out in the long run. However, in the unlikely event that this party gets power in the future to do its plan, the Oromo people need to devise their own strategy to protect their interests.


Arguably, there are two practical options for the Oromo people within the legal framework to consider. First, they have to be given a guarantee that if CUD means what it preaches, it should immediately accept the Oromo people’s request to make the Oromo language the official language of Ethiopia and show its first step towards democracy by action. There is no reason for the Oromo people to be served with the Amharic language as the official language from the islands of Menelik’s garrison towns. Two, Oromos have the largest number of seats in Ethiopia’s parliament when compared to any other group. To practice what one preaches, and if there is any good will gesture from the preachers for past injustices, an Oromo should assume the premier position to start the new path with some healing process. This will be in a similar fashion to the assumption of premiership position by the Shiites in Iraq after the recent election. For fairness to other peoples in Ethiopia, future premier positions may be designed to rotate among the different peoples or new criteria may be designed for the process of filling this position. If these two demands are not met with positive response from this new party, and in the unlikely event that CUD becomes the ruler of Ethiopia at certain time in the future, the then administration of Oromia should consider the wish of the Oromo people if they would like to trigger article 39 for Oromia before it is recalled by any party. Once this article is triggered for Oromia, any call to remove it will be groundless as far as Oromia is concerned. 


What will save everyone from triggering this article by any state is the termination of ethnic Amhara individuals parade as the sole guardians of Ethiopia and the cultivation of mutual understanding between all the stakeholders in Ethiopia as equal partners. Amhara politicians have the options of organizing themselves as the guardians of Ethiopian unity and advance Amhara and Amharic language interests or organize themselves as Amharas and come to the table with other peoples for mutual partnership. The Amhara people too have options for who to send to the table. Lessons the TPLF and the people of Tigray who supported the TPLF uncritically have eventually learned should not be lost to Amhara political organizations under the cover of Ethiopia as well as to the Amhara general populace.


After all this is said, let wisdom prevail for all the peoples in Ethipia to see a better future. That wisdom is expected from the peoples of Ethiopia more than any party and they need to give their support to the party of their choice in a measured way.