My mother, who doesn’t have any formal education beyond grade six and happens to be of your generation, recently solicited my opinion regarding your imminent move to Finfinnee, perhaps thinking that I might be privy to some pertinent information. She sounded both perplexed and intrigued by the maneuver. Startled by the topic and overall insightfulness of our talk (because I didn’t think that my mother would be interested in this particular discussion given her general comportment), I asked her what motivated the unusual question and interest. It turns out that your upcoming relocation to the more tropical Shaggar has been a hot topic of discussion among her peers, some of whom happen to be non-Oromo.
There is no doubt that you are still capable of generating a significant buzz in the Ethiopian political arena. Although you remain a controversial figure among the Oromo (I will come back to this shortly), you have engendered what can only be described as mass hysteria in the Amhara camp, with some portraying you as the chief menace to their continuing, if diminishing, stranglehold on what is left of their fading empire, despite your Front’s unambiguously stated wishes to contribute to the building of a new country in which all the constituent parts have equitable stakes (a tall task). They dread your return to Ethiopia, perceiving it as part-II of your “evil scheme” to dismantle the country, with part-I being the role you are widely believed to have played in its re-organization in the present form in the early 1990′s. The most recent interview the sitting Ethiopian Prime Minister gave to local journalists, in which he reiterated some inane talking points and sounded defensive, while discussing your Front’s potential entry into the Ethiopian political market, may also be cited as another evidence of your heft as a political figure.
On the other hand, your reputation among the vocal segment of the Oromo political class can only be described as incongruous at best: Your detractors hold you responsible for everything that has gone wrong with the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), while your passionate admirers ascribe to you almost mythical qualities as a leader. For an objective observer who has followed the course of your political career, however, both characterizations are naive and miss the subtlety of Leenco the person.
From my vantage point, you are neither a modern-day Goobanaa some have portrayed you to be, nor a messiah of the Oromo people. You deserve our unreserved gratitude and admiration for dedicating your entire adult life to dismantling Abyssinian tyranny and promoting the Oromo cause, sacrificing so much and shouldering a burden that only a few can. There is no doubt in my mind that your contribution to our people’s legitimate cause will be deemed essential, when this chapter of Oromo history is written. Although I don’t necessarily subscribe to some of your political views, I have always appreciated your knack for synthesizing important political events and trajectories, particularly as they pertain to the Horn of Africa. However, I am as clear-eyed about your frailties (all-too-human), as well as your part in what we now know to be the most ruinous decision taken by the OLF leadership collectively in the early 1990′s – the encamping of our battle-tested fighters that you and a few others had painstakingly built up over the years, exposing them to the brutal enemy. Overall, however, you have been a credit to your people, and no ill-informed and boorish slanderer can change that.
The rendering of simplistic judgments on your very meaningful and complex political career is par-for-the-course for individuals who have consistently advocated, mostly from a safe distance, an either/or solution to the Oromo question, clearly misdiagnosing the Oromo problem, while the issues we are confronting as a nation demand nuanced and practical solutions that are both/and. The same characters who have largely been talking past each other about what is best for the Oromo (complete independence vs. a union of independent nations in Ethiopia), without thinking rigorously about how one gets at their preferred solutions, have been either defending you uncritically, or defaming you rather inexcusably.
I can’t say that I am as intrigued as my mother seems to be about your more recent political incarnation. If I sound a bit cynical, I have the political history of the Ethiopian empire to blame – history in which the Oromo people have made numerous genuine gestures to co-exist peacefully with the Abyssinians, but somehow found themselves on the losing end of the bargain time and again. I realize that you are much more familiar with the Abyssinian double-crossing than most people, not least because you were a party to the political deal that had brought the TPLF to power.
Therefore, I do not believe that the strategic route, which the Oromo Democratic Front/ODF (your brainchild, it appears) is taking, will, by itself, resolve the fundamental contradictions of the Ethiopian state, mainly because of the inherent incompatibility of the highly-autocratic and Machiavellian Abyssinian political culture (where the winner takes all), with the famously democratic Oromo political tradition, which emphasizes consensus building, give-and-take, and transparency. It would simply be naive to expect that a political dialogue with the Abyssinians as the primary political strategy will yield the necessary and fundamental change our people have been fighting for and deserve. My strongly held view is that only a disciplined and well-coordinated armed-struggle will *guarantee* the freedom of our people from the ongoing Abyssinian tyranny.
Nevertheless, it would be unreasonable to discount any effort with a potential to empower the Oromo, even if marginally. I think the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) can make a worthy contribution to our cause,conditional on its vision being widely understood by the folks back home as one necessary piece of the puzzle, which requires all-hands-on-deck and thinking-outside-the-box, to resolve. The trick is to clearly communicate to the main stakeholders – the Oromo people – that ODF’s political program is just one of the existing, perhaps competing, visions for the Oromo by the Oromo, emphasizing that your goal is to empower the people, not to supplant other efforts exerted to cut the Gordian-Knot, which is the Ethiopian empire. If the focus is the former – and there are plenty of things your organization could potentially do to empower the Oromo – your imminent entry into the TPLF-dominated Ethiopian political landscape might prove to be a wise undertaking after all.
What Can the ODF potentially do to Empower the Oromo?
The Amhara elites, who have been pushed out of almost all the key institutions in Finfinnee (the political capital where all the important decisions affecting the country are made) by the new czars from the de facto Tigray republic, appear to have understood very well the significance of staying in close proximity to Menelik’s palace – the single most important institution in the city (hence the country). Using whatever little political leverage they could muster, they have been making the most noise in the capital, even coming close to pausing a real threat to the ruling party in the 2005 national elections. They are currently organized primarily under two political groups (ANDINET and BLUE), which have been successful in organizing demonstrations in the capital and beyond, opposing various government policy decisions affecting their kin, bringing sufficient light to the issues they care most about – in some cases forcing the current office holders to reverse their decisions. These seemingly minor achievements have had the effect of putting the current regime on the defensive, while further emboldening the people they represent, creating a momentum of sort in their pursuit of their political goals.
With all due respect to Obbo Bulchaa Dammaqsaa and Professor Mararaa Guddinaa, and despite certain valiant efforts by Oromo university students in the past (e.g. demonstrations against the relocation of the capital of the Oromia State to Adaamaa), the Oromo have virtually no representation in their own political capital. The ruling party has taken numerous decisions with considerable adverse impacts on the Oromo; regrettably however, apart from the sporadic press releases and demonstrations by the Diaspora based Oromo organizations and communities, these decisions have virtually gone unopposed by the Oromo back home, making it easier for the ruling class to manipulate, abuse and exploit Oromo resources with an attitude of impunity. With an independent Oromo voice of your stature, political maturity and likely connections, we may have a shot at channeling some of our grave concerns in a systematic and organized fashion. We can’t afford to simply wait for a few brave men and women to march into Finfinnee to liberate us, while we are losing ground on so many fronts. I will just cite two broad areas that ought to concern every Oromo with an ounce of dignity and some idea of self-preservation.
We are losing ground, because there is a widespread and well-crafted ethnocide taking place around Finfinnee. Oromo farmers are systematically being evicted from their ancestral land at a frightening speed, with no legal recourse to boot. It took about a century for the Amhara elites to make the Oromo of Gullallee, Araadaa, Boolee, Kolfee, Yakka, etc. strangers in their own land. Nowadays, Abyssinians are openly bragging (in the name of development, of course) about the record speed at which the Oromo towns and villages of Sulultaa, Sabbataa, Sandaafaa, Labuu, are being cleansed of their Oromo identity and culture. The powers that be are even projecting – via carefully planted Trial Balloons – their ambition to annex more substantial Oromo land for their exurban project of the imperial city of Addis Ababa, which, if it were to come to pass, would no doubt effectively kill the idea of a contiguous and a unified Oromia, as it were. Putting aside their ambition, the damage that has already been inflicted in and around Finfinnee is too deep and will require a concerted effort to reverse. In my opinion, this is one area where ODF’s potential entry into the Ethiopian political market might make an immediate and lasting affirmative difference.
We are also losing ground, because Janjaweed like groups, armed and supported by the Ethiopian government (hence, the most powerful nations by extension), have been unleashed on our defenseless people at different times: in Western Oromia by the Gumuz militia; in Eastern Oromia by the Ogadeni militia; in Southern Oromia by the Garri, Gabra & Burjii militias, with nary a consistent and unified opposition on our part. Going forward, I hope the newly-established independent Oromo voices – Oromia Media Network and Madda Walaabuu Media Foundation – will zero in on these and other blatant human rights violations perpetrated against our people; however, this might also be another issue your presence on the ground in Finfinnee might deal with for the benefit of our people.
I could go on and cite several other areas where the Oromo nation could use all the seasoned help it can get. Our ideologues are welcome to continue to engage in all sorts of rhetorical and puritanical debates till kingdom come regarding what is best for the Oromo, but we can ill-afford to stand idly-by and wait for a satisfactory resolution of their flowery arguments. We are faced with a determined and cunning regime that is pulling-all-the-stops in order to exploit Oromo human and natural resources, thereby endangering our continuing existence as a nation. With the potential presence in Finfinnee of the ODF – adequately staffed to engage in retail politics – there is a decent chance that some of the critical issues the Oromo people care about will come to the fore, ultimately benefitting the nation you have dearly loved and served, albeit with a record that includes some blemishes.
Your much talked about political maneuver thus comes with certain potential benefits for our people, but it is also fraught with pitfalls that demand your Front’s serious attention preemptively. In my next letter, I will attempt to outline what I consider to be the major risks associated with your move.