Self-Determination or Self-Assertion?

We are already in the summer of 2004. As usual, several Oromo organized events are scheduled during this summer. Chief among them are the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) and the Oromo Sports Federation of North America’s annual conference and competition, respectively. As many Oromos from the Diaspora prepare for these events, we are reminded of interesting developments in Oromia. The TPLF/EPRDF government evicted Oromos and Oromo institutions from Finfinne without any consultation with the Oromo people and in complete disregard to its own constitution. It dismissed in hundreds the young and brightest Oromo students from universities. High schools throughout Oromia have been disrupted and the students and their teachers have been arrested in thousands and put in prison. 

Oromia in particular and the horn of Africa region in general are weak spots both politically as well as economically, barring the undeveloped resources. Several factors can be mentioned as the causes for it. Shallow and empirical Abyssinian political philosophy that has been living more on myth and legend than common sense rationale must bear the most burden. To this group, which some across the Red Sea call Yemeni Africans, the power of rational political deliberation doesn’t seem to win vainly pride and their urge to reach for their stick, which they use as hard as they can with little calculation of the repercussions. Slowly though, they seem to be discovering it. A recent call from a group called Eritrean Independent Democratic Movement attests to this fact. In an article titled Important Announcement, Concerns about War between Eritrea and Ethiopia, which was posted at website on June 18, 2004, this Eritrean group seems to “re-discover” the relationship between the Abyssinian peoples in the region (Amhara and Tigre peoples in Ethiopia and Tigrigna and Tigre peoples in Eritrea). In its lengthy analysis of the relationship between the two countries, the group wrote: “It [the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea] has crossed the Ethiopian national boundary and now involves the four major Abyssinian (Habesha) ethnic groups: In Eritrea, the Tigrigna and the Tigre; and in Ethiopia the Amharas and the Tigreans.” It points out elsewhere that Eritreans take their Abyssinianess seriously. It adds: “… it is in our modest understanding only when the Tigrigna and Tigre in Eritrea and the Amhara and Tigrai in Ethiopia rationally organize themselves to cooperate in a modern and civilized manner within their respective nation states that the region can have stability and prosper.” 

This group seems to wake up, look at the big picture with sleepy eyes and quickly go back to sleep in its rough bed believing it has clearly seen this big picture. Besides, it tries to persuade its readers that the big picture this group saw is what will bring stability and prosperity to the Horn of Africa region. It conveniently avoids the issue of the Cushitic majority peoples in the region whose resources the Abyssinian groups are fighting over. The group is telling this to its readers after both sides paid immense sacrifice over several decades fighting one another using sticks not of their invention but imported from overseas. In addition, the groups who have been fighting one another for different reasons may be the root of lump sum hate of peoples, which they conveniently inculcated into their constituents and may have to now root out such lump sum generalization culture from them. It is interesting to note the aforementioned group’s assertion that it takes Abyssinianess seriously. It is often cited that the Europeans arrived at their current civil discourse after fighting one another for decades. One would hope that the avenue to civil discourse in our region doesn’t have to be that way. 

Coming back to Oromia, the Oromo mass and other peoples in Ethiopia have been threatened and are dying from hunger and involuntary dislocation. The productive section of the Oromo mass is cut short by HIV/AIDS on historic proportions. It looks as if our people are cornered from every direction. On one side, they are hard hit by the TPLF/EPRDF government. On another side, they are facing natural calamity such as the ones mentioned above. The international community’s reluctance to pay due attention to the Oromo people's cause adds to this, although it seems to be showing better signs as of late. An interesting dimension to this is that some of the new subconscious preachers have found a fertile ground to recruit some of our innocent people to a camp whose deeper understanding is beyond the comprehension of these preachers and is strange to the people they preach to. 

Although any conscious preaching of any persuasion for the fulfillment of the spiritual demands of its congregation should not be discouraged, using Oromo people’s test of time as an opportunity to drive the people to these preachers’ adopted camp are not only destroying the Oromo people's culture, value system, dignity and pride, but also destroying an African achievement. These are the new wave of Gobanas that must be put in perispective. By chance or design, our people have become their easy prey. The Oromo people’s resilient culture and value system that survived for as long as the existence of humanity is under attack. Oromo world outlook is a clear mark of uniquely African social value system. In an oxymoronic fashion, these preachers have called their spiritual camp Oromo Church, clearly failing to make any distinction between Oromo and Church. Perhaps, they make no sense out of the concept of separation of state and religion. It never occurs to them that Oromos who practice Islam have not called their worship place Oromo Mosque. In fact, if Oromos are to claim their own institution of faith, the place of worship should be called Galma Oromo. In addition, Ethiopia's 1994 Census for the State of Oromia shows that the religious composition of the Oromo people is 44.3% Muslims, 41.3% Orthodox Christians, 8.6% Protestants, 4.2% followers of traditional religion (Waqqeffataa), and the remaining 1.6% other religions. Interestingly, it is the Protestant fraction that is referring to its camp Oromo Church. 

As Oromo scholars point out the weaknesses of other groups, they must also not fail to evaluate theirs. As the single majority people in the region, the Oromo people must partly bear the responsibility of putting their house and hence the region in order. The Oromo people have been weak, partly because of the clashes of Oromo egalitarian and Abyssinian dictatorial cultures. Oromo politicians' honesty for rational political discourse and Abyssinian groups' treachery for political power has become a bad mix starting with the deal between Menelik II and Gobana Daccee, followed by the maneauvers between Haile Sellassie and Quse (Habtegiorgis) Dinagde, Mengistu Hailemariam and Teferi Benti, and Meles Zenawi and Lenco Leta. Weakness must be overcome by building on the momentum that has been achieved and by scrapping off weak and imported philosophies that have been adopted as a means of struggle. One of such philosophies that has been questioned is the applicability of the concept of self-determination to Oromia’s specific case. It is fitting for OSA to observe the question and organize its 2004 conference under the theme of “Self-Determination, Human Rights, and Development Issues in the Horn of Africa: a Comparative Appraisal”. As a scholarly forum, this conference should critically evaluate both the philosophy of self-determination and how it may be applicable to Oromia’s specific case. It should give answers to who should demand self-determination from whom? How many sides may be involved in self-determination? How will all those that need to be involved actually get involved? What will be the course of all the sides involved under all the possible scenarios of the outcome of self-determination if and when it is materialized? 

The purpose of this column is to challenge the applicability of self-determination concept to the specific case of Oromia. The Oromo people’s political question as demonstrated through their different political organizations falls into two categories. These are autonomous Oromia State inside democratic Ethiopia or whatever name may be adopted in the future and independent Oromia from Ethiopia. This column argues that for the specific case of Oromia, the concept of self-determination has been a trap for Oromo struggle for either scenario. Ethiopia has been called a prison house of nations and nationalities and Oromia is the center of the political power of the so called prison house. In such unique arrangement for Oromia, a unilateral move for independence throught self-determination instead of collective move of the prisoners for an agreed upon political solution is a political dead-end struggle. In addition, such demand for self-determination is not to be offered to any people on a silver platter by the U.N. or the party that self-determination is sought from, Ethiopia in this case. Of course, some can have the luxury to argue that self-determination is an international law and the Oromo people have the right to demand it without telling us which police force may enforce it. Oromos can beg for self-determination from Ethiopia for ever, but that will not persuade Abyssinian political establishment to allow the Oromo people to exercise it nor does it at the very least caution them not to abuse Oromos basic human rights. In fact, some Abyssinian scholars actually conveniently reduce it to cultural self-determination, whatever that means. 

In conclusion, for autonomous movement, using self-determination as a tool gives a false sense of the possibility of independence. For independence movement, self-determination should be irrelevant. What the concept of self-determination has actually become in Oromo freedom movement is a tool of mixed signal. This column argues that self-assertion for either autonomy or independence should take the place of self-determination. 

As Abyssinian groups foresee natural regrouping, so should Oromo political groups. It is short-sighted political calculation for the Oromo political groups to be divided and partner with each side of divided Abyssinian groups who are fighting each other. Such arrangement gives power hungry Abyssinian dictators tools to play with to the deteriment of the Oromo people's cause. Oromo political groups should sideline inter-fighting of Abyssinian groups and mend their differences, not exacerbate and at times create them. The idea of finding a unity of purpose among all Oromo political organizations has been suggested in the past and it is still timely. The realization of this initiative could be a first step in self-assertion.