Stocktaking and Cultivating Objectivity in Oromo Political Movement

 

On October 10, 2005, the Ethiopian Parliament re-elected Meles Zenawi as Ethiopia’s Prime Minster for the next five years. He has already ruled for the last 14 years. Whether it is his ability and the backing from various parties or the weakness of the oppositions to his party’s rule that puts him in the post is probably a critical issue to debate on.

 

The student movements of both the Oromo and Tigray peoples were started at about the same time. However, whereas the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) defeated the former communist regime in Tigray and later on from Ethiopia’s political scene fourteen years ago with assistance from different directions, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) is yet to come out victorious in its struggle for the rights of the Oromo people.

 

Without any doubt, the Oromo people’s movement is well behind the expectations of the Oromo people. Why it is where it is today is probably a question of many quarters. In some respects, today, the movement of the Oromo people is in a far better shape than the movement of other peoples in Ethiopia, including the peoples of Tigray and Eritrea. Oromo movement is a broadly based and more democratic movement that is laying down long-lasting social pillars for the future of the Oromo nation. Yet, it is not in a shape or form where we could simply wish away stocktaking the weaknesses in Oromo political movement and hesitate to make a call for cultivating objectivity in it.

 

As the Oromo wisdom goes, one has to look where one has slipped instead of where one has fallen. To the extent that the OLF has failed to achieve so far what is expected of it, we should perhaps look back at the history of Oromo movement where the OLF slipped instead of its failures.

 

As Leenco Lata alluded to in his interview a few years ago, the OLF is an organization that inherited the political movement of the Oromo people that had manifested itself in the ranks of Match and Tulama Self-help Association members. While Matcha and Tulama was created by older generation Oromos that had some level of experience in Haile Sellassie regime’s bureaucracy and a strong attachment to the rich Oromo wisdom, the OLF may have been materialized by the activities of the younger radical students. The difference was not limited to age and educational level composure of the leaders of the two organizations. Critical analysis suggests that there is actually basic difference between the approaches of the two groups.

 

According to some accounts on the early movement of Matcha and Tulama, the political activists in the organization may have targeted overtaking the government power. As a matter of fact, we are told that its political activists have organized an unsuccessful coup de tat against the imperial government of Haile Sellassie.

 

The primary driving force of the OLF is an imported concept of self-determination from Ethiopia to form an Independent Republic of Oromia. Therefore, the shift of approach in the political movement of the Oromo people at that juncture was obvious. Yet, it did not make the shift of approach without splitting the ranks of the student activists into two camps, which include those who saw the solution of the Oromo people’s political question within Ethiopia and those who didn’t. While some may have seen the OLF’s approach as “a majority waging the question of a minority”, others may have seen Oromo question as the relationship between a colonial and a colonized states. While the determination of those students of that day is remarkable, their failure to come to consensus as well as to choose a common better approach to achieve the desired goal may be where the struggle of the Oromo people slipped. In addition, the divide it created then has not faded to the background of Oromo political movement, but is manifesting among Oromo political activist as well as movements of even today. If the approach taken then by the student activists that contributed to the formation of the OLF have been studied exhaustively, the fact that Oromia’s independence with Ethiopia’s capital of Finfinne being in Oromia’s heartland is structurally problematic would have been sufficiently addressed.

 

When this very issue was discussed in late 2003 on an Oromo domain discussion forum, no satisfactory explanation was offered. Some who were unable to challenge the issue tried to wish away the challenge as simply “turning history on its head.” Interestingly, within a few weeks of the intensely engaged discussion, the EPRDF government ordered to move Oromia’s capital from Finfinne to Adama in what seems to be a “magic” answer to that discussion. That action of the Ethiopian government moved Oromos from corner to corner, needless to mention it gave birth to Voice Finfinne as an internet site.

 

Having come this far and looking beyond the outcome of Ethiopia’s 2005 legislative elections, stocktaking of Oromo political movement of the past and suggestions for the future couldn’t be untimely. Because Oromo political movements have been excessively busy in labeling each other instead of gearing to work with each other, an assessment of its possible cause should be helpful for the future of Oromo as well as Ethiopia’s and East Africa’s political discourse.

 

The strengths as well as weaknesses of some of the young students whom the missionary school of thought produced are perhaps one of the most important areas where stocktaking should begin. That is because these students who were recruited to or joined the ranks of Matcha and Tulama have involved in taking over the political movement of Matcha and Tulama to form the OLF and in leading this organization since then, for nearly thirty years.

 

Whether it is the level of social consciousness of the missionaries who have been well into their renaissance by that time or if it is the wisdom traditions in the bible that the missionaries taught, its school has produced considerable learned Oromos that became part and parcel of the Oromo people’s political movement. Yet, a critical assessment of the students of the missionary school suggests that that school may have caused disconnection between the general outlooks of some of them and the well established Oromo wisdom tradition.

 

Such behavior may have manifested in terms of attempts to overtake not only Oromo political movement but also rendering it highly inefficient. Matcha and Tulama activism that practiced inclusiveness of various sections of Oromo society which brought on board these students in the first place was institutionalized into the OLF where exclusivity in its leadership became a clear mark. The leadership became prone to averting objectivity using an excuse of traitor for any different view. Some leadership members in whom Oromo wisdom and the highest determination was visible disappeared from the scene of Oromo political movement with little explanation. Although there are signs of emergent energetic politicians in the ranks of the current OLF leadership, we are yet to witness if this new addition will be able to free itself from the maneuverings of the old school politicians for their suspect interests. Perhaps, the worst danger the current OLF leadership may be facing is the lack of disclosure by old politicians of their failure and continued maneuvering to influence the organization in the face of such failure, on the one hand, and the indifference by the energetic new blood to the maneuvering of the failed old leadership circles to continue on the same path.

 

As the founders of the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) inform us, this association was founded by Oromo scholars to advance objective scholarship in Oromo studies. Yet, it was overtaken by Oromo scholars that the missionary school produced and has been rendered a quasi-political forum to the distaste of the very founders of the association, some of whom have distanced themselves from the association. Arguably, scholarship on Oromo history that is produced by those outside OSA is by far richer than what OSA may have produced in its nearly two decades of existence as a scholarly association.

 

The Union of Oromos in North America (UONA) was formed as a community association that is non-partisan to any single political organization. In its short existence, it has organized one of the most successful Oromo organizations in North America. However, it was weakened after the arrival in North America of some OLF leadership that the missionary school produced.

 

When those who still have deep connections with Oromo core value of Gada and wisdom tradition of Waqeffanna demonstrated their adherence to these core Oromo values, some students of the missionary school advocated them obsolete and in some cases even dead. Interestingly, they are saying it in the era when Prof. Donald L. Levine, an American scholar recently expressed his wish for the US Congress to accept the concept of Gada.

 

The latest attempt to overtake political directions was manifested in the activities of the recently formed Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM). While the duplication of an Oromo party that has similar political program and goal as an existing Oromo party can’t escape the eyes of careful observers without wondering the reason, the activities of some of its leaders reveal the unbelievable low level moral in some quarters. In a letter distributed on June 9, 2005, to OFDM’s supporters in the Diaspora, Bulcha Damaksa, the current chairman of the OFDM, would write “[ONC] has compromised practically all Oromo political tenets including Federalism, non transferability of land through sale, equality of our language with the official language, our right to Finfinne including our opposition to moving to Adama.” At the time when the EPRDF government decided to move Oromia’s capital from Finfinne to Adama, the Indian Ocean Newsletter (ION) No. 1071 had reported that Finfinne saw one of the biggest demonstrations called by the ONC since the OLF withdrew from the transitional government in 1992. The demonstration was called to oppose moving Oromia’s capital from Finfinne to Adama. Interestingly, the ION report noted that Bulcha Demeksa was one of the distinguished speakers at the rally called by the ONC, perhaps without any foresight that the same person would venture in the future to say that the ONC said nothing about it.  

 

Such immoral low level politics is what is waged by the products of some schools of thoughts that have been active in Oromo politics. Evidently, such low level personalities must have been detached from the great Oromo wisdom with honesty and integrity as its trademarks.

 

In the very recent past, in an article titled “Seize the Moment or Perish”, Lenco Lata had foreseen that unless the OLF accepted federalism and went home to take part in what is now called Democratization of Ethiopia, the fate of the Oromo nation could be permanently sealed. Yet, just after a short while, even without formal presence of the OLF in Ethiopia, the overall political movement of the Oromo people appears to be in a most potent state than at any other time since the formation of Ethiopia as a state, and this may have availed Lenco Lata the opportunity to seize this moment himself.

 

What must be important at this stage in Oromo politics that has come this far is its formidable potency in the politics of Ethiopia and East Africa in the coming years. It has been almost concluded that Oromia’s independence from Ethiopia has been rated as second to Oromia as a federal state in a democratized Ethiopia, by most of the Oromo political organizations. Given this situation, the future of Oromo political forces may be to seek some sort of autonomy in Ethiopia and/or assuming leadership position of Ethiopia in proportion to the number of the Oromo people. What to focus on could be left to the political organizations. Yet the historical implications of the steps that will be taken will be part of a history they choose to write.

 

In Voice Finfinne’s view, self-determination for autonomous Oromia in Ethiopia under the rule of the TPLF leader Meles Zenawi will be a shameful milestone in the book of Oromo history that would have been written not out of political vision but out of political cowardice. As representatives of the majority in Ethiopia, Oromo political forces may be better placed to work with genuine representatives of all the peoples in Ethiopia and position themselves for the next episode of Ethiopia’s elections. Cultivating objectivity in Oromo politics should be one of the cornerstones of Oromo political activists as well as organizations. The effort to maximize the services of Oromo intellectuals is long overdue. What is to come may be both responsibility and accountability not only to the Oromo people but also to other peoples in Ethiopia as well as the international community. Time has come for civility and civil political discourse with various political actors in Ethiopia and beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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