A rejoinder to Prof. Messay’s response

Underestimating, misunderstanding, and mishandling the power of nationalism:

By Jawar Siraj Mohammed, 19 October 2009–Although this debate began because Professor Messay claimed the ideology of self determination is to be blamed for OLF’s lack of success in the past two decades, he has not shown any evidence to back up his assertion. He has not provided us with a single case where the “right” ideology resulted in success and “bad” ideology led to the failure of insurgency, nor does he explain how exactly advocating for the right to self determination weakened the OLF. Even though I have shown cases where organizations advocating similar ideology produced different results, he refuses to accept that organizational efficiency is primarily a result of strategy and committed leadership. Instead his two articles focused on pointing out the deficiency of self determination as an ideology and he seems to be attempting to drag me into this ideological debate. I refused to engage in such a debate because my article which he reacted to took no side on the ongoing ideological debate. I concluded that ideology was not among the major factors that hindered the organization’s performance.Reading through Professor Messay’s two essays I have come to realize that the various points he discussed arise from his distaste for “ethnic politics” in general and for the OLF in particular. I believe it is unhelpful to assess organizational performance based on our ideological preferences as doing so would take away our objectivity. Failure or success of an organization should be evaluated based its stated objectives not based on what the analyst thinks is a right objective. In my views it is this lack of objectivity that leads many individuals and groups to underestimates, misunderstand and mishandle nationalist movements. In this essay I would like to briefly discuss this issue.

Underestimating Nationalism: OLF’s Ideology, Success beyond Expectation or Bankruptcy?

I challenge Professor Messay’s repeated declaration that OLF’s ideology is bankrupt. I think such assumption is quite far from reality. Assuming that the ideology he is referring to is the “nationalist agenda”, neither me nor the professor would have been interested in debating this issue had Oromo nationalism not been the most powerful political mobilizing force that is likely to determine the future of the Ethiopian state. Had the OLF ideology failed, there would not exist a land known as Oromia in country where once it was shame to identify yourself as an Oromo. Had this ideology bankrupted, some 20 million children would not be studying in Afan Oromo, in a place where it was a taboo and sign of backwardness to speak this language.

It’s my understanding that a political ideology is said to be bankrupted when it fails to attract supporters. Yet when we look at OLF’s “nationalist agenda”, it enjoys incredible level of support across all sectors of the Oromo people despite the very poor performance of the organization. In fact, one can rightly argue that OLF’s biggest accomplishment since its inception is artfully articulating and developing Oromo nationalism. The evidence for this is the fact that, although they differ on ways and means of achieving the goal, all Oromo political forces share a unanimous rejection and determination to fight cultural domination, political repression, social alienation and economic exploitation. That is why Oromo nationalists remain the number one threat to the current regime for the last two decades and as a result they make up over 95% of political prisoners. This fact will continue to be the case as long as identity based injustice remains the rule of the game.

Hence, unless one kids himself/herself for the sake of the argument, OLF’s ideology has been a success beyond expectation. What led to success of this ideology is clear, it is incredible level of cultural, economic and social repressions by successive tyrants that backfired and broadened alienation of the Oromo and strengthened the spreading of nationalism.

Anyone interested in making practical influence on Ethiopian politics knows that it has long become impossible either to maintain or change the status quo without taking this force into consideration. That is why forces who oppose the demands of Oromo nationalism, both the ruling party and opposition groups, continue to make gradual concession to soften the nationalist position and win their alliances. Cornered with ever increasing uprising, the regime has been instituting reforms such as increasing local autonomy in Oromia and allowing expansion of Afaan Oromo both in academia and in the media. It is to be remembered that hundreds of students were killed in the last decade for these demands to be met. On the other side, opposition groups who in 2005 used the excuse of “no ethnic politics” either to ignore the issue or rally against the gains of the Oromo movement, now have made a U-turn by embracing the reality as it is shown with their swift acceptance of Afaan Oromo as a national language. Remembering that few years back, some of those individuals organized a rally in Washington DC opposing the extension of time for Afaan Oromo on the VOA, their current move is an encouraging step that should be embraced by Oromo nationalists.

I challenge people to take off their vale of fear for the rising tide of Oromo and acknowledge the many positive contribution this movement had brought for Ethiopians as a whole. Its the awakening of the giant that forced successive regime to remove state sponsored cultural and linguistic genocidal policy against the South. Without the awakening of the giant, oppressed minorities of the South would still be called “bariya” , “Shanqilla”, “Walamo” and so on by the state media who degrades them while relying on their wealth for financing.

When we speak of Oromo nationalism and its demands, the ‘self-mutilation’ the Professor wants to discuss also has to be analyzed historically. The Oromo are only demographic majority but has always been political and social minority. Just 35 years ago a majority of “Ethiopians” never acknowledged that a people called the “Oromo” lived in the greater part of Ethiopia, and that it constitutes of humans with certain dignifies and inalienable rights. Thanks to the Oromo nationalists and the Ethiopian student movement, and as well as the sacrifices made by the Left, now the “Gimatam Galla” is accepted as a dignified “Oromo”. There are still remnants of the old, including the Woyane security, who push for an anti-Oromo stand-up comedy in Finfine, but their days are closing. Now, in the third millennia, after notable achievements by the struggle, if Ethiopians demand that Oromo nationalists move to the center and take leadership of democratizing and strengthening unity of the country, that is an understandable quest. But this demand for ‘taking the leadership’ will not echo as genuine, if one purports to demean and destroy Oromo nationalism which brought the movement to the respected position it finds itself now. Oromo nationalist will heed the call for “move to the center” if and only if that ‘call’ is supported by empathy and understanding the sacrifices they made up to this point. Otherwise it sounds like an “Arada”call that lacks genuinety.

That is also why Professor Messay’s call for unity while accusing me of an Amhara hater, without any evidence whatsoever, is a wrong approach. In the typical paternalistic fashion of elites of the dominant culture, he advises me saying “what keeps you in chains is the diatribe against Amhara, Abyssinians and the correlated discourse on the Ethiopian colonization of the Oromo.” Since the Professor is willing to sacrifice facts and along the way his honor, to defend his own ‘ideology’, he seems to have been forced to misrepresent me, while I am alive. I have no diatribe against the Amhara, nor a hang-up on a colonial theory, these are just mind creations of the Professor to appear as the ultimate defender of Ethiopia’s unity. One thing I want to say, however is that, Ethiopia is an unfinished project. All of us have a role in its final shape. But for this to happen the minimum code of conduct is to listen to each other, to feel each other’s pain, and to represent the facts as they are without misrepresenting them. The tactics and machinations which foiled the Ethiopian Student Movement and all the political movements that came in its wake are outmoded and tested by our joint failure to advance mutual understanding. We should try a new way, a new beginning.

Misunderstanding Sources of Nationalism: Elite Manipulation or Manifestation of Grievances?

Highly dismissive of the real cause of nationalism – which is identity based injustice – Professor Messay repetitively accuses “ethnic” elites for manipulating their people. Speaking of Oromo nationalism he asserts that “… what Jawar presents as a fact is not yet a fact; it is an elitist manipulation that uses past mistreatment to justify partition.” What I do not understand is how about the state backed, institutionalized and often violent “counter manipulation” orchestrated by those who oppose these “ethnic” elites? Wasn’t the entire field of academia and state institution exclusively controlled by the “unity or death” group for most part of the 20th century? Has the professor ever thought why a bunch of young college kids were able to convert peasant grievance into nationalism fueled revolutionary force and topple the guys with the “right” idea and the finest army? Why did “ethnic” movements outlive class struggle? It is too easy to dismiss nationalism as “elite manipulation” but we know that such approach has not helped in the past forty years. What those who advocate “unity-at-all-cost” fail to understand are that their violent, disrespectful and often chauvinistic approach to quell ethnic discontent helps fuel nationalism rather than defuse it.

I argued that, it’s not some abstract ideological aspiration that gave birth to ethnic based rebellion, but rather it was identity based political repression, economic exploitation and cultural subjugation. Thus, Eritreans, Tigreans, Oromos and others supported their perspective liberation front’s not because their elites were so effective in making the peasants study Stalin’s work, but because the people were yearning for an end to repression by any means necessary.
It’s this misunderstanding of the source of nationalism which leads the professor to give too much credit to Stalin on the raise of nationalism. For instance he says “According to the Stalinist vision, the liberation of the ethnic group has precedence over the consideration of unity with other groups.” I am not a student of Stalin, but I never came across any research that puts Stalin as a good friend of nationalists. On the contrary, Stalin is well known for persecuting his own “Georgian” nationalists, because he ardently believed that the class solidarity of the workers takes precedence over the nationalist interest of the bourgeoisie. As an old student of Stalin, how could the Professor miss this fact? When fact and logic are thrown out the window, it seems there is no turning back but misrepresenting others is also acceptable because it serves a ‘higher purpose’ that of ‘maintaining unity at all costs’. But when trust is sacrificed to win, we will make ourselves the second Meles Zenawi of a different brand.

In connection to this, another issue which the professor keeps bringing up, but fails to substantiate with evidence, is the correlation between leftist ideology, nationalism, secessionism and armed armed struggle. He asserts that leftist ideology is responsible for growth of “ethnic” nationalism, secessionist demand, and armed struggle. This theoretical argument could have been persuasive four decades ago when the debate was based on assumptions, but now all those assumptions and theories have been tested and we have the benefit seeing real case studies that have made constructing imagined theories unnecessary. The world has been full of secessionist movements that do not advocate Leninist politics. There have leftist movements who are not secessionist. There are several secessionist struggles that are not armed. Here are some of the examples that debunk the said correlation.

  • The Tibetan movement is a secessionist one but it is neither Leninist nor armed, the same is true for Quebecois secessionist movement in Canada.
  • The Farc in Columbia is a leftist armed group but it is not secessionist, the same is true for the Moist in Nepal
  • The BJP in India is an ultra-right wing Hindu nationalist movement which is neither armed nor leftist.
  • Far left movements have taken power in several Latin American countries without armed struggle.
  • At home front, EDU was a feudal party engaged in armed struggle opposing socialism, while EPRP was a leftist armed movement but it was not “ethnic” nationalist.

Many more such cases can be listed. Therefore the reality is that movements, be it secessionists or those who want to reform an existing state, pick up guns when they think that all other venues and means of advancing their cause are no longer on the table or they avoid armed struggle when they do not see comparative strategic advantage in violent uprising. Hence, Professor Messay is making a very wild conclusion.

The issue of armed struggle leading to subordination has not been the rule as well. The Zimbabweans and South African were trained by Ethiopia, but never made them Ethiopia’s satellite. The EPLF was assisted by the West, but it never succumbed to their interest. Maoist China was assisted by Stalin’s Soviet Union, but it didn’t lead to China’s subordination as well. Hence Professor Messay’s argument that getting assistance from foreigners during the armed struggle will necessarily lead to subordination is not supported by life and experience. It’s worth noting here that my criticism of OLF’s relation with Eritrea is based on the nature of the relationship whereby there is neither strategic benefit due to distance from the battlefront, and nor has been tangible financial and logistical support. Worse, being in Eritrea, the leadership insulated itself from pressure and also became a hostage that cannot make independent strategic and institutional decisions.

Mishandling Nationalism: Redress or Repress Grievance

Nationalism is like boiling water, the pot is the repressive system, the heat is repression and grievance is its steam. The solution to such problem depends at what stage the movement is or how hot the pot is. At early stage, for instance, you defuse the tension by reducing the heat so you can prevent stream formation. If you miss the first stage and steam has formed, then you must use combination of strategies which might include reducing the heat, adding cold water and loosening the cover. If it passes that stage, you have no control over the situation as either the pot will explode or the cover could be blown off.

Unfortunately, those who oppose nationalism often increase the pressure instead of systematically defusing such tension. At every stage they increase the heat by stepping up crack down which helps spreading resentment and galvanizing the oppressed. This often happens because of the gross underestimation of the potential force of grievance. By the time rulers realize their backers the real nature of the problem, they are no longer in the position to influence the outcome.

For instance so much resource and sacrifice was paid to keep Eritrea as part of Ethiopia but the effort was fruitless. Every attempt to crush the movement backfired, strengthening the rebels and further radicalizing their determination. To defuse the Eritrean nationalism and maintain the integrity of the country, Mengistu Hailemariam and his “Abiyotawi Ethiopia or Death” supporters could have negotiated for “Federation”, well before the political will for such consideration became null. And such an outcome wouldn’t have become considered a ‘defeat’ as the Professor suggested. It would have been a win-win situation. In fact, in 1981 EPLF had made the proposal for such negotiation, but was not accepted by the Dergue because it was believed EPLF was initiating a “referendum” talk because it was weakened militarily. The Professor should have learnt from his own experience from the Dergue years, that ‘politics is the art of compromise’ and not a place to shine with high sounding slogans.

The Way A Head

One might dislike the OLF or another might wish that Oromo nationalism never came to surface. These are good wishes given we add that the repressive systems that gave birth to the movement should have never existed at the first place. Now we have to deal with reality. Oromo nationalism is a reality and we better come to terms with it and develop a strategy so that it can be channeled towards the common good. I believe that Oromo nationalism, properly understood, effectively organized and led by committed and visionary leadership, could be the greatest force, in cooperation with other movements, that can uplift the country and the wider region from the never ending crisis.

Towards this I propose that opponents and proponents of the movement understand the situation for what it is: Oromo Nationalism is borne out of identity-based injustice by successive regimes that culturally subjugated and ridiculed the Oromo reducing them to subhuman condition on their own land. It’s also a manifestation of grievance from economic marginalization of these people by forces who exploit their resources. Thus, opponents of this movement should understand that such social dynamics cannot fade away under repression or by condescending slogans such as extremism, tribalism or cover up of historical injustice. If those Ethiopians who genuinely lose their sleep over the balkanization of their country love it earnestly and wish for a better future, they must embrace reality and work towards bringing democratic, fair and integrated country. In short a justice based on fairness. Oromo nationalists should also know that the objective of the movement is not to “defeat” the oppressor, but to uplift our people. As such we need to overcome our bitterness that was caused by fresh scars of a century long dehumanization. As Paulo Freire nicely put it “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed is to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well”. It is not enough to blame others for all the wrongs and expect difference; we must take leadership to bring about mutual understanding. I hope to say more on this in my upcoming essays.

Jawar Siraj Mohammed can be reached at jawarmd@gmail.com

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