The Oromo Liberation Front, Free Oromia, and The power of an Idea

May 18, 2016 | Teferi Fufa

When the Oromo Liberation Front announced its national liberation struggle about forty years ago, it was just a liberation movement whose political program was the total liberation of Oromia through armed struggle. The power behind the idea was thought to be the liberation army. The goal was an independent republic of Oromia. Fifteen years later the unthinkable happened. The idea spread and took deeper roots than anyone had expected. When the Front was out maneuvered and disarmed, the enemy thought the idea would wither and die an inglorious death. The leadership of the OLF tried to readjust and shift course partly to save face and partly garner a more bearable existence short of the original goal, freedom for the nation. To the consternation of both, the idea of Liberation spread like wild fire and grew beyond control. Neither the enemy nor the OLF itself could control it.

To the youth of Oromo, Oromo Liberation Front became synonymous with FREEDOM. Armed struggle became the de facto mechanism for this freedom. Hope beyond hope, the people waited for an army to come and liberate them from the yoke of colonial oppression. The liberating army never materialized.
Meanwhile, the enemy launched a multi-faceted approach for squashing the Oromo Liberation Front and erasing the idea of FREEDOM from Oromos of all ages. It bribed, cajoled, threatened, etc, all neighboring countries to make sure that the OLF will have no safe haven in the region. It promulgated an anti-terrorism law that it effectively used to punish any sign of Oromo national aspiration. And, as an assurance, it waged a “get it while you still can” campaign to confiscate and sell off Oromia’s resources to whoever is willing to put up some money. It capped this off by getting in an anti-terrorist alliance with the United States, which gave it a free and unlimited access to deadly arms and training.
The OLF on the other hand, recognizing its precarious position, tried to change its messaging. It declared that it is not a terrorist, as if fighting for your freedom makes you a terrorist, it softened its language on liberation and declared that it is advocating for equality. Some tried to reason that unless all other oppressed peoples of Ethiopia are free, Oromia cannot be free.
The Oromo people, particularly the youth, who have already drank from the cup of freedom, did not buy into the idea of their freedom being compromised or conditioned on the freedom of other oppressed peoples. They, of course, support other people’s struggle for freedom, but they refused to hold their own freedom hostage to the victory of such a struggle. The responsibility of that rightfully belongs to the people in question, and if there is any other group who must the responsibility that these people be free is the oppressors themselves. Having waited and suffered enough, the Oromos decided to demand their God-given rights. Oromo protest was born.
The TPLF government responded with what it hoped would be a deadly blow. Children were murdered execution style. Elderly people 72 years and older were killed without mercy. Students, teachers, professionals, merchants, farmers, etc, were killed for just being Oromos and protesting the Oromo condition. A mother who stood between her child and the pursuers was shot dead without warning and the child was captured anyway. A nurse who informed a security officer that a critical patient who was ahead of him in line was to be treated before an officer with a minor wound was shot dead for putting her professional judgement before the officer’s supposed importance. Power demanded complete submission and the price of non-compliance became dearly high.
The more brutal the repression became the more determined the resistance became. The OLF flag, which was accepted as the symbol of freedom became a treasured object. Children and adults alike wrapped themselves in it. The flag became a sign of resistance. This action irritated the enemy as well as those who wanted to replace the now almost discredited OLF. They had to call themselves OLF or use the OLF flag to be heard by the people. Ironically, a person who wanted to do what the OLF said it would, free Oromia by an armed struggle, is being condemned for introducing a different symbol (flag).
Hence, while the OLF might have failed miserably in some respect, it has succeeded brilliantly in one thing. It has planted the idea of freedom, a dangerous idea, in the minds of the people. And the idea has taken hold. The resulting Oromo protest has now made everything irrelevant. There is no compromise; there is no delay; no gimmicks or trickery. “We want freedom now!” They demand.
Investors, afraid about the safety of their investments, are beginning to think twice about making more agreements. Donor countries, worried about their own images as allies of the brutal Ethiopian regime are beginning to make noise. The diaspora Oromo community, encouraged by the determination and courage to the youth, have started putting pressure on donor countries.
The foray has expanded to the diaspora Ethiopian communities as well. While the colonial abuses of expropriation, land grab, and mass dislocation have been limited to areas of the occupied south, human rights abuses by the Ethiopian government have been applied universally. Therefore Ethiopians of every persuasion had reason to mobilize against the TPLF government. Oromo protest has exposed not only the brutality of the current government but also its weaknesses. Barring some miraculous events, the days of the TPLF are numbered. It is time to think of who will take the reins of the Ethiopian empire and guide her down the next road, hopefully more respectable and less ruinous. Hence Vision Ethiopia.
A conference was organized by Vision Ethiopia and ESAT and was held in Washington DC late March 2016. The declared aim of the conference was to bring people of different backgrounds together and discuss ways of resolving conflict in Ethiopia and maintain the national unity of Ethiopia. Accordingly, different political organizations, religious leaders, academics, and other interested Ethiopians gathered and had their discussions. According what appeared on social Media following the conference, the main concern of the conferees was Oromo protest and how it might impact the future of Ethiopia. Will it bring about change in Ethiopia or lead to the break-up of Ethiopia? Should Ethiopians support the protest or stand by and see where it leads.
Obbo Leencoo Baati, after thanking the organizers for inviting him to give what he termed the Oromo perspective on the theme of the conference, the future of Ethiopia, went out of his way to alley their fears by declaring that there will be no breaking up of Ethiopia. He promised that there will be no fights between the different groups. He then went on to explain how the Oromo have never been included in the Ethiopian polity. Even to solve the current problem, he claimed, “You have been talking amongst yourselves. Bring us in and peace is possible,” he declared. (These are not his exact words but the essence of what he was saying, as I understood it, is captured here.)
It was as though they did not hear him. The barrage of questions hurled at him during the Q & A indicated that the audience had doubts as well as fears about the Oromo.
A very observant lady who introduced herself as Fikirt, got up and expressed her fears. She started by saying that for several years the OLF was for the independence of Oromia (break up of Ethiopia). Then the Dergue fell and a coalition of guerilla fighters led by TPLF took over. Shortly after that the OLF left the coalition. Then there was a “gap,” she said. Now the leadership of the Oromo have come around and what they are saying is “positive,” she continued. Then she expressed her doubt. “The youth” she lamented, “having no sense of Ethiopia’s past and knowing only of the TPLF government, are showing no attachment to Ethiopia.” They are uninformed or misinformed and naive, according to her.
To prove her case, she referred to the Oromo concert she attended. It was a fundraising event for victims of Ethiopian atrocities back home. As a supporter of fellow Ethiopians, she attended the event. Once there, she said she could not recognize it (as an Ethiopian event). It did not feel like Ethiopia. “It did not have the smell of Ethiopia.” Another person added. The youth are not following the leaders who are having change of heart!
What these people are observing is the power of an idea implanted firm and growing wild in the youth. It is the idea of freedom and it has no alternative. “Give me freedom, or give me death.” Say Oromo youth in unison. They face deadly weapons and merciless death squad. Fearlessly they march on bear chested and hand crossed overhead. Deaths, beatings and torture, arrests and jail, do not intimidate or deter them. They are already free. Free from fear, free from mental slavery, free from self-doubt, free from inferiority complex. They are aware that a deadly weapon in the hands of cowardly bastards can do severe damage. They are willing to expose this through their gallant self-sacrifice.
This has proved to be a confusing phenomenon for many. The TPLF complains that the youth, the elderly, the entire communities of Oromos are displaying the OLF flag. It sees the OLF in the whistles of blowing winds, in the rustles of dry leaves, in the gurgles of a brook, and even in its own shadows. But these flags, for the people who are now attached to them, are not associated with the OLF – at least not the OLF that is now nowhere to be found when they needed it most. It is a symbol of their freedom. They wrap themselves in the flag as though they are diving into the sea of freedom. It is an expression of their desire to be and remain free. Once you are intoxicated with the idea of that freedom, no leader can talk you into compromising it. No bully can make you step out of it and retreat back into slavery.
The different Oromo political groups operating in Ethiopia as opposition parties are being accused of having ties to the OLF. Leaders of the OFC and those of the Blue Party have nothing to do with any of the different OLF groups. They are registered legal political parties who know the dangers they face if they associate with any other unregistered group. And, they know the risk of associating with the OLF, a group that the government calls terrorist. But any expression of Oromo interest or sympathy with the condition of the Oromo is suspected of having Oromo freedom as its goal and thus dangerous to the TPLF just like the OLF is supposed to be. So they get arrested and get charged as terrorists.
Oromo opposition groups operating outside of Ethiopia are having their own set of problems with the Oromo frenzy with freedom. The original OLF has now split into at least three different groups all having their own conception of measured Oromo freedom that they are peddling. Whether it is a pragmatic assessment of current condition, or an actual conviction that fighting for one’s freedom through armed struggle is not as plausible as it once was, they all seem to be asking for negotiation. They are all quick to declare that they are not terrorists, and by that they mean that they are not planning to achieve their goals through armed struggle. Yet, they cannot forgo the idea of freedom for the Oromo people in light the popularity the idea has gained back home back home. As the result, we hear about Ethiopian unity and Oromia freedom as though the two are interchangeable. Confusions abound as they are all trying to make their respective arguments palatable for the international public by advocating for a peaceful means to freedom for the Oromo people – the daily terror visited upon the Oromo peaceful protesters notwithstanding.
And so what can we say about the OLF?
Those who believe it has brilliantly succeeded can point to many achievements of the OLF including the revolutionary spirit that has now engulfed all of Oromia. And, it is this success, more than any military attack that is now threatening the very foundation of Imperial Ethiopia and the core of the TPLF government. The name has also gained as much love and affection by proponents of Oromo freedom as it has gained hate and revulsion by the enemies of Oromo Freedom. This is not an easy feat.
Those who believe that the OLF has failed miserably, on the other hand, point to the weak and fractured state of the OLF as an organization at this stage in the struggle. Undeniably, the OLF is militarily weaker today than it was a quarter of a century ago. It is diplomatically more isolated today than it was a quarter of a century ago. And, internally it is less cohesive than it was less than a quarter of a century ago. Who speaks for the OLF, and what the OLF stands for are not as clear today as they once were. For example, is “Oromia shall be free!” still a valid slogan? Is the Oromo question still a colonial question? At the time when the facts on the ground, the daily occurrence in Oromia lay it bear that Oromia is being exploited as a colony that it is, there is not attempt to articulate situation and make an assertive case for the Liberation of Oromia. Instead, what we hear from different corners (factions of the OLF) is soft freedom, equality, and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. Yet the Oromo people who are engaged in peaceful struggle and are paying dearly for it, and TPLF that is acting as the latest caretaker of the colonial empire are not confused about what the OLF stands for.
Fikirt’s doubt, therefore, seems valid. Does the leadership have influence over the current movement? And I would add, would we want the leadership, as we see it today, to have influence over the current movement? To put this another way, how can we come up with a leadership that will harness the current energy that is displayed by the movement and bring about freedom to Oromia and peace to the region?
Teferi Fufa
May 16, 2016
PS: Recently, a movement towards unity has been exhibited. A comment on unity and the kind of unity that is desired will follow.

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