The Power and Liberation Factors in the Struggle of the Oromo People for Liberty
As various political groups with diverse interests have surmised, Ethiopia’s 2005 legislative elections have significantly changed the political landscape in Ethiopia. The struggle between the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and two main opposition groups, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF), is arguably the main factor that leveled this political landscape. The ruling party’s quest to remain in power and oppositions quest to come to power have already caused so much tribulations and unnecessary damage on the civil populace to the extent that the political competition would seem a fight between enemies instead of a healthy competition between political opponents in a common country.
The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), arguably the main opponent to the EPRDF before the two opposition groups came to the fore as formidable powers in the eve of the legislative elections, did not participate in these elections. While its absence from participating in the elections gave it the political advantage of staying clean from the tribulations the struggle between the ruling party and the two oppositions have caused, it has at the same time denied it the benefit of getting seats in the current Ethiopian parliament. That is if the OLF’s objective has been getting seats in Ethiopia’s parliament.
If that has been the interest of the OLF, it certainly has lost an opportunity to participate in the legislative elections. The objection of Oromo nationalists against the OLF’s participation in the legislative elections was considerable in the time leading up to the elections. While the objection by some seemed to be misguided stance that rejects participation in political activity that has anything to do with Ethiopia since they believe in a straight jacket struggle for independence of Oromia from Ethiopia, the objection by others seemed to be strategic in the face of EPRDF’s erratic politics in the past that would go to any length to come out the winner. The main reasoning of the strategists was that since there were other opposition Oromo political organizations in Ethiopia, notably the Oromo National Congress (ONC), which is a member of the UEDF, it would be wiser to test EPRDF’s readiness to open the political space through free and fair elections by deploying limited Oromo political party players in Ethiopia's political field instead of putting every Oromo political organization in the same camp of EPRDF’s free and fair elections.
The outcome of the elections and the subsequent tribulations, which took heavy toll on the lives of civilians during demonstrations in the aftermath of the rigged elections according to international observers, have made Ethiopia’s political landscape much more leveler than it has been a few months ago. Interestingly, Oromo political forces seem to have been well positioned in this field that it appears that the elections brought a great victory to the Oromo people’s long and protracted struggle for liberty. The OLF that has been waging armed struggle for a long time against successive Ethiopian governments is, perhaps, the best armed political organization in Ethiopia with appreciable sympathy from the United States and some European countries. If armed struggle becomes necessary to advance the Oromo people’s struggle against the EPRDF, no other political organization in Ethiopia seems to have been as experienced and prepared as the OLF.
Oromo opposition political organizations, notably the ONC and a smaller party called the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM), are significant Oromo political parties to reckon with that are among the Oromo people. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the members of the EPRDF is Oromia’s governing party. While its legitimacy as an Oromo organization has been seriously challenged since it was created by the TPLF out of its war captives during its protracted struggle with the Derg, which ruled Ethiopia for seventeen years since it came to power, OPDO's army general who is the head of Oromia state may have been well positioned to ensure stability in the state.
The president and first vice president of the CUD are partly and fully of Oromo background, respectively. Although these leaders differ in opinion from the mainstream Oromo political forces in that the former oppose Ethiopia's current federalism that is based on the identities of nations and nationalities whereas the latter accept that as the minimum political demand by the Oromo people. In this light, even the CUD leadership can be put to serious test as far as the political interests of the Oromo people go.
Even though we may consider such positioning of different Oromo forces in the political landscape of Ethiopia in a positive light, we should also note the weaknesses that have been exposed in this process. Notable weaknesses of the OLF and some of its incompetent cadres have been exposed to the extent that critical observers might question if the organization has a clear vision of its goals and how to achieve it.
In early September, we woke up to BBC news that Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister and EPRDF’s chairman, reached out to the OLF. At the time, the OLF expressed its readiness to accept Meles’ invitation through one of its officials in an interview with BBC’s focus on Africa. Apparently, Meles’ government was weak at the time because of the threats from the oppositions who had been planning for nationwide strike on October 2, 2005, in protest of the election fraud.
In its November 4, 2005, broadcast, the Voice of Oromo Liberation (VOL), which is run by the OLF, broadcasted the organization’s support to the protests by the Coalition for Unity and Democracy against the EPRDF. The fact that the OLF chooses to negotiate with EPRDF’s Meles Zenawi in September and then supports the CUD’s demonstration against the EPRDF in November of the same year could not pass the eyes of critical observers without questioning if the organization has a solid vision of its own. The rhetoric of the CUD and its centralist political leaning may not be qualitatively different from that of the Derg, the former ruling party in Ethiopia before 1991. The OLF waged a protracted struggle against this group for as long as that party’s existence of seventeen years and the OLF’s willingness to join the CUD or simply follow it may not be politically anything less than surrendering to the Derg. In addition, the OLF made this call at a time when a major party with in the four party coalition of CUD distanced itself from the CUD because of dictatorial tendency of its current leadership. The only benefit the OLF may have seen is the disturbances caused because of CUD’s call for civil disobedience. Yet that couldn’t have been done by the OLF without sacrificing its core values. Furthermore, the OLF should have seen value in the stability of Ethiopia than any instability that could have well been caused if CUD’s civil disobedience bore fruit.
In the time after the May 15 elections, OLF cadres were on campaign to distance the ONC from the UEDF, a nationwide party that differs from the CUD because of the former’s decentralization tendency. After a short while, it is interesting to note the OLF siding with the CUD, a centralist party with which the Oromo people’s struggle has the least political appellation. While both the Amhara and the Tigre groups have formed national parties, CUD for Amhara and EPRDF for Tigre, the propaganda of the OLF cadres has tried to severe the relationship between the ONC and the UEDF, a national party that could become Oromo interest influenced national political party that would compete against the CUD and the EPRDF in the future politics in Ethiopia.
The OLF also failed to take stand on the issue of the formation of National Unity Government (NUG) called by the oppositions after accepting the results of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). A careful observation of that call would have revealed an excellent opportunity to put Oromo struggle in its proper place. That is because it would have exposed the CUD as merely an Amhara party if its contribution in the NUG were Amharas or it would maximize the number of Oromo participants in the executive branch of the government it it distributed its representation in proportion to the size of the nations and nationalities in Ethiopia. Both would be an excellent strategic outcome in the future politics of Ethiopia.
The other crucial matter the elections exposed is the incompetence of some of OLF cadres who believe in glorifying the individual leading an organization instead of the deeds of the organization. This is specifically significant since both the leadership of the organization and its cadres must match up to the competence of fast and brutal political world of our time.
In hindsight of the political landscape created in Ethiopia at this time, the struggle appears to be between two groups with serious weaknesses. On the one hand, Oromo politicians have not managed to narrow down their differences and come up with a formidable solution to Ethiopia's political problem. They have been scattered over the political landscape in a clear demonstration of their weaknesses. On the other hand, Meles appears to be standing in the middle of all these players and seems to be shooting in the direction of each and everyone of them.
What we have come to learn from these weaknesses is that the weaknesses in themselves may have become the greatest liability in the struggle of the Oromo people. An organization that is not run by the quest for power by its leadership members and an organization that doesn’t flip-flop its position between liberation and self-administration will go a long way to address the quest of its constituents. .
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