Maintaining Political Sanity: What the OLF Should Do Amid Political Insanity in East Africa


When the contacts between the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who is also the head of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), was made public recently, it became headline news surprise to many quarters. The initial reactions seem to be mired by sensations at the cost of critical analysis of the implications for the future political directions of East Africa.


As Winston Churchill is reported to have once said, all nations and peoples behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.


Critical analysis would suggest that most major political organizations in East Africa that were created in the last forty or so years seem to have been exhausting all the other alternatives for them except wisdom.


After the overthrow of the former Siad Barre regime in Somalia, the various political factions in that country have failed to form a stable country for themselves up to today. They seem to be exhausting all the option for them except wisdom. The fact that it has taken them so long to put their house in order when the rest of the world is advancing so fast is political insanity.


In the early 1990’s Meles Zenawi, who has been Prime Minister of Ethiopia for the last 14 years told the OLF leadership flatly to go to the field and fight it. After organizing prisoners of war into what it called People Democratic Organizations (PDOs) for several of the nations and nationalities in Ethiopia, the TPLF, whose constituency is less than two digit percent of the peoples in Ethiopia, marched to Finfinne, Ethiopia’s capital, to take over the central government power and rule an amorphous state as it wished. The very idea of forming political organizations for the peoples the TPLF did not represent by any measure was political insanity.


The Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) fought to be independent from Ethiopia and when it won the independence struggle and its close ally, the TPLF, took power in Finfinne, it organized a referendum for the peoples of Eritrea with reported options on the ballot as Independence or Slavery. In the process, it may have played into the emotions of its constituents to go in the direction the EPLF wanted, instead of careful and critical research into other options that are in the best long-term interest of all the peoples in Eritrea.


The EPLF and the TPLF leadership, the core of which come from the same Tigre people who speak the same language, chose to divide these people into different countries. That was another political insanity.


Other victims of this political insanity are the Afar people who became the shared subjects of Eritrea and Ethiopia, in addition to their presence in Djibouti. Because of the fact that the Afar people did not have a meaningful say in the actions of the EPLF and the TPLF, Ethiopia became the most populous landlocked country in the world. That is not to say the other peoples in Ethiopia have a right over the Afar Red Sea coast. Yet the possibility that the Afar people, who are divided in Eritrea and Ethiopia, may choose to live together in an autonomous state in Ethiopia was effectively blocked by the leadership in the EPLF and TPLF. That too was political insanity on the part of the TPLF.


A few years ago, out of the blue, the TPLF/EPRDF government moved the capital of the state of Oromia from Finfinne to Adama, breaking its own constitution. It was uncalled for political insanity that would later cost the TPLF/EPRDF immensely.


In the run up to the recent legislative elections in Ethiopia, a quickly organized political group of mostly the Amharic speaking peoples, known as the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), was seen making every imaginable maneuvering to take the central government at any cost in the face of a heavily armed ruling party. Although the resistance movement of the Oromo people in general and that of the Oromo Liberation Front in particular gets the lions share of the struggles against the regime that has been in power in Ethiopia for the last fourteen years, the CUD was making all the maneuverings to take the central government in the absence of the OLF, which did not take part in the legislative elections. If it were a party that gives ears to the interests and aspirations of most peoples in Ethiopia, one would expect the CUD to put reconciliation and inclusiveness its top priority instead of making all the maneuverings to overtake the central government taking opportunistic advantage of the political vacuum created. That maneuvering too was political insanity.


After the TPLF/EPRDF was totally defeated in Finfinne by the oppositions, the OPDO decided, or perhaps was encouraged to return back to Finfinne. The people who opposed the move of Oromia’s capital from Finfinne to Adama were put in jail. Although the moving back of Oromia’s capital back to Finfinne amounts to exonerating the people who opposed its move in the first place, the fact that this people or at least many of them are still languishing in jail is political insanity.


Amid all these, whether it is the capability of the OLF leadership or the rich wisdom of the Oromo people, the OLF has maintained political moral high ground up to the present day. Its program has always been to enable the Oromo people to exercise their inalienable right to determine their destiny. Yet, in its long history of struggle, the OLF has made friends with various parties including the EPLF and the TPLF at one time or another. One of the visible weaknesses of this organization has been the level of its relationship with these other organizations. Careful Oromo observers have time and again questioned whether such relationships amount to both the EPLF and the TPLF taking advantage of Oromo movement by befriending the OLF when these organizations find themselves in a politically weak position.


The recent contact between Meles Zenawi and the OLF doesn’t seem to pre-empt the suggestion that the TPLF needs the OLF when it finds itself in a politically weak situation. Of course, no peace loving person or group should question any dialogue between two groups that are in conflict. We can’t fail to see the benefits of dialogue.


However, the dialogue should not raise more questions than give answers. In the dialogue undergoing between the OLF and the current Ethiopian government, it is clear that Meles’ rule was weakened after the recent elections in which the oppositions made a significant gain to the extent that the popular rejection of the EPRDF government of Meles Zenawi by the peoples in Ethiopia was clearly signaled. Therefore, if Meles Zenawi’s rule has been weakened, some amount of credit should go to the oppositions who took part in the legislative elections. Some of them have also called for some sort of reconciliation in which all political groups may take part. They have called for the formation of a unity government, which could have been used by Meles Zenawi as a ground to work from to solve the problem he has contributed in creating. His calling on the OLF to negotiate while shunning the call of the oppositions to form a unity government, which Meles labeled unthinkable, is another political insanity on the part of TPLF/EPRDF.


Whether one agrees with the stand of the oppositions or not should not blind us to read what is rational. Wouldn’t the better course for the government of Meles Zenawi be negotiate with the oppositions based on their call for the formation of unity government while at the same time reaching out to the OLF for a dialogue? One would expect such bold move from a leader who has the interests of all the peoples he is leading at his heart.


On the other hand, if Meles Zenawi has invited the OLF for a dialogue, should the OLF leadership brace it at a moment's notice or should it come out bold and tall to indicate the political insanities that characterize the politics of the region and offer its proposal to bring some sanity to it?


How Meles may have reached out to the OLF as well as how the OLF responds to that situation under the given circumstances have implications for the near future of the politics of the region as well as in history books. When two parties weaken each other after well engaged fighting and if one of the weakened parties reaches out for help from a third party, Oromo wisdom demands that how this third party responds should not be in an opportunistic fashion. After all, the two parties that engaged each other did the major fighting in Oromo country while the OLF was absent and the failure of the OLF to emerge as a political organization at par with the people it represents is partly to blame.


As it enters this dialogue, it should be in the interest of the OLF as well as the Oromo people if some controversial issues are explained by the OLF. First, having its head office in Eritrea’s capital, which engaged Ethiopia in a bloody war five years ago and its border issue with Ethiopia not settled up to the present day, is duty bound to make clear the implications of its relationship with Eritrea in the face of the reported dialogue with Meles Zenawi.


Secondly, the OLF is one of the Oromo political organizations in the Oromo liberation fronts umbrella political organization of United Liberation Forces of Oromia (ULFO). Whether Meles’ initiated dialogue includes the other political organizations in ULFO or if the OLF is making a unilateral negotiation and if this negotiation is with or without consultations with the other Oromo political organizations in ULFO should be clear.


Finally, the stance of the OLF on the issue of Oromia independence should be made clear to the Oromo people, as well as other peoples in the region and the world community. Giving conflicting signals to the Oromo people and the international community should not be the vision of mature politics. In addition, if the dialogue becomes successful and the OLF enters the scene of politics in Ethiopia, its roadmap must also be made clear. The lack of coherent clear vision may be one of the factors keeping this organization from becoming a formidable political organization in the region to reckon with.


In Voice Finfinne’s view, an opportunity has been created to solve the chronic political problems in Ethiopia. Today, no political group in the region can freely dictate the course of future politics in Ethiopia. In such situation, the Oromo people can only be gainers if better organized and led well. While an opportunity is knocking at the door of the Oromo people as well as other peoples for amicable settlement of the chronic political problem of the region, or at least to start an excellent course for its settlement, the leadership capability with which the OLF and other Oromo political organizations conduct themselves is bound to be the remaining determining factor.